In Defense of the Half Marathon

Semehar Tesfaye edging out Kelsey Bruce and Esther Atkins for 7th place at the 2016 USATF Half Champs.
Semehar Tesfaye edging out Kelsey Bruce and Esther Atkins for 7th place at the 2016 USATF Half Champs. Tell them the half is not an impressive distance to race.

Tell any non-runner that you’re a distance runner and they’ll likely ask, “So have you run a marathon?” Having run two myself, I understand the allure and prestige of the marathon. It’s the only race distance not set by a nice round number, but by an ancient Greek legend. Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles to warn of the Spartans’ arrival and when he finished he kicked the bucket.

It’s like the Kleenex or the xerox machine of road races, and a metaphor warning others of how long and tortuous something will be (Take your time! It’s a marathon, not a sprint!). The marathon is the holy grail of long distance running, and for good reason.

But in the shadows of the bombastic marathon, is another lesser-appreciated, albeit just as awesome race. It’s the Cady Herron to her Regina George: newer, growing faster in popularity, and friendlier. I’m talking about my personal favorite distance, the half marathon. Thirteen point one miles is long enough to be challenging, but short enough that the training need not consume your life. Running one well requires the perfect blend of speed and strategic pacing.

Here are my top reasons to put some half marathons on your race schedule this coming year!

1. It’s challenging enough to be impressive.

13.1 miles is no small feat. The average Joe can’t just roll out of bed and finish one the way someone running a 5K can. Finishing one requires commitment, training, and planning.

2. But not so challenging that it takes over your life.

Marathon training, while gratifying, is all-consuming. You spend three to four hours on the weekends doing a long run, and you’re so bone tired afterwards that you’re not good for a whole lot. Add to that the hours during the week running and recovering, and your life will completely revolve around running during a training cycle. Compare that to a half: long runs get up to maybe 12 miles, which is tough, but not enough to ruin your whole weekend.

3. They’re easy to find.

Half marathons are the fastest growing distance in running, and race directors are responding to that trend by putting them on more often. Here in South Texas, you can find a half marathon within driving distance every weekend. The same can’t be said for marathons.

4. There’s one for every taste.

Want to run a women’s only race in a tutu and tiara? Or at night down the Las Vegas strip?  Or maybe you’re a Star Wars buff and want to run dressed like a Storm Trooper. Whether you want to run in a fast, competitive field or a laid-back race in costume, you’ll find it. The popularity of the half marathon has caused race directors to think creatively and come up with unique race ideas to suit every taste.

5. It takes serious skill to race a half well.

No need to think you’re running “just a half” or that you’re not a serious runner because you didn’t do a full marathon. Half marathon pace can usually hover around your lactate threshold, the point where your body begins to accumulate lactic acid faster than you can clear it. In other words, it’s uncomfortable, and staying there for 13.1 miles is not easy!

Olive poses with a half marathon medal and a bottle of wine
Finished a half … still have enough energy to drink this.

6. You can use a half marathon to qualify for high-profile marathons.

Running under a particular standard in a half marathon can help you bypass lotteries and get into popular marathons. The New York and Houston marathons both allow you to bypass the lottery with a half time, and hopefully other marathons will start following suit.

7. Recovering from a half is easier than recovering from a full.

In both of the marathons I’ve run, every muscle in my body hurt for days. It was hard to go down stairs or go from sitting to standing for almost a week, and I felt like I had to take a few weeks off of any type of exercise. A half marathon, on the other hand, usually knocks me out of commission for a day or two before the soreness goes away. You’re on your feet for only half the time, so recovering takes half as long! That means you can get back to running sooner, and that’s all we runners are looking to do anyway.

8. Getting over a disappointing half is much easier than getting over a disappointing marathon.

When you train for a marathon, you spend many weeks or even months preparing for one race. If something goes wrong in that race, it can be devastating. Speaking from personal experience, it feels like you worked for months for nothing when you don’t meet your goals. And since the recovery time is longer, you can’t just try again in a few weeks. Not meeting your goals in a half marathon is disappointing for sure, but since you recover faster, and there’s so many available, you can try again in a few weeks.

Do you think half marathons get the respect they deserve? 

I am a stay at home mom and group fitness instructor from South Texas. I love reading, wine, and travel. I write about trends, injury prevention and maintenance, and satire. I am training to break 1:30 in the half marathon sometime soon, and for the 2017 Boston Marathon.

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  1. Love the half marathon distance! In shorter distances, you’re almost redlining the entire time. In the marathon, you’re running at what seems like an easy pace for the first couple of hours. In the half, you’re right in-between — that place of uncomfortable but possible. It takes a practice and skill to race a half well. And you’re so right — the recovery is so much easier. I raced two this fall, just three weeks apart, and a marathon four weeks after the second (and PR’d all three times). These are great arguments that I hope sway some folks!

  2. I definitely don’t think that the half gets as much credit as it’s due. Even though the marathon is my personal favorite distance, I would never think someone was less of a runner for “only” doing a 5k of half or something. I think the half USED to get much more respect even a few years ago.When I ran my first I remember it being made more of a big deal. But because it’s growing so much I think that is why people ASSUME that it’s not a big deal. “well all these people did a half, even walked a lot yadda yadda”. I think that is one pitfall of it growing so fast, the races get watered down a bit and lose the respect- which like you said is wrong because 13.1 is still a tough distance and not something most people could just up and do without some preparation.

    I would really like to see more high profile marathons accept half time qualifiers. I think this would only encourage people to train more/take other distances more seriously before instantly jumping to the marathon. I also think in terms of growing the sport of competitive women’s running it would only help.

  3. This couldn’t have come at a better time. As I’ve been putting together my spring race goals, I’ve been debating about not doing a marathon and focusing on a hard, fast half. Love the training, love the distance, love the effort, but feel
    like maybe I should be doing something more. Thanks for reminding me why the half is every bit as legit. I’m going to be re-reading this in the months to come.

  4. Yessss, Olive, agreed! I actually went through the “a half isn’t that hard” phase last year, which I am not proud of. After doing the full in 2014 I had the “marathon is the holy grail” mindset. I ran 3 halves in 2015 with little training and did a shitty job, as expected. 🙂 The half is a tough distance! I’m looking to crush my PR in 2017 with PROPER training. 😀