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Is the running boom over?

Twin Cities Marathon
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
In Minnesota, the drop-off in participants seems to be more in the long-distance sphere, according to race organizers. The Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, held every October in the Twin Cities, bucked the national trend until 2017, when race numbers dipped.

About 30,000 runners ran the Boston Marathon Monday.

One of the world’s marquee races, the Boston Marathon is always popular with runners. Many train for years just to qualify.

But other races are seeing their participation dip. After a decades-long running boom, the number of people running in road races overall has slowed down, both nationally and in some Minnesota races.

Boom times

As a sport, running gained steam steadily in the ‘90s and early aughts, then boomed during the Great Recession, according to data from Running USA, an industry group that tracks running participation.

Though runners tend to be more affluent to begin with, Rich Harshbarger, Running USA’s CEO,  thinks the economy had something to do with the sport’s jump in popularity in that timeframe: As opposed to expensive gym memberships, “when you think about the running industry, all you really need is time and a pair of shoes,” he said.

Race finishers by year, 1990-2016
Source: Running USA

It wasn’t the first time running saw a major expansion. The first running boom came in the 1970s, widely credited to the success of Frank Shorter winning Olympic gold in the marathon distance in 1972.

The more recent running bonanza was fueled by women. While the number of men finishing events roughly doubled between 1990 and 2016, the number of women increased by eightfold, according to Running USA.

Race finishers by gender, 1990-2016
Source: Running USA

With an increasing number of runners came a proliferation in races, especially the kind of runs that emphasized the social aspect. Races added live bands, beer tents, costumes and other gimmicks to make the race an event — not just a road race.

A running slowdown

After 2013, things started to slow down.

No boom can last forever, Harshbarger said. He attributes the plateau in road-race participation partly to people’s interest in other exercise activities.

“These days, lots of urban and suburban neighborhoods are full of yoga studios. There’s also CrossFit, barre, SoulCycle and Orangetheory. And, coming out of the Recession, people tend to have more money to spend on these types of things.

Race registrations (millions)
Source: Running USA

“Some attribute falling participation in road races to costs that have gone up as events have become more elaborate. Registering for a 5k these days can cost $30 or more, while marathons can run upwards of $130.

While participation in road races has slowed across the board, the biggest drops in recent years have come in experiential runs, which fall into the category called “other distances,” including fun runs and mud runs, in Running USA’s data.

In Minnesota, the drop-off seems to be more in the long-distance sphere, according to race organizers.

“I don’t think 5ks are seeing a decline in this market; it’s more the longer distance,”said Virginia Brophy Achman, the executive director of Twin Cities in Motion, which puts on the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. “This local market is actually a very good reflection of what’s going on nationally. There’s so many choices, and things you can do now.”

The Twin Cities Marathon, held in October in the Twin Cities, bucked the national trend until 2017, when race numbers dipped slightly.

Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon registrations by year
Source: Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon

The Mankato Marathon saw a slight decline in 2017 and 2018, but Joy Leafblad, sports commission director for Visit Mankato, says numbers could be up slightly this year.

The Dick Beardsley races, which include several distances, has seen a dropoff in participation in recent years, too.

“Oversupply of races and not an increasing number of runners,” wrote Mark Knutson, of race organizer Go Far Events, in an email.

Not across the board

While the dropoff is widespread, it’s not across the board. Big events, like the prestigious New York City, Chicago and Boston marathons, are still in huge demand, Harshbarger said.

Declines aren’t uniform across long-distance races in Minnesota, either.

The Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon, a smaller from Holdingford to St. Joseph, hasn’t seen a slowdown, wrote race director George Bienusa, in an email.

The race held steady at 450 runners, where it’s capped, in 2017 and 2018, up from 425 in 2016. Numbers could be down a little this year, though — with three weeks left to register last week, 430 runners had signed up.

And Grandma’s Marathon, held every June in Duluth, has had strong numbers in recent years, said Shane Bauer, the race’s executive director.

The numbers increased a bit in 2017 for the race’s 40th anniversary, but are still pretty much where they’ve otherwise been in recent years.

For a relatively small-town race, Grandma’s has a big reputation, Bauer said: It’s a fast race — the rolling hills, as opposed to big hills or all flat, mean that times are fast and runners use many muscle groups, which helps with stamina.

And the scenery can’t be beat. route hugs Lake Superior’s North Shore, which means beautiful views. And the fact that it can still be chilly up there in June makes it tolerable to run in early summer.

Bauer is expecting a surge in elite athlete registrations from all over the world this year because many are prepping for upcoming Olympic trials.

“It’s definitely a bucket-list marathon, and the experience is so different from any of the big city marathons that it sets it apart,” Bauer said.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 04/16/2019 - 11:38 am.

    Trail running is a surging are of interest locally– races sell out instantly, or use a lottery system to get in. They’re a blast (especially since after a while, running another 5k, 10k, or marathon gets repetitive if you’ve done it for a long time!)

  2. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 04/16/2019 - 12:48 pm.

    pleased to have run 50 marathons including 3 Bostons and NYC and Chicago and of course Grandmas and many TC. At one time I had fastest Marathon time of any sitting legislator, 3hours and 17 minutes, defined as a time in a race while in office. Maybe someone has passed that by now.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 04/16/2019 - 02:31 pm.

      Thank you for sharing, and congratulations on being a physical fitness role model to your constituents.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/16/2019 - 05:37 pm.

      Faster than Paul Ryan. Both his real time and pretend time.

    • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 04/16/2019 - 05:59 pm.

      Phyllis, your a state and national treasure for your efforts in our legislature, your efforts in President Jimmy Carter’s later rise to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and to your great service as a role model to our community as an athlete and healthy woman.

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/16/2019 - 01:36 pm.

    I ran the Lake Wobegon Marathon about ten years ago. Of the half dozen or so marathons I ran including TCM, Lake Wobegon was my favorite: small, friendly and the best post race food of any race I ever did at any distance. They bus you from the finish line in St. Joseph to the start line. It is then a nice trail run back to the finish line. The runners and organizers were all friendly folks.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/16/2019 - 02:33 pm.

    I’ve never been interested in running – going back…um…60 years, at least. I do, however, like to walk, and I walk a couple miles daily, so I’ve signed up for 5K run/walks from time to time, always participating as a walker. I thoroughly enjoyed the Autumn Woods 5K at Elm Creek Park last fall, and look forward to doing it again this year. Younger/faster humans, of course, will run the same course, and finish in a fraction of my time, but I’m OK with that. There’s a 10K course, too, but I’m slow enough that the appeal of the longer distance is limited.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/17/2019 - 03:21 pm.

    Long distance running, such as marathons, are not healthy. The human body was not designed for that, and it is unhealthy.

    After a time, the body wonders “How long are we going to keep this up? Look like it could be a while. Better start burning muscle instead of fat, gotta hold onto those fat stores.”

    That’s why long distance runners look rather gaunt; and sprinters look ripped, even their upper bodies are ripped. Put one of each on a deserted island, and it’s not hard to tell which one will survive longer.

    We should be encouraging exercise that is good for the body, not exercise that is associate with heart attacks. What did Jim Fixx die of?

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