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Gotta Run: Boomers, millennials and running

A recent Wall Street Journal article made me think about what is happening with racing and running, and more so what effect that the baby boom generation had on all of this. I read separately last week that a large percentage of the marathons and half marathons in South Carolina were losing participants. Still another source says that races of all distances average having 57 percent of the competitors being women. What does all of this mean, and how does it affect us locally?

I have been fortunate to spend much of my life around running, racing and everything connected. I am a full-fledged baby boomer, so I have seen the running boom from start to current. Here are some stats, none of them surprising to me.

Running USA says that the total number of race finishers has been declining since 2013 but that the total number of finishers age 45 and above has increased. Younger millennial runners, loosely defined as those born between the early 1980s and the year 2000, had a much bigger drop in race participation at 9 percent.

The first running boom took off in the mid-1970s, many of us inspired by Jim Fixx and his books on running. Running and racing at that time were highly competitive and dominated by those under age 50. At that time, those in their 50s and 60s were often told that they were too old to run. It wasn’t uncommon for a doctor to express this opinion, and there was that saying, “Running will wear your knees out!” My original knees are now approaching 77,000 miles and still going.

The baby boomers stayed with the sport throughout the 1980s and suddenly masters running took front and center. Those over age 40 competed in a separate race within a race with the popularization of special awards for the over-40 group. Some runners were glad to turn 40 so that they could compete in what was becoming the most popular class.

At the same time, the millennials were growing up to embrace a much less competitive mindset. Some even embraced the thought of not winning, but being happy with just participating or finishing. Maybe part of the fault belonged with the boomers who remained so competitive that running millennials were scared off by the thought of such intense competition.

What followed was a huge upswing in overall participation in the events where it was OK to be non-competitive. Some of the big races began to cater more toward attracting the millennials by offering finishers medals to everyone and a very festive atmosphere. The boomers were still there during the 1990s and into the new century pushing things along, and it was good time for running in general with races having good attendance and all things running such as shoes and gear selling well.

But with that new century came the millennials in large numbers choosing non-competitive exercise regimens. They flocked to color runs and mud runs and also to other types of exercise with less singular focus on running.

The Wall Street Journal thinks that the millennial participation will continue to decrease, but another strong trend made others take notice. Among those that run at least 50 times a year, the largest increase in participation was a huge 25 percent jump in runners age 65 and over.

Here is how all this is playing out both locally and nationally. Competitor Group, the organizers of the very popular Rock and Roll race series, have stopped paying appearance fees for top runners and now focus on the masses. Even the Boston Marathon lessened its qualifying standards. Our local races, especially the older ones like Winter Flight, continue to add age group awards on the upper end. The boomers are going strong, even into their 80s. The millennial age groups of the 20s and early 30s often don’t have enough participants to fill the awards. More women than men enter our competitive events, and that trend is growing. Overall race participation and number of races is decreasing locally, too.

While this is a lot to process, these trends are changing running and racing. Whether competitive or not, I enjoy seeing runners of all ages. In 10 years, there might be another cycle developing. In the meantime, just keep running!

David Freeze is a nationally certified running coach and president of the Salisbury Rowan Runners. Contact him at david.freeze@ctc.net. Learn more at www.Ulearn2run.com

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