The clock above her bed read 2:24 a.m. - time for the 8-year-old to train for another marathon.
Second grader Zhang Huimin, who weighs 42 pounds and likes the Little Mermaid, sat up and gave a groggy glance around the one-room home she shares with her father, an out-of-work fish farmer with a singular goal: grooming his daughter for the 2016 Olympics.
"Don't dawdle," her father said softly, "or you won't be out the door by 2:55."
Next year, Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics, casting an unprecedented spotlight on China's athletes and the nation that shapes them. Huimin is too young for the Beijing Games, but she has already appeared in an Olympic promotion on state television, her first flicker of national fame.
On this Saturday, as she does most weekends, the girl will run more than 26 miles before school _ on top of dozens of miles she runs before school each week. Those statistics cry out for skepticism, but watching her run for more than four hours or interviewing marathon officials who recorded her recent races makes it hard to find any hints of a hoax.
To her adoring village in southern China, her image - pigtails and arms swinging, her father cycling beside her - embodies strength and sacrifice. But to others just learning of her story, she personifies a darker side of today's China: a culture of relentless competition amplified by a media hungry for celebrities.
The story of China's youngest marathoner is most likely not about the world's next great runner; her tiny body is almost certain to give out if she keeps running so much, experts in China and the U.S. say.
Rather, her story is most revealing about the conditions that created her: a father whose dream of sporting glory never materialized, an impoverished town dazzled by attention, and a nation where the transformative power of fame can make almost anything seem worthwhile.
"It's good for her," said Li Kequan, head of the running club in the nearby city of Haikou. "It's also good for the country and it's good for Haikou."
Indeed, this patch of the Chinese countryside has few other icons. Haikou is the capital of China's smallest and southernmost province, Hainan. On the edge of the city lies the rice-paddy county of Lingao, population 400,000, barely a speck by Chinese standards. Water buffalo amble across the highway. Farmers earn an average of $1 a day.
In China, the prospect of athletic fame holds unique appeal. In a nation of 1.3 billion people that never has enough jobs or university places to go around, sports is a path to success that does not require influence or money.
The most recent Forbes listing of Chinese celebrities ranked athletes in the top two, based on media appearances and income: Shanghai-born Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who was a gangly 3rd grader when he was plucked by the state to play basketball, and Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Liu Xiang, who earned an estimated $7.25 million last year in endorsements.
Among the residents of Lingao is Zhang Jianmin, a small, kindly 54-year-old laborer. He was a standout table-tennis player and runner when he graduated from high school in 1974, but the chaos of the Cultural Revolution stymied his hopes of entering China's Soviet-style sports schools.
He later found work as a bureaucrat but gave it up to try raising fish. That failed, and today his income comes from an adult son who sends cash each month. His wife left years ago, and they have lost contact, he says.
Zhang said he started running with his daughter when she was 4, adding distance each morning. By age 6, she could run 8 miles; at 7, she completed the Haikou marathon in 3 hours, 28 minutes and 45 seconds.
Most recently, she finished China's Xiamen International Marathon on March 31, with a time of 3 hours, 44 minutes and 51 seconds. Organizers waived the minimum age of 18 and allowed her father to bike beside her because "she is a special case," said He Xi, vice director of the race.
Local reporters hail Huimin as the "Haikou Prodigy." When Ding Yunfang, principal of the local private elementary school, caught wind of her running, she gave Huimin a scholarship.
"She can run more than 40 kilometers (almost 25 miles) in a day and look totally fine," the principal said. "Whether it is a scientific way (to train), we aren't so clear, but her father says it's no problem."
Zhang is blunt: He has staked everything on his daughter's running.
"My plan is that we will have a hard five years," he said, "and then, when she reaches 12 or 13 years old, she could take part in more national competitions. Hopefully, a professional team will take her."
As father and daughter headed out into the dark at 2:53, she grabbed a hair band adorned with a pair of short pink bunny ears. In red shorts and white T-shirt, she broke into a jog, her white cotton sneakers padding along the asphalt, with her father riding his banged-up mountain bike.
A crew from Chinese state television crept beside them in a gray sedan, cameraman poking out of the sunroof. Hours passed. Huimin and her father paused for a drink every hour or so. By dawn, the state camera crew had long since drifted off to a hotel, but a cameraman from a local channel had shown up.
Four hours and 35 minutes after they started, the father decided that was enough for the day.
"I like long-distance running because it's fun. It's not tiring," Huimin said a little while later, riding to school with freshly combed pigtails. "My goal is to be a winner."
What are her favorite things to do?
"Besides running," she said, "I like boxing, weight training, standing high jump and leg stretching."
Ask any health expert about her training regimen, and the answers are similar. "The long-term consequence is that she is going to be injured, and her career is going to be short-lived," said Dr. Kathy Weber, head of Women's Sports Medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Overtraining at such a young age can erode the cartilage in joints, delay menstruation, reduce bone density and cause a range of orthopedic problems, including stunted growth. At 42 pounds, Huimin is underweight, her father concedes, but she has never had a full check-up, so he does not know what toll her training has taken.
"I think this will be very detrimental to her physical and mental well-being," said Mark Plaatjes, a 1993 World Champion marathoner who like most of his peers did not run that 26.2-mile distance until his late teens.
There are precedents, of course, with few happy endings. A marathoning 4-year-old boy in India, Budhia Singh, became a sensation last year, until he collapsed from low blood sugar and authorities barred his coach from entering him in more competitions.
Until recently, Huimin and her outsize training had gone largely unnoticed. She is too young for China's sports academies, so coaches say they won't look seriously at her until she is 13, which explains why her father's homegrown training has gone unchecked.
Indeed, now that Huimin's story has begun to appear in Olympic promotions, even some of the country's athletic kingmakers are unnerved.
"I just heard about it recently," said Feng Shuyong, head coach of China's national track and field team. "But nobody in this field agrees with that kind of training. We think it's unimaginable."