Last month, Running USA released its annual U.S. Running Trends report, which found that 18.1 million people had registered for a race in 2018. I hope you’re sitting down, because that signifies a one percent decline from 2017, when the number stood at 18.3 million. What’s more, the racing industry has been in decline since 2013, a year that saw a record 19 million registrants. Time to light a candle.
The winding down of the latest running boom has been well documented. On the day of the 2017 NYC Marathon, the Times published an article with the ominous headline “The Running Bubble Has Popped,” and noted that “high fees, a glut of race options, and competition from other fitness activities have shrunk the fields at many races.” And let’s not forget that winning 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal, which asserted that, once again, millennials were to blame.
But there’s a silver lining for running purists. In the press release accompanying the organization’s latest report, Running USA’s CEO Rich Harshbarger says that classic distances like the 5K and 10K are still very popular. Indeed, the decline in participation was almost entirely in “non-traditional” events, i.e. obstacle course races, color runs, and, presumably, anything zombie-themed.
At the risk of reading into this too much, I think that the enduring appeal of “traditionals” points towards something so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: no matter how much you try to spruce up the racing experience, be it with an influx of accessories or the introduction of a new theme or course feature, in the end, the running will always be the thing.
That might not sound like a particularly profound insight. However, at a time of rampant commodification of the sport, it can be an easy one to forget. There’s never been more running stuff. My local specialty store has at least 60 different flavors of gel. Every marathon expo abounds with increasingly elaborate contraptions for self-massage. There’s a company called Runderwear. Think about that.
According to one popular narrative, consumers today (particularly millennials) are less materialistic than in the past, and more into “experiences.” I’m skeptical, not least because experience itself can also be bottled and sold. When it comes to running, the commodification of experience manifests itself in those race-day photos (I have one my desk with a beautiful metallic finish; it cost me $24.95, plus shipping), or those “26.2” bumper stickers that everyone likes to hate on.
But it’s worth considering what inspires someone to buy an overpriced photo of themselves wearing tiny shorts, or plaster a “26.2” decal on their car. I certainly don’t think it’s a desire to show off. My theory is that running is meaningful to thousands of people in a very fundamental way that’s also really difficult to articulate and understand, so we compensate by buying all sorts of ancillary junk. It’s a similar impulse that, in the short term, might bolster the appeal of tricked-out, swag heavy events—the idea that there can be tangible reward for an intangible feeling.
Needless to say, it would be absurd to suggest that everyone who signs up for a zombie 5K with a sweet finisher’s medal is doing so out of a displaced yearning for a deeper, more authentic running experience. However, it seems self-evident that any race whose primary selling point is some silly novelty is not long for this world.
“Events that aren’t professional[ly] managed or professional[ly] produced are going away, and then those left in the market are forced to get more creative,” Harshbarger told the Times in 2017. “Now everyone’s got bands on the course and beer at the finish line, so what’s new?”
Is it too optimistic to suggest that “traditional” races will endure precisely because they don’t constantly have to answer that question? While there’s something to be said for innovative racing formats and running festivals (like the Night of 10,000 PBs, which has enlivened the otherwise dreary prospect of a day-long series of 10K track races with pyrotechnics and lots of ale), for participants the heart of these events is still the race itself. No external flourish can compete with the elusive bliss of trying to run an arbitrary distance as fast as you can.
In a recent account of her unexpected win at the Shamrock Run Half Marathon in Portland, Oregon, retired pro Lauren Fleshman articulated this sense of fleeting elation: “With each mile I continued to push, chasing nobody but a feeling. This feeling of full declaration, of the body, and heart. ”
At the end of the day, that feeling is what counts. It might be the sport’s most inexhaustible asset. It’s a feeling that’s impossible to hold on to, which is why we’ll keep coming back for more.