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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Participants in Sacramento's Color Run pass through the yellow zone on Aug. 3. With an average registration fee of $45, the for-profit race on Capitol Mall drew 13,000 people and brought in more than $500,000. A small percentage of the gate goes to charity and paying off costs.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Carmen Zamora, 18, aims a cloud of blue cornstarch at participants in Sacramento's Color Run on Aug. 3.

Novelty runs prove popular with Sacramento area 'millennials' -- for now

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 10:51 am

Call it Color Us Green.

With names like Color Run, Color Me Rad and Color Vibe, this isn't your parents' marathon.

The mantra of color runs is simple: Pay $45 and get colored cornstarch thrown on you at various intervals on the course.

This is the new generation of athletic experiences, where the goal isn't to get the best personal race time or to raise big money for a charity. Rather, for organizers of so-called novelty races, it's more about creating a fun experience to attract big crowds and in the process, make handsome profits.

But long-time race organizers in Sacramento question how long such runs will remain popular, and others who have tried to copy the success of industry's No. 1 organized novelty race – the Color Run – have had mixed results.

Experts say there are now 100 different variations of novelty runs across the nation because they are so profitable. Color Me Rad, the industry's No. 2 behind the Color Run, drew 3,500 people to its inaugural race for Sacramento in May. That turnout disappointed the organizer.

"You swing for a home run, but sometimes you strike out," said Color Me Rad race director Justin Bankhead. "It was a rough one."

Rich Hanna, owner of Capital Road Race, sees the color runs as a passing fad. His company helps organize 80 annual races – all for nonprofits – in Northern California, including the Run to Feed the Hungry.

"I honestly don't see them around a few years from now," Hanna said. "After you do it a few times, what's the point?"

Still, novelty runs are capturing the attention of millennials, a group between 18 and 34, that is quick to spend money on entertainment. Old-school runners are taking notice.

Hanna said he attempted to reinvent the annual Nutrition Fuels Fitness race in Elk Grove by changing the name to the Veggie Chase. The result: a big flop.

"The goal was to beat the veggies (volunteers dressed up in vegetable costumes)," Hanna said. "Less than 600 showed up. We've had as many as 1,300 before."

The Color Run's template has proved lucrative. With an average registration fee of $45, Aug. 3's for-profit Color Run on Capitol Mall drew 13,000 people and brought in more than $500,000.

After sending a small percentage of the gate to charity and paying off public safety, insurance and cleanup costs, organizers enjoyed windfall profits.

The Color Run, which began organizing races January 2012, hosted 50 for-profit events across the United States last year, attracting 600,000 participants, said company spokeswoman Jessica Nixon.

She said the average entry fee for the company's events is $45 a person. This year, the Utah company is planning 120 events stateside and 50 events abroad, drawing well over 1 million people.

Based on those figures, the Color Run generated nearly $30 million during its first year of business. Revenue should top $45 million this year.

The Color Run donated less than 5 percent to its nonprofit charity partner in Sacramento. Girls on the Run will receive up to $14,000 in exchange for supplying 150 volunteers for the local race, said its board president, Amanda Holliday.

Based on interviews with nearly three dozen participants, many in the Aug. 3 race were unaware that the event was a for-profit venture. All but two people believed the event was purely altruistic.

Industry watchers say the young adults come for the fun. "It's a reflection of people's desire for entertainment and physical fitness," said David Hessekiel, president of the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, a New York company that trains the organizers of athletic fundraisers

Lance Duncan, associate race director at the Color Run, called it "a chance for people to let loose and forget about their usual grind." He also noted that most businesses are for-profit.

The idea of throwing colored powder is nothing new. Color runs are loosely based on Holi, a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of spring.

But the American version is more like a nightclub, marked by booming music.

Nixon said women make up 70 percent of color run participants.

And when the color started flying, the millennials took out their smartphones to snap pictures and upload them to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Novelty runs are joining an increasingly crowded field of athletic events. The Susan G. Komen Foundation, which put on its first charity run in 1982 to benefit breast cancer research, was a pioneer in promoting running for reasons other than competition. Eighty-three cents of every dollar raised at Komen events fund mission programs.

The race industry's favorite event, the 5K (3.1 miles), has grown from 5,000 events in 1999 to 12,500 in 2011, reported Running USA, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes the sport of running.

Komen has been a casualty of the surge in for-profit races, as well as its 2012 decision – reversed after public outcry – to stop grants to Planned Parenthood for breast screenings.

In 2007, Sacramento's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure – an annual run around Cal Expo – drew 24,212 participants. But only 12,240 showed up this year.

"When you have a good idea, thousands flock to your door," Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader said of the races.

Putting on a race can be expensive, Bankhead said, noting that permit fees, marketing and insurance can quickly add up.

The Color Run paid the city of Sacramento about $20,000 to hold the Aug. 3 event, according to city officials. The figure includes charges for police officers ($19,000), utilities ($600) and the permit fee ($350).

As for why the runs are appealing to young people, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of "Generation Me," has one possible answer.

"It's a way to seek attention," Twenge said. "In millennials, you have an emphasis on money, fame and image."

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Richard Chang



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