Running out of excuses
by Greg Hitchcock
(www.slowtwitch.com) 6.12.01

Dan Empfield recently did some math, really just basic counting (he left the calculus to me), about the decline in the quality of American distance runners. Since this provides an important pool of athletes from which the sport of triathlon draws, it has consequences for the sport of most readers of this site.

DECLINE OF AMERICAN DISTANCE RUNNING

The following is a compilation from a fairly comprehensive list of high school runners who have run under 9 minutes for two miles and under 4:10 for the mile (or the equivalent times in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters, or those bastard events, the 1600 meters and 3200 meters).*

2-miles in 8:59.99 or faster, by decade:

1960s 13
1970s 84
1980s 51
1990s 15

1-mile in 4:09.99 or faster, by decade:

1960s 33
1970s 95
1980s 75
1990s 36

These numbers reflect what we have known intuitively for some time: American prep running has declined substantially since the 1970s. A closer look shows that the period from 1969 to 1985 was the true period of excellence with an average of about 10 sub-4:10 milers per year during that period, peaking in 1977 with 16. Some of the year-to-year variance is in the luck of the draw for athletes that year, and in how good the weather and track were at the big meets. (For example, at the 1976 California High School meet, at least four runners in the two-mile never made the sub-9:00 list because of the 20 mile per hour winds that slowed Eric Hulst's winning time by 13 seconds from his previous week's time). The down trend that became apparent in 1986 lasted through 1996, with an average of less than 4 runners per year breaking the 4:10 mile. But then came 1997 when 7 high school athletes went under 4:10. They presaged the explosion of 13 athletes performing the feat in 2000. Based on my analysis, this is the start of an upward trend.

POPULAR THEORIES FOR THE DECLINE

There have been many theories as to why there has been a decline in U.S. high school distance running. Excessive watching of television, and playing of video and computer games are often cited as culprits. In addition, physical education has been de-emphasized in schools, and the physicality of the PE curriculums that remain has also dropped off at most schools since the 1970s. While there is little doubt that such factors have driven up childhood obesity rates, it is not so easy to conclude that distance running quality has suffered because there are more kids in generally poor physical condition. For example, sports such as basketball, football, baseball and soccer have strong participation numbers at all ages, and continue to pump out new stars each year.

If there was a shortage of athletic kids, we would have seen all sports suffer. Specifically, we would see comparable sports suffer in comparable ways. Young women runners are not a very good source of comparison because their sport did not even start in this country until the late 1970s and gradually built steam. So if there has been a downtrend that affects the girls, we would not notice it because opportunities have been increasing for the formerly excluded distaff side. Similarly, there has been no noticeable down trend in swimming, the most comparable sport. But in swimming training techniques have improved so much that times have gotten faster even if there is less actual quality in the pool. In addition, swimming at the highest level only takes place in the developed, western world, so the U.S. looks comparatively strong. In contrast, most parts of the world produce top distance runners, so the gap between runners from the U.S. and the world has increased during this time.

Another reason cited for the decline in quality runners over the past 15 years is that there have been no heroes to look up to. Where have you gone Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar? However, paradoxes are never a good explanation for a problem: there cannot be heroes without large numbers of quality high school athletes to feed the talent pool, but there cannot be large numbers of quality high school athletes without heroes.

Some folks like to blame the rise of soccer for the decline of running. However, this is a bit like Detroit of the 1970s and 80s blaming the excellence of Toyota and Honda for its decline. In reality, soccer has actually helped high school distance running. Youth soccer has kept many kids in sports. When these kids get to high school and fail to make the soccer team, they go out for track and cross country. I think matters would be much worse for running if soccer had not developed as a popular youth activity.

Maybe in totality, the above popular reasons explain a very small part of the decline of the sport in the U.S., but no more than a sliver.

LOOK FOR THE BOUNCING BABIES

The principal reason for the decline is found in the bedroom -- for too long, not enough people had unprotected sex. The demographics of child births just have not supported the sport.

Annual births rose during the 1950s (the "Baby Boom"). From 1957 to 1962 annual births hovered around 4.1 to 4.3 million, dropped under 4 million in 1965, then plummeted to 3.1 million by 1973. Birth rates stayed low until the end of the 1970s, then rose sharply in 1979 and 1980, and rose gradually throughout the 1980s, getting over 3.5 million in 1983 and then 4.1 million in 1990 (the biggest birth year since 1962). Rates have subsided a bit since then, but are expected to climb back over 4 million per year in the next few years. (See ed.gov). The total number of U.S. children (ages 0-18) mirrors the birth rate, rising from below 60 million prior to 1958 to over 70 million by 1965, a plateau that lasted until about 1975. After that the number of children began dropping as a result of the low birth rates, to about 61 million kids in 1985. The number of kids began to trend up again in 1990 and reached 70 million again in 1999. (see childstats.gov) And school population trend lines support these demographics (see ed.gov).

If we take the U.S. birth rate graph and create an overlay graph by adding 18 years to the birth years, and then plot the number of sub-4:10 milers (using a three-year moving average to smooth year to year fluctuation), there is a near identical match between the birth rate line and the number of elite runners.

RUNNING NOT THE FIRST CHOICE

To understand why a 25% drop in the number of children caused an 80% reduction in the number of elite high school runners, one must understand that runners come to the sport, for the most part, because they cannot make the high school team in their first choice sport (usually basketball, football, baseball or soccer). There are exceptions, of course, but this holds true for the vast majority of top runners. You can bet that if Jim Ryun could nail 20-foot jump shots in basketball mad Kansas, we probably never would have heard of him. Steve Prefontaine wanted to be a football player but was too scrawny.

As the macro number of kids in the U.S. declined, the average student populations at schools also dropped. In small cities, that have only one high school, it is impossible to close the school to reflect decreased students. In larger school districts, school boards are reluctant to close schools because of parental and community pressure, and so, populations dropped at schools in larger districts as well.

The dynamic of fewer students per school reduced athletes available for all sports. This provided new opportunities for marginal athletes in their first choice sports. Many of the kids who were getting cut from their first choice sports before 1985 went out for track. But by 1990, those kids were having success at early levels and then made their high school teams in their first choice sport, and they never tried running.

The resurgence in American high school running we are seeing is the result of the "Echo" generation flooding into schools. A kid who could make the high school soccer team a decade ago might not be good enough now. We are seeing this type of kid return to the track, and many of them are having great success.

As long as people keep making babies, the pool of athletes should be adequate to stoke this new trend. Those 13 kids who were born about 1982 and broke 4:10 for the mile last year are just harbingers for the class of 2008 when an additional 600,000 kids will hit their high school senior year. We should see an additional six to eight elite runners, with perhaps 20 kids going sub-4:10 for the mile.**

There are several things that track can and should do to make itself more attractive to kids and families. For example, the 4-plus hour track meet has to go. But even given these faults, rest assured we are witnessing a resurgence of elite high school running in this country, which will lead to improved collegiate and international results. The demographics demand it.

*The list of elite runners (which can be found here) is accurate in that I could not find any undeserving athletes on the list (with bogus times), and it includes all of the recent athletes who have made the Track and Field News annual lists. But it is a bit incomplete (by the compiler’s own admission) and I noticed at least one athlete I ran against from the 1970s who should have been on the list but was not. I would surmise there are a handful of other deserving athletes left off of the lists, most of whom likely ran in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, when data on runners were not so easily reproduced and disseminated. Hence, a completely accurate list would show a slightly greater decline in the sport than the numbers compiled above. In addition, athletes appear only once on the list, with the year in which they ran their fastest time so it is impossible to tell how many athletes actually broke 4:10 or 9:00 in a particular year. We can only tell how many such athletes set their high school personal best during a year. But this information is neutral and adequately illustrates the trend.

**It would be expected that "Echo" generation kids would have a higher ratio of elite runners to population than their parent's generation. They have had the advantage of better prenatal and infant care (primarily no exposure to alcohol or smoking), so more kids achieve their maximum physical ability. They have better shoes, so fewer athletes get injured. They have faster racing shoes and track surfaces. There are more opportunities for elite athletes to race each other in all-star meets to push themselves to better performances. Finally, there are far more coaches now with extensive running experience and much more is known about distance running and mistakes to avoid in training.

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