Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My, How We've Grown! Examining The Growth of Global Running and Ultrarunning Participation

There are two dates in the journey of life that one can’t predict. The day we come in, and the day we check out. In between, we explore life’s precious time with only one guarantee – it will constantly change, and change us, in unpredictable ways. If you live long enough, that change compounds to a future beyond imagination.


I often wonder if that’s why the sport of ultrarunning has seen such steady growth over the last decade. An ultramarathon, like other endurance events, is a “controlled adventure” that celebrates time intensely for a day, while simultaneously releasing us from the cacophonic universe of change that we can’t control. A synchronized embrace and release, fortifying both body and soul.

One thing for sure – the growth of running and ultrarunning is a global phenomenon. I’m going to dig into this a bit below as me and my synchroblog pals explore “Then and Now: What’s Changed in Ultrarunning in the 10 Years Since the First Synchroblog”. Be sure to check out what the others are writing as well:

Global Growth in Running 


The sport of running remains the largest participatory sport in the world. By my estimate, there are ~413 million athletes on the globe that consider themselves runners. The sport has seen a steady growth since the jogging boom of the 70’s, growing 5-8% annually. If you count all the new derivations of running (obstacle races, color runs, etc.), the pace has continued, even though traditional road races have flattened out their growth the last three years. That means it is not out of the question that we could have 1 billion runners on the planet by 2030.

What is driving that growth? Well, if the US market is any indication (the largest in the world, with ~18 million road runners/9 million trail runners), the two main factors are (1) greater participation by women, and (2) an increased desire of younger generations to purchase experience over products, which is driving innovation in different types of runs (obstacle, non-timed, etc). I think a third underlying factor that is likely involved is the growth of social media, which allows race experiences, fundraisers, and new race announcements to be easily shared. The growth of women participating is definitely the biggest factor, and in fact, women are now 57% of all road race finishes. This is largely driven by increased participation in social and charity groups, targeting the 10k and half marathon distances.

(Chinese marathon mania, photo by Visual China)
Global growth in running is due to similar factors in countries where running is already popular, as well as the recent explosive growth of running in China. For those who haven’t been watching fitness in China, it is truly something to behold. Thanks to government interest (and investment), Chinese interest in running and fitness has seen growth that is mind boggling. Just look at marathon participation – in 2012, there were only 22 marathons in China, and less than 10,000 participants. Last year, there were over 1,000 marathons, growing 335% from the previous year, and pushing the runner community from 1.3 million to 2.7 million. Even more amazing, it is expected the number of Chinese marathon runners will grow to 10 million by 2020. For comparison, the US had ~540,000 marathon finishers last year. This big red explosion is not being missed by the juggernaut athletic brands - Chinese sports apparel brand Anta Sports just bought Amer Sports (who owns Salomon, Arc’Teryx, Suunto, and other brands) for $5.2 billion to give Nike and adidas a run at the biggest game in town.

Global Growth in Ultrarunning 


So what does this mean for growth in ultrarunning? Although less than 1% of runners will ever try an ultramarathon, we can expect that ultrarunning will continue to grow as well. The US market has been growing steadily (thank you Ultrarunning Magazine for tracking!), and we are seeing greater participation from women. Interest from younger generations can be seen through increased usage of hashtags and social media for ultra events.

(Growth in North American ultra finishes, courtesy of UR Mag)
Another indicator of global growth is watching the growth of other endurance sports, such as Ironman. Ironman hosts 250+ events are now in 53 countries, and has recently begun purchased the Tarawera 100k/100m and Rock n’ Roll Marathon Series in preparation for an initial public offering (IPO). This likely means more to come.

I’m personally excited for future growth in our sport, no matter what flavor it arrives. I think the world is a better place with a million ultrarunners, and bringing their collective power and interest to the needs of nature. It will be fascinating to see what the next decade brings!

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