Hop in a Half (Marathon, That is)

Why half marathons make fantastic motivators, and how to find the one that's right for you.

Photo via iStockphoto.

A friend of mine recently asked me to recommend a good half marathon, and as I was giving him the options, I realized something: there are literally thousands of races in New England every year, but no one ever hears about them. There is so much advertising and great information about the big city marathons — the Boston Marathon, the Chicago Marathons — but half marathons receive so much less of that, despite both their growing popularity and their usefulness to runners.

Half marathons require considerable preparation, but not quite the same single-minded focus as a full marathon demands. That makes a spring half marathon perfect for keeping your motivation through the long New England winter, without having to log quite as many slushy-footed miles as would be necessary for a full marathon. They’re also a great trial run: If you’re ambitious enough to try a spring marathon or fast enough to have qualified for the Boston Marathon, you can use a spring half marathon as good preparation (about one to two months before your goal marathon).

There are basically two types of half-marathon: large, professionally-organized races, and small, local ones. Neither of these is better or worse than the other, but they do offer very different experiences.

Large Half Marathons. These are generally well organized and provide the entrant with a gaggle of swag; many also have expos the day before the event. At these events, you always have lots of crowd support and people to run with, not to mention accurate mile markers, regular water stops, good food and even music at the end to go with your finisher’s medal. These benefits come with a cost: literally the cost of entry. You also have to navigate the logistics of getting from your car to the start line and back again after you’ve finished, which can be more of a challenge than it sounds. Some New England half marathons in this category that I’d recommend include:

  • Half at the Hamptons, Hampton, NH (February): Sponsored by Smuttynose Brewing Company and organized by Loco, this is a popular event that sells out in advance.
  • NYC Half, New York, NY (March): Organized by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) and just like their famous full marathon, the NYRR provides a tremendous big city event. Just as with any big city event — and NY in particular — travel, lodging, and transportation must be planned in advance.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series: Providence, Providence, RI (August): An August half-marathon can be a warm one, but fortunately there are plenty of water stops and refreshments at this event. This race is part of the hugely popular Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series and currently the only one of the series in New England. Well organized, it’s accompanied by music to keep you groovin’ from start to finish.
  • B.A.A. Half Marathon, Boston, MA (October): Organized by the same people who bring you the Boston Marathon, this new event has been an immediate success.
  • ING Hartford Half Marathon, Hartford, CT (October): A well organized, fun event.

Small Half Marathons: The benefit of a small, locally organized race is the personal feel: you’re not just another number. These are some of my favorite events and they’re ones I’ll go back to year after year. Odds are good you will not only meet the race director, but you’ll get homemade baked goods by a mom from the PTA at the end of the race. But be warned, local races are highly variable in their quality and organization. That said, here are a few small-to-medium sized races in New England that I recommend:

  • New Bedford Half Marathon, New Bedford, MA (March): A perennial favorite and part of the 2012 New England Grand Prix. It offers both good competition and a fun atmosphere. Plus, given that it’s situated in the historic fishing town of New Bedford, you can enjoy some chowder and fish sandwiches after the race!
  • The Half of Quincy, Quincy, MA (March): A relatively new race that’s gaining popularity.
  • Run for the Border Half, Portsmouth, NH to Salisbury, MA (March): This half and the associated Eastern States 20-miler are very popular among those preparing for the Boston Marathon.
  • Applefest Half Marathon, Hollis, NH (October): While the hills in this one might make setting a personal best difficult, the rural beauty and fun atmosphere will allow you to stride along undeterred. Voted Race of the Year in 2008 by New England Runner Magazine. Be warned that with the peak foliage and delicious food, this race sells out well in advance.
  • Great Bay Half Marathon, Newmarket, NH (April): A challenging, scenic course along New Hampshire’s Great Bay. I regularly do this loop for my Sunday long runs. A local favorite.

Join in the conversation with me. I’d like to hear about your experiences, and I’ve started a poll so you can vote on your favorite half marathon. Vote for one already listed, add your own, or subscribe to follow what half marathons are suggested by others. You can find the poll on Facebook here.