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Health I ran a half marathon: a guide on how to keep breathing and moving

Oct. 8, 2018
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I’ve never liked running. In fact, up until I decided it would be a good idea to do it for 13.1 miles, I avoided running at all costs. I was bad at running, too. In high school I played a few sports, but I was always the slowest. I hated it. I fought tooth and nail to not have to do it. I even went as far as faking injuries (but in case my old coach is reading this, I really did have tendonitis in my ankle my junior year—I wasn’t lying about that). I often vomited after. Sometimes during. I would never have dreamed of running on my own, for fun. But then I decided I was going to run a half marathon.

Sometimes I very distinctly feel like my mind is sliced into two parts. There is the good part, and there is the bad part. I know that the good/bad dichotomy of the human condition is not unique to me at all, but it sometimes feels so pressing that it’s like there are two of me. Part of my mind is going, “I hate running, I would never run a half marathon. I could never do it” and the other part is going “Okay, Google half marathon Connecticut.” 

In reality, I have actually always disliked running, but I was doing it for a few months before I made my fateful decision. I was in my sophomore year when I started doing 30-minute runs around my campus at night. I did hate it, but at the same time it was starting to make me feel better. I was feeling lonely and stressed and anxious, and so those runs started to feel like a break from all of that. When your body is in such physical distress it’s hard to focus on your mental pain. 

It was very random but also very inevitable the way it happened. The story I tell other people is that my mom and I went on a 30-minute slow run in the winter, and when we got back to the car I joked, “We should run a half marathon.” 

And my mom said, very immediately, “No. But you can.” And in that moment, sitting in the parking lot of Ocean State Job Lot, rubbing the shin splints I was getting from my non-running running shoes, I knew I was going to have to do it. Or at least try. From there, the story takes a serendipitous turn: I Googled half-marathon training plans and the first one I clicked on was for 20 weeks. Then I Googled half marathons in Connecticut and the first one I clicked on offered free registration. Then I looked at that half marathon’s web page and realized it was exactly 20 weeks away. And so my fate was sealed. 

Most of that story is true. The 20-week aspect is semi-true. It turns out I had some errors in my week-counting so the marathon was more like 24 weeks out, but at the time I really did believe the universe was aligning itself for me just so. The actual story, the story I tell myself, is not quite as exciting. 

It’s difficult to explain. But also very simple, because I think most people have or will have a story similar to this in their lives. It’s very straightforward: my whole life I thought of myself as someone who did not run, could not run. At least not well, or fast, or far. I thought of myself as kind of lazy, someone who didn’t stick to their plan or word. And for some bizarre reason, the idea of a half or full marathon tickled the back of my mind for a long time. But the story I had told myself my whole life was, I can’t do that. And so I knew that I had to. And then I decided to try. 

I watch a lot of athlete documentaries. If you knew me, this would probably come as a surprise. For one thing, I’m a woman, and the majority of people tend to think women aren’t interested in sports. I also lean towards appearing more stereotypically feminine; I wear makeup and braid my hair and sometimes wear skirts. The general notion is that sports are masculine. Also, I don’t play any sports; I haven’t since high school. And I don’t talk about playing high school sports that often. And I don’t follow sports. At all.

But sometimes, sports interest me. If someone offered me tickets to a baseball game, I would probably go (even though baseball is the damn slowest sport). I occasionally watch basketball or football as a group event. But the truth is I don’t find sports that interesting. What I do find incredibly interesting is athletes. And not just because of the abs.

I’ve had this subconscious feeling my whole life that I’ve never actually given 100% to anything. I’ve never tried my hardest or given my all to anything. Certainly I’ve given a lot, I’ve tried hard, but when I look back on all my ‘accomplishments’ I never felt truly proud of any of them because I never felt like I’d given it all I had. I think that’s why I love athlete documentaries. I like to see people push themselves to their limits, give their alls. 

I especially love to see people push themselves to their physical limits, though I’m not exactly sure why my obsession with physicality manifested. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve never been good at any kind of physical activity. When I was younger, I was a shy, awkward emotional-eater. I was chubby and I didn’t exercise. I didn’t have an ‘athletic body’ like most of the friend did. I was never one of those lanky kids who could run fast. Even as I got older, I was bad at athletic activities. Maybe that was by virtue of thinking I was bad at sports, but it just seemed as though I went my whole life never, ever feeling like anything close to an athlete. 

Maybe it also had to do with something a little more complex. In The Right Intention by Andres Barba, there’s a short story simply entitled “Marathon,” aptly named as it follows a man who becomes obsessed with beating his training partner in a marathon. In the crazed ramblings about running he says, “Only in the act of running did his body stop becoming him and became something he possessed.” I thought about this quote a lot while I was training, and I thought about it a lot while I was running. I felt it too, briefly. On my weekly long runs I would sometimes hit a point, usually around my seventh mile, where it really didn’t feel like I was residing in my body any more. I was upstairs, in my head, like a little puppeteer pulling the strings to move my limbs but not really feeling them at all. In those brief, blissful moments I understood the crazy “Marathon” character and I understood professional athletes and I understood those people who get up at 4 AM to run before work. For most of us, most of the time, our bodies are the gatekeepers to our actions, what allow us to do or not do certain things. But in those brief moments, we are in perfect control of our bodies.

I realize that sounds scary and intense. I know I should probably dial it back. But the truth is, it was intense. It was really, really, really hard. I know for a lot of runners, a half marathon isn’t that crazy, but before this I had never run more than four consecutive miles. My fastest mile time was 9:30. My slowest, 17:50. So running 13.1 miles was intense. But if that last part was too dramatic for you, let me simplify. I knew I had to run a half marathon because it was the hardest thing I could realistically force myself to do. I wanted, for once in my life, to be in control of my body instead of my body being in control of me. All of these things culminated in one simple decision: run a half marathon.

I didn’t tell anyone except my parents at first. I texted my dad and he said “Go for it!” accompanied by the thumbs-up emoji. I didn’t tell anyone else because for the first two months of training I was convinced I wouldn’t follow through. That was something I did fairly frequently: fail to follow through on big life plans. Ultimately, I didn’t want people to see me fail. In my head, I knew that this plan was different than all of the other goals I had set for myself—both because it was simple and because I was doing it. For some reason, my body would just go. I sometimes put off runs until late at night, but when it came down to it I always got up and went. It didn’t even feel as though I was motivated, necessarily. It just felt very simple: I had to go for a run; there was no other option, so my body would just get up and go. 

I, of course, missed some runs. There were times when I would get home late from school or my job and be so tired that I wanted to burst into tears. On some of those occasions, I would let the run slide and try to quell my guilt by telling myself I would get more out of resting than I would out of a painful, low-energy run. On other similar nights, I would get up and go anyway. I’d rub my eyes, put on my sneakers, and run however many miles I had to do that day. A lot of the times I felt better after. Toward the end, I was running five days a week. I was tired and grumpy and constantly hungry, but I felt good about what I was doing. I felt like I was doing something. I had a goal and I was truly dedicated to it for once, and that felt good. I felt proud of myself. 

If you’ve ever trained for any kind of race, you know you train less the week before an event. In theory, this seems like a beautiful, relaxing reprieve from all of the intense activity you’ve been forcing your body to endure, but for me it was a disaster. I was deeply convinced that during this lull-week I would lose all of the strength and endurance I had built up. When I finished my runs and checked my times, I fretted that I wouldn’t be able to finish the race, even though I was running faster than usual (which is not recommended the week before a race—it’s recommended that you run at or below your intended race-pace). I tried my best to relax and focus on recovery—icing, stretching, foam rolling (ouch)—but I was still plagued by the idea that I was unprepared. But then, suddenly, race day was upon me. And I ran, and I finished. 

Besides the fact that it rained the entire time, the race itself was rather unremarkable. It was tiring, and I was soaked. My headphones broke because of water damage, and my shoes felt incredibly heavy because of water weight, but it still felt remarkably unremarkable. It felt like any of the run I had already done, just a little bit longer and with a lot more people. I kept my gaze focused ahead and kept telling myself just keep breathing and moving. I moved like that uphill and through flooded streets. I grabbed cups of water and ended up with most of them down my shirt because it’s nearly impossible to run and drink at the same time, and I was not going to stop for anything. No one at the water stations could give me an accurate estimate of what mile I was on, and I couldn’t use my phone to pace myself because of the rain. So I just kept breathing and moving and breathing and moving until finally, finally I saw the finish line. 

I was expecting to cry when I crossed the finish line. I had embarrassingly teared up on other runs when I thought about the moment in which all of my training would culminate in my biggest success. But when I crossed the finish line, the first thing I felt was confusion, because I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to stop. I also didn’t want to be in the way of other runners coming in behind me, so I ran a few extra yards past the finish line before some lady stopped me to hand me a participation medal. I had expected to feel some kind of beautiful clarity, but instead I wasn’t even sure if I had finished or not. The second feeling I had was a where’s-a-trash-can-I’m-about-to-vomit feeling. That passed quickly, though, once I started walking and gulping in big breaths of ocean air. 

And then, finally, I got to have my feeling of accomplishment. It turned out to be the third emotion I felt, and it wasn’t as big and shiny as I expected it to be. I was maybe too emotionally and physically drained to burst into tears, but I did feel genuinely and overwhelmingly happy. But maybe it was just the endorphins.

Most of the people I talked to after my training asked me when I was going to do my next race, and would it be another half or a full this time? And what about a triathlon? Have you thought about that? I tended to say this was my one-and-only, joking that when I finished this race it would be the last time I voluntarily ran in my life. Most people—especially those that were also runners—told me I would probably catch the bug. I found this partially believable. As soon as I finished my first race, I was already talking about doing it again the next year, not really giving much thought to what that implied. It seemed natural to me; I didn’t feel like I had the bug. There was no itching, burning desire to run again right away, but it made sense that next year I would do another. And maybe I will. Or maybe I won’t.

As for right now, I am not running that much. I have a suspicion that training for such a long-distance race isn’t the healthiest for your body, so I’m focusing on recovering. I’ve been doing occasional short-distance runs, and have gone back to yoga, pilates, and weight training. I’ve gained back a little weight and my normal menstrual cycle (a lot of sustained cardio can really mess with your cycle if you’re not used to it, and I was very much not used to it), and I’m trying to focus on relaxing. At least physically. I’m excited about the prospect of maybe running another race later this year, but for right now I don’t feel compelled to go back to running 20+ miles a week. At the end of the day, I’m proud of myself for going through with the half marathon. But I still kind of hate running.