I’m only half crazy — tips for surviving your first half marathon

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I did it! I finished my first half marathon!

And there was much rejoicing. I learned a lot from this half, not only during the race but afterward–when I researched why everything that went wrong during the race went wrong.

But before we get into what was not so great about the race, let’s talk about what went well:

  1. Shins. Surprisingly, my shins were not a problem during the race and for about two days after. I have no explanation, other than that perhaps my self-prescribed two-week rest might have actually had a positive effect!
  2. Lungs. No asthma attacks or overexertion. I didn’t even really feel tired–although that might have been because I slowed way the hell down for the last 5 or so miles. Honestly, despite all of the discomfort, the race felt like it went by in kind of a blur!
  3. Muscles. Aside from the joint stiffness and some calf tightness, I wasn’t too sore on race day or the few days following.
  4. The groove. For the first half of the race, equivalent to the 10k I had done about two months earlier, I had a nice groove going. I wish I could’ve kept it up, but I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about what-might-have-beens. It really is an accomplishment simply that I crossed the finish line. High school me would be shockedproud.

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    When you gotta go, you gotta go.

And here’s what went wrong:

  1. I cut my arrival pretty close to race time, giving me a limited chance to beat down the line of other racers to use the restroom before the start. I very unpatriotically pooped during the national anthem.
  2. As I had expected, I started to feel kind of low after about 6 miles, so I busted out the gels. Having tried them once about halfway through my 10-mile training run, I thought it was a pretty simple process–pop in one or two and let the energy flow. However, something funny happens to your stomach when you run. As your body exerts itself, the blood from your core is diverted to your muscles, which can make it pretty tricky for your body to digest stuff, especially a shit ton of simple sugars. You’re also supposed to take your gels with water, but I, being the awesometastic planner that I am, took two at mile 6 with nothing and another two at mile 8ish with Gatorade–a BIG no-no. Correspondingly, my stomach sort of freaked out and slammed me with what I can safely say was the worst nausea I’ve ever felt, a close second being the morning I defended my thesis. I’m talking, like, keep-absolutely-still-its-vision-is-based-on-movement* kind of nausea, which can make running a race just a tad unpleasant. It probably didn’t help that I’d popped two ibuprofen in a last-ditch effort to not have to race with shin splints.

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    The Blister.
  3. About five days before the race I did a short 2-mile run as fast as I could. I wore my new running shoes without socks, which, as it had the first time I’d done that about a month before, created a mild water blister. While gross, it wasn’t much of a problem come race day. However, come mile 9, The Blister returned, and I only learned after the race that it had actually morphed Godzilla-like into a nasty blood blister the size of a half dollar. Needless to say, it might’ve affected my gait, which led to some substantial inflammation in my hip and knee joints. ALL THE JOINTS. I felt myself slowing waaaaay down around then, but I got it back a bit near the end and finished (I think) somewhere around a 10:00/mi pace.
  4. Stitches! Why? Why do they haunt me? Actually in this case, I think it was gait-related due to The Blister of evil.

Ruminating over all of the things that went right and wrong, I came up with this list of things to keep in mind while preparing for your first half marathon:

  • While you’re training, have a goal in mind: Know what kind of runner you are and what you want from running. A lot of running advice seems to be geared more toward more experienced runners who are actually racing. Casual or recreational runners like myself are not overly concerned with performance–it’s enough for us to simply finish the race or beat an achievable time. My goal was to finish at 2:15, which corresponds to a rough pace of 10:15/mi. I chose this pace after doing a couple of 5+ mi runs because it seemed like something I could sustain for 13.1 miles without totally killing myself. Training for more than a few months would have probably increased the speed a bit just by virtue of getting into better aerobic shape. But goal #1 was to finish! (Goal #2 was to not throw up, no joke.)
  • The start: It’s going to be appealing to sprint at the start, and passing people up is kind of an endorphin rush, but be careful. A lot of runners advise you to hold back at the start and focus on the pacing that you trained for. I think this is more true for runners who are focused on performance, but it’s still an important thing to consider, not just on race day but when you’re training. For example, when I was training, I aimed for building distance and was not in good enough shape to distinguish between a “race pace” and an “easy run” pace. I ran the pace that I thought I could sustain for whatever distance I was aiming for, which translated into running faster during short distances. I carried this approach into race day, letting the adrenaline give me an extra kick instead of consciously trying to hold back. Just trying to pass people kept my pace up for the first half of the race. Once I started catching up to people going my same pace, I still felt pretty comfortable. Even though I was pushing myself harder than I had during training, I realized I could handle it aerobically and muscularly (but digestively and blisterly are another story). I don’t know that I would have realized this potential if I had forced myself to go slow and steady in the beginning. As for the risk of burning out, I think it was minimal for me, as I was still running a pace I felt like I could sustain. In the future when my running priorities are different and I can actually focus on pacing, I might be stricter about the starting pace.
  • Find the balance between pushing yourself and avoiding injury: The hardest thing to remember going into this was this was my race. I was doing it for me, not for anyone else, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I think for the most part, I was successful at staying positive. I had two warring thoughts to motivate me. The first was that all I had to do was finish the race, and I didn’t need to beat myself up about crossing the finish line in two minutes or fulfilling some grand but unrealistic expectations about my performance. The second was that I’d trained for months and that this might be the only half marathon I ever get to do, so I should still go for it. I think I managed to find the line between these approaches and pushed myself just hard enough. I have no regrets for this race in terms of performance, though perhaps later races will involve more mental “pushing.”

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    This is a proof because I’m too cheap to $30 on a digital picture.
  • The wall: Before this race, I had only run 8 miles continuously, and that had been about a month and a half before race day. I honestly think that beyond mile 8, when I’d been running for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, I started to approach my own personal wall, past which I’d never had to push my body before. That was the distance when things starting falling apart and when nausea and stitches seemed to be my only companions. As corny as it sounds, I credit my boyfriend for getting me through the last five miles. Being the awesometastic nerd that he is, he plotted out points on the course where he thought he might be able to meet up with me and constructed an algorithm to predict, based on my pace, when to hit each point. Looking forward to running past him for the high five kept up my drive.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Training runs are about more than just acclimating your body to distance running. They’re also about practicing what you’ll need to do during the race itself, whether that is following a hydration strategy or mentally keeping yourself going. The mistake that I had made going into this race was not thinking through a hydration or energy-replenishment strategy. At all. I thought I could just do the whole “listen to my body” thing and drink when I was thirsty, have a shot block gel thing when I felt drained, poop in a Porta Potty if the urge struck me. I think this might have been more effective if I had practiced different strategies during my long distance runs before the race and picked one that works for me. For example, being pretty tall I burn more calories earlier–do I need to pop a gel at 45 minutes into the race instead of 60 minutes? What if it takes more than the requisite 15 minutes to kick in? Here and here are some tips to structuring your energy and electrolyte intake to avoid nausea (that I found after the race, of course). This is definitely a concept that deserves its own post once I figure out my own strategy.

Here are my race results according to the race website:

And according to my RunKeeper:

  • Total Distance Run: 13.58 mi
  • Time to Run 13.1 mi: 2:15:08 (Pace 10:18/mi)

For my next half marathon in April, I have many plans:

  1. Stick to having one speed or interval day a week in my running routine to try to get my pace up.
  2. Take a few weeks off to rest my shins and then gradually reintroduce running into my life again
  3. Plan out my hydration and energy replenishment strategies better and practice them.
  4. If necessary, find an energy booster that doesn’t make me feel like death. I’ve heard about algae tablets???
  5. Crosstrain when I cannot run! NO excuses for skipping my long runs!

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    I only look half crazy here…

I’ve learned so much during this entire process of preparing to run the longest distance of my life–so far. Now on to the next running adventure!

*Two solid “Jurassic Park” references. You’re welcome.

**The discrepancy between paces is due to the distance recorded versus the distance actually run. The chip is calculating when the runner crossed the 5k “finish line” but the race organizers measure the course based on the shortest possible distance. Inevitably, every runner will pick up a little extra distance here and there, for example, when take a turn too wide. Their time stays the same but their chip will record a shorter distance than their personal GPS, so by the virtue of fractions (pace = time/distance), a shorter distance (i.e. smaller denominator) gives a longer/slower pace. That’s why my GPS (RunKeeper) shows a faster pace than the chip recorded.

 

Why “strong is the new skinny” is the most loathsome fitness catchphrase in history

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Good thing this not-at-all-skinny girl is telling me to be strong.

All right, all right, I get it. Alliteration is catchy. And I appreciate on some level what this phrase intends to communicate: that you don’t have to adhere to society’s definition of beauty and attractiveness (i.e. being cookie-cutter-size-0, 6-is-the-new-12 thin) and that you should be motivated to achieve a goal beyond the superficiality of appearance. Not only that, but the phrase opens up opportunities to empower women who up until now didn’t feel like they could love their bodies because they didn’t conform to the “skinny” beauty ideal.  I understand the intention. “Strong is the new skinny” is a very good idea.

But what is the reality?

The “Strong is the new skinny” ideology claims that, like the points in the “Whose Line is it Anyway?” show, physical ideals based on appearance don’t matter–they’re gone, they’re out the window because this is 2013 and aren’t we so lucky to be beyond all of that superficial nonsense?…but then its followers post pictures of their fit bodies to earn “likes” and encouragement and approval from others, and that, to me, just seems a little contradictory to the whole “appearances don’t matter” thing.

I mean, am I just missing the point, or are we simply trading His Lordship Sir Mix-a-Lot’s preferred 36-24-36 (only if she 5’3”) for a lady who’s built of muscle? This phrase embodies (pun intended) a new regime, except instead of being empowered to embrace their physical strength, women must now tick off yet another item–moderately (but not too big!!!) toned muscles–from the laundry list to qualify them as attractive. It’s not enough for us to just be a thin Victoria’s Secret supermodel with long flowing locks of blonde hair and all of your body fat concentrated in your chestal region. As a society, we’ve moved on from that–except that we haven’t rendered that paradigm redundant. We’ve just added muscles to it.

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And that’s a lot of fucking pressure.

Does “Strong is the new skinny” not also create an atmosphere where attaining muscles (a physical proxy for strength but not necessarily an indicator of it) is not only more attractive but is a more noble goal than simply trying to shed a few excess pounds? “Strong is the new skinny” has produced an environment where women not only evaluate other women based on what they look like but on their workout regimen. Oh, you only do cardio? You have to lift heavy if you want to see results. No, I’m not trying to lose weight; I’m trying to tone up.

Granted, you get the other side of it as well, with women wrinkling their noses at those lifting weights and demurring on strength-training altogether, as they don’t want to “get big.”

In this environment, it’s difficult to voice the goal of simple weight loss. After all, as everyone reminds me every five fucking seconds, muscle burns more Calories than fat, so if you want to burn a shit ton of Calories even just sitting around, you’d better lift heavy and build up your muscles. Now, I love that women are “allowed” to occupy the weight lifting section of the gym now, but that does not give gym-goers carte blanche to snub people who still rock the cardio, which is still an excellent way to lose weight.

This is probably too far into the post to make this distinction but I feel that it’s warranted. I am not decrying the fitness movement or what appears to me to be a recent resurgence of people taking an active interest in their fitness. I am just tired of the type of “encouragement” that seems to say one thing (e.g. it’s “okay” to have muscles now, ladies) but is actually saying another (e.g. you must now be skinny with muscles to be considered attractive).

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I promised I wouldn’t go off on this tangent but sometimes I see stuff like the images here and can’t help but get a little peeved. There’s nothing wrong with being skinny–or stocky or tall or short.  It’s possible to exercise or diet to change certain aspects of your body, sure, but railing on naturally (or maybe manually) skinny girls just because they’re skinny is just a teeeensy bit hypocritical, no?

Moral of the story: be honest with yourself and others about your fitness goals. It’s okay to be trying to lose weight to get healthy, it’s okay to want to become a bodybuilder, and it’s okay to be lifting weights to lose weight/fat.  It is not okay to make others feel like shit for their fitness goal. “Strong is the new skinny” has the potential to be empowering and yet it has become yet another vehicle through which women can judge and hate on other women, and I cannot tolerate it. So when you decide to blindly follow a mantra, think about what it’s saying and what that actually means.

I leave you now with a less rage-inducing barftastic quote:

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