Chad Bjugan is a marathoner, through and through. He has run 30 of them over the last 20 years. The 46-year-old Chaska resident runs enough that he could do pretty well in a half-marathon without much special preparation.

“But a half doesn’t fulfill my goals like a marathon does,” he said. “I like the dedication that’s needed, the challenge of preparing for a marathon. I never get it perfect. I learn something every time.”

The marathon, that odd and exacting 26.2-mile distance, was at the heart of the running boom, starting with Frank Shorter’s gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon, and fed by Bill Rodgers’ dominance in the late 1970s. At the same time, marathoners Kathrine Switzer, Jacqueline Hansen and Miki Gorman inspired women to tackle the distance. You couldn’t call yourself a runner unless you’d run a marathon. And you didn’t run just to finish — you tried to run well, to master the challenge.

Over the next four decades, the number of people running road races across all distances worldwide grew until 2016, but has declined 13 % since then — that data from a 2019 study done by Danish research organization RunRepeat in collaboration with the International Association of Athletics Federations. The RunRepeat report synthesized piecemeal efforts to create a global, comprehensive look at running participation from 1986 to 2018. Most of the growth in road running came from 5-kilometer runs and half-marathons — distances requiring far less preparation and sweat than the marathon. Most of the recent decline in participants also came from those distances. The marathon’s trajectory over the four decades was less volatile, reaching a peak of 25 % of all road races in 2000, gradually declining, and holding steady for the past three years with about 12 % of the road runner pie. But that pie is shrinking.

Has the defining distance of the running boom hit the wall? Or will the marathon distance, like its practitioners, endure?

“We have this conversation literally every day,” said Virginia Brophy Achman, executive director of Twin Cities in Motion, which puts on the longtime metro race happening Sunday. Reflective of the trajectory of road running, TCM started in 1982 as one race, the Twin Cities Marathon, but has expanded to year-round running events, from a one-mile up to the charter 26.2 mile distance.

The Twin Cities Marathon in 2018 was the 10th-largest in the country with 9,344 registrants, but it has not filled since 2016. The marathon reached its peak numbers in 2013 with 12,026 registered. The TC 10-Mile, which starts Sunday an hour before the marathon, sold out within a day the year it was introduced in 1999. Last year, the 10-Mile immediately filled 13,057 spots via a drawing.

While Brophy Achman pointed out that the TC 10-Mile didn’t poach runners from the marathon — the marathon continued to grow from 1999 to 2013 — race organizers have learned to cap shorter race options.

“If you let everyone in the 10-Mile, no one wants to run the marathon. Rock ’n’ Roll (events) started with the marathon distance, then added half-marathons, and the halfs took over. Now their marathons are really small.”

She said the 10-mile race continues to grow and the marathon continues to decrease.

“Twenty years ago, you ran a marathon. But [baby] boomers are aging out and younger people have so many choices — not only shorter, more manageable races, but they’re going to the gym, they’re doing CrossFit and yoga and biking,” Brophy Achman said. “They’re combining travel with a race. Our greatest challenge, and I think the industry’s as a whole, is to resonate with this demographic.”

Selling points

Swag, beer, pre- and post-race experiences for runners and runners’ families, and lots of social media opportunities have been deployed to lure younger runners to take on the daunting marathon. And new this year is the Rewards in Motion loyalty program in which dollars spent on TCM races earn points that can be redeemed for entry into another race.

“The marathon is an integral part of our company; it’s not going away,” Brophy Achman said. “Our goal is to get people to try a 5K or 10K, and make sure they have such a great experience that they’ll eventually move up to the marathon.”

Ironically, one of the marathon’s newest selling points is the rubber-meets-the-road reality of covering 26.2 miles on foot — there’s still no app for that.

“There’s been a backlash to digital life. People are craving live community,” Brophy Achman said. “We have this very accessible, very authentic activity you do in real time. What other time can you unplug and run and just be?”

Longtime running community denizen and editor-in-chief of PodiumRunner magazine Jonathan Beverly said it’s ironic that the factors that make marathons attractive — the physical challenge, the time investment, the many unknowns and, unavoidably, the suffering are the same that make them off-putting.

“It’s difficult, thus, worthwhile,” Beverly said in a recent phone conversation. “The enduring appeal of the marathon is that it is a huge goal, it does change your life, you will be uncomfortable. Many of us are looking for something big enough to shake us out of our comfortable routine.”

Beverly sees the popularity of the marathon as a generational thing. It started in the 1970s and ’80s with serious runners who were trying to run fast, he said. It was a sport. Some of the top marathoners in the world were Americans, so it felt local. And marathoning was the opposite of football or baseball; it was counterculture. “We were the weird people running around in our underwear,” Beverly quipped.

A generation later, there were masses of people running marathons, just to finish and say they’d done one. “Around 2000, there was a whole generation who thought of marathons as what my mother does,” Beverly said. “It was marginalized as a fitness activity, not a competitive sport. Once you made it about finishing, that’s it. The passion is lost.”

Once bucket-listers had checked off the marathon box, “they moved on to a different amusement park,” Beverly theorized, thus the decrease in marathon numbers, and even the shuttering of some smaller marathons. (RunSignup, a race registration platform, reported that 6% of marathons held in 2017 did not have a 2018 race.) But now, on the cusp of another generation, Beverly sees a reversal of that trend.

“There are a number of signals: Average marathon times are still getting slower, but at a slower rate, if that makes sense. There’s a growing cohort of people who are taking the marathon seriously, who are seeking the challenge of all the marathon can be. That’s revealed by the fact that Boston’s qualifying times were, for the first time since 1980, made faster, and still, more people achieved those times,” he said. “Now there are people in their 20s and 30s running hard again and enjoying the competition. The PodiumRunner audience is skewing younger. There are people trying to master the marathon instead of just survive it, and finding it’s still a grand challenge.”

Prevailing trends

Beverly just described Chad Bjugan. The husband and father of two ran his first marathon (Grandma’s) in 1999 at 26. His PR (personal record) is 3 hours, 13 minutes and, at 45, he came close to that at the Ventura (Calif.) Marathon, posting 3:14. His friends are sub-three-hour marathoners, and he would love to run about 3:10 at this year’s Ventura race Oct. 20.

Bjugan has some things in common with prevailing marathoner trends: He often combines a marathon with a family vacation. He’s done some iconic marathons like Boston (five times) and New York City, and would love to run all six of the “Marathon Majors” (NYC, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo). But he also enjoys small marathons like Mankato, where there are no lines and he can be home and showered by 3 in the afternoon. He enjoys half-marathons and not going into full-on suffer mode as much as the next person, but for him, 13.1 miles is nowhere close to 26.2. And he said he’ll never do Twin Cities Marathon — not because he’s got something against it. It’s that he has run every TC 10-Mile since it started, and he doesn’t want to break his streak.

Bjugan welcomes the mental and physical challenges unique to the marathon.

“To really run a marathon well takes dedication. It gets me out there and compels me to be organized about my training. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do this — you never know when the end will be — so I want to keep doing them while I can,” he said. “At the end of every marathon, I say I’ll never do another one — an hour later I’m looking for the next one.”

Bjugan also appreciates the accumulation of knowledge that running marathons imparts. “I’m always learning, and growing. So many things can go wrong in 26 miles, and it’s different things every time. For example, as I get older, I recognize that I’m just going through a rough spot, and I’ll come through it.”

He admitted he’s stubborn, a characteristic he finds common in marathoners.

“When they lowered the qualifying times for Boston, people told me, ‘You’re not going to be able to do it.’ I thought about that every mile,” he added. “Motivation is different for everybody, but all I need is somebody to say I can’t do it.”

At some unknown time in the future, Bjugan can see himself running trail races, 50K and 50 miles, where time and pace are less of a factor. But for now, he loves the unknowns, the physical and mental challenges of training and racing, and even the unavoidable suffering that comes from truly accepting the challenge of running 26.2 miles as quickly as possible.

“No, I don’t think the marathon is going away. It’s a badge of honor,” he said. “I don’t hear anyone say, ‘I once did a 10K.’ ”

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Kathrine Switzer.