In 2010, running’s second boom was in full swing, brought about largely by a surge in the popularity of the half marathon. That surge inspired a new research report from Running USA, the industry’s research, marketing and communications hub.
Since 2003, says the report, the half marathon has been the fastest growing standard distance in the U.S. with a 24% record rise in both 2009 and 2010.”
While the half marathon is still holding its own, particularly among women runners, the running world now has its eyes on a new sort of prize.
“The half marathon is still at record levels, the fastest growing traditional distance in this country,” says Ryan Lamppa, media director, Running USA. “But non-traditional races have just exploded in the past few years, going from low six figure finishers in 2009 to over four million in 2013. There’s no doubt we’re still in the second running boom, and what we may be looking at, thanks to the nontraditional mud, obstacle, and theme runs, is the start of a third running boom.”
The New Race
“Non-traditional” is a broad term for the new class of running events that have emerged in the last few years. They range from obstacle races and mud runs to theme races of all kinds. Though these types of races are varied and unique, they have one thing in common, says Lamppa: they appeal to participants who have a strong interest in fun, social physical activities, but who are less interested in competition. Many of these races aren’t timed, and that’s part of their appeal.
The Color Run is a prime example of the non-traditional running boom. In just its first two years, The Color Run registered more than a million people to dash through the event’s signature 5 kilometers of colored powder.
"The Color Run has had more first time 5K runners than any other event in history,” says Travis Snyder, founder and executive director. “For most of these runners it will lead to more participation in fun runs and competitive events.”
Obstacle and mud runs are another vein of the exploding non-traditional race. These races are enjoying such popularity that two obstacle racers teamed up in early 2014 to establish a governing body for the sport, United States Obstacle Course Racing (USOCR). Following the death of a Tough Mudder participant in 2013 (and a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit filed by the participant’s mother in 2014), obstacle course and mud runs face growing scrutiny about their safety regulations and preparation. The USOCR will address “safety protocols and procedures, quality control, and rules and regulation for competition.”
Regardless of issues, the alternative race market continues to make record sales. According to Running USA’s 2014 State of the Sport: Non-Traditional Running Events report, “With a business strategy driven by a large social media footprint, start-up companies such as Tough Mudder and The Color Run have attracted hundreds of millions of revenue dollars in just a few years of operation.”
But has the high demand created an over-saturated market? Recently, countless theme and obstacle races have emerged, which could be a cause for concern regarding the future of these events, particularly ones that depend on large numbers of participants traveling to races.
“I think that the market is becoming so saturated with similar races that people always have one if not multiple ones nearby. They don’t necessarily have to travel, unless it’s for a prestigious race like The Color Run, which definitely brings people to Grand Rapids,” says Katy Tigchelaar, events manager, West Michigan Sports Commission. “Add to that the fact that a lot of the trendy races are so expensive, people might start to do fewer runs overall.”
The Traveling Runner
With a potentially oversaturated running events market, participants certainly have lots of options, many of them right outside their front doors. So what characteristics make some running events travel-worthy appeal?
In some cases, says Lamppa, the choice to travel for races is tied to the type of runner as much as the type of race. “Per our 2013 National Runner Survey, more than 60% of runners do overnight travel to an event, usually traditional runners who want to do different races per a certain checklist that they’ve created for their running career, a marathon per state for example. The typical non-traditional runner is much more passive. They’re doing events with their friends locally.”
The Color Run, for one, is disproving this idea.
“We do have repeat runners, especially for our big events such as Los Angeles and Chicago. We do have some other runners that are much more dedicated and have been to The Color Run events all around the US and World,” says Lisa Nunes, marketing special projects lead, The Color Run. “We have a couple ladies we call ‘The Legends’ that have been to 13 events to date. They even have The Color Run tattoos. We love them!”
But what about the rest of the races, both traditional and convention-breaking? As it turns out, a survey of successful races across the U.S. reveals a number of strategies that help these events draw visitors and tourism dollars, even when there’s no mud, fire or glow paint involved.
Make a weekend of it. Races that benefit a nonprofit or cause are common enough, but when they offer runners a chance for a weekend of homecoming excitement that also benefits a community they care about, the registrations start rolling in.
“Our main event, which draws the most out of state runners and even some internationally, is the Five Points of Life Marathon and Half Marathon,” says Joleen Cacciatore, executive director, Gainesville Sports Commission (Florida). “It started in 2006, beginning as just a half and full marathon. We grew the marathon, added a 5K, a marathon relay and a kids’ marathon, and it’s the Five Points of Life race weekend. We get runners from all parts of the country, especially people who want to come back to Gainesville, who went to school here. The nostalgia factor helps.”
The Livermore Half Marathon (California) takes advantage of a weekend of existing activities, giving not just runners but whole families a reason to make the trip to Livermore. “We’re fortunate to have five distinct towns and cities that can offer appealing events and activities so that there’s something for everyone,” says Geoffrey Sarabia-Mason, vice president of sales, Visit Tri-Valley. “Also, at Visit Tri-Valley, we act as the conduit for all the cities, and our calendar holds everyone’s events. We look for peaks and valleys and help event directors choose strategic dates that will help their events be successful.”
Go to extremes. As the push-your-limits mud obstacle race genre suggests, there’s a huge market of participants who will jump at the opportunity to test their mettle. But you don’t necessarily need barbed wire or climbing walls. Just ask organizers of the Point Bock Run in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
“The Point Bock Run is one of the most popular local races, but it also brings in a lot of people from out of town,” says Melissa Sabel, director of marketing, Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The race is capped at 2,000, and usually it sells out in 24 hours. This year, it shocked everyone when it sold out in just three hours.”
The five-mile traditional out-and-back road race begins and ends at its sponsor’s doorstep—the Stevens Point Brewery. But what really gives this race its magnetic draw is its timing, taking place each year on the first Saturday in March. In Wisconsin, that means cold and snow. In 2014, the three hour sellout race, runners faced 5-degree temperatures, and only 300 of the sellout 2,000 decided not to run. Busloads of out-of-town runners still showed up despite the record low race temperatures, and the party continued.
Races that take advantage of unique local venues or courses also tend to draw more travelers, such as a number of races near Rapid City.
“Trail running has had a really big spike in numbers of late. People like to run in the elements, and here, in the Black Hills, we have a lot of beautiful places to do that,” says Domico Rodriguez, director of sports and events, Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Crazy Horse Marathon is an event that winds around the base of the Crazy Horse monument, and the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon is another popular iconic course.”
Keep it local. Even for the large, multi-city events like The Color Run, a localized approach is critical.
“Every market is pretty different. With new race directors, if they’re in a market they know well, they’re going to be a step ahead of someone coming into a new market,” says Jim Estes, director of events, USA Track & Field (USATF), the American national governing body for running events. “If you’re looking to start a new race in a market that’s not your home, getting in touch with the local running community is very important. Even for the big races you see duplicating themselves throughout the country, they rely on some level of local knowledge.”
Become a brand. XTERRA is an off-road triathlon and trail run series. By branding a race under the XTERRA banner, race directors not only get the support and marketing reach of the organization, but also association with the XTERRA brand promise.
“Except for our championships, we work with local race directors who have established their own races. There are no dictated distances or guidelines. Just run a solid event that satisfies runners,” says Emily McIlvaine, trail running series manager, XTERRA. “Tim Schroer, for example, runs Dirty Spokes in Georgia. He knows his runners better than I would ever know them. We rely on the directors’ expertise. They know the market, and that’s why the program works so well.”
A successful race doesn’t necessarily mean a big race, however. XTERRA’s trail running series includes races of all sizes.
“We have races that are 50 people, 100 people, and some that are 2,500 people,” says McIlvaine. “I don’t always think that the size of a race is the evidence of how good a race is.”
In the case of trail running, small races are often dictated by the trail itself. Certain trails require that numbers be capped. That works in favor of these races, in some cases, as well, creating a high demand. Many trail races sell out in a matter of hours, some signing up long rosters of hopeful participants (a helpful marketing tool) for race entrance lotteries.
Give racers a reason. Part of the reason that XTERRA has been successful is its points system. Each trail run offers three to seven races that runners can compete in to accumulate points towards their series championship totals. Top age group points winners receive free entry into the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship, an off-road half marathon, which will be hosted this year in Snowbasin, Ogden, Utah.
Kalamazoo, Michigan, already has a passionate running community, which is why its Borgess Run for the Health of It, which includes a marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K run, 5K walk, kids’ fun run, and motivational mile, has grown to more than 8,000 participants in its 35 years.
“One of the things we’ve been doing is the 50 State Challenge,” says Greg Ayers, president and CEO, Discover Kalamazoo. “The goal of this promotion is to secure one marathon registrant from all 50 states. We’re lucky because Kalamazoo is very strong in the running world, and we have some well-connected, great advocates.”
The Finish Line
Of all the event strategies, though, there’s one that will ensure a successful, growing event above all else, says Lamppa: Keep your customer satisfied. If you have happy racers, they will tell people. If you make your runners happy, more will come.
 “Running USA Annual Half-Marathon Report.” April 6, 2014. Running USA State of the Sport Reports.