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Participation in endurance events across the U.S. has indeed risen dramatically over the last decade. These physical challenges include the unthreatening, untimed and immensely popular 5K Color Runs; more testosterone-intensive challenges such as Muddy Buddy and Tough Mudder, otherwise known as MOB (mud, obstacles, beer) runs; and the scores of marathons and half-marathons, triathlons and CrossFit competitions that are selling out from Kona to Daytona Beach. If you aren't training for some physical ordeal that entails safety-pinning a race number to your person, then surely you've been hit up for sponsorship dollars by someone who is.
Mary Wittenberg speaks of a "flywheel effect" by which these events mint new endurance athletes who are younger and younger. "What's radically different from even 10 years ago is the breadth of offerings," says Wittenberg, the head of New York Road Runners. "There are all these fun, different ways people are getting pulled in. And once they're pulled in, we have a chance to help them run for life."
And no, the carnage at April's Boston Marathon won't put a dent in this trend. If anything, it will have the opposite effect. Babbitt spoke for many when he told me, the day after the bombings, "This isn't just a hobby. This is who we are. No one's gonna take that away from us."
We are not talking about a fitness craze; that connotes something faddish and temporary, like parachute pants or Groupon. America is in the midst of a sustained trend, what Running USA calls the Second Running Boom (with boomlets in triathlon and MOB runs). The number of U.S. road-race finishers has tripled since 1990, to 13.9 million in 2011. And during that time it's become increasingly important to put the seat down in the Porta Potties in the parking lot: Race fields have gone from 75% male to 55% female.
Call it the Revenge of Kathrine Switzer, who sneaked into the Boston Marathon in 1967, five years before the race accepted women. Switzer was famously chased down by race director Jock Semple, who was cursing at her and trying to tear off her race number when he suddenly found himself airborne, sent ass-over-bandbox by a cross-body block from Switzer's burly boyfriend, a hammer thrower named Tom Miller.
Rock 'n' Roll events have an even higher concentration of estrogen; women make up 65% of their fields, according to Scott Dickey, president and CEO of Competitor Group, which owns the 32-race series. "A lot of these women are running to stay fit, a lot of them are married with kids, some are coming out of the postpregnancy fog," Dickey says. "They're getting their groove back."
They're doing it, very often, in a way that benefits others—doing well by doing good. The dividends of exercise are well known, from boosting one's mood and stamina to improving one's sex life. And thousands of people on the Strip that night were doubling down on those benefits by running for charities. "A good conscience," as Ben Franklin put it, "is a continual Christmas."
WE RAN past countless earnest coaches in TEAM CHALLENGE T-shirts exhorting their runners, "Way to go, Team Challenge! You look great!"
"What about the rest of us?" I asked a few of the coaches. "How do we look?" It's true that in the days before the race some of us felt a vague resentment toward the Team Challenge people, who tended to roam the sidewalks in impenetrable clumps, occluding pedestrian traffic. Yet it was wrongheaded, I realized, to harbor uncharitable thoughts toward them. TC raises money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, the official charity of the Vegas Rock 'n' Roll event. Its members were running for a worthy cause. They are part of the solution, I thought. What am I part of?
Mitchell Sabshon wasn't asking Mark Semer if he'd be interested in completing a triathlon to honor their friend Stephen (Skippy) Lubofsky, who in 2009 received a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. "He basically told me I was doing it," recalls Semer, who was then 39. Though he was a strong cyclist, Semer told Sabshon, "I've never run more than a mile in my life, and I can barely swim across a pool."