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A Brand New Day. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

A Brand New Day. Photo by Thomas Hawk.


Local Businesses Grow With Marathons' Popularity

Ruby de Luna

This weekend will be Seattle's second annual Rock and Roll Marathon. The popular event is expected to draw more than 27,000 runners. The number of Americans running marathons jumped nearly 10 percent last year, a record growth. Also, there are more running events to choose from. As KUOW's Ruby de Luna reports, marathons have become multimillion dollar events. And it's not just runners who benefit from the races.


Baker: "So go ahead and skip and wait until everybody gets behind you and skip right back."

Beth Baker is a running coach. Rain or shine, Baker and her clients meet every Wednesday at Green Lake Park. Today they're working on speed drills.

Baker: "All right? Skip, skip, skip."

About a dozen adults, mostly women, bring their knees as high as they can as they skip. And the benefit of skipping?

Baker: "It just makes them look silly and that's all I care."

Road races have fueled businesses like Baker's. Baker started her coaching business four and a half years ago. She says when the Rock and Roll Marathon came to Seattle last year, her web traffic spiked. And she picked up a lot of new clients, mostly people who've never run a marathon before.

Baker: "I had a lot of people do the half last year that had never thought of running. It was just like this big bandwagon that came in. And people were like, let's do that."

That's something Baker can relate to. Baker never considered herself an athletic person. In fact she didn't take up running until she was in her late 20s. And she started doing it to relieve stress and because in her words, she was drinking a lot of beer and her clothes didn't fit anymore. She used that experience to help co–workers and friends run their first race.

Baker: "People see that runners aren't these skinny, elite–looking athletes, because I was quite a bit heavier when I was running marathons, about 45 pounds heavier and just very curvy. So people said, well if she could do it, I can do it."

Baker comes from an advertising and radio background. She became a full–time running coach when she was laid off. Her clients are mostly women who've never run, or haven't been active in years. That's not surprising. More and more women are participating in races. That's a different scene from 30 years ago.

James: "It was pretty much male–dominated; it was about performance, how fast can you go, really a fraternity of men."

Chet James owns and operates one of the oldest running stores in the Northwest, Super Jock 'n Jill. When his mom opened the store in 1975, it was one of the few stores in the country that specialized in running shoes and gear. James says it had a reputation as a geeky running store, a store for serious runners who were interested in beating their performance record. And back then there weren't that many running events. So his mom organized an informal race, twice a week at Green Lake Park.

James: "On Sundays and Thursday afternoons she'd be out there with a stopwatch, watching 30 guys run as fast as they can and then she'd record and post them, so it was pretty much a fraternity track club at the time."

The days of the fraternity track club are gone. Today, people run marathons for entirely different reasons. Many take up running to stay fit and healthy. According to the industry group Running USA, the number of new runners actually surged during the down economy. Subscriptions to running magazines and sales of running shoes grew by up to 6 percent. This year the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association expect nearly $3.5 billion in running shoe sales.

Running events have changed, too. They're no longer the competitive races that attract Type–A personalities. These days the focus is on having fun. And organizers are competing to make their events stand out. Brian Davis should know. Davis is founder and race director of Energy Events in Vancouver, Washington. He's been organizing running events in Vancouver and Portland for the past three years. He says the goal is to create a memorable, social experience. Some races have live, local bands stationed at each mile to cheer on runners. Some offer muddy obstacle courses and encourage runners to wear goofy costumes. Others promise microbrews at the finish line.

Davis: "Anybody can throw up a finish line and a tent and say this is a race and do certain things, but we're trying to do a little bit extra. It's more of the fun aspect afterwards. You work hard, you play hard and you reward yourself at the end."

Davis is organizing the newest marathon in the Northwest. The Vancouver Marathon will debut next year. It will be a Boston qualifier. Davis knows there are already three big races between Seattle and Portland for runners to choose. But he thinks his race will stand out for its scenic route.

Davis: "Given the Fort Vancouver, and the Columbia River, we just have a lot of historic areas that I think people don't know about Vancouver, Washington."

Davis hopes the Vancouver marathon will eventually grow as big as Seattle's. Vancouver officials certainly see the race as a tourism opportunity. But not every city rolls out the red carpet for such events. When the Rock and Roll Marathon made plans to come to Seattle last year, Tukwila committed over $750,000 over three years. On the other hand, Seattle chose not to pay marathon organizers. Instead the city billed them for permits and police.

Marketing and branding may have helped running's popularity. But for many runners the motivation is more personal. Coach Beth Baker says it brings people closer, sometimes on a much deeper level than they anticipate.

Baker: "You get to know somebody so, so well when you're training with someone because it is so hard to put up with any kind of facade. You can't B.S. after 15 miles of running together and you get to know the core of that person."

But running races is more than just sweating and suffering together. Baker is planning a women's retreat where they'd run in the morning and go wine tasting in the afternoon.

I'm Ruby de Luna, KUOW News.

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