Fast Times for Jobless Runners
As Unemployed Amp Up Their Training, Marathon Results and Participation Rise
Longtime runner Ray Gobis posted a 3:09 at the Boston Marathon in April—his personal best. The cause wasn’t a new training technique or the perfect weather. It was because Mr. Gobis got laid off.
“Other people might go into a cocoon or something. Me, I’ve done the opposite,” says the 47-year-old Mr. Gobis, who lost his job in November as director of operations for a printing company. With his new-found leisure time, he has amped up his regimen to 60 miles a week and joined a competitive running group.
Americans might be poorer, but they certainly aren’t slower. With the economy in the doldrums, more people are discovering that without those 12-hour workdays, they’re able to pursue fitness goals like never before. Marathons, triathlons and road races are filling up in record time.
Some evidence suggests that laid-off marathon runners are actually helping push up the level of competition within their age groups. Olympic-level competition could even go up because more elite athletes coming out of college are opting to pursue their athletic goals rather than look for work in a dismal job market.The effect on races around the country is difficult to quantify. But by one benchmark, marathoners have gotten faster. Athlinks.com, a Web site that tracks millions of race results, says 2009 has seen marathon times improve in nearly every age category. Using the 2010 Boston Marathon qualifying times as a baseline, the site looked at marathon results to see how many runners would qualify today based on previous races. The conclusion: This year alone, 4.6% of marathoners have run times that would make them eligible for Boston—a 39% increase over 2008.
Curiously, performance times in the past six years peaked in 2006, then slipped in 2007 and 2008. Troy Busot, who runs Athlinks, says that could be because the job market was bad enough in 2007 and 2008 that people had less time to train and were under more stress. “I think quality started to drop when people were like, ‘Uh oh,’ and had a little bit of anxiety,” says Mr. Busot.
Then in late ’08 and into 2009, extensive layoffs gave runners more time to train and, in some cases, less stress. “I guess the ones who don’t have a job will get faster and the ones who are desperately clinging to a job will get slower,” he says.
Adding to the significance of the speedier marathon times is the fact that 2009 has seen a big jump in participation, up 5.1% this year, according to Athlinks. More participation means more beginners, and slower times. Simply speaking, times should be slowing down, not speeding up.
Participation in marathons and triathlons can be costly, too. The New York City Triathlon, which costs $225 to enter, filled up in 22 minutes this year, compared to eight hours last year.
“People need structure in their lives,” says John Korff, director of the race. “They can’t just sit around all day.”
Zach Goldman, a triathlete from San Diego, describes himself as “funemployed.” Mr. Goldman, who was recently laid off from his high-paying commercial real-estate job, says he has enough time to train nearly full time and enough money saved up to travel the world racing and figuring out what he wants to do with his life–which is probably not commercial real estate. “That wasn’t all that fulfilling,” he says. “I’d like to do something more meaningful with my life,” he says—ideally in a career that will allow him to train longer hours. Mr. Goldman is currently in Israel, competing in the Maccabi Games, an international competition for Jewish athletes.
Rob Vermillion, executive director of the Oregon Track Club Elite, which trains Olympic hopefuls, says elite track-and-field athletes coming out of college these days are more likely to pursue their athletic careers because the job market is so slow.
“The economy is so terrible that they might as well run,” he says. As a result, Mr. Vermillion says the team, which caps membership at 20 people, has had to cut world-class runners who would in all other years make the cut with no problem.
To Mr. Vermillion, the economy may be a good problem. Track events in the Oregon area have become much more competitive because of the economy, he says. “I would be willing to go out on a limb and say the overall quality nationwide has improved,” he says, “and naturally, increased competition increases performance.”
When Chris Bennett was training as a runner, living in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1999, he had to make a tough decision: Live the life of a pauper to continue training and have a shot at one day winning a gold medal, or go into business during the IPO craze of the late 1990s. “You were giving up millions in stock options to chase the Olympic dream,” says Mr. Bennett, who eventually gave up his running career for a big paycheck in finance. Nowadays, he says, the decision is a lot easier–young athletes should just go for it, he says. “You’re not giving up as much because the economy is so bad,” he says.
Of course the full effects of the economy on amateur athletics are still a bit murky. And if the hiring outlook improves, the high participation levels could be just a small blip on the radar screen.
But the changing economic landscape could forever alter the way Americans view recreational and competitive athletics, as more people discover the joys of training and competing.
IDEA Health and Fitness, a fitness-industry association, says average gym membership went up 18% this year, to 3,394 from 2,866 last year, at the group’s member clubs.
Even in Michigan, where the economy has been particularly harsh, a new business promoting multisport events is holding its own. Eva Solomon says she thought she was “an idiot” to leave her stable job as a grade-school teacher to start a company, EST Events, during the worst economic crisis in a generation. But she figured things like triathlons were “recession proof.”
The first event she and her business partner put on, the “She Rocks” women’s triathlon, nearly filled up, with more than 400 women participating.
“I was blown away when I got home from the race and within two hours, I was getting letters from people thanking me for asking them to pay $80 to swim, bike and run,” she says. For the company’s next event, Ms. Solomon is considering offering a discount for people who can prove they’ve been laid off in the past six months.
Claudia Becque was distraught when she was laid off in January. Then she ran a 2:44 marathon time, slashing 14 minutes off her previous personal record—and close to Olympic level.
She’s now employed as a clinical research specialist for a medical devices company in Chicago. But her month of rest, relaxation and hard training have gotten her thinking: Maybe she should stay unemployed. She’s considering moving to a part-time job with her company, and all her friends are pushing her to do it. “Claudia, this is a sign. You need to just run.”