With the crack of the starting gun for the 87th Boston Marathon, another major road-racing season is under way. And the thousands who funneled across the finish line here Monday were a reminder that the running boom, if not picking up speed, at least is maintaining a nice pace.
But do successful megaraces in Boston, New York, Chicago, and other major cities really speak of a lasting grass-roots interest in the sport?
Jerry Kokesh, president of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) and owner of a St. Louis store for runners, says he thinks so.
''The fad runners, like fad tennis and racquetball players, have come and gone, but they've left behind a lot of lifetime runners,'' he says.
The RRCA currently has about 100,000 members, or 20 times as many as a decade ago. These are hard-core runners, the kind who enter races and belong to local clubs.
The largest local RRCA chapter is the ambitious New York Road Runners Club, which has gone from an initial membership of 42 in 1958 to 22,000 now. The club has moved its operation out of a cluttered YMCA office to a 42-room townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where a calendar of 150 events is planned - everything from the New York City Marathon to a New Year's Eve Midnight Run to the 10-kilometer Bagel Run.
The mastermind of the New York club is Romanian-born Fred Lebow, a garment business dropout who is often called the sport's leading mover and shaker.
Is the running boom history? ''It hasn't hit yet,'' says Mr. Lebow. ''The real boom will come when the grocer, the mailman, the blue-collar worker start running. Right now almost 90 percent of those running are upper-middle-class, up-scale people.''
A survey by Runner's World magazine (circulation 365,000) supports Lebow's statement. Seventy-two percent of RW readers are college-educated and 31 percent have household incomes of $40,000 or more. This demographic profile explains why banks frequently are race sponsors.
When it comes to the mass popularization of running, Lebow is convinced that television holds the key. ''Anything not on the tube in this country is nowhere.'' Inroads into TV are being made. The New York City Marathon receives live, wire-to-wire network coverage, making it unique among marathons. But other road races are also attracting some air time.
Even as the sport looks to greener video pastures, it continues to win converts as the running boom moves deeper into middle America from either coast.
Last May, for example, there was a three-mile race at the National Feeder Pigs Festival in West Plains, Mo., a tiny town in the Ozark Mountains. Before the race began, the organizer confessed to underestimating the turnout. Pointing to an iced-down barrel of soft drinks, he said, ''There are 90 runners, but only 72 cans of soda pop. So only the first 72 finishers will get a drink at the finish.''
Performance incentives are far greater elsewhere. The big names have been paid under the table for years, but now things are in the open at such races as the Cascade Run Off in Portland, Ore., and the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, Fla., which offers $5,000 each to the male and female winner.
Runners who want to remain amateurs can place their earnings in trust funds. But because international guidelines governing these funds are subject to rapid change, race sponsors often tread gingerly.
The era of professional running is on its way, say some, and should come front and center after the 1984 Olympics.
In the meantime, a race like the Boston Marathon sticks to a strict amateur code with no prize, expense, or appearance money. Yet the winner still gets far more than a laurel wreath and a bowl of beef stew, even if only indirectly.
Dick Beardsley, who chased world record holder Alberto Salazar across the finish line in '82, says, ''If you're first, second, or third in Boston, you're talking six figures. That's what your possibilities are from other races and endorsements.'' Proof of this is Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston winner, who has his own line of running attire and two running stores. The market in running gear has expanded tremendously in recent years. The shoe business, however, has really soared, with annual sales during the late 1970s estimated at $500 million.
This figure undoubtedly has risen, as running shoes have become the latest craze in casual footwear. Their popularity has spawned national store franchises and stimulated a flood of makes and models. The best shoes can run $70 or more, and business is excellent, since serious runners go through two or three pairs a year.