The half-marathon has been experiencing some insane growth. In 2000, there were what now seems a measly 482,000 half-marathon finishers in the US. By 2014, that number had jumped to more than two million -- almost a fivefold increase. That year, there were 2,500 half-marathon races around the US. That's nearly seven half-marathons per day, on average.
The half has also been identified as the fastest growing running race distance since 2003, and is now the second most popular in the US after the 5K. This year, the Brooklyn Half sold out in less than an hour, and apparently the demand was so high that it created a black market for race numbers. This is madness! Why is everyone suddenly in love with the 13.1 miles?
It's the ultimate bragging-rights race
"Half-marathon" obviously has the word "marathon" in it, and someone who sees your post race T-shirt from far away just might consider you even more hardcore than warranted. It's actually a fairly feasible distance -- Biggest Loser even started its own half-marathon series -- and yet, somehow, 13.1 miles is simultaneously still a big deal, a whole 10 miles farther than the 3.1 miles of the ubiquitous 5K.
As a moderate-to-major challenge for a beginner-to-intermediate runner, the half is one of those things you have to push yourself for, and, despite the race's rapid increase in popularity, will always be something that not everyone has done. This means you have full bragging rights to post photos with your medal all over Facebook and Snapchat and win scores of "likes" from your friends. In fact, it's actually no longer socially acceptable not to. When you do it, you either fuel the craze by inspiring your friends to register for half-marathons themselves, or to come watch you next time with some amazing race signs.
The training actually fits into your schedule
“One of the key drivers in the half marathon is that the distance doesn’t sound as daunting -- and the training isn’t as daunting -- as the marathon,” observes Peter Ciaccia, President of Events at New York Road Runners, the organization that hosts the Brooklyn half.
Most training regimens that prep you for a half-marathon map out your workouts in less than three months. Three months is nothing! It's a reasonable period to drink a little less alcohol and more water, and wake up a little earlier to go for your training runs. Compare that to the six months and grueling long runs required for a marathon.
If you live in a northern, frozen tundra state, you can choose a race in the early fall and fit the whole training shebang into the short interval when icicles don't form on your face while you run (this is a thing that actually happens). The way that getting ready for any long race usually works is that you do a few short runs during the week, some cross training in between, and a long run over the weekend that keeps increasing in distance as you build up your ability. For a half, the longest you're going to have to run before the big day rolls around will be 12 miles -- a doable couple hours that you can sneak in before refueling at Sunday brunch. When you go for the whole marathon option, there's going to be a day when you have to run 20 miles in preparation, and you may not be feeling mimosas afterwards.
It's easier on your body
During a marathon, runners often experience something that's been dubbed "hitting the wall" (already sounds spectacular), which could also be described as "the moment you realize the first person to do one of these fell down dead."
Hitting the wall is when most of your body's glycogen stores -- your main source of energy -- have been depleted. Your body starts to break down fat and protein for energy, but this takes longer. Your blood sugar is low, and you can start to feel dizzy, shaky, and confused. This tends to happen for runners around mile 20, with another 6.2 miles to go. That's a full 10K, and your body's out of energy.
Screw that! In a half-marathon, you never even get to that 20-mile mark. Catastrophe averted. That's not to say that a half is easy peasy -- you still need to prepare for this stuff, because you risk ankle sprains, muscle strains, dehydration, overhydration, and loads of other ways that your body can bug out on you if you don't know what you're doing or don't have the proper medical clearance. But the destruction that can befall even healthy, prepared people during the latter half of the marathon just doesn't happen, because that's a hell of a lot of miles, and your body wasn't designed to run them.
It's an excuse to travel
It would be ridiculous to fly hundreds of miles across the country to participate in the Brooklyn 5K, but it's not as crazy to come from far away for something like the Brooklyn Half, for example, which involves a seven-day pre-party with local artists and food vendors. “There’s entertainment all day long and into the night, and it’s very much a collective of the community,” Ciaccia describes. “It gives you the whole flavor of Brooklyn.”
After the week-long throw-down you get to shake off your hangover and put on your sneakersYou do it for an opportunity to get to know an appreciable 13.1 miles of a pretty cool borough, and to run alongside more than 25,000 people in what in 2015 was the largest half-marathon in the country. Even better, you're not totally wrecked after completing half of a real marathon, so you can actually spend time enjoying wherever your race was held.
The 13.1 mile distance is also an excellent one for dressing up for a themed race -- long enough to flaunt your attire, but short enough that you may not feel the need to tear off your Jedi costume because you've sweated through it. Runner's World publishes a list of US destination marathons that feature breathtaking views, Star Wars characters, pirates, and more. Try that with a full marathon, and you're simply a novelty character, a fun distraction among a crowd of serious runners.
It's a great look for social media
All of the above combine to create the perfect storm for social media: the veneer of a perfect life filled with health, travel to new cities, outdoor scenery captured mid-run, all capped off by brunch. Just look at all these people talking about their #halfmarathon! More than a million of them, in all their perfectly curated glory.
Of course, completing a half-marathon isn't a bad thing. If that's what gets you out and moving, more power to you. Just, you know, take it easy on the social media posts.
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