Columbia's half-marathon a whole new game

Running experts say half marathons are the fastest-growing endurance race - and Columbia is right in the middle of the boom.

Today's Columbia Half Marathon is the first of two inaugural, 13.1-mile races scheduled here in a six-week span. The Palmetto Half Marathon is set for April 10 at the Village at Sandhill.

Those new races join the Governor's Cup, the annual fall event that starts at the Capitol, to give distance runners three half-marathon courses to choose from. According to Running USA, which tracks industry trends, half marathon participation has increased 10 percent in recent years while marathon figures have remained flat.

"Half marathon is absolutely booming," said Columbia Half Marathon organizer Dean Reinke, who ran track and cross country at Indiana University.

"People finally found out that a marathon beats your body up more than a human should have to go through. The last thing we need in any community is another 5K, 8K, 10K race," Reinke added. "You've got to change your lifestyle to (do) a half-marathon. ... You can fake a 5K, but you can't fake a half marathon."

Today's race, which begins near the governor's mansion and finishes at Finlay Park, is the first race in an inaugural half-marathon series Reinke put together. Reinke, who lives in Florida, was inspired by the popular, rock-and-roll marathon series, but thought there was a niche for half marathons in smaller markets.

The first three races have a distinct Southeastern Conference feel. After Columbia, Reinke is staging events in Bentonville, Ark., and Lexington, Ky.

More than 800 runners from 25 states are registered, including 220 signed up for the 5K and corporate challenge.

The half-marathon course will take runners through the Elmwood neighborhood and downtown district, as well as parts of West Columbia and Cayce. Organizers tweaked the course to maximize flat stretches, although there was no getting around the final climb up Gervais Street.

The Jeff Liberty Band will be waiting at the finish line.

"You can't run over five or six blocks in Columbia without getting to a hill," race director Dan Kelly said. "But for the most part, it's not that hilly."