2018-10-27 09:58:20 -0600

What I Learned Running My First Half-Marathon

Lessons are learned the hard way unless you learn them from someone else. So today I’m making it easy by sharing what I learned running my first half marathon!

A week before the start of the race, I was waiting for PT (physical training) to start when I heard a couple of soldiers mention an upcoming half-marathon in town to benefit a local volunteer fire department. Being someone fairly confident in their running ability, I registered later that morning. However, the excitement and anticipation for race-day waned throughout the week and turned into dread as I realized the farthest I had ever run was eight miles and that I had no real understanding of the mental and physical preparation it would take to add five more. To make a long story short, I ended up finishing the grueling 13.1-mile race under my target time and actually took home the 3rd place medal for my age group. But this was a hard-fought battle, won only through diligence and a willingness to adapt. I thought I’d share my experience to inform and encourage those out there mulling over the idea of undertaking a half-marathon.

I Wasn’t Prepared

This thought ran rampant in my mind the days leading up to the race. I mean, how does prepare physically for a half-marathon in 5 days? The answer is simple: You can’t. Granted, the military does a lot to keep me fit, but even in the five-day work week, we only run 2-3 times and those days are usually no farther than a 5K. My first reaction was to try and run close to the 13.1-mile distance a few days prior. However, my mind took charge and reminded me that I might not have adequate recovery time before the marathon. So four days before the race, I ran six miles at marathon pace. In a perfect world, one should spend a couple of months training for a half-marathon, alternating between sprint and long-distance run days. If you are considering running a marathon, I would advise that you run at least 3–4 days per week, with at least one long run per week and gradually build up to your distance. Had I done this, I would have been able to rely more heavily upon physical fitness rather than mental resolve in those final difficult miles.

I Broke My Routine

Military life forces you to keep a pretty rigid schedule: food, physical training, and recovery included. For example, I eat the same breakfast every day because I love it, and it works for me. I make a big bowl of oats, berries, chia, flax, pumpkin seeds, and nut butter every morning. I also eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and nuts throughout the day. However, like anyone attempting to triage their nerves prior to a big event, I resorted to the archives of the Internet to see just what I should be eating leading up to a half-marathon. Well, the verdicts were pretty unanimous. Simple carbohydrates, low fat, and low fiber. This was pretty worrisome for me because, as a vegan, I consume a lot of complex carbs, tons of fiber, and a moderate amount of healthy fats. Terrified that I would become one of the many horror stories I read about competitors leaving the race to due to intestinal distress, I swapped all complex carbs in my diet for white rice, and cut out nuts, seeds and fruits entirely. I was determined not to fall out of the marathon in search of a port-o-potty or some bushes! But a few days before the race, I began to feel off. I didn’t have the sustained amount of energy to which I was accustomed, nor did I have the overall sense of well-being a healthy vegan diet had always afforded me. I mentioned this to one of my battle buddies who had run a marathon or two, and he gave me some really good advice: There is no resoundingly adequate pre-race meal plan; eat what works for you.

I realized that the trove of information warning against high fiber and complex carbohydrates on the internet was probably generated by a lot of people who are not vegans and who are most likely not used to high amounts of fiber in their diet. So a day before the race, I decided I was sick of worrying and feeling unlike myself, and switched back to my routine. My advice to you is the same my battle buddy gave me: Don't get lost in the world of information concerning pre-race nutrition. Eat what makes you feel the best, and trust in your decision.

I Became Too Competitive Too Quickly

On the morning of the race, I felt pretty antsy. After all, I had no idea what to expect. So, when the gun went off, I exploded into my usual stride (which was not a marathon pace!). I am not generally regarded as the fastest person in my platoon, but I was amazed at how many runners I passed in the first two miles. No more than twenty minutes into the marathon, I was in first place by some distance. I could not believe it! I was envisioning it then: them calling my name over the PA system, announcing my 1st place victory, me taking the podium with pride... However, I learned a little too late that marathons are not won in the first few miles, but the last. By mile eight, I realized I could not maintain the pace I was keeping and over the last five miles, I watched in agony as all the competitors I had so easily passed were now doing the same to me. In marathon running, the old adage of the tortoise and the hare definitely holds water! For your first marathon, I would definitely advise to pick a slow-ish pace and stick with it (there are plenty of great running apps that will announce your split times to you) and worry less about passing people and more about having fun.

Human Beings are Incredible

In times like these, it seems strange to say, but it is the truth. It was absolutely amazing to see children as young as twelve and folks well into their sixties cranking out the mileage. As a matter of fact, an old road lizard passed me at mile eleven looking fresh as ever. My own display on race day is a testimony to the ridiculously awesome power of the human body when treated right---I mean, there I was, someone who had never run the distance and who hadn’t put in the training, finishing third in my age bracket! Although I am definitely not advocating running a marathon without training, it felt good to accomplish what I did. I don’t know if it was the spirit of the event or if I just caught a good group of people on the right day, but everyone on the route encouraged each other all throughout the race. And when it was over strangers, sweaty and panting and rubber-legged, hugged and congratulated one another like lifelong friends. That immediate sense of camaraderie will be a cherished, lifelong memory for me.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes and victories as you hit the road and begin training for your first half-marathon.

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