Just seven tiny years ago, I couldn’t have told you how far the 26.2 mile beast was. I didn’t even know what 5K meant. Now, the race of epic proportions is just part of my daily life and vernacular. I used to think this made me unique, different from the crowd. I didn’t just run, I was a marathoner. In the seven years that I’ve called myself a runner, the world of running has changed pretty dramatically. I may not be as set-apart as I thought.
The registration numbers are growing tremendously as the marathon seems to be a “must-do” item on so many people’s “bucket lists.” I like the idea of more runners, but I’m not so sure the quantity increase is bringing more quality to the sport. Don’t hear me wrong, there’s room for many speeds in running, but is there room for people who don’t train properly? Is the marathon really a place for someone who doesn’t respect the distance? Bottom line: what’s happening with the marathon? What’s it becoming? And what are the side effects of all of these people taking on the once exclusive 26.2 mile race?
Research published in 2023 and reported by StrideNation.com stated that marathoners used to be one in a thousand. Now, for every 607 Americans, one of them finished a U.S. marathon in 2023. The annual report from Running USA also stated that since 2000 there has been a 47 percent increase in in the number of marathon finishers nationwide. These increases are being seen outside the charts and surveys. In 2023, the New York City Marathon had more than 47,000 finishers. This made for the largest race ever held.
Other large scale signs are being seen in what happens when marathoners attempt to sign up for the major races. In 2023, those attempting to register for the 2023 Boston Marathon crashed the race’s website and the event filled within hours. This race requires qualifying times, so not just any runner could sign up, but the number of eligible filled the slots quickly, something that rarely ever happened in recent past. This forced Boston to change their qualifying times and registration process.
The Chicago Marathon saw a sell out in 30 days in 2023, in six days in 2023, and come registration this year, the demand was so high that the servers crashed on registration day. This forced the marathon to go to a lottery system.
The trends are showing an upward progression and not just in the open registrations. The 2023 Boston registration event showed that there’s a greater number of well-trained runners wanting to run the marathon.
An expert on the topic, Phil Stewart, contributed to the recent newsletter from Road Race Management. Stewart is an analyst who researched large-event finisher data from 2023 to 2023. His findings were referenced in a RunnersWorld.com article titled, “Has the Marathon Boom Peaked?” Stewart’s conclusion basically stated that even though the events are still filling fast, the data indicates that a peak has been reached. He states that a saturation of events has increased, so participation could be spreading out. But Stewart ended by stating that the numbers were really just showing that participation is simply declining.
It’s possible that as the increase was peaking, runners across the board increased, serious and fair-weather runners alike. This would explain why a race like Boston (qualifying times required) filled up, but also shows why races like New York and Chicago (no qualifying times required for entry) are making history with their numbers, too. Is there fall-out from all these people running? Talking with a physical therapist who specializes in treating runners gave a different view of this trend.
Cody Barnett is a physical therapist in Wichita, Kansas who has been assisting athletes in their pain and injuries since 1991. When asked what he’s seeing as far as injuries related to new runners he laid it out based around local large events.
“I see at least 2-3 new patients after every big Wichita race such as the half marathon or the Prairie Fire [full marathon]. Since I specialize in treating runners, I see quite a few patients after the fact, typically due to an overuse injury such as shin splints, plantar fascitis, IT Band, or stress fracture,” said Barnett.
While these are more common injuries for a beginner, Barnett mentioned that these early injuries can be a good thing.
“As odd as it may seem, an injury can oftentimes be a blessing in disguise, especially for a new runner. If they have been training blindly and get injured, it gives me a chance to educate them on proper training principles, so that when they return to training they have less likely chance to re-injure or suffer a new injury.”
Barnett also mentioned that while healthy runners receive information, they tend to listen much closer once they’ve been injured, as it’s human nature. And while Barnett is a fan of people going after a marathon for a “bucket list” item, because it might mean getting someone off the couch, he’d rather see runners be more realistic and smart about their goals.
“A better choice for the non runner might be to start with a ‘couch to 5k’ program. I recommend people have good base mileage (typically running consistently for 12 months) before going for the marathon,” said Barnett.
Barnett knows there will be people who ignore the rules of training no matter what. The upside to this is that not everyone will get injured and hopefully some will remain active after that first finish line. Hopefully it won’t just be a check on the list and then back to sedentary life.
The marathon boom appears to still be booming. Maybe the big numbers will yield injuries from newbies who don’t train properly. Maybe smarter runners will grow from these experiences. And maybe the problem isn’t actually a problem. Afterall, I started as a no-nothing who was as foolish as could be as I slowly made it to my first finish line. If I didn’t have the first experience, how would I have learned and continued to grow into the runner I am today? As the PT put it, “most people are more apt to listen and take advice once they have suffered an injury—its human nature.”
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