December 1, 2007

What are the demographics of marathon finishers?

Although the running boom in America that began in the early 1970s with Frank Shorter's gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon and Steve Prefontaine's heroics in Oregon is long over, the number of marathon finishers continues to rise each year. Marathoning times in America have slowed since the 1980s, however, both at the elite level (the best Americans are not really competitive anymore, not only trailing the Ethiopians and Kenyans, but they're also out of the running versus the best Europeans and Northeast Asians), as well as in the middle of the pack.

Interestingly, marathoning in America has reverted back to a Century of the Common Man mode rather than follow the rest of America into the Century of the Superstar, where a few experts participate but many watch. I can't recall a famous American marathoner since Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers many years ago. And yet, despite a complete lack of famous role models these days, as a social movement in America, running marathons is quite healthy these days.

A friend wants to find demographic data on who pays to run a marathon (not the professionals who finish in the top ten, but the amateurs who run to see how well they can do or just to see if they can finish). A Google search on "marathon demographics" brings up detailed data on sex and age, as well as a few marketing research reports saying sponsoring a marathon is a good move for a financial institution (like LaSalle bank, which sponsors the huge Chicago marathon) because marathoners are just like golfers, only younger, more urban, more energetic, and even more into delayed gratification. But I can't find anything on the race or ethnicity of participants / finishers.

Any thoughts?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

When I ran the NYC marathon, my recollection was that the average competitors were mostly white.

But what really struck me (in terms of race) was the spectators. The part of the race that went through Harlem and the South Bronx was practically devoid of spectators cheering us on.

tommy said...

A friend wants to find demographic data on who pays to run a marathon...

Half Sigma?

Anonymous said...


The drought re: great american-born marathon runners is about to end, but unfortunately, law school gives me no time for an adequate response. I'll leave you a few names though. Not all of these guys have run marathons, but they are all long distance runners who are better than Rodgers, Pre, Shorter, Salazar (at least time-wise)

1. Alan Webb
800m: 1:43
mile: 3:46
10,000m:27:34 - that's 6.2 miles

2. Matt Tegankamp
3,000m: 7:31
5000m: 13:04

3. Dathan Ritzenhein
3000m: 7:35
10,000: 27:35
2nd in U.S. marathon trials

4. Chris Solinsky
3000m: 7:36
5000m: 13:12

5. Galen Rupp - just out of high school; salazar coaches him
10,000m: 27:33

6. Ryan Hall
2:08 marathon
American record at half marathon

7. Dan Lincoln
3000m Steeplechase: 8:08

I'm leaving out a lot of guys, but the average age of these guys is (probably) under 24. At least 2 of them (Hall and Ritz) are already running marathons. A marathoner's peek is around 32.

Steve Sailer said...

Thanks. Good to hear that.

I recall Allan Webb was the first American high school boy to run a mile under four minutes since three schoolboys did it in the Sixties: Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and somebody else.

I never understood why American world class distance running started getting lousier just as running became a big fad in America in the 1970s.

Anonymous said...

With the deaths happening in marathons as of late (check Half Sigma's writings on this), I cant figure why we uphold this form of competition.

I really think its bad for a human being to run 26 miles. Chin splints, bone and cartilage wear and tear, undue heart stress. How healthy do these people look to you really?
Infertility issues in female marathoners is also a consideration.

I just dont understand triatheletes and marathoners. Its a death wish through sport. Then again, I dont understand fear factor either and alot of people apparently like that self-debasement crap. Come to think of it, the little gal with the tackle box of fishing hooks (piercings) on her face that poured my coffee yesterday must like self-harm also.

Steve Sailer said...

World class marathoners are like heavyweight boxing contenders -- they can compete only about twice a year, such as at the Boston marathon in the spring and the New York marathon in the fall. The Olympic marathon can have trouble drawing the best runners or getting their best performances because it typically falls halfway in between the big money spring and fall races, when the top guys haven't recuperated enough to do their best.

The best distance runner athletes, such as Haile Gebresellaise and Hicham El-Gerrouj, tend to specialize in the 5000 and 10000 meter races because they can run those almost every week during the big money track meet season in Europe in the summer. They only move on to the marathon when they get older and lose their top-end speed.

Anonymous said...

Tim Danielson - the other guy

Fred said...

"World class marathoners are like heavyweight boxing contenders -- they can compete only about twice a year..."


Heavyweight boxing contenders can compete more than twice a year; the reason they don't fight more often is because professional boxing is a mess, with almost every match-up triggering legal challenges.

Interesting point about the shorter distance runners.

Mark said...

But I can't find anything on the race or ethnicity of participants/finishers.

Isn't a marathon race pretty much one giant moving demographics study? Get up early one Saturday morning, grab a chair, a pen, a notebook, and some eats, and go sit some place far out on the course where the runners have spread out. Start marking down people by race (the published stats will break it down by men and women for you).

My experience with the Salt Lake Marathon, where I cheered on a friend, was that, excluding the top African pros, it was overwhelmingly white - even for Utah.

Marathoning fits into those hip activities like cross country skiing, rafting, mountain climbing, backpacking, etc. in that it's the "in thing" for young white & Asian, educated, upper middle class folks to do.

Steve Sailer said...

Mike Tyson fought a lot on his way to the title because he was young and knocked everybody out fast. But a 30ish star can't fight 15 rounds against his top rivals more than 2 or 3 times per year - look at Ali's career in the 1970s. Heck, Frazier's folks wouldn't let him fight just the 15th round in Manila -- they figured it might be the difference between Joe spending the rest of his life on the golf course and the rest of his life drooling.

The lighter weight fighters can fight more often because they do less damage to each other.

Personally, I think they should ban boxing over about 150 pounds. It's like bullfighting -- magnificent, but too horrible.

Steve Sailer said...

Mark said:

"Get up early one Saturday morning"

Well, I think you've answered your own question right there.

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Marathoning fits into those hip activities like cross country skiing, rafting, mountain climbing, backpacking, etc. in that it's the "in thing" for young white & Asian, educated, upper middle class folks to do.

Yep. It's kind of the fitness equivalent of getting into an Ivy League school. You train real hard for it, but no one is sure if any real benefit comes out of it. Then you talk about it constantly to anyone in earshot.

I am Lugash.

Fred said...


Championship fights are 12 rounds these days, not 15 like in Ali's day, and a lot don't go that long. Heavyweights (at least the winners) could probably fight 3-4 times per year. That they average about 1 per year is due to the legal haggling.

Fred said...

Also, the under-150lb boxers can take vicious beatings too, when they are over-matched. A good example was the Mayweather-Gatti fight a couple of years ago.

Steven said...

Well, there's little incentive for American athletes to compete at the highest level in the marathon. To be competitive at the distance you run 90-120+ miles per week and if you can't get under 2:15 (for males) then you're just not competitive with the East Africans. Thus you're never going to have a chance in the few races that have decent sized purses. Sure, you can win the smaller marathons but why bother training so hard for so little? Let the Africans have the money.

I reached the sub-elite level in the sport. The training is brutal...which is why I don't compete at the marathon anymore. Better to use my huge aerobic advantage for other sports.

Anonymous said...

The lighter weight fighters can fight more often because they do less damage to each other.
Personally, I think they should ban boxing over about 150 pounds.

I don't believe that serious injuries, including long-term ones such as pugilistic dementia, are any more or less common among heavier boxers. Heavyweights may be able to hit harder, when compared to lighter boxers, but also have a greater ability to absorb blows and even more significantly don't usually land as many punches over the course of a fight.

In one important respect fighting at weights below heavyweight can be much more taxing on one's body. Sub-heavyweights cannot exceed certain weight limits, and in most cases fight at weights well below their natural weights. For example, a typical welterweight (147-pound limit) probably weights about 165 to 170 pounds most of the time. Fighters go through drastic weight cutting steps in order to drop below the limits, including fasting, dehydration, and even the copious use of laxatives. Weigh-ins are generally held the day before a fight, which gives the competitors a chance to re-hydrate themselves before stepping into the ring. Weight cutting takes quite a toll on their bodies and often makes their careers shorter than those of heavyweights, who aren't required to meet weight limits.


daveg said...

My feeling is that the best American athletes, and in particular white athletes, are doing triathlons now.


PatrickH said...

As for why American distance running tanked in the 70s when running got popular...well, long slow distance training also got popular in that decade. At that time, Marty Liquori himself criticized American distance running training as avoiding the hard stuff: intervals and fast distance. The decline in high school distance running in those years seemed to bear him out.

joshrandall said...

I used to be a runner,and enjoyed it very much. Never seriously considered doing a marathon,lets all recall what happened to the first guy who did one! I remember watching the mens marathon in the 84 LA Olympics,and I loved it. The only time I ever have,or will,watch a full marathon.(I rarely have watched baseball all the way exception being the day Joel Horlen no-hit the Tigers,the year he won 19 for the White Sox;this and a Sandy Koufax near no-hitter were the best games I ever saw :) ) Point? Well, remember Mary Slaney? Remember how she had that feud with that cute little South African chick with the funny name,Zola Budd? Remeber how they competed in the much-hyped 5000meter(? or was it 3000)? SO rare that a female sporting event is worth watching. And remeber how Zola stepped on Mary's foot,and wrecked her chances? Uhmm...that was cool,wasnt it?

Paul said...

I would imagine that your friend will probably have his 'work cut out for him' on getting accurate statistics. I would think most organizations would 'see through the question', and surmise what he's really 'getting at' by the request for data.

But, for what it's worth, I'd suggest starting with the NY Road Runner's Club. Not sure if it's the largest club in US, but I'm sure it's near the top:

They do have a separate page with info on the NYC marathon:

This page here has some data on NYC marathon finishers by country and by state:

I belong to NYRRC (live in Queens, NYC), and can pretty much 'echo' what others have said based on my anectodal observations of races in Central Park and elsewhere: most runners are white, upper income (I'm always annoyed overhearing the conversations by lawyer/accountant types during races discussing clients! - Focus on the damn race!). Very few 'black American' runners (Gotta be a conspiracy - paging Reverend Al!); most runners who are black that finish in the top ranks are foreign born (Ethiopian, Kenyan, some Somalis lately); many Moroccans and Algerians finish in the top as well (lot of these guys seem to live in Westchester County); I've seen a substantial number of Mexicans/Central Americans lately also, there's a bunch of running clubs with names such as 'Los Compadres', and a mostly hispanic youth club 'Jack Rabbits'.

Ricky Hatton said...

Down my local pub, they fight every Friday and Saturday night. And that's just the women.

Anonymous said...

I've seen a substantial number of Mexicans/Central Americans lately also

There's some Indian tribe in Mexico, its name escapes me, that's famous for long-distance running. Some of them have run 50 or even 100 miles at a time.


Anonymous said...

Couple of things to consider: Health, Progress and Education. We live in an iPod world where kids are more sedated than ever. People traveled less by foot or even mass transit. In school, PE class is no longer mandatory. The food we eat are 75% processed, laced with sugar and salt. If you travel to Africa, people are still living off the Earth and less penetrated by technology. Asia countries may be moving off 3rd world status but are still more grounded. Even Europe and its advances, people are still more conscious with their health and mass transit is widely available. Though the Green and health movement in USA is starting to take shape, we have a long way to go before we are walking / running / sprinting with desire.

I ran the 2008 NYC marathon and unlike other poster, I find the support of the crowd to be plentiful and enthusiastic. At the end of my race and walking back to my hotel, I was cheered upon by couple of young African American kids who simple high five me for my effort. I did my Mean Joe Green impression by giving my medal and my race shirt to the boys. They quickly ran to their parents and said that they want to be a runner like me. Sure, these boys may never be future marathoners, but the size their eyes and smiles were worth my investment.

Instead of blogging about the death of world class runners in USA, we should all do more to promote the sport. Every little grassroot action will improve the chance of adding track stars of the future.

Anonymous said...

In response to anonymous referring to the Mexican tribe: they're the Tarahumaras from the state of Chihuahua. AMAZING runners

zbsports said...

Now I know what are the demographics of marathon finishers...very good information there...