Since 2012, Ford and hundreds of other hungry souls have tested their gastrointestinal fortitude in the Half and Half, a 13.1-mile run through D.C. with the added challenge — reward? — of finishing a famous Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke and a side of chips at the midway point.
“There are people who have more tolerance for running with food in their tummy, and I guess I’m lucky because I’m one of them,” Ford said in a phone interview.
An avid distance runner who completed a personal 50K race last month to celebrate turning 50, Ford has run the DC Half and Half every year, except two when he was dealing with ankle injuries. He was among the first to register for this year’s race, which has traditionally been held on the first or second Saturday of November but, like so many other events in 2020, has switched to a virtual format because of the coronavirus.
For $55, runners receive a T-shirt and a voucher for a half-smoke or veggie dog that can be redeemed at Ben’s U Street or H Street locations in D.C. or at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore through Dec. 31. All proceeds benefit scholarCHIPS, a local nonprofit that provides college scholarships and mentoring to children of incarcerated parents.
Chris Magnuson, the event’s co-founder, has been promoting this year’s race by running a few miles every day in a hot dog costume, then posting photos and videos on social media. Two weeks ago, he and five other runners in hot dog suits completed a 2.5-mile run to Ben’s on H Street. On Saturday, he and his brother, Pete, donned costumes for a run from the Washington Monument to Ben’s on U Street.
The Magnuson brothers dreamed up the Half and Half in 2010 as they drove back to D.C. from Raleigh, N.C., where they completed the Krispy Kreme Challenge, which dares runners to eat a dozen doughnuts in the middle of a five-mile run, finishing all of it in less than an hour.
“We wondered what the D.C. equivalent of that would be, and it was almost instantaneous,” Magnuson said in a phone interview. “Half-smoke, half-marathon, boom. That was it right there.”
The Magnusons tested their concept in the summer of 2010 with a friend, and the result was “pretty bad,” Chris said, owing primarily to the fact that they ran in 90-degree heat. Undeterred and convinced the idea had promise, Chris contacted Ben’s Chili Bowl about partnering on an event in the fall the following year.
“I run myself, so when he first told me the idea, I wasn’t sure I heard him right,” recalled Vida Ali, the daughter-in-law of Ben’s founder Ben Ali who now helps run the iconic D.C. business. “But he said, ‘Hear me out,’ and I’m glad I said yes.”
About 50 runners participated in the first Half and Half in 2012, which began at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park and included a stop at the original Ben’s on U Street. The route has occasionally changed — one year, runners set out from the Ben’s Chili Bowl location in Arlington, which has since closed — but the spirit of the event has remained the same. Having fun is the primary goal, with the running aspect very much optional. Entrants are encouraged to run in half-smoke or hot dog-themed attire.
“It’s not timed, and the only chips are the ones you eat,” said Magnuson, who noted that most first-time participants find downing a chili-covered snack in the middle of a half-marathon more pleasant than it sounds. “The half-smoke, it’s surprisingly delicious and it’s perfect. I consider it like a PowerBar, the perfect amount of calories at the right moment. The only downside people have said are the burps coming back, but we’ve had no issues with, you know, any of the unnamed bodily effects that you can think of.”
The Half and Half has attracted roughly 200 runners in recent years, with a contestant even mentioning the event on “Jeopardy!” in 2016. (“I’m not going to try out for it,” Alex Trebek said.) Magnuson is most proud of the fact that the run has raised more than $10,000 every year for scholarCHIPS, which was started by Yasmine Arrington, one of his first students during his 10 years as a teacher at Paul Public Charter School in Northwest Washington. Arrington later asked Magnuson to serve on the scholarCHIPS board.
Registration for this year’s virtual event, which Magnuson and Ali agreed would be the safest way to continue the tradition amid a pandemic, opened in October. Fifty-three people had registered as of Sunday night, with one adventurous runner signed up for the $75 triple threat: three half-smoke vouchers, a T-shirt and the challenge of running 39.3 miles before Dec. 31.
Magnuson and Ali have already started brainstorming ways to celebrate the 10th running of the Half and Half next year. Meanwhile, Ford is recovering from his 50K and looking forward to his annual midrace half-smoke, which he calls “the best tasting Gatorade or Gu [energy gel] I’ve had during a run.” He has his strategy for the most unusual of runs down to a science.
“I run the first half as fast as I can, for whatever shape I’m in, because you can’t go out at a sprint with food in your belly,” he said. “Then my stomach and legs are in agreement on the way back.”