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Originally published Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 8:00 PM

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Stressed out are running for their sanity, helping retailers

Running is booming in the U.S. as more people seek inexpensive ways to manage stress amid economic uncertainty.

Seattle Times business reporter

U.S. running

Participation

25.6 million

People who run at least 50 days a year

16.4 million

People who run at least 100 days a year

39.8 million

Pairs of running shoes sold last year

Money spent

$2.36 billion

Dollars spent on running-shoe purchases in 2009

883 million

Dollars spent on running-apparel purchases in 2009

Source: Running USA, National Sporting Goods Association, Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association

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Local mom Alice Lawson dropped her gym membership in early 2009 to save money and prepare for a possible job loss. Rather than let herself go, she took up running and completed her first half-marathon last month in Seattle.

"We don't know economically where things are going," said Lawson, 43, of Shoreline. "When I finish a run, I feel like, hey, I can do whatever I set my mind to. It doesn't matter what's coming. I'll be OK."

Running is booming in the U.S. as more people seek inexpensive ways to manage stress amid economic uncertainty. The June 26 Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, which featured live bands along a 26.2-mile course from Tukwila to Seattle, sold out in late March, roughly a month earlier than last year.

Nationally, the number of marathon finishers rose nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2009 to a record 467,000, according to Running USA, a nonprofit group. The growth of half-marathon finishers was even more impressive, jumping 24 percent from 900,000 in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2009.

The boom also can be seen at local running stores, where sales of shoes and other items considered crucial to the sport remain at or above pre-recessionary levels — no small feat given the economic turmoil of the past two years.

"Running appears to be not recession-proof, but at least it's recession-resistant," said David Willey, editor of Runner's World magazine. "People tend to focus on things they can control, and they want to get healthier, so they start running more."

Last year, nine Rock 'n' Roll Marathon races attracted 219,000 participants in the U.S. Of those, 39 percent were neophytes, and 60 percent were women, reflecting the broadening appeal of running. This year, 14 Rock 'n' Roll races are projected to draw 330,000 participants.

"Running is the most convenient, least costly form of exercise," said Jim Weber, president and chief executive officer of Brooks Sports, a Bothell-based running shoe and apparel company. "You don't have to join a health club or take a class. You can just walk out your door."

Capitalizing on trend

Even so, running businesses say they benefit from an affluent customer base who can drop $100 on a new pair of shoes or $85 to enter a race. Running USA figures nearly three-quarters of year-round runners have an annual household income of more than $75,000.

U.S. running-shoe sales rose 2 percent last year to $2.36 billion, while sales of running apparel declined 3 percent to $883 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Store owners blame the recession for the disparity: Cash-strapped runners are more likely to replace a worn-out pair of shoes than a faded shirt or shorts.

"With running, you can wear that ratty old T-shirt, and you can wear cutoffs if you want," said Chet James, owner of Super Jock 'n Jill, a specialty running store near Green Lake in Seattle.

Lawson, a city-government worker, said she figured an $85 race-entry fee was still less than a year of gym-membership dues. Her husband, Mike, runs a "boot camp" fitness program through the Redmond Athletic Club. To prepare for last month's half-marathon, she used a website called MapMyRun.com, which helped her create training routes based on how many miles she wanted to cover and whether she preferred a hilly or flat course.

"It's fun to belong to a gym and take classes, but I didn't want to pay the price," she said.

Brooks Sports posted worldwide sales last year of about $190 million, up slightly from 2008. It had sales of $120 million in 2005 and $175 million in 2007, so it's well ahead of where it was before the recession, Weber said.

Now, Brooks aims to make inroads with first-time marathoners by traveling to Rock 'n' Roll races in a carnival-themed, double-decker bus. Called the Run Happy Cavalcade of Curiosities, it mixes games and oddities with the more serious business of gait analysis and product demonstrations.

"We're spending several million dollars a year on this, which for us is a big investment," said Dave Larson, vice president of marketing at Brooks. Today's marathoners "go out not trying to win, but to engage in a fun, communal activity with their friends and family."

Appeal to women

Unlike the 1970s, when Olympic gold-medalist Frank Shorter sparked a male-dominated running boom, women account for the current surge in popularity, said Willey, of Runner's World. He believes it all started with the growth of women's collegiate and high-school athletic opportunities in the '80s and '90s.

"Many women who grew up playing sports get out of college, and all of a sudden they don't have a team to be on or practice to go to, so they start running," Willey said.

Also, many women approach a full- or half-marathon as a chance to raise money for charitable causes, such as breast cancer or leukemia.

Super Jock 'n Jill catered to serious runners when it opened in 1975. But by the late '80s, its focus shifted to everyday athletes after local podiatrists, physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons began sending patients there for shoes, James said.

The debut of a three-day walk for breast cancer in the '90s generated "a whole new group called females, who needed good products and good information," he said. "We had to adjust our thinking to accommodate them."

On a recent weekday morning, eight salespeople helped a steady stream of female customers try on running shoes. Every so often, a customer dashed out the front door to test a pair on a nearby hill before paying the $90 or so price tag.

"I recently had foot surgery," said Portia Gray, 39, of Seattle, who left the store with a $100 pair of Brooks running shoes. "I'm hoping to get back to running three times a week. I love the endorphin rush, and I can only get that when I do an intense cardio workout.

"I guess I'm an endorphin junkie," she added. "I've been running off and on since ninth grade."

At Everyday Athlete in Kirkland, the recession put a halt to double-digit sales growth, but demand for running shoes remains strong, said co-owner Len Fedore. Fortunately for the store, he said, its core female customers buy other things besides running shoes, such as socks, or belts for bottled water.

"The male mentality is more like, 'I don't need that — I just need shoes,' " he said.

Sally Bergesen, founder and president of Oiselle, a Seattle running-apparel company, hopes women who took up running to relieve stress during the recession not only stick with it in better economic times but also treat themselves to new clothes.

The spring line, which is sold at about 120 stores in the U.S., includes women's low-rise, three-pocket running shorts with a suggested retail price of $38, and a lightweight racer-back tank top for $32.

Bergesen, a longtime runner who created Oiselle (pronounced "wa-zell") in 2006, remembers early 2009 as the company's "dark period."

"Stores that had bought from us before were opting out, and stores that hadn't bought from us before were scared to bring us in," she said. "But by the fall, things got a lot more relaxed, and I think people realized the world was not coming to an end."

Oiselle is on track to nearly double its sales this year, she said.

"Women are getting their girlfriends together and saying, 'shoot, if Oprah can run a marathon, we can, too,' " Bergesen said.

While the typical marathon newbie just wants to finish, no matter how long it takes, many racers are getting faster, another possible result of the recession.

Seattle Fit, which charges $125 for a 25-week training program, helped 250 runners prepare for last month's marathon, up from 175 a year ago.

"It's mental as much as physical for a lot of people," said Paul Brook, a Seattle Fit coach. "A five- or 10-mile run can really clear your head."

Greg Kriegler, a business-strategy consultant, ran a half-marathon last year in 1:35, a personal best.

"You wake up in the morning with a pile of problems, and after you run 10 or 15 miles, those problems don't seem as daunting anymore," said Kriegler, 29, of Seattle.

He began training with Lawson, a former NATO commando, nearly two years ago and shaved 19 minutes off his personal best.

"Do I think I would have improved as much if the economy had been different? Probably not," Kriegler said. "Because of the recession, there's fewer wins to be had today. But with running, you go out there, put in the effort, and end up reaping some personal reward or satisfaction."

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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