The original Running Boom was a bit like the tulip-mania that gripped the Netherlands in the early 17th century, a special (speculative) bubble that grew, bloomed brilliantly, but was bound to wither away, too.
In light of that historic reference, there remains a lot of cross-talk about the recent Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona where Sara Hall ran 2:20:32, the #2 U.S. women’s marathon of all-time, and Marty Hehir led a record seven U.S. men under 2:10 with his 2:08:59.
To some, those results were ones to celebrate. To others, the times represented a pale shadow of today’s definition of world-class – it’s a 2:03 world – and didn’t even compare favorably to similar times produced 40+years ago by America’s luminaries of the original Running Boom.
It’s an ages-old inclination to compare one era with another. Among all sports, athletics and baseball, are two that have all but built on such comparisons. But in the late-20th century, baseball turned a blind eye to a Steroids Era that forever separated itself from its noble (if racist) past, a consequence of America‘s growing fascination with football over the pastoral, 19th-century charms of baseball.
For its part, running is currently going through another such separation with its own past via shoe technology, a consequence of business sponsorships overriding governing oversight.
The original “running boom”, which I define as spanning 1972-1985, from Frank Shorter’s Olympic Marathon win in Munich to Joan Benoit Samuelson’s American Marathon record run in Chicago, was, like the tulip mania that hit the Netherlands in the 17th century. Tulips had skyrocketed in price so dramatically that a future’s market arose with some single tulip bulbs selling for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsworker.
America in the 1970s contained a huge new generation coming of age in a time of jaundiced idealism and restless experimentation, hungry for a new expression of living. For many, running filled that hunger.
The societal circumstances that led to those bubbles, however, were one-offs, and not likely to be recreated. As such, comparing today’s flower prices and marathon performances with yesteryear’s is unfair.
Yes, a sub-2:10 marathon today isn’t on par, record-wise, with Bill Rodgers’ 2:09:55 in Boston 1975 when the world record stood at 2:08:34. But what has to be taken into consideration is how the base of a pyramid will define its height. The broader the base, the higher the peak, and in the original boom years, there was a much wider sub-elite category driving the top to their peak than there is today.
The reason records weren’t set was a product of the system in place. Small financial rewards encouraged numerous competitions, which were staged on difficult courses without the service of pacemakers. Winning was the thing, the time is just what it took.
In the boom years, it wasn’t the Shorters and Rodgers who defined the game. They may have represented it, but the people who defined it were the vast army of 2:30, 2:40, and sub3:30 marathoners who followed in behind them. The culture of running was defined by speed throughout the ranks.
At the same time, college tuitions and housing costs were a pittance of today’s prices, and Title IX legislation had yet to hollow out men’s collegiate track programs, meaning there were a vast number of young strivers (mostly men) given the chance to explore something as financially inconsequential but soulfully rewarding as running for a spell. Read Bob Hodge’s resonant Tale of the Times: A Runner’s Story to get a feeling for that bohemian era.
On top of which, back in the boom years the best runners in the world were all still grouped in a pack.
I recall how University of Oregon roommates Alberto Salazar and Rudy Chapa, two American kids who grew up at sea-level, would get up every morning in Eugene to go train with the goal of trying to be the best runners in the world, and with that goal at least being a possibility. And that was when they were competing against the likes of Henry Rono and Suleiman Nyambui, two of the greatest runners of their era.
It was only after the East Africans got serious about distance training, became well-coached (if not well something elsed), that they separated themselves from the rest of the planet. Today, even former running hotspots like Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico have cooled on the sport. The fact that America can still generate any interest in top-end running is noticeable and worth applauding.
The physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of running haven’t changed at all from the boom years to today. What hasn’t kept pace are the financial benefits that make it possible or even sensible to follow such a career path.
Yes, the money is better than it was in the 1970s and ‘80s. And God knows, its enough to change lives as a career choice along the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. But that is like the last lone tulip-blossoming bubble in the 21st century of the sport.
That’s why I don’t try to compare one era to another. And why whenever people run up to their potential they should be applauded in their own time not someone else’s.