More Americans embracing 13.1-mile races as alternative to running full marathons
The loneliness of the long-distance runner does not apply to Kelly Mattison of Esperance.
Mattison and some of her friends are training for 26.2-mile marathons and the long run’s little sibling, the 13.1-mile half marathon. The distance challenges — especially the junior marathon — are picking up more racing fans in the Capital Region and across America.
“It takes a lot of dedication to train your body to run 26.2 miles,” said Mattison, 27, who has been running for the past year and will participate in her first marathon — the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon — on Sunday, Oct. 7. “I think it’s the focus, the dedication and training and seeing your body can adapt.”
According to Running USA, an organization that works to promote road racing, participation in half marathons is surging. In 2011, the group said, 1.6 million runners completed the 13.1-mile races — a 16.2-percent increase over the 1.3 million who finished the mini-marathons in 2010. Since 2000, the number of half marathon finishers in the United States has more than tripled.
According to Running USA’s 2011 national runner survey, the half marathon is the favorite distance for both men and women and the road race distance that both men and women are most interested in entering. Other statistics kept by the group say that for six consecutive years (2006 through 2011), the number of 13.1-mile finishers has grown by 10 percent or more each year.
Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America in Arlington, Va., said distance events around the country will offer both long-distance races. “The half marathon will usually be a much larger participant pool than a marathon,” she said.
Jim Thomas of East Greenbush, who coaches Mattison and dozens of other runners during workouts designed to build endurance for long runs, said many people who run want to increase their distances. “It’s like having one beer or one potato chip, it’s that next little brass ring,” said Thomas, 66, who has run 95 marathons. “It’s an ever-reaching thing.”
Numbers on rise
Cathy Sliwinski and some of her training partners run a half marathon every month. Albany resident Sliwinski, a member of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club, has also been the director of the Mohawk Hudson River races for the past three years. Registration for both races has already closed. Even the waiting lists for spots that open through cancellations are filled to capacity.
“Every year we’ve increased the numbers we’ve had in the race and every year we’ve sold out quicker than the previous year,” said Sliwinski, 56, a law clerk in Albany County Family Court.
Sliwinski believes half marathons have become popular because “It’s a doable distance. You have to train, certainly, but it’s not like training for a marathon where you have to go out and train for a couple hours,” she said.
Training and running in the races have become fun experiences. Running partners will push each other. Sliwinski said the emergence of an iPod as a training buddy — hundreds of songs are along for the ride — make long runs more pleasurable. “The races you go to, the half marathons and the marathons, they’re events, kind of a big deal,” she said. “Pretty much anybody could do it, as long as you have the motivation to train. People can walk it, too. We have a lot of walkers.”
John Parisella of Schenectady, president of Hudson Mohawk Road Runners, said peer pressure can play a part when runners decide to put more miles on personal odometers. Someone who runs 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles) may receive ribbing from other runners to, as Parisella said, “get out of that 5K heaven.”
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody’s up for a challenge, especially people interested in distance running.”
Runners who complete marathons will often receive proof of their accomplishments, souvenirs from race organizers. Parisella said marathon finishers love to slap magnetic “26.2” ovals on their cars.
Joel Friedman, director of September’s Adirondack Marathon Distance Festival in Schroon Lake, expects runners for both the 26.2- and 13.1-mile races. “The half marathon has definitely been the area of growth we’ve seen over the years,” Friedman said.
Some runners also like the options that come with the longer distance races. Friedman said four-person relays are popular in the marathon version. Not all the distance “splits” are identical; runners get four-, nine-, five- and eight-mile assignments and complete the race by committee.
Dr. Mark Pettus, chief of medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, said two recent studies — one conducted by the American Journal of Sports Medicine and the other by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers for the New England Journal of Medicine — found very low cardiac-related casualties among large numbers of runners who engaged in ultra-long distance running.
“In both studies, the conclusions were really quite clear, that the risk of a cardiac arrest or cardiac death from running a half marathon or marathon is negligibly low,” Pettus said. “I think the other side of that argument is most runners who are preparing for a half marathon or a full marathon usually have some graded increase in their activity level as they prepare and improve their endurance for those kinds of events.”
Running coach Thomas agrees. He began training his runners in May with short workouts. Men and women planning marathons started at about four miles; prospective half marathon athletes received assignments for two miles. “The key is to move up in a patterned way, a slight way,” he said. “You can’t jump from zero to 60 [mph] in a minute.”
Pettus, 55, has been running for the past 10 years and logs about 20 miles a week. He said runners can experience greater wear and tear on knees, ankles and muscles with the longer runs. People who have become accustomed to the longer, more demanding form of exercise can maintain the same degree of cardiovascular fitness through rowing, cycling, swimming or training on ellipticals — stationary exercise machines used to simulate stair climbing, walking or running — without causing excessive pressure to the joints.
He added that people don’t have to run marathons or half marathons to earn life benefits from exercise. Walking at a faster pace and light, low-impact level jogging also count when people are trying to stay in shape.
“I run a little bit less than I used to because it has affected my back,” Pettus said. “I find the elliptical tends to be a bit more forgiving. There’s an addictive element to exercise. It really can be hard for people who have been running a lot to either suddenly stop running or switch to just walking because the body’s reward-response — dopamine that our brains produce — is very satisfying.”
Tom Houghtalen, a doctor of physical therapy who owns the 10 Physical Therapy Associates offices in the Capital Region, believes runners should include more workouts that use bicycles and ellipticals to reduce the consistent pounding that feet and knees take during training runs. “A lot of these plans or menus for running don’t include a lot of that,” Houghtalen said. “And I would say there should be a little bit more.”
Audrey Vandercourt, 53, of West Stockbridge, Mass., has been running for nearly three years and is training with the Thomas group. She’s a registered nurse, and hears some opinions from people in the medical community about wear and tear on the body that could come from a long career of long races. But she feels good and people tell her she looks good. She’s happy running.
“Training is life-changing,” she said. “You just naturally start changing your habits for a healthier lifestyle.”