Blame Oprah. Blame Willy C. Blame Lance and P Diddy and Katie. Blame Runner’s World. Blame the mainstream press too, they perpetuate the idea that running a marathon should be accepted almost universally as some kind of lifetime acheivement, bucket list item, or rite of passage ... no matter how slow you are.
But I'm going to propose that the actual number of runners is a fickle figure; it waxes and wanes over time. In fact, I think that we are now in the midst of what is actually the third "Running Boom".
The first running boom was in the 1970s. Many believe it was fueled by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic Marathon. I think you also have to acknowledge the contribution of Jim Fixx's excellent, influential, and best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running. The 1970s also saw a significant growth in road racing - it seemed like every small town suddenly had some kind of an annual race, and as runners we were amazed when some of them grew to over five HUNDRED participants - gasp! We were a happy fringe. Our running nerd heros included Boston Billy, The Great Greta, Joannie the Approachable, and Dr. Sheehan, our own philosopher! Sure, we were running nerds, but we didn’t care. We were a happy fringe.
Running faded a bit during the 1980s. Big races managed to hold fast, but the lure of cocaine and nightclubs prevailed upon the tastes of the young. The hip and trendy bought roller blades, and eschewed running as “boring”. Some tried to run, but developed shin splints and quit, or took up the new sport of triathlon, or just plain hit the couch and got fat. We runners were still a happy fringe, 80's style.
The second running boom was in the 1990s, and I'll call that the "marathon boom". It was fueled by celebrities (see above) and loads of everyday/chubby folks proving they could "run" marathons. The result was the explosion of a plethora of fund-raising 5k fun runs, which squeezed out a lot of the older (and longer and tougher) small-town races. In addition, it seemed that there was suddenly a marathon in every state on every weekend of the year. Jeff Galloway wrote tirelessly about strategies for mixing running and walking during races, or completing marathons with a MINIMUM amount of training and mileage (to we "real" runners, the mere thought that you would approach a race as serious as a marathon with the intention of doing the minimum amount of training was simply absurd). In many circles, there was loud criticism of this "democratization" of running. The argument went something like this: once you proclaim that your sport is for everyone, you reward mediocrity and spoil any chance for excellence: Running boom, racing bust. The 1990s also saw the birth of the Penguin movement. No, not those kind of penguins. This was a self-proclaimed and proud group of plodders who even found their own guru, John Bingham. Suddenly, runners weren't such a fringe anymore ... anyone could be a runner. The influx of these "joggers" (yes, that used to be a derogatory term!) watered things down a bit. It added raw numbers to our general pool, but in fact that growth proved difficult to sustain. After the initial excitement, a lot of Oprah-wannabes and other newbies managed to complete (often painfully) their one marathon, then often quit running shortly thereafter. Also, the runners in the country during the 1990s were trending older and older. It just couldn't last. At about the same time as the dot com crash, the number of runners once again went down. But not for long.
At present, I believe that we are in the midst of the third boom, which really kicked into gear about 3-4 years ago and seems to be fueled mostly by an influx of young women. Of course, as young women flock to the sport, men will follow, increasing the total numbers even more. From my casual scanning of race results, it looks like the average age of runners is trending back down again. I have read that statistically there are four times as many race participants as there were in the 1980s. However, it would seem that today's runners seem more interested in general fitness than peak race performance. Racing is now more of a social activity. In addition, there is a wide array of expensive Batman-like gear that you see people wearing, as if it was a kind of special uniform for their everyday run: fuel belts and iPods and HR monitors and GPS watches, wires hanging out, hands filled with sloshing bottles and/or technology controls, fancy caps and cute little matching outfits (Aha! There is money to be made! Marketing!) ... it's all kind of funny, and it's definitely NOT hard core like it used to be. Rather than focusing on competition, today’s runners (women and men alike) seem more interested in spending time together. They train and even run races in groups, keeping their pace in synch with the slowest of their tribe, instead of pushing themselves to their limits. Our sport has become so much more affiliative (contrast that with the famous "loneliness of the long distance runner"). People are interested in particular races and make plans months ahead of time, not because that race would offer top-flight competition or a chance to run a personal best, but because it would be a wonderful vacation spot, hey, let's bring the whole family!
I don't mean to sound too sarcastic here. Another running boom might potentially mean a more healthy populace. Of all potential exercise regimens, running/jogging/walking certainly has the lowest barrier to entry, and anything that would help this country get in better shape has got to be good. Plus, lots of runners means lots of running-related commerce, and that leads to a wider array of gear for us to select from, be it clothes, shoes, or even sunglasses. More runners means that we have a larger peer group: that means more friends and potential mates ... that all sounds pretty good.
So I'm now a complete convert: The Third Running Boom is for everyone, come on in, the water's fine, we're happy to have you. If you want to be a runner, all you have to do is get moving and apply the label yourself. You're in.
(Still, in my darker moments, I have to admit that I kind of miss being part of a small and happy fringe. Maybe I'm just old. Ah, yes, the good old days were always better, weren't they?)