Popular Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon’s finisher numbers slipping

Race participant Hollie Ashby takes a look at medals from Rock ‘n’ Roll Marthons over the years. Ashby has been running in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series since 2012. (Photo by Haley Stesiak/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series recently kicked off its 20th year and 14th in the Valley when almost 13,000 participants streamed through Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon & Half Marathon. However, finisher numbers in Arizona have dropped.

The race remains Arizona’s second biggest running event, behind Pat’s Run, but this year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll event drew the lowest number of combined finishers in the marathon and half marathon since 2013.

There were 16,589 runners who finished either the marathon or half marathon in 2013. The number of finishers has gone down each year since then, with 12,722 runners crossing the finish line in 2017, a drop of 23 percent over five years.

“Back when Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona started, this was the only race in town,” said Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona organizer Dan Cruz of Competitor Group, the San Diego company that owns the series.

“There were only four Rock ‘n’ Roll races, but now we’ve grown the series to include 29 events (and) there’s races everywhere from Las Vegas to Philadelphia to San Francisco to Los Angeles. So runners have more options than they’ve ever had before.”

The Las Vegas event, which was added to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series in 2009 and is now held at night, takes runners through the glittering Strip. Las Vegas was expected to draw 45,000 runners for the marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K during its mid-November event, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

While there has been a decline in marathon and half marathon participation at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona, the addition of the 5K and 10K races in 2015 have attracted new runners to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series, Cruz said.

In 2015, the 5K and 10K had 4,253 finishers. This year’s race had 5,193 finishers.

Race veteran Hollie Ashby traveled to Arizona from Virginia to run in her fifth year of Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons.

“My first Rock ‘n’ Roll was in 2012. It was New Orleans,” Ashby said. “That year I did four and then it just kind of progressed. I’ve done as much as 13 in a year.”

In 2016, Ashby ran nine Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons including the events in Nashville, Washington D.C. and Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. This year, her goal is to run at least 15 of the events.

While serious runners like Ashby have made it a tradition to run in the marathon and other races, others view the race as a bucket list sport, Cruz said.

“One out of five runners, it’s their very first marathon or half marathon, so we’re still bringing new people to the sport,” Cruz said.

Adding the 5K and 10K resulted in splitting the event into two days, giving racers a different experience than they may get in other races. Some run the 5K on Saturday and one of the longer distances on Sunday.

“Those are kind of new things that we’ve been able to innovate because we don’t just want to roll out the same product, the same consumer experience, year after year,” Cruz said.

The Rock ‘n Roll series has launched a variety of events internationally as well. This year events will be held in Dublin, Ireland; Lisbon, Portugal; Liverpool, England; Madrid, Spain and three cities in Mexico.

“People do combine the race with the vacation, so someone might have run Arizona in 2006 and then they’re (running) Las Vegas this year, and then maybe they might come back to Arizona next year,” Cruz said. “It depends on runners and what their preferences are.”

Sean McManus is an associate at Sole Sports Running Zone, a local chain of specialty running stores and a hub for the running community. He helps out at the Rock ‘n’ Roll race’s Health & Fitness Expo every year.

McManus has noticed the drop in numbers at the Expo and on race day.

“The numbers are down in terms of the booths,” he said. “The participation numbers are down as well, (but) I think a lot of it has to do with the saturation of events in the market, especially here in Phoenix.

There are several marathons in the area during the winter and spring, including the Desert Classic Marathon, Sedona Marathon, Arizona Marathon, Lost Dutchman Marathon and the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon.

Despite the increase in race events across Arizona, Cruz foresees the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona event being one that continuously attracts racers from all over the world.

“We will never schedule another race between Christmas and this race,” Cruz said. “We think that the partnership with the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe are unlike any other in running … that’s what makes it so successful in terms of promoting Arizona as a great wintertime destination.”