Nine days before the New York City Marathon, the race’s director hobnobbed with King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia in the northern Spanish city of Oviedo.
“I never dreamed of going anywhere the week before [the marathon],” said Mary Wittenberg, also the CEO of the $55 million non-profit New York Road Runners, which puts on the marathon. “It tells you how significant the award is.”
Wittenberg and George Hirsch, who helped found the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, flew over to accept what’s called a Prince of Asturias Award in Spain.
The Prince of Asturias Awards are often analogized to the Nobel Prizes, bestowed for the arts, literature, sciences and, in this case quite unlike the Nobel Prizes, in sports.
This year, the Prince of Asturias Foundation honored an event – the New York City Marathon — rather than an athlete or team for the second time since the sports award was established in 1987.
“Since its creation in 1970, when only 127 runners participated, it has become the foremost popular race of its kind, symbolizing coexistence between amateur and professional sport at its best, with more than 50,000 competitors taking part in last year’s race,” the foundation said in announcing the marathon as its recipient. “This ultimate expression of sport, citizen involvement and the spirit of solidarity is reflected on the first Sunday in November each year in a tradition boasting major media coverage, in which the entire city is infused with collective enthusiasm to run the legendary 42 kilometres and 195 meters.”
Frank Shorter would highlight the term “citizen involvement.”
Shorter, the mustached 1972 Olympic marathon champion, is largely credited with inspiring America’s first running boom 40 years ago. Thin, shirtless males in nylon shorts took to the streets.
But what does Shorter see as citizen distance running today?
“The theme of your article,” Shorter answered, “is the inclusion keeps expanding.”
Runners were more competitive four decades ago. The average U.S. men’s marathon finish time in 1980 was 3:32:17, according to Running USA. Last year, it was 4:16:24.
They were also more male. Women weren’t allowed to race the Boston Marathon until 1972. This April, 45 percent of the Boston finishers were female. The audience for Runner’s World magazine is slightly more female than male, editor-in-chief David Willey said.
Shorter and industry experts cited a second running spike about 15 years ago, after those fast, early male boomers had aged. More women who grew up after Title IX joined the movement. Some were run/walkers. Many were about completing races rather than competing.
“The term I use is for [the second boom] is running for other people and other reasons,” Shorter said.
One of the top New York City Marathon charities, Fred’s Team, was founded in 1995 and has raised over $57 million for cancer research.
Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki will run Sunday’s marathon to support Team for Kids, an organization that promotes children’s fitness that’s in its 13th year. She’s raised more than $75,000 so far.
Now, Shorter sees a third evolution as records were set in 2013 for marathon finishers (541,000) and races (1,100) in the U.S. More runners are entering races of all distances for the experience.
“Getaway trips for people to meet at cool destinations,” Willey said. “Do a race, and also go out and have a great dinner. And do whatever things are in whatever city you’re at.”
Some call them “lifestyle runners.”
“Get in a room with 100 people, and you can’t tell which ones are runners,” said John Bingham, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series’ principal race announcer for the last 10 years. “They don’t have shoes in the trunks of their cars. They don’t wear running shorts for seven years before washing them.”
There are more options than ever for all types of runners with the proliferation of themed events such as Spartan Races, Color Runs and Tough Mudders. Those “non-traditional” race finishers outnumbered marathon and half marathon finishers for the first time last year, according to Running USA.
If there is a struggle, or a challenge, or an obstacle, associated with the expanding inclusion of citizen involvement, it is the even steeper increase in events.
“A saturation,” Shorter said.
Shorter recently was in Georgia to appear at a road race, and the event’s name temporarily escaped him. So he Googled to find a website that aggregated races, searched for all 5Ks and 10Ks within a 50-mile radius of Atlanta and found 25 pages of results.
Some traditional road races that used to sell out aren’t reaching capacity. Others have been discontinued. Even in the highly publicized Rock ‘n’ Roll series, several cities are no longer hosting events, mostly because of low participation and lack of local support, they say.
“It’s like New York restaurants,” Bingham said. “The good ones will always be there, but the bistros that serve lousy sandwiches, they’re not going to survive.”
What makes an event great is more complicated, too. Bingham remembered hearing a recent complaint from a finisher not satisfied with the race’s entertainment.
“Imagine [three-time New York City Marathon winner] Alberto Salazar coming across the finish line and saying the band sucked,” Bingham said.
Traditional race organizers are trying to keep up. Wittenberg pointed to the pre-race expo evolving into a pre-race party, such as beer and bands at Brooklyn Bridge Park for three days before the Brooklyn Half in May.
Another growing group are variant seekers going beyond the 26.2-mile threshold.
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“They’re like, everybody and their mother is finishing marathons, where do I turn to be on the leading edge and put myself out there a little more?” Willey said. “They’re turning towards ultras.”
Ultramarathon races can last up to and over 100 miles or 24 hours.
In August, a barefoot bartender from Savannah, Ga., with three years of running experience broke the world record for largest distance covered without shoes in one day — 137 miles on a domed Alaska track.
The Badwater Ultramarathon brags that it’s “the world’s toughest foot race.” It’s 135 miles, in Death Valley, in mid-July.
Jenny Hoffman, a Harvard associate professor of physics, had Badwater on her bucket list until two years ago. That’s when Michael Popov, a man who set a record by finishing a 222-mile race in four days, 5 hours, 25 minutes, died on a six-mile solo run in 120 degrees in Death Valley.
Still, Hoffman lives for ultras. The mother of three won the women’s division of the NorthCoast 24-Hour Endurance Run in Cleveland on Sept. 20-21 by running just over 127 miles.
“I’m not a talented runner,” Hoffman said. “I really love the running itself.”
Hoffman jokes that when she was in elementary school, when kids misbehaved, they were sent to run around a pond. She was the slowest.
She was barely talented enough to earn a high school varsity letter in track. A Harvard Crimson rower, she took one long training run as a senior and entered the Philadelphia Marathon.
“In contrast to crew, you weren’t trying to kill your competitors,” said Hoffman, a 1999 Harvard grad..
She liked that. So, when Hoffman encountered a “grad school mid-life crisis” in her third year at the University of California, she did an Ironman triathlon. Out of that, she preferred running over swimming and biking. Two years later, she signed up for her first 100-mile race and was hooked.
“I value something where if I work really hard, I know that it will pay off,” said Hoffman, a mother of three who takes her 5- and 8-year-olds for weekend 5Ks. “In the real world, there are so many things where that doesn’t always correlate. It doesn’t always correlate in ultra running, either — you could have a bad weather day, trip or sprain an ankle — but there’s a more reliable correlation than in some areas of professional life.”
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Bill Cuthbert, who started running 10 years ago as a slightly overweight 25-year-old, has done six 100-mile races and one 24-hour race.
He said there’s a “weird line” that separates marathons from ultras. In marathons, you run until you fall apart. In ultras, you run until you fall apart, but there’s more race left.
“There’s a death and rebirth,” he said. “That feeling of coming back together is so powerful.”
The New York City Marathon race director is most impressed, out of all races outside the five boroughs, by another ultramarathon, the Comrades Marathon (56 miles) in South Africa. It is the world’s oldest (since 1921), largest (18,000 runners) and, many say, greatest ultramarathon.
“It’s an event that captures the imagination of people,” Wittenberg said.
Frank Shorter will spend the New York City Marathon weekend in Springfield, Mo., appearing at the Bass Pro Conservation Marathon to benefit the Ozark Greenways.
He gets out to about 15 races per year, events such as the Bolder Boulder. That Colorado 10K, which he co-founded, draws even more runners than the New York City Marathon.
Shorter’s message to Boulder’s elite racers at the beginning was simple: You are not that important.
“The reason the advertisers and sponsors are interested in this race,” Shorter said, “are all the people running behind you.”