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Backstory: Remember when running was simple?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 2006



Breathe in. Breathe out. During my five months of training for a marathon, never was controlled breathing more critical than when my wife returned from an outing at the running store.

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"A little over $400," she said one Sunday as she held up the latest pile of polyester and plastic. The spoken "s" of "dollars" blended like French elision into the "B" of "But it was on clearance."

I couldn't be too self-righteous about this. After all, I had a closet full of camping doodads and a workbench scattered with bike- and ski-tuning equipment. But forgive me for initially thinking that distance running, unlike most sports, required nothing more than a pair of old sneaks and a fascination with pain. Those days, I learned, went out with the sweatband.

"Running at its core is obviously a very simple sport," says Michael Pieroni, a coach at the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), the organization behind the famed Boston Marathon that will be held again this Monday. "However, with the proliferation of other sports ... that are equipment driven, I think you've seen manufacturers and marketers say 'Guess what, there's an untapped population out there that we can create products for.' "

All told, my wife and I were tapped for $963.65 in running equipment. And we're just two of the 25 million runners that the National Sporting Goods Association estimates are pounding America's streets. While that number has remained steady, the proportion of frequent runners is growing, as is participation in longer competitions, particularly half and full marathons. That translates into a bigger demand for gear to help go the distance.

"Races have become more festivals than competitions. A lot more, it's just the accomplishment of getting through that 26.2 [miles]," says Andrew Hersam, publisher of Runner's World magazine. "Spending is up on gadgets [and] spending is up on travel."

That's creating a "boom" in the industry, says Craig Vanderoef, a product manager at Brooks Sports, Inc., a running shoe and apparel company. Sales of apparel and accessories are growing 30 percent to 40 percent per season and now account for a quarter of Brooks' business.

Mr. Vanderoef designs high-tech apparel in a "personal war against cotton." Indeed, after the first few weeks of training and an assortment of rashes and riding-up shorts, I was convinced I'd never run in cotton again. The anti-chafing wax that I initially rolled my eyes at I now rolled liberally across my thighs and chest.

In the winter, as daylight shortened and our weekday runs lengthened to two hours, the reflective vests and headlamps also vindicated themselves. So did winter outfits that wick sweat.

"Wicking is so 1975," Vanderoef informs me. New performance apparel, he says, is actually woven in a gradient of thicknesses, with silver threading that redistributes heat and liquid from hot spots.

It sounds cool, and part of the high-tech craze is undoubtedly about looking cool.

"People may not be real fast, but they want to look like world record holders," says Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director. Vanderoef at Brooks admits that the influx of women in road races has helped his job: "Guys don't care how they look sometimes; it's the bane of my existence."

As the miles ratcheted up in our training, food and water gear became crucial. Double-digit solo runs required a water belt with four small bottles designed to be accessible without stopping. Every eight miles we'd pop salt to keep up a proper salt-to-water equilibrium. We turned to goo - supplements packed with carbs - to maintain energy.

We also needed two pairs of shoes each - one minimally broken in with at least 12 miles of use for marathon day. That mental odometer gave a certain satisfaction. Our coach said his training schedule amounted to running from Boston to Annapolis, Maryland.

Our purchases helped get us to the last 26 miles - the actual marathon itself in Phoenix. In the end, we resisted the newer products: bras that monitor heart rate, GPS watches with downloadable stats, and sneakers with springs.

Ironically, despite the new technology, average race times have actually slowed in recent years. We didn't break any records as we crossed the finish line hand in hand in just under five hours. For us it was more about the $4,000 my wife had raised for charity.

In a hallway of the BAA, resident historian Gloria Ratti maintains a collection of Boston Marathon memorabilia, including old shoes from the early 1900s. Some resemble bowling shoes, others would almost pass as officewear today.

Looking at one pair that had been reshod, she says: "I imagine the impact of this heel coming down over 26 miles ... Gosh."

Explosion of paraphernalia

Specialty running stores are rapidly expanding. Runner's World counts 670 stores today, up from 266 five years ago.

iPods and other music devices may be banned at races like the Boston Marathon, but Runner's World found a complete reversal in the proportion of people who run with music to those who run without. Three years ago only 25 percent ran with it; today just 25 percent without.

Elite runners have have different gear needs because they run for a shorter time than the rest of us. They have their own water bottles handed to them during races, for example.

In 2005, running shoe sales reached $1.99 billion - a more than 20 percent jump since 2000.

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