FARGO, N.D. – Brett Beil is amazed as he drives to work in the winter.
“Every time, I see people choosing to run outside,” says Beil, a strength and conditioning specialist with Sanford Health in Fargo. “It’s great to me.”
The ice, snow and the relentless blowing of the wind across prairie don’t exactly lend themselves to weeks of outdoor running while preparing for spring races. But that’s exactly what happens on bike paths and sidewalks through the season.
“You aren’t going to change the weather, so you might as well change your outlook and approach,” says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA, a national nonprofit dedicated to distance running.
According to data his group collected, just over 5 million people in the west north-central region of the country – a U.S. census designation that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri – call themselves runners. Of those, nearly a million of them finished one of more than 3,000 races in the region.
“People will assume that cold weather climates like the Dakotas lead to less healthy lifestyles,” Harshbarger says. “I think that’s a fallacy.”
“I see more people who are coming in who are interested in running,” he says. “I tell them, ‘hey, there are some 5Ks in town, and with some training you could do it.’ Most of them are very open to it.”
Power of goals
Nationally, the 5K is the most popular distance for road races, with 8.2 million runners completing the 3.1-mile event in 2016, according to Running USA. That’s nearly half of the 17 million runners who crossed a finish line that year.
Beil recognizes it may be a daunting time of year to encourage newer runners to start. But he knows the power of setting goals – and then doing the work of meeting them. “I tell them, let’s put it on the calendar and start the training,” Beil says. “It will be a little walking and jogging, and we’ll see where it goes.”
His hope is that it gets them to the starting line, and then, the finish.
In most communities, it’s easy to find a race on just about any weekend – from traditional St. Patrick’s Day and Fourth of July races to events that raise money or awareness for various causes. It creates opportunities for runners and would-be runners to feel successful.
Harshbarger agrees and notes that recreational running participation numbers saw exponential growth starting in about 2005. But even before that, the industry saw nearly double digit growth for decades. What started with a stopwatch and someone yelling “go” has evolved into an industry – complete with a festival feel, qualifying times and a weekend of family events.
Undaunted by cold
In Fargo, race director Mark Knutson added a marathon at just the right time. It was 2005, as the numbers began to grow again, and now the weekend of events attracts more than 22,000 runners. True to national trends, the 5K is the largest weekend event with about 10,000 participants.
“We caught on to what was a national trend,” Knutson says. “Before 2005, running outdoors was almost unheard of up here. It could be windchill at 30 below, and why would you do that?”
Advances in technology and better experiences at races both contributed to changing the status of winter runner from unusual to everyday. Add to that how busy people are, with kids in activities and both parents working, and running became an efficient way to stay in shape.
“It wasn’t a three-hour round of golf or softball commitment,” Knutson says. “Those things kind of combined to make the perfect storm for us.”
Harshbarger agrees that the perception of who is a runner has changed. “It’s much more accessible,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing.”
He talks about rising health care costs and diseases associated with inactivity and begins to tell a story about a woman he knows. Her daughter was trying to get into shape, so she decided to try a color run, an untimed 5K where racers run through sprays of color and finish with a shirt that looks like a piece of art. A few weeks later, they ran another race, and her mother looked at her time and realized she had come close to placing in her age group. It inspired the duo to train harder, sign up for another race.
For Harshbarger, Beil and Knutson, it doesn’t matter what event brings someone to running and racing. What matters is that they start, feel proud of themselves and then begin to create a lifelong habit that involves exercise.
“Everyday people are making these choices to improve their wellness and set some goals,” Beil says.
Harshbarger laughs as he talks about how many kinds of events there are that bring people in.
“You don’t even get a medal,” he says of the color run. “You get a T-shirt, and you sneeze rainbows for a week. It’s a great gateway into our sport.”
By the numbers:
- 16.9 million runners crossed a finish line in 2016
- Total events: 30,400 organized races
- 8.2 million people finished a 5K in 2016
- 1.9 million people finished half-marathons in 2016
- Biggest half-marathon: Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon with 27,428 finishers
- Total half-marathons: 2,800 events
- 507,6000 people finished marathons in 2016
- Biggest marathon: TCS New York City Marathon with 51,267 finishers
- Total marathons: 1,100 events
Fargo Marathon numbers:
- 22,000 runners in six events
- 5K: 10,000 runners
- 10K: 4,000 runners
- Half-marathon: 4,000 runners
- Marathon: 2,000 runners
Source: Fargo Marathon