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.

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.

While the business model used by companies like The Color Run provides charitable contributions and encourages people to exercise, some worry the runs will compete with nonprofit charity events that have been the standard in Maine and publicly disclose their finances.

“I love that Maine has started participating in these types of events, though I’m quite concerned about the local race scene,” said Chandra Leister, president of the Maine Track Club. “When for-profit, out-of-state races come in, they’re shiny and new and different. Some of the local races that have been around for a long time that have a good following might see dips in their numbers.”

Events like The Color Run and Color Me Rad — with entry fees as high as $50 — are far more expensive than other races in Maine. Traditional race fees in Maine tend to average $15 to $25 for 5Ks and up to $40 for 10K races, Leister said.

“I wish (runners) would participate in a local 5K, but I understand that’s not enough of a draw,” Leister said. “I’m concerned for the future of racing in Maine. I’m thrilled more people are being active, but I want everyone to support local races.”

Although The Color Run is marketed in part as supporting local charities, its organizers do not say how much of the money taken in goes to the partner charity, leaving it instead to the charity to make that disclosure. The main beneficiary was the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, which invited the fun-run organization to Maine and received $38,000 from the event, according to hospital officials.

“We wanted to bring the event to Maine because it’s a fun fundraiser and it’s something no one has done here before,” said Deirdre Cavanaugh, development director for the children’s hospital, who volunteered at the event. “We’d love to do it again next year. It was a really fun day.”

THE RISE OF FUN RUNS

Inspired in part by the colorful Hindu Holi festival, Travis Snyder launched The Color Run in January 2012. In the first year, 600,000 people participated in 50 events across the country.

This year, The Color Run is expected to expand to include 120 events in the U.S. and more than 40 events in 30 other countries. More than 1 million people are likely to take part, said Jessica Nixon, a spokeswoman for the Utah-based company.

“It’s growing really fast and I think one of the main reasons is anyone can do it,” said Nixon. Also, she said, “people like to take photos, then post them on social media. That’s where it has caught on virally.”

There are now at least two dozen other paint runs across the country that follow The Color Run’s model.

During each event, The Color Run chooses a charity partner and works out an agreement on the amount of the donation. Those arrangements vary city to city and are designed to fit the unique needs of the charity, Nixon said.

In 2012, The Color Run donated $600,000 to about 60 charities, said Alec Fowler, who served as race director of The Color Run in South Portland. 

The Color Run does not disclose how much money it makes from the events it puts on. The 5,000 participants of The Color Run in Maine paid registration fees ranging from $30 to $50, which means the company likely took in $150,000 to $250,000 from registration fees alone. Based on those numbers, The Color Run contributed 15 percent to 25 percent of the registration fee money to the hospital.

The South Portland Color Run also paid $90 in city permit fees, $2,700 to hire a dozen off-duty police officers for crowd and traffic control and $1,800 for eight firefighters and two ambulances, according to city officials.

The TD Beach to Beacon, an annual 10K in Cape Elizabeth that has become the best-known road race in the state, has to publicly disclose its finances because of its nonprofit status. According to its 2011 tax filings, the race generated $622,065 in revenue — including $280,000 in entry fees — and recorded $617,778 in expenses. The event generated more than $65,000 for the Center for Grieving Children, including donations raised by runners.

The TD Beach to Beacon chooses a different charity to support each year. More than 6,000 runners participate and the registration fee this year is $45.

The Maine Marathon, a nonprofit event, last year raised $60,000 for STRIVE, a South Portland agency that serves youth with disabilities, and another $15,000 for other local charities. As many as 3,500 runners participate in the marathon or half-marathon and individual fees range from $50 to $85, depending on which race is run and the registration date.

Howard Spear, marathon co-director, said he’s not surprised that the fun-run trend has reached southern Maine, though he worries about high registration costs associated with for-profit events.

“You’re seeing it more and more here because this is a great venue here in southern Maine to put on running events. People are putting more thought into physical fitness,” he said. “Running has gotten really huge and everyone wants to start a road race. We just worry about what it’s going to do to these nonprofits, especially the smaller ones, if (runners) have to choose between all these races.”

AN INTRODUCTION TO RUNNING

Amber Cronin, the girls’ cross-country coach at Cape Elizabeth High School, brought seven runners from the team to The Color Run. Cronin had participated in the event last year in Massachusetts and wanted her runners to share in the fun, party-like atmosphere of a noncompetitive race, she said.

“I think the biggest draw is it makes fitness more fun,” she said. “While a lot of people, myself included, like to run for fun, most people find it a chore. An event like The Color Run turns something many people loathe into something exciting.”

Emily Faria and Samantha Feenstra, members of the Cape cross-country team, said it was obvious many of the runners were participating in their first 5K. The Color Run estimates 60 percent of participants are running their first 5K.

“I think it’s a good way to get started with running,” Faria said.

None of the members of the Cape Elizabeth team thought too much about the charity component of the run, but they were glad some proceeds benefited the children’s hospital.

“To me, having a larger company come in to run the race isn’t a huge deal as long as the money raised goes to the designated charity,” Cronin said.

Thomas, of Willpower Enterprises and the Dance Mile, said fun runs can motivate people to start running, then move on to competitive races.

“The unique thing is that it’s not necessarily cannibalizing traditional running events,” he said. “Those events are doing well, too, with participation growing.”

Thomas said he also sees the growth of businesses putting on such events as a good thing, as long as they disclose that they are for-profit ventures and are as transparent as possible about charitable donations.

“There may be some differences in opinion about how much is OK to donate or not, but it is their prerogative. I think it’s OK as long as they are clear up front about that,” he said. “As long as we’re encouraging community and people being out there with their friends, I don’t see a downside.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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