I’ve never been a “serious runner.” It would be more accurate to say that for the past decade or so, I’ve been more of a “casual jogger,” going out for two or three mile slow jaunts on a semi-regular basis. Some weeks that would mean three or four times; all I had to show for other weeks was good intentions. I would sign up for a couple 5k races each summer, and even ran a 10k a couple years ago (which, at the time, I thought was going to kill me). I never trained for any of these races, and I didn’t give any thought to how fast I ran them. I was content with jogging through the courses at an easy pace and going home with a new running shirt. But in the back of my mind, I’ve always thought about doing more—specifically, a half marathon.
The idea of a full marathon has never appealed to me (Can I say that on this blog?!), but 13.1 miles seemed like a challenging yet attainable goal…someday. “Someday” was always the key. For years I told myself, of course I could run a half marathon...if I actually tried…and then I never tried. But as a regular reader of this blog (Shameless plug—Do I get some sort of a kickback? [Editor's note: Sure! Just as soon as I get paid.]), it became impossible to ignore Kim’s repeated rallying cries that “if she can do it, anyone can do it.” In the span of a couple years, she went from no running to marathon running…it was hard to ignore the inspirational effects of that.
Yet I was still—for lack of a more accurate word—lazy. I loved the idea of running a half marathon, but it was going to be hard. But not running a half marathon? That didn’t sound hard at all. And then it happened. I was flipping through an issue of Self Magazine and I landed on a page entitled “You Can Run a Half Marathon.” I think my first instinct was to duck out of view of the woman on the page staring back at me so she couldn’t see me while I tried to pretend that I hadn’t actually seen the title and therefore was under no obligation to run anything. But then I made myself read the article and examine the accompanying 12-week training program, and the very next day I signed up for my first half marathon.
It was a November day when I signed up for the Rock n Roll Half Marathon in Chicago (where I live) that would take place on July 20. It’s not that I planned to train eight months or anything; I just wanted to pay my money for the race so I couldn’t back out. From November to April, I continued with my casual jogging…but did try to up the frequency of my outings (And by outings, I mean trips to the gym. November-April in Chicago is not a pleasant time to run outside).
When I was exactly three months out from the race, I started training. The Self schedule I used was great for me because it told me exactly what I needed to do every single day. The first day said “Run two to three miles at an easy pace.” No problem…I’ve been doing that for years. Look at me! I’m a half marathon runner! After a few weeks of training, I was not so cocky. Once the long runs started getting up to seven, eight, nine miles, I had to put in some serious effort—and planning. I figured out pretty early on that six miles was the farthest I could go without water. This realization also came to the rest of the people in the Chicago Public Library when, six miles into my first seven mile run, I stumbled in to gulp water directly from the bathroom sink. I’m sure I looked both regal and inspirational.
Equipped with my new hydration belt, I also needed to find ways to distract myself during the long runs. Music is a must for me, but after six or seven miles, I’d find that I’d already heard all those “pump up” songs that would get me through a rough patch. Since I had two little iPods that I ran with, I began reserving the shuffle only for long runs. Throughout the week, I’d buy new running songs and add them to the shuffle. When it was time for my long weekend run, it would be such a treat to get to listen to all the new songs. This trick worked so well for me that I actually didn’t use my shuffle for the three weeks leading up to the race so that it would be filled with new fun songs to surprise me while running!
The first seven weeks of training were great. My schedule had me working out six days a week (combining long runs with tempo work, cross training, strength training, and yoga), and I only missed two out of 43 workouts. Then I started traveling: I spent a week in St. Louis, a week in California, a weekend in Wisconsin, etc. I have to be honest: My training became non-existent. I ate and drank like I was on vacation, and the well-worn printout of my training schedule that I had been carrying around and consulting religiously for the last seven weeks was forgotten. The next four weeks, I probably only made one or two workouts each week. At the start of week 12—the last week of training—I vacillated between freaking out (“There is no way that I can run 13.1 miles on Sunday…the farthest I ever made it was 10.5 miles.”) and a zen-like acceptance (“I will just go out there and do my best. It is what it is.”).
On the day of the race, I was up at 3:30am. I texted my friend who was running with me to say “good race day morning to you.” A seasoned marathon runner, he texted me back an hour later: “Damn rookie, you’re up early.” Yes, I was excited. And I also felt that I was ready.
Much of the race went by in a blur. The first six miles consisted of me trying to ensure that I wasn’t running too fast or too slowly. I didn’t let myself walk at all for those six miles because I was really paranoid that if I did, my legs wouldn’t start up again. But when I was coming up on mile seven, I had to let myself walk for a couple minutes. Luckily, I started up again without incident. But it was about that time that I realized I was only half way through the race. With this realization, I think I actually looked down at my legs and asked them “Are we going to do this?” They didn’t seem super confident.
Seven more miles seemed really far away, so I told myself that I only had to make it to the Gu station at mile 8.6, and then I could walk again for a little bit. I don’t know what was in that Salted Watermelon Gu (seriously, I don’t know anything about it. I have to admit that I never really used any of that stuff during my training—which I now realized was a bad idea—so it was my first time) but whatever it was, it worked. Miles 9-13.1 were awesome. I just kept telling myself to get to the milestones: make it to double digits; make it farther than you’ve ever gone before (10.5 miles); make it to the last mile…because as I think every runner has told herself at one point “Anyone can run one mile.”
When I crossed the finish line, to my own surprise, I put my hands up over my head in victory like everyone else was doing for the camera. My friend, who had finished 40 minutes before I did, was waiting for me at the finish line with a big congratulatory smile and hug. I felt awesome. No, I hadn’t run it very fast (2:30), but I had done it. I went into it with only the goal of finishing the race, and I had done it.
And so here’s the part where I get pseudo-philosophical for just a minute: The number one thing that I learned from this whole experience is that we (humans, runners, whatever) are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. I used to run for a couple miles and then stop because it was uncomfortable; I was tired or hot or my legs hurt, and I never made myself push harder. But on the days that I “had” to run five or six or ten miles, I did it. Whatever I needed to keep going was already there; I just had to tap into it. I hope that I remember that the next time I’m faced with something that seems impossible—whether inside or outside of the world of running. Because yes, I am already thinking of my next half marathon…and how I know I can run it faster than my first one.
1.) Just sign up for it. You'll figure the rest out.
2.) Life happens. Training may take a backseat to family, vacations, work, injury, etc. Just do what you can -- it will all work out in the end.
3.) We are capable of SO much more than we think. Thank you for really hammering that point home! Truly, running is one of the best metaphors for life.
Can't wait to see what happens at half-marathon #2! Go Megan go!!