Steamboat Springs Anyone who wants to sign up for next month’s Steamboat Marathon still has the opportunity, and that’s a marked change for the 32-year-old race.
The June 2 event — which features a marathon, a half-marathon and a 10-kilometer race — has spots remaining in each category. The event frequently sold out in past years, especially at the half-marathon distance, but race director Paul Sachs said early numbers indicate 2013 may continue a recent trend of fewer runners in Steamboat’s biggest race.
“The numbers are close to last year, which was a little down,” Sachs said. “It’s been heading that way for a number of years.”
The downward turn has Sachs and others a little confused, though far from the point of worry or panic.
Sachs hopes the full marathon, which has drawn as many as 500 runners in big years, will surpass the 300-person milestone for this year’s race. He estimated half-marathon participation at about 900 this year. That race has sold out in the past at about 1,200 runners.
This year’s registration has produced one anomaly. Sachs said nearly 200 runners are already signed up for the 10K. That race has no cap and is usually nearly empty until the week of the race, with the majority of runners waiting to sign up even until the day before the event.
The half-marathon, meanwhile, has not always been like that.
That race hit its most recent high in 2009, when 1,273 registered. It experienced a small drop for 2010, down to 1,235, and a slightly larger one in 2011, down to 1,122. The race hit its recent low last year, with 977, a 23 percent decrease from 2009.
If the event draws 900 this year, it would make for a nearly 30 percent drop from 2009 levels.
Full marathon participation also has been undulating in recent years. It actually grew from 2009 to 2010, from 407 to 451 runners, before dropping to 436 in 2011 and a recent low last year of 347, a 23 percent drop from 2010.
“It’s not going to be far off from last year, but it’s off from a few years back,” Sachs said.
Considering the shift
It’s anyone’s guess as to exactly what’s led to the recent dip.
Steamboat Springs Running Series Director Cara Marrs, a 16-year veteran of the race, said the series as a whole has seen rampant growth during the years the Steamboat Marathon has experienced its recent decline.
“We’ve been up 10 to 20 percent every year since 2009,” she said. “We weren’t up that much last year, but we still grew by a few percentage points.”
She offered a few potential reasons for the marathon’s slide. First, she pointed out the significant increase in race opportunities throughout the region, up 50 percent over the past five years by her rough estimate.
She also mentioned an increase in interest in trail running. That shift, away from the road and to the dirt, has made an impact on the Running Series.
“There’s been this monstrous uptake in trail running,” she said. “I think that has a lot to do with it, not just at our road races, but at all road races.”
That increase in trail running isn’t the only way the race scene has shifted in the past five years. Sarah Leonard with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association said the Steamboat Marathon also may be bleeding runners to ultra-marathons. That certainly adds up locally, where the Run, Rabbit Run 50- and 100-mile trail ultra-marathon has gone from non-existence to selling out its 200-spot, 50-mile race in the past seven years.
“The Steamboat Marathon is a pretty hard marathon and so we get some serious runners,” she said. “We think some of those really serious marathon runners are going to the ultra-marathons.”
What longer races haven’t taken away from the Steamboat Marathon, shorter races might be taking. The last five years also have seen the rise of adventure races like Warrior Dash, which have become immensely popular and make a tempting fitness target for runners who might otherwise sign up for a half-marathon.
Searching for a solution
What discussion there has been about the trend hasn’t resulted in any sure fix.
A course change could be one potential remedy.
The full marathon has long started at the base of Hahn’s Peak in the northern part of the county, and followed the Elk River south before swinging toward Steamboat Springs for a downtown finish.
“But we’re not doing that,” Sachs said about altering the route.
Steamboat is a Boston Marathon qualifier and any change would require the race to be re-certified.
“It’s very difficult to come up with a different course,” Sachs said. “Plus, a lot of people just love that run as it is.”
The Chamber is still optimistic about this year. The Steamboat Marathon and many other races saw a surge in registration after the Boston Marathon bombings. Some reports speculate the 2014 Boston Marathon could see twice the amount of interest of the previous year.
Still, the Chamber is trying to apply several changes to the race that it hopes results in a participation rebound. Staffers attended several marathons around the state to try to spread the word about Steamboat, manning booths at those events’ registration expos.
The Chamber also hopes to create a more festival-type atmosphere at this year’s finish line.
“We have a liquor permit, so there will be cocktails available,” Leonard said. “We want to generate some excitement. We produce an amazing event and people love to come run in Steamboat.”
And no one is disputing that.
“I don’t know that we’ll change anything dramatically,” Sachs aid. “We just want to keep doing a good, quality event and get the word out there.”
Registration remains open for this year’s event at www.SteamboatMarathon.com. The marathon costs $80, the half-marathon is $70, and the 10K is $40.