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RE: Why was distance running so popular in the 70s (or 80s)? Was it more popular than football?
It was never more popular than football. Not even remotely close to it. It wasn't nearly as popular as baseball or basketball either. And the number of participants was probably smaller than now.
What was different was the way a lot of people approached it. The average age at a race is probably much older now than it was then. Many of us put in loads and loads more training miles than people do now. A lot of people, though certainly not all of them, were running for performance rather than for health.

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