Every year, more masses mob marathons

For centuries, the marathon was seen as the ultimate footrace, a journey so long that few mortals were thought capable of enduring it. But more and more these days, the running proletariat is following in the Athenians' fleet footsteps.

With hundreds of thousands clamoring to race in what was once an elite, grueling, even foolhardy, venture, the olive-branch crown has morphed into legions of fluorescent jerseys. Marathons, increasingly, are for the masses.

Even Boston's Marathon - the world's most exclusive 26.2-mile race, with its famously tough qualifying times - is bowing to pressure from the running rabble.

For the 107th race, which takes place Monday, Boston officials loosened time requirements for older age groups and added 5,000 slots - effectively cracking open the elite marathon to a broader class of runners. The stretch for inclusion reflects wider trends in the marathon world, which more runners - and more-average runners - are fueling.

In 1976, for instance, 25,000 people finished marathons in the US. By 1990, that number had grown tenfold, to 260,000. And by 2002, it was close to half a million. As the jogging masses have joined the fleet-footed elite, average US finishing times have grown dramatically. Between 1980 and 2002 median times rose from 3:32 to 4:20 for men and from 4:03 to 4:56 for women. Between 1980 and 2002 median times slid from 3:32 to 4:20 for men and from 4:03 to to 4:56 for women.

It all stems from the momentum of the running and fitness fads of the 1970s and '80s - and now, the extreme-sports craze that started in the '90s. There's also been an explosion of charity runners - many of them first-timers. Boston this year has a record 1,100 charity participants.

"The sport has become mainstream," says Ryan Lamppa, a researcher at USA Track & Field's information center. It's part of "the second running boom," which is more mellow than the intense "no-pain-no-gain" first boom. This time around, he says, the maxim is: "Virtually any able-bodied person can run a marathon."

Take the blonde-coiffed ladies of the Generation Gap, a Salt Lake City running club. With primped hair and jewelry, they look more styled for a country club than a marathon. But these women are serious about running. They meet six days a week at 5:30 a.m. - rain, sun, sleet, or snow. Six of their 25 members qualified for Boston this year, including spry septuagenarian Judy Bullough.

She started running two or three miles at a time to relieve stress from her nursing job - and is now on her 31st marathon. "It just keeps you happy," she says.

Another member, Ida Lee Reaveley, would have missed qualifying for Boston by six minutes if it weren't for the less-stringent time requirements. Now she's able to join her friends.

In fact, a record one-third of this year's Boston runners are women. Overall, 40 percent of US marathon finishers last year were women, up from 10.5 percent in 1980, according to USA Track & Field.

Or there's Wade Anderson, who's running his first Boston race Monday. It's his second marathon. And he didn't even plan to be here. Mr. Anderson, a forestry engineer from Vancouver, B.C., aims to do his first Ironman triathalon this year. "This is really a training run," he says, laughing at the irony that he's treating the world's greatest marathon as a warm-up lap.

But Andersen is onto something: The days of Boston being the Mt. Everest of endurance races are over. "Because of these extreme events, there are just some taller mountains out there now," says Mr. Lamppa.

More people are traversing 150 miles of 120-degree F. Sahara Desert in the six-day Marathon des Sables, "the toughest footrace on Earth."

Or they're teaming up to river-raft, horseback-ride, mountain-climb, or just crawl 300 miles in the Eco-Challenge. As these extreme events get more TV coverage, more people see a 26.2-mile road race as downright easy.

Plus, many marathoners are motivated by doing good. There's a mini-industry of charity groups that train beginners for road races. Monday in Boston, charity runners will raise $7 million.

Katie Lombardo, a rookie marathoner, will raise $2,500 for lupus research. Preparing for Monday has included long training runs - and lots of begging. "I told people I'd even take $1," she laughs. It was the price of entry into an exclusive race she admits she probably wouldn't qualify for based on speed.

But the democratization of marathons isn't likely to slow down. For Lombardo, it's a good time "to focus on things that are important."

She's 26 years old and plans to use each of the race's 26 miles to think about a person who's been important in her life.

The race, she says, "is a rite of passage" - as it is for more and more of the masses.

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