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

Fri, 15 Nov 2013 05:57:31 -0500

Growing Up

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from June 1986.)

Turn a deaf ear to the voices of gloom and doom that moan about running being a sport in decline. The good times in running arenít over for good. In fact, itís 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 the conclusions in paragraph one and then draw your 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 isnít to say runners are vanishing in droves or the sport is in trouble. Itís just in transition from one phase to the next: a new era of somewhat less size than before, and also with 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. Itís hard to tell exactly how much.

The tendency in Boom years was to exaggerate the number of runners. 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 Ė depending on how loosely ďrunnerĒ 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 running population. Iíd prefer not even talking about those totals; they are yesterdayís 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 will 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, put 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 theyíre here to 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 its old rate, the effects shook everyone who had vested financial, promotional or organizational interests.

Running shoes and clothing sold at a slower rate, if only because the ďrunner lookĒ 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 didnít add up as before, if only because runners became more choosy about what 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 canceled.

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 along with it.

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 didnít suddenly explode, as running folklore maintains, the day after Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon. This was one among many important sparks for the growth that didnít really take off until the last half of the 1970s. The Boom peaked around 1980 and has just about run its course in the years since.

The Running Boom was necessary and even exciting while it lasted. But it couldnít have lasted forever. Its pace was too fast, its crowds too large, its hype too great, its costs too high. The pace of change now has slowed, and the sport is regaining its sense of balance after experiencing some clumsiness during the time of rapid growth.

In recent years the emphasis was on bigger. The key word in the new age will be better. Weíre now drawing from the best of the bigness Ė the highest-quality goods and services, the most committed runners and officials spawned during the Boom times Ė and weeding out the shoddy and weak.

Some well-meaning people were left behind by this survival-of-the-fittest process, and thatís sad. But with them went lots of dreamers and schemers, opportunists and faddists.

I hope I donít sound harsh by saying the sport is better off with them gone. Running is again becoming the simple exercise and sport it once was, not the social phenomenon it has been recently.

UPDATE FROM 2013

My crystal ball has always been cloudy. Iím the guy who wrote after the 1967 Boston Marathon, my first, that ďI never expect to run a race larger than this one.Ē It had 600 entrants that year.

I predicted in 1970, fearing exaggeration, that Runnerís World might someday reach 10,000 subscribers. Within the decade it grew 40 times larger.

My vision of the post-Boom future, as expressed above in 1986, was no clearer. The sport began booming again a few years later, and the growth has continued ever since.

Will it end again? As a running commentator my most honest answer is: I donít know. As a runner I can honestly say: I donít really care.

Donít read this wrong. I care very much about the running itself but donít spend much time fretting about where it might be headed as a social and business phenomenon.

Whatever happens, Iíll still run. What about you? Iím guessing you too will keep running, no matter what. As long as enough of us do that, the sport as a whole will stay healthy.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joeís Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehartís book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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