Sociability, Race Numbers, and Side Shows in Road Races

Mark Heinicke is the Associate Editor of Road Race Management and is responsible for most of the statistical surveys that appear in the newsletter. Mark has followed the sport as a participant and a writer for over 40 years. With gimpy knees forcing him on to a bicycle in recent years, he observes running in a frequently more detached but analytical manner, which provides a fresh perspective for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in the trenches.

Running USA’s CEO Rich Harshbarger, observing the rise in participation in turkey trots, noted “the sport of running is increasingly social. . . .”

Part of what attracts runners to turkey trots—even in thirty-degree weather—is that Thanksgiving is inherently a very social occasion all in itself. Even if the uncles get to bickering about politics before they sit down to dinner.

The “increasingly social” aspect has been implicit in what’s going on in road racing, but Harshbarger’s making it explicit as a draw for races got me to thinking about the concern for numbers. You may have heard that the Madison Marathon has boasted a one percent increase in participation, touting that it bucks the trend of declines in participation that have been “as much as nine percent.” If a one percent increase can be celebrated as a big achievement, then the sport really has fallen upon hard times.

The “as much as nine percent” drop between 2013 and 2015 comes from Running USA’s aggregation of all races, including ones that don’t belong in the category of “traditional” events. For the latter, we recently published in the RRM newsletter our findings that for traditional races, at least those with fields over 4,200, that drop was more like three to four percent. Unfortunately, based on recent results, the trend has not seemed to level off in 2016. Stay tuned.

Back to social. You can’t beat Thanksgiving for sociability, but what big race now is not packed with electronic social thingamajiggies to enhance the race experience on the social side?  Can there be anything new in this domain? Say, a Pokemon-Go of road racing? (Inadvisable on the race course, but as a sideshow.) If you can’t run the race distance, or you can’t even get into the race, maybe you could have a treasure hunt, an informal competition on the side. Something for spectators, friends, and family to indulge themselves in while their loved ones toil through the big miles. “Hey, Dad, you came in tenth in your age group, but I won a stuffed Donald Trump doll in the treasure hunt.” The treasure hunt would be captured on cell phone cameras of course, to be enjoyed over dinner (by those not texting through dinner).

Of course some races with lotteries and waiting lists have little need to boost their numbers—applications always beat the cap—but a sociable semi-competitive sideshow might work for some events that have been in decline and have the kind of infrastructure convenient for such an addition.

If this all sounds a bit facetious, let’s dwell on a more serious topic in which we can be truly thankful: no terrorist attacks on any Thanksgiving event just past, running or otherwise.  There are so many kinds of misery the that terrorists can inflict. Is race participation falling off on account of terrorism? What impact might the Boston Marathon bombing have had on participation numbers?

Gee, here I thought I’d be writing about a light topic!  So it goes in 2016.

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