Half is the New Full

How the half marathon has become the marquee race among recreational distance runners

In 2013, Chris Bartels, then a 21-year-old college junior, started running daily. A former basketball standout whose career was winding down, he wanted to keep fit and he discovered he enjoyed getting out on the roads. After completing a few 5Ks, his brother-in-law invited him to run a half marathon.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who enjoyed challenges and something to train for and build toward,” says Bartels, who lives in Imperial, Nebraska. So, he accepted.

With two months before the race, Bartels continued training much as he had been—putting in 5 to 7 miles a day—while adding a weekly long run that peaked at about 10 miles. He finished his first half comfortably in 1:28:51 and was hooked. He’s run two more in two years and improved each one, with a best of 1:25:54.

“I’ve kind of fallen in love with it,” Bartels says. “After I get done with one, I feel accomplished, and I’m ready to sign up for another one. It is something I really enjoy.” Despite this new-found love, Bartels has little desire to run 26.2 miles of  a full marathon.

“At some point in my life, I probably will run a marathon,” Bartels says. “But not at this point. I want to keep on working toward bettering my half marathon time.”

Bartels’ experience and perspective represents a new era in road racing, one where the half marathon, far from being a consolation-prize, step-sister to the marathon, is the main event. That’s a stark contrast to earlier eras in recreational running, when running a marathon was viewed as the ultimate accomplishment.

In the past five years, the half has exploded in participation and popularity, to the extent that the full marathon is beginning to feel like a side-show at multi-race events for a few crazies who have too much time on their hands.

In today’s running era, half is the new full.

Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon. Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon

Longer is Better

If Bartels had become a runner before 2010, chances are he would have become a marathoner, not a half marathoner. In the beginning of the running boom, back in the 60s and 70s, all runners went long and hard. The marathon, immortalized in the public mind by Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympics and Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit’s Boston Marathon exploits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was the race of choice. The only reason for not doing 26.2 was because you couldn’t handle it. If you were healthy and trained, you did the longest race on tap.

Marathons started sprouting up in cities throughout the world. Demand grew so high that Boston set qualifying standards and New York held a lottery for entries. When people found out you were a runner, inevitably, the next question was, “Have you run a marathon?”

The second running boom of the 1990s brought more runners into the sport, many of whom didn’t train as much or run as fast. Surprisingly, however, the marathon continued to grow. These new runners took the idea that longer was better to its logical extreme: time didn’t matter, you got respect only by going farther. A growing number of runners tackled the marathon as a bucket-list challenge, with the goal simply to finish.

When Oprah Winfrey completed the Marine Corp Marathon in 1994 and then appeared on the cover of Runner’s World looking happy and fit, she inspired more of the masses to dream of becoming marathoners, as well as more high-profile celebrities. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the marathon ranks swelled, many of those toeing the line new runners, some competing in their first race. Charities like Team in Training flourished by helping people get from the couch to 26.2 in as little as three months.

The Rise of the Half

Toward the end of the 2000s, however, a shift began. Before then, many running events included a half marathon as well as the marathon, but the half was generally smaller, with fewer people and less prestige—an intermediate, less challenging goal for those who weren’t capable of running the full.

In the past decade, however, participation in the half marathon has skyrocketed while marathon finisher numbers have flattened. In 2000, roughly a third more runners finished a half marathon (482,000) than the marathon (353,000). By 2014, nearly four times as many (2,046,600) runners finished a half than a full (550,600).

Not only are more completing the half, but the distance has also lost its stigma as a lesser goal. Half marathons provide all the bling (medals, souvenir gear, expos) of the full, and completing one garners endurance respect. “So many more people are doing the half, so I think socially it is more respected,” Bartels says. “If you do the full, it is great, but no one is going to belittle you for doing the half.”

According to the Running USA National Runner Survey, In 2016, 43 percent of runners considered 13.1 to be their favorite race distance and 80 percent of them had run one in the past 2 years, only 2 percent fewer than those who had run a 5K. Only 10 percent chose the marathon as their favorite, and 43 percent had run one.

To meet the demand of rising participation, new half marathons have flourished, many of them their own event, unencumbered by a parallel full 26.2 race. In 2007 Running USA reported that there were 500 half marathons in the country, and it was already the fastest growing race distance. By last year, that number had grown to a whopping 2,800 half marathons in the U.S., with the number of races still growing at 4 percent per year, compared to 1,100 marathons with zero growth.

The New York Road Runner’s Brooklyn Half Marathon has reflected the changing status of the distance through the years. Long a small, local race, one of a five-borough series, it had 925 finishers in 1993. Last year it was the nation’s largest half, with 27,428 participants, a title sponsor (Airbnb), a shoe sponsor (New Balance)—and it sold out in 26 minutes (compared to 48 hours in 2014). The NYRR reports that the number of finishers in all their half marathons grew 30.5 percent from 2013-2016, including nearly 20,000 runners in their March New York City Half, another stand-alone marquee event they launched in 2006.

Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon. Photo: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Love Run Half Marathon

Why the Shift?

While the marathon suited the gung-ho runners of the first running boom, and was an appropriate and audacious once-and-done goal for many second boomers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, today’s runners seem to be taking a more moderate, balanced path. Running is often just one of many things they do for fitness and athletic challenge. And training for a half marathon fits much better into their busy and complicated lives.

Bartels reflects this new mentality. While he would now categorize himself as a runner, he also maintains, “I don’t want the basketball player/coach identity to ever leave.” Training for the half marathon fits into his life, slightly stretching what he would normally do for fitness but not taking over. “It works for me,” he says.

“People are drawn to the accessibility of the half marathon,” says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA. He points to the growing percentage of women in the sport as one cause for the half’s rise in popularity. “Training for a half is less of a commitment, away from family, work,” he says. “Women often don’t make time for themselves. Training for the half marathon allows them to reclaim their athleticism and sense of self, while maintaining that head of household, care-giving role.”

Greg McMillan, who coaches hundreds of runners from beginners to elites, also notes that many who used to run marathons are gravitating to the half either as a concession to age or simply because it is more enjoyable and appropriate to the training time they can commit to it.

“Those who caught the marathon bug, and have done one, two, 10, 20 of those, are seeing the half as a really lovely option,” McMillan says. “Because a lot of those people are having that experience, a lot of new people who are getting into the sport are hearing, ‘You might want to start with the half.’”

Even runners as accomplished as Bill Rodgers, four-time champion of both the Boston and New York City marathons, now prefers the half as he approaches 70. “My longest race that I’ve done now, for 10 years or more, is the half marathon,” Rodgers says. “I don’t feel the drive to train as hard as I have in previous few years. But it is still in me. I love to compete.”

The half gives the runners of Rodgers’ generation the chance to keep competing, and, with a growing number of quality races and an increasing respect for the distance, gives their kids a new, more appealing goal. Plus, many in the younger generation have seen the marathon first hand and it doesn’t look much fun.

McMillan observes, “So many grown kids have watched their parents do the marathon, and they think, “Why would I put myself through that? Look how horrible Dad looks coming through the finish line. I don’t want any part of that. What’s my other option, please?’”

Training and racing the half also fits the modern time-crunched, distracted lifestyle better. “People are just busier,” says McMillan. Bartels admits, “I don’t think I’m patient enough for the full marathon.” He says even the half marathon initially felt like a stretch for his patience. “Running for more than an hour, I thought, ‘no way.’”

Newer generations of runners aren’t shying away from challenge, however. They’re just not buying into the paradigm that longer is always better. When everyone, including your mother-in-law, has run a marathon, it takes some of the shine off just finishing.

“People are seeing more of a challenge to want to go fast,” McMillan says.

“At some point in my life, when I get older, I may run a marathon,” Bartels says. “But not at this point—I want to keep on working to better my half marathon time.”

Even if he had the time to put in enough miles to go 26.2, he says, “I would still hang on to the half marathon. I want to get under that 1:20—then I might start thinking about the full marathon.”

READ MORE: Why the Half Marathon is Booming

Shamrock Run Portland Half Marathon. Photo: Brian Metzler

What Are We Losing?

This renewed focus on running a distance well is one of many reasons the shift to the half as the most popular distance is mostly positive. “I think it is a really great trend,” says Jeff Gaudette, head coach at RunnersConnect. “It is nothing but positive for running as a whole, as an industry, for health.”

The surging popularity of the half provides many benefits for runners and the sport, but it is worth asking whether we are losing anything as the half replaces the marathon as the marquee race for recreational runners. Will there be a gap left in a runner’s experience if they never run 26.2?

The half’s main strength—its accessibility to all levels of runners—is also its main weakness. The fact that it doesn’t change your life is where the half falls short of the full. Yes, the marathon is too long, too hard, too invasive and all-consuming. It demands that you make it your first priority for months, even years. That’s why it is awesome.

Runners who become marathoners and build to the necessary miles find their bodies transformed in ways nothing else will do. Attaining what legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard called a “tireless state” is one of the addictive joys of running. To be able, on any given day, to run 10, 15, 20 miles easily and comfortably is worth rearranging priorities.

Besides the physical transformation, the marathon provides a welcome singleness of purpose. As much as we need attainable goals, we also need delusions of grandeur on the horizon. We often want something inspiring and important to help us transcend petty decisions based on temporary comfort and give us a reason for choosing the harder path.

The marathon’s difficulty, the fact that more often than not we can’t finish it unscathed even when well prepared, makes chasing it a lifelong quest. To run a strong marathon you need to master every possible element of training and race strategy, and then you need some luck. As much as it is a physical challenge, the marathon is also a grand puzzle with moving parts that all have to fall into place at the right time, a challenge worthy of all of our attention and skill.

Interest in the marathon remains steady, and, while we’re not seeing many new marathons, we’re not losing any either and the calendar is already rather saturated. Shane Bauer, executive director of Grandma’s Marathon, says that the growth in the half hasn’t come at the expense of Grandma’s Marathon, which remains their primary event and continues to draw robust fields, both in number and quality.

The half marathon as a signature race seems to be expanding the field of those getting into the sport and learning how fun it is to get stronger and race well. “I think people are still going to do the marathon, and just do it gradually,” Gaudette says. Those who crave the single-minded devotion and full immersion of the marathon will end up there, and perhaps more will find their way by not plunging into the deep end too soon. And, for all of us, the growing number of quality half marathons provides more chances to race well and truly enjoy the experience.

Golden Gate Half Marathon. Photo: Brian Metzler
Jonathan Beverly
Jonathan Beverly served as the editor in chief of Running Times from 2000-2015. He is the author of "Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster—With Fewer Injuries" (2017, Rodale) and "Run Strong, Stay Hungry: 9 Keys to Staying in the Race" (2017, Velo Press).