Half-marathon gaining ground with runners

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010; D2

Gloria Blair and Desiree Garcia have different motivations for running Sunday's Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon. Blair is doing it for the experience. Garcia is using it as part of her training program for a marathon.

Though they seemingly have nothing in common, Blair and Garcia represent two growing trends in road racing: More runners are competing in half-marathons than ever before and more of those runners are women.

According to a report by Running USA, since 2003, the half-marathon has been the fastest growing road race distance in the United States. The number of half-marathon finishers has gone from 482,000 in 2000 to 1,113,000 in 2009. Twenty of the 30 largest U.S. half-marathons began or were re-branded less than 10 years ago.

Beginning in 2005, the number of women in these races has overtaken men. Half-marathons have the largest percentage of female runners (57 percent) of any road race.

"I think it's pretty clear why it's so attractive," said Mary Wittenberg, a 1987 Marine Corps Marathon winner who is president of New York Road Runners, which puts on eight half-marathons. "It's sized just right; it's not too short and its not too long, it's right in the middle; it's something that is aspirational in nature for the newer runner, it's a big deal to run 13.1 [miles]; and it's a great training race and distance for marathoners. It's perfectly suited for a wider variety of people than just a marathon."

For many runners, the 13.1 miles is also a much safer distance, according to Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association.

"A lot of us in the industry on the medical side have been saying ever since the new-age marathoner came in, which were new people who were not committed longtime runners . . . we've been saying all along, try a half or something like that," he said.

From a race director's standpoint, the half-marathon is an easier race to stage. It can also offer sponsors just as much bang for the buck. The inaugural Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon, which sold out its 4,000 spots, is the second half-marathon in the Washington area this month. The fifth annual Parks Half Marathon took place in Montgomery County last week.

For Blair, a 36-year-old from Oxon Hill, the impetus for running the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Half Marathon came after she got off her treadmill and took her running outside last year. Because she lives near the bridge, she often runs across it on weekends.

"When I realized I was already doing eight to nine miles on the weekend, what's a couple more miles?" she said. "I like challenging myself, I really do. . . . I call it my bucket list."

The half-marathon will be only her second competitive race. Two weeks ago, she ran a 5K in Arlington. "It's an unspeakable joy when you accomplish something like that," she said.

But her newfound joy hasn't led her to consider running a full marathon. "I don't know, 26 miles is a lot," she said. "I think I'm happy with 13."

Garcia also took up running recently. Prompted by the birth of her second son, the 29-year-old from Haymarket made a new year's resolution to run a marathon in a year.

"It was something I wanted to do," she said. "Something to show my kids that you always push yourself and give yourself new challenges."

Garcia found a training program online and used her friends as resources to prepare for the race. She also discovered additional motivation from the book "Run Like a Mother."

"It's been very helpful to me," she said. "Before a long run, I always read a couple chapters, even though I've read the book cover to cover. I read a few chapters just to get me geared up for a long run, encourage me."

Like Blair, Garcia's only road race experience was a 5K.

"I've never been a runner," she said. "I didn't even know when I could consider myself a runner, or if I can even now. . . . Once I cross that finish line [Sunday], I'll really feel like a runner, and I think it's going to be pretty emotional, too. I'm excited."

Indications are she isn't the only one. Blair, Garcia and other women like them are writing what appears to be another chapter of the running boom.

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