Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed these days, and chances are you'll feel like a slacker. Why? Because everyone and his uncle seems to be getting ready to run a marathon. They're asking for donations, creating special support-me-while-I'm-training groups and posting status updates about returning from a 20-mile run at an hour when most sane people are lazily rolling out of bed. The nonprofit group Running USA reports that there were 467,000 marathon finishers last year, up nearly 10% from 2008 and the highest number of finishers to date. And we can thank Facebook groupthink for helping pick up the pace.
John Blewis, 36, a general manager in Fort Myers, Fla., started training for his first marathon 10 months ago, after seeing on Facebook that a friend from high school had run in their hometown race in Buffalo, N.Y. He joked that he would jog with her the next time around. Three half-marathons later (and 45 lb. lighter), he's registered to compete in the Buffalo marathon in May.
Books on training for a marathon always encourage people to tell everyone they know about their intention to run 26.2 miles in one grueling stretch. Facebook just might be the perfect forum for broadcasting such a goal and making the goal setter stick to it. Cara Sronce, a 24-year-old law student in Carbondale, Ill., says that soon after she signed up for her first marathon, the 2010 Chicago race, she posted a status update about getting ready for the October event. "I figure I can't stop now, unless I get some serious injury or something," she says. "I don't want to give the naysayers the satisfaction of being right." At the same time, Sronce is hoping her decision to run will motivate others around her. "I would hope that people would think, 'If Cara can do it, I can do it too,' " she says. "Maybe I will inspire somebody."That's where the Facebook effect comes in. When you see a friend doing something online, you're more likely to follow whether the activity is telling the world what color bra you're wearing or doing something more goal-oriented. Jennifer Weber says the site helped her catch the marathon bug. "When all these people around you are doing it, you look at them and think, 'Well, if they can run a marathon ...,' " she says. "It spreads like wildfire." The 23-year-old ran her first marathon not long after moving across the country to New York City for her first postcollege job and is now training for her third big race. (Disclosure: She's a friend I met while studying abroad a few years ago, and her status updates are what alerted me to this trend.)
Weber and Sronce are part of the age group Running USA says had the largest increase in marathon runners from 2008 to 2009: women ages 18 to 24. The second largest increase was in men ages 25 to 34, another key Facebook demographic.
Of course, Facebook isn't the only reason people decide to run marathons. Blewis says the economy contributed to his enthusiasm for running, which became a positive outlet in a year when he has had to lay off half his staff at the glass company he manages. "It's a depressing time for many, and training for a marathon makes people feel like they belong again," he said. "There is always someone telling you 'Good job' or 'You can do it. Don't quit you're almost there.'" Which is probably why so many people keep talking about it on Facebook and prodding the rest of us to get our butts in gear.