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Running from the recession

Training for the L.A. Marathon provides structure and solace to the newly jobless.

March 18, 2010|By Baxter Holmes
  • Running experts have found that during this recession, the number of new runners has surged, largely because it's cheaper than a gym membership.
Running experts have found that during this recession, the number of new… (Nancy Pastor )

Your foot strikes the ground about 1,500 times when running a mile. It strikes the ground about 39,300 times when running 26.2 of them. That's called a marathon, for which you need both training and a routine.

For 10 years, Michael Ward had a routine: Up at 4 a.m., breakfast, catch the bus to work as an editor at an aviation newsletter, then leave at 6 p.m. and back to his one-bedroom, one-bathroom Santa Monica apartment.


FOR THE RECORD:
Jobless marathoners: An article in Thursday's Section A about unemployed workers who use distance running as a way to manage stress said one such runner, Michael Ward, had lost his job April 31. The correct date was April 30. —

But on May 1, 2009, when it was time to get up, Ward, 39, didn't. He had been laid off the day before. He lay in bed for hours, angry, scared.

His head told him he needed to be somewhere, that there was work to do.

Then it hit him: "There's nothing there."

He had to get out of the house. So he grabbed a pair of old sneakers and went to Clover Park near Santa Monica Municipal Airport. He took a step. Then he took about 3,000 more, running two miles, using a trash can as a lap marker.

He ran on adrenaline and the anger of being let go. He used long strides as he had when he was a sprinter at Servite High School in Anaheim.

When he finished, he wasn't tired, just hungry. He had skipped breakfast that morning. He came home and went through job ads. He wondered what to do.

On Sunday, Ward will be among 25,000 runners in the L.A. Marathon, many of them participating in their first marathon, just as he will be. But his story is not unfamiliar. He is part of a new group of marathoners: those who are unemployed and do distance running as a way to manage stress.

There are no direct statistics linking the two, but as job losses have reached historic highs, so too has marathon participation.

Running experts have found that during this recession, the number of new runners has surged, largely because it's cheaper than a gym membership.

It costs only a pair of shoes and time.

"It's a terrific sport for this economy," said Gary Smith, a marathon coach from Long Beach.

About 25 new marathons were founded in 2009, putting the total at more than 470 in the U.S. In 1999, there were about 320. This last year a record 465,000 people finished a marathon in the U.S., up about 10% from 2008. It was the biggest increase in more than 25 years.

The growth in marathon participation is not solely linked to the recession. There is the advancement of social networking, which makes it easier for people to train together and for race organizers to target specific groups.

But running coaches say during this recession, the unemployed have turned to marathons because they need a challenging goal that requires structure and offers control.

"That's a huge part," said Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist based in Connecticut whose specialty is training people for marathons. "Especially in this time when so much is out of your control, you put on your shoes and you can go out when so much else in your life is crazy around you."

Ward trains with a group, as many do. Because of its nature, that method can be considered group therapy for the unemployed.

"There's the all-in-this-together attitude," said Dr. Adam Naylor, a sport psychology coach and director of the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. "And what's a job? It's people working toward a common goal."

Ward had that until he was told his last day would be April 31.

A week after returning from England, where he buried his uncle, who died of cancer, Ward was on the line with a department boss from the company's regional office in Maryland.

"As you know, the company is struggling right now, and we have to make cuts."

Ward sighed. Two years ago, when the economy started tanking, he started saving what he could because he thought this call might come.

"We're here to help you."

He laughed. A month before the call, he was asked to fill out a chart of his daily responsibilities and list who was most capable to be his backup. He knew then he wouldn't last much longer.

"We value you as an employee."

The call ended shortly after that. The 10-person staff was cut to four, and he was asked to train his replacement.

Running became his routine after that, but he wasn't built for distance. The most he had ever run was 5.8 miles during "Hell Week" training in high school nearly 20 years ago. He hadn't run much in the last 10 years because he was too busy with work. But now, he had plenty of time.

"I just needed something at that time to focus on because I was so used to having the get-up-every-morning routine and having a structure -- and all of the sudden there was no structure," he said.

He rose at 4 a.m. and usually ran a few miles every day. Week by week, he was able to improve one mile at a time. He lost about 30 pounds, from 190 to 160.

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