By John Mehaffey
LONDON (Reuters) - Road running is defying the global economic turmoil with record numbers entering the big city races.
In last month's London marathon a record 36,549 runners had crossed the finish line by seven o'clock in the evening. The starting field of 36,984 was the largest in the 30-year history of the event.
February's Tokyo marathon had more than 310,000 applicants for 35,000 places in the marathon and 10-km race. The 21,000 places for the Austrian women's run this month over five and 10 kms were filled in a record 45 days.
Figures collated by Running USA, a non-profit organization devoted to road running, show 2009 was another year of record growth in the United States.
An estimated 467,000 people finished marathons, an increase of nearly 10 percent and the largest percentage increase for 25 years. "To date, 2010 looks as promising," the report said.
In a telephone interview from Santa Barbara, California, Running USA media director Ryan Lamppa said he believed several factors had contributed to the road-running boom.
"In an economy when people are watching their pennies they are going to look at where can I can cut off my budget, I'll cut off Starbucks, I'll cut off the gym. But they are not cutting out running because it is inexpensive," he said.
"I think another factor is more psychological: running makes you feel good, and it gives you energy back, it helps to blow off stress.
"But I think the more salient point is that running gives you something you can control. For the past couple of years there have been things that are out of control, the stock market and, in some cases, our jobs.
"People in general want to have some order in their life and when you have as much chaos as was thrown at us over the past two-plus years here is an outlet for you that does give you a sense of control, that makes you feel good and it's also inexpensive and affordable and convenient."
There have been two distinct road-running booms in the United States over the past 40 years.
The first was stimulated by Frank Shorter's gold medal in the men's marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the feats of his contemporary Bill Rogers. The pair won the New York and Boston marathons four times each between 1975 and 1980.
"That first running boom was a narrow niche of people and it tended to be the more competitive runners," Lamppa said.
"By the 1980s that first running boom started to implode, our sport hadn't reached mainstream America then as it has now."
Lamppa said the second running boom had been inspired by celebrity television host Oprah Winfrey, who fulfilled her ambition of completing a marathon before her 40th birthday in 1994.
"She is the near-perfect symbol of the new runner because she found time to do that marathon and she did two shows on it," he said.
"She exposed our sport to millions and millions of women who didn't care or give a hoot about the marathon. She helped inspire a whole generation of new runners who no longer had the excuse of 'Well, I don't have a runner's body or I'm too busy'."
Lamppa said the information boom and, in particular, the internet had stripped much of the mystique away from the marathon with detailed training programs for people who 30 years ago would not have considered attempting 42.195 kms.
"That sort of information wasn't there 30 years ago, it was in a book or the coach's head. This boom has lasted longer than the first running boom and as far as we can tell it's hasn't plateaued yet."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)