No matter if your goal is to run a 5K or complete your next ultra-marathon, there's something about those 13.1 miles that make running a half marathon so special.
Head to any track and you'll instantly see that running is an individualized sport. Everyone's got a different gait, foot strike, and choice of shoes. No two runners are the same, and neither are their race goals. Some people want to run 5Ks, others want to storm a marathon on every continent. But there is evidence that all those very, very, very long runs aren't quadrupling the benefits of your shorter runs. "It doesn't take more than five or 10 minutes of exercise to achieve all of the aerobic and weight management benefits and feel-good feeling to enhance your mood," says Heather Milton, senior exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. So no, that six-hour slog isn't six times better for you than short-and-fast mile repeats.
Plus, marathon training comes with its own host of hazards. Namely, it squeezes your social life harder than a used-up Gu on the side of the course. When you combine early Friday nights with early Saturday wake-up calls, that doesn't leave much time for long, lazy dinners and endless glasses of wine. Half marathons let you live (relatively) normally, and they eat up far less time during your day. During my early days of half training, I still remember wolfing down Chinese food at midnight, then turning around and running the next morning like it was nothing. Marathon training feels larger than life because it actually is. Your brain clears off space on a shelf and marks it MARATHON ANXIETY. It's where you throw your trepidation about times, outfits, the weather, and having to poop in the middle of the race. (Yeah! Why Does Running Make You Poop?) After four months of training, that shelf becomes very heavy.
Another benefit of running half marathons and shorter distances is that you get to keep running. Marathoners are typically advised to take it easy for 26 days (one day for every mile) after the big race! (Read up on what training for a long race really does to your legs.) Half marathoners, on the other hand, can get back into their normal routines pretty much immediately as long as they feel good. Milton says this quick recovery is due to less pounding on your joints because of the shorter distance. Proper training helps, too, of course.
When I was training for my first half, I didn't know how far to run, what to eat, or even that I probably shouldn't run at night wearing all black. But one unexpected blessing was that I had no clue how much I didn't know. All I knew was that each mile still felt like a victory.
Milton backs this up, saying that it's far easier to get in appropriate training for a half rather than a full marathon. "For a lot of marathoners something comes up for a week or they slip up or they can't get in those really long runs, and they just didn't feel prepared enough," she says. "[A marathon] may not end up being quite as enjoyable an experience, especially if you're struggling those last four or five miles ... 13-mile runs are definitely a little bit more reasonable."
And perhaps this is the dirty little secret of a half marathon: It's just plain doable. Unlike a full marathon, you don't have to commit four months of your life to training. You can still drink and socialize and think about other things. After the race, your battered body rebounds much more quickly. And that's the thing: Your body will surprise you. After your first half marathon, you'll look at yourself in an entirely new light.
My first half marathon was in 2012, what's now the SHAPE Women's Half Marathon (you can register here!). My time was 2:10:12, but I only know these things because of online records. When I tried to think back to my first half, I honestly couldn't remember how I felt. Was I scared? Bored? Writhing in pain?
Good thing Gmail keeps all evidence stored away. After some searching, I found an email to a runner friend two months before race day: "I signed up for my first half—it's in April! And now I come to you, the expert, begging for advice...what should I do to train??" Other emails to friends included these gems: "How many miles should I get up to before?" and "I never even thought that fabric might chafe?" (I'd later learn about that the hard way.) None were as revealing as this email to my friend Adam, three weeks before the race: "im worried about the half marathon what if i die" No punctuation, no capitalization. I really was scared. And four years later? I couldn't remember a second of it. Why?
I'm starting to realize now why my memories are fuzzy. The biggest takeaway about running your first half marathon isn't the feeling that comes with crossing the finish line. It's the feeling that washes over you the next day and in the following weeks and months, which explains my journal entry just two weeks after that first half: "I will remember today as the day I won the lottery, beat the system, and found out I'll be running the New York City Marathon on November 4." Without that first half, I never would have found the confidence to try a full.
The beauty of the half marathon is what lies in the opportunities that follow. You run your first half and there's no denying you're a "real" runner. You run your first half marathon and think, "I could probably do that again," and then you probably do. You run your first and think, "No way could I run a full," but then a few months later you're smack in the middle of a serious training cycle that would surprise your previously doubtful self. (It's perfectly acceptable to never run a full marathoner, though. One veteran half marathoner explains why it's just not for her.)
There are milestones you remember forever—those you might get engraved on a medal or tattooed on your skin. And then there are experiences left behind, those that felt monumental at the time but that fade until they're no longer distinguishable from any other race. You've forgotten them because you've stretched your limits so much further since then that you can't remember a time when something felt so insurmountable. Now, you're the runner zooming past your previous self, arms swinging, chest heaving, a new finish line somewhere in sight.