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When the whole half is all you need

There are some great marathon finishing lines: Boston, with the run up Boylston; New York, running through Central Park; Chicago, heading north up Michigan Avenue. All views not to be missed. My problem with these finishes is that, with the exception of Chicago, the sun was already going down by the time I got there.

When I ran Boston in 1996 (no, I didn't qualify, and neither did about 10,000 of us that year) I intentionally walked the last 10K figuring that it was my only chance to ever be on the course. And because the race starts at noon, it was evening when I got to the finish.

In New York, I never wanted to finish, so the shadows were getting very long by the time I arrived in the park. It wasn't dark in Chicago, but I had skipped breakfast and missed lunch so I was plenty ready to be off the course by the time I saw the balloons in Grant Park.

This may help explain why I've become more and more excited about running half marathons. After all, my half marathon time is pretty good if it was for a full marathon. And since the general public doesn't really know the difference, when I say that I ran a (mumble here) half marathon in just under three hours, they're pretty impressed.

I've often said that the running universe changed forever in June of 1998 with the first Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego. No one had ever seen so many bands and cheerleaders on a marathon course. There was - and still is - no incentive at all to finish that course as fast as you can.

When the folks at Elite Racing decided to create a Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach, I'm sure most of the industry thought they were out of their minds. Who, I'm sure the best minds in the business thought, would come to Virginia Beach on Labor Day weekend to run only a half marathon.

Well, about 12,000 running, walking, music-loving, sun-bunnies came out for the event the first year, and every year since, the numbers have grown.

It doesn't take much contemplation to figure out why someone would want to run a race that has all the trappings of a marathon, including the most beautiful closing miles of any event I've ever run, and yet takes half the time. It's fun. And you can walk normally the next day.

I've run the race for several years now. I didn't run the first year because - to be honest - I was a marathon snob. Sure, a half marathon was ok for someone who didn't have the time, talent or tenacity to run a full marathon. But not me. I was a marathoner.

I was also dead wrong. First off, the race isn't half of a full marathon; it's a full half marathon. I've seen many marathoners, myself included, take the distance lightly thinking that it can be knocked out as a training run. It can't.

I've seen 10K specialists think that the half marathon is like a really, really, long 10K course. It isn't. It isn't like any other distance at all - not even its historical predecessor the 20K. It is a race distance unto itself.

And the Rock and Roll Half Marathon is a race onto itself. You can see it in the crowds at the expo. They aren't the wired-for-sound, uptight, nervous, on-the-edge-of-nausea marathon crowd. They are having a good time. They are laughing. carrying on, hanging at the beach, staying up late and listening to the music. They are there to party.

I don't think they're excited because it isn't a full marathon. I think they're excited because it is a half marathon. It's still a distance that most never conceived of running. It's still the accomplishment of a lifetime for nearly everyone. And when it's over, you get your medal, turn left, walk across the sand and stick your feet in the Atlantic Ocean.

They're excited because everyone finishes before dark. Heck, everyone finishes before noon. Even someone like me can tell their friends and family that I'll meet them after the race for lunch, rather than telling them that I'll be lucky to be back by dinner.

In the end, the distance doesn't diminish the experience. In fact, it may well be enhanced. So many runners seem to want to mark off a marathon as a life goal and then be done with it. There's none of that "I'll never do this again" energy at the end of the half. Most finishers are already planning for their next half.

It's like I've been saying, it's half the distance but twice the fun.

Waddle on, friends.

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