Running a half marathon

I recently ran my first half marathon.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

I have never thought of myself as an athletic person. The combined horrors of puberty and middle school gym teachers gave me a longstanding opinion that exercise was something other people did.

I first dipped my toe into running about 8 years ago, when I followed the Couch to 5K programme and shocked myself by managing to run for a solid half hour. But since then, my running had been pretty inconsistent. Occasionally I would keep it up for a few weeks at a time, but I had no goals and didn’t make much of an effort to fit it into my schedule. I’d do 2 miles here and there when I felt like it, and that was it.

One day last September, I was sitting on the bus during a particularly tedious commute, and saw that my friend had signed up for a local half marathon. “Maybe I could do that!” I thought. The intense boredom of the bus was so great that I signed up on the spot.

But why?

Deciding to run a half marathon seemed like a logical decision at the time.

Running regularly would be good for my physical health. It would also be good for my mental health. I’m a homebody and work remotely for half the week – it’s scarily easy for me to just hole up on the sofa and never go outside, especially when I’m feeling bad. I knew fresh air and endorphins could sometimes help me out of low moods or distract me from various anxieties.

I also like the feeling of working towards a specific goal and having a plan for how to achieve it. A half marathon felt ideal for this. I had a deadline to aim for, and the internet had thousands of training plans to follow. It all sounded so straightforward – if I put in the specified amount of effort, I would get the desired result.

To add extra motivation, I signed up to run on behalf of a charity I support. I was excited to raise money for an important cause, but I also knew this would make me more likely to stick with it. I’d pledged to raise a certain amount, and I wanted to keep that promise. Plus the fundraising forced me to tell other people what I was doing, making it that much harder to back out.

There were, of course, a few stumbling blocks. Like the fact that I’d never really run more than 3 miles before. But I had a whole 6 months to train. It’d be fine.

The training

Most half marathon plans start 10 to 14 weeks before the race itself, so I spent my first few months just getting used to running again.

I decided to follow a 12-week plan, which had me starting during Christmas week. Kicking off an ambitious programme of physical activity during the most sedate, overfed time of the year seemed wrong, but I completely my first scheduled half-hour run on Christmas Eve feeling positive. Immediately I put my back out and missed the next few runs. But I still had 11 weeks to go. It’d be fine.

Back recovered, I cracked on with Week 2. Things started to go remarkably well. I was hitting new personal bests every weekend – running for 5 miles, 6 miles, 7 miles. I felt unstoppable.

Then a nasty bug whipped through my office and I found myself laid up with a chest infection for 2 weeks. I looked at my training plan and saw the time slipping away. I was meant to be running for 90 minutes at a time, but instead I was back on the sofa coughing my lungs out. Anxiety told me I’d bit off more than I could chew. It would not be fine.

When I finally got my running shoes back on, I’d lost much of my momentum. I pushed myself to catch up with the plan, but pushed too hard and was punished with pain in my knee. At this point I had 4 weeks left. I was hopelessly behind the plan and my knee was starting to hurt all the time, not just after runs. I decided it was better to rest the knee and tackle the half marathon underprepared rather than risk doing it injured. All I could do was wait.

The run

I woke up filled with nerves and regret. I tried to suppress my fear with my usual bowl of pre-run porridge and some internet procrastination. It seemed like resting had been the right call – I’d done a quick 15 minutes around the park the day before and my knee felt OK. But I was very aware that I now had to take on 13.1 miles when I’d only reached half that distance during my training. Initially I’d been aiming to finish in 2:30, but that now seemed unlikely.

Finally I said a last goodbye to my flat in case the run killed me, then joined the masses headed to the runners’ village, and finally headed to my assigned pen.

Crossing the starting line was a very surreal experience. For months I’d been running alone, with only podcasts for company. Now I was surrounded by thousands of other people and we were all thundering down the street together, bound for glory or destruction.

The crowd was amazing. Strangers shouted their support and offered bowls of jelly babies. Little kids tried to high-five any runners who came close enough, and I was happy to oblige. There was music to keep us going, both from local bands and people with very loud speakers in their cars. My boyfriend and my parents also popped up along the route to cheer me on.

Halfway through, I was keeping a consistent pace and feeling pretty good. Not long after, I realised I’d run farther than I ever had before, and that little burst of achievement kept me going for a while longer.

Then after 8 miles, I hit a long incline and finally had to stop for a walk. At the top of the hill I steeled myself and started running again, but this was the start of hitting the wall. My pace was slow enough that I didn’t feel out of breath, but the rest of me was struggling. Everything above my waist had started to go numb in the wind, and everything below was in pain. I couldn’t really accuse my body of betraying me. If anything, I had betrayed it first by putting it through this experience.

By 10 miles I was in pretty miserable shape. My knee hurt. My feet hurt. My hips hurt. I was starting to walk more and more regularly. I tried to tell myself there was only half an hour left to go, but knew my pace was a lot slower. My goal time came and went. It occurred to me that I had been running for almost the length of a theatrical cut Lord of the Rings movie. This was horrifying.

Finally the end came into sight. I pushed myself into a limping sprint and crossed the finish line at 2:46, feeling no euphoria, only relief that it was over. I collected my bag of swag (t-shirt, medal, snacks, mysterious vitamins) and my boyfriend helped me stagger back to my beloved sofa.

Lessons learned

In retrospect, signing up for a half marathon without any other race experience was a little ambitious. It would have been safer to just do a 10K. Or maybe start training a bit earlier. But it’s really cool to discover that you can do something which seemed impossible. Sometimes you just need to hold your nerve and push yourself.

I also realised that it was naive to assume I just needed to follow a training plan and everything would work out. Illness and injury will mess you up and there’s not that much you can do about it. So all the stuff I said about pushing yourself in the last paragraph – there’s definitely a limit to that.

But the biggest thing I’ve learned from this experience was that I am really, really lucky. When I signed up for this thing, I didn’t think anyone else would be particularly interested. But the support from my friends and family has been amazing. So many people cheered me on, sponsored me with donations and asked how my training was going. They sent me good luck messages on the morning of the race and congratulations afterwards. It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling that even the best runner’s high can’t compete with. So to everyone who made me feel so supported: thank you. I really could not have done it without you.

As we hobbled home, my boyfriend asked if I would do another race. “Hell no,” was my immediate reaction. But now, after race day, with my toes blistered and my legs feeling like they might pop out of their sockets, I’m a little tempted to change my answer. Because now I know that running a half marathon is not just something other people do. It’s a thing I can do. And next time I think I could beat 2:46.

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