By the numbers
United States race finishers:
2013: 19.025 million; 10.844 million women, 8.12 million men
2012: 15.534 million; 8.699 million women, 6.835 million men
2013: 1.96 million
2012: 1.85 million
Patrick Wilson finished his first marathon in the cold.
After trying, and failing, to complete the Vermont City Marathon in 2011, he signed up for the Hudson Mohawk River Winter Marathon at the University of Albany in 2013 and finished the race on a brisk February day.
“That one was brutal,” the 34-year-old Troy man said, a neon green pinnie draped over his shoulders. He had just run 3.2 miles of trail at Thacher Park with a group of runners from the Albany Running Exchange. “It was, like, 5 degrees.”
How did he do it? He ran a half-marathon first.
“I started with the half-marathon and worked my way up, slowly, to a marathon,” he said. “I definitely had to do the half-marathon first.”
The half marathon hasn’t always been an option for runners, but over the past two decades, the in-between distance has emerged as a popular race and opened the gates for more people to run farther, said Bart Yasso, chief running officer for Runner’s World.
Yasso — one of few people to have run races on all seven continents — said the half-marathon is less intimidating than the marathon but still a worthy challenge.
“The half, it doesn’t consume your life when you get to the training,” he said.
In 2013, a record 19.025 million runners finished U.S. running events, and 1.96 million of them were running half-marathons, according to RunningUSA. The 13.1-mile races saw a nationwide 6 percent increase in finishers from 2012.
The trend has caught on in the Capital Region, where runners like Wilson have plenty of half-marathons to choose from.
The Hudson Mohawk River Marathon, which starts in Schenectady’s Central Park and ends in downtown Albany, introduced a half-marathon 16 years ago. Registration for one of 900 general-entrance bibs in this year’s half-marathon on Oct. 12 sold out in a record time of 16 hours, while the full marathon sold out in 41 days.
“Many have joked that this is the new 5K,” said race director Maureen Cox. “People run these with the same kind of regularity that people go out and run a 5K these days.”
She said the race has gained in popularity because it’s part of a natural progression from 5K to 10K to 15K, which measures 9.3 miles.
“To go four more miles when you’ve done the training is manageable,” she said
Half-marathons started to gain traction when big marathons started adding the shorter distance about 20 years ago, Yasso said.
“The new common formula for a lot of events is to have a marathon in conjunction with the half-marathon,” he said. “That’s really taken off in the past 20 years.”
Previously, race directors worried a second race would cannibalize the marathon, but the opposite turned out to be true.
“It opened up the doors for other people that wouldn’t normally do the race,” he said.
The half-marathon and full marathon often share a finish line, which means the course stays open long enough for slower runners to finish a half-marathon and still have a crowd cheering them on. That’s the environment of the Mohawk Hudson River Half Marathon, which starts at Colonie Town Park and ends at the marathon finish line in Albany.
“No one wants to go to a race thinking, ‘When I finish, there won’t be anyone there,’ ” Yasso said. “But that’s not the case anymore. You come in in three hours, and the place is abuzz.”
Deanna Dugan ran her first marathon, the Lake Placid Marathon, in June 2011 without ever running in a half-marathon.
“I should have done the half first,” the 57-year-old Earltown resident said. “I blew my knee.”
Teresa Grant, 41, of Glenmont, is training for the Turning Stone half-marathon in late August and has no plans to push herself any further.
“That’s the longest I do,” she said.
Of course, running any distance can lead to injuries. With the half-marathon attracting more new runners to the long-distance game, it’s as important as ever for runners to know their limitations and train properly to protect their health.
Yasso — who invented a popular marathon-training schedule called the Yasso 800s — said people should be running 10 miles comfortably before running a half-marathon. He suggested a 12-week training program for people who already run.
“It’s still a long way to run,” he said. “You can’t take a half-marathon lightly.”
Dugan could be proof the sport of long distance running has become more accessible. Twenty years ago, she wasn’t a runner. Growing up, she wasn’t athletic.
The Earltown resident said she started running by accident in 2004 while taking a boot camp -style aerobics program from a former Army drill instructor who would take them on “forced marches.”
“And to keep up with him walking, I had to jog, and when I realized we were doing three miles, I was like, ‘I can run,’ ” she said.
Dugan was one of 10.8 million women to finish a race in 2013 — a national high, according to RunningUSA. Women made up 57 percent of the finishers, another high.
“The women are setting the tone for the guys to get out there,” Yasso said.
Last year, for the first time in the Stockade-athon’s 38-year history, the Schenectady 15K had more female finishers than men, about 50.5 percent.
Vincent Juliano, director of the Stockade-athon, remembers taking charge of the race in the late 1990s, when 5Ks were the norm.
“Everybody wanted to run 5Ks. We were trying to figure out ways to convince people to train to run a 15K and convince them that they could run a 15K,” he said. “Now, the big trend is to run a half-marathon.”
And while the half marathon is moving up the ranks, the 5K — at least for now — is still the most popular road race, with 8.3 million U.S. race finishers in 2013. The half-marathon was second, with 1.96 million finishers.
Doug Secor, race director for the Schenectady ARC 5K Challenge set for Friday in Central Park, said the 5K is a popular place to start, but it’s also a popular “speed workout” for long-distance runners.
“It helps you build up muscles a little bit because you’re going faster, and it gets you used to running at that speed,” he said.
Still, some runners are happy to run a 5K and call it a day.
“The thing about the 5K is by the time I get tired and don’t feel like running anymore, it’s over,” said Derrell Waylon, 48, of Voorheesville.
For Wilson, the runner from Troy, the half-marathon is more than an important step toward the marathon — it’s his favorite distance to run.
“You can go all out in a half-marathon, and really push yourself,” he said. “If you do that in a marathon, unless you’re like a special athlete, you’re going to be walking and crying at mile 20.”