The Marathon Still Matters

Thanks in part to the historic return of the New York City Marathon and its record 50,266 finishers, marathon participation numbers were at an all-time high for 2013. Photo: PhotoRun.net

In 2013, 1,100 U.S. marathons generated a record 541,000 finishers.

Quick history lesson: Forty-two years ago this summer, a skinny Yale graduate named Frank Shorter ran through the streets of Munich en route to the gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon, triggering a collective spark inside the American consciousness. It was one of the initial catalysts to the original running boom. Suddenly personal fitness mattered, even if it was partially borne of a feeling of nationalist zeitgeist amid the tensions of the Cold War.

Inspired by Shorter’s gold medal (and even more so by his silver medal four years later), Americans started to take up running—er, jogging as it was called back then—en masse. While running participation numbers soared, only a small percentage of those 1970s joggers actually ran marathons, mostly because it was perceived to be well beyond the limits of mere mortals. By the time Shorter took silver in the 1976 Olympics, the running boom had made recreational running a national craze. But even by that year, only 25,000 runners finished a marathon in the U.S.

But after American Joan Samuelson ran to gold in the 1984 Olympic marathon in Los Angeles—a summer games marred by the Soviet-led boycott—the spark ignited the you-can-do-it generation with the motivation to run 26.2 miles and it led to a huge influx of women marathon runners. From 1980 to 1990, U.S. marathon participation numbers increased from 143,000 to 224,000, according to stats from Running USA. By 2000, that number had soared to 353,000. Along the way, the percentage of women finishers went from 10 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 1990 to 38 percent by 2000.

Marathon participation numbers have increased ever since, but the growth slowed in recent years as plenty of other things have piqued our interests. On one end of the spectrum, half-marathon participation has skyrocketed (with an all-time high of 1.85 million finishers in 2012), which makes sense given there’s less training involved and less wear and tear on the body. The advent of shorter themed runs boomed in recent years, but longer events like Ironman triathlons and ultra-distance races have grown in size too.

By 2012, the marathon seemed to take on a slightly lesser priority to the recreational running community. But then, in the span of six months, the 2012 New York City Marathon was canceled because of a devastating storm and the 2013 Boston Marathon was disrupted by horrible acts of terrorism.

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In both cases, the running community rallied behind those cities with an inspiring energy forged from the tenacity and empowerment intrinsic to running long distances. Aside from chipping in to lend a hand, group runs and races around the country helped raised our collective spirit, not to mention money for those in need. Perhaps not surprisingly, a new surge of both national and international interest in running marathons has followed.

With the historic return of the 2013 New York City Marathon (with its record 50,266 finishers) and with the 2014 Boston Marathon on the horizon, it’s clear that what’s past is prologue. What’s old has become new again in running—or maybe it was always right there in front of us. After all, the siren call of running a marathon—still one of the most difficult single-day endurance events—remains as resolute and pure as it has ever been.

RELATED: The NYC Marathon Remains A Symbol of Strength and Unity

According to stats released on March 23 by Running USA, the marathon has never been more popular among runners. Despite several cancellations due to weather and the truncated Boston Marathon, 2013 was another record year for the marathon with more than 1,100 marathons run across the country generating 541,000 finishers. Running USA stats show the marathon finisher numbers were broken down as having 57 percent men (or an all-time high of 308,400) and 43 percent women (a new overall high of 232,600 and the highest ever percentage of women finishers). Of those runners, 47 percent, or 254,300 runners, were 40 and older—also new records highs. For 2013, the median finishing time for men was 4:16:24, while the median finish time for women was 4:41:38, both slightly faster times than in 2012.

(For 2012, it was reported that the estimated number of U.S. marathon finishers had declined from a record high 518,000 finishers in 2011 to 487,000 in 2012, but that 6 percent decrease was impacted by the cancelation of the 2012 New York City Marathon and an estimated 47,000 would-be finishers. Had New York not been canceled that year because of Hurricane Sandy, Running USA says the 2012 overall marathon finisher total would have exceeded the 2011 record of 518,000 marathon finishers.)

For more insights about marathon stats, see the entire Running USA Annual Marathon Report.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a challenge this year, consider the classic distance of the marathon. Don’t do it because it’s the hot trend, do it because you want to lower your PR, experience a new race or just put yourself to the test for the first time or for the first time in a few years.

Follow a marathon-training program and spend four to six months diligently preparing. Be relentless in your pursuit. Do all of the extra stuff—core strength work, stretching, strides and form drills. Then go lay it all on the line and run 26.2 miles like your life depends on it. Even if it’s not in Boston, Chicago or New York City, you just may find there’s nothing in all of running quite like the thrill and accomplishment of finishing a marathon.

A version of this article appears in the April 2014 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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