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Running Boom, Racing Bust

Plenty of Runners But Few Are Elite

Published Sept. 22, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

On September 10, 1972, American Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the Olympic Marathon. His victory ushered the start of a national running boom. Over the following 15 years, millions of Americans took up running, and US runners dominated the world racing scene, winning races and setting records.

Twenty-five years later, the running boom continues unabated. Participation in American road races increased from 4 million entries in 1976 to 8 million entries in 1996. Large city marathons, charity runs and corporate challenge races transformed walkers and joggers into week- end racers.

The increased participation in road races has been felt at every distance. The 20 largest 5K races in the country totaled 90,000 runners in 1993 and over 170,000 runners in 1996. The 10 largest marathons went from 70,000 finishers in 1987, to 150,000 finishers in 1996. The 100 largest long distance races went from 350,000 runners in 1980, to over 1 million runners in 1996. This rapid rise in the number and size of road races resulted in a larger back of the pack, rather than a faster lead pack. Last year, the median finishing time was 4:18 for the New York City Marathon and over 5 hours for the Los Angeles Marathon.

As the running boom continues to widen the base of the running pyramid, elite racing at the top of the pyramid has suffered severe atrophy. Fewer American runners win long distance races, and the 20-year US medal drought continues in the men's Olympic distance races.

In a recent study, Dr. David Martin of Georgia State University showed an alarming decline in US elite marathon running. To qualify for the US Olympic trials, a male runner needed to run a marathon in under 2 hours 20 minutes. Following Munich, US men ran an increasing number of qualifying performances, from 12 in 1972 to 267 sub-2:20 marathons in 1983. The trend reversed following the Los Angeles Olympics, and US men ran only 40 sub-2:20 performances in 1996. Over a 5-year period, the numbers are equally dramatic. There were 1,003 sub-2:20 performances from 1980 to 1984, but only 273 sub-2:20 performances from 1992 to 1996.

Has the running boom resulted in a racing bust, or is this dichotomy purely coincidental? The slow majority at the base of the pyramid brings greater awareness to running, emphasizing fitness and health over speed and competition. In turn, this participation makes it possible for the elite athletes to train and to compete. I would rather have 20,000 runners finishing a marathon in 5 hours, than a stadium with 20,000 spectators watching 1 winner in 2:08.

Evidently, the fate of US distance racing does not depend on the size of the running masses, but rather on the speed of the elite runners. The explanations that experts give for the racing bust are as interesting as the numbers. The lack of money and opportunity head the list. Yet, today's elite runners have more money and time to train than ever before. Even then, some of the most impressive performances have come from part-time runners with full-time careers.

One explanation for the decline in the quality of US distance racing is the decline in the number of racers. As the running boom widens the base of the running pyramid with adult runners, it leaves little impact on the pyramid's depth. In schools and colleges, few kids run, and of those who do, many burn out young. In a nation of spectators, more high school athletes prefer to sit the season on the bench of a soccer team, than to run on the cross country team.

With the start of a new school year, I extend an invitation to children and parents to give running a try. Through mud and sweat, cross country brings camaraderie, a place in the woods to walk when tired, and energy for your favorite winter sport. I promise you that the slower you are, the more playing time you will get.

Dr Kamal Jabbour runs and writes among the changing leaves in Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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