The Baltics’ inexplicable obsession

  • 2013-07-10
  • By Jonathan Brown

FOOTLOOSE: Running for fun and sport has caught on in the Baltics, with over 22,000 runners taking part in this year’s Riga Nordea Marathon.

RIGA - What is your obsession with running? The city’s public transport has been put on hold. Roads are closed or diverted. Some 4,000 runners wind their way either twenty-one or forty-two kilometers through Riga—throwing away plastic cups and emptied high-calorie gel packs as they go. Animated crowds line the streets. The atmosphere is in double measures opulence and celebration. And this question, levied with genuine curiosity, has never been more pertinent than now, in the Baltics.

With organized runs appearing in all corners of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia’s roads and trails, with running clubs’ enrollment swelling, and the after-work runners spilling out onto the streets, it’s easy to wonder what has catalyzed this sudden and dramatic attraction to running.

But just how popular has running become? And how recently? Only in the last six years have Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn’s marathons been recognized by AIMS (Association of International Marathons and Distance Races). Both Riga and Vilnius’ marathons became members of AIMS in 2007, while Tallinn Marathon’s 2011 press release boasts AIMS recognition as one of the best marathons in the world. But Institutional acknowledgements aside, perhaps the best gauge of running’s popularity in the region is participation in each capital’s marathon.

SEB Tallinn Marathon’s statistics registered 1,689 participants in 2000: the event’s first year. Only after ten years, in 2010, was the marathon, all forty-two kilometers added. And last year, statistics show that 18,785 people ran in either the marathon, the half marathon, the 10K, the 5K, the 10K walk, or the Children’s Race. This is an increase of 17,096 participants in 12 years. If this trend is anything to go by, September’s marathon will have more participants than any year before it.

In Vilnius, the Danske Bank Marathon is showing equally dramatic figures. The readily available numbers suggest that the number of participants doubled to over 5,000 in 2012 over five possible distances. Its organizers suggest that the Danske Bank Marathon is growing more speedily than Riga or Tallinn’s. More promising still is that this year, the marathon’s course has been redrawn, bringing participants through the most historic and architecturally impressive regions of Lithuania’s capital.

But the story of the Riga Nordea Marathon is probably the most tumultuous and revealing in how substantially the sport has grown in popularity in only a short time. The race’s first year, 1991, had 707 finishers, but witnessed a steady and near fatal decline until 1999. The marathon’s Web site admits the race and the organization struggled to survive. But the numbers of participants have increased since the early 2000s and figures from May’s marathon show that 22,020 runners joined from 65 different countries.

Let’s examine the elementary economics of running: the raw materials and the final product. Even modest joggers invest large quantities of time, money, and energy, which are highly valued resources in any economy, to the sport. And to what end? The final product is largely untenable. Running is rarely about getting from A-Z. In fact, preferably runners run a loop, ending where they start. So, having invested and then exerted these precious resources, the end products are tiredness, sweatiness, and probably hunger. The cost-benefit of running doesn’t explain why so many people are drawn to it.

So it’s curious that each capital city’s marathon is sponsored by the Baltic’s biggest and most competitive banks. This is economic investment on a grander, realer scale. Riga’s marathon is sponsored by Nordea; Vilnius’, by Danske Bank; and Tallinn’s, by SEB. And considering the celebratory and congenial atmosphere at running events generally, this banking sector sponsorship is probably the races’ most rivalrous aspect.

But corporate participation in the Baltics’ marathons hasn’t limited itself to event sponsorship. Some of Riga’s most successful companies, corporations, and governmental institutions, including Accenture, Tieto, Swedbank, and Ernst & Young entered teams in this year’s Riga Nordea Marathon. At least some, if not all, of these companies sponsored their team’s participation.

It’s not mandatory for everyone who laces a pair of shoes by their front door to one day run a marathon. More and more, the idea of a gold standard in running is becoming less important. In fact, there are entire conglomerates that seek to suit everyone’s ideal run. And these options vary considerably. Take for example those compelled to run up, then down, a mountain or hill; there’s fell running. Originating in England, organizers of fell running events generally take for granted, or stipulate, that participants possess sufficient orienteering skills and survival supplies for extreme or unforeseeable circumstances.

Lying at the opposite of running’s spectrum is hashing – the illustrious combination of running and beer drinking which has been popular in the Baltics since independence from the Soviet Union. It’s origins date to 1938 and British colonial presence in India, where “hashers” met on Mondays to admonish their weekend’s excesses. According to a 1950 report on the hasher’s registration card, the club sought “to promote physical fitness among members, get rid of weekend hangovers, to acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer, and persuade the older member that they are not as old as they feel.”

So what is the obsession with running? There isn’t a sufficient answer; only probable causes. The variety of running experiences on offer can only explain in part why the sport has become so popular, so recently. Even the celebratory, specifically non-rivalrous agenda of running seems to fall short of providing a full explanation. Its crucial collaborative and social component isn’t a completely satisfying answer either. The most pointed clue comes from all runners seemingly describing one common experience when talking about running—elation.