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Healthy Gains In USA Road Race Participation For 2009

Despite a bad economy, road race participant numbers continue to grow.

Written By: David Monti
(c) 2009 Race Results Weekly, used with permission.

NEW YORK (29-Dec) — Participation in American road races grew by a healthy 11% in 2009, according to a detailed analysis prepared by Race Results Weekly, the wire service of distance running.

The Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon had the largest growth of any US event in 2009. Photo:
The Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon had the largest growth of any US event in 2009. Photo:

The analysis, which looked at the results of 200 well-established road races in 38 states and the District of Columbia, found that 168 of the races, or 84%, showed growth in the number of official finishers compared to 2008.  A total of 1,365,981 finishers were recorded by the group of events analyzed, up 133,706 from 2008.  Year-over-year changes ranged from a gain of 10,199 for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon (+132%), to a loss of 3,119 for the City of Los Angeles Marathon (-18%).  The median event had 4,372 finishers.

“There are many good reasons for the continued growth of our sport, which have been voiced by race directors all over the world,” commented Tracy Sundlun, Vice-President of the Competitor Group which owns and operates the Rock ‘n’ Roll series of marathons and half-marathons, in an e-mail.  “I believe virtually all of them are valid.”  Sundlun, whose events stress on-course entertainment added: “In today’s world people want more than just a race; they want an event.”

Races held over the 5-kilometer, 10-mile, and half-marathon distances showed the biggest increases, with each of those groups topping 15% growth.  In the 10-mile group, the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, held each April in Washington, D.C., was up a hefty 21% to 14,883 finishers.

“I believe it is the 38-year, history of the event, Washington, D.C., cherry blossoms, and a flat and fast course that passes by the monuments and blossoms,” wrote Cherry Blossom race director Phil Stewart in an e-mail when asked what was behind the growth in his race.  “I think there is a certain amount of collective thinking in the sport; once an event earns a reputation as ‘the event you have to run’ it feeds on itself.”

Stewart’s event uses a lottery to determine it’s field, and interest is up again for the 2010 edition.  “We had 27,000 apply for the lottery for 2010, so that is an indicator of the demand for the event,” Stewart said.  “Since we cleared the streets on time the (National) Park Service allowed us 15,000 for 2010.”

The results of 44 marathons from 28 states were included in the analysis, representing 297,683 finishers, up 5% from 2008.  The ING New York City Marathon raised its number of allowed entrants this year to accommodate record demand and recorded a world record 43,660 finishers, up 5,564 or 15% from last year.

“Amidst doom and gloom in sports and entertainment, running was a shining star,” wrote Mary Wittenberg, the president and CEO of the New York Road Runners which organized the ING New York City Marathon and dozens of other events in 2009, via e-mail.  She added: “Our theory that not only is running good for people, but it makes them feel better, was tested in these tough times and the proof is in the pudding, as they say.”

The record growth in New York was offset somewhat by declines in finishers at the marathons in Los Angeles (-3,119 or -18%) and San Diego (-3,045 or -19%).  Nonetheless, the five largest American marathons –New York, Chicago, Boston, Marine Corps (Washington, D.C.) and Honolulu– recorded a total of 141,241 finishers, up 9%.

[A separate and larger study of ALL American marathons by showed a more robust 9% increase in the number of marathon finishers.  “That’s the largest year-to-year growth in finisher numbers since the 9.8% year-to-year growth seen in the abnormal years of 2001/2002 when travel and finisher numbers were down in 2001 after 9/11,” wrote owner John Elliott in an e-mail.]

The ten largest events of any distance had a total of 328,115 finishers, up 6% from 2008.  The largest event in the analysis was the Dick’s Sporting Goods Bolder Boulder 10-K with 49,757 finishers.  (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race 10-K, the largest fully timed race in the United States in 2009 with 49,997 finishers, could not be included in the analysis because the event did not time all finishers in 2008.)

The industry’s traditional sweet spot, the 10-K, showed 10% growth for the 29 events of that distance analyzed.  Only five of the 10-K races showed a decline in finishers.

The 47 races with under 2000 finishers included in the analysis showed more growth on average than larger events, perhaps because many of the larger races have hit capacity constraints.  Races with under 2000 finishers showed nearly 14% growth, suggesting that the industry has a lot of headroom to grow participation, further.

“The challenge of 2010 and this next decade is to continue to grow the base from the fitness runners to the stars, while developing a broader and stronger fan base around this compelling sport of ours,” concluded the New York Road Runners’ Wittenberg.


In order to be included in the analysis, events had to be staged for at least three years, have at least 1000 finishers in 2009 for the primary event for multi-race festivals, and have all of their finishers timed for both 2008 and 2009.  A minimum of ten events for each month of the year were included to reduce any seasonal bias.  Multi-race festivals had their races counted individually.  Most, but not all, race festivals included in the analysis had all of their individual races counted, but relay finishers were not counted due to inconsistencies in how relays are staged and scored.

There were more eligible events than could be included in the analysis; there are thousands of road races in the United States each year.

The analysis used official finishers –as opposed to race entrants– because it is a better measure of participation.  A finisher must complete the entire sequence of registering for a race, putting in adequate training, traveling to an event (if necessary), and actually completing it.  A race entrant may just sign-up and never run at all, not even in training.  However, bad weather can depress the number of race finishers even if the number of registrants has grown from year-to-year.

Events which shifted dates from 2008 to 2009 were categorized by their 2009 month of competition.

Copies of the entire data file showing the year-over-year change in finishers of all 200 events is available as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file for $100.  The file can be sorted by event name, city, state, month, distance, 2009 finishers, 2008 finishers, finisher change and percentage change.  The file comes pre-sorted by the number of 2009 finishers (descending).  To order, send an e-mail to Jane Monti at with the subject “Analysis”.