Running the Numbers
The Big Are Getting Bigger
Recently Running usa released their annual report on the state of marathons in the United States, where some of the biggest marathons in the world take place. What they found was interesting: in 2016 total U.S. marathon finishers declined by 43,000 off from their peak of 550,000 in 2014. (Similar downtrends were found for the half-marathon, 10k and 5k.) That means that the American racing community has lost the equivalent of one Chicago Marathon. But depending on the race, that statistic can be misleading. Chicago itself continues to sell out, along with New York City and Boston. North of the border, Canada’s Ottawa Race Weekend, Toronto Waterfront and Vancouver marathons are doing well (although their sellout pace is slowing down somewhat). The reality is that smaller races are suffering more, with, thankfully, a healthy dose of exceptions.
To illustrate these overall participation trends, I turned to the statistics website arrs.net, which tallies the numbers of marathon finishers from every race. I took the total participants from the largest five races and divided it by the total finishers per country. The smaller the fraction, the better “small” races are faring. What I found was two trends over the last 15 years: from the early 2000s until around 2010, small races grew in relative abundance. Meanwhile, for the past five years, the trend has been reversing, and large races are taking a bigger fraction of the pie. As participation grew in the U.S. from 300,000 to half a million in 10 years, the fraction of those entering the five largest races decreased from a third to about one fifth of total runners. In Canada, as marathoners grew from 17,000 to almost double that in 2014, the fraction of runners taken in by the biggest races also declined. More recently from 2010 onward, Canada’s “Big 5” have been taking in a larger fraction of total, almost back to 2001 levels, while from 2012 onward the American Big 5 show a similar uptick. We might notice, too, that because of Canada’s smaller population, large races account for almost twice the relative participation fraction compared to the U.S.
Globally speaking, marathon participation in other countries such as China and Russia continues to experience double-digit growth. For now, there is no shortage of races to choose from, but that could change. And I haven’t discussed the underlying explanation for these trends, for that is an entirely different topic, and depends on the actions of both baby boomers and millennials. What does matter is that marathons, from the large to the small, depend on mass participation and competition for our divided attention. And the largest races appear to be improving their relative advertising reach. But most importantly, let us recall that all races depend on our collective willpower to get off the couch.