Why are young professionals crazy for marathons?
Every November some 50,000 runners wend their way through New York’s five boroughs, taking part in the world’s largest spectator event: the New York City Marathon. Two-and-a-half-million people line the route. Apart from a small number of elite runners, most of the participants will be amateurs — committed laypeople who run the Marathon not for a chance at a top finish but for a hard-won sense of belonging, well-being, and accomplishment.
Over half a million people finished a full 26.2-mile marathon in 2016; roughly seventeen million ran in a road race of any distance that year. It is nearly impossible, at least among a set of educated professional types, to avoid overhearing discussions of training routines throughout the summer months. Studies confirm that running and class are in fact closely linked: More than eighty percent of regular runners have a college or graduate degree, and their median household income exceeds $100,000.
Those runners have a wide choice of venues. Nearly every major (and minor) city in the United States — from Chicago to Boston to Phoenix to Tacoma — hosts a mass marathon. These races have become a near-requisite event for cities that are hoping to attract young professionals and their close cousin, the creative class. Even the Mississippi Gulf Coast, still recovering from the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill, decided to hold its own marathon in 2016 as a part of its rebranding campaign.
Yet all of this is a new development. As recently as the 1960s, running was a niche sport which had few associations with the professional class. Marathoning was even more obscure and esoteric. The first New York City Marathon, in 1970, was held entirely within Central Park. It counted only 55 finishers.
What changed? How did young educated professionals become so obsessed with competitive running? And why did municipalities decide that putting on city-wide road races was such a good idea?
The craze for running first began to take hold in the late 1960s. Some middle-aged folks started jogging as a way to stave off heart disease, that era’s public health cause célèbre. Others followed the example of Jim Fixx, a running evangelist who told Americans that jogging would help them lose weight and “change their lives” in his million-sellingThe Complete Book of Running. Still others were inspired to begin racing when Frank Shorter, an American, won the gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon. An estimated 21 million people — 51% of the national viewing audience — watched Shorter run to victory.
But most people who took up the sport in those years were younger — in their twenties and thirties — and they did so not to race, but as a means to a range of vaguely-countercultural ends: as way to loosen the body, break free of societal strictures, and to dabble in Eastern mysticism. Marathoning also had environmental connotations. One of the first large races outside of the long-running Boston Marathon was the 1970 Earth Day Marathon on Long Island. Looking to capitalize on the jogging trend, major publishers put out books with titles like The Zen of Running and The Psychic Power of Running. “Running,” proclaimed New Times magazine in the mid-1970s, had become “the new high.”
But by the end of the 1970s, a new group of runners began to be drawn to the sport for a new set of reasons. Running took on a different valence as it became popular among young urban professionals — “yuppies,” in the language of the day. Yuppies appreciated the way running helped to maximize their self-potential, but were less enthused about its therapeutic, political, or libidinous benefits. They were similarly skeptical about an open-ended pursuit of “zen.”
Instead of “loosening up” their bodies, this cohort of runners wanted to “tighten up”: to steel themselves for the competitive world of the professional workplace. Running, which once promised self-discovery, now promised self-improvement. In 1982, one fitness instructor summarized the trend. “People want a more vigorous exercise program than they used to. Things used to be nirvana-oriented — getting to know yourself, meditation. But it’s a tougher world today than in the 60s or 70s and people want to toughen up to fight back.”
Running, and marathon training in particular, dovetailed with the same habits that yuppies honed in their white-collar jobs. Personal discipline, delayed gratification, obsessive time management, constant self-analysis, long-range planning: they were just as vital to race training as they were to arbitrage or corporate litigation. Robert Jen, an avid marathoner who worked at the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, explained the connection. “The thing that I liked, and what relates to trading, is that everything is thought out — you planned it, it’s not by accident. Whether it’s running or on Wall Street, it’s very structured,” he said. Road racing, more than any other fitness regime, offered definitive finishers’ lists and times, tangible metrics that rewarded yuppies’ competitive desires.
All that structured training, though, required a flexible work schedule. Even though most professionals put in long hours, they retained more autonomy to set their daily routine than blue-collar or lower-prestige white-collar administrative workers. Many lawyers and consultants began to stretch their lunch break into a full hour — just enough time for a few miles. In 1986, Hiram Gordon, an in-house attorney at AT&T, forsook his usual boozy lunch for a jog in Central Park. “Running is a tonic that’s more healthy than a martini,” he said. As Gordon plodded along the park’s reservoir path, he pointed out several co-workers who were also lunchtime regulars.
Starting in the second half of the 1970s, New York’s number of professionals, and thus the ranks of potential committed runners, began to swell. Wall Street, riding a wave of deregulation, expanded rapidly: From 1977 and 1986, New York added 117,000 jobs in financial services. Investment banks’ recruiters flooded college campuses, hiring one in three Ivy League seniors by the mid-1980s. Over the same period, the number of lawyers in the city nearly doubled. New York was beginning to attract the young, educated professionals who had both the inclination and time to run, train, and compete in road races.
Soon, New York’s corporate leaders took notice of the growing number of singlet-clad professionals jogging across the city. Charles McCabe Jr., director of marketing for Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, a New York bank, spotted them on his morning commute through Central Park. “They looked like upscale, beautiful people, people we’d like to have wear our name on their backs,” he said. They were just the “upwardly-mobile people we’d love to have [bank] with us.”
City officials noticed too. In the second half of the 1970s, New York was mired in a fiscal crisis, its reputation marred by crime and disorder. Municipal leaders were searching for ways to rebrand the city as an attractive destination for middle-class consumers, tourists, corporations, and young professionals. Percy Sutton, Manhattan borough president, seized on the idea of a five-borough marathon as a cheap marketing event tied to the upcoming 1976 bicentennial. Sutton convinced Mayor Abraham Beame to provide overtime for police and sanitation workers. What could be a better promotion for the post-industrial city, argued Sutton, than hundreds of young, fit people running through New York’s neighborhoods?
The New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC), under the direction of Fred Lebow, a relentless promoter with a Borscht Belt accent, had been running a small marathon in Central Park since 1970; his organization would handle the registration and course preparation. Jack and Lewis Rudin — real estate developers and founders of the booster organization Association for a Better New York (ABNY) — joined as financial backers. So did McCabe of Manufacturers Hanover.
Given the dire state of the city’s finances in the late 1970s, it was remarkable that municipal leaders were willing to devote such significant resources — particularly $400,000 in overtime wages — to the race. Surely those funds might have been spent to increase police and fire protection, fix the crumbling West Side Highway, or restore free tuition at CUNY. Why was the money devoted to the marathon instead?
Mayor Beame (and his successor Ed Koch) saw the spending on the race as part of a wider promotional strategy — a plan to market the city’s consumer pleasures to tourists, young professionals, and suburbanites. Even as the fiscal crisis deepened, municipal leaders began to employ a new calculus: a dollar spent on publicity, they believed, would have a much greater economic impact than a dollar spent on social services. The same logic motivated the city to undertake its first official marketing campaign, “I ♥ NY,” in 1977, at the same time that it flirted with insolvency. Asked about the costs associated with the marathon, Mayor Koch argued that “my guts tell me that if you took the cost of the cops and whatnot and subtracted the revenue from tourism, it would come out a wash or with us making money. Anyway, it’s worth every dollar.”
Lew Rudin, whose ABNY represented the interests of the real estate and finance industries, trumpeted the race’s importance in speeches to business and government leaders. The marathon, said Rudin, was a “symbol of the Big Apple’s return to preeminence,” which helped New York “ca[tch] the imagination of wealthy foreigners and overseas investors.” As the “Marathon becomes a larger, more important and grander event each year,” he continued, “foreign banks, shops and restaurants are flourishing here.”
Ultimately, the fiscal crisis, reasoned New York’s corporate and municipal leaders, would be best solved by fixing the city’s image crisis. And spending public funds on the marathon would do much more to improve that image than using them to reopen closed firehouses or reinstate benefits for New York’s working class.
By those standards, the city-wide marathon was an incredible success. Out-of-town visitors left shocked that New York was not in fact crime-ridden or dysfunctional — at least on race day. A reporter from the Christian Science Monitor saw the urban landscape shed its menacing cast. “The same bridge, plazas, factories and parks which had been plunged into a scene of wanton looting and police arrests during the city’s July  electrical power blackout,” he wrote, “were reunited into one city throbbing with boundless energy and enthusiasm.”
The television broadcast of the Marathon brought the race and its ebullient spirit into millions of homes, helping to recast the New York’s image domestically and internationally. In 1981, ABC carried the race live for the first time. Nearly three-quarters of the network’s affiliates carried the broadcast, giving 11.5 million viewers a tour of every New York borough. As announcer Jim McKay reminded viewers, this was the first time a national audience had tuned into a sporting event in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957. In 1983, 25 million domestic viewers watched ABC’s marathon broadcast; 50 million more tuned in around the world. Meanwhile, the city estimated that two-and-a-half million spectators had lined the route.
The most iconic and oft-replayed images came from ABC’s helicopter footage taken above the race’s start on Staten Island. As the camera panned across thousands of runners streaming over the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge, it captured Manhattan’s gleaming phalanx of skyscrapers. This was post-industrial New York as its corporate and municipal elite hoped it would be seen: a cavalcade of young, fit, mostly-white runners set against a backdrop of office towers. Indeed, the tableau was so appealing that Columbia University asked for permission to excerpt the telecast in its recruiting materials.
By the early 1980s, professionals made up the overwhelming majority of marathoners. Nine out of ten NYRRC members period were college graduates; over 40 percent of marathon entrants held professional or graduate degrees. Nearly half of the participants earned more than $40,000 ($100,000 in 2018 dollars)—a rate four times the national average. Throughout the 1980s, most marathoners worked in professional or managerial jobs. The field was dominated by “managers” (roughly five percent of entrants), followed by lawyers (four percent), teachers and professors (four percent), engineers (four percent), accountants (three percent), and “business owners” (three percent). Year after year, however, the total number of finance workers swelled, surpassing all other categories by 1988. In 1990, over 1,300 out of a field of 25,000 worked in finance. By contrast, fewer than one in 200 entrants listed a blue-collar occupation like “truck driver” or “laborer” that year. Just 40 runners described themselves as unemployed.
The New York City Marathon proved so successful that other cities tried to copy its example. Like other projects that cities used in this era to pursue growth as industry faded — festival marketplaces, stadia, riverfront promenades — urban marathons promised to attract the sort of young professionals who, boosters hoped, would reverse their city’s declining fortunes.
In 1977, Chicago was the first city to put on a mass race in the New York mold. Initially underfunded and overshadowed by New York, Chicago’s race gained wider currency once Mayor Jane Byrne (and later, Mayor Richard M. Daley) seized upon it as a promotional tool.
As the 1980s wore on, smaller cities began to hold their own marathons, inspired by a report released by New York City that touted some $60 million in profits for the city and local businesses. Larry Kuzamanko, a Pittsburgh-based political scientist, read that study. In 1984, he convinced Mayor Richard Caliguiri to support the inaugural Pittsburgh Marathon. Kuzamanko brought in Alan Steinfeld, vice-president of the NYRRC, to show him how to run and promote the event.
Miami’s first city-wide marathon followed a similar trajectory. Race organizer Mark Wales, an MBA, designed the route to be as telegenic as possible — the better to attract tourists, professionals, and airlines to Miami. “I believe we could have an impact like the New York City Marathon,” said Wales. Little Rock, Salt Lake City, and Boulder soon began marathons of their own.
By the 1990s, road racing — first embraced by professionals, then taken up by municipal leaders as a way to attract yuppies — had emerged as an inexpensive, popular, nearly-ubiquitous marketing tool for cities in the post-industrial age.