Young athletes today are drawn to out-of-the-box endurance events that didn’t even exist when Baby Boomers were entering marathons.
Truth is, I’ve never run a marathon, much less raced one. I’ve thought about it—pounding the pavement mile after mile through city streets... yawn.
I might be labeled part of “the slowest generation,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. The story contended that the current crop of young people suffer from “performance-related apathy,” and are content just to cross the finish line, whatever the pace.
The median U.S. marathon finishes are slower than they were 30 years ago, and the author cites that 50-somethings can finish at the top of their age group, as well as in the overall top percentiles in any typical endurance race. There just aren't as many super-competitive athletes today compared to when the Baby Boomers were in their 20s and 30s, it said.
But before the old guard labels me as “lazy,” let me point out that I have crawled through mud with a cyclocross bike on my shoulder and climbed rocky singletrack in the rain for hours till I puked, all in the name of competition—and I always cared what place I came in.
While “the slowest generation” title might exclude the crop of elite athletes that exist in any generation, it targets the scores of amateur and “sub-elite” athletes. But don’t tell that to Mandy Ortiz, an 18-year-old who just won the Jr. World Mountain Running Championships in Poland a few weeks ago, or to 20-something Ashley Arnold, who won the 2013 Leadville 100 trail run, nor Matthew Balzer, 32, who recently took the XTERRA National amateur title.
Sure, there may be scores of younger athletes lollygagging through their local marathon. But the truth is that many of my generation are drawn to “untraditional,” out-of-the-box endurance events that didn’t even exist when Baby Boomers were entering marathons by the thousands. Fast, competitive young athletes can be found in large numbers at off-road triathlons, ultra distance trail runs, and mountain-bike stage races.
Balzer, a former college track athlete, says he was intrigued by the challenge and welcoming environment of XTERRAS and traded the road for the trail in his early 20s. As both an athlete and running-store owner, he’s seen the off-road category explode in recent years.
“When I began XTERRA, it was on my radar, but it was nowhere as big as it is today,” he said. “Today there are just so many more options for athletes out there beyond the traditional road events—CrossFit, XTERRAs, and Tough Mudders—that we don’t really have any historical data for.”
In fact, organizers of online race directory www.runningintheusa.com have added hundreds of new trail races to the schedule each year since 2008. This year, it listed 533 races, compared to 141 a decade ago.
James Gill, CEO of Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports, said that of the production company’s many events, trail races—especially ultra-distance trail races—are the fastest growing kind of event.
“Being active is becoming more nontraditional,” said Gill, a veteran competitive runner himself. “They're looking for new and different things than the generation before.”
Frankly, “traditional” road events are a poor way to measure the athleticism of a generation. Athletes who grew up doing cross-country and track are instead finding alternative ways to compete. There are increasingly more athletes such as American Sage Canaday, expected to challenge the world’s top distance runners for the win at this weekend’s Ultra Race of Champions in Colorado, a 100K trail race. Canaday is a two-time Olympic trials qualifier and was the youngest participant in the Olympic marathon trials at the age of 21. Today, he’s recognized as one of the world’s top mountain runners, but you won’t see his name on the start list of the Boston Marathon.
Those without Olympic aspirations are looking for alternatives, too. Steve Croucher, a top finisher in the 20-24 age group in XTERRA nationals, said that after leaving college athletics, he looked for ways to stay active and found road races, well, lame.
“I think it's the dull endurance sports that are dying, not endurance sports in general,” he said. “Running a road marathon is cool. It's probably a goal of many to say they've done it. But look at trail running—that's a sport that has continued to grow in popularity. Add an off-road marathon to the mix and, boom, you've got interest from young endurance runners.”
But America hasn’t won a marathon medal in the Olympics since 2004, old-timers lament.
Jake Wells, 35, a professional cyclocross and mountain bike racer (and a former collegiate track and cross-country athlete), shrugs.
“It’s a smaller world now,” he said. “The Olympics have their place, but now you can compete against the world on any given weekend. Counting medals is like counting the number of people that have a savings account based on how often they write a check. Who writes checks anymore? It’s a little antiquated.”
And don’t forget that far more people of all ages participate in athletic events compared to 30 years ago. Those diehard 50-somethings may still be fast, (and with all due respect, hats off to you), but they are also comparing themselves to a much more diluted pool of competition.
According to Running USA, participation in running events (based on finishers) has more than tripled from 1990 to 2012. Take the Chicago Marathon, the largest marathon in the country. Last year, 37,475 people completed the race, compared to about 7,000 in 1983.
Since running’s first boom in the early ‘70s, exponentially more people have participated in races, and many of those runners don’t always fit the profile of competitive athlete, said Running USA researcher and spokesman Ryan Lamppa.
“The first boom was 1972, the year that Frank Shorter won a gold medal in the marathon at the Munich Olympics,” he said. “The second running boom was 1994, and the poster child was Oprah. It was an international story that she ran a marathon, and she exposed the sport not only to mainstream America, but women. Millions of brand new runners entered the sport after that.”
Sure, the average race times may be increasing, but is that because the new generation of athletes is slow, or because there’s an entirely different kind of demographic in the race?
Who knows, maybe I’ll see what the fuss is all about and run that marathon someday. Or maybe I’ll leave it to grandpa and Oprah.