Ron Marinucci - January, 2016 Column
by Ron Marinucci, Jan. 15, 2016
What is the most popular road racing distance in the US? I suppose that depends on defining “most popular.” Does it mean the most number of races at a particular distance? Or does it mean the race distance with the most participants? Or is it the most participants per race at a specific distance? Of course, mega-events might skew our perceptions, with some races attracting huge numbers of runners.
There may be more 5Ks because that’s what most people want to run. Or do they run 5Ks because there are more races of that distance? Why are there more 5Ks? Is it because the distance is the most popular or because it’s the shortest and perhaps the easiest to direct/manage? (I don’t know about you, but I think I’m getting a headache!)
According to statistics compiled by Running USA, 8,300,000 runners participated in 15,100 5Ks in 2014. The half marathon drew 2,046,000 runners in 2,500 events, about 25% of the runners in 5Ks, but in only 15% of the races. About 3,700 10Ks attracted 1,400,000 runners. More than 55,600 ran in 1,100 marathons. “Other distances,” which included ultras, 5 miles/8Ks, and assorted other unique distances, had 6,400,000 participants.
The 5K appears to be the winner, but let’s play with the numbers again. The distance comprised 54% of all race events, but only 44% of all racers. Overall, the half marathon, with 9% of the races, drew 11% of the runners, while 10Ks required 9% of the races to attract 7% of the runners.
Each of these distances has its appeals and, well, to use an economics term, disincentives. 5Ks are relatively short, in both distance and time required to finish. Training, at least to merely finish, isn’t particularly strenuous or time-consuming compared to, say, marathon or ultra training. The 10K is particularly lengthy, but it’s not short either. To race one demands a combination of endurance and speed, both of which affect training; more time and more effort are needed. Perhaps because of that the 10K isn’t as popular as it once was.
Half marathons, arguably the first or second most popular distance forces runners to ramp up their training—time, effort, and intensity. And, it is often a first step to committing for a marathon. And those marathons, well, they aren’t “fun,” at least not for most folks. They have to step out of their comfort zones. How many marathon finishers cross the finish line with, “I’m done and I’m never going to do that again!” But the 26.2-mile distance does attract many runners ready and willing to challenge themselves with a more formidable goal, often “again.” They want to push their limits.
In the end, “popular” race comes down to individual preferences for each runner. It’s like Sly and the Family Stone once sang, “Different strokes for different folks.” So, I asked some runners about their favorite distances and why they liked them. Many of them indicated that their favorites have changed over the years, too. Some also revealed which distances they liked the least.
Michael Holmes said, “I like the 10K. You don’t have to race as hard as the 5K. You still have to train, but not as hard. You have to do more sprints for a 5K.” He added, “The 10K is good for fall weather, when I like to race.” But he mused, “In the past, it used to be the half [marathon]. It’s a nice distance, but not as long as the marathon. You run the race and then you’re done [sooner].” And the blind runner noted, “It’s a nice distance for me and my guide runners.” Ten miles were good for him, too, “but they are hard to find.”
“My absolute favorite is the 5K,” said Mark Cryderman. “It is what I started out with when I began running. Over time,” he continued, “I progressed to 10Ks and then all the way up to doing a single marathon.” That distance “was definitely not for me, [my] least favorite. [It required] too much time invested in training and my body did not like it. Half marathons were good for a while, but these, too, started to wear on me. Plus, I have watched friends do lots of long distance only to be injured or have health problems. So I dropped back to the 5K and concentrated on being really good at that distance. Training mileage is reduced and I can do more aerobics with biking and swimming.” He added,
“And my body is happy!”
Another 5K enthusiast is Peggy Zeeb. “I like the 5K the best.” The past Michigan-Runner-of-the-Year said, “I can run hard, be done in around 20 minutes, and feel good the rest of the day.” Like Cryderman, she noted, “For the same reason I am getting to dislike marathons. I feel bad at mile 20 and continue to feel bad for a couple of days afterward.”
Bob Drapal’s “favorite distance is the 5K,” too. “It’s the shortest.” He chuckled, “It comes with age. My favorite used to be the half. I didn’t have to kill myself training, yet it was a goal worth working for.”
“On the roads,” Ruth Thelen noted, “I like the 5K the best. The 8K is my least favorite because I run it like a 5K and it hurts too much! I normally don’t do many 10Ks or half marathons. But,” she added,” I’m thinking seriously about doing a marathon when I turn 74 or 75 in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon.” She’s now 71 and still out there at it. “I have only done one marathon and that was when I turned ‘the Big 40.’ I had only been running for a couple of years and decided to do the Detroit [Free Press] Marathon. I wanted to break four hours and ended up with a 3:59.” But Thelen still runs and races on the track, too. “I would have to say that the 200 meter is my favorite sprint, but the 800 is where I rank highest on the USATF rankings. I love the 200 because I can run as fast as I can without dying at the end. The 800 is brutal,” but she continues to race it because “I know that is where I do my best.”
Two other past Michigan-Runners-of-the-Year chimed in with their thoughts. Ian Forsyth said, “I like racing 5K and 10K the best.” He mused, “I guess I like the mixture of speed, intensity, and endurance it takes to successfully race those distances. I’m sure getting it over sooner rather than later has something to do with it as well.” He continued, “If there is a distance I don’t like to race, I don’t race it,” quipping, “That’s the benefit of graduating from college and getting to pick your races!”
Besides being a top racer in Michigan, Sarah Boyle is the head women’s cross country coach at Cleary College. “My favorite distance to race is 5K on the roads. If I’m looking at a track race,” like Thelen, “then I would say 1-mile or 3K. The 5K is my favorite because it’s a quick race. Typically I am hitting the mile or mile and a half mark before I know it and I think, ‘Wow! I’m half done already.’” In thinking, she said, “Honestly, I don’t really have one [a least favorite distance].” But almost joking she added, “But sometimes it’s the 5K. I guess the 5K is my favorite and my least favorite at the same time. Because it’s short enough I often find myself getting through that first mile really fast and I think, ‘How am I going to hold this pace when it hurts a lot already?’” To Boyle, that’s “the joy of the 5K, figuring out how fast you can start based on what your fitness is at the time and the competition in the race. The more competitive 5Ks have forced me out harder at the start of the race than I would have liked, but also have led to me running a fast time.”
“The Drubbler,” Riley McLincha, who can often be seen racing while dribbling three basketballs at once, likes “the 10 miler. But,” like Holmes, he added, “besides the Crim, good luck trying to find that distance in Michigan. The popularity of the half [marathon],” he reflected, “has made it a thing of the past.” Ten miles, too, “is not just my favorite race distance, but my training run distance, also.”
Doug Goodhue has been a nationally-ranked and US champion age-group runner at a variety of distances for a number of years. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he admitted, “My favorite race distance has always been 10 miles.” He cited the Crim, the Cherry Blossom in Washington, DC, and the Broad Street in Philadelphia, among others. “To successfully compete at that distance you must have the proper endurance, speed, and a solid race strategy!”
Yet another past Michigan-Runner-of-the-Year, Eric Stuber, votes for the “half marathon! It’s a good, tough distance. It makes you really work. You may be wiped out the rest of the day, but tomorrow is just another day and you can get back to normal life and training.” He cited one instance of this. “The day I ran my PR, I was in great shape. I ran Dexter-Ann Arbor, ran back to Dexter with my brother, and then I did a 50-mile bike ride that afternoon.” He went on, “I used to do destination marathons and be hurting for the week. But now it seems more like it’s halfs (halves?) that we go for and can function afterward.” His least favorite is the marathon. “I’m just not good at the training aspect, the planning to run one successfully, the time commitment. Then, when all is said and done, unless you ran well, with a good finish, your body is wiped out for days or weeks and the mental aspects of not doing as well as planned are even tougher [on me].”
Maggy Zidar has more than 150 marathons on her resume, with number 160 on the calendar for this month. (She added as an aside, “In Bermuda, it’s a mile, followed by a 10K, followed by a full marathon. Anyone idiotic—here I am!—to do all three has accomplished ‘The Bermuda Triangle.’ Clever marketing.”) She confessed that even after so many, “I still love the marathon as my favorite distance and have since the first. It’s my favorite because of the challenge of the distance. Anything can happen!” She also admitted, “Ironically, my least favorite distance is the half marathon. I think that’s because it’s still tough and long, especially at my age now, but I don’t feel half the satisfaction of having completed a marathon.”
It’s probably not a surprise that Davina McNaney prefers ultras. After all, last summer she ran 466.5 miles from Michigan to Upstate New York over the course of two weeks. “My favorite racing distance is the 50K,” she said, adding, “on Michigan trails, of course.” She waxed poetically, “Being on the ‘Poto’ Trail [Potawatomi Trail, near Pinckney] for hours is pure joy, especially when hundreds of other happy runners are out there with you. Thirty-one miles [50K] gives you time to truly immerse yourself.” She did admit, though, “My least favorite would have to be 10Ks. They’re kind of short, but kind of long, too.”
Stu Allen echoed McNaney, at least regarding ultra distances on the trails. “My favorite distance to race is 50 miles. What I like most about 50 milers is that most of them are trail races. So I get to spend the day in the woods. When the going starts to get tough, I just remind myself that I get to spend the day in the woods instead of being at work.” Picking a least favorite distance was a bit difficult for him. “I enjoy all distances for their unique challenges,” he admitted. “But since the 5K is over so quickly,” he quipped, “and not because I am fast, I would have to choose it as my last favorite.”
One would expect that a runner who has run a mile while carrying a POW/MIA flag for every US soldier killed, missing, or a POW in Vietnam (58,282 miles) would choose an ultra event as his race distance of choice. And Mike “Flagman” Bowen didn’t disappoint. “Back in my days of long distance running,” he recalled, “my favorite distance was the 50K. After I ran a couple dozen marathons [with a PR of 2:50], the extra few miles always made the event a bit more challenging.” Don’t forget carrying the flag, which, with the holster, added up to 20 pounds. “Being an unpopular distance [50K], I would sometimes add to a regular marathon on my own. I remember running the Martian Marathon and at the turn-around point, I just kept going and then turned around when I had the extra distance needed for 50K.” Perhaps with his tongue planted at least a little bit in his cheek, he said, “The 5K always seemed like a waste of time to me. Just get warmed up and the finish line was approaching. The local 5K races, I’d run [from home] to the start, do the race, and then run home. Sometimes that would be 12 to 20 miles, a decent workout.” By the way, Bowen is now “over 2800 miles into my next mission, which is running a mile for each death  on 9/11/01.” He admitted to “running slower and shorter, but almost every day. Life is good.”
For me, the most appeal over the years were distances from 15K to the half marathon. These include the 10 miles and 20Ks, too. Unlike shorter distances, these allowed me to get into a steady groove, a good pace without the pain (agony?) of the 5K and 10K. To do well in the shorter distances, I had to really push myself. Likewise, marathons were not as pleasant because they hurt, too, and training for them was hard and time-consuming and took over several months. And, if I had a bad day (and it always seemed some crisis popped up the week before a marathon), it’s not like I could just find another marathon to run the next week. Nine to thirteen miles is a good challenge, a worthy one, and required some planning, especially as to pacing, at least for me. I think my least favorite distance wasn’t the marathon, but the 10K, particularly when I was at least trying to be competitive. Running fast, out of a comfort zone, just wasn’t very pleasant for me. Ironically, though, one of my all-time favorite races is a 10K, the Big Bird; I’ve run more than two dozen of them.
If anything, what I suspected is true. Regarding favorite race distances is an individual matter, although the reasons might be similar. I guess Sly Stone and his Family were right, “Different strokes for different folks.”
Here’s wishing for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous 2016 for all of us.