Q:

Is the Marathon Boom Over?

I was reading Running USA’s statistics about marathoning and saw that the number of finishers didn’t increase nearly as much from 2010 to 2011 as it did in previous years. Is that a sign that the marathon boom is coming to an end?

marathon runners spain men

Runners in the Cursa de la Merce on September 28, 2009, in Barcelona, Spain.     Photo: Maxisport/Shutterstock

A:Dear Statistics Geek:

We checked Running USA’s 2010 State of the Sport Report and also noticed that the number of finishers in 2011 (518,000) was only 2.2 percent higher than in 2010. That’s a measly rate of growth compared to the previous two years, during which marathoning enjoyed growth rates closer to 10 percent.

While it’s true that the first marathon boom, which kicked off in 1972 after American Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon, petered out sometime in the mid-1980s, it’s still too early to claim that current interest in the distance is waning. At least that’s what Running USA’s statistics guru (and one of the founders of Running USA), Ryan Lamppa says, and we’re inclined to believe him.

Believe it or not, the marathoning boom we’re currently witnessing is 18 years old already. Instead of starting with gold-medal fervor, however, our renewed obsession with running long can be traced to one, generally un-athletic celebrity: Oprah Winfrey. Yes, the media mogul crossed the first and only marathon finish line of her life in 1994 at the Marine Corps Marathon in a respectable 4:29:20. “Suddenly, a person couldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m too busy to run a marathon,’” Lamppa says. “If you’re more busy than Oprah, then heaven help you.”

Add the growth of charity programs like Team in Training, and access to training information on the Internet, and you’ve got a sport with a lot of potential for growth.

There is a reasonable explanation, Lamppa says, for that 2.2 percent figure that doesn’t involve a disdain of distance: Many popular U.S. marathons have capped how many people are allowed to run, and they are all selling out well in advance. Therefore, the only way for the sport to maintain its record growth is for new marathons to spring up, and for smaller and less popular marathons that haven’t met their caps to keep working at attracting runners.

This boom could go on for another four or five years, Lamppa says, but there’s no indication of a decline right now. “Even though we have a record number of finishers in U.S. road races,” Lamppa says, “There are still more than 300 million Americans who haven’t done road races. I think there’s room for growth.”

So maybe you’re onto something and this marathon boom is slowing down, or maybe there are simply not enough races to keep up with demand. It’s just too early to tell.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Don’t freak out about the state of marathons. They’re as popular as they’ve ever been and aren’t going anywhere. For now. 

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