How did a Thursday in late November become the world’s biggest day for running? Why is participation in other running events plateauing? Two recent articles point to the same conclusion. People want to take part in events that are affordable, lack gimmicks, and that focus on social support. Sound familiar?
The US running market is huge. Around 18 million Americans took part in organized running events in the past year. Some of these came in big-budget mass-participation events like the Boston Marathon. But roughly half of the total were in the more than 20,000 5k events organized by local groups for their community. But the market is not growing overall, and it is even seeing decline in some sectors.
A recent New York Times article (“The running bubble has popped”) asks why the running market is flat or shrinking. It lays the blame on fatigue with the ‘arms race’ for swag and pomp at races. (“Now everyone’s got bands on the course and beer at the finish line, so what’s new?”) Large, complex events can offer memorable experiences, but costs can run to hundreds of dollars and they may be a one-time-only experience. At the other end of the scale, with the typical cost of a local 5K at $30, does a family of 4 really want to spend $120 on a 3 mile run, collecting piles of t-shirts that they don’t need?
An article in Runners World asks why Thanksgiving running is bucking that trend (“Dear Turkey Trotters – Uncle Sam wants you, one million of you”). Turkey trot participation is growing by around 8% per year. More than 750 Thanksgiving Day runs are expected to draw close to 1 million participants in 2017. RW concludes that the secret to the success of Thanksgiving races is the local feel of the events, and the focus on family and friends. It asks whether this is a model that can spread to other running events.
“Thanksgiving is a perfect example of the sport’s ability to bring family and friends together to celebrate through fitness and fun. [...] Well-organized turkey trots are the ideal blueprint for our sport to move forward with locally-run races. [...] Whether or not the magic of the turkey trot can be sewn across the rest of the road racing ecosystem remains to be seen.”
Local, simple, low-cost, and focused on healthy communities. This is exactly what parkrun USA offers. Teams of volunteers organize free, weekly, timed 5ks in beautiful natural settings. It is feasible for an individual team to stage fifty 5k events per year due to a minimalist, scalable model that dispenses with t-shirts, prizes, and other consumables. The focus is on building community, and the swag is the human connections.
So parkrun should be taking the US by storm, right?
Well, to some degree it is happening. The number of events and weekly participation doubled in 2016, it doubled again in 2017, and it could double yet again in 2018. parkrun USA could offer around 1000 5k events in 2018, with around 50,000 finishers, more than the New York City Marathon. Individual events are growing: almost all of the events that have been around for more than a year have significantly higher turnouts now than a year ago.
But the total weekly numbers are still small. They’re small relative to parkrun turnouts in countries like the UK or South Africa. And they’re small relative to any decently-sized Turkey Trot. Why isn’t parkrun growing faster in the US? Especially if it is the solution to the problems that the New York Times and Runners World point to.
We can see a few reasons why parkrun USA’s exponential growth is not even faster.
First, parkrun events depend on a trifecta of a venue, a team, and a community. Some parks departments have enthusiastically offered free, year-round permits for parkruns. Others are more reluctant. In some cases a parks department is offering a great venue, but a strong local team has not yet emerged. Finding the right combinations will become easier over time.
Second, building a community is a gradual process. Explosive growth is incompatible with building strong social connections.
Third, creating an environment that allows diverse participants to feel connected, and that makes them want to keep coming back week after week is not simple. The fact that parkrun events are free is an enabler, but not a motivator. We are working on ways to ensure that newcomers quickly feel that they have social support at parkrun, so that they are eager to come back for more.
We could add the fact that parkrun USA is an all volunteer organization with minimal budget and no paid advertising, in the world’s most commercialized running and healthcare market. But this does not really matter. We think that the New York Times and Runner’s World articles are onto something, and we think that the solution will take time.
If you would like to be a part of the process, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you.
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