More people are running marathons than ever before. Why?

Marathons around the world are filling up fast, and many are setting new records for participation. Runners and race directors across the globe share about why they choose to lace up.

Marathons around the world are filling up fast, and many are setting new records for participation. Runners and race directors across the globe share about why they choose to lace up.

At the beginning of 2023, Justin Ly had his mind made up about marathons.

“When I thought of the marathon, I just thought it was a bit stupid,” he said. “And really didn’t understand why would anyone want to put themselves through the pain?”

Still, Ly, who lives in Sydney, wanted to test his discipline and improve his physical fitness. So, he decided to run a few miles each day. 

Within a few months, Ly was eating his words about running — and marathons. He enjoyed the process, he said, and he invested in better gear. 

Last fall, he pushed himself to run the Sydney Marathon. He said it was “absolutely brutal,” and he hit the dreaded “wall,” when you feel like you can hardly walk, let alone run. Eventually, though, he crossed the finish line.

Ly is just one of many people around the world who have been getting into long-distance running in recent years. On Strava — a social media-like app to track exercise — there was a 20% increase in marathon runners in 2023 over the previous year.

Despite the suffering, Ly said, he was hooked. He wanted to run Australia’s Gold Coast Marathon this year or the Melbourne Marathon, but they both sold out.

Ly said he managed to get a spot in the Sydney Marathon again before it reached capacity at 24,000 runners, the largest field for any marathon ever held in Australia.

The fact that marathons are trending is perhaps most visible at the London Marathon, where more than 840,000 people entered the lottery to run the race next year.

Hugh Brasher, the London race director, said he and his team were astounded by the 48% increase in UK applicants and a 43% increase in international applicants. 

“I would say it was beyond my wildest dreams,” Brasher said.

Brasher said that next year’s race is expected to break the world record for most marathon finishers ever. And he thinks there’s more than one reason for the sudden rise. 

“I think it’s more where society is. You know, whether it’s through war, whether it’s through social media, I think that society has become more polarized,” he said. 

Marathons, he said, are unifying.

“You know you’re going to help someone else, you know someone else is going to help you,” he said, adding, “You don’t know who that person is going to be. But it just brings an incredible feeling of humanity coming together.”

Another reason people sign up for marathons is to meet new people in their communities. 

Kevin Masters, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who researches why people run marathons, said he believes that it has to do with the epidemic of loneliness in the country coming out of the pandemic. 

“We see a type of — just kind of a sense of ‘Where am I in this big picture?’” Masters said.

Rachel Zimner, who leads Nice Jewish Runners in Toronto, said community is a central force at their weekly meetups.

“It’s almost like going to church,” she said. “You’re having that kind of spiritual connection with other people.”

Nice Jewish Runners started in New York last fall. Since then, the club has created chapters in 19 cities worldwide. In Toronto, Zimner said that some people walk or cut the course short before grabbing coffee and chatting. 

For this group — and many amateur clubs — the pace is not the point.

“You know, you’re looking for an environment that might be safe for you to feel any kind of feelings that you might be feeling about what’s going on in your own personal life and in the world,” she said.

Nice Jewish Runners is part of a global rise in running clubs targeting specific groups of people, like the Muslim Running Club in New York and the Non-Binary Running Club in San Francisco. 

Others are centered around a neighborhood or city, like Midnight Runners. The club started in London in 2015 and has since expanded to four continents.

“We’re open to all races, all religions, all sexual orientations. And that’s the main focus of what we do,” said Juan Felipe Perdomo Carvajal, who helps lead Midnight Runners from Bogotá, Colombia.

He believes the running boom is tied to society’s increased focus on self-care.

“I’d say that’s a big motivator. We all want to be our best versions,” Perdomo Carvajal said.

It’s not just the roads and sidewalks that are filling up — trail running is also on the rise. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s annual report, trail running has seen more than a 20% increase since 2020.

In Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, runner Ahmed Ouikhalfen said the local terrain makes it easy for first-timers.

“The conditions here help a lot,” he said. “And more people started, like, doing it. Just for fun.

In 2022, a new trail running festival called Atlas Marathon even popped up in Aït Bouguemez, an area east of Marrakesh. Organizers are now working to get the sport into the Olympics.

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