On Sunday, March 20, the sixteenth edition of the NYC Half will take place in New York City. Timing-wise, the race is an ideal tune-up for next month’s Boston Marathon, which makes it a draw for many elites. ($100,000 in total prize money also helps.) This year, American Molly Huddle will attempt to defend her title against reigning Boston champ Caroline Rotich and half-marathon specialist, Joyce Chepkirui, while on the men’s side Kenyans Stephen Sambu and Wilson Chebet are slated to go against Kiwi upstart Zane Robertson. (Sadly, American Ben True has just withdrawn.) These athletes will lead the way as roughly 20,000 runners run a lap of Central Park, traverse Times Square, and eventually take on a long, flat stretch along the Hudson River. The finish line is in the Financial District in southern Manhattan, minutes from the 9/11 Memorial.
Despite its field size, what’s notable about the NYC Half is that not only is it not the largest half-marathon in the U.S., it isn’t even the largest in New York City. That distinction goes to the NYRR Brooklyn Half, which last year had 26,440 finishers. In 2015, the Brooklyn race sold out in under seven hours. This year’s race, which takes place in May, sold out in 52 minutes.
It might seem bizarre that a 13.1-mile footrace would inspire the sellout fervor of a Rihanna concert, but such enthusiasm is consistent with the national trend.
According to the most recent “State of the Sport” report from Running USA, the half-marathon is the fastest growing running event in the U.S., and the second most popular in terms of race finishers, behind the 5K. In 2014, there were a record 2,046,000 half-marathon finishers (up 4 percent from the previous year’s record), compared to 550,600 marathoners. The numbers also strongly suggest that the main reason more people ran a 5K than a half-marathon in 2014 was that there were roughly six times as many 5Ks nation-wide–15,100 compared to 2,500. (Generally speaking, the longer the race, the more logistical challenges there are to staging an event, which explains the high number of 5Ks.) However, in 2014, there were roughly 1,200 more 10Ks than half-marathons, but 646,000 more half-marathon finishers.
The half, in other words, is hot right now.
Dan Cruz, an event organizer for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, told me a 4-to-1 or 5-to-1 ratio favoring the half-marathon over the full was fairly typical. At last weekend’s Rock ‘n’ Roll races in Washington D.C., where runners had their choice in distance, there were 14,470 finishers in the half, while the full marathon recorded 2,477.
I asked Cruz why he thinks the half-marathon is so popular.
“A marathon, or an IRONMAN, or an ultra is certainly more of a bucket list thing for a special breed [of runner], whereas 13.1 miles is something that pretty much anyone can accomplish given a little bit of training and the proper mindset on race day,” Cruz said. “But it’s also long enough where you do need to train for it to have that preparation. It’s a distance that means something because you have to overcome mental obstacles along the way–the sense of achievement is still there.”
Beyond that, Cruz felt that the abbreviated nature of the half vis-à-vis the full marathon means it’s less likely to impinge on the active, busy lives of participants, who are increasingly members of the millennial generation.
“In our Washington D.C. race last weekend, 51 percent of the entrants were under the age of 35,” Cruz said.
“These are people who around work, school, fun, social media, and all the other hobbies that they’re interested in, have adopted running–they really like the culture of health and living an active lifestyle and the benefits that come from running–but because they’re so on the go and have that 2016 attention span, the half-marathon is really a distance that can be achieved without the commitment of a six-month marathon training program.”
This element of lifestyle compatibility, Cruz says, also extends to race day itself; if you’re destroyed from running 26.2 miles, you might be less likely to make it to brunch.
“The half-marathon really allows people to go to a museum afterwards or see a show–to not have to spend the rest of the afternoon in bed or in the tub,” Cruz said.
While that might explain the appeal of the half-marathon among amateurs (13.1 miles was the benchmark sought by our non-runner online adventure editor in last year’s Zero to Hero series), professional runners might be less motivated to specialize in the distance. In terms of prestige, the half-marathon lies beneath Olympic and World Championship events like the 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track, or the full marathon on the road. Most people who have even a casual interest in the sport can name a few of the world’s biggest marathons: Boston, Berlin, etc., but the same cannot be said for the half-marathon. (In a similar vein, it’s telling that the world record in the half has stood since 2010, while the marathon record seems to be broken every other year.) There’s an economic component as well; the first placed man and woman in the Chicago and NYC Marathons each receive $100,000–it’s $150,000 at Boston–while the winner of the NYC Half receives “only” $20,000.
However, for many pros, the half-marathon provides a useful stepping-stone. It’s a long way from the 10K to the full marathon, and most long distance runners prefer to make the transition gradually. Galen Rupp, who just ran his first marathon in February when he won the U.S. Olympic Trials Race, ran his first half-marathon back in 2011. In 2014, before her first attempt at the distance, Runner’s World asked Molly Huddle why she decided to run the NYC Half. Her answer was simple.
“I definitely wanted to do a half this year because I do want to try a marathon in the future,” Huddle told Runner’s World.
We are still waiting for Huddle’s marathon debut. If she defends her title on Sunday, the wait might soon be over.