Bring Back 20K, 25K and 30K? Is Revival a Possibility?

Commenting on Kenenisa Bekele’s win in the December 2017 running of the Tata Kolkata 25K, Bekele’s elite coach Jos Hermens was asked if perhaps the 25K and 30K distances should be run more often. Hermens said, “I think the 25 or 30K are extremely interesting, as only full and half marathon is quite boring and always concentrating on times. In the case of the 25K or 30K and also 15K or 10 miles or even 20K, there might of should be less emphasis on times, but more on racing!”

Music to my ears! “Only full and half marathon is quite boring,” absolutely. Over the years, I have been repeatedly disappointed by conversions of all those distances—especially 20K, when I was still racing—to half marathons.

Half marathons are everywhere! There are at least two national calendars that post nothing but half marathons! Since I post prize money races to Road Race Management’s Online Guide to Prize Money Races and Elite Athletes, I am almighty tired of constantly adding half marathons to the list.

I call it a glut. An unseemly glut. If you put all the half marathons run in the U.S. end-to-end, it would probably stretch to the moon and back (OK, it would really be more like 37,000 half marathons, but that means little in the Era of Alternative Facts).

My hunch is that one big factor in the ascendancy of half marathons, is simply the fact that “marathon” appears in the name. Well, duh, but it matters, because the giant swell in numbers of runners in the early part of this century consisted of people who had never run long distances before, and the word “marathon” connotes drive, determination, tenacity, and fitness—no matter if it’s only half the traditional distance. When a new runner can boast to friends and family that they completed a half marathon, it has a sense of wow! that a  20K or 25K just doesn’t carry. Co-worker at runner’s office: “20K? What’s that? Is it longer than a half marathon?” (Implication: is it a real race?)

And so for 25K and 30K. Even 15K’s are being converted to half marathons on account of popular demand. A “point five-nine-five marathon” (25K) just doesn’t carry the same cachet as the Almighty Half.

I’m a little biased, because two of my favorite races back in the ‘70s were both 20K, one of the attractions being you could easily compare times with your 10Ks. I once ran a negative split in a 20K—whoo hoo! (Confession: the outbound 10K was a net uphill, and the return a net downhill, but a negative split is a negative split no matter how you slice it.)

I’ve kept mum about the dreariness of race distances converging on half marathon until now, but the words of the authoritative Jos Hermens have given me cover.

Unfortunately, there’s no turning back from the conversions to half marathons already accomplished. But I do urge race committees contemplating switching from a traditional distance to a half marathon, to think twice. If I were one of the lucky runners to participate in your non-half-marathon race year after year, I would be turned off by the commonness of a switch. “Retro” is a movement in music, why not in road races?

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