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

Thu, 05 Jan 2012 06:08:23 -0500

Growing Up

RUNNING COMMENTARY 918

(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from June 1986. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

Turn a deaf ear to the voices of gloom and doom that moan about running being a sport in decline. The good times aren’t over for good. In fact, this is a great time to be a runner.

Before you dismiss me as a Pollyanna who can see no wrong in the sport, or as a self-serving feeder at the running-business trough, study the evidence used to reach this conclusion and then draw you own. Is the decline and fall of the running empire at hand? Or is this a healthy activity growing healthier?

In terms of numerical growth, the Running Boom is over. But this isn’t to say runners are vanishing in droves or the sport is in trouble. It’s just in transition from one phase to the next – a new era of somewhat less size than before, and also more depth.

While significant pockets of growth remain, the total numbers of runners and racers seem to have dropped a bit from the peak of recent years. It’s hard to tell exactly how much.

The tendency in Boom years was to exaggerate the running population. Anyone who owned a pair of running shoes or ran to catch a bus was counted as one of us.

The total reached 20 million, 25, 30 – depending on how loosely “runner” was defined. Did you ever really think one in every eight to 10 people you ran across each day was a runner?

The qualifying standards are much higher now. Pollsters who still bother counting heads tend to understate the number of runners. I’d prefer not even talking about these totals; they are yesterday’s news. But the case here requires evidence that the sport still rests on a solid base of support.

The best available figures come from groups requiring accurate body counts. The National Sporting Goods Association, which needs to know how many people might buy its products, found about seven million regular runners in its most recent survey. The National Running Data Center, which needs to know how many of these people will support races, pegged the number of racers between 600,000 and 800,000.

Even if numbers are down somewhat, they appear to be leveling off far higher than they were before the Boom. Seven million runners, about one in 10 of them a racer, look like they’re here for a long stay.

The shrinkage in their number, whether real or imagined, has caused some problems. These are temporary signs of readjustment, not symptoms of terminal illness. They mostly concern the business side of the sport.

Running was a growth industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When it stopped growing at the old rate, the effects shook everyone with vested financial, promotional or organizational interests.

Running shoes and clothes sold at a slower pace, if only because the “runner look” lost some of its appeal to non-runners. This trend left manufacturers with less money to spend promoting classy races and supporting elite athletes. Old retail shops catering only to runners closed faster than new ones opened.

Racing numbers didn’t add up as before, if only because runners became more choosy about which races they entered. Corporations that measured the success of a race solely by size withdrew their sponsorship. Races that judged themselves only by the same standard were cancelled.

But for every casualty, other businesses and events have survived the shakeout period and are stronger for it. Those that remain are leaner, harder-nosed, clearer-eyed operations than many of those that rushed in to milk the Boom and then disappeared when it quieted.

The highest-quality events and products survive in the marketplace. The most committed and sensible runners survive in the sport. These survivors give running a mature, settled, enduring quality that was lacking during its adolescent growth spurt.

The sport didn’t suddenly explode, as running folklore maintains, the day after Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon. This was one among many sparks for growth that didn’t lead to a full-force Boom until the latter half of the 1970s. The Boom peaked around 1980 and has just about run its course by now.

The Running Boom was necessary and even exciting while it lasted. But it couldn’t have lasted forever. Its pace was too fast, its crowds too large, its hype too great, its costs too high. The pace of change has slowed now, and the sport is regaining its balance after experiencing some clumsiness during the spell of rapid growth.

In recent years the emphasis was on BIGGER. The key word now is BETTER. We’re drawing from the best of the bigness – the highest-quality goods and services, the most committed runners and officials spawned during the Boom times – and weeding out the shoddy and weak.

Some well-meaning people were left behind by this survival-of-the-fittest process, and that’s sad. But with them went lots of dreamers and schemers, opportunists and faddists. The sport is better off with them gone. Running is again becoming the simple exercise and sport is once was, not the social phenomenon it has been recently.


UPDATE: I wrote “state of the sport” article for Runner’s World. The magazine’s editors rejected it (which rarely happened with my columns) as “too negative.” So it ran instead as a Running Commentary original.

None of us had the foresight in 1986 to recognize that a second Running Boom was brewing, bigger and longer-lasting than the first. The first Boom centered mainly on young men and largely on those who raced. The second embraced older runners, women of all ages, slower runners and run/walkers.

The second Boom began in the 1990s. Growth continues to this day.


[This piece and others appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you get each update by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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