The San Francisco Marathon Turns to Technology to Attract New Runners

This isn't your mama's San Francisco Marathon.

The sport of running has hit a renaissance in the United States. These days, it's not uncommon for elite level runners to brush elbows alongside first-time marathoners while traversing race courses.

As more Americans turn to running, the sport has enjoyed a widening inclusiveness. From 1990 to 2013, the number of participants finishing races in the United States increased 300-percent, according to Running USA. While many of these finishers are first-time racers, a sizable proportion of race participants are focused upon improving their skill level and moving up in the sport.

One factor playing a significant growth in running's participation growth is non-traditional races. With over 28,000 events in total held across the U.S. last year, the uptick of fun, themed races, like The Color Run and Spartan Race, have brought a wide variety of participants to the course.

How, though, can traditional races, like the San Francisco Marathon, which has existed since 1977, capture a new crop of runners? The answer is simple, and luckily for the San Francisco Marathon, one devised in its own backyard: Technology.

This year, the San Francisco Marathon partnered with Fitbit to become the race's first official fitness tracker. Fitbit, the San Francisco-based connected health and device company, has sold 20.8 million units to date that allow users to track their everyday health and fitness. In partnering with Fitbit, the San Francisco Marathon added a key technological component to its race format, allowing it to stay ahead of the curve of running's latest trends.

"Fitbit has been involved in 5Ks and marathons and even is producing its own event. Through these ventures, we have learned a lot. We have focused our energies on events that are inclusive, meaning that they aren't just targeted to elite runners, but there's something for everyone. What we are trying to do with this partnership is re-think the way people go into these races and their training," said Fitbit's vice president of global marketing, Tim Rosa.

Under the partnership, Fitbit created the Race Weekend App. Through the app, runners can access real-time race data synced with their Fitbit step count. Additionally, the app provides runners with motivational tips from ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes. Those not racing can utilize the app to keep track of friends and family running the race through live tracking and race leader board features.

The popularity of this technological addition to the San Francisco Marathon amongst runners is demonstrated by the fact that according to Fitbit, the company exceeded its goal for the number of devices sold that subsequently downloaded the app. Notably, this year's San Francisco Marathon includes 15,000 new runners to the race and 10,000 returning runners.

Through partnerships and sales, Fitbit has realized that technology is one motivator to get racers of all levels out of the gate and onto the pavement.

"It's hard to say specifically that technology alone is getting people out to these races. We view fitness as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is everyday fitness. As you move up, there's active fitness and then performance fitness at the top. Our goal is for people to use our technology to move up the fitness pyramid. So from that perspective, technology is driving participation," Rosa noted.

Going forward, it is to be seen what technological features races add to their events to capture the interest of new and returning runners alike. One thing is certain, though, as the number of races in America grows, existing races must find ways to remain competitive in the marketplace. Technology is one method to accomplish that, which from the San Francisco Marathon's numbers, is attractive to a wide base of runners.