Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What Happened to the Running Boom

114th Boston Marathon

Chris Solinsky finally takes the American 10000 meter record under 27 minutes. Nearly 17 years after the world record first dipped under 27 - 26:58.38, Yobes Ondieki, Oslo, July 11, 1993. Almost 38 years after Frank Shorter became the first American to break the 28 minute mark – 27:58.2 at the Games  in Munich, August 31, 1972. The same Games where Shorter won the marathon – and began what was supposed to be a revolution.

Yet last month we had another Boston Marathon – our national biggie -  and once again there was another Kenyan victory. As a matter of fact Kenyans have won 18 of the last 23 Boston Marathons. A streak that clearly has some people upset. While I too am disappointed in our performance in Boston, I’m not sure that marathons/road racing are the bell weather of the state of track and field in America. Because road racing and track and field don’t seem to be related in this country.

Ironically, when one looks at road races in America, road racing is alive and well! Just about every major city in America plays host to a marathon: Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and on and on. As a matter of fact, there are over 100 marathons across the country listed on between now and the end of June! That’s just marathon’s! That doesn’t include half marathons and 10K’s of which there are many. So people ARE running.

That’s what Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers spurred back in the 70’s when Frank won marathon gold and silver in Munich and Montreal, and Bill won the Boston Marathon in ‘75/’78/’80 and the New York Marathon in ‘76/’77/’78/’79. That combined with the fervor of the exploits of the legendary Steve Prefontaine and the “Running Boom” was born in America. A boom that it was thought was going to lead to more gold, faster records, and a slew of Prefontaine’s across America – Solinsky, Tegenkamp, Rupp and Ritzenhein are supposed to be as common as American sprinters! Yet while we have millions running marathons, half marathons and 10ks all across America, and arguably our biggest invitational event on the track (Prefontaine Classic) bears the name of America’s greatest distance icon, we have been sorely lacking in successful distance runners when it comes to international competitions. Why?

Well, I think the answer lies in the nature of the “Boom” itself. Because after watching the exploits of Prefontaine, Rodgers and Shorter millions took to the streets and roads to – run. Everyone felt like he/she could run, and so they did. You see it was a “Running” Boom, not a “Racing” Boom. The Boom that was thought to produce a string of elite distance runners, instead produced millions of recreational runners. So while we only have a single Prefontaine Classic, there are tons of runs like: “Run for the Cure”, “Bay to Breakers”, “Run for Living Green”, “Aid Africa 5K”, and many many others all across the country.

Running has become a huge recreational endeavor. To the point of spurring the creation of magazines such as Runners World, Running Times, Women’s Running, and others. The sale of running shoes is a multi billion dollar industry, and there are running stores such as Fleet Feet and The Runners Depot that specialize in nothing but shoes and running equipment. And there are corporations sponsoring marathons, half marathons and road races all over America. Running is HUGE in this country!

But as with “Trickle Down Economics”, we haven’t seen the results hit the track in anywhere near the same sort of numbers! Yes, we have those young people that somehow get into Cross Country in middle school or high school and then find their way onto the track. As Cross Country seems to be the competitive gateway to distance running and track racing. But the majority of “runners” never get there.

And I’m beginning to think that perhaps that is where the disconnect has come for track and field in this country. Because we’ve shown as a nation what we can do with “Running”. We’ve gotten everyone excited about running to the point where there are many more marathons, road races, and even triathlons, televised in this country than track meets! We draw huge crowds to see people run right by them and continue on for miles after we see them. Crowds that come out in the rain and the cold and all sorts of inclement conditions! Runs and Races are advertised in newspapers, in gyms, on bill boards and all over the internet. So we’ve shown that we have the ability to market “Running”.

Yet we only have a handful of major track competitions in this country and have a hard time marketing them and attracting substantial crowds! Is it because we’ve created a disconnect between the athletes and the audience? Is it because the audience has no association with sprinting, hurdling, jumping, or throwing? Have we focused so much effort on selling running as recreation that the competitive aspect has been lost? I’m not sure.

What I do know, however, is that if we transfer what we’ve learned from the roads to the track, we can finally do what it was thought the Running Boom was going to do in this country – make us competitive in distance running on the international stage. Solinsky, Tegenkamp, Rupp, Rowbury, Barringer, and Pierce were supposed to be here at least a decade ago!

It’s funny when people talk about the success of the African’s in distance running, because the first thing people want to point out is how much they run! But our roads are filled with millions of Americans doing the exact same thing – running! The difference between us and the African nations, in  my opinion,  is that they treat distance running as a national sport, while we treat it as a national hobby. There is talent out there on the roads. We just have to find it and channel it onto the track. Just like we have to channel the energy, corporate sponsorship and marketing that is going on for road racing and channel it to the track.

What happened to the Running Boom? It’s fine. It just hasn’t found it’s way to the track yet.


  1. This is not an accurate look at American distance running over the last 30 to 40 years. You need to look at the state of American distance running in the late '70s and early 80s. We did have multiple runners in the top 10 in the world in the 5K, 10K, and marathon. Craig Virgin, Bruce Bickford, Ed Eyestone, Henry Marsh--all of these guys were world ranked on the track. That happened after the running boom started, but but before the huge surge in East African success--there were good Africans then, plenty of them, but they didn't dominate like they do now--So I don't think its accurate to say that we didn't transfer the running boom to the roads--it's more that we lost our way for a while, and now the kids have had enough of being mediocre.

    And if you really want to see a decline, take a look at the fortunes of European distance running--they still seem to be on the way down.

  2. I'm quite familiar with Virgin, Marsh, Eyestone, Padilla, Centrowitz, Salazar and the guys from that era .. And if the comparison were being made with the first few years of the "Boom" there may be an argument that it was working ..

    But you have to consider that they were basically contemporaries of Shorter, et al - these guys grew up watching them .. Not much difference than say Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon coming up during the era of Mo Greene .. My point being that these kids were already in the pipe line ..

    Looking at distance running now a quarter century after Virgin, Bickford, and Eyestone very little progress has been made .. And that is the point I wanted to make ..

    Regardless of what the Africans have done in the interim, the question is what have we done .. And the answer is our progress has been far too incremental ... It shouldn't have taken us 38 years between the 28 minute and 27 minute barriers in the 10000 - irrespective of what the Africans have brought to the table ...

    And you're right about the Europeans - they are worse .. But I'm not concerned with their medal prospects ..

    At any rate, I'm ecstatic about what I've seen the past couple of seasons ... Now I would just like to see us bring the marketing and corporate support we've got on the roads to the track ...