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Why is Road Running Losing Pace?

29 Nov, 2017

By: Michael Popke

“Road races have hit the wall,” proclaims The New York Times. “The number of finishers in events in the United States has fallen from a peak of about 19 million in 2013 to just over 17 million in 2016. High fees, a glut of race options and competition from other fitness activities have shrunk the fields at many races.”

Indeed, compared with the increasing popularity of Tough Mudders, Color Runs and Spartan Races, traditional road running doesn’t seem nearly as exciting.

Nontraditional events labeled as “other” by the industry group Running USA have taken away as many as one million runners who previously considered themselves road racers, according to Rich Harshbarger, Running USA’s chief executive officer.

The high fees associated with road races seem to be playing a major factor in those participation decreases. A 2017 Running USA survey revealed that half of all runners claimed races are too expensive. Six in 10, meanwhile, stated they would participate in more races if fees were lower.

Runners also are savvier these days and can detect when a race might be a rip-off. Running USA officials point to “unhealthy races” — those with unsustainable operating structures and business plans — that are shutting down with increasing frequency.

Running USA’s “U.S. Road Race Trends” latest report also reveals that females represent 57 percent of event finishers, and that the total number of races with 25,000 or more finishers is decreasing. The 10K, half marathon and "other" distances also saw decrease in total finishers.  

“While finisher totals continue to fall, however slightly, there are a number of positive signs for the industry,” Harshbarger said in a statement. "As race directors react to declining participation numbers, what we're seeing is more of them increase value and create better experiences for their runners, partners, charities and communities."

Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, told The New York Times that marquee events such as marathons in New York City, Boston and Chicago will remain in demand despite their high registration fees. This year’s New York City Marathon, for example, cost $295. “Those races are still selling out, which is a testament that the sport is still strong,” Knaack said. “But they can’t get any bigger. I think people are still gravitating toward those races because they know they’re going to get the bang for their buck.”

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