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Omaha Magazine

It’s a Marathon, Not a Race: How Omaha's Running Scene Hit its Stride

Dec 27, 2022 08:22AM ● By Dwain Hebda
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On any given day, in virtually any Omaha neighborhood, runners help compose the urban scene—trotting along a sidewalk, gliding through the park, or striding beneath the steel, glass, and brick of the Old Market. 

“I think Omaha would rate pretty high nationally as far as a running community,” said John Ritland, 70, a Kansas City native who’s lived and ran in Omaha for almost 30 years. “We may not have the scenic runs that you have in Colorado, but we have some very nice places to run around here.”

Ritland first took up the sport competitively in high school, didn’t fully hit his stride until the 1980s. A victim of the ground-and-pound coaching mentality of the 1960s, he was struck by advancements in shoe technology and sports science that minimized injury and prolonged runners’ careers. These revelations encouraged Ritland to lace-up once more, completing his first marathon after moving to Omaha some 20 years ago. The experience was profound, producing a runner’s high he’s yet to come down from—participating in over 60 marathons since.

“Fast forward to today, the main social groups in running are often at pubs or bars with organized running groups on Tuesday or Wednesday nights,” he explained. “There are still running clubs, and those are great too, but there’s so much more of a social scene now. That has changed so much from back then. Back then, it was just running clubs.”

The early days of running in Omaha, not unlike elsewhere in the U.S., scarcely resemble the day-glo spandex and $250 shoes dominating the landscape today. Runners were considered an odd sect, nocturnal beings running gauntlets in the pre-dawn cool, risking run-ins with cars and the leery eyes of their drivers over their odd uniforms. Chuck Cooper recalls the scene well. 

“In the ’80s, this was serious,” he said. “People were training and people were racing and people were running really, really fast. They’re still not running as fast as we were running in the ’80s and ’90s. People were doing 60 to 80 miles a week and running marathons pretty much all over the country.”

Early on, runners were considered so fringe—even, according to some psychological journals of the time, borderline mad—it was only natural they would find each other and form running clubs. There, they could indulge their passion for the grueling sport, pushing each other through intense training sessions.

“There got to be a group of 20 of us who started doing track workouts, and it was pretty serious stuff,” Cooper said. “We got together every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night, all winter. We ran year around.”

Cooper’s dedication rendered an impressive career spanning 35 years and 65 marathons, including five Boston Marathons. He established himself early on as a local race organizer, a role that’s allowed Cooper an up-close view of the sport’s explosive growth.

“I put on the largest prize money race ever run in Omaha, the Festival of Races, in the early ’90s,” he said. “We did a walk, a 5K, a 10K, and a half-marathon simultaneously. In the 10K, we had a $5,000 prize which was unheard of in the Midwest. I think in its last year, we had over 2,000 runners. It got to be really big.”

“Running is no longer just a sport; it is a market,” wrote the Washington Post, a declaration so obvious it could be mistaken for parody. Except, this passage was written in 1979—prescient for the time, yet oblivious to the true scale of the phenomenon to pass. 

Today, around 50 million Americans, 15% of the nation, participate in some form of running or jogging per a 2020 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Of these, more than 18 million entered a road race in 2018, according to Running USA’s 2019 U.S. Running Trends Report. Running shoes account for more than half of all athletic shoes sold in the U.S.—$30 billion market—as reported by Grand View Research. 

For Cooper, who after some 40,000 career miles gave up running due to injuries, mass popularity has done nothing to diminish the sport’s unique appeal.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is it’s gotten much more casual, relaxed,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t know somebody who ran a four-hour marathon. Now, probably half the field comes in over four hours. It’s almost a vacation sport, and I think that might be better, to be honest with you.

“I miss it today. I’m cycling now—40 or 50 miles a day at age 70. But I’d go run, if I could, in a heartbeat. I miss it every day.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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