Writing about climbing Mount Everest in his book, Into Thin Air, John Krakauer observed: “The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on.” While I’ve never been a mountaineer, as a runner I can relate to that ratio.
Different races have different ratios of misery to pleasure. While there is a place—and a unique satisfaction—for sufferfests like Everest, and its running equivalents, I would suggest that if you’re seeking a race with the best pleasure to misery ratio, look no farther than the half marathon.
During most races, you know you’re on track if you’re miserable for most of the distance. In a 5K, if you’re pacing well, you get maybe 5 minutes of it feeling easy. The rest of the race is agonizing, a process of ignoring the bells, whistles and screams from your body and brain telling you that you must slow down or you’ll die, enduring ever-increasing distress to keep pushing. In the marathon, you get more easy miles, to be sure, but they are more than compensated by the fall-down, curl-up-in-the-ditch exhaustion, the hammered muscles and debilitating cramps of the later miles. Knowing that agony is coming prevents you from enjoying the early miles, making them an exercise in anxiety and paranoid monitoring of every step and breath.
In the half, however, the optimal pace is defined as “fast-but-fun”—cruising just below the threshold where you’d start to go anaerobic, so that it feels like you’re flying but you’re not accumulating fatigue. Those times when I’ve gotten the half right, I find myself in flow for most of the race: the pace is fast enough to require focus, but I feel fully in control, invincible, watching myself with amazement as the miles float by and I speed along as if I could do this forever.
It does start to feel long eventually, but even then, somewhere around mile 10, I don’t feel as miserable nor need to dig as deep as I do in a shorter or longer race. It simply requires that I focus a bit more and ensure my form and cadence hold together for the last 3 miles—which pass quickly, especially as the end approaches and I realize how fast I’m going to finish.
Of course, I’ve had other halfs that sucked. When not properly prepared or when paced poorly (usually both), the distance has dumped me on the side of the road quite quickly, feeling as distressed and overwhelmed as at mile 4 of a 10K, but with 9 long miles to somehow endure. But we can’t blame the race for that, only ourselves.
To ensure that you have the opportunity to fully experience this magical race, with the highest pleasure to misery ratio of any distance, we’ve prepared advice on key training ingredients, how to find your best pace and workouts to ensure you’re ready to run it, and some suggestions for racing shoes. Plus, a reminder of why you should run a half marathon this year, a race that is far more than “just” a half. Enjoy.
—Jonathan Beverly, Editor