Is the road running boom in danger of going bust?

Headline events will always survive, others are showing a downward trend

Rudolf Nureyev was asked one time how his muscles reacted as they got older.

“They get wiser,” he said, and it’s dawned on me recently just what he was talking about.

Like on these dawn runs of late. Just because everyone thinks you were born to run doesn’t mean it still comes easy or not slow. There is no more looking at the stopwatch, only the falling leaves and the sky above and with that the sense and realisation my once booming days are truly going bust.

Because, like Nureyev discovered, my muscles are wiser now and have been telling me secrets in my sleep. Push any of them too hard, including that fist-sized one in the chest which gets those five litres of blood running three times around the world, through the body’s deep network of capillaries, veins and arteries which extend over 60,000 miles, and they won’t always thank you for it anymore.


There are muscles elsewhere which have properly wised up, wouldn’t be pushed again even if asked. It’s all part of the deal where there’s a boom-to-bust in every running cycle, only that doesn’t mean some things can’t quickly turn again.

Trace the trail. When in the winter of 1945 a 29-year-old New Zealand club rugby player named Arthur Lydiard decided to test his fitness by going for a run he quickly discovered his muscles weren’t at all wise.

On his return he urinated blood and felt as if his lungs had been torn apart, truly frightened by the thought if he’s this unfit before he’s 30, what will he be like by age 50?

So Lydiard set himself the target of being fit enough to enjoy life by 1965 – and completely overshot it. In 1950, he ran the Commonwealth Games marathon for New Zealand, finishing 13th, before in 1957 he turned his attention to coaching – later turning the likes of Peter Snell and Murray Halberg into Olympic champions.

In 1961, with his fast-growing group of disciples, Lydiard set up the Auckland Jogging Club, the first of its kind and largely recognised as the start of the road running boom.

The following year, Lydiard was visited in Auckland by the American coach Bill Bowerman, touring with his world class 4×1 mile team. He was invited for a run and quickly discovered how unfit he was too, at age 51.

With that Bowerman returned to America and created a running program in Eugene, which soon became the recognised national model for fitness. No longer considered a potentially dangerous pursuit, running became a sort of opium for the masses, for some every bit as addictive, and nowhere did the numbers go shooting up faster than in the big city marathons.

From New York to London, and Dublin too, that first running boom soared through the 1980s, before suddenly some things went bust.

Dublin is a good case-study: after 1,421 finishers in 1980, numbers jumped to 8,768 by 1982, still saw 7,738 finishers in 1988, before dropping back to 2,806 by 1990, with only 2,414 finishers in 1992.

Thanks in part to a doubling of their own efforts and enthusiasm, plus the introduction of the countdown race series, Dublin’s numbers eventually boomed again, as they did in most road races around the globe, with 17,724 finishers in 2019.

Then the pandemic changed everything, sparking a boom of an entirely different kind, people running less for their health and more for their sanity.

With no Dublin Marathon in 2020 and again last year, most of the original 25,000 entries, decided on a part-lottery system after a demand of more than 35,000 applicants, spilled over into last month’s event, where there were 14,772 finishers, from just under 15,000 starters.

The significant number of no-shows is largely explained by the three-year run-in; meanwhile most of the entries for the 2023 event are already decided.

With another limit of in or around 25,000 (yet to be confirmed), the demand this time is still strong, said to be just over 30,000, final entries decided on a combination of 2022 entrants, lottery applicants, Athletics Ireland good-for-age, charities, and an overseas allocation.

The first stage of the lottery is complete, successful applicants told on Friday, and who have until next Thursday to decide whether to accept or not.

Any unclaimed entries will go into a second lottery, and that will likely be that.

Premium and flagship running events since as the Dublin Marathon will always likely sell-out, especially with an entry limit, although in some running circles things are in danger of going bust again.

Last week Athletics Weekly ran an article under the headline ‘Where have all the runners gone?’ It quoted figures from, the UK’s largest race search engine, which found events earlier this year were on average 26 per cent down on the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019 – dropping between 30 to 35 per cent in the 10km and half-marathon events.

Even the free-to-enter parkruns appear to be struggling a little for numbers, down by around 23 per cent compared to 2019.

The popular Brighton Marathon was also in the news last month as it was unable to deliver on prizemoney, due to increased costs and decreased entries, which dropped from 12,700, in 2017, to 7,500 last year.

While some big city marathons like London and New York haven’t lost any appeal, the Boston Marathon, for a second year in a row, has announced that everyone who qualified and applied will get to run, another significant shift from pre-pandemic times.

There is other evidence that the lockdown running boom hasn’t translated to an increase in road race entries, not yet anyway.

Last month, several prominent Irish clubs expressed concern at the decision by the board of Athletics Ireland to push through a new levy on all non-members wishing to participate in their permitted recreational running and race events.

From next January 1st, anyone not registered with an Irish athletics club was facing an extra €2 on their entry, for each race their enter, under what Athletics Ireland were calling a new one-day licence fee, all revenue generated going to support their high-performance programme.

Still, coming at a time when race organisers across the country were already absorbing substantial rises in costs when putting on running events, while trying to maintain race entries and an affordable entry fee, some felt that extra levy could just be the difference between them surviving and going bust.

Athletics Ireland have backed down, for now, engaging on a case-by-case basis including the Dublin Marathon, who have just opened discussions on what it means for their 2023 entry fee, which has already gone up.

Lydiard and Bowerman never viewed their running boom as any sort of money-making exercise, maybe most still don’t, and the pre-pandemic numbers may well soon return in force, before eventually all runners wise up and the cycle begins again.