Sometimes Half Is Better Than Whole
By JOHN HANC
Published: July 24, 2008
Half-marathons — races of 13.1 miles — have been growing in the last five years, partly due to an influx of newer runners who consider the half a friendlier challenge than the marathon, which became a “must do” for thousands (many who hadn’t laced up a running shoe in years, or ever) after Oprah completed one in 1994. Half-marathon training is neither as hard nor as all-consuming as marathon training can be. There is less chance of injury. Recovery is faster.
But those in the running community say there is another reason the distance is catching on: veteran runners who completed multiple quests for marathon glory no longer see 13.1 miles as just a point along the journey.
“A lot of people have checked the marathon off their ‘life list,’ ” said Ryan Lamppa, a spokesman for Running USA, a nonprofit organization in Santa Barbara, Calif., that tracks trends in running. “But they don’t want running out of their lives.”
According to Running USA, the 13.1 mile half-marathon is the fastest-growing distance in the sport. In 2007, there were over 500 half-marathon events and an estimated 650,000 finishers; a 10 percent increase from 2006. It was the second year in a row that the number of finishers and events increased by 10 percent and the fifth consecutive year that the distance has registered significant growth.
Participation in full marathons grew last year, too, but at a lower rate, 2.4 percent.
Mary Wittenberg, the president of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the New York City Marathon and Half-Marathon, said that in the next few years, the half could reach the stature and even the size of the marathon, which counted 38,607 finishers last year.
“We believe the half-marathon is the new hot distance,” she said. “With the right course, the New York City Half could be as big or bigger than the marathon.”
The 2008 edition of the 13.1-mile race takes place on Sunday. Nineteen thousand people (1,700 more than last year) applied for 14,000 slots in the three-year-old event, which begins in Central Park before heading south to Times Square, then down the West Side Highway to finish on Wall Street.
Achieving marathon-level success with the New York City Half-Marathon will require changes, Ms. Wittenberg said. The six-mile loop in the park causes congestion as faster runners overtake the back-of-the-packers, while making it impossible to have an elite wheelchair competition, a popular feature of the full. Also, a new date needs to be found, away from the heat of midsummer. “We’re working with the city on that,” she said. “Maybe late March, early April.”
Clearly, what makes the half-marathon attractive is that it takes a lot less time and energy than a full. Even with the minimal less-is-more marathon programs now in vogue, participants still need to build up to long conditioning runs of at least 20 miles before tackling the 26.2-mile marathon distance on race day. A half-marathon, by contrast, can be completed by most people with a weekly long run of no more than 10 or 11 miles.
“The half-marathon gives you almost all of the satisfaction and achievement of the marathon and far less than half of the aches and pains and fatigue,” said Jeff Galloway, a 1972 Olympian who is now a popular marathon coach and the author of a best-selling book on running.
Mr. Galloway says he receives about 100 e-mail messages a day from runners asking for training advice; he also holds 250 clinics a year. The half-marathon is the biggest topic these days, he said.
He has identified three segments making up his clientele and advice-seekers. About 20 percent, he estimates, do the half-marathon as a steppingstone to the full, something half-marathons have traditionally been known for. Twice that number, about 40 percent, want to focus only on the half, with no interest in the full marathon. Another 40 percent are “people who used to run just full marathons, but are now primarily doing halves.”
Linda Ottaviano of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., falls into the last category. She started running in the early 1990s to help her get in shape; along the way, she became taken with the mystique of the marathon. Over a decade, she finished 12 marathons, the last when she was 50, and completed the 2005 Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, Pa., in just under 3 hours, 30 minutes.
When she crossed the finish line, she decided she was finished with marathons. “I felt I had accomplished what I had set out to,” she said. And, “I was starting to wonder just how good it was for my body.” Half-marathon training, she said, keeps her plenty fit and allows her to be competitive. “I just feel I’m a little more balanced now without the marathon training.”
The migration of runners like Ms. Ottaviano to the half is what gives Amby Burfoot, a Runner’s World editor-at-large and 1968 Boston Marathon winner, reason to believe that the distance has carved out a “niche of serious respectability.”
Among competitive marathoners, the half “might previously have been seen as a race for wimps,” he said. “Now it’s viewed as a real challenge on its own, so runners are more likely to feel content tackling it instead of the full marathon.”
This despite the fact that unlike the marathon, the half is not an Olympic distance; nor can it claim a heritage steeped in Greek lore. Its name has been an issue too — running “half” of something doesn’t sound too impressive around the water cooler.
When the US Road Sports & Entertainment Group, a Dallas company that produces endurance events, last month announced a series of 13.1-mile races, the words “half marathon” were conspicuously absent. Instead, the four-race series — which starts in Ft. Lauderdale on Nov. 16 — is called “13.1 Marathon.”
Robert Pozo, the executive director for the series, said he was inspired by the World Triathlon Corporation, which organizes the Ironman Triathlon and in 2006 began half Ironman-distance events called the Ironman 70.3 Series (referring to the total miles that competitors swim, bike and run).
Mr. Pozo and his colleagues have even come up with an informal slogan: “13.1 Miles: It isn’t half of anything.”