July 14, 2013

Maine fun-run promoters race to cash in on fitness craze

The arrival of the for-profit events in Maine has some runners concerned about the future of traditional charity races.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Five thousand people ran just over three miles through the streets of South Portland last weekend, bursting through clouds of colored cornstarch as they took part in the "Happiest 5K on the Planet." By the end, participants' clothes and skin were transformed into a swirl of bright colors.

click image to enlarge

Participants are doused in orange-tinted cornstarch during The Color Run in South Portland earlier this month. It is one of several in Maine this year being put on by for-profit companies, reflecting a national trend. Some worry that the fun runs will compete for participants with traditional local road races.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The Color Run made its Maine debut in South Portland on July 7.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Color Run is not the usual charity road race in Maine, and not just because runners were splattered with color as they made their way along the course. The event, and several others like it this summer, mark the arrival in Maine of a growing national trend: unique fun runs and endurance challenges put on by for-profit companies looking to capitalize on Americans' increased interest in fitness and healthy living.   

The businesses typically support a local charity -- last weekend's Color Run generated $38,000 for the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland -- and they are credited with promoting fitness and community spirit. But some in the local running community worry the growing number of for-profit events will siphon participants and money from traditional nonprofit charity runs.

Also, unlike nonprofits, they do not have to reveal how much money they make and how much they donate.

While new to Maine, the trend has been growing fast across much of the country.

"Over the past decade, there has been a trend in businesses looking to capitalize on the move toward fitness and general health among the public," said Courtney Brunious, assistant director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "These events have turned something that is boring for some people, like running, into a social atmosphere."

Events such as The Color Run incorporate fitness with entertainment, concerts and dance parties. They typically do not time participants or declare winners, and are geared more toward socializing than speed.

Some events feature neon colors, costumes, bubbles and foam or obstacle courses through mud. During the Zombie Run 5K, an event that has been held in several states but not Maine, participants must outrun the zombies chasing them along the course.

"We're seeing this convergence of what has traditionally been separate worlds -- the show experience and the engaged fitness experience -- into a new generation of events that offer people a hybrid experience," said Will Thomas, president of Willpower Enterprises LLC, which markets and produces fitness events. "They don't have the pressure of being under the clock, but they also get to be engaged in something that gets them moving and with like-minded people."

LOCAL RACES UNDER PRESSURE

The Color Run is the largest 5K series in the country, catapulted quickly to popularity since 2012 by people eager to participate in a unique run that "celebrates healthiness, happiness, individuality and giving back to the community," according to The Color Run website.

The website clearly describes the event as a profit-making business, while each race also is promoted as benefiting a local charity partner.

A nearly identical run, Color Me Rad, will be held Aug. 24 in Brunswick, with a portion of proceeds going to the YMCA of Maine.

On Saturday evening, another similar event -- Dance Mile -- was scheduled to take place in Portland. Participants paid $30 to take part in a one-mile dance parade through city streets, followed by a finish line dance party. Proceeds from the first-ever Dance Mile will fund a downtown art installation by the Maine Center for Creativity, Thomas said.

(Continued on page 2)

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