The Korea Herald


More Koreans are running marathons, but at what cost?

As more chase getting a runner's high, organizing races is fast becoming a lucrative business

By No Kyung-min

Published : June 5, 2024 - 15:16

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Participants begin the 2024 Daegu International Marathon at Daegu Stadium on April 7. (Newsis) Participants begin the 2024 Daegu International Marathon at Daegu Stadium on April 7. (Newsis)

"Birds fly, fish swim and humans run.”

This famous remark by legendary Czech distance runner Emile Zatopek resonates more deeply than ever now in South Korea, where interest in running is leading to a multitude of marathon events and record-breaking participation.

According to an online community website for running enthusiasts, Marathon Online, at least 20 public or elite running events took place across the country in the last two weeks of May, offering a variety of distance courses ranging from 3 kilometers to a whopping 200 km.

This coming weekend will see another 12 track events taking place nationwide, shows the data compiled by the website, which excludes small-scale events organized by local groups. Spring along with fall are peak running seasons in S. Korea, with crisp air and moderate temperatures, making them ideal for outdoor sports.

Lately, not only are there a plethora of events taking place, but public participation is at unprecedented levels.

The Seoul International Marathon, held in March, had approximately 38,000 participants, the Daegu International Marathon in April attracted 28,000 runners and the Incheon Half Marathon in May saw 25,000, all setting new attendance records for their events.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Younger generations take lead

In South Korea's flourishing running scene, younger generations are the pacesetters, leading the charge at the front of the pack.

When roughly 20,000 runners flocked to Gwanghwamun Square for the 2024 Seoul Half Marathon in April, up 53.8 percent from last year's figure of around 13,000 participants, the majority, comprising over 66 percent, were in their 20s and 30s, racing either a half-marathon or a 10-kilometer course.

“Most people seemed to fall into the age group between 20 and 30,” said Kim Won-seung in his 30s, who recently participated in the Bada Marathon in western Seoul on May 25.

Explaining the advantages of group running, he spoke of a shared sense of joy and vitality among fellow runners.

“It was a massive gathering with 7,000 participants running together,” he said. “Even though it was the first marathon for both me and my friend, I immediately understood why people are drawn to such events.”

Another Seoul resident surnamed Lee, a frequent marathon participant, finds a sense of accomplishment simply in finishing, regardless of her record. "In this competitive world," she says, "running is a place where I don't worry about who wins or loses."

Running gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic when other social sports activities were restricted. Many health-conscious people took up running during that time. More recently, the popularity of running clubs, particularly among young generations, has fueled its popularity.

The budget-friendly nature of running is a major draw, with only running shoes as essential equipment, many runners and industry officials said.

According to the Korea Federation of Textile Industries, the value of the domestic sneakers market has been expanding, reaching an estimated 4 trillion won ($2.9 billion) in 2023, with the running shoes market accounting for around 1 trillion won. In 2019, the sneakers market was valued at 3.13 trillion won.

Beyond established giants like Nike, Adidas and Asics, a wave of new running shoe brands is surging, catering to runners' varied needs, with French brand Hoka One One and Swiss brand On Running experiencing sharp increases in popularity.

“The number of runners, from marathon participants to solo joggers, has reached almost 10 million, contributing to increased sales of running shoes,” an industry insider said.

(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Economic bottom line

The running boom has economic ripple effects beyond increased sales of running gear. Various entities are trying to capitalize on large-scale track events to promote their areas and boost local businesses.

For instance, the Hapcheon Cherry Blossom Marathon held in South Gyeongsang Province on March 31 drew a record high of 13,102 distance runners, a substantial turnout considering the entire population of Hapcheon-gun is 40,879.

There was indeed an uptick in the Hapcheon county’s local businesses during the month, shows data from the BC Card’s research arm Institute of Innovative Finance. Dining establishments and accommodation providers respectively experienced a 41 percent and 29 percent surge in transaction volume compared to the preceding week.

Not to be left behind in the marathon frenzy, sports brands are also jumping on board by sponsoring events and organizing their own athletic gatherings such as marathon and group races for running clubs.

In a strategic move to promote their new high-performance running shoes, footwear giant New Balance held a marathon in Incheon on March 31. The fervent interest in the event was undeniable, with all 3,000 available slots filled within four minutes of registration opening.

In another example, sports giant Adidas Korea capitalized on its role as a main sponsor for the 2024 Seoul Marathon by promoting its products and engaging participants in March, offering opportunities like group shakeout runs, product trials and educational sessions.

However, the running events springing up nationwide have also prompted calls for proper government supervision and safety regulations.

The 21st Busan Marathon held in April with 5,000 runners, for instance, faced a wave of criticism from participants who cited issues like insufficient food and water stations, inadequate traffic management and misleading course guides, raising questions about whether the organizer's motives were merely financial.

The participation fees for the event were 30,000 won for the 5-kilometer race, 35,000 won for the 10-kilometer race and 40,000 won for the half-marathon.

Race participants lashed out at the organizers on the event’s official website. “There were even bicycles and pedestrians on the running course,” one post read.

Another recounts their ordeal, stating they couldn't locate water until they reached the 15-kilometer mark. Their request for water post-race was allegedly denied, with the meal provided consisting of "a piece of cheap bread and a carton of soy milk."

A group of participants is planning to take legal action against the organizer, the Busan Metropolitan City Athletic Association, which is a private organization not authorized by the Korea Association of Athletics Federations.

In this regard, officials from KAAF recommended marathoners to consider the event organizer’s "public trust," "KAAF-approved running tracks" and "safety management protocols."

The current law mandates organizers of sports events to undertake appropriate preparations and safety measures.

According to Article 13 of the National Sports Promotion Act, "A person intending to hold a sports event with a concentrated number of participants of a certain size prescribed by Presidential Decree shall formulate a safety management plan, conduct safety education and inspections and take necessary measures for safety management to ensure the event is conducted safely."

Currently, events involving more than 1,000 participants are subject to these regulations.

Participants start the 2024 Run Your Way Half Race Incheon at Arts Center Incheon on March 30. (E-Land) Participants start the 2024 Run Your Way Half Race Incheon at Arts Center Incheon on March 30. (E-Land)