A Running Demographic

A recent article in the Utica, NY Observer-Dispatch (sorry, no link) took a look at the changing demographics of the Boilermaker 15k with the assistance of the race's former timer. Here's a quick run-down:

In 1985, the average age was 33.5 for men and 30.3 for women. There was a steady increase until 2002 when the women peaked at 34.6 and in 2003 when the men peaked at 39.0 Since then, the averages have been flat, with the men at 38.6 and the women at 34.4 in 2006. So we're looking at roughly a five year increase for the guys and four years for the gals. Breaking this down in terms of age-groups, last year's 30th running showed the most-crowded group to be men 45-49 (838, one of them being yours truly), followed by men 40-44 (829), men 35-39 (761) and men 50-54 (727). With an average of under 40, this implies that a lot more men under the age of 35 ran the race than those 55 and over (not too surprising). For the women, the numbers have a decidedly different skew. The peak group is 20-24 (693), followed by 25-29 (678), 35-39 (600), and 40-44 (592). These data were only available for the 2007 race so I have no idea how the age groups have evolved over the past 20 or 30 years.

I think a couple of things are obvious from the numbers. First, distance running, or at least this particular 15k race, is attractive to women in their 20's and men in their 40's. (That's an "interesting" pairing but it's worthwhile to note that there are over 20 percent more 40-something men running than 20-something women running). Second, the road race age demographic in general is aging. This second statistic is borne out in other large US road races.

Why might this be? Here are a couple possibilities: First, people currently in their mid-40s to 50s represent the baby-boom. As such, they tend to skew the age participation data like a pig moving through a python; it's a lump you can't ignore. Second, running tends to be a life-long pursuit, unlike many other sports. The young people of the first "running boom" of the 1970s are now in their 40s and 50s. These items possibly explain what's happening in general, and with the men in particular, but it doesn't explain the women's peak age-group participation (20-something). One associate suggested to me that it has to do with young women trying to stay in shape and "look good" (although that begs the question "Then why don't young men care about staying in shape and looking good, or do they have other means?"). It may simply be that running and sweating next to 11,000 other people on a July morning is not a good definition of "fun" for many middle-aged women (while their male counterparts like to think "I've still got it!")

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"One associate suggested to me that it has to do with young women trying to stay in shape and 'look good' (although that begs the question 'Then why don't young men care about staying in shape and looking good, or do they have other means?')"

Women -- especially those of college age -- traditionally equate exercise with weight loss or weight control, while men in their early 20s are more interested in building muscle than in shedding flab (a disparity amplified by the fact that youthful metabolisms typically persist for longer in men than in women). So it's natural for women of that age to turn to running. Many men who were active in high school can get by on sloppy diets and lifestyles into their 30s before deciding they look and feel like ass warmed over and turn (or return) to running.

Interestingly, when you look not at raw participation but at highly competitive athletes, you see a lot more women racing at the elite and near-elite level in their late 30s and early 40s than you do men. (Compare the number of masters finishers in the men's and women's Olympic Marathon Trials: 0 and 11 respectively.) Is this the result of physiological factors, sociological factors, or both? If I get my way, I'll be writing a piece about this for RT soon.

I don't know about elite level, but at the sub-elite (next level down), men's 40-49 is absolutely killer competition. When I look at local/regional race results, the men's 40-49 times almost always beat the men's 30-39 times. Sometimes the best 30-39 wouldn't be top three in 40-49. And in smallish races (say less than 200 finishers), it's not uncommon to see a 40+ male win outright. It seems the top 10 is a mix of 20-somethings in/just out of college and 40-somethings. For example, here's the ages for the top ten finishers in a popular local 5 miler run last year: 28, 21, 49, 42, 24, 39, 46, 55, 31, 43 (and the 39 year old turned 40 2 weeks later).

My hypothesis is that by the time you're 40-ish, you've probably settled into your career and family, and are relatively secure. Thus, you have the time and resources to indulge in the sport.