Glenn Jacobs has run every race from 5Ks to full marathons, but the 62-year-old real estate broker from New Port Richey said he found his sweet spot with the 13.1-mile half marathon.
"There's just less wear and tear on your body," said Jacobs, who hopes to run his 13th consecutive Florida Holiday Halfathon on Sunday. "I feel like it is a distance that I can keep doing my whole life."
Nearly 2,000 runners are expected to run from Madeira Beach to Taylor Park in Largo in what has become one of the Tampa Bay area's most popular distance races.
"A half marathon is long enough that it could be on your bucket list," said Rich Harshbarger, a spokesman for Running USA. "But it is accessible enough that almost anybody, with the right amount of preparation and training, can do it."
For the past decade, the half marathon has been the fastest-growing standard distance race in the United States, with an average annual increase in participants of about 12.5 percent, according to Running USA. Nearly 2 million people competed in half marathons in 2013.
Much of this growth can be attributed to the increased participation of female runners, who make up 61 percent of the half marathon field. Sunday's Holiday Halfathon is expected to draw nearly 2,000 competitors. That's a large race by local standards, but last year there were 34 half marathons in the United States that drew 10,000 or more contestants.
"People love it," said Chris Lauber of Florida Road Races, which puts on the Holiday Halfathon and several other bay area races. "It's a point-to-point race, you run through new territory the whole time, so you really feel like you have accomplished something when you finish."
While the 5K — the 3.1-mile race most runners start with — is America's most popular distance, participation in the longer 10K, or 6.2-mile distance, has remained relatively flat in recent years.
Lauber and other race promoters think the half marathon might be the distance of the future. "Training for a marathon takes a lot of time and effort," he said. "A half marathon is still a commitment, but you don't have to give up your life to complete one."
Many runners with their sights set on the 26.2-mile distance include one or two "halfs" in their training plan to help get them race ready. But the average weekend warrior can finish a half marathon with a little preparation.
"Count on 12 to 16 weeks of training if you start off with a decent base," Florida Forerunners coach Joe Burgasser said. "You want to take it slow."
Burgasser said even a 10 percent increase in mileage per week might be too much. "If you are running 20 miles a week, you can go up to 21 the first week, 22 the second . . . but when you get to the fifth week and 24 miles, you want to level off for two or three weeks and give your body time to adjust," he said.
"Then once that distance becomes comfortable, you add another mile and keep going up."
There is no magic number of miles you will need to get ready for your first half marathon. But most coaches, Burgasser included, think runners should include one long run a week that eventually equals, or at least gets close to, the targeted distance.
So, for example, if you want to run a half -marathon, one of your training runs should be 12 or 13 miles long.
"A big mistake a lot of runners make is they don't put much time in during the week, then they try to get all of their miles in on the weekend," he said. "The key is to build your base with shorter runs during the week and then add the long run in on the weekend."
Burgasser said trying to do too much too fast will lead to physical injury. "Or worse . . . mental injury," he added. "We runners call it burnout."
Lauber said Florida Road Races offers distances for runners of all skill levels. "You can easily start with a 5K in the fall and then work your way up to a half marathon by the following season," he said.
Detailed training plans are available on numerous websites. But before you start any strenuous physical exercise program you should consult a physician. Once you get the green light, buy a running log and start keeping track of your miles. You can also increase your chances of success by joining an organized running group. Tampa Bay Fit (tampabayfit.com) trains recreational runners for both half and full marathons.
Contact Terry Tomalin at firstname.lastname@example.org.