Half-marathons popular among women

This a story I freelanced for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It ran on Nov. 15, 2014. I covered the 8K and half-marathon, events that lead up to the full marathon. I took a newsy angle after noticing how many more women were running half-marathons compared to men.

RICHMOND, Va. — After finishing the women’s American Family Fitness Half-Marathon on an arctic Saturday morning, Caitlin Bullock seemed spry enough to run two or 14 more.

Bullock, a former Wake Forest distance runner, finished third, a minute and 34 seconds behind winner Lilian Mariita, and served as the best example for her theory on why the 13.1-mile half marathon has become so trendy for women in the past decade or so.

“The marathon is not for the average person. It’s not,” said Bullock, 28, who lives in Durham. “It probably does you more harm than good. Go out and do a half (marathon), enjoy it and have fun. The full (marathon) tears you apart. It takes you like a month to recover. And a half, it’s easier. You can do it and you can recover in a week, and you can be really proud of that accomplishment.”

Mariita — who won in 1:14:29 to claim, according to her coach Larisa Mikhaylova, her third half-marathon title since coming to the U.S. to train about three months ago — wasn’t quite as bouncy as Bullock, but she didn’t look torn apart, either. Just really cold.

The half marathon seems to be the recreational distance for women runners.

Since 2000, according to Running USA, the number of half-marathon finishers has quadrupled, from 482,000 to 1.9 million.

The 13.1-mile race’s fastest growth, though, has been among women. In 2013, 61.1 percent of those 1.9 million were female — a record and the highest proportion of all distance races.

For Saturday’s race, that trend continued, with 6,601 women registering compared to 3,454 men. The 10,055-runner total is a Richmond half-marathon record.

Habtamu Wegi, a 20-year-old Ethiopian, won the men’s race in 1:05:38. Javier Ceja, a 26-year-old Richmonder, finished fourth in 1:05:58.

A reason, perhaps anecdotal, for the popularity of the half marathon among women is a surging interest in physical fitness.

Bullock and Jon Lugbill — executive director of the Sports Backers, which has put on Richmond’s marathon for 17 years — both cited it as a reason. Bullock also said the social appeal (running with friends) is big for her.

“Twenty years ago, you would have seen 70 percent of the runners in all the races be male,” Lugbill said. “Really, the health and wellness aspect has taken the whole running community and just elevated the number of people, so there’s not less men; there’s more women.”

For the HCA Virginia 8k — won for a second straight year by Kenyan Alice Kamunya — 3,337 women registered. The men’s race drew 3,174 and was won by Sean Keveren, a 24-year-old who said he spent the summer running in Belgium. He lives in Charlottesville and struggled through a number of career-scuttling leg injuries while a scholarship runner at the University of Virginia.

On Saturday, Keveren took the lead about 11 minutes in and never looked back, finishing in 22:41. The eyes-front approach, he said, was a tactical decision.

“If you don’t look back,” Keveren said, “they think you’re great when really, I was feeling OK, but I didn’t feel as good as I probably looked.”

Kamunya, the Richmond 8k record-holder, missed breaking her 2013 mark by 37 seconds. The 23-year-old finished Saturday in 25:30. Her record is 24:53, but Kamunya said she’ll back next year because, well, she wants to win it again.

“Yes,” she said, grinning. “I think I can make it, even next year.”

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