Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 16 Jun 2007 05:39:30 -0400

Running Beyond the Boom

RUNNING COMMENTARY 680

(Last in a series of articles, begun in RC 677 and written as if the year were 1977. Nike assigned and then declined these writings during its marketing campaign for the re-release of several shoe models from that era.)

Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Which is to say, it's easier to report a trend than to predict one. You've read one reporter's views on how much running has grown, and why. Here are my confessions of how badly I underestimated running's growth and change, along with forecasts on where we might go next.

Take the Boston Marathon as one example of surprising change. I first ran there in 1967 and thought the field might be the biggest I'd ever see. Seven hundred of us started. By 1977, despite qualifying times designed to limit entries, the number there is 10 times larger. The time standards will go even higher as Boston struggles to control its size. Meanwhile other races will welcome all the runners they can get. Fred Lebow's New York City Marathon will overtake Boston in size this year. New York will soon match Boston in prestige, but as a different style of race. There will never be another Boston.

In 1967, I thought that ancient marathoner Johnny Kelley might be the oldest runner I'd ever meet. He was 59. Kelley, now 70, still runs Boston and other runners aren't far behind him in age. This isn't a young-man's game anymore. The median age is climbing, along with the quality of some runners. Jack Foster is their hero, an Olympian after turning 40 and the world record-holder for masters marathoners. Someday someone this old will win a major marathon outright. Maybe he -- or she -- hasn't yet started running today, as Foster hadn't at 35.

Two women ran the 1967 Boston, one with a race number that her gender wasn't yet welcome to wear. While I applauded what Kathrine Switzer did, I thought she might have set back women's running by embarrassing certain officials. Just the opposite happened. That monumental run-in inspired other women to run marathons. So many now do that the biggest prize of all, an Olympic Marathon of their own, will be theirs by 1984. Its winner will be woman who's now running track and cross-country in Norway or New England, and hasn't yet thought of trying a marathon.

I thought in 1967 that American marathoners couldn't compete with the best of the rest of the world. U.S. men had won at Boston just once since World War II. Fortunes have changed. Three of the last five winning men have been Americans, along five of six women's winners. Plus, of course, this country sent Frank Shorter to his golden run at the 1972 Olympics. With Shorter still in his prime, Bill Rodgers yet to peak and Bill's ex-teammate Alberto Salazar about to blossom, Americans will keep winning -- at least until East Africans turn to the marathon en masse. They haven't done much of that since Ethiopians won three straight Olympic titles in the 1960s.

I thought then that long-distance running would always be officially amateur as the stodgy AAU blocking any cash flow? Now the best runners are slipped more cash than ever before, and therefore have more time to train. Bill Rodgers has said, "I'll never be beaten by someone who works 40 hours a week." Rodgers runs for the quasi-professional Greater Boston Track Club, and other top runners have grouped up at well-supported Athletics West. Races such as Peachtree in Atlanta and Bloomsday in Spokane have added elite fields that don't come for free. Soon the AAU will be forced to surrender its governing powers to a progressive group; then watch the cash flow and the good times roll.

The fast runners will get faster, but by definition the elite will always be few in number. Running has grown from midpack on back, and the future health of the sport will largely be governed by the size of the pack. That said, everyone should welcome the older, bigger, slower and less serious runners. They create more visibility for the sport and bring more dollars into it. They give running a firmer foundation than ever before. The wider the base of the our pyramid, the higher its peak will push.

If you ask me where running as a whole is headed, my most honest answer is that I don't know but can only guess. As you've seen, my crystal ball has always been cloudy. But if you ask where MY running is headed, the answer is easy: straight ahead for as long as possible, no matter how many of today's runners continue -- or don't.

I'm not unique. The current boom has exposed the new masses to the same forces that attracted me to running and keep me going. Many of you will decide that you never want to stop. This will assure a good long run into the future that will count the most. Your own.
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