What’s behind the drop in running races in 2014?

Whether it 36,756 in 2012 or 27,389 this year, the Cooper River Bridge Run still draws enough people to make it among the Top 20 races in the United States.

Running has enjoyed many booms and boomlets in the United States since the mid-1970s, fueling races of all types and a new, very profitable fitness industry. But two statistics revealed earlier this month are making some ponder if conventional racing has reached it peak or a plateau.

In Running USA’s recent “2015 State of the Sport: U.S. Race Trends,” the report says that after experiencing 300 percent growth from 1990 to 2013, participation in running events and the total number of running events dropped in 2014 by 1 percent each.

Last year, the number of finishers in races fell from 19 million in 2013 to 18.75 million (the numbers are strictly finishers and do not factor people running multiple races). The number of races fell to 28,000.

Running USA described the slightly lower numbers as a “stabilization” and went on to trumpet the fact that women continue to represent the majority of race participants, at 57 percent or 10.7 million, and that the half-marathon distance continues to grow in popularity.

South Carolina’s running stat guru Cedric Jaggers was already on the case before Running USA issued their 2015 report.

Jaggers, who weekly hunts down race results across the Palmetto State, wrote a column for “Running Journal” in June titled, “Are Races Shrinking?”

In it, he recounts interactions with me in 2009 and last spring about the Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk’s growth and decline in recent years. In 2012, it peaked with a record 36,756 finishers, but South Carolina’s biggest race has plummeted by nearly 9,400 finishers since then.

In the column, Jaggers recalls having a conversation with his wife, Kathy Jaggers, about races having fewer finishers just before the last Bridge Run was held and before it posted the surprisingly low numbers. So he decided to dig through his archives.

He noted that South Carolina experienced strong growth in races in the past five years, but that the increases slowed dramatically in 2014. From 2010 to 2011, the numbers of races jumped by 100, from 374 to 474. Leaps, albeit shorter, took place in 2012 with 526 and 2013 with 593. But in 2014, it grew to 603. Going from 100 race increases to 10 says something.

And while Jaggers says he did not do an accounting of overall finishers in those races (he is, after all, a volunteer), he did note that “the ones that are going up (increasing in finisher numbers) are going up by smaller amounts that the ones that are losing.”

He has been tracking the races, so far, in 2015, and found that 83 are down in numbers and 61 are increasing in numbers.

I’ve been casually chatting with knowledgeable people about the Running USA report since I read it last week to see if others are noticing the drop and to see what they think. The reasons run the gamut.

Jaggers thinks the drops are caused by a number of factors, but have to do primarily with the increasing cost of race fees, as late registration for 5Ks can cost $35 a race and some large 10Ks, such as Bridge Run, cost more than $50.

“The cost of running event has been accelerating faster than inflation,” says Jaggers, recalling paying $4 for the Bridge Run and $5 for the New York City Marathon in 1980. “The costs have escalated beyond comparable entertainment.”

He speculates part of the reason why has been the transfer of road races from running clubs to charities, which have seized the opportunity to raise money, in some cases a lot of it, from runners. And the law of supply-and-demand didn’t seem to apply. Many would raise rates and get more runners.

But maybe that’s over.

“Races need to be priced right, but also be sure to have something to offer for both the competitive and the casual runner,” says Jaggers.

The composition of the running community also is changing, as I have noted in the space earlier this year. In a nutshell, it is less competitive and fit and more social in nature.

Crisp McDonald, the owner of GO Race Productions, has been managing races and triathlons in the area for years and thinks the hit is happening more to smaller races than larger ones.

And the squeeze, McDonald says, is being put on smaller races as municipalities across the nation, including Charleston and Mount Pleasant, are starting to limit or trying to reduce the number of races held in communities because of costs and hassles involved with shutting down or controlling roads.

The costs of many races, he adds, are going up because the cities hosting them are charging more for police and clean-up.

Further hurting the smaller races is the fact that runners who are more socially focused have different interests. They gravitate to a marquee race or untimed races that are more about fun than fast: mud runs, color runs, zombie runs, rave runs and even foam runs, which rarely count actual participants.

“Maybe chalk it up to the ‘M.O.B mentality’ because people want to do runs with mud, obstacles and beer,” says McDonald.

Speaking of fun and fitness, Sky Zone Charleston and Chucktown Social is holding a new “Ultimate Volleyball League” in late August, but participants have to sign up by Wednesday.

The league is co-ed, ages 21 and up and for teams of six to 10 players. The cost is $90 per player.

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Despite being a light weekend for events, the local surfing community will gather noon to 5 p.m. Saturday for the third annual benefit for the Surfer’s Healing Folly Beach Camp at Loggerhead’s Beach Grill, 123 West Ashley Ave., on Folly Beach. The event will feature lunch, music, a silent auction and a raffle. The cost is $15 to attend the benefit.

For more, contact Allison Burbage at 834-5898.