How Demographics Are Affecting the Racing SceneNovember 1st, 2010
For decades -- a century, almost -- road racing was a world of competitive men. Since emerging from the first running boom, however, the sport has quickly evolved. The competitive core is still there, leading the pack. But now that core is being chased through the streets by thousands upon thousands of new runners, many of them motivated by very different factors.
The numbers really began to change in the early 1990s when aging running boomers filled out the masters ranks. By 2000, 44 percent of marathon finishers were 40-plus. Growth of the women's division was even more dramatic. Just 10 percent of marathon finishers in 1980 were female. That figure is now 40 percent, while women now make up more than half the finishers at many shorter distances.
Though these demographic shifts have slowed, overall growth continues. Runners are flooding road races in unprecedented numbers -- and with that flood are coming more subtle changes. No event has benefited more than the half marathon, the fastest-growing distance on the roads with more than 1 million finishers annually now; more than a quarter of them are women under the age of 35. According to the Running USA data, in the last two years the average age of a female road racer has dropped nearly a full year, to 38.6.
Running USA surveys runners every year on their motivations, and their answers today are telling. Fifteen percent of men began running to compete in school, but even more say they began to run for exercise. On the women's side of the ledger, "exercise" and "weight concerns" account for nearly 40 percent. A study conducted by sociologist Elizabeth Loughren found that men more often were motivated to run their first marathon for "competition" and "personal goal achievement," while women more often said "self esteem" and "weight concerns" were among the motivating factors. And for those who chose to run a second marathon? The response that men selected more than women: "lower finish time."
Road racing has become a growth industry, but what impact are these new runners having on the sport?
For 33 consecutive Septembers, Philadelphia area runners have targeted a half marathon on their own streets. The Philadelphia Distance Run grew out of the first running boom to be one of the greatest events of its distance in the country and a centerpiece of the local running community.
World and U.S. records were set there in the 1980s. Female participation soared in the 1990s, to match the national trend. And the 2000s brought expansion across the board -- men, women, masters; all were increasing. As the race grew along with the sport, countless PRs were set on the fast Schuylkill River course. By 2006, the race had 11,063 finishers. The volunteer board of directors was overwhelmed and sold the event.
Bill Reifsnyder, a two-time U.S. marathon champ in the late '80s and early '90s and now an event director, was paging through an old Distance Run results book earlier this year. "There's my picture!" he said. "That's cool." He'd run his own PR in Philly and has fond memories. "You'd go to Philly and run the race, and you'd get the flavor," Reifsnyder recalls. "My favorite races were the ones where I felt like a part of the city, [but] a lot of the races today are becoming nondescript."
Fast runners are still showing up in Philadelphia, but they may no longer recognize what they're seeing -- and it may soon become harder to get into the race. This year, for the first time, the Distance Run was dubbed the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, and with that came a wave of fans of the Rock 'n' Roll brand. Event organizers were expecting 18,000 entrants in Philadelphia, and the race's general manager, Adam Zocks, said registration would be closed if they reached 20,000.
As runners have flooded the marketplace, road racing has grown in every direction. Small races are multiplying, and big races are getting even bigger. The Cherry Blossom 10 Mile went to a lottery system this year and received 27,000 applications for 15,000 slots. The Peachtree 10K filled 45,000 spots in just four hours. Boston Marathon qualifiers were turned away for the first time this past year when that race sold out in record time. Through July, Running USA had counted 29 events of 10,000-plus participants that sold out or set new field records in 2010. The sport's biggest stages are full.
"There's a push-back at a lot of events from the long-standing participants," says Sean Ryan, race director of the Green Bay Marathon. "[They] start to lose interest in an event because they get disenchanted with the size of the crowd."
"There's a front end, a middle, and a back end. Years ago it was just the front end," says Dave McGillivray, who estimates he's put on 900 events in 30 years. "Now you've got all three at once."
When 37,000 people entered the 100th Boston Marathon in 1996, race organizers had to temper competitive expectations. The race was to be a celebration of running unlike any other, they said, but with that, sacrifices would have to be made. "Don't expect to run a PR this year unless you're in with the elite runners," the Boston Athletic Association's president announced three months before the race.
SOFTENING OF A SPORT
The competitive experience used to be all runners expected for their entry fee. There was no expectation of a goodie bag or entertainment. No longer. In Running USA's latest State of the Sport survey, 50 percent of respondents said they entered races because "it sounds fun."
"The whole industry has changed," McGillivray says. "It's become as much an activity as a competitive sport." A road race no longer ends at the finish line. Fancier T-shirts, food, parties, and finishers medals -- even in 5Ks -- are expected. "If you don't have a band at the finish line, you're not a top-tier event. Plain and simple," says Ryan.
Races with long histories of elite competition, like the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K and Lilac Bloomsday Run 12K, have evolved into weekend-long celebrations. At Cherry Blossom, organizers offered finishers medals for the first time in 2010, but only to runners who pre-ordered them for $12. Four thousand people did so, including 150 who were running the 5K.
Finishers in Philadelphia this fall could earn at least six different medals by completing different combinations of Rock 'n' Roll races. The event also paid homage to the host city by encouraging runners to dress as Rocky.
WHAT ABOUT ME?
As gender and age demographics have filled out, awards divisions have expanded. Ten-year increments used to be enough to cover the thinly attended masters divisions, and they'd taper out with a 50-plus or 60-plus catch-all division. With running boomers moving up the ranks -- Bill Rodgers and Joan Samuelson, icons of the first boom, are now age-group heroes in the second boom -- 5-year age groups are the norm, often stretching up to 85-89. "90-plus" is the new upper limit.
The slicing and dicing of divisions doesn't end there, though. When Doug McBee took over as race director of the Beach to Bay Relay, there were 10 awards divisions. Now there are 24, spanning elementary school to 70-plus, and including nontraditional divisions like Military/Law/Fire. "Every year people are on me to create new divisions," he says. "Aunt/Uncle divisions, and things like that!"
Much to the chagrin of Ryan, another division is becoming standard. "I'm short, barely clearing 5-1, and stocky," he wrote in an email. "If there is going to be a Clydesdale category for tall, stocky guys, I think there should be a Shetland category for short, stocky guys.
"Of course I'm being cynical and I think both of those ideas are stupid," he adds. "I hate offering the Clydesdale category."
DEATH OF HEAD-TO-HEAD RACING
The first running boom emerged in an era of head-to-head racing. "There was no such thing as a 5K or a 10K," says Amby Burfoot of Runner's World, one of the top road racers in New England in the 1960s. "Nobody was comparing times anyway ... we were just looking at who beat whom."
McGillivray, who directs the Boston Marathon, remembers when "most races were created to race." Today, he says, it's rare for an event to be established for that simple reason. The race no longer carries the day. Fundraising and partying are usually part of the equation, with a full weekend of activities sometimes surrounding an event.
One of the most tangible changes to competition in recent years is the increased acceptance of net times as official times. When the Boston Marathon split its start into two waves in 2006, the race was scored for the first time by net time. "I got a lot of resistance from the old guard," McGillivray recalls. "[But] the concept of head-to-head competition back in the pack was a misconception. If I'm in corral 3 and you're in 6, we'd never see each other." This had a tremendous impact on age-group runners. For the first time, reaching the finishing line first didn't necessarily equate to victory.
As races grow, more are following Boston's lead, using wave starts and computer timing to accommodate more runners. When Cherry Blossom went to a wave start in 2008, it was "the final acceptance of net times," race director Phil Stewart says.
CHANGES OF COURSE
The other way organizers can squeeze more runners onto the road is to find bigger roads.
"Years ago the course was designed for logistical simplicity and to cater to purist runner motives -- minimum turns, good surface ... some shade," says Ryan. "When I design a course now, even if I know I'm only going to have 2,000 people, I'm designing it for 5,000. Purist motives, designing it for faster finish times, to a certain extent, get thrown out the window."
In Philadelphia this year, the opening miles of the Rock 'n' Roll half were run on wider streets to accommodate the field, and the traditional Schuylkill River loop was done in reverse. None of these changes were likely to impact performance, but they highlight the awesome pressure that these swelling numbers put on events.
DWINDLING OPTIONS IN A FOREST OF EVENTS
The big four distances -- 5K, 10K, 13.1M, 26.2M -- made up 82 percent of the U.S. courses certified in 2009, up from 68 percent in 1990. And that's with a precipitous drop in the 10K's share. Oddball and tweener distances, in fact, appear to be dwindling. The 8K, 5M, 15K, and 10M distances accounted for just 6 percent of courses certified last year.
Fewer distances doesn't mean fewer races: Now every town, every charity, every community event has its own race -- the race may have replaced the parade as the symbol of something special going on. While the organizers generally have little idea of the context of their events in the running calendar, the plethora of options has had interesting implications for racing. "Back in the late '80s and early '90s there was only one or two races to choose from and everyone would show up," says Bob Schwelm, a top masters competitor in the Philadelphia area. Now, there are 5Ks everywhere. "The big races remain as competitive as ever," he says, but notes that talent is now spread too thin in the smaller races.
Schwelm favors the big races -- he returned to marathoning last fall in Chicago, and has run the Distance Run 11 times -- but says he now sees competitive local runners dodging each other in hopes of snagging a little personal glory, or even a small prize money check. "With online results, people are looking at last year's results and cherrypicking where they're going to go."
RETURNING TO OUR ROOTS
Amid all of this growth, small local events still exist. In Fairfield County, Conn., just across the border from New York, two race series are thriving.
The winter Boston Buildup Series -- directed by Running Times' own Jim Gerweck -- dates to 1979, and the logistics haven't changed a whole lot since then. Runners expecting bells and whistles for their entry fee will be disappointed, but those looking for a basic competitive experience will be pleased. The series set a new participation record this year. Just up I-95, the Westport Summer Series, established in 1964, had its second-largest series opener in July, just one runner short of its 1981 record.
Though Manhattan is nearby, Gerweck says that he doesn't know many people who travel into the city to race, where NYRR events can draw several thousand runners on a typical weekend. In fact, he's been seeing the opposite: more New Yorkers showing up at his events.
The race directors contacted for this story see continued growth across the board. The limits of large events will continue to be stretched, and many smaller events will grow. But are there any great tidal shifts in store for a sport that's changed immensely in recent years? "I think that eventually guys will figure out that road races are a great place to meet women," Stewart jokes. "I just haven't seen it yet."