Victoria Marathon still going strong as others hit the wall

More than 8,000 runners will create a vivid ribbon of humanity today on the streets of Greater Victoria in the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon.

But are they bucking a stiff headwind?

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“The Running Bubble Has Popped” was a headline in the New York Times last year. Then there was this one in Canadian Running magazine: “Has the road running boom officially ended?”

Both articles cited a report that showed the number of finishers in the U.S. fell from a peak of 19 million in 2013 to just over 17 million in 2016.

The Portland Marathon, which used to take place the same weekend as the Victoria marathon, was cancelled this year after 47 years.

The Victoria marathon, meanwhile, is down by almost a third from 11,768 registrants in 2013.

“It seems to ebb and flow,” said Dick Beardsley, who addressed some of the thousands of runners gathered in Victoria in one of many speaking seminars associated with the GoodLife Fitness Marathon.

The Victoria marathon, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, has survived the fluctuating numbers of the run game, which began its blockbuster rise with the publication of Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running in 1977. And while all those who put sneaker to pavement over any distance are to be applauded, said Beardsley, there is just something compelling about the marathon.

“The half-marathon took over for a while and now the marathon numbers are climbing back up, as people again realize there is something magical about the marathon distance,” said the Minnesota native.

Beardsley should know. His searing 1982 Boston Marathon “Duel in the Sun” race-to-the-wire against Alberto Salazar is part of marathon lore.

“It’s the perfect distance to test your emotional and physical well-being,” Beardsley said. “Any longer, and it would be too much. Any shorter, and it wouldn’t be long enough. Thank goodness for the Queen.”

Legend has it that Queen Alexandra requested that the 1908 London Olympic marathon start on the lawn of Windsor Castle, so the little Royals could see it from their nursery, adding 385 yards to the 26-mile distance.

Rob Reid, the former long-serving Victoria marathon race director, has been involved with the event since 1988 and said while there have been “ups and downs” in terms of numbers, interest remains high.

Any self-respecting city hosts a marathon, or other distance road races, and Victoria is fortunate to have two notable ones with the GoodLife Fitness Marathon in fall bookending the Times Colonist 10K in spring. It reflects the city’s active lifestyle and sporting ethic, which celebrates everything from the grassroots to the many Olympic athletes the Island produces.

But road races are also a business, and one that targets a key group. The spandex set is the kind of demographic any city covets.

“We have discovered over the years that people view Victoria’s marathon as a great destination event,” said Reid. "It remains a viable event nationally, if not internationally, with more than 20 nations represented, 15 states and most Canadian provinces. They go back and tell people about Victoria. We’ve seen a big uptick this year from Washington and Oregon because of the Portland Marathon cancellation.”

Reid is a signature presence at the finish line each year, personally shaking hands with and congratulating the runners.

“The sheer diversity of runners with their many different reasons for running — some to improve fitness, others in memory of a loved one — is so inspiring,” he said.

The increasing popularity of more self-directed personal training regimes and off-road racing events might have cut into the willingness to pay for registering in road races. But the GoodLife Fitness Marathon is still going strong after nearly four decades.

Long may it be so, said Beardsley: “This is one of my favourite cities in the world to visit, race or talk about racing.”

Beardsley, who tied Inge Simonsen of Norway in the initial London Marathon in 1981, had to leave Victoria on Saturday to receive the Spirit Award, with Simonsen, at an event in London.

But Beardsley said his heart will be on the streets of Victoria today.

“Over the years, I have raved to so many people about Victoria and its marathon,” said Beardsley, who still runs, but not in a marathon since 2008, because of two knee replacements.

The feeling is mutual. As a great friend to the Victoria marathon over the years as a racer and guest speaker, Beardsley has a slab on the Walk of Fame outside the Frontrunners store. It’s laid alongside the names of Island greats such as multiple-time Ironman Hawaii world champions Peter Reid and Lori Bowden, Olympic medallist triathlete Simon Whitfield and Olympic runners Jon Brown, Bruce Deacon, Diane Cummins and Zach Whitmarsh.

One of the things the New York Times article pointed out last year is that while road races across North America have shown a general decline, top-tier marathons such as Boston and New York not only continue to sell out, they turn people away.

So among the selling points of the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon, especially among more serious runners, is its long-cherished status as a Boston Marathon qualifier. More than 300 runners annually make the grade for Boston on the streets of the B.C. capital, although that just got tougher.

Reid noted that Boston organizers have made it harder to qualify for 2019 — runners will need to be five minutes faster for most categories. Nonetheless, he expects the number of Boston qualifiers out of Victoria to be in the hundreds. “Let’s just hope we can channel a strong tail wind for the runners [today].”

The half marathon and full marathon begin at 8 this morning and the 8K starts at 8:50 a.m. The Kids’ Run is at 10:15 a.m.

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