BOSTON EFFECT ON RACE PARTICIPATION

Bolder Boulder 10K

Bolder Boulder 10K

   

It’s been six weeks since the bombings at the Boston Marathon, time enough for the first rush of emotions to have run their course, and for cooler more reasoned calculations to resume.  Just yesterday, Marc Fucarile, 34, a roofer from Stoneham, Massachusetts, was released from Mass General, the last victim to be released from hospital into whatever semblance of normal now awaits him after the loss of his right leg.

And so as we settle into this brave new post-Boston 2013 world, the question arises like the morning sun, what is the new normal?  In that light I was intrigued to read the Boulder Daily Camera article following Memorial Day’s Bolder Boulder 10K.  In its story the Daily Camera quoted race director Cliff Bosley saying he thought the tragedy at Boston contributed to fewer people participating in Boulder this year, as entrants were down 5.7% from 51,681 in 2012 to 48,741 on Monday.

“I think some people made the decision not to come,” Bosley told the Daily Camera. “Just, ‘Let’s take a year off and see how it plays out’.”

Immediately, I wondered A) was it true that Boston was the cause for the drop off?  B) if so, is Boulder an anomaly?  C) Did Bosley overlook other potential factors?  Or, D) is there evidence of similar declines in race registration or finishers which might be attributed to The Boston Effect?  I made some calls to the other major races that followed Boston on the calendar.   Here is some of what I learned.

LILAC BLOOMSDAY 12K – MAY 5TH – SPOKANE, WASHINGTON

Bloomsday Founder, Don Kardong

Bloomsday Founder, Don Kardong

In 1996 Spokane’s Lilac Bloomsday 12K hosted 61,298 runners, the second largest race field in U.S. history.  This year Bloomsday was scheduled just three weeks after Boston, just close enough to feel the warmth of brotherly support, but far enough past for its runners to sense the chill of concern.

Don Kardong, founder and race director for the Lilac Bloomsday 12K, was not only an Olympic marathoner in 1976, but has long been one of the most astute chroniclers of the sport.  When asked about any Boston effect on Bloomsday, Don was unequivocal, and closely matched Cliff Bosley’s observation in Boulder that there was a direct correlation between the Boston tragedy and the influx of race registration in Spokane.

“Take a step back,” Don began.  “We had been down for four or five years from 2003 to 2007 to about 44,000 runners. Then in 2008 we started a growth trend where we grew 3000 per year. That continued through 2011. Then in 2012 we were down a bit, but we really don’t know why our numbers went up or why they went down. What we do know is that we were getting a graph of our entries (this year), and they were tracking right on line with last year until the incident at Boston.  Suddenly, the numbers dipped.  It was very clear that spooked some people, about as clear as trends get.

“But then it got interesting.  The weather was so good the week before the race that our numbers began to rebound due to the weather.  But it could also be because of the publicity to insure that security was in place. I remember answering e-mails right after Boston, and you could feel the fear in them.”

RITE AID CLEVELAND MARATHON & 10K (HALF & 5K, TOO) – May 19th

Cleveland Impressario Jack Staph

Cleveland Impressario Jack Staph

A tour staple for 36 years, Cleveland’s largest event is a bellwether for all of Ohio.  This year Cleveland’s executive race director Jack Staph pointed to an overall increase in numbers to nearly 22,000, in spite of a slight decline of 200 or so in the marathon.  But it wasn’t the increase that he’d hope for or expected.

“It’s interesting,” said Staph as he considered his response.  “In April we were projecting an increase of 1500 to 2000, but we didn’t get it.  We were up in all categories except the marathon, but we only picked up 500-600 total over last year. I can’t attribute that to Boston alone — maybe a little.  We had a price break on our entry fee in mid-April and we had a small jump there, but smaller than usual. Then we sent out an email telling people that our registration would end Sunday night the week before the marathon. We usually see a 4 to 5% jump after that email, but this year it went flat.

“Some of that may be that Active.com had a problem from 9 p.m. till midnight that Sunday.  Also, in 2012 we had a very hot day, and a week out they began forecasting another hot day for 2013. That might have discouraged some people. So Boston, I would say, only affected us a little bit.”

Bay to Breakers 12K     BAY TO BREAKERS 12K – MAY 19TH –  SAN FRANCISCO

One of the oldest, most colorful and freedom-loving road races in America is San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers 12K.  In 1986 110,000 people reportedly ran the carnival-like event, making it the largest race in U.S. history.

According to DeeDee Taft of Spin Communications, spokesperson for the race, “Yes, our number of registered runners was off slightly, and yes, although we have no direct proof, it seems that it (Boston) has had an effect.

“The Bay to Breakers registered participants for 2013 was a few hundred under the 2012 figure of 30,000. The biggest challenge for our race is that this longtime San Francisco tradition, more than 100 years old, has another 50,000-70,000 runners/spectators/fans that just join in without registering. We did have some inquiries from participants after the Boston incident, inquiring about their safety, etc. and that’s why the lower 2013 registration is being attributed to the Boston tragedy.

“Working with the SFPD, we had to limit the size of the backpacks people could carry, and received some unpopular feedback because of that request. We did run several value added pre-race promotions that allowed for discounted registration fees that were well received, so we are thinking that the Boston tragedy was top of mind, and most likely deterred some from registering and participating.”

ROCK `N` ROLL – SAN DIEGO – JUNE 2ND

CGI Senior VP, Tracy Sundlun

CGI Senior VP, Tracy Sundlun

This weekend the 16th Rock `n` Roll Marathon & Half-Marathon will be staged in San Diego, the original Rock `n` Roll destination race.  Competitor Group senior vice-president Tracy Sundlun told me that while some of their RnR events are up in numbers and some are down, none can point back to Boston as a contributing factor in any decline.

“There is always a reason why,” agreed Sundlun, “but the devil is in the details.  In fact, in the first week after Boston we had a surge in entries across the board.  I would say there was a ‘Don’t mess with us’ attitude.  ‘We want to do what we want to do, where we want to do it, and when we want to do it, and that is run.’

“People have asked what our security is, and clearly, there is a segment of the population that is anxious. But at every major event there is an event and public agency discussion about all sorts of emergency management issues.  Generally, the thought process is something you don’t tell people about. But now people want to hear about it. But I think Boston has had the opposite effect. Why not in Boulder?  There has to be something else driving those numbers.”

WHAT ELSE?

One factor worth considering is cost of entry. After all, at $59 Boulder’s lowest-level entry fee is on the high end of the non-marathon event fees.  So, too, is Bay to Breakers pricey at $58.  By contrast Bloomsday’s lowest entry fee is a modest $17.  But when Don Kardong in Spokane can pinpoint the exact date when race registration dipped – just as Cliff Bosley had in Boulder – then price alone is not the answer.

Next I wondered if Boulder’s Memorial Day calendar placement might have made some people skittish given that the Boston tragedy took place on Patriot’s Day, a minor, yet well recognized local holiday commemorating the opening battle of the American Revolution.  Perhaps the major holiday theory will have to wait till the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4th to plot another point on the graph.

CALENDER SATURATION

Then it occurred to me that the Boston Effect might actually be masking another, larger trend, the peak of the second running boom, or if not the peak, then the saturation.  As we recall, the first running boom came in the form of competitive racing. Then the second boom rode the wave of women’s participation.  Now, with the addition of trail running, mud running, adventure running, et al, perhaps straight up road racing, especially mega-event road racing, may have reached a tipping point.

As GoLocal wrote in response to the Daily Camera story on Bolder Boulder: “Personally I stopped running it because it’s a bear to park, take the bus, get back to the car, etc…. Zapped all the fun for me.”

“If we hadn’t had Boston, we’d have a better handle on that,” concurred Don Kardong who noted that, like Boulder, numbers in Spokane were down for the second straight year.  “Now we will have to wait till next year to find out if there is a trend there.”

In another backlash against what is perceived as event glut, citizens of South Boston recently decided to limit that number of race permits to four per year to relieve the parking woes that road closures were causing the local citizenry.  Finally, Jack Staph of Cleveland pointed out, “We’ve seen a 305% increase in participation over the last 10 years. At some point you can’t continue that kind of growth.”

By John Hanc

By John Hanc

My colleague John Hanc of Newday, Runner’s World, etc. instant messaged me after reading the Boulder Daily Camera story. In fact, his prod is what led to this post.

“Now I have to say here in NY — arguably a much bigger target than Boulder –there has been no evidence that the bombings have had any effect on participation. Race numbers are as strong as ever. Anecdotally, I don’t know one runner who has expressed concern to me about participating in a race. Maybe runners in Colorado are far more terrorized than us here. But I question that, especially when according to the article this is the second year in which participation has dipped.”

“Maybe it is an East coast, big city defiance thing,” remarked Jennifer Crandall of the Mayor’s office in Philadelphia, spokesperson for the huge Broad Street 10 Miler which was held May 5th.  “Our numbers were very supportive.  I know we were sold out.”

Yes, Broad Street was sold out, but as Running USA’s PR maven Ryan Lamppa pointed out, “they were down 2000 in finishers, just as the Indy 500 Half Marathon on May 4th was sold-out but down 1000-plus finishers.  When you see the same pattern in that many cities across the country, it looks like a small group of people in all those events entered well in advance, but then decided not to do it come race week.  But overall, the vast majority showed up and ran.”

Which brings us full circle to the constant tension between emotion and reason

Carey Pinkowski, Chicago Marathon

Carey Pinkowski, Chicago Marathon

“Remember that our race was less than a month after 9/11 in 2001,” said Bank of America Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski.  “And 9/11 was the end of the world.  But we had our biggest event ever to that point. The response was unbelievable.

“My response would be, ‘I got it, let’s raise money, and think of those we lost, but let’s get back to who we are’.  If we keep elevating it (the bombing) by how we respond, we buy into the whole marketing plan. It’s like people running out onto the field at the Cubs game to get on television. When they stopped showing people who ran out onto the field on TV, people stopped doing it.  I think Boston’s ultimate goal is to get back to what Boston has always been, a celebration of the best where it is hard to qualify, and the course is physically demanding.   Terrorism disrupts the way we think, and how we react can perpetuate it.”

Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Marathon, hadn’t had a free moment since that fateful afternoon of April 15th until week before last when one of his sons graduated from St. Lawrence University.

“We have been so focused here, that I haven’t been able to travel to other races as we’ve been mostly attending to our runners,” Grilk told me. “The support we’ve received from around the world has been unbelievable, but it was good to get away and just talk Stanley Cup playoffs for a change.

B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk

B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk

“We don’t know what the 2014 Boston Marathon is going to look like yet.   As always we will work in cooperation with all our cities and towns.  But what I can say is that the core principle is that it will still be the Boston Marathon, with a respect for history – though the bombing is now a part of that history.  But it won’t change the essential  nature of the event.”

The only hard data Grilk could point to judge runner support was the one-day sell out for the June 23 BAA 10K, the second race in their Distance Medley linking the BAA 5K on marathon weekend with the 10K and the BAA Half-Marathon in October.

“It is only in its third year,” explained Tom,  “but we never sold it out the previous two years. This was the first time, and we had to close registration around 6 p.m. It was a one-day event.”

As always, regardless the effect Boston’s bombing might have on the sport, the act of running itself remains our best teacher.  Recall that in the aftermath of 9/11 the NFL suspended its full schedule the following weekend as football’s platform of violence and format of metaphoric war was deemed inappropriate and even unseemly under the circumstances. But the Philadelphia Distance Run went on as scheduled five days after 9/11.  Football may have been seen as trivial, but running remained redolent of resolve, dedication and the community of man.

“There will always be a small percentage of people who are extra cautious,” concluded Ryan Lamppa, “people who take wait and see approach.  But fear only brings short term results; its victories are Pyrrhic.  Over time people rally and respond.”

In both training and racing one is confronted with an ongoing process of good patch, bad patch and the fluctuations between the two.  The lesson learned is that you don’t get too excited during the good patches, nor let your dauber sink too low during the bad ones.  Boston Effect notwithstanding, the runs and races will continue, as ever, for that is where many souls seek solace and where people find purpose in communion with one another.

END

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2 thoughts on “BOSTON EFFECT ON RACE PARTICIPATION

  1. Toni,

    I’m curious to see what happens in New York this year, namely after last year’s disaster, followed by the tragedy at Boston this year. Put mildly, it’s been a bad 12 months for World Marathon Majors.

    Personally, I’m still of the mind that New York should have gone on last year after Superstorm Sandy, just as you mentioned above how the Philadelphia Distance Run went on as scheduled five days after 9/11.

    Running heals.

    • Brian,

      Perhaps a better barometer will be Chicago, the first World Marathon Major in the U.S. after Boston. The influence of Boston on New York might be muddied by the return of NY from its cancellation due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In both cases, and with Peachtree on July 4th, we should discover whether a trend has begun.

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