Five miles into what turned out to be, in perfect coincidence, a thirteen mile trail run, my friend, Dean, still running perkily after completing a tough 100 mile race a week before, an insanely hard 50K two weeks before that, and nabbing a fifth place finish at a 50 miler the previous month, said, a propos of nothing we’d been talking about: “Why is it called a half?”
And I said: “Right.”
Another runner, with the dismissiveness of a speedy marathoner and the crabbiness of a mother with two small kids, said: “Because it’s only a half.”
Dean and I both said No.
We had this conversation all summer, on trail runs, over strawberry smoothies, and with other people during Dean’s birthday celebration where we ran 45 x 200 on an old dirt track by the river in the pouring rain. And this is what we think: It’s not half of something; it’s a whole thing.
During the short rest periods between 200s, someone suggested finding out what place was halfway between Athens and Marathon. In marathon lore, some claim that a messenger named Pheidippes, sent from the ancient battlefield of Marathon to the city of Athens to announce that the Athenians had defeated the Persians, ran the whole 26 miles, burst into the assembly, blurted out, ‘We won!’ and dropped dead. (The extra 0.2 miles was added in the 1908 Olympics so the race could end in the stadium in front of the royal family.)
This may or may not be true. Herotodus mentions a messenger named Pheidippides who ran from Athens to Sparta asking for help and then ran back—it was about 150 miles each way. That would make him the father of the ultramarathon.
Well, if you believe the more common account, the place halfway between Athens and Marathon is called Pikermi, and it’s already been claimed. Googling brings you to Team Pikermi and this description: “A Pikermi is a running race of a distance of 13.1 miles, formerly known as a half marathon. The term was coined by a blogger named Pochero in a blog on ‘The Loop,’ which is a runner’s community on the Runner’s World website.”
Nope, I say, to the more than 1000 Likers of Team Pikermi on Facebook. We need to unlink this race from the marathon. If that’s the standard, the race will still be “just” halfway. Plus, no one knows how to pronounce Pikermi.
The crabby runner said, “It’s just words. What difference does it make?” Humans think with language; words matter. Ask anyone who’s tried to name a baby or a pet if naming—a method of claiming—isn’t important.
According to running historian Roger Robinson, the first half marathon was the Route du vin in Luxembourg. Now, we could call 13.1 miles a winer, but some people might hear it as the homophone and, well, we don’t want to encourage that.
The next race, the first in the US, was the Lincoln Memorial Half Marathon in 1964 in Springfield, IL. Maybe we could call it a “Lincoln,” the way rich people and drug dealers call hundred dollar bills Benjamins. And wouldn’t it be great if Lincoln had been the 13th president? But he wasn’t. I don’t think either Millard or would Fillmore work. Though Fillmore could be used for bad puns.
So here’s my idea. I want to change the name and start a movement. I want to lobby race directors to re-brand their events, and to convince runners to call the race formerly known as a half marathon something new: a thirteener.
Let’s make it quirkily American. Most other distances have a whiff of international fanciness with their kilometer measures. The half marathon is not an Olympic event; the thirteener could be all ours. The name is less precise linguistically than the metric equivalents, more colloquial. It’s unpretentious. Like those tall peaks in Colorado, it’s something you want to bag.
The thirteener is a beautiful distance. If you’re just starting out, it’s an achievement, something to train hard for and feel real accomplishment at having finished. If you’re serious, it’s not your Sunday morning run. It’s a good and difficult distance to race and you can race many of them well in a season.
Like my mile-hoarding brethren, something in me is attached to the mystique of the marathon, but I’m ready to get over that. I’ve spent enough pre-race dinners hanging my head and saying that I’m “only” doing the 50K, “only” doing the 50 miler when there are multiple races and I’m opting for the shorter distance. That probably won’t change if we shift the name of the half marathon to thirteener. But that’s okay. It’s a personal inadequacy. I need to grow up, to evolve, to become more secure.
No reason to mess with the distance and start promoting, say, 20Ks. It’s easy to mark the course so the event can run concomitant with a, um, longer race.
I want the folks for whom getting to the finish line of a thirteener is a big deal to feel pride in what they’ve done, and I’d like to see it become a more competitive event by getting serious swag behind it. Perhaps it will be legions of Athleta-clad women who lead the fight against calling this race “only a half,” my crabby friend notwithstanding.
I am always more interested in both/and than in either/or. Let’s let the half marathon be its own event and have it exist alongside the marathon. Let’s have it be inclusive to slower folks (including walkers) and make it a chance for fast runners to run really, really fast. Let’s give it a name of its own. Thirteener.
A slightly different version of this essay was originally published in the March, 2014 issue of Running Times.