When Scott Higgins and Michael Lang started the Happy’s Running Club in 2008, they hoped that 50 people could gather for the group’s informal Tuesday night runs.
The first run, in March of that year, drew just 17.
Five years later, the group regularly draws more than 300 runners and has at times drawn closer to 450 for the Tuesday night run, Higgins said. About 900 people have paid the club’s annual $35 membership dues. A New Orleans chapter got its start last year, a St. Louis chapter will start at the end of this month, and there are discussions about starting a chapter in Austin, Texas.
“For Michael and I, philosophically, it was a quality of life thing,” he said. “It just exploded.”
The Happy’s 5K runs include serious runners, people with dogs, parents with strollers and everything in between.
“Let’s go run, have fun, at your own pace and get some drink specials afterward,” is how Higgins described the club’s mantra.
The growth Higgins witnessed is not limited to just his club, however.
“There are just so many groups of runners for different causes,” said Jennifer L. Peters, who owns Varsity Sports. “The number of people in any of these groups and clubs is far larger than it was even in the running boom.”
Varsity Sports also hosts regular runs from its Perkins Road store, which frequently draw dozens of people.
The growth in running is evident not just in informal events like the Happy’s run; the number of road races in Baton Rouge has risen each of the last three years.
“We have had five more runs each year,” Baton Rouge police Lt. Don Kelly said. “This year, we have had two more so far than the previous year.”
Road running races are issued parade permits, which require road closures, Kelly said.
“In an average year, we issue about 175 permits for road closures,” he said. Last year, “45 to 50 of those are for runs.”
The market for running races may be close to saturated, Kelly said.
“We do have organizations now that are starting to move away from runs and look to other events,” he said. “People are only going to run in so many events.”
But even if smaller runs are dropping out, larger event-style niche runs are gaining in popularity.
On April 20, an estimated 8,000 runners participated in the Color Run, a for-profit national series of races in which runners were doused with brightly-colored powder at intervals on the 5K course.
“Without question, that was one of the larger runs we have ever seen,” Kelly said.
The Color Run has become so popular nationally that it has inspired imitators like ColorinMotion 5K, which will be in Central on June 29, and Run or Dye, which says on its ebsite that it’s coming soon to Baton Rouge.
The increase in runners and races is a national trend, said Ryan Lamppa, a spokesman for RunningUSA, a nonprofit that exists to grow the sport.
“There are now about 24,000 road races in the country,” Lamppa said. Two decades ago, “it was closer to 10,000.”
That doesn’t include the thousands of small runs and “fun runs” that RunningUSA doesn’t track, he said.
Lamppa termed this the “second running boom.” The first, from 1972 until about 1987, was maledominated and kicked off when American Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon in the Munich Games.
The second, which is nearly two decades old, began when Oprah ran a marathon in 1994, Lamppa said.
“This second running boom is unique compared to the first one,” Lamppa said. “It’s being driven by women.”
Runners now are more interested in health and fitness than in how fast they are running, he said.
That was the impetus for the formation of the Baton Rouge chapter of Black Girls Run, said Ernise Singleton who, along with about 10 friends, was one of the group’s initial members.
“Black women do run to help live a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
The local Black Girls Run chapter has grown so much that they have group runs six days per week and in a variety of places from Zachary to Lafayette, Singleton said.
Danny Bourgeois, marketing director for the Louisiana Marathon, said running fits with south Louisiana’s culture.
“It’s social, it complements the eating and drinking,” he said. “If you run, you can enjoy what you are doing at the festival without guilt.”
Nearly half of the runners in the Louisiana Marathon are from out of state, Bourgeois said.
“In a country that has so many cookie-cutter experiences for us to offer a cochon de lait po-boys, do I need to say more?”