1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.
1972 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter.

The running boom is over, and you can blame the millennials.  So says an article in the Wall Street Journal quoting statistics from, among others, Running USA showing a significant slide in running event participation from the peak of 19 million in 2013 to 17 million in 2015. 

With running being one of the few recession-proof industries during the height of the 2008 Great Recession, a headline like this and its supporting statistics might come as a shock to some.  But it was only a matter of time before this bubble burst, too.

 The oldest of the baby boomers are now 70 and beginning the long generational bleed out. Gen Y is still involved, but the Miilenials are off into something else, reflecting the natural rebellion one generation mounts against their elders – “this isn’t music!” But in this case it’s also a consequence of teaching an entire generation not to compete, drilling into their skulls the idea that every one of them is special and a winner, giving them all medals for showing up, and leading them to believe that 60% of them deserve an A for “just being you!” before shoving them out into a decidedly Darwinian world. Oops, I guess we didn’t prepare them very well. 

Manifest Destiny
Manifest Destiny

What’s particularly amazing about this is America was built on competition. From the hand-over-fist pioneer spirit that drove Manifest Destiny westward (not saying it was a good or moral thing, just noting a hard-charging, can-do national spirit), to the high-risk, big-reward entrepreneurial spirit that created the greatest economic engine in history, America thrived on competition. 

I remember being at a Super Bowl party one year, and explaining to a German friend how USA Today would rank the commercials in tomorrow’s paper, not just not write about the game. Her reply was a tersely Teutonic, “everything with you Americans is competition.” And I had to agree. “That’s how we know we’re American.  Maybe not totally self-aware, but goin’ after it with refreshing vigor.”

But sometime in the 1990s we began leveling not just the playing field, but the results’ page. Now, instead of everyone getting the same opportunity at the start and an outcome determined by individual achievement, we began engineering the same outcome for all.  Nike’s famous slogan “Just Do It” inferred striving, but soon simply doing became the functional equivalent of doing well. 

Everyone is a winnerThese days, everything has to be social and protected and non-competitive until the inevitable softening begins to show.  But rather than do something about it, we began to salute what we had with plus-size models and wider coffins. Finally, competition is viewed as a destructive force.  Only then do we begin to see how a backlash can form, leading to the rise of a very unconventional candidate who trumpets a return to a greatness now gone. 

But these are the sweeps of history at play, the larger changes that only become apparent after they show up as data points. 

For the Baby Boom generation running toward self-fulfillment was in its own way a backlash against the sit-ins and marches they staged during their college days when they thought they could change society at-large. In the wake of their fractured idealism they were shown a new path by Frank Shorter at the ’72 Olympic Marathon in Munich. 

Inspired by Shorter, and informed by new medical studies led by Ken Cooper in Dallas, the Boomers began working on the one thing they had any chance of changing, themselves. But in reducing the fight to an internal one-on-one battle, in their aggregate the generation did in fact help change the world. 

And now the world is changing again as time first begins to march, then trot, then run flat out until it’s away and gone. 


10 thoughts on “POP GOES THE BOOM!

  1. Finisher medals (i.e., rewards simply for participating) were the norm long before the millennials came along. That was supposedly one of the pros associated with running – one was competing against himself/herself as opposed to direct competition against others. I think Toni makes some good points, but it may be an oversimplification to tie the running bubble to one specific group of individuals.

    1. Eltjim

      I didn’t mean to suggest that finishers medals were at the root cause of the drop in numbers, or that the millennials alone can be blamed. It’s a combination of factors, as most things are. It’s the baby boomers having come through the system and now leaving, the millennials picking up on something else, and the GEN Y crowd still moving through. Running icing dying, merely resizing. Though it may have reached its peak, it will remain strong and robust as the most inclusive and easily accessible fitness option of al. Thanks for reading and responding.


      1. Toni,

        Appreciate the insightful response. Definitely agree with your observation “…[running] will remain strong and robust as the most inclusive and easily accessible fitness option of all.” Keep up the great work.


  2. Ken Cooper’s “12 miles a week, at a maximum” recommendation may have begun what Galloway followed with. Perhaps the Olympics will create a 3rd running revolution, though I wonder what NBC will show other than T&F, swimming, and triathlon (many shots of the beaches, golf, tennis, etc.?).
    What if Rupp medals in the marathon, for example, or Shalane/Desi/Amy in the women’s marathon?

  3. Toni, get out of my head, and stop reading my mind!

    Seriously, your third paragraph sums it up for me perfectly, and it’s practically verbatim of what I am preaching to anyone who will listen to me.

  4. Toni, I hear what you’re saying in regards to participation medals and such. However, I think your choice of Manifest Destiny as a way of showing the American “competitive sprit” misses the mark completely. Manifest Destiny might be a better analogy if you were talking about PED use that is rampant in modern athletics. When you speak of Manifest Destiny, do you mean the times when land was unjustly taken (often violently) from Native Americans? What about the “Sooners” in Oklahoma (previously “Indian Territory”) who jumped the gun to claim land before other settlers could even start? We could also talk about the Homestead Act where free land was given to settlers (regardless of who it originally belonged to) in the West. In fact, that might be a good analogy for the participation medals you speak of.

    Nonetheless, in regards to your larger point, as hard as a pill as it is for me to swallow, the various running events that we see nowadays all encourage people to get off their butts and run (or trot, or walk). These type of runs used to really annoy me, but when I really thought about it, I changed my tune. One can complain about people’s lack of activity and “plus-size models” (written in poor taste, by the way), but these events help to combat that. Whether it be a color run, mud run, bubble run, or whatever random theme they might choose, these events all get people out the door and on their feet. A few years ago, I did a mud run with my cousin, who normally doesn’t run. It hurt like hell (similar to an 800), but we had fun! I was pissed because I placed second, but had no idea until after the race due to the random start waves. The competitor in mean wanted to win. 😦 The purists (myself included) would love to see these events timed and run like a real race, but 99.9% of the participants could give a crap about their time. They’re there to have fun and be with their friends–and they’re exercising. At the mud run I met a woman in her sixties(?) who looked like one of the people you mocked (plus-size?) who said she does a run like this or a 5k with her adult children at least once a month. They bond and they exercise as a family, and because of it, will likely have more years of their lives to spend together.

    Runners, like us, want others to love the *sport* as much as we do. But just as people playing pick-up basketball at the park could give a crap how much work great basketball players put in, people doing color runs (including millennials) have no concept of nor care about how much time, effort, and talent it takes to be a great runner. They’re just there to get off their butts and have some fun.

    1. Obesity rates continue to rise, particularly among children…so it would seem that all the color/fun/bubble/mud runs aren’t doing a whole lot of good. If people want to “get off their butts and have some fun” they can go to a street fair or a concert with their friends and family. Whatever limited exercise they’re getting walking/jogging, including all the stops to take selfies and get refreshments would seem to be counter-productive. I’m with Toni on this one, and have been for a long time. Yes, we have Jeff Galloway to thank, or not, for making people believe that they could walk and jog a marathon and finish in as fast a time as if they had run or jogged the entire way. Galloway’s program was the beginning of the end of competitive running.

      1. There are so many factors that contribute to obesity in our current day and age. People being glued to their electronic devices, the cutting of physical education from school programs, and food deserts are just a few contributing factors. If you controlled for “fun runs”, I’m sure we’d still see a similar (or worse) increase in obesity among adults, as well as children. In fact, there’s little chance kids are going to do these types of runs in large numbers due to the high cost associated with them. Yet those kids who lack physical activity as youngsters might be inclined to do these types of social activities that involve running as adults.

        My gripe here is that we tend to take an elitist view towards these type of things because they’re not “real” running, which quite honestly, is due to insecurity. Do you think anyone of these people is going to start running when you tell them about the 20-mile marathon workout you did last week? Or the 22-mile long run you did to prep for your sub-3 marathon? Hell no! Why would they? In fact, why would we expect someone who is not a runner to suddenly dedicate large portions of their weekly routine to running–it’s just too damn hard and time consuming. A fun run, on the other hand, is more likely to get people to take that first step towards running, and who knows, maybe one day they’ll put in 40-mile weeks and run in a marathon.

        Competitive running is a niche sport. Sure, I wish your average Joe knew the amount of time, dedication, and energy it takes to race a marathon. I wish people knew that no, he does get tired, but he’s prepared himself to run fast in a fatigued state for a long time. But our sport has a long way to go, and fun runs are not what is getting in the way of that. I love what Toni does for our sport, and I wish the powers that be had their crap together enough to help long distance-running *really* boom; but the likelihood of that happening is slim to none right now. Too many people set in their ways, unwilling to change with the times and do what it takes to capture new audiences.

        When it comes down to it, the 5-hour marathoners make it possible for the elites to get the money they deserve (in travel, appearance fees, and prize purses). The more Gallowalkers there are, the more money that can trickle down to the “real” runners that are putting in the work to be the best they can be. Someone “merely” finishing a marathon doesn’t take away from those of us who are/were trying to compete against others and ourselves. Their accomplishments in no way take away from mine even if our finishing medals are the same.

        P.S. I do understand some of the complaints in regards to the vanity that accompanies running these days. Sadly, that occurs in all facets of life. I ran NYC last fall and had to weave around way too many people who did not belong in Wave 1. In fact, I weaved around a woman who was jogging along and taking a selfie(!) as we started up the Verrazano Bridge. Should she be running the NYC marathon? Yeah, she got in. Should she have been in Wave 1? Probably not. Should she have been taking a selfie while thousands behind her kicked her heels in their 2.5+ hour trek through the streets of New York? Hell no! That’s when I really understood how much our society has changed for the worse. Anyway, I’m going to head out for my run now, but not until I color coordinate my outfit so that I can take a great running selfie. 😀

  5. Interesting points, Toni! I always wondered what Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and for that matter the Native American Indians that first welcomed the Pilgrims off the Mayflower… or at Jamestown …. thought about “the doctrine of Manifest Destiny” later on…… Myself, I am a big proponent of fitness and activity for all human beings at any age…. but also have a sacred respect for true running competitions and what true competitors do and suffer through… first in their ramp up lengthy pre-race preparation…. and then in the actual race, itself! The 2nd (or 3rd according to some parties) running boom signified more runners in the middle or back of the pack…. but way slower runners at the front. I may be an old gen runner “stuck in time”… but I never did recognize runners who “jogged a mile/walked a mile” as a “REAL MARATHONER”…. despite the book written by an old running friend of mine who was an Olympian himself. Contrary to some people’s belief… I still wanna believe that there are times when quality, not just quantity, really does matter. I still love best the guy or gal… who still tries to go faster… and not just finish the damn race!

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