Social media, friendly atmosphere fueling resurgence in long-distance running

NEW ORLEANS — Somewhere north of 20,000 people will congregate near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday morning, their shoes double-knotted and a 6.2-mile journey by foot in front of them.

For some, it’s an annual trek. The Crescent City Classic, now in its 35th year, has frequently drawn large crowds since its inception and is widely regarded as one of the most popular road races in the country.

But others are just getting acquainted with the world of running. And in recent years, they’ve been coming out in larger numbers.

Running’s popularity has soared in the past decade, leading those closely involved with the sport to call this modern era the “second running boom.”

“Running is back in vogue again after a hiatus,” said Eric Stuart, the Classic’s Race Director.

The first boom came in the 1970s and ’80s with the proliferation of running shoes and the success of Americans like Olympian Frank Shorter and running rock star Steve Prefontaine on the track and the road.

It spawned a generation of runners aiming to beat the clock.

This is not necessarily the case with the second wave of new runners.

“The running boom, when I first started around 1980, was a big boom of people that were finding the sport for the first time,” said Jenni Peters, founder of Varsity Sports running store in Baton Rouge. “The end result was a little bit more competitive athlete. They were out there just to race.

“This one’s a much nicer boom, in terms of being inclusive. Most people are out there just for the experience and for themselves, or as part of a fundraiser or to be with friends.”

At the heart of it all is the social aspect of the sport. Rather than hitting the pavement with nothing but a stopwatch and a personal best to beat, people are increasingly choosing the sport as a way to meet with friends.

Combine it with being relatively inexpensive, the recent trend toward health and fitness and the ever-increasing presence of social media, and it’s easy to see why running has taken off.

Stuart visited a local running club earlier this week. Outside of a few who would qualify as competitive runners, most of the roughly 70 people in attendance were there to enjoy a quick run with friends and family.

“It’s a socialization thing now,” Stuart said. “They may meet at a park and do a race, then go have dinner together. Maybe go catch a drink together. And it’s fueling this huge rebirth of running.”

Technology and social media have also opened new doors for those looking for a way in.

Anybody with a smartphone can download an application that charts their progress and mileage.

Runners can record their runs on a phone, take pictures along the route and post it to their Facebook or Twitter timelines afterward.

“I think social media has enhanced running’s popularity,” Peters said. “People say, ‘Here I am; here’s what I’ve done; here’s the fun I’m having.’ ”

Women are becoming increasingly involved in the sport. Look at the male-female splits of most races short of a full marathon, and you’ll find the split to be somewhere around 60 percent female finishers.

Peters said that number is also reflected in her retail sales.

“Women are out there in massive numbers,” Stuart said. “And the one thing about women is that it’s not necessarily younger women. Women of all ages are out there. From a fitness perspective, it looks like women are more concerned about fitness than men.”

That concern is spawned from a societal desire to be fit. For proof, Peters said, just look at subtitles on magazine covers when grocery shopping.

“How can I look younger, feel younger, feel fitter, look better?” Peters said. “I think running is a real easy avenue to that.

“That sounds trite, but I know it’s an incentive for a lot of ladies.”

The increased popularity has no signs of slowing down. Running USA submits an annual report that charts the current state of the sport. One report looks at the amount of people running in the top 100 races around the country.

The most recent report, issued in September, showed that an all-time high of 1.6 million people finished those top 100 races. It marked a 75 percent increase from the 2000 report.

“You’re seeing all these big races now are putting up big numbers, as far as runners go,” Stuart said. “It’s uncanny. We now have ‘X’ amount of races that attract well over 20,000 people all over the United States.”