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Why the Decline Post 2

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I first posted “The Decline of the American Marathoner” in 1999 as a post titled “A Disturbing Trend” on the RWOL Training Forum (there was no Marathons Forum then). My post at that time was limited to comparing MCM results from 1989 and 1999 and did not include data from other marathons. It triggered an extensive discussion in which forumites offered reasons for the decline at the front and upper mid pack at MCM. The following was my response in that tread.


The consensus here seems to be that the huge (67%) loss of MCM finishers under 3:23:00 in just 10 years is largely due to flight of better runners to other races where they can find a faster course and/or avoid the crowd of a mega‑race.  I don’t buy that.  Let me tell you why.


Chicago and MCM, as well as NYC, have been run within a week or two of each other and have competed for fall marathon runners for the past 16 years since I ran my first MCM.  The fact that Chicago and MCM were run on the same weekend this year is not new.  Plus, Chicago is 70% larger and has grown more in size in the last 10 years than MCM.  So, folks certainly didn’t flee to it looking for a less crowded race.


Concerning the course, the MCM course is a mostly flat and fast one.  And there is no crowd at the front of the pack.  In fact, it appears that it’s 2/3 less crowded up there than it was 10 years ago!  All you have to do to run a fast race is to get a clean start ahead of most of the mob.  Remember the guy who I cited as this year’s benchmark?  The guy who finished 610 overall and 25 in the 50‑54 age group?  His clock time and chip time are exactly the same.  The guy started on the front line!  I ran MCM 7 times in the 1980's with times that ranged from 3:22:34 to 3:47:30 and I never spent more than a minute crossing the start line.  By the end of the first mile, I was always able to run my race unimpeded.  The same can be done today if you simply don’t bury yourself deep in the pack at the start....and I doubt that most people who can run under 3:23 do that.  One of our own Bridgestormers ran 3:23:20 and spent only 30 seconds reaching the start line.  Heck, I found Philly to be more crowded and Steamtown almost as crowded as MCM for the first mile although each is much smaller than MCM.  The size of MCM is not an obstacle for the sub‑3:23 runner.  It’s just a matter of positioning at the start.


Concerning the availability of more races to choose from or opting for smaller races, I really doubt that has been a significant factor.  I don’t have facts to back it up, but I doubt that there are a heck of a lot more fall marathons to choose from today than there was 10 years ago.  Certainly, some new ones have come along, but some old ones have also disappeared.  And most people, fast or slow, choose to run either large or small races, depending on the experience they are looking for, not whether it will make a difference of a few minutes in their time.  That hasn’t changed either since 1989 when I knew fast runners who stayed away from MCM because they preferred smaller races and others who enjoyed the spectacle, organization and support at MCM.


I do agree that MCM draws a large percentage of first time marathoners, thus the field is a little slower overall than most other marathons, which makes a fast finishing time appear as a lower percentage of the overall field and/or age bracket.  However, that’s nothing new.  It’s always been that way.  All through the 80's, the Marines advertised that 60% of the people who run MCM were first timers.  I doubt that it’s much different than that today.  Relative to other races, MCM should have always reflected lower finishing percentages for fast runners, as it does today.


I collected additional data from the websites of nine 1999 marathons, in addition to MCM. Three of the ten marathons (MCM, Chicago and NYC) were mega‑races with more than 10,000 finishers and an average of 23,566.  The other seven (Philly, Steamtown, Grandma’s, Wineglass, Portland, Shamrock and Pittsburgh) had between 715 and 6839 finishers and an average of 3281.  I used the same criteria as for MCM, namely the last male in the 50‑54 age group to break 3:23:00, because the only reference data I have from 10 years ago is when I did the same at ages 50/51.  My 50‑54 age group data is from 1988, which is the year for which I have 50‑54 age group totals.  My overall data is from 1989, which is the year for which I have overall field size.  There was only 7 seconds difference in my net finish times those years.....3:22:27 in 1988 and 3:22:34 in 1989.  (How’s that for consistency.....or lack of progress! :))


I finished 54/401 (13.4%) in the 50‑54 age bracket in 1988 (vs. 48/???? in 1989) and 1843/10,084 (18.3%) overall in 1989.  The composite data for 50‑54 runners for the three 1999 mega‑races with more than 10,000 finishers shows 254/4271 (5.9%) in the 50‑54 finishing under 3:23:00 in the age bracket and 2476/22,970 (8.3%) overall.  For the seven smaller 1999 races with less than 10,000 finishers, the numbers are 105/1405 (7.5%) in the 50‑54 age bracket and 2476/22,970 (10.8%) overall.  Composite numbers for all 10 races are 359/5676 (6.3%) for the 50‑54 age bracket and 8344/93,667 (9.7%) overall.


As you can see, there were a higher percentage of finishers under 3:23:00 in smaller races than larger ones, which is to be expected since the mega‑races draw more slower runners.  However, the difference isn’t very much.  In aggregate, both large and small races yield a significantly lower percentage (about half or less) of faster runners than my one‑race sample of 10 years ago.  (Also, remember that MCM should have yielded significantly lower numbers 10 years ago than other races similar to these nine, since MCM has always been a “People’s Marathon” with a lot of first timers.)  Individually, none of the 10 races reached the percentage of total finishers of my 1988/89 sample, although the two smallest races.....Wineglass with 715 finishers and Shamrock with 1341 finishers.....came close with 17.1% and 15.9%, respectively.  Only Wineglass exceeded the percentage of my 1989 sample in the 50‑54 age group with 15.4% and Shamrock was close with 12.6%.  Steamtown, with only 1637 finishers, also came close in the overall percentage, but was still almost half the age bracket reference percentage.  All other races had significantly lower percentages in both categories.


I think these data further support a contention that there has been a decrease in the overall quality of marathon fields in the last 10 years.  It isn’t simply a matter of runners moving around. At a minimum, I think these data indicate that, as the number of people participating in marathons has increased, the percentage of faster runners has not grown proportionately.  It’s very possible that it has even gone beyond that and the number of runners who are training and racing to achieve their best capabilities has actually declined.  In either case, it indicates degradation in the quality of performance of American runners in general.  If you accept this premise, the question is why?


I put the same “A Disturbing Trend” post on the Merv competitive forum and got a very different response over there.  Only one person suggested a siphoning off of faster runners from MCM to other races or a general redistribution of fast runners over more races.  The other responders accepted that there is a decline in the quality of running in general in the U.S. and suggested two primary reasons:


1) Demographics.  A decline in young people entering the sport in recent years is beginning to show up largely in the 25‑35 age range, which is where many of the faster runners should be.  This might be partly due to increasing popularity of other sports, such as soccer, triathlons, cycling, etc.


2) Reduced motivation to reach for excellence.  A general “dumbing down” of running as well as other aspects of our society.  A willingness to sacrifice excellence for fun.  Today, our society is more willing to accept “good”, even “mediocre”, as being “good enough as long as it gets the job done, we enjoy it and we don’t make anyone uncomfortable” than past generations were willing to settle for.  And this can be seen in schools, on the job....in all aspects of our lives.  In running, Galloway and Bingham are symptoms of the problem, along with RW magazine itself.


I don’t doubt that the first reason above is a contributing factor, but I do doubt that it’s significant enough to cause a 2/3 decrease (1200!) in front runners at a race such as MCM.  Although, one poster on Merv (Scott Douglas, an ex-editor of Running Times magazine and co-author with Pete Pfitzinger of Advanced Marathoning) commented that many of the top runners in local DC area races are guys over 35 or under 25 years old.  But, there is a dearth of local talent in the 25‑35 range, which is where runners should peak.  Certainly, some people, who in the past would have been pure runners, now opt for triathlons.  And that is a valid factor.  However, it hasn’t been a mass migration from running that would account for any where near a 2/3 drop in frontrunners.


I do think the second reason is a significant factor.  Another poster on Merv commented that 10 years ago he used to place in his age bracket at local races.  Now, he regularly places in the top 10 overall and it isn’t because he’s much faster than he was previously.  The quality of the field has deteriorated at the very top level.  Heck, we can even see it at the elite level.  Top U.S. long distance runners simply aren’t competitive in international competition any longer.


The lessening of intensity in our sport is also apparent in the availability of shorter distance races.  10‑20 years ago, 10k was pretty much the standard local road race distance and 5k’s were few and far between.  Today it’s difficult to find a 10k in many locales and 5k’s are abundant.  Why the shift?  A variety of reasons that can make for another discussion, but one reason is that race directors have found that more people will come out for a 5k.....it’s easier to run, takes less training to prepare for and there’s less time spent out of a weekend morning to run.  More of the “I want to participate, but I also want to minimize my time and energy investment” attitude.


The Galloways, Binghams, RWs and “Teams in Training” of the world might not be responsible for the underlying cause of this erosion.  They are simply “selling” what people want.....and making a lot of money doing it.  But they do have to carry a fair share of the blame for being major standard bearers of the trend.  They do a lot to promote the philosophies of “finishing is winning” and “let’s make it fun and easier and, if you happen to get better, good for you!”  They are very high‑profile representatives of the sport (RW has 600,000 subscribers and 2 million readers) who influence many runners.....perhaps most new runners, whereas new runners 10‑20 years ago were largely influenced by running clubs, where they met and were inspired by “hardcore” runners.  TnT participants are increasing annually.  It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation.....or maybe a snowball rolling downhill is a better analogy.  BTW, the races themselves also do subtle things to contribute to the trend.  Although everyone got a patch in their race packet, no medals were handed out to everyone at the finish line for the first 4 MCM’s (1983‑86) and none of the 5 Maryland Marathons (1983‑87) that I ran.  MCM started “awarding” every finisher in 1987.


Please don’t take me wrong.  I’m not trying to criticize anyone.  I think that what Jeff, John, RW and TnT do to help get people off their couches and participating in running is great!  And, TnT certainly benefits a very worthwhile cause.  (Although, some argue that it’s a very inefficient way to raise money for medical research since a good portion of the money raised goes to pay race entry fees and travel expenses for the participants.)  I’m simply trying to understand what is happening to the sport.  In fact, the fewer the ranks of the front runners, the better chance for those who do go all out to medal at races. :)  Perhaps I’m being overly cynical on this subject.  But, although I’ve been aware of a general “watering down” in running due to a significant increase in the midpack and back‑of‑the pack of marathons, I didn’t realize that the ranks of the front runners might have eroded as it appears to have.


I wish I had more extensive baseline data from 10‑20 years ago.  Maybe I’ll make that a 2000 research project. :)