Which Word Wednesday: Half Marathon vs. Marathon

By September 7, 2011 language No Comments

When people gather together around a common interest (profession, sport, hobby, etc.), their conversation will be laced with words and phrases specific to the shared pursuit. Linguists call this shared vocabulary lingo.

Running lingo is vast, and now that many folks take on running to check off an item from their bucket lists, that lingo is becoming more commonly known. But commonly known doesn’t necessarily mean properly used.

For example, at the Disneyland Half Marathon this past weekend, many kind people in Anaheim (park staff, transportation drivers, etc.) asked if this was my first marathon. How was I to respond? The Disneyland race was not a marathon, nor was this my first long-distance race. The question wasn’t phrased correctly, so I felt stuck. Then one guy explained that Disneyland hosts lots of marathons, sometimes the races are three miles, sometimes longer. He must have thought race and marathon were synonyms.

I realize that the word marathon is running lingo, so non-runners aren’t likely to know what that means anymore than I would know what kizzle kazzle means in the sport of curling. But it did leave me stammering for a way to answer that wasn’t incorrect or snooty. That’s when I decided marathon versus half marathon would be this week’s Which Word Wednesday.

The Oxford American Dictionary only lists marathon, so we’ll start there:

marathon :: noun
a long-distance running race, strictly one of 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km)

See? That’s why I was stuck—if someone is running a marathon that means she is running a race of specifically 26.2 miles. Always. That distance never varies.

Therefore, if someone is running a half marathon, she is running a race half the distance of a marathon. Half of 26.2 equals 13.1. So the half marathon is always 13.1 miles.

There are many race distances in the sport of running. Road races are commonly 3.1 miles (5K), 6.2 miles (10K), or 9.3 miles (15K). And some runners think 26.2 miles just isn’t far enough, so they run an ultra marathon—that is the term for anything longer than a marathon, so the distance will change from race to race. Some ultras are 30 miles; some are 100.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Half marathons do not equal whole ones. Ever. And I think most people would appreciate knowing the difference for the next time, so those who know the lingo are responsible to help others understand its proper use.

What’s your verdict? Do you use the term marathon to describe races of any length? What lingo do you know that others regularly misuse? Do share in the comments.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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