Home > The Scene

Another take on why the ‘half-marathon’ is the wrong term for 21.1K

21.1K may be half of a marathon, but that doesn't mean it has to have "marathon" in its name

calgary half-marathon

You’ve read one take on why the half-marathon is a poorly-named event: the name diminishes the race, in a way. This is a fair point, but looking at the issue from another angle, it can be argued that the marathon itself is such a unique challenge that nothing compares to it, and to put the word “marathon” in a race that’s half the distance is just plain wrong.

Finish of the 2019 New York City Marathon

The marathon is its own beast

42.2K is far–so that many marathon plans don’t recommend running that distance in training, because of the recovery time required. Half-marathons are, of course, hard, and so are 10Ks, 5Ks and any other distances when run competitively—but the marathon is just so long. It’s very common to feel amazing for 25, 30 or even 35 kilometres, only to fall apart in the final stages of the race. Many people say “the marathon starts at 30K.” The differences between racing and training for a 5K and a 21.1K are far fewer than those between a half and a full. 

RELATED: Why the 21.1K shouldn’t be called the half-marathon

Quebec City Marathon 2019. Photo: Michele Grenier

“There are some situations where one plus one equals three, and that’s definitely the case when you compare half and full marathons,” says Canadian Running contributor Alex Hutchinson. “You can group shorter races like 5Ks, 10K, and half-marathons together in one category, but covering 42.2K presents a different set of challenges.” (Hutchinson made it clear he does not have an opinion on whether or not 21.1K races should be given a different name, only that the distances are very different.)  


“The most obvious difference is that you need to refuel during marathons,” Hutchinson says. Fuelling is important over 21.1K, too, but you can likely get away with taking one or two gels on the course. In a marathon, though, most recreational runners are on the course for three or more hours, meaning you need to carry significantly more fuel to avoid hitting the wall. You want to consume 60g of carbs for every hour you’re running, and most gels contain about half of that per serving. Planning ahead and figuring out exactly how many gels you’ll need is key for success in the marathon.

2016 Boston Marathon Weekend  Photo: Andrew McClanahan@PhotoRun

RELATED: Fueling for the half-marathon: do I need gels for 21.1K?

Losing your form

Over shorter distances, your body doesn’t take too much of a beating, so you can probably maintain decent from from start to finish. In the marathon, however, you spend hours pounding the hard ground, step after step. Hutchinson also points out that “cumulative muscle damage [makes] the marathon a totally different beast compared to shorter races.” As your muscles fatigue, your form will deteriorate, slowing you down and making the race even harder than it already is.

Brigid Kosgei breaking Paula Radcliffe’s marathon world record at Chicago in 2019

RELATED: Kevin Hart perfectly summed up what it feels like to break down in the marathon

Whether you think the title “half-marathon” takes away from the race or that the term “marathon” should be reserved for races of 42.2K, it’s fair to say that 21.1K should have a new name, or just be referred to by its distance, just like other events.