Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Recession fuels flocks of runners who seek cheap exercise

SEATTLE — Alice Lawson dropped her gym membership in early 2009 to save money and prepare for a possible job loss. Rather than let herself go, she took up running and completed her first half-marathon last month in Seattle.
"We don't know economically where things are going," said Lawson, 43, of Shoreline, Wash. "When I finish a run, I feel like: 'Hey, I can do whatever I set my mind to. It doesn't matter what's coming. I'll be OK.' "

Running is booming in the U.S. as more people seek inexpensive ways to manage stress. The June 26 Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, which featured live bands along a 26.2-mile course from Tukwila, Wash., to Seattle, sold out in late March, roughly a month earlier than last year.

Nationally, the number of marathon finishers rose nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2009 to a record 467,000, according to nonprofit group Running USA. The growth of half-marathon finishers was more impressive, jumping 24 percent from 900,000 in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2009.

The boom also can be seen at running stores, where sales of shoes and other items considered crucial to the sport remain at or above pre-recessionary levels — no small feat, given the economic turmoil of the past two years.

"Running appears to be not recession-proof, but at least it's recession-resistant," said David Willey, editor of Runner's World magazine. "People tend to focus on things they can control, and they want to get healthier, so they start running more."

Last year, nine Rock 'n' Roll Marathon races attracted 219,000 participants in the U.S. Of those, 39 percent were neophytes and 60 percent were women, reflecting the broadening appeal of running. This year, 14 Rock 'n' Roll races are projected to draw 330,000 participants.

"Running is the most convenient, least costly form of exercise," said Jim Weber, president and chief executive officer of Brooks Sports, a running shoe and apparel company. "You can just walk out your door."

Shoe sales rise

Running businesses say they benefit from an affluent customer base who can drop $100 on a new pair of shoes or $85 to enter a race. Running USA figures nearly three-quarters of year-round runners have an annual household income of more than $75,000.

U.S. running-shoe sales rose 2 percent last year to $2.36 billion, while sales of running apparel declined 3 percent to $883 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Store owners say cash-strapped runners are more likely to replace worn-out shoes than faded clothes.

Now, Brooks aims to make inroads with first-time marathoners by traveling to races in a carnival-themed, double-decker bus. "We're spending several million dollars a year on this, which for us is a big investment," said Dave Larson, vice president of marketing at Brooks.

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