Today is National Running Day, but if you’re like one of the nearly 2 million runners who completed a half marathon in the U.S., every day is prime time to lace up your shoes. You’re not imagining it: Everyone you know is training for a half marathon. From lunchtime sweat sessions to trading Friday night cocktails for early morning runs, increasing numbers of your friends are sacrificing social time to log training miles. Or maybe you’re friends with a triathlete, in which case it has probably been weeks since you’ve seen her, since her typical pre-race training includes 12 to 15 hours a week of swimming, biking and running, not to mention weight training and yoga. Yet in spite of the extreme time commitment required, endurance sports, such as distance running and triathlons, are booming, largely fuelled by female participation. The percentage of female marathoners has also risen over the past decade, now accounting for 43 per cent of finishers in the 42.2-kilometre distance event. Even the gruelling Ironman triathlon (which consists of a 3.8-kilometre open-water swim, followed by a 180-kilometre bike ride and, finally, a full marathon run) is attracting more women than ever: Last year 26 per cent of its North American participants were female, an 80 per cent jump since 2010.
There are a number of reasons for the growing popularity of endurance sports: Studies show regular exercise will make you healthier, happier and more fit. Endurance training packs additional benefits. “The heart strengthens, improving its ability to circulate blood, and the muscles become more efficient at utilizing energy aerobically,” says exercise physiologist Kelly Mackenzie-Rife, who is based in Courtenay, B.C. Translation: You can go harder and longer, kicking up your comfort zone from 5K territory to half marathons and beyond. (That said, increasing your mileage too quickly could lead to overtraining, knee pain or stress fractures. To avoid this, never add more than 10 per cent to the distance you ran the week before.) Beginners should follow a training plan from a reputable source like Runner’s World or join a running clinic, but talk to your doctor before starting. (In some cases, extreme endurance training can be harmful, though studies show this is more of a concern for middle-aged men.)
For many busy professionals, endurance training is also about unplugging from today’s hyper-connectivity. “I train alone. It’s my ‘me time,’ and I enjoy it,” says half marathoner Vicky Shaughnessy, 33, director of art and visual communications at Pink Tartan in Toronto.
“The long hours of training are meditative. It’s a chance to get away from the busyness of ‘real life’ for a bit, reflect on the day and think about anything—or nothing at all,” says Karin Olafson, a web editor in Calgary. The 25-year-old triathlete and half marathoner completed her first half Ironman last year.
But it’s not just health and wellness. Let’s be honest: How you work out says a lot about your identity (compare tough-chick CrossFit to earth-mama yoga, for example). For runners, the bragging rights come in the form of mud-splattered running shoes and tweets like “18Ks in the bag! #NBD!” And who could blame them? (Though it can make you feel pretty bad about just walking the dog.) Endurance events are badass, while on-brand with your fabulous life: Destination races, post-long-run brunches, covetable running clothes—fitting, since some racecourses could be mistaken for runways.
Models Natalia Vodianova and Karlie Kloss took time out of Paris Fashion Week to run the Paris Half Marathon in March. On Instagram, Kloss jokingly credited her sub-two-hour finish time to all the time she spent strutting on the catwalk that season. Meanwhile, Christy Turlington Burns has run two of America’s biggest races: the New York City Marathon and the Chicago Marathon.
Race organizers are chasing the booming female market. Canada’s hottest half marathon is Lululemon’s SeaWheeze in Vancouver, which pairs its Pacific backdrop with a finish line festival and plenty of yoga. The international Nike Women’s Race Series includes the popular Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco, where, in lieu of a clunky medal, finishers get a sleek Tiffany & Co. finish necklace. Disney’s RunDisney marathon and half marathon race series caters to affluent moms eager to combine a family vacation with their quest for a personal-best finish time. The girly Divas Half Marathon & 5K Series hands out tiaras, as well as post-race bubbly. And on the triathlon front, Ironman’s Iron Girl program courts beginners via shorter gateway races. RunningUSA.org notes that in 2013, there were a staggering 28,200 races of varying distances, an all-time high.
With all these events—and so many of them in the U.S.—travel is a given. “I usually enter races with my husband, as it’s something we enjoy doing together,”says Shaughnessy. “We’ve travelled to races in Montreal and Ottawa, and would love to do a race trip somewhere warm like California.”
Given the demand for marquee endurance events like the New York City Marathon, Paris Marathon, Virgin Money London Marathon andRunDisney’s California- and Florida-based events, niche travel agencies promote pricey hotel/race-entry packages. In some cases, this may be the only way to buy into a sold-out race. Hotels are also making it easier to train. The Westin Hotels & Resorts chain employs a “run concierge” in many locations to lead guided runs and has partnered with the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series to offer VIP race packages. And luxury hotels such as New York City’s Gansevoort Meatpacking and Gansevoort Park Avenue offer year-round running packages complete with route maps, energy gel, recovery kits and post-run brekkie at local hotspots, perfect for fitting your kilometres into a weekend escape.
Clearly, fitness is about more than just health; it’s also about status. Hammering through an Ironman or even a half marathon—and having photographic proof of it afterward—is the ultimate trophy. I came to this gorgeous destination. I saw. I conquered.