There is a Washington that wakes up early. That stretches the tightness from sleep out of its shoulders, slides on sneakers and stumbles out into the still-crisp morning air. There is a Washington that runs, and it has never been bigger.
Rock Creek Park is packed by sunrise. The Mall is swarmed at midday. The runners could be anyone — from senators to stay-at-home parents, old and young, fast and slow — filling the streets even before the traffic. Thousands of these people aren’t just running for the sake of running, but are running toward something. They have a goal, a plan and a deadline: the Marine Corps Marathon.
Washington has become one of America’s premier running towns, with exponential growth in the number of races and competitors. The city’s climate and design play into this. But when trying to figure out how D.C. became such a running hot spot, it’s not where we are that matters; it’s who we are.
“I mainly attribute [the growth] to the personality traits of the people who live and work here,” says Charlie Ban, editor in chief of Run Washington. “You’ve got high achievers who want to tackle any obstacle before them. . . . You’ve got a lot of high competitors here, and there’s no better way to compete against people, really, than to line up next to them and run from point to point.”
“Running appeals to a certain type of person,” said Carla Freyvogel, vice president of the Washington Running Club. “It is a sport that’s very much consistent with your stereotypical Washingtonian: competitive, self-motivated, out to prove a point, independent. That’s a Washingtonian. That’s a runner.”
You don’t even have to hit a trail to see how big running culture has become in the District. Think of the last time you walked through Georgetown and didn’t see someone dressed head to toe in running gear. Think of the last time you logged on to Facebook and didn’t see a profile picture of a friend decked out in running paraphernalia: a face splattered with paint from a Color Run, a race bib safety-pinned to a chest, a Marine Corps Marathon medal in hand.
Nearly 30,000 people will participate in Sunday’s Marine Corps Marathon; just over 1,000 completed the race in its inaugural year of 1976. That’s right in line with national trends. In 2012, a new high of more than 15.5 million people finished a running event.
The supply in the Washington area more than meets the demand, providing a dedicated runner with events to train for throughout the year, from the Rock ’n’ Roll USA Marathon and Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in the spring to the MCM and the Army Ten-Miler in the fall. And many people, even those who think they won’t like the sport, get involved in shorter races, like half-marathons and five-kilometer events (the most popular type of race nationwide, according to Running USA) that serve as running gateways, turning people on to the racing community and inspiring participants to go for the 26.2-mile marathon.
Running is also fairly recession-proof. Even allowing for race entry fees, the cost of running is relatively low. “I think that people are picking up on it, especially with a downturn in the economy,” said Julie Culley, who ran the 5,000 meters for the United States in the 2012 Olympic Games. “People will get rid of their gym membership before they get rid of their running shoes.
“I always tell people that I think Washington, D.C., is literally the best running city in the United States,” she adds, noting the ideal climate from October to mid-January and March to July. The geography is suited to running, too, filled with scenic and relatively flat routes: the Mall, Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal towpath, Hains Point.
“I’ve been in D.C. for about 30 years,” Freyvogel said. “I actually am overcome by the number of people that I see running . . . [and] that totally warms my heart. It’s unbelievable that running has become mainstream and popular, because for me it was sort of a subversive activity.”
Running is far from subversive now and in fact is so popular it has inspired some backlash, particularly against the subset of runners who participate just for the sake of completing a marathon.
Brian Danza, president of D.C. Road Runners, divides runners into two groups: the competitive subset, who run for time, and the participatory or recreational group, or “people who do it to check a box.” Speaking on behalf of his running club, he said, “we firmly promote the sport of running in a competitive manner.”
Running a marathon just for the sake of completing one, said Danza, isn’t worth the effort. Danza cites “the advent of social media and bragging” as fueling marathons’ increased popularity. “The way to one-up each other — ‘I’m thinner than you, I’m better than you in various ways, I also checked this box’ — has really perpetuated the growth of the sport.”
The flip side, however, is that those recreational runners make up such a substantial portion of marathon and half-marathon participants that races couldn’t exist without them.
Ban, the editor of Run Washington, considers himself “a competitive runner” and said that if it weren’t for the recreational runners, “races wouldn’t be feasible financially, given the cost that goes into putting on a race: closing down roads, supplying all the necessary water, nutrition, things like that. . . . That mass is necessary.”
The mass is already responsible for changing next year’s Marine Corps Marathon. According to Ban, race organizers will be using a lottery for the first time. “The egalitarian nature of the race pretty much demands a level playing field for registration,” he said, and demand this year caused the registration system to crash.
Why is a marathon the go-to bucket list accomplishment? For one thing, it exists in a strange middle space of athletic achievement. It is physically possible for almost any able-bodied person who properly trains to complete one, and yet many people never do.
Jim Hage, a former Washington Post reporter, won the Marine Corps Marathon two years in a row, running 2:21:59 in 1988 and shaving more than a minute off his time in 1989. The marathon is “a distance that is sort of romanticized in a lot of ways,” he said.
No matter how many people run one, “it’s not going to lose its allure,” said Hage. “It’s the ultimate in running, to do a marathon. And for people who have done even one Marine Corps Marathon, they probably know where their medal is.”
“I think if you’re going to be a bear, you’ve got to be a grizzly. And if you’re going for a running goal, go for the running goal, which is a marathon,” said Ban. “The achievement that a lot of people feel finishing a marathon, it’s unmatchable.”
“I think some of the excitement about it is that on race day, you really are taking a leap of faith,” said Culley, the Olympics runner, pointing out that “there are very few people who ever go out and run a 26-mile training run.”
“There’s this element of the unknown on race day,” she said. “And I think that’s why people are so proud of that medal. They really did do something that they didn’t think they could do.”