Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Slow Economy, Faster Marathon Times (Wall St Journal)

I know Leor Pantilat said his winning times at Way Too Cool 50k and Skyline to the Sea 50k were partially attributed to being laid off. Looks like he's not the only one! the Wall St Journal had an interesting article today about the correlation between the down economy and increased marathon participation. Full article here.

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., 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.”


  1. I realise this is a long shot but I'm requesting logistical assistance: I have figured out how to get the Sennheisser MX 85 buds to fit in my ears. That is not my problem. My problem is the cable length, which means in my case that it gets in my way around the neck or sometimes the arms, depending on how I position it. This is when I already place the right bud behind my neck. Does anyone have any practical advice in managing the cables so that they are not in the way during long runs (2+ hours)? I don't need music at all during short runs but I find it essentail during lengthy ones. The advice would be greatly appreciated.

  2. One thing I forgot to add--when I use an MP3 player i prefer the waist as opposed to the arm.

  3. Very true Scott. I did my best training while unemployed. In fact, it is during this time I started running Ultras.

  4. Wow a pretty inspiring story. sometimes prioritizing can be really tricky. Best of luck

  5. I've posted PR's in the 50k, 50 mile, & 12 hour races, thanks to the latest recession, not to mention getting to explore lots of new trails.

  6. Interesting correlation. I am very lucky to not be laid off, but I do have the luxury of training a lot in the summer and fall. I'm a teacher and I coach cross country in the fall. I'm still not crazy enough to run 26.2 miles, or more than that either, even if I didn't have a job.

  7. As crazy as my schedule is, I guess I feel lucky to have a stable job that allows (sometimes) for enough quality training time to run many ultras a year. Losing my job might allow me to keep up with blogging, but that wouldn't help pay the mortgage or the bills.

    Anyways, good to see people making the most of a half-full cup.

  8. This is a great idea and concept by the Wall Street Journal. I actually wrote about the same thing over 2 months ago:

    Makes sense, more time to accomplish those goals you've always wanted to do.

  9. Tanaka-man works so much that is he ever quit his job he'd have enough spare energy to run around the globe a couple of times.

    I think the employment blip on running times is very real. This year (unfortunately) I had no shortage of mid-week training partners, they were simply not around last year.

    Cheers, Paul

  10. Paul- that is so true about Mark Tanaka- it would be scary if he wasn't working!

  11. Good post and interesting article! I have always thought it would be nice to at least "work from home", which for me means work around training and bust your butt the rest of the time!!

  12. Great idea! It makes sense that people who get laid off may have more motivation because it gives them something to do that they enjoy and won't keep them down.

  13. Nice article. My husband lost his job about 5 years ago and that is when he started to run...then he got me into it shortly after!

  14. Fascinating blog... who would have thought that the economic slowdown would speed up Americans?


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