A Walker's Guide to Choosing The Right Half Marathon
After completing my twentieth half marathon, I've learned how to find the best races for walkers. While the number of half-marathoners choosing to walk their race continues to increase, not every race is “walker-friendly.” Here are the top seven race features to consider when choosing your first or next half-marathon.
Look for races with a minimum four hour time limit. Anyone who can walk 5 or 6 miles without being overly winded or needing to stop can likely complete the half marathon within 4 hours. Those starting a training schedule at least six weeks prior to their race usually finish within this time frame with relative ease given average health.
For your very first half-marathon walk, your best bet is to register for a half-marathon/marathon combination. These will almost always allow half-marathoners the same generous six hour time limit given to full-marathon participants. No matter how well you train, an unexpected hiccup can result in a longer than expected walk to the finish. The extra cushion on your first half-marathon will insulate you from undue worry or concern about finishing, leaving you free to enjoy the race.
My first three races were large, well-established and well-run. Each attracted tens of thousands of participants. Large races ensure you're part of a community of hundreds of other walkers. Larger races also have well-supplied aid stations, clearly marked courses, first responders on hand, cheering supporters, plenty of port-o-potties and all the things established races have learned will lead you to smoothly to the finish line.
Smaller races of 500 or fewer participants may have as few as twenty walkers. The smaller events are geared to runners and do not always prepare for walkers, even when they advertise as “walker-friendly” because they offer a four hour time limit. Slower and first-time walkers may miss the celebration at the finish line.
My twentieth race included 523 half-marathoners, mostly runners. They ran out of beer before the walkers arrived. The single beer-sponsor went on a beer run to buy a bunch of twelve-packs for the handful of walkers still finishing well within the four hour time limit. At another small race, they had stopped making pancakes as the last walkers crossed the line.
When participating in smaller events, understand that runners, not walkers, may be the primary focus of the race organizers. Be appreciative of what is provided at the finish line and offer suggestions graciously.
Most races are in one of three formats--out-and-back, point-to-point or a loop course.
Out-and-back are my favorite. As I head back in for the second half of the race, I recognize the places passed on the way out. With each place passed, I know I am closer to the finish and get more excited as I approach the finish line. My mind is clear about what is left.
Point-to-point are my second favorite. These are more interesting because each step along the course is unique. No matter how well you study the course beforehand, walking it is an unpredictable delight. These are often scenic. The down side to point-to-point is that you are generally taking a shuttle or Uber to the starting line and arriving 30-45 minutes earlier than the race’s start time.
Walking a half-marathon doubles the time you are on a course. That makes loop courses a unique challenge for walkers. After walking for 90 minutes or more, it can be discouraging to realize you still the entire loop ahead of you as you watch runners head toward and then past you toward the finish line. In your first few races, I recommend skipping loop courses unless it promises great scenery or is large enough to attract a large number of walkers to share the second trip around.
Level of Challenge
The easiest races when you first start walking half-marathons are flat and fast. That’s what course descriptions mean when they say “great opportunity for a personal record (PR).”
Sometimes, it’s worth it to join a larger race or better course to accept a few small hills. Based on my own experiences, I’d avoid tackling courses that choose to tell you in advance that they are “challenging” until you’ve completed a handful of races.
Earlier this year I walked the Valley of the Flowers Half-Marathon in Lompoc, CA. The description said “hilly.” I thought I knew what they meant. I did not. This was a very challenging course. Neither looking at the map nor reading the course description would have alerted me to the elevation changes in the race.
The greater the elevation change, the more preparation you'll need for uphill and downhill walking. Many races now include an information graphic of the elevation changes showing the height, number and grade of hills. When the course descriptions do not indicate whether it is flat and fast or challenging and filled with hills, odds are it will be mostly flat with minimal hills.
Time of event
Most half-marathons are held early in the morning to beat the heat of mid-day, regardless of time of year. The most common start times are 7am or 8am. Walking a half-marathon can take up to four hours at an average walking pace. While most runners will finish an 8am race by 10:30am, walkers may still be completing the course at noon. Hourly weather forecasts are a walker's friend. Dress for the finish, not the start. You'll warm up pretty quick once you start walking.
Races on routes that need to minimize the closure of streets, may start as early as 6am, but that is rare. Heat warnings can also move half-marathons earlier. My very first race occurred during a Los Angeles area heat wave and the race time was moved up by an hour. That's highly unusual. Generally the published times hold.
There’s no such thing as a bad location for the avid half-marathoner. “Scenic” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s all about the distance. Some cityscapes can be as intriguing as nature.
A good practice is to do an online map search of the area around the race. Is it far from stores and services or in the middle of nowhere? This is especially important when traveling to half-marathons. Larger races will often offer opportunities to purchase parking passes in advance of the event. Smaller races often have plenty of parking in nearby lots.
As with all things in life, it’s a great idea to arrive early. You’ll have time to stretch, review the course route and hear any last minute route changes and place yourself in the proper corral. If life happens and you arrive later than expected, get to the start line as quickly as possible and shrug off whatever made you late.
The half-marathon is as much mental as physical. Expect your mind to whip out a little doubt along the way. It's your ability to keep going that makes the walk across the finish line so sweet. You got this!
Walk that half!