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How Running Went Mainstream

Illustration by Oliver Baker.

Today’s Running Culture

Running used to be a fringe sport, enjoyed by a small handful of very thin, very fit and likely very crazy individuals running circles around a track in pursuit of Olympic gold. Marathons were rarely, if ever, in the public consciousness—in 1965, the Boston Marathon touted only 447 participants, all of them male.

In the 1970s, men and women took up jogging, a new fitness trend encouraged by doctors for health and weight loss. With it, a cottage industry sprang up to cater to amateur athletes—Blue Ribbon Sports, which eventually became Nike, created shoes and gear; other companies soon followed and with them, endorsement deals that created the first running celebrities out of Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit. Suddenly, it was cool to run.

But only recently has running transformed into a full-on cultural movement, spurred in large part by the rapid growth of women in the sport. We don’t jog—we run. What’s more, we don’t care if it’s cool or not. We’re runners—our sport is no longer what we do but who we are.

“Running is a way to build confidence, strength and independence,” says Marnie Kunz, coach and founder of Runstreet in Brooklyn, New York. “It gives women an identity that is independent of their work and relationship lives. It is a social outlet and a way to bond with other strong women. Women are so often judged on our appearance and relationships, and to have something that is built upon our performance and strength is very empowering.”

Ask a runner why she runs, and you’ll rarely, if ever, hear a word about striving to earn an Olympic gold medal. It’s likely a race won’t even be mentioned. Today, running is more than just the act of running—it’s a transformative experience. It’s an identity. It’s a way of life, from the compression socks we wear under our work clothes to the long threads runners type on running forums and Facebook groups.

“The distance running social world permits both development and confirmation of a running identity and, with it, social fulfilment,” writes Richard Shipway of Bournemouth University in his 2012 study of running culture. “Possessing a certain social identity indicates a sense of belonging to a certain group, seeing events from the runner’s perspective and being like other members of the running group. This ‘group’-based identity suggests a degree of synergy and common understanding amongst those within the running community.”

So what does run culture look like today? A lot different than 1965, that’s for sure.

Today’s Run Culture Is…Huge

What used to be limited to the track and a handful of marathons is now a $1.4 billion industry with more than 30,000 events each year. These events range from mile sprints to ultramarathons of 100 miles or more. Running events today are as diverse as the runners within them, and there’s truly something for everyone.

According to a Running USA survey, almost 17 million people crossed a finish line at a race in 2017. This is more than triple the number of road race finishers in 1990. Another big increase? Female participation, which has risen from 25 percent of runners in 1990 to almost 60 percent in 2017.

Today’s Run Culture Is…Connected

You Instagram a selfie mid-run, upload your workout to Strava and tweet about nailing your splits. You check your standings on your fitness tracker’s leaderboard and crowdsource training advice in your Facebook group. Even for the most solitary runners, the sport is often a social one.

“I think running’s growing popularity is in part due to the rise of social media and people’s ability to share their progress, challenges and triumphs and support each other via social media,” Kunz says. “Women are the most active social media users, and so naturally they share their running progress and communities on social.”

This 24/7 stream of inspiration and motivation is a big factor in keeping the community running—
research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that social media use greatly influences our own running habits. Their 2017 study of 1.1 million runners on social media found that the more our friends run, the more we run: When one runner recorded an extra 10 minutes in a training session, his or her friends ran, on average, an extra three minutes.

Get Connected

The most popular social apps for runners, all free on Android and iOS.

Strava: In addition to serving up friendly virtual competition via a leaderboard of splits on local segments, Strava allows you to connect with other runners and schedule a meet-up for some in-person throwdowns.

RunKeeper: You may be in Sacramento, but that doesn’t mean you can’t race your BFF in Boston. Challenge friends to some real-time racing, no matter where you are.

Nike+ Run Club: Want to see how you stack up to other runners? Hashtag your miles against specific goals or challenges in the app to see where you stand.

Today’s Run Culture Is…Family

When 42-year-old Jennifer Connor found her run crew, she found more than training buddies—she found the people who got her.

“They understand when a run needs to be a certain pace or a certain time,” Connor says. “They know the need for the endorphin rush to make sense of the rest of life. And they don’t look at me sideways when I say the best Friday night happy hour is actually a run, not a run to the bar.”

Connor discovered what so many runners know: Friendships forged in running are different from any other relationship in the runner’s life. There’s something about shared suffering on hot, hard runs that builds an indestructible bond. Studies have found that the same feel-good hormones behind the runner’s high may also strengthen social bonding, and the unique experiences of the running community—from frustrating injuries to the thrill of crossing the finish line—fosters empathy and support that can’t be found elsewhere.

This kinship often extends beyond the weekly group run. After so many shared conversations over so many miles, Connor’s training buddies became some of her closest friends, but when Connor entered the race of her life, they became family: “In 2017, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and underwent a hysterectomy,” she recalls. “While I was laid up for a number of weeks, my running friends were the ones who immediately sprang into action. They made more meals than my family could possibly eat, checked on the kids and made sure we had everything we needed while I was recuperating.

Today’s Run Culture Is…Charitable

Runners are a generous bunch. Just about every race donates a portion of its proceeds to worthy causes, and runners themselves often sign up to race on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Combined, running raises about $50 million for charity each year.

“For some people, running is about chasing PRs and podiums. Several years ago, I came up with the term smilepacing—I would go as fast as I could, with a smile on my face, because if I wasn’t feeling grateful, then why do it?” says 48-year-old Susanne Navas of Great Falls, Va. “I think it’s good to set goals for ourselves, especially as it keeps us structured and focused. It’s good to sign up for races, as that can help us prioritize our self-care and force us out of our comfort zone. But it’s not only about that.”

Navas, who initially took up running for self-care (“I needed ‘me time’ as a new mom”), now uses her training and racing to help others: In 2010, Navas started a youth fitness program that brings together children from underserved communities and the suburbs to learn about running, triathlon and healthy living. Today, that program has grown to serve 26 locations in three states.

“I think those of us who are lucky enough to have mentored others, either kids or adults, understand the power of what running can do, and be,” Navas says. “There is nothing like the sense of gratitude, accomplishment and connection that comes from continuing forward and reaching back to help someone else. Running can be one of the most concrete ways to do this.”

Today’s Run Culture Is…Inclusive

Watch the finish line of any race, and you’ll see there is no longer one “type” of runner. Once considered an elitist activity, today’s run culture emphasizes that running is for everybody and every body.

“I have never been speedy, so I used that excuse to not call myself a runner for decades,” says 40-year-old Megan Stebbins of Minneapolis, who credits the running community for helping her see herself for what she truly was. “Once I really thought about it, I realized I’ve been a runner ever since I was labeled ‘that hyper kid’ in kindergarten.” Today, Stebbins pays it forward by holding up the mirror for other new runners: “Encouraging adults, especially women, to run is one of my favorite conversations.”

The “everyone is welcome” notion is reinforced throughout today’s run culture, as running magazines strive to reflect the diversity of body types, ethnicities and abilities, races offer a variety of distances and events for every runner and niche groups strive to make running more accessible. For women, running has been an especially powerful outlet for creating body positivity.

“I have always been the curvy girl, and was always self-conscious about my weight and especially the size of my legs,” says 36-year-old Megan Sullivan of Tacoma Park, Md. “Taking up running showed me that this body was so much more than how it looked. These big legs are powerful. This jiggly body can run marathons. And seeing runners out there of all shapes and sizes made me realize that I wasn’t any different from anyone else. I stopped worrying about how I looked. That confidence carried over into other areas of my life.”

Big Moments In The Movement

Here’s how women’s run culture came to be.

1961

Citing “health and safety concerns,” the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) bans women from competing in U.S. road races.

1966

Roberta Louise “Bobbi” Gibb bandits the Boston Marathon, becoming the first female finisher of the race; Kathrine Switzer would race the following year as a numbered entry, creating controversy and inciting a ban from the AAU.

1972

The AAU allows women to register for road races, but only with gender-specific starting corrals. To protest this rule, women at the New York Marathon stage a sit-in for 10 minutes at their starting line, then begin their race with the men.

1977

Runners Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith sew together two men’s jockstraps to create the Jogbra, allowing women of all shapes and sizes to take up running in comfort.

1978

Nike launches the first-ever running shoes designed for women: the Nike Lady Waffle Trainer and the Nike Lady Cortez.

1980

The American College of Sports Medicine refutes decades of accepted medical opinion by stating, “there exists no conclusive scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is contraindicated for the healthy, trained female athlete.”

1984

In the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon, Joan Benoit delivers a staggeringly dominant performance, inspiring millions of women to sign up for road races.

1987

Track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first female athlete ever to be featured on the cover of a mainstream sport publication.

1994

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey crosses the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon after losing 80 pounds, triggering a “marathon boom” that saw participation rates more than triple in the following years.

2002

Ultrarunner Pam Reed becomes the first female to win an ultramarathon outright when she bests men and women en route to her victory at the Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon.

2009

Women’s Running debuts, becoming the first-ever running magazine written specifically for females.

2010

For the first time in history, female runners outnumber their male counterparts, making up 53 percent of finishers in U.S. road races.

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