by Grant McLean

Twelve years ago the New York Times reported that the United States was experiencing a running boom – although a somewhat more low key one than the seventies original. Is it possible that New Zealand is currently experiencing a similarly low key running boom, one that has kind of snuck-up on us while we weren’t looking. If so, what is the nature of this boom? and how do clubs like Scottish tap into it?

General participation in running has been high since the late 1990s according to New Zealand national sport and recreation surveys (500,000 in 2007/08). Conversely membership of the sport of athletics has gradually declined since the 1980s (40,000 in 1987 to 21,000 in 2008).

It is through events that the real growth in running (and walking) appears to have been occurring. In recent years marathon and half marathon events have evolved to offer many optionsincluding relays, 10 and 5ks and children’s races.

Throughout the major centres signature events have seen significant growth. The Christchurch events are likely to top 5000 this year. The Harbour Capital event has tripled to 4000 since 2003. This year’s running of the Rotorua marathon has seen the largest numbers for many years (2500). Auckland has become heavily over-subscribed to the point that many competitive runners couldn’t enter in 2008.

Registrations for 2009 have already opened for the 1 November event! Brand new events like the New Balance Half Marathon in Wellington have got off to an impressive start with 1000 runners, double the annual numbers for the previous club-run event.

What demarcates this mini-boom from the full- blown original? The types of participants have changed in terms of their make-up, motivation and the way they participate.

Event director Michael Jacques agrees we are following the U.S in experiencing a mini-boom and notes its’ different character “I’d been predicting this ‘mini-boom’ for a while actually. However, [it] is much more recreational.”

The sport has transformed in the US to being more informal, mainstream and socially acceptable. Participants have become more focused on overall health and wellbeing and the goal of finishing a marathon rather than about performance and PBs. Here too the focus is more on fun, health and fitness.

The New York Times noted that the original boom was characterised by its obssesiveness with ‘zealous runners often logging 70 miles’. Men tended to dominate the first running boom, although women gained a strong and visible foothold in the sport through efforts of the likes of Kathrine Switzer and Avon running. In New Zealand too women regularly make up 50% of fields.

Celebrity runners have also helped bring running into the mainstream. In the U.S. much is made of the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Katie Holmes running marathons. In the UK Gordon Ramsay and Ronan Keating are London marathon regulars. In New Zealand Kerry Woodham has written of her experience in Short fat chick to marathon runner.

According to Jacques it is the event industry  that evolved out of the 1980s that has driven the latest mini-boom and he notes that it’s not just a running boom; it’s all the modern participation/ event-based endurance sports.

This development is an important consideration for clubs such as our own because the event industry does appear to have been quicker to tap into the needs of the broader running population.

Jacques notes that with the first running boom in early-80s the only real medium for people getting into and learn about the sport was via clubs. However, clubs weren’t for everyone particularly those who just wanted to try something new on a more casual basis. “What followed was the rise of break-away ‘fun-run’ style events in the same mould as the new- fangled sports like triathlon, multisport and mountain-biking which saw the rise of the event industry” says Jacques. These sports are still related to traditional club running and cycling, yet offer more flexibility that suits increasingly busy, complex life-styles.

Jacques is really putting a challenge to the traditional club model. He believes the event model has allowed people to dabble whenever they chose in a variety of related sports with events that tended to revolve more around personal challenge and inspiring terrain.

How does Scottish fair against this challenge? Scottish has worked hard to address the broader environmental challenges. We have already broadened our base to cater for a wider range of members, made strong connections with triathlon and have long provided a varied running/walking programme that is not limited to the clubhouse. The club is also now scheduling activity year round. We also have a ‘virtual club’ dimension through our great website.

It appears that the corporate world is also waking up to the myriad benefits of supporting employees with sport and recreational pursuits, particularly through team participation in mass participation events. Morale, team dynamics and culture can all improve and of course the bottom line – a happy, healthy workforce – is a productive workforce. Clubs should be thinking about how to connect with this growing pool of participants.

The goal should be to turn a runner’s current interest into a ‘life-long’ love of the sport

How best to tap into all this growth? The waterfront 5k series is a connection Scottish already has. There may also be opportunities to partner more directly with commercial event organisers to elevate club races such as the 10km road championships to be a broader, even ‘mass’ participation-type event? Centre and club championships could still be run within such events with the added potential spin-off of recruiting new members. Should the club also establish its own (or even a cross-club) longer distance event (e.g. a half marathon) marketed to the broader running public?

Interestingly, the growth in event-based participation may not entirely be based on quantity. A closer look at the results in the recent half marathon in Wellington suggests an improvement in quality. 70 runners were under 1.30 (few appeared to be club runners) a depth not seen in a Wellington event for many years. By comparison the annual club-organised summer half marathon of 1997 had fewer than 50 runners under 1.30. Some of these runners may start looking for more structured forms of the sport to further improve their performance, something a club-based environment like Scottish is ideal for.

There are some other positive signs in our sport. Some national athletics events have seen good growth in recent years (such as the NZ Cross Country Championships). Also at least anecdotally, Junior athletics club numbers in Wellington are on the rise, possibly partly due to the success of Nick Willis at Beijing.

Clubs do still have a lot to offer by providing a specific social environment and range of support services and expertise to runners. We must keep a finger on the pulse of the broader running and walking participant’s needs. We also should work on our marketing and PR, an essential in today’s world. The goal should be to tap into and help turn a runner’s current interest into a ‘life-long’ love of the sport – something a club like Scottish is founded upon.