Jim2's Running Page

Marathoning As A Trend

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April, 2006

I have a problem with the premise of this thread that the popularity of marathoning is a "trend"….a fad, if you will, that is riding some wave that is destined to end and be replaced by another wave. If it is just a trend, then it's a pretty darned long and strong one! The marathon’s popularity growth began 30 years ago and is still going strong. Marathoning has clearly become an important and permanent part of the sport of running. To me, that isn’t a trend. It reflects a maturation of the sport.


An article titled "Distance Training" was published in the October, 1973 edition of RW magazine and repeated in the first (1978) edition of RW's book "The Complete Runner". The author, Paul Slovic, collected data from participants in a marathon which he used for what was one of the first attempts to develop equations to predict a marathon time using personal characteristics and training data. The race he chose for his study was the Trails End marathon that was run at Seaside, Oregon on February 24, 1973. In his article, Slovic stated that one reason he chose this marathon was because it drew “one of the largest fields of participants in the U.S”....there were 541 participants in the race, with 441 finishers!


Throughout the rest of the 1970s, marathons sprang up and grew tremendously in popularity. The Marine Corps Marathon debuted in 1976 with about 1000 entrants and exploded to 8000 by 1980. When I ran my first marathon, the 1983 MCM, over 22 years ago and 10 years after Slovic's study of the “large” marathon field of 541, the field had grown to 9,000, but the number of participants still didn’t reach the field limit of 12,000. The New York City and Chicago marathon fields were even larger. Marathon growth slowed a bit about that time. By the end of the 1980s, MCM was reaching its field limit of 12,000 that was imposed at that time by mid-summer….and all that growth occurred before the advent of widespread marathoning for charities.


As we moved into the 1990s, the realization spread among runners and the population in general that it wasn’t necessary to be a hardcore runner to complete a marathon, or even to run them well. Marathoning for charities came into vogue and helped to fuel the next spurt of growth in the marathon’s popularity throughout the 1990s. By the time I entered my 10th MCM in 1999, the field limit had grown to 18,000….and it filled up within days after registration opened. The other mega-marathons also continued to grow in size and new marathons sprang up that helped to absorb the overflow.


The growth seems to be continuing in the 21st century. For instance, the MCM field limit has increased another 67% since 1999 to 30,000.


I suspect that one reason for the apparent growth in the popularity of marathoning has simply been the growth of the population of the U.S. When Slovic’s study was conducted in 1973, the population of the U.S. was 200 million. In 1980 it was about 225 million. Today it is about 300 million. If just 1% of the population has run a marathon, as one poster in this thread indicated, that would account for 750,000 more marathoners amongst us today than 25 years ago….or an average 30,000 more marathoners/year for each the last 25 years. A growing population will overpopulate any sports venue that remains static. As long as the population continues to grow, we can probably expect marathons to continue to grow in number and size….and the projections call for the U.S. to reach 425 million by 2050. (I wouldn’t want to have to drive on our highways then. J)


Concerning the change in the composition of marathoners or the less “competitive” attitude of many marathoners, I agree that a fewer percentage….perhaps even a fewer absolute number despite the growth in total numbers….of marathoners today are as “hardcore” as was the case 30 years ago. However, that is neither good nor bad for the sport. It just is. Running, and especially marathoning, is something that each individual undertakes for his or her personal reasons and goals. I can fault none of them. And I applaud all of them….as long as they participate in accordance with the rules established for whatever race they choose to enter.


I do, however, lament what I consider to be a general decline in the “quality” of American marathoners….and American runners in general. Although there are more American runners, especially marathoners, today than 30 years ago, fewer are running sub-3:30 marathons and sub-45 minute 10k’s. I think that represents an erosion of the quality of the sport, at least in the U.S. I initiated a thread to discuss this subject on this forum a few years ago. (See “The Decline of American Marathoners” and “Why Have American Marathoners Declined” on the Pot Pourri section of my Running Page. If anyone is interested in what other forumites had to say on the subject, the original thread is at http://forums.runnersworld.com/message.jspa?messageID=184499&tstart=0.)


A few other comments made in this thread concerned the number of first timers in marathons today, many of whom undertake the distance with minimal training. The percentage of first timers is probably higher today than in yesteryear. However, I don’t think the difference is terribly significant. For instance, the MCM has always advertised itself as being a good first timer’s race with approximately 60% of participants running their first marathon. That was the case in 1983 when I was a first timer and it is still the case today.


Looking even further back, the survey that Slovic conducted at the 1973 Trails End marathon indicates that more than 25% were first timers and 50% had run an average of just 1.2 previous marathons. It also shows that 25% had averaged 24 miles/week or less in training with no runs longer than 20 miles and 50% had averaged 36 miles/week or less with an average of only 1.2 runs longer than 20 miles. Are those data much different than most of today’s marathoners, even first timers? I suspect that the typical TNT runner today does more than the 25 percentile group did in Slovic’s study. (BTW, if anyone is interested in the details of Slovic’s article, see “Lessons From the Past” on the Marathoning section of my Running Page referenced above.)


No, I don’t view the popularity of marathons as simply a trend. I see it as a major element of the running scene that is healthy and still growing. I see no end to that in the foreseeable future. Other sports, such as triathlons, might also be experiencing similar popularity growth. But, I don’t think that is replacing the marathon’s popularity….it is in addition to it.