Notes from the Road: Finisher Numbers are Down but the Sport is Still Strong

Rich Harshbarger, Running USA
Running USA
November 7, 2017

The latest observations from around the sport of road running


Shalane Flanagan - 2017 TCS NYC Marathon ChampionFall is here and the major marathons are now put to bed, following a successful race in New York City last weekend. Before I carry on, what an inspiring and emotional race by Shalane Flanagan. Becoming the first American women to win the event since 1977, I have no doubt we will be able to point to her performance as a key turning point for American women on the international marathon stage in years to come.


As always, New York offered an unlimited supply of storylines on what makes our sport different from any other. It was an honor to be in the city to see one of our sport’s legends, Meb Keflezighi, compete in his final race as a professional. As all of us in the industry know, Meb is a class act and I have been honored to meet him and watch him compete over the last few years.


Before his last marathon through the Big Apple, Meb wrote in a note to Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray: “It has been an honor to be part of this great sport and the people involved with it. Thanks for your dedication and hard work (that) you and your team have provided for me and the many runners who perused their individual goals.”


As the 2017 road racing season draws to a close, many of us in the industry have observed yet again that the number of runners lacing up to pursue those goals continue to decline. While the final statistics will not be available for some months to come, both anecdotal evidence and available finisher totals from the first half of the year indicate that another year of falling race participation will be recorded.


Rich Harshbarger and Meb Keflezighi

Many media sources are asking: “Has running in the US peaked? Are there simply too many attractive fitness alternatives available? What exactly is going on?” These aren’t easy questions to answer, but we provide the most accurate facts available from Running USA to help guide the reporting efforts.


I learned long ago not to speculate on the reasons for the decline or on the future potential for our sport. Is our prime past? Doubtful. Are deeper and steeper declines inventible? Maybe. What I can say for sure is that double digit year-over-year growth is gone. Growth is not guaranteed in any industry. But, growth and a return to climbing participation numbers are not impossible. Like any business, industry or economy, running’s ebbs and flows are part of the anticipated cycle and should not scare us.


Today, there are more than 44 million people who classify themselves as runners or joggers, yet only 40% of them crossed a finish line. Like many products or services, this is a marketing challenge for our industry. How can your event stand out? How can you differentiate your course, your amenities, your overall event experience…not only from races near you but other destination events in your city or further beyond? Traveling to run races continues to be extremely popular, but the events attracting such “destination runners” are differentiating themselves with unprecedented creativity.


Running USA Music Licensing BenefitAs the holidays approach and we gear up for another exciting year, I want to assure you that you are not alone in facing these challenges. Running USA continues to grow and anticipate your needs. The need to license music for public broadcast during events is one example that we addressed for our membership base this year. We are also very close to offering a convenient resource for purchasing liability insurance, another member request that will add value to your participation in our organization. As always, Running USA is the industry resource for your running needs. 


To directly address the question: where are the runners going? That we want to hit head on.  More than 5,000 runners answered that critical question as part of a comprehensive recent retention survey. In February 2018 at our annual conference in Austin, Texas, we will answer that question and release key insights as to what motivates the runners of today. 


We look forward to seeing you at the Industry Conference and continuing this invaluable dialogue about the future of our sport. Thank you for your membership and participation in our organization – it is truly appreciated.


- Rich

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