Events

30 Moments Over The Last 30 Years That Transformed Running

Remember when Meb won the Boston Marathon?


30YEARS_OPENER

Look at a few photos from 1987, and you’ll realize how far running has come in 30 years. But what led to all those changes? In celebration of Competitor magazine’s 30th anniversary this month, we take a look at the biggest moments in the sport and the industry of running, and their impacts on the sport we love.

1987

Jackie Joyner-Kersee becomes the first female runner to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. The three-time Olympic gold medalist in the heptathlon and long jump was voted the greatest female athlete of all-time, becoming an icon in women’s running history. The cover line next to her photo read “Super Woman.”

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Nike releases the Air Max 1. This running shoe with the visible Air Sole became one of the Swoosh’s signature shoes. While its giant heel-toe drop eventually got passed by running design, the shoe is arguably the biggest crossover running shoe of all time; 30 years later it’s as popular as ever, as Nike releases new colorways and limited editions of the Air Max 1 every season.

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1988

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tests positive for steroids in the Seoul Olympics. Many athletes in the Olympics, dating back to at least the 1970s, were suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. But Ben Johnson’s bust, several days after a convincing gold-medal win over Carl Lewis, was the biggest bust ever. Other big busts have followed, but doping has been closely associated with running ever since.

Team in Training is founded when runner Bruce Cleland gathered a team to run the New York City Marathon to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in the name of his daughter, a leukemia survivor. Today, participants can train for several major marathons and receive coaching advice if they pledge to raise a certain amount of money. It launched a whole movement of charity training, which serves as a gateway for thousands of people into the sport of running.

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1990

Playtex purchases Jogbra, the original sports bra. The move not only signified women’s increasing participation in sports and fitness—it showed that corporate America increasingly viewed women as runners.

1991

Reebok releases its Pump technology in a running shoe. It had an air chamber inside, that, when pumped up higher up on the outside of the shoe, was said to provide a customized fit. Reebok’s Pump might represent the height of the golden age of gimmickry in shoes, when every company seemed forced to invent its own signature doodad that claimed to improve performance. Reebok’s Pump was probably the most novel of them all.

Reebok The Pump 1991

1994

Oprah finishes her first marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in 4:29:15. For decades—and especially in 1994—when Oprah spoke, the nation listened. When Oprah recommended something, people purchased it. And when Oprah ran, many other people took up running too.

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GU energy gel was first released. The packet of gel was a portable size perfect for pockets, easy on the stomach and fast-acting. Beyond sports drinks, it led to a boom in sports fueling of all shapes and sizes, and has driven nutritional and exercise science.

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1996

Michael Johnson wins two gold medals at Atlanta Olympics in Nike’s gold spikes. Johnson’s unprecedented takeaway from the Olympics was made more memorable by his can’t-miss spikes. Nowadays, shoe brands put eye-catching shoes on their best athletes for every big event.

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1997

The first Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon is held in San Diego. What began as a revolutionary idea—make running a race fun—was realized by having bands and musicians along a 26.2-mile racecourse. Rock ‘n’ Roll grew a bit since then: There are races all over the world, and its parent company owns this magazine. More importantly, the race and Rock ‘n’ Roll events in other cities ushered in a new era for running that promoted inclusion, fun, and a party-style event.

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2003

Britain’s Paula Radcliffe sets the current women’s marathon world record (2:15:25) at the London Marathon. Fourteen years later, the women’s world marathon record still stands, unbroken. After retiring in 2015, Radcliffe is considered one of the greatest female marathoners of all-time, having won both the London and New York City marathons three times.

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Garmin introduces the first GPS watch. It’s hard to remember the days when running watches only told you how long you’ve been running. Although watches today can monitor your heart rate, track your sleep and play music, GPS was a big game-changer that ushered in all of the subsequent technology. GPS told runners how far they ran, and how fast they were running. It ushered in a boom where the average runner, for the price of a watch or an app, has access to more data than the world’s elite runners did even 20 years ago.

2005

Vibram releases its FiveFingers shoe. They took a few years to catch on, but when they started catching fire (particularly when the book Born to Run is released a few years later), they were part of an overwhelming but fairly short-lived minimalism trend in running. Many runners flocked to them, and lots reported getting injured, as the shoes offered very little support or cushioning (which was the whole appeal). Later, Vibram settled a lawsuit in 2014 over dubious health benefits the company claimed its shoes provided. Even now, you’ll still find them on runners’ feet at races or around the park.

2006

Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes runs 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, and Anton Krupicka introduces himself to the world. Even though handfuls of dedicated people had been running 50- or 100-mile races for years, in 2006, two stars of this fringe activity achieved fame—and ever since, the sport of ultrarunning has grown at a furious pace. Karnazes, the sport’s first crossover star, completed an audacious seven-week running stunt around America. And the bearded, long-haired, shirtless, minimalist-shoe-wearing Anton Krupicka, 22 years old at the time, captured athletes and fans’ hearts and minds as he came out of nowhere and stormed to two Leadville wins that year.

Photo: Chad Riley
Photo: Chad Riley

2009

Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run becomes a bestseller. If there was a single catalyst that started the minimalist running movement, it was this book that warned about the dangers of modern running shoes, and advocated for running with less shoe—even actually running barefoot. New runners might have missed this trend, but earlier this decade, it was all anyone wanted to talk about when running shoes came up. It’s why you still see people running with Vibram shoes or even barefoot, and it’s why shoe companies and publications like this one list the heel-to-toe offset for every shoe mentioned.

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Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud release Hoka One One shoes. After years of a minimalist running trend that sold plenty of new models of shoes and left a lot of runners injured or with sore Achilles tendons, Hoka went the other direction in a big way. A Hoka shoe’s midsole looked comically enormous at the time—but the brand has been a runaway success, in part to their shoes allowing those with knee pain to run more comfortably. It all led to a trend referred to as Maximalism.

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Strava’s app is released. Everyone knows runners love to share info about their run. Strava allowed them to fully join in the social media revolution and literally share the exact details about their run, and view everyone else’s athletic endeavors. It not only brought running into the social media age, it also instantly became a useful training tool for data geeks, those in search of new routes and workouts, or people looking for some friendly competition.

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2011

The Color Run was founded, which added a whole new idea of racing: It was truly about the journey, because the events weren’t the least bit competitive. Participants simply ran from station to station to get blasted with bright, chalky colors that gave each participant a head-to-toe tie-dye look, and pose for a lot of pictures with their friends. The event’s nationwide popularity left older generations of runners scratching their heads, wondering why anyone would run a race that wasn’t timed, and lamenting today’s youth and their love of selfies. The Color Run is credited for bringing thousands of non-runners into the sport.

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2012

Nike introduces Flyknit uppers. While most shoes for years utilized cut-and-sew construction to fit the vamp, quarter and heelcap of a shoe together, Nike’s Flyknit was a single, seamless piece of stretchy textile. It was an instant hit, and nowadays, most shoe brands have figured out one-piece knit uppers.

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2013

Terrorists detonate bombs at the Boston Marathon. Distance running and its grandest race were thrust into the spotlight once again, but this time for horrifying reasons. The sibling culprits, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were brought to justice after a five-day citywide manhunt, but the fact that terrorism came to running—and an event that is a celebration not only of the sport itself, but also of each runner’s personal triumph—shocked many people. However, it galvanized runners everywhere, the Boston Marathon’s popularity surged, and its rich history of being run on Patriot’s Day took on greater meaning.

The New York City Marathon surpasses 50,000 entrants. What’s often called the world’s greatest city is also home to the world’s largest race: For the past several years, the New York City Marathon has hovered around the 50,000-person mark, an astonishing number of people for one race. Also in 2013, the New York City Marathon had its 1 millionth starter toe the start line since the race’s founding in 1970.

2014

Meb Keflezighi becomes the first American man since 1983 to win the Boston Marathon. To say that the 2014 Boston Marathon took on an added significance is an enormous understatement. It was the first edition following the terrorist bombings near the finish line in 2013. Runners all around the world wanted to run in it. And Bostonians needed the catharsis of another edition of the race to help heal the city and honor the victims. When American Meb Keflezighi, who wore the names of victims on his race bib, unexpectedly won, it was an amazing moment for American running—but it was also far bigger than that.

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Kenyan Dennis Kimetto sets the official marathon world record (2:02:57) at the Berlin Marathon. He beat former record-holder Wilson Kipsang’s year-old mark by 26 seconds. More importantly, though, it has sparked a conversation on whether or not it’s possible to break the 2-hour marathon barrier, and has inspired gear innovations (like Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly Elite) designed to help run the next world record.

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Record year of U.S. half-marathon finishers. 2,046,600 people ran a half marathon in 2014. In fact, it’s been the fastest-growing distance for more than a decade, and the most popular run distance. Lots of people find it a bit like Goldilocks does: Neither too long nor too short—just right. It’s an intimidating but approachable challenge, and a good training distance for marathoners. In other words, the half marathon checks a lot of boxes for a lot of people—and nowadays, you can find these races most everywhere.

2015

Women’s participation in running surpasses men’s. Nowadays, more women than men enter races and consider themselves runners, according to multiple statistics. This movement is all the more impressive when you consider that 50 years ago, women weren’t even allowed to enter and run in many races.

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2016

American distance running is back in a big way in the Olympics. While Usain Bolt once again dominated the world’s attention at the Rio Olympics, the Americans took home more medals than ever in the distance events: There were gold and bronze medals in the men’s and women’s 1,500 meters (the first men’s gold since 1908), a silver in the men’s 5,000 meters, a men’s silver and women’s bronze in the steeplechase, and a men’s bronze medal in the marathon—many of which are events that Americans have long been shut out of the medal podium for.

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The inaugural Global Running Day is held on June 1. The day evolved from National Running Day in the U.S., which was started in 2009 and has been held every year since. Runners around the world pledge to take part in a running activity to celebrate the joys of running, and inspire others to get moving.

The Clean Sport Collective launches. The nonprofit comprises of athletes, brands, events, fans, clubs and the public to support sport and athletics through the absence of performance enhancing drugs. Several world-class runners pledged never to use PEDs for the collective.

New Balance incorporates 3D printed midsoles in the Zante Generate. Although several other brands have been developing 3D printing for footwear, this running shoe became the first of its kind available to consumers. The first 44 pairs were sold for $400 each ahead of the Boston Marathon on April 15.

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2017

Eliud Kipchoge runs the fastest recorded marathon time ever (2:00:25) as part of Nike’s Breaking2 Project. Although the goal of the project was to run a sub-2-hour marathon in a staged attempt, Kipchoge still unofficially beat the current world marathon record of 2:02:57, proving that breaking the 2-hour barrier is within reach.