George Hirsch, publisher of Runner's World, sees the paradox. "There is a tremendous upsurge in the popularity of marathons and certain road races," says Hirsch, "at a time when interest in running domestically has in fact diminished greatly."
One reason for the increased participation in big events, says Hirsch, is that popular races such as the Chicago Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., both to be staged on Oct. 22, offer on-line race registration. (A runner can, of course, still sign up by mail or phone.) "A year ago I would have said that on-line registration is the future, but now it's definitely the present," says Hirsch. In fact, a runner can't participate in some races unless he knows how to log on. As Hirsch notes, "This year the Big Sur [ Calif.] Marathon used only on-line registration."
Speed now is almost as important in entering a race as it is in running one. The 1999 Marine Corps Marathon filled its field of 18,000 in seven months. This year it expanded to 25,000 competitors and used Ann Arbor, Mich.-based doitsports.com to process its on-line registrations. Within four days the field was full, despite the on-line registration site's being shut down for nearly a day because of a crush of hits from marathon hopefuls. Race officials say that 52% of the entries came on-line.
"You've got to be prepared for an onslaught," says Dave Alberga, CEO of La Jolla, Calif.-based Active.com, which handles on-line registration for more than 14,000 events. "Routinely, we process three thousand registration applications per day. When we handle San Francisco's Bay-to-Breakers 12K, the largest road race in the country [70,000 runners], we process one registration per second."
The former COO of Ticketmaster, Alberga is fast turning Active.com into the Ticketmaster of participatory sports registration. Active.com processes applications in 60 sports. Last year the fledgling dot.com registered 300,000 people for events. This year that number has quadrupled, and it should quadruple again in 2001. Entrants are billed $1 to $2 as a service charge. "We don't look at it as a runner saying, 'Those rat bastards charged me an extra two bucks,' " says the 38-year-old Alberga. "We think that given the convenience—no envelope to stamp, no check to write, learning that you've been accepted within minutes rather than weeks—the runner is grateful for how much time we save him or her."
Going the same distance in less time. Who better than a runner to understand that?