The Oprah Effect?

If Frank Shorter inspired the first running boom, Oprah inspired the second by running the Marine Corps Marathon. And it was a much bigger boom. This was not a spindly 24-year old Yalie gliding through Old World Munich. If Oprah could run a marathon, shame on anyone who couldn’t. Edward McClelland, author and journalist.

I read this quote the other day when flipping through 1,001 Pearls of Runners’ Wisdom, edited and introduced by Bill Katovsky (review soon). For some reason, this quote really struck me. How much truth could it hold?

Quite a lot, methinks. I mean, let’s face it, Oprah has made and broken many an author, actor, or stay-at-home-mom with an invention. So why not the marathon boom that we are experiencing these days?

Some joke that today’s marathon boom is the modern day mid-life crisis. I think there might be a little something to that, too. I can rattle off a half dozen people I know personally who picked up running out of nowhere as their 40th birthdays approached. Marathons have become bucket list items.

There’s also the Internet effect, the blog effect, the reality TV effect (again, if Biggest Loser contestants can run a marathon, can’t anyone?). There are lots of factors at play here, but here are the results:

  • In 1980, there were 143,000 marathon finishers in the U.S.; in 2011, that number jumped to 518,000
  • In 1980, the median age for male finishers was 34 and for female, 31; in 2011, the median male age was 39.9, the median female age was 38.4

I’m not making any kind of point here, other than it’s interesting to look into why the marathon has become such a popular distance in the past five to 10 years (the half marathon even more so). I’m sure there are many factors at play. The only question that begs to be answered is this–is the growth going to reach a plateau any time soon or will it continue for years to come. Thoughts? 

And while we’re talking details, did you know you can win a copy of 1,001 Pearls of Runners’ Wisdom in the basket of great stuff I am raffling off to donors to my Team Fight fundraising campaign?

And did you know I am on Instagram now? If you are too, give me a follow (MissZippy1) and I’ll follow you back.

And did you know you can order these really great FitFluential tanks (for women) and shirts (for guys) here? Check them out.

And (last one, I promise!) you can find me vlogging here on the FitFluential blog about how to use a jump rope to find your mid foot. Please go give the post some love!


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  1. says

    Wow, it never even occurred to me that Oprah could be responsible for the running boom. Given her ability to sell everything from soap to Faulkner though, Katovsky may have a point!

    I personally think interest will eventually plateau, but settle at much higher participation rates than in the 80s and 90s. In my running group, we do see a lot of bucket listers, and they seem to do their one big marathon (or more frequently, half) and move on to the next bullet. (Skydiving, anyone?) I wonder if the interest is generational? Every time I move up an age group, I get farther from the top of it!

    Love the blog, btw! Very indebted to RW Daily for introducing me!
    Chris recently posted..The Perfect Vacation RunMy Profile

  2. says

    Huh, I hadn’t considered Oprah as part of this women’s running boom but you’ve made an excellent point. Don’t know if I like that or not!
    Curious how the amount of distance runners are increase despite the vast increase in obesity … perhaps this is our way of fighting extra hard through example.
    I definitely believe that more people are running, particularly women around that 40ish age – and for that I am very glad.
    Kathy R recently posted..Aspen Valley Marathon Race RecapMy Profile

  3. says

    It is not only the marathon. More and more people realize that they can do what for the longest time seemed to be unachievable. More people participate in triathlons, climb high peaks (that includes Mt Everest) or bike insane distances.
    I think this is an era of challenging oneself and realizing that all is possible. I like that.
    Ewa recently posted..17min 46sec – trust me, time well spentMy Profile

  4. says

    I’ve often wondered why people jump straight to a marathon or half instead of starting out with 5 or 10 km. the Oprah affect might just be the answer!
    I think the growth will keep going for a while. People like the challenge and I think the more people run those distances, the more people think ‘why can’t I’?
    I think the growth of triathlons, namely the IM events is huge, too.
    Abby @ Change of Pace recently posted..Six weeks to race dayMy Profile

  5. says

    I think that Oprah and the BL are definitely part of it. Also the whole obesity epidemic thing scaring the bejeezus out of people to take action and as we runners well-know, having a goal helps stick with the plan and paying upwards of $200 to enter a race will get most people to the start line somehow! I think it will plateau as running a marathon losing its chache. At some point people at dinner parties won’t be impressed. I’d love more people to continue on after 1 and actually try to get better and push themselves. It will be interesting to see how many of this boom stick it out and are still running in 5 years. I hope a lot!
    Salty recently posted..Fight the Bonk! Train to Avoid Glycogen Depletion in Your Fall MarathonMy Profile

  6. Lisa says

    I think the rising numbers are fascinating, especially when you consider that the number of overweight/obese people continues to rise as well. Are the fit getting “fit-er” while the unhealthy get “unhealthy-er”?? Weird.

  7. says

    I think that if there is a plateau it will be several years from now. Running is so popular right now, it is crazy. I have co-workers that have never run before and they are training for their first 1/2 marathons. Everyone has the running bug! It is funny because when most people run their first marathon they always want to beat Oprah’s time. Oprah made running seem cool to a lot of people, but I think now people run to stay active and healthy too.
    Tasha @ Healthy Diva recently posted..My Prehab/Rehab Routine (#1)My Profile

  8. says

    I think there’s a lot of factors, and I hope it will continue to grow as a sport. I love running, but did not love it until a few years ago. I think some see runners and think, I can do that and want better for themselves. I also think its a great goal-setter for people…they can work toward something and see the finish result? Not sure what’s helped it gain popularity but you’re right…it’s booming!
    marissa recently posted..running, jumping and having a ball!My Profile

  9. says

    i live in a bubble so i can honestly say i started running for myself. but i sometimes wonder how many people get into the sport because of celebrity endorsement, etc. as for it continuing to grow, i think it will. but do i want it too?? hmmm. we won’t be crazy runners anymore if *everyone* is doing it.
    Denise recently posted.."The Weekend" RecapMy Profile

  10. says

    I sincerely hope Oprah is not responsible for the rapid growth in marathons and marathoners. I’d like to give people more credit than that. I suppose any publicity is good publicity, especially if it’s a means to a healthy end, but I’m not a big fan of the Oprah. I choose to think it’s a function of real people … like Forrest Gump :)
    Chris @ Evolving Through Running recently posted..Back in TrackMy Profile

  11. says

    I think there are a lot of factors, but yes, I think Oprah could be part of them. :) I think interest will continue to grow, it may eventually plateau but I think there are still years of growth to come.
    abbi recently posted..Making PlansMy Profile

  12. says

    I definitely think Oprah had something to do with the current marathon popularity as well as television shows like The Biggest Loser. I don’t think people understood what marathon running was 10 years ago and they had no idea that they could do it, I know I had no idea until I started running.
    Robin recently posted..How I Spent My Summer VacationMy Profile

  13. says

    I’m always amazed that the median age is as old as it is… definitely something more people are picking up and holding on to longer. I’m curious what the next decade will bring, especially with the HUGE growth of cross fit. I think some people who run for the sake of weight loss (as opposed to the pure love of it) may be switching over if they can get results in much less time!
    Laura recently posted..WIAW and a Larabar/Uber giveaway!My Profile

  14. says

    Interesting to see the growth, especially when you look at half marathons! I have to be honest I never considered the Oprah-effect, but I suppose there could be some truth to it. I’m sure things will plateau at some point but not in the next few years. What I haven’t been able to wrap my head around is how the numbers for running are growing at the same time the numbers for obesity continue to climb too…fascinating!
    Michelle @ Running with Attitude recently posted..Thursday Thoughts (aka 3 things)My Profile

  15. says

    Aack the Fitfluential shirts are so PINK! I hope they come out with another color so I feel like I can wear it!

    I don’t know that I would have done a marathon this year without all the great encouragement I got from the blog world. So glad I did though and intend to again. Interesting numbers!
    Christy@ My Dirt Road Anthem recently posted..Three Things ThursdayMy Profile

  16. Jamoosh says

    More people running, yet we’re still getting fatter? I think people will hate me, but I think we have made it too easy to run a marathon. Courses that are open seven and eight hours and/or offer early starts for walkers and slower runners don’t help the situation. The one stat you didn’t mention is how far the average time to finish a marathon has risen for both men and women. As an example, I think I am slow, but in reality I am average. I would have been “slow” 20 years ago.

    As a former coach and a participant in Marathon Training Programs, most (not all) programs are not about “training” people to run a marathon, but getting them to a point where they can survive marathon day. Further, if you look at the make up of the groups in the biggest Programs, a majority of people are in the slow running group, the run/walk group or the walker group.

    As for Oprah, you have to applaud her for bringing additional attention to the Marathon. But what most people fail to remember is that Oprah worked her butt off for an average marathon finish and she had a personal traininer, a running coach, and a nutritionist to help get her there. Most people don’t have that.

    Finally, I think if you take away the “participation” medal, you will see a drop in participation and some of the bigger marathons will not be so hard to get into.

    • says

      Good for you! And good luck! You can do it eight weeks should be enuogh time to train. Don’t be afraid to push yourself to do longer distances early. You can probably run much farther than you think you can:).

  17. says

    I think this is so interesting, too! I wonder if it has anything to do with health and the emphasis people are now placing on healthy living/health care. Are more people using races as “training plans” or to ease into a healthy lifestyle? Just a quick thought!
    Kara recently posted..Accountability and Long Run LessonsMy Profile

  18. says

    I wonder how many “Bucket Lister” marathoners continue to run after they check it off their list? I personally kinda hope the numbers taper off (heh heh) at some point. I really enjoy the smaller races and get a kick out of many of my (non-runner) friends thinking I’ve got a screw loose for choosing to run 13.1-26.2 miles!
    GreenGirlRunning recently posted..The Jungle Run 10k RecapMy Profile

  19. says

    Man, Oprah can get nearly 400,000 people to run a marathon? I can’t even get my elementary school sons to wipe their butt after they crap. *sigh*

    But in all seriousness, I sincerely hope that more and more people join the fitness crusade. Our kids deserve better models for fitness and diet. Now where did I put that fro yo?
    Sheila recently posted..True Confession Thursdays DebutMy Profile

  20. says

    I never thought about Oprah getting people to run – so interesting! It’s good to have people get fit. I’m interested to see how things go too, like if it will plateau or keep growing. I feel like the half will continue to grow, but maybe the marathon will plateau. We’ll see…
    Paulette recently posted..Hello Again, Calves & ShinsMy Profile

  21. says

    I think running in general has boomed. I remember running races in my 20’s (over 10 yrs ago) where i would place for my age group (I ran 5K’s at 27:00) and now I am licks to be in the top ten and the 20 year olds are running 20 minutes. I have recently run races that I ran 10 yrs ago that have more than tripled in size. I think running may be an epidemic.
    Toni Church recently posted..Heart & Sole 5K Plus Another 8 or So MilesMy Profile