A Brief History of the Second Running Boom.

The late, great, running writer and philosopher Dr. George Sheehan wrote that true effort galvanized the body, mind, and spirit. I agree. There is that moment at the very edge of one’s ability and preparation in which there seems to be a unity of all that we are. Where I disagree is in defining who is eligible to find that unity.

Before Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the marathon in 1972 running was almost a secret activity. There were runners, of course, and there were running events, but it certainly wasn’t a mainstream activity. Runners were strange creatures. The former mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, when asked about hosting a marathon is quoted as saying he wasn’t going to allow a “bunch of hippies to run around the city in their underwear.”

Runners knew who runners were. They were predominately male. They were predominately thin. They were predominately young. More importantly, they were predominately fast. The running industry, the publications, the shoe and apparel companies, and the events, knew who runners were and they appealed to that market. 

There were also, at that time, joggers. Joggers were not runners. They were joggers. And the threshold between runners and joggers was a 7 minute per mile pace. Think about that for a minute. If you couldn’t run at a sub 7 minute pace you weren’t a runner. Not only did other runners not think you were a runner, but, the running industry didn’t think you were a runner.

In the summer of 1997, a year after “The Penguin Chronicles” began in Runner’s World, as I was riding my motorcycle around the US speaking at running specialty stores and to running clubs, I noticed a change. The folks who were coming to hear “the Penguin” were older, there were many more women, and they were slower. Just like me. 

I stopped at what was, at the time, one of the major running apparel companies and met with their president. I told him what I was seeing. I told him that there was this huge group of “runners” who would be loyal customers if only someone appeal to them. He all but threw me out of his office, told me I was wrong, and that these slower runners would soon go back to their sofas. And he wasn’t alone. No one thought that the 2nd running boom was real or that it would last.

On June 21, 1998 everything changed. That was the date of the first Rock ’n’ Roll marathon in San Diego. Tim Murphy and Elite Racing put on the first running event EVER where finishing as fast as you could wasn’t the goal. There were bands and cheerleaders and parties going on at every mile. Finishing was important. But finishing as soon as you could was not.

I was there as a member of the Runner’s World pace team. My assignment was to lead a group to a sub 5 hour marathon. Somewhere around mile 20 the group decided that even that arbitrary time goal was senseless. We were having fun. Why in the world would we want it to end?

The only difference between the people in my pace group and the other pace groups was, well, pace. We were well trained. We were well prepared. We were serious about our running. We were just slow. 

And that was really the beginning of the second running boom. We were experiencing the same wonderful galvanizing moments that Dr. Sheehan described. We were just experience them at a pace that was our own personal honest effort. 

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