The big newsmaker from the 2017 NYC Marathon was Shalane Flanagan, whose victory made her the first American woman in 40 years to win the race. (Congratulations for making history, Shalane!)
In the afterglow of this year’s excitement, we decided to reflect back on the past 47 years of NYC Marathon trends. We wanted to see what’s changed, who’s improved, and how the race might evolve from here.
They say there’s always room for improvement, but in terms of athletic ability and race size, is there any room left for the NYC Marathon to grow?
As top times and participation numbers plateau for the most popular marathon in the world, we can’t help but wonder: have we reached peak running?
Let’s take a look at what the data has to say!
Participation Has Climbed over the Years, but Recently Flattened Out
After years of steady growth, recent data reveals that the number of NYC Marathon finishers seems to be leveling out. This year’s race had over 50,000 registered runners – which is where participant numbers have been hovering around since 2013.
Looking back at the NYC Marathon’s humble beginnings, the 1970 event had only 127 participants – of which only 55 crossed the finish line. First place went to Gary Muhrcke, who has a final time of 2:31:38.
Participant numbers have trended upward every year since (except for 2001, when numbers dipped after 9/11) – that is, until 2015. Race numbers have recently flattened out, suggesting running’s popularity may have peaked.
That said, the NYC Marathon is enjoyed by a wider range of people than ever. Over the years, participants have become much diverse in terms of gender, age, nationality, and ability.
Winners Have Gotten Faster, but the Pack Is Slowing Down
Over the past 47 years, winning race times have gotten faster across both genders. Today’s top finishers complete the race in significantly less time than those who ran the first NYC Marathon in 1970.
Although the general trend has been for speeds to improve or remain flat over time, median race times have actually gotten slower across the board.
This can be credited to the event’s growing popularity and the fact that the race now attracts a wider range of runners (and more participants in general), including those who take the sport less seriously.
As Participation Nears Gender Parity, the Fastest Women Are Speeding Up
Not only do more women runners than ever participate in the NYC Marathon, but today’s top female finishers are faster than their early predecessors. Female participants have shown a long-term trend of decreasing race times by 8.7 seconds annually, while their male counterparts trail with a 6.7-second average decrease per year.
When we look at long-term changes in race times across gender, it’s important to note that the first NYC Marathon in 1970 had only one female runner – and she was forced to drop out after 15 miles due to illness. However, by 1985, 16% of participants were female and that number has been growing ever since. Skipping ahead to present day, the 2017 race saw a split of 58.4% men and 41.5% women.
Even though veteran and super-veteran women’s median race times have improved compared to male counterparts, female marathoners statistically take around 30 minutes longer to complete the NYC race – which accounts for some of the overall decrease in median pace across race participants.
Veteran Runners Are Closing the Gap on 18-39-Year-Olds
The median times for runners in the veteran age group (40-49 years old) and those in the standard age group (18-39) have converged, suggesting that veterans have improved relative to younger runners. Veteran racers aren’t necessarily catching up with the younger crowd, but they’re making a stronger attempt than ever before.
The proportion of participants in veteran and super veteran groups have increased steadily over the years. In fact, the average age of runners in the 2017 NYC Marathon was 41.2 years. Older runners are not only getting better at running, they’re also continuing to participate in marathons later in life.
This trend suggests that runners are remaining more active as they age. They’re staying fit and continuing their training until later in life, to the point that the speed gap between young and old racers is actually shrinking. This could might also suggest that runners’ knowledge of injury prevention and recovery is improving, too.
Running isn’t traditionally thought of as a sport you do for life since it’s hard on the joints. However, if there’s been a shift towards injury prevention education – as well as a greater emphasis on staying active, strong, and healthy as you age – then running could be turning into something people can enjoy at almost any life stage.
There’s a 22-Year Age Difference Between the Youngest and Oldest Winners
In 2016, 20-year-old Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from Eritrea, set a record for being the youngest person ever to win the NYC Marathon. His finishing time was 2:07:51, over a minute faster than his closest competitor.
Ghebreslassie is the youngest person to win the NYC Marathon by two years. In both 1973 and 1974, 22-year-olds took first place. They ran the course in 2:21:54 and 2:27:52, respectively.
All past winners have been in the 18-39 age category, with the exception of Priscilla Welch, who won in 1987 at age 42 with a time of 2:30:17.
Kenyan Athletes Dominate the Competition
With a total of 14 male winners and 10 female winners, Kenyan runners have frequently dominated the competition on both sides of the gender divide. This is even more remarkable when you consider that a relatively small number of Kenyans – 291, to be exact – have ever completed the race.
The U.S. and Kenya are the only counties to produce more than ten NYC Marathon champions – and it’s a tight race. American runners have taken first place 23 times, while Kenyan runners have won 24 times.
Here’s the thing: even though today’s race attracts a more diverse group of runners than ever, 63% all race participants in 2017 were American – making Kenya’s long-term success rate all the more impressive.
Outside of the U.S. and Kenya, only a select few countries have ever produced multiple champions in either the men’s or women’s races – and these cases are often due to a single athlete bringing home multiple wins. For instance, the impressive Grete Waitz of Norway won the women’s race on nine separate occasions.