As you probably know by now (because I bring it up all the effing time), when I decided to start training for a half marathon I didn’t even have a single 5K to my name. I spent the majority of my training making everything up as I went along and it wasn’t until I showed up to run the race that I actually realized just how much I still had to learn as a runner. Today, nearly two years from when I started training for my first half marathon, I started training for my first ever marathon. In order to mark this momentous occasion I have put together ten things I wish I had known when I first started training those twenty three months ago.
It wasn’t long before the “hahaha the internet tricked me in to running a half marathon” jokes ran their course and I realized I actually had to, you know, train for the thing. As far as I was concerned, here were the facts as I saw them:
1. I had five months to learn how to run 13.1 miles while ensuring it wasn’t the last thing I ever did.
2. I didn’t know shit about running.
Desperate for answers I turned to the Google machine, but all I got were results like: YOU BETTER NOT FUCK UP WITH THE WRONG SHOES and HERE ARE TEN MILLION STRETCHES YOU NEED TO MEMORIZE AND DO FOREVER and DON’T FORGET THIS $300 WATCH THING THAT DOUBLES AS A GPS SOMETHING OR OTHER and YOU CALL THOSE MUSCLES? GET THEE DO A GYM IMMEDIATELY.
So yeah, it didn’t take long before I was cursing the internet for tricking me in to running a half marathon and began brainstorming my best exit strategy. And sure this might seem really obvious to some of you, but it sure as shit was news to me, because it turns out all you really need to start running is to start running. Yup, you just need your own two feet. Save all the fancy shit for later. Actually, even then you don’t need most of it. But more on that later.
Once I finally started running I was absolutely thrilled to learn how quickly being able to run only one block without stopping turned in to being able to run two blocks without stopping. All of my overwhelm from the initial weeks became a distant memory. Bye bye overwhelm! HELLO RUNNER’S HIGH. In a few short weeks I became a woman transformed. All I wanted was to run and run and increase my distance as quickly as possible. It didn’t take long, however, before my body revolted. It was all, “Um, excuse me. I was totally willing to play along with this weird running game you decided to play without consulting me but now I’m gonna have to put my foot down. Back to the couch we go!” And just like that my knees started to hurt all. of. the. time. In addition, I had my first ever encounter with shin splints and spent all of my non-running hours hobbling around like an 80 year old woman.
I had made the entirely too common newbie mistake and ignored all of the running literature that told me how important it is to start slowly. Because I had absolutely no running background, my body needed the time to build up the proper muscle strength to support my new hobby. When I started increasing my “mileage” too quickly, I began to put myself at a much greater risk for serious injury. So I dialed my training back a bit, became best friends with my ice pack and before I knew it the pain in my knees was a thing of the past.
It didn’t take long in to my new life as a runner before pretty much all I ever wanted to talk about was running. I was amazed to learn how many of my friends and acquaintances were also runners. Surrounding myself with runners was an invaluable resource. Not only were we able to swap running stories and pointers, but they were also the ones who understood when I couldn’t go out on a Saturday night because I had a long run early on Sunday morning. They gave me the encouragement I needed and I loved watching our relationships grow over our mutual hobby. To this day I often have a hard time striking up conversations with strangers, but the second I find out they are runners you won’t be able to shut me up.
Not only do I love to talk about running but I also love to read about running. If you want an unrelenting source of inspiration and motivation read books about runners doing incredible running things. Reading about running has taught me so much about the many possibilities in the world of endurance running and probably deserves all of the credit for putting ideas like “run a marathon on all seven continents” in my head. The two books that helped me the most when I first started running were Born to Run and The Long Run. I honestly couldn’t recommend those books enough.
When I was about half way through my training, I learned that I am allergic to alcohol. This was one of the best things that happened to my running career because it taught me that what I eat matters. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my excessive alcohol consumption was negatively impacting my training (among so many other things). With the huge improvement that quitting alcohol for my training brought me, I began thinking about what I ate before, during and after my runs. I finally put it together that whenever I had a side cramp during a run I could usually trace it back to what I had eaten in the hour or so before I hit the pavement. I also learned that what I ate within the first thirty minutes after a workout significantly impacted my recovery.
In the final weeks leading up to my half marathon I fell in to a really bad habit. I would diligently run all of my runs throughout the week, but when it came time to run my long run at the end of the week I decided a nap sounded nice instead. This is exactly how I found myself on race day standing at the starting line never having run more than eight miles in my entire life and wondering why I had ignored all the times I was told to never skip the long runs. These runs are important because not only would they have gotten my body used to running for two or three hours at a time, but they are valuable opportunities to try out new strategies for replenishing electrolytes, water, and glycogen. Because here’s the thing: I am in charge of how I feel at the starting line. Race day was going to arrive whether I liked it or not and I was in charge of how I spent those many months leading up to the race preparing. Which is to say, that standing on the starting line on that chilly October morning I felt more nervous than I had ever felt as I realized just how much I had messed up my training. Trying to keep the nerves at bay, I realized that I was still in charge of how I felt at the starting line and shifted my thoughts from what I did wrong to what I did right and how much I was going to dominate the shit out of this race.
Like a lot of new runners, I was obsessed with the thought that in order to be a runner I had to run fast. I felt like it was cheating to run slower than nine minutes per mile. Even though I totally was in no shape whatsoever to be running a nine minute mile, I insisted upon running that fast at all times. This is largely why I ended up walk running my entire first half marathon. I would run too fast for four mintes and walk for one or two. When I hit the six mile mark during my race, it finally dawned on me that I had completely approached running wrong. By the time my next half marathon rolled around I ditched the idea that real runners run fast and accepted that real runners run. I finished that race without a single walk break at a pace of 11:30 per mile. Because, whaddya know, slow and steady literally finishes the race.
My favorite part about running a race of any distance for the first time is that my actual for reals only goal is to cross the finish line. I have no PRs (personal records) to worry about. No matter how the race goes, crossing the finish line will be my own personal best – pace be damned! So I might as well take my sweet time and enjoy the hell out of the journey. Because that is the most important thing I have ever learned about running: if I’m not enjoying the journey, what’s the point? Running should be fun!