Run­ning the Num­bers

The Big Are Get­ting Big­ger

Canadian Running - - SEPTEMBER & OCTOBER 2017 - By Gray­don Snider Gray­don Snider is a an at­mo­spheric physi­cist and ded­i­cated run­ner, liv­ing in Mon­treal.

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, 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.

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