Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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01 January 2005, 8am

Thoughts on the state of distance running

Where are we now?

by Alan Brookes

Across Canada and into the USA, in London and in Prague, I chat to runners and race directors. I write occasional race reports for Distance Running, but in the bigger picture these raise more questions than they answer.

What follows is not a definitive survey of marathon running, but a view from mid-pack, from a race director of a small marathon [like many AIMS members], on the road, searching for answers.

“For marathons today, it’s a constant challenge to be innovative. You have to be a phoenix, and re-birth, re-invent yourself every year. That’s the hardest part”. – Nick Bitel, Chief Executive, London Marathon

Throughout the spring there seemed to be some apprehension as well as precipitation in the air. It poured down in London and rained just as much in Prague.

The venerable Boston Marathon slipped a little, from 17,030 finishers in 2003 to 16,743 this year. In July, USA Track & Field Road Running Information Centre summarized:

“For the first time since USA Track & Field began tracking event size (1987), total finishers in U.S. road races declined from 2002 to 2003. It was a modest decline of only 1% but it does ring warning bells for race organizers of certain types of events.”

While the bells tolled loudest for shorter distance races, the numbers presented show that marathon finishers in US events grew by a meager 2% [to 400,000], and half-marathon finishers by just 4%, 2002 to 2003. was only a little more upbeat:

In 2003, there was a 3.4% increase in the number of marathon finishers from 2002, with a total of nearly 334,000 people completing a marathon in the USA – up from approximately 323,000 in 2002. Male finishers increased by 2.3%, female finishers by 4.8%, narrowing the gender gap to 60:40. In total, 270 marathons took place in the USA in 2003.

AIMS membership reflects a similar picture of continued growth – with surges in 2000 and 2004. Today, AIMS has nearly 200 members – although this is the number of marathons who have joined, and not the number of marathon runners they represent. We could speculate that, as the competition for marathon participants heats up, more events want to join AIMS and advertise more, to attract a slow-growing pool of marathoners in an increasingly congested marketplace.

Conversations in 2004 echoed these trends from 2003 statistics suggesting that perhaps the marathon boom is over, and the sport has either plateaued or is in decline.

Yet I found evidence to the contrary too. A week before Prague I was at the inaugural Mississauga Marathon—which attracted 1209 finishers in a nondescript western suburb of Toronto. Prague was followed one week later by the Ottawa Marathon. Pumped with new ING sponsorship money, they got a 2:11 winner, the fastest time in Canada in a decade, and 3585 finishers – up 39% in one year.

Then came a glorious autumn. My fledgling Toronto Waterfront Marathon leapt 113%, from 795 to 1690 finishers. The whole event including marathon, half and 5km, went from 5866 to 9007 (up 54%). The sun shone and the bands played. The Marine Corps Marathon had a similarly fine day, filled with sunshine, joy and a record number of finishers: 16379 vs. 15973 last year. Race director Rick Nealis spoke confidently of abandoning the “lottery” system of entries for 2005, in favour of a first-come, first-served online entry process that will start on 6 April. This, says Nealis, will give them 30,000 runners for their 30th anniversary next October.

Next stop… New York City. What a day! The glitz and glamour were everywhere – at parties, receptions, fireworks displays. It was another glorious, sunny race day with “New York, New York” belting out over the record 36,513 crowd on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. Teeming throngs of New Yorkers lined the route and brilliant autumn colours draped Central Park. “The world’s greatest marathon” was back. The phoenix had risen: 2001, just after 9/11, saw only 23,664 finishers.

This autumn, then, consensus seemed uniform amongst the big players.

“Marathons are still growing. Marathoning is very healthy now,” said Guy Morse, Executive director for Boston, when I caught up to him in Washington,DC.

Rick Nealis concurred: “Definitely healthy.”

Nick Bitel, of the Flora London Marathon, was even more ebullient: “We are still in a growth period—especially the bigger races. London will have to turn down a record 80,000 applications for our 2005 race, after accepting 45,000. The marathon has become the greatest inspiration and a symbol of our era. Every runner is a hero. The challenge is how to constantly enliven the offering, the experience….”

The phoenix had risen, but I was still confused.
Does size matter?

Maybe Nick was right: the big guys are all getting bigger, and dominate the scene. As Guy Morse put it:
“runners are getting very
sophisticated and expect more
and more… The marathon is no longer just about the t-shirt; it’s about a quality ‘experience’.”

With a $10 million budget the largest races can create so much more of a “happening”. Yet the competition is also fiercest at the top, as New York, London, Chicago, Berlin and Boston compete in a “Champions League” to be “the world’s greatest race”. To do so, they bid for a handful of superstars who might deliver world records. The phoenix has to rise every year.

While NYC has rebounded from 2001 (up 54%), Chicago has nudged forward each year, from 28771 to 33033 in 2004. London and Berlin have the current women’s and men’s world records. So what is Carey Pinkowski going to do in Chicago for 2005?

It is indeed tough at the top. Honolulu were one of the “big three” American races in 2000, with 22652 finishers, only 5000 behind second-place Chicago. Three years later they were holding at 22139 – but this was now 10,000 finishers shy of Chicago. Arguably, Honolulu has slipped into the second tier. It hasn’t been any easier for Los Angeles, who have had five years of running on the spot. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the LA Marathon has been sold to the Devine Racing Group of Chicago for US$15 million.

CEO Chris Devine was quoted as suggesting that with major Devine intervention [cash], LA could grow to 40,000 participants, and a place in the Champion’s League. Can Devine cash do for LA what ING cash has done for New York or Ottawa?

The numbers show more than just “size matters”. They show:
1. The importance of new marathons on the scene
2. The importance of innovation and “re-birthing” for existing events
3. The frenetic jockeying for position in the marathon boom

New marathons are bursting out all over, like 10Ks in the first running boom of the 1980s.

USA T&F compared “% change in same events”, to get their 2% growth figure. But as reported,

“There were nearly 20 inaugural marathons in 2003… The Miami Tropical Marathon (1,455 finishers in the marathon), broke the bar of 1,000 finishers in its inaugural race. Next on the size list of new marathons were the Akron Marathon (855 finishers) and the Little Rock Marathon (842 finishers).”

This trend appears to have continued or gained pace in 2004.

The Elite Racing empire, with flagship San Diego Rock’n Roll Marathon stalled at 16369 finishers in 2004, introduced Rock’n Roll Arizona with 9482 finishers the first time out.

Nike weighed in with their 26.2 in San Francisco, with a coat check at mile 1, pedicure, foot massage and fresh socks at mile 18, and chocolates on a platter from valets at mile 25. Result: 2,372 finishers in the first running.

The newly-formed Devine Racing group from Chicago, thwarted in their attempts to buy Elite Racing, launched a new marathon in Salt Lake City that attracted 2622 finishers.

In Canada, apart from Mississauga, there were new marathons in Prince Edward County, Prince Edward Island, and Halifax.

Being new, fresh and exciting counts, but you’ve also got to sustain the momentum.

Miami Tropical did, growing from 1455 to 1781 in their sophomore year 2004. But Akron slid back from 855 to 714. “Montreal International Marathon”, who debuted with much fanfare last year, went from 801 finishers in 2003 to 803 this September.

In tables 3 & 4 we can see the importance of hard work, advertising, strong branding and innovation. This yielded gains in Detroit, Baltimore, Ottawa, and Toronto Waterfront, and retained market share in Austin, Houston, Cincinnati, LA, Vegas, and Vancouver.

At the other end of the scale, there are the interesting cases of Portland, Victoria, Quebec City and Niagara – four fine, well-established marathons with excellent organization. Apparently that’s no longer enough. Even with their outstanding Race Director’s Workshop and leadership in organization for the average runner in their “People’s Marathon”, Portland’s image has remained largely unchanged to those same runners.

Niagara, Quebec City and perhaps Victoria, seem to be challenged by their location—magnificent scenery, but they are secondary centres with small hinterlands, and few direct flights, in an increasingly congested marketplace.
There was considerable consternation in Quebec City last year, when the much larger city of Montreal re-introduced their marathon, after almost a decade’s hiatus. Yet Montreal did not take Quebec’s 259 runners they lost this year—Montreal grew by just two finishers. Rather, Marathon des Deux Rives seems to have been pecked at, by the many new and innovative marathons in Canada and the border States. With a solid foundation of first-rate organization, and innovation and new marketing, they’ll bounce back.

There is still a boom, and huge excitement in marathoning, but there are signs everywhere of market saturation. Activity is frenetic and competition is fierce for a bigger slice of the slowly growing marathon pie. The pie is growing at 2% – 3% a year, or around 10,000 in total. But Rock’n Roll Arizona took 10,000. Rick Nealis says he’s gunning for 30,000 in 2005 [up 7,500 from 2004]. Chris Devine is looking for 40,000 in LA. NYC and Chicago take an extra thousand or two every year. Guy Morse feels compelled to take more to maintain Boston’s stature. It goes on down the line to Miami Tropical, Toronto Waterfront, Ottawa and Halifax. So where are all these folks coming from?

There are only three ways to grow:
– create new marathoners from couch potatoes or half-marathoners
– attract more local/regional runners, taking them from your local competition
– get marathoners to travel more [join AIMS and convince international marathoners to travel to your event rather than someone else’s].

Canadian marathons recognize this foreign factor [see Table 5.]. There are currently 10 AIMS members from Canada versus 19 from the US, a country 10 times bigger. Canadian marathons cannot grow without international runners.
Prague has led the way with this for years, with more than 50% of its participants from outside the tiny Czech Republic. Should American marathons (excepting New York) work harder at this? Will Marine Corps, with only 3.7% of their field from outside USA (and two-thirds of those were Canadians), need to go after more foreigners to get 30,000 for their 30th Anniversary next year? See Table 5.

Marathons that are innovative, whether big or small, are succeeding. Those who are working hard to offer an exciting, distinctive and fresh experience, those who are aggressively advertising and promoting, are phoenix-like, rising again each year. Those who aren’t are hitting the wall, and are in for a struggle.
And AIMS membership? It is one of life’s last great bargains for marathon race directors like me – it will continue to rise.


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