The popularity of the half-marathon

Bad Cow Half Marathon
Bad Cow Half © Rob Hannam

There has never been more choice or more participation when it comes to the half-marathon. We take a look at why it’s no longer ‘just a half’…

Half-marathon participation levels are booming, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Read any race report and you’ll see phrases such as ‘Record numbers of runners took to the streets’ crop up time and again. Some half-marathon events are so popular they sell out in a matter of hours each year, or even have to operate a ballot system.

The Royal Parks Half in London, for example, is limited to around 16,000 runners, but in 2018 entrants to the public ballot had a 1 in 8 chance of getting a place. This would indicate that an incredible 120,000 people had put their names into the hat. It’s clear that the half-marathon is now a real force to be reckoned with.

Royal Parks Half Marathon
© rb-create photography

Growing in popularity

Probably the most famous half-marathon in Britain is the Great North Run. It is not only the largest half-marathon in the UK, but also in the world. Originally organised by former Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Brendan Foster as a ‘local fun run’, the first event in 1981 attracted some 12,000 runners. A sizeable crowd 37 years ago, but positively tiny compared to the sheer number of people who take part today. In 2014, the event had 41,615 finishers, and in 2016 it was officially certified by Guinness World Records as the largest half-marathon in the world.

Incredibly, the event still continues to grow, with an incredible 43,127 finishers in 2017. When you consider that the London Marathon only broke the 40,000 finishers mark for the first time this year, with around 40,250 people completing the race in 2018, the success of the Great North Run, and the countless other half-marathon events around the country, proves that this is a distance that is continuing to grow in popularity.

Why the appeal?

Running itself is also continuing to expand in the UK as a sport and a hobby, with over 10 million people regularly taking part in some sort of running activity. A figure that is surely constantly growing with the rise in popularity of parkrun and couch-to-5k programmes. The half-marathon is undoubtedly now a respected event in itself, rather than being just a stepping stone to the marathon distance. But what is it about the half-marathon that makes it so appealing to runners of all abilities?

Andy Palmer is race director at White Star Running, and has a wealth of experience organising both marathon and half-marathon events. He has seen first-hand the rise in popularity of both running in general and of the half-marathon distance, and points to the role of fitness campaigns and parkrun in accelerating the running boom: “Campaigns like ‘This Girl Can’, the rise of parkrun and the small races that are popping up all over the place have helped people get into running. I think people want to get fitter and live long and healthy lives – and running can help you do that. Then people start to realise that running and racing is enjoyable. The half is a tough distance for beginners, but more doable than the marathon, which is an incredibly hard distance for people just starting out. With a bit of training, you can run 13.1 miles non-stop”.

Sandra Courtney, race director for the Ealing Half Marathon, agrees that the rising number of people getting into running is naturally feeding the increase in runners wanting to tackle the half-marathon distance. She says: “With the phenomenon that is parkrun, more people are able to start with a goal of 5K and then find they want to discover how much further they can push themselves. The natural progression is to the 10K and then the half. Not all events are suitable for beginners, but the Ealing Half Marathon is a very accessible race as it is fully road closed and not too much of a challenging course, so we’ve found that we have a high number of people attempting the 13.1-mile distance for the first time. Usually about a third of our runners are first-timers, but we also have a healthy number of elites and faster-paced runners as well so it’s an exciting mix no matter where you are in the pack.”

13.1 hand holding medal
Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

Something for everyone

But it’s not just about the beginners – plenty of club runners are choosing to focus on the half-marathon distance alongside, or instead of, any marathon ambitions. As Andy points out: “I think the 13.1 miles being called a ‘half’ does the distance a disservice. Half makes it sound like something ‘less than a marathon’, which it isn’t. Some of the toughest racing is at 13.1 miles, either on trails or fast road running. It’s really out of your comfort zone”.

And perhaps the best part about running a half-marathon is that training doesn’t necessarily need to take over your life. Most regular runners will have a long run of 8-10 miles in their regular training pattern. It doesn’t take much effort to increase this in preparation for a half, making it easier for runners to focus the rest of their training on speedwork or hills – sessions that will really help them to bag a half-marathon PB when race day comes.

As Andy says: “The appeal is that the half is just long enough to be an endurance race, so you are pushing your body into new places, but without the massive recovery time sometimes needed after a marathon or ultra. The training is normally less than that needed for a marathon and not a lot more than for a 10K race, so busy lives can be worked around as people get ready for a half”.

Of course, the boom in half-marathons is a win-win situation for runners: as more people want to race the 13.1-mile distance, more events are springing up all over the country. There are now over 400 races taking place in the UK every year, with more being added to the calendar all the time (see our Races And Events section for reviews).

Not only is the half-marathon a more straightforward distance for runners to train for, it is also a more straightforward event for organisers to arrange. Roads need to be closed for less time than with a marathon event, and it is often easier to plot out a 13.1-mile route than a 26.2-mile one (unless you like laps). However, not all runners want a slick, city-centre event, and another benefit of the increase in the number of races being staged is the amount of variety now available.

Give it a go

As Sandra points out: “Each half-marathon has a different structure; some are commercial events, some are organised by running clubs, and some by charities, so runners can experience a variety of different races. If you prefer low key, then a small club-organised event would probably be the choice, but if you like something large-scale with thousands of other runners to share in your experience, you would probably look for a commercial
event with corporate sponsorship. You are spoiled for half-marathon choice on most weekends these days, but a fully road closed one is still the most elusive as these are the hardest for organisers to get agreement on and stage”.

So, whether you fancy joining 40,000 others to run over the famous Tyne Bridge, or you’d rather lace up your trail shoes and tackle some mud, there’s a half-marathon for you. Even if you’ve never run a half before, if you start a 12-week training plan now you’ll be more than ready for the countless half-marathons going on all over the UK this autumn. Why not sign up for a race and see what all the fuss is about?