Where have all the theme runs gone?
It’s actually a valid – and very timely – question.
Think back to the first decade of the new millennium. For a while there, the race calendar was filled with themed races (or, more realistically, fun runs that had a gimmick). Along the route, runners got pelted with tomatoes, sprayed with colored dye, swam through mud or dodged water balloons. Sometimes, they were supposed to run in a tutu, a bridesmaid frock or a wedding dress. Or high heels. These days, those are an endangered species. What happened?
To understand the phenomenon, it’s important to go back to the start. Starting around 2010 and extending perhaps five or more years after that, race directors were looking for a hook to get athletes to sign up. In part, it was a competitive maneuver: there were so many races running every single weekend that differentiating events became a matter of survival. And sometimes, getting people off the couch meant luring them to the start line with a fun event.
Hence, the themes. We had races in the Pacific Northwest modeled after the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona – only instead of bulls, runners tried to stay ahead of volunteers who pushed shopping carts decorated with horns, cowbells, you name it. We had runs where you wore tutus. We had runs where you dressed as a superhero, a pirate, a prom-goer, a bridesmaid or even as a bride or groom. (Shorts and sweat-wicking shirts were looked down upon, apparently).
Obstacle races weren’t just obstacle races, either. They included themes like jailbreaks, zombies, barbarians, haunted mansions, ghost-infested woods or anything else that sounded tough or interesting. At the end of one race, you could get a high-five from Chuck Norris. Or at another event, you could even run in slow-mo like they did in Baywatch.
It seemed, also, that the open road was passé. Runners had to try to make it up the steps of a skyscraper, through all levels of an entire sports stadium, through a tunnel or over a bridge. (Flat surfaces? Meh).
And every single holiday was cause for a themed run. Halloween was a free-for-all, with runs through graveyards and past supposedly haunted sites. Christmas brought the Ugly Sweater Run. Valentine’s Day brought Cupid’s Undie Run. And there were enough leprechaun- and shamrock-themed events at St. Patrick’s Day to turn the entire running industry green.
Check a race calendar today, however, and you’ll see very few themed runs. The Color Run is still going, and Cupid’s Undie Run is too, and so is the Santa Hustle. But as for the others? Not so much. Some races are offered virtually (although the concept of running alone in a tuxedo or a prom dress, for example, is less than enticing).
So what was the sea change that hit the running event industry and caused runners to revert to the regular theme-less 5Ks (you know, the ones where participants wore regular running clothes and ran for T-shirts, bananas, bottled water and the joy of the occasional random prize)?
To get to the bottom of the matter, SDM approached a few of the industry’s leaders. And according to them, it was not just one thing, but a combination, that sounded the death knell for theme runs.
“I believe there are a couple of factors at play,” said Phil Steward, editor and publisher of Road Race Management. “Prior to the pandemic, it seems like the interest in uniquely themed runs had peaked. Starting with the color runs back in 2014-2015, there was explosive growth in this genre of events. It seemed like there was a new national series of themed events launching every week. I believe there was an oversaturation of this type of events and, like many fads, once people had done one or two of them interest began to wane. Then the pandemic caused the entire sport to take a two-year time-out and interest in this type of event just hasn't rekindled.”
The reset and the subsequent change in the type of events offered also had to do with economic uncertainty. Themed races generally carried a higher registration cost, often to cover the special effects, such as colored dye or decorations along the route, or to pay for more elaborate themed apparel like shirts, hats and goggles – or to underwrite the souvenirs like wine glasses that were given out for prom- or wedding-themed runs, etc. Once the pandemic receded and people felt comfortable returning to racing, many had less money to spend.
Then, of course, those who had no concept of the need for an experienced race director jumped into the pool, thinking that all it took to put on events was a creative theme and a social media account - and that easy money would follow. Unfortunately, most knew nothing (or less than nothing) about permitting, insurance or planning, much less volunteer recruitment or reaching the racing population. Logistics, timing systems, parking, portable sanitation units, course certification, finisher medals and other aspects of putting on a race completely escaped their notice. They lacked capital to start events and underestimated the amount of lead time that would be needed; as a result, many newbie theme races never got off the ground. A few that did were colossal flops that left runners complaining.
Another factor playing into the demise, say the experts, was the fact that many runners remembered the more successful themed races as being large, busy and quite frankly, crowded – something that hadn’t been seen as a problem until after the pandemic. And with many runners having gotten used to the solitude of regular exercise, the concept of larger races had less appeal.
“Without direct data on themed events, we’re relying on anecdotal reports to support the thesis that themed races have decreased in popularity even pre-pandemic,” said Dawna Stone of Running USA. “However, preliminary results from our 2022 Global Runner Survey (the full report is coming in July) indicate that runners are gravitating towards traditional road races over all other events, which would explain why themed runs are falling behind.”
Whether the themed runs return as the force they once were is anyone’s guess. But as sports continue to rebound, it may be that those fun events have a bounce back as well.