Those ubiquitous oval "13.1" bumper stickers affixed to everything from Miatas to minivans attest to the raging popularity of the half-marathon, the distance du jour for the running masses.
But once runners have met the challenge and completed a 13.1-mile endurance test, what's next?
Well, there's the marathon, of course. But for those not interested in increasing mileage, perhaps the better alternative goal would be to decrease their times – meaning, to actually "race" rather than just "run" a half-marathon.
There is a difference. Seemingly anyone and their Aunt Gertrude can complete 13.1 miles, given enough motivation and a modicum of fitness. Running a half- marathon progressively faster, no matter your baseline, is another matter entirely.
"Once people feel that accomplishment, most want to come back and improve on their times," said Kirk Edgerton, owner of Fleet Feet Fair Oaks and Roseville, which has training groups for a variety of distances. "Say a newcomer runs a 2:30 (2 hours, 30 minutes). They'll want to break 2:15 or even 2. But they've got to train their body to run that specific pace to do it. The flaw is that they put in the miles, but don't train to run the pace."
Fall ushers in prime half- marathon season, with the Kaiser Permanente Urban Cow kicking things off Sunday in Sacramento. Other featured halves that draw local runners include the Humboldt Redwoods Half on Oct. 21, the Lake Natoma Four Bridges Half on Oct. 28 and the Clarksburg Country Run Half on Nov. 11.
And many of the top runners and coaches in the Sacramento area say the half-marathon is something of a hybrid race for which novices sometimes don't prepare correctly. Runners must train for the endurance of a marathon but also the intensity and bursts of speed needed in a 10K.
Likewise, if you start a half- marathon as if it's a speedy 10K, you risk burning out; if you ease into the race too much, as in a marathon, you risk running slower than you are capable of running.
"Even in a half-marathon, I'm still a big believer in even or negative splits," said Mary Coordt, a nationally ranked masters runner and coach from Elk Grove, referring to the practice of running the second half of a race faster than the first half. "But you can wait too long (to push the pace) in a half."
It's a delicate balance to train properly for a half- marathon, experts say, and it is one many fail to conquer because they aren't accustomed to it.
Often, experienced runners compete in half-marathons as part of a larger marathon training plan and, thus, hold back on giving maximum effort or lack a kick in the closing miles. Conversely, speedier 5K and 10K runners move up to the half without a proper endurance base and try to hold their faster pace for as long as they can.
Rich Hanna, the Kaiser Permanente Urban Cow race director and a former Olympic Trials marathoner, said he trains for a half- marathon with the same workouts he does for the 10K. But not everyone is gifted with Hanna's versatility in running fast 5Ks to 50-milers. He recognizes that, which is why he started his "Harry Tortuga" training program for Urban Cow runners, which partly focuses on people who have done the 13.1-mile distance and seek to improve.
He'll have his runners go long, go short, go fast and go slow – all in the same week.
"For people that'll be out there for two to 2 1/2 hours, we do a lot of training similar to what a marathoner would do," Hanna said. "An elite marathoner might do a 2:10 marathon, so their long runs are right around two hours. For our people, they're out on a 10- to 12-mile run for two to three hours. Some of our advanced runners go 14 to 15 miles, do some over- distance runs as a confidence-builder."
But Hanna also will mix in workouts featuring intervals (running short distances at close to maximum effort) and hill repeats to build strength and speed.
"It'll be at the intensity that challenges that person," Hanna said. "That's 90 to 95 percent effort for 1 1/2 to two minutes, say, up a 6 percent- grade hill. Or they'll do tempos – 20-25 minutes at 30 seconds above their 5K race pace – as part of a longer workout."
Intervals are part of elite masters runner Jenny Hitchings' half-marathon philosophy, but they are longer than the workouts she does on the track for the 5K and 10K.
"The half is still a distance race, so you have to do intervals (longer) than 800 (meters), maybe 1,200s," said Hitchings, who coaches runners for the Buffalo Chips Running Club. "Or, do a progression run: Start easy and finish strong. You still have to have some gas in your tank to cover 13 miles. You want to end fast and not bonk. It's a lot of the same theories for marathon training. But if someone wants to throw in some 400s and 200s at the beginning to tap into their leg turnover, you can."
One favorite workout of the Fleet Feet Fair Oaks/ Roseville staff, Edgerton said, helps build speed and increase the rate of leg turnover.
"Warm up for 15 minutes at an easy to moderate aerobic pace, then run two minutes at 10K pace, followed by two minutes at recovery pace, repeating six times, followed by a 10- to 15-minute cool down," Edgerton said. "To increase the difficulty, increase the pace by five to 15 seconds, or increase the number of repetitions."
These workouts, however, won't help if runners don't run wisely on race day.
Coordt tells her half- marathon runners to run the first few miles at three to five seconds slower than their goal pace, since they have trained to finish stronger.
"One way to do this is to keep the Urban Cow pace group leaders in sight for first three miles, but do not run with them," Coordt said. "By mile 6, they would be with pace leaders and, with three miles left, slowly leave pace group (behind)."
The biggest tactical mistake runners make, Hanna reiterated, is going out too fast. The Urban Cow places a timing mat at the 6.5-mile mark – halfway – and Hanna said he can look at runners' split times and tell if they've run a good race. Those who ran even splits or faster on the way back usually finish higher, he said.
The race strategy used by top masters runner Iain Mickle of Sacramento is to hold back in the race's first half.
"To do well, one needs to be more patient," he said. "Patient in the sense that you need to believe in your race strategy and trust your training. When I run a half I try to stick behind the pack that is going my targeted pace, and let them do the work. Conserving mental energy is just as important as conserving physical energy. They say the marathon starts at mile 20. The half starts at mile 6 or 7."
Most of all, Hitchings said, runners must respect the half-marathon distance. She said all but elite runners need to stay hydrated and fueled over 13.1 miles – no skipping aid stations, as in a 10K.
"Some people think, 'Oh, I've run a 10K. I can do 13,' " she said. "They think, 'It's just a half, so I don't need a GU (packet of electrolytes) or to drink.'
"I'd have runners practice fueling at the midway point of a half, at least, especially if they're going to be out there for a couple hours. You want it to be a fun experience. Thinking you can wing it and then die is not fun."
Sunday: Kaiser Permanente Urban Cow Half Marathon, Sacramento, http://urbancowhalfmarathon.com
Sunday: Rock 'n' Roll San Jose Half Marathon, http://runrocknroll.competitor.com/ san-jose
Oct. 21: Humboldt Redwoods Half Marathon, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, www.redwoodsmarathon.org
Oct. 28: Lake Natoma Four Bridges Half Marathon, www.fourbridgeshalf.org
Nov. 4: U.S. Half Marathon San Francisco, www.ushalf.com
Nov. 11: Clarksburg Country Run (Half), www.clarksburgcountryrun.com
GROWTH OF THE HALF-MARATHON
The half-marathon is the fastest-growing distance for running races in the nation, according to a report by the nonprofit organization Running USA.
1.6 million finishers in 2011, a 16.2 percent increase from 2010. In 2000, there were 482,000 finishers.
The half-marathon ranks as the second-most- popular race distance for runners, behind the 5K (5.2 million in 2011).
Women made up 59 percent of half-marathon participants in 2011.
The average age of half-marathon participants was 38.2 years for men, 35.3 for women.
Median times for half-marathon finishers have increased for both genders every years since 2006. In 2011, the men's median time was 2:01:04; women 2:19:33.