Monday, March 13, 2023

My first half-marathon

Before my first 5k in 2014 and after my first half-marathon in 2022, both at the St. Michaels Running Festival.

Running has been part of my exercise routine for almost ten years and I have wanted to run a half-marathon for almost that long. I am thrilled to have finally accomplished that goal in 2022. Here is the story (in way too many words) of how I got there.

I always saw the half-marathon as something I would gradually work my way up to over a long period of time, running shorter distances along the way. Towards that goal, I did my first 5k at the St. Michaels Running Festival in May 2014, followed by a 10k with friends at the same event in May 2015, and then the Across the Bay 10k in November 2015. Emboldened by those experiences, I even registered for a couple half-marathons during this period, but always ended up cancelling for work travel and never seriously started training for them.

(I wouldn't say I seriously trained for anything during this period. I felt like I was running pretty often, but wasn't particularly disciplined about it. On weeknights I would jog around my neighborhood of Columbia Heights and on weekends I took long meandering runs through Rock Creek Park, where I would alternate between walking and jogging, but with no rhyme or reason. It was good times.) 

I took a hiatus from races, and ran less often in general, when I went to grad school, but still logged some miles. When I moved to Liberia after grad school, I decided I would take totally off from runningI don't love treadmills and running outside would have meant contending with heat and trafficand instead threw myself into barre3 and, later, swimming laps in the pool in my compound.  

I moved back to the US in July 2021 and by the time fall rolled around, was ready for a new challenge. My first step was downloading a couch to 5k app. I had never done the program before, due to never really identifying as "couch," but after nearly two years without running, my pride was finally ready to admit that I was effectively starting from scratch. 

Soon thereafter I decided to go for it and sign up for the St. Michaels half-marathon in May. "Working my way up to it" had never workeddespite logging plenty of miles, I never really felt half-marathon-ready. So why not set the goal, tie my own hands, and then get ready? Seven months felt like plenty of time to train and the paid-for race registration would serve as a commitment device.

I had not quite finished the C25K program when winter hit Cleveland. We got feet of snow on MLK weekend and for weeks it didn't melt. While I don't mind running in cold weather, I am a little too wimpy to run in snow and ice, and too cheap to pay for a gym membership to get access to a treadmill, so I effectively took a couple months offall while nervously watching the clock count down to May 14.

My friend got married in Kansas City on March 12. That Friday night, another of our friends turned in a bit early after the welcome party because she needed to wake up early the next morning to log some miles in preparation for the Cherry Blossom ten-miler in DC. Oh, I realized. If I'm doing this, I need to get serious and potentially rearrange my life to make it possiblenot just run when it's convenient. When I got to Cleveland I created a training plan and got started, with exactly two months to go.

I wanted to maintain my barre3 practice so I googled and found this very basic one. (PB refers to Pure Barre here). I had more like eight weeks so I modified a bit.

I decided I wasn't going to worry about any speedwork for this first half-marathonI took off any pressure to "run fast" (there is no way I was going to run fast) and just focused on racking up the miles. 

The two months I spent training were honestly kind of magic. Though of course it's not really magic at allthe beauty of a training plan is that if you work the plan, you become able to do the plan. But it was so cool to experience firsthand. At the beginning, I couldn't run two consecutive miles without walking (I was still finishing off Couch to 5K). Just a couple weeks later, I did my first 10k, running from my house to Edgewater Beach and back, and feeling so good that I practically bounded through Ohio City when "Jerusalema" came on over my headphones. It was so exciting to watch what was my "long run" one week turn into a medium and sometimes even short run in subsequent weeks. 

I loved that I got stronger and ran for longer as the weather got warmer and the world woke upit felt like I was shaking off the winter. I loved exploring the area more. I drove to Edgewater and to the Rocky River Reservation for a couple of longer runs and discovered the Red Line Greenway hiding in plain sight (behind a dive bar to be specific). After a long workday, I came to crave the feeling of freedom that came with running alongside the Cuyahoga River with the proverbial wind in my hair.

My half-marathon training coincided with a particularly busy time of the year, as my office summoned us back to work in-person 2-3 days a week, which meant travel to Cambridge during the workweek, with weekend trips up and down the East Coast sprinkled in. I kept up my training plan while popcorning between Cleveland and Boston and DC, running after early-morning flights, after getting home from a bachelorette weekend, when mildly hungover from my 15-year high school reunion. I ran along the Charles River, through Rock Creek Park, on the Somerville City Path. Running became a nice touchstonesomething that stayed the same regardless of where I was and something I could control when life felt chaotic. I am proud of myself for pulling it off during a crazy period.

I learned so much during this period. I found that the first mile is in some ways the hardest; I feel like I'm watching the clock and it felt like it took forever to get to Runkeeper's first five-minute audio stats. The first three or four steps are the worst of allI can hear my body yelling WHAT THE HELL as it processes the shock of being in motion. Somewhere during the first mile I get a pang of chest-tightening anxietythis feels hard and I am going to be doing it for a long time. And often something hurtsnot horribly but enough to be apprehensive about how long I can make it on my weird-feeling foot or knee.

But gradually, my body would get used to it. The anxiety would lift. The minor aches and pains would work themselves out. I would get absorbed in my music or podcast and be surprised when Runkeeper told me another five minutes had passed. The downside of this is that every run has a first mile. The upside is that adding miles doesn't feel as hard as it would if every subsequent mile felt harder or even equally hard. I just needed to remember not to freak out and not to give up.

I read Born to Run during this period and loved it. For one, it was fun to pretend that I was in the same league as ultra-marathoners. There were a bunch of gems but one of my favorite was: "For [other people], running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans... But you can't muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it."

Ahhh, yes. Relaxing into it. That is exactly what it felt like. The biggest improvement to my running life this year was to drop the walk/run habit and commit to running the whole time. This was probably good for my physical fitnessthough I know there are benefits to alternating walking and runningbut it was everything mentally. When my expectation is that I'll run until I'm tired and can then take a walking break, a run is a constant negotiation with myself: "can you make it to that lamp post before you walk? actually can you make it to the lamp post after that?" When my expectation is that I'll run until I hit my mileage goal, I can just relax into it, knowing that I'll be running for a whilethere are no more choices to make. Add in some nice long podcasts (I had Maintenance Phase and The Dropout on rotation during this period) and some decent scenery and it even became enjoyable. 

The other big attitude shift was internalizing that being a runner doesn't have to look a particular way. I had made my peace long ago with the idea that most runners are much faster than me. But more than that, in my mind a "real" runner was someone who wakes up early to log their miles before breakfast. I am just not a morning person and I feel way better running later in the afternoons. I went to a bachelorette party in Rhode Island where a friend of the bride was a real-deal runner who had done the Boston Marathon and woke at sunrise to run along the cliff walk. I, with a twinge of guilt, spent the morning in my pajamas catching up with girlfriends... and then logged my eight miles in the early evening, fueled by clam chowder, once we got back to Cambridge. (Ha!)

As the half-marathon approached, I felt great. I could run for 8+ miles at a time and feel goodnot like I had gone for a walk in the park, but not like I was about to collapse, either. Even in just the eight weeks of training, I'd gone from about a 12:30 pace to about 11:30 and sometimes even 11:00, even on long runs. 

A couple days before the race, my right leg started hurtinghumming in the background at first and then more noticeably. I am not sure what it was, but I remember telling my mom that it felt like my thigh was not attached properly to my hip. After picking up my packet, I tried jogging a few paces and my leg yelled at me. So while I felt good about my training, I was nervous that this mysterious minor ailment was going to eff things up. On race day, I loaded up on coffee, water, a banana, and Gu and then headed to the start line at the local high school. As I crossed the starting line, I was thrilled to find that I could run without pain.

The route wound through the town of St. Michaels and then through various neighborhoods and golf courses, with glimpses of the water throughout. It had been six+ years since I'd done an organized race and I remembered how cool they are. I love that there are all kinds of people, bedecked in the Maryland flag or in matching t-shirts declaring it a girls' weekend. I love the fact that there is very little correlation between what someone looks like and how fast they are. I particularly love seeing older women and kindling a hope that this hobby can last me a lifetime. The route doubled back on itself at some points and it was cool intersecting with the front of the pack and seeing up-close how fast humans can go.

I would say overall the race felt okay, but not fantastic. It was cool and grey and wet, so it felt a bit like running through a cold soup. Some miles felt harder and some felt easier, though nearly a year later, I couldn't tell you which ones. I do remember that when I hit mile 12 I got a little tearyrealizing that I had run further than I ever had before and that I'd brought myself to this moment.

I didn't feel the sense of bounding ease that I had gotten on some of my training runs. In theory you are supposed to run faster on race day than during your training runs, but I ran much slower than I had expected. This was made particularly apparent by the fact that I spent the whole race leapfrogging a gentleman who was doing a run/walk strategy. It's funny, I felt like I was running as fast as I possibly could, but I saw a video of myself and it looks like a shufflelike the gag in movies when someone is moving fast in their own mind but then the camera zooms out and they are actually moving in slo-mo. Maybe I was subconsciously holding back to hold off the pain? 

In the end I came in around 12:36, much closer to my status quo pace than to what I had worked up to while training. (In retrospect I think I probably got a little over-confident after just eight weeks of training.) I was both super proud to have accomplished this huge goal and a little sheepish to have done it at a snail's pace. But mostly I was relieved to have finished the training plan.

After the half-marathon was over, I turned my sights to my corollary running goal: run 365 miles in 2022. No joke, I had been setting this goal on and off since 2014 and had never accomplished it. It always felt like a good goal because, in addition to the satisfying cleanness of running the equivalent of one mile a day, it is totally achievable if you're running consistently. (And totally impossible if you're nothence my never accomplishing it beforeha!)

But half-marathon training put me over 180 miles before the halfway point of the year, so all of a sudden it seemed within reach. I ran inconsistently over the summer, maybe once or twice a week when the mood struck and the weather wasn't too hot. As fall rolled around, I realized it was once again Get Serious time so I signed up for the 10k Bay Bridge Run as motivation to keep my mileage up. (It worked well for my running life and my 365-mile goal this year to have spring and fall running "seasons," motivated by races, rather than trying to keep up a consistent habit all year. )

Particularly after the half-marathon, I wasn't inherently intimidated by the sheer distance of six miles, so I decided to experiment with seeing if I could run faster. I set up a training plan in Runkeeper that incorporated some surges and interval training. It made for a fun challenge.

It was so cool to see it pay off on race day. I had a slow start, in part because the start line was very congested (note to self, try to be at the front of the block when there are a lot of walkers), and probably in part because the first leg of a bridge run is obviously uphill. Once I was on top of the bridge and had snapped my photo and shed my top layer, a favorite song came on over my headphones and I realized I could pick up the pace. I think the speedwork both gave me the actual ability to run faster, but even more than that, showed me that speed is something I can control (at least to some extent), not something that just happens to me. I felt like I flew the rest of the race (in reality I came in right at 11-minute miles) and was excited to find myself passing people as the finish line approached.

To keep myself rolling towards the 365 goal, I signed up for the Cleveland Turkey Trot a couple weeks later, a fun and sunny morning where I was thrilled to come in around 10:40still not "fast" by any objective measure, but fast for me. I had a work trip to Morocco in early December and crammed my last few miles in before I left, in case cold weather made for less pleasant conditions upon my return. I was thrilled to hit the 365-mile mark on December 1.

As I write this, I am starting to train for my second half-marathon this May. (The very clever organizers gave you a big discount if you signed up at the post-race party when you were feeling the runner's high.) I am a little nervous. Everything about my first half-marathon experience feels a little bit rose-colored, but running is hard. I don't have the benefit of novelty on my side this year, and my expectations for myself are higher, now that I know I can make it 13.1 miles and stay standing. But there is still so much I have to learn about this hobby and I am excited to keep going.

PS: I am always impressed by people who manage to look cute in their running gear but as the photos in this post show, am totally unable to pull it off myself.

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