Today is National Running Day, which is fitting given the rising interest in distance running in the United States. Last year, an estimated 507,000 Americans completed a marathon (26.2 miles), a record high trumped only by the number of finishers of half-marathons (13.1 miles), which totaled 1.4 million in 2010 – an impressive 24% increase from 2009, making it far and away the fastest growing road race distance in the country. Though running itself is revered as a low-cost sport, entry fees to races continue to climb – yet, despite a lingering recession, road racing continues to grow in popularity. This is largely thanks to the demographics of recreational runners.
Data & graphic from: Running USA
In a 2008 New Yorker profile of American marathoner Ryan Hall, writer Peter Hessler notes that the average participant in the ING New York City Marathon has an annual household income of a $130,000. “The people who read Runner’s World have a median income virtually the same as that of readers of Forbes,” he points out. Not only are the vast majority of recreational marathoners wealthy enough to pay for entry fees, they are also a very attractive demographic to advertisers. This is how marathons attract big-name sponsors like Bank of America (Chicago), ING (New York), and Honda (Los Angeles).
To attract more attention and interest to a race, and thus more sponsors, big marathons use appearance fees to bring marketable distance runners to their starting line. This payout is one important reason young distance runners are being drawn to the marathon distance, and, coupled with shoe contracts, are a major source of professional runners’ incomes. Big city marathons and their sponsors are also using this wealth to support elite training groups like Team Running USA in Mammoth Lakes, California and the Oregon Track Club. As Hessler mentions, the results are noticeable: the 2007 U.S. Olympic trials for the marathon was the strongest field in Trials history. The payoff from rising interest in road racing is not limited to American runners.
A recent article in ESPN The Magazine listed runners as the highest paid athletes in the east African countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Geoffrey Mutai, a top Kenyan runner, earned $225,000 including bonuses when he won the Boston Marathon with a world-best time in April. The prize money and appearance fees awarded at these races would be impossible without the surge of rich, slow joggers entering long distance road races. But perhaps the biggest winner in the running boom is charity, which is becoming a significant part of marathons and a source of limited entries at races that can sell out in a matter of hours. Charity groups offer an opportunity for runners to raise money for worthy causes, as well as training programs and team camaraderie. The success of these groups is evidenced by the numbers: One estimate from Running USA, an industry tracker, puts the total amount of money raised for charity at road races in the U.S. in 2009 at $1 billion.
Team World Vision, a Christian charity that supports development projects worldwide and counts Olympian Ryan Hall and his wife Sara among its 6,000 team members, raised over $2.5 million in 2010 for communities in Africa and Haiti. As a recent video from World Vision points out, this brings new meaning to the question “What do you run for?” In his book, Who Really Cares?, AEI president Arthur Brooks wrote that “Happy, healthy, successful opportunity-oriented people are most likely to give and to volunteer. At the same time, charitable people are more likely than uncharitable people to be happy, healthy, and financially prosperous.”
Given the growing number of affluent Americans who have taken to road running to support local, national, and international charities, it might be that these runners are experiencing a sense of accomplishment that others wish to experience themselves. In fact, come raceday – when one is surrounded by tens of thousands of fellow runners and fundraisers, cheered on by legions of fans and well-wishers, and supported by hundreds of volunteers along the course – the starting line of the marathon may be the happiest place on earth.