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other factors
RE: Why was distance running so popular in the 70s (or 80s)? Was it more popular than football?
As others mentioned, running marathons had the novelty bump. Mountain biking (which many people do instead today) hadn't really started yet. Greg LeMond hadn't won the TdF yet, which created a cycling boom (later eclipsed by the Lance effect). There was no triathlon craze yet, and no sappy NBC coverage of the Ironman. And at that point, marathons were seen like ultras because they seemed so extreme. Basically, in the 70s and 80s, running marathons was the rage and it's unlikely it will ever be that way again.

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