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Why I love half marathons
And six reasons to consider running one (or more than one), even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a “runner.”
If you’ve found your way to this blog, you’ll probably know I love half marathons. Since I started to run them in 2012, they have become an important part of my life and have changed my view of what I’m capable of doing. I wanted to share six reasons why I think 13.1 miles — or 21.1 kilometers — is a great distance to run. And, ideally, to run often.
1. It’s very “doable”
The half marathon is a very manageable distance. You can train for one by averaging around 20 miles a week, or maybe a bit under. And there is no need for any training run to be longer than 10 miles.
This makes it far easier than training for a full marathon. It’s not just that the physical and mental challenges are less daunting. The logistics are, too. It doesn’t have to take over your life in the way of a full marathon. Doing training runs of 16-20 miles on your own is hard when prepping for a 26.2-mile race — for example, the time commitment and things like planning adequate hydration and working out a course that will keep you engaged. If you could somehow combine all the aspects of training into a single metric, a half marathon requires significantly less than half of what’s needed for a full.
The same applies after the race. Recovery is typically much quicker than with a full marathon. You can usually be back to running within days.
On a similar note, the half marathon is a very sustainable distance, in the sense that it’s one you can aim to run with some regularity. It need not be a one-time, bucket-list experience. And you are less likely to injure yourself with the half than the full.
In saying all of that, I’m not knocking the full marathon at all. Far from it. I have huge admiration for people who conquer that distance. But even if your sights are set on running a full marathon, starting out with the half makes a lot of sense.
2. But it’s still a big achievement
As manageable as a half marathon can be, running one is still a big achievement. 13.1 miles is a long distance to run. As popular as the half marathon has become, the vast majority of people will never run one. Training to run a half marathon is hard enough that you’ll have a real sense of achievement when you cross the finish line and collect your medal.
3. It’s fun
The “doable” factor isn’t just about the preparation. It’s also much easier for a half marathon to be fun on the day. Yes, you’ll get a great work-out. I sometimes find myself nauseous at the end of a race. With my calves reaching their limit. But even when you push yourself — and especially if it’s an interesting course — you can really enjoy every mile of a race in the way in which you might not with a full. There is nothing wrong with wanting running to be fun, not just an ordeal.
4. Collective energy makes you go faster
You could, of course, run 13.1 miles on your own. Indeed, during the pandemic, that was the only option.
But there are some good reasons to sign up for races (even if you sometimes run the distance on your own). One is the collective energy of the event. It somehow makes you go faster. I generally run around 45 seconds per mile faster in a race than I would on my own. Sometimes more. Part of it may be due to the carb loading. But I think there’s something about being in a race that pushes me to go faster.
Very few people take part in races in order to “win” in the conventional sense. But that doesn’t mean you are not at some level “competing.” I compete against myself. If I happen to place reasonably well in my age/gender division, that can be satisfying. But I’m still not racing “against” anyone else.
Runners can “win” — whatever their time — if they meet their personal goals and have a positive experience. For example, I can find satisfaction in, say, the evenness of splits, not just the overall time. Or in negative splits, where the second half is a bit faster than the first. Those are signs of a controlled race. And people can have successful races with all sorts of finish times. Your time looked at in isolation does not tell the story of the journey that led to it. Which is one reason to cheer on those toward the back of the race as much as those going faster.
Nonetheless, I think most people who sign up for half marathons are somewhat motivated by their finish time — whatever their goal may be. So a half marathon is not just an event. It is a race. Although the ethos of recreational distance racing is to respect everyone’s times, there’s nothing wrong with trying your best to finish with what, for you, is a fast speed.
5. A race on calendar makes you run more
Just as the collective energy of a race spurs you to run faster on the day, so the knowledge that the race is coming will motivate you to do more running in the weeks and months leading up to it. There’s something about actually paying for the entry that makes you want to commit and, literally, go the extra mile.
And running more is generally a good thing. I say “generally,” because you need to build up your mileage gradually in order to reduce the risk of injury. And, at times, it can be better to rest. But running is, for the most part, a very healthy way to exercise. It is probably the most efficient way of burning off calories, if that’s a goal. And compared with many forms of exercise, it can be relatively inexpensive. I’ll post something about the economics of running on another day.
Scheduled races provide the infrastructure for my weekly recreational running regime. Every run helps train me for the next race. And every race is also the first training run for the race after. Of course, running multiple races in a year might not be feasible, for all sorts of reasons. But to the extent to which you can make half marathons a somewhat recurring event in your life, all the better.
6. Half marathons are cool events — you can run with the pros
Lastly, half marathons — and distance running events in general — are really cool events. They are just about the only sport in which recreational participants take place in the same events as elite professionals. At least, if you run a pretty large race.
Imagine a golf or tennis tournament in which you compete against the best in the world. Or a soccer one. Those things just don’t exist. But with half marathons — or full ones — it happens all the time. Of course, if you are a middle-of-the-pack runner, you probably won’t see the elite runners. Although you might if it is an out-and-back course in which you catch them on their inbound. And I’ve never been at the finish area in a big race to see the awards ceremony — those always occur before I cross the line. But it is nonetheless a “thing” to be able to “compete” in an event with the best in the world.
Races can be fun for other reasons, too. Running on closed roads is a different experience from being on routes you run on your own. And the crowd support you’ll often encounter adds to that.
It’s fun to take to the streets in your home town. But it’s also a great way to explore a city far away. And if you do travel to run, you get to share a common experience with locals. For 13.1 miles, you are not just a tourist, but a participant in a shared experience.
The excitement of the start and finish areas, as well as the expo, can add to the experience. (Although some races are better than others in that regard.) It circles back to my point about collective energy.
So if you’ve never run a half marathon, don’t rule out running one — even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a runner. And if you’ve run one before, think, perhaps, about running more!
Related post: I’ll soon be posting separately with advice about how to prepare for a half marathon, and how you could be ready for the distance in a matter of months — even if you’re only starting to run.
Finally, please share this post with anyone you think might be up for the challenge! 🏃
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