Not a Runner.
what half marathons taught me about starting up
I used to run half marathons. I wasn’t a runner, I didn’t like running, and was much, much happier perched on my head in some insect-inspired yoga pose. My best friend’s running partner was newly pregnant, so she was on the hunt for a new Team in Training teammate. She proceeded to tell me (straight faced over dinner one night) that I had ‘an athletic body’ so I would be a suitable replacement. I remembered that fact as I saw an 86 year old man pass me up on my first Saturday morning practice run.
At first I couldn’t run around the block without being completely winded, but sooner than later, I was running 3, 5 and then 10 miles at a clip. I trained for months, and like any good perfectionist, OCD, A-type, I got competitive about it. My time. Calories burned. Pace. Splits. How was I doing compared to everyone else? — not just on my team — like, complete strangers I saw on the street.
My first race was in Palm Beach. Hot as hell but good flat road and sea breeze all the way. Piece of cake for the most part (with exception to the fact that I was nursing my then 1 year old son. My boobs were about to burst by the time I met mile number 13. After barely crossing the finish line, my husband tossed him to me like a trophy and I nursed him right there on the curb! Certainly not the boobs the men might have expected to see as a prize for running 13.1 miles.)
After that race I quit running cold turkey. Like I told you, I was ‘not a runner’ — if it wasn’t for my best friend needing someone to kibitz with and the philanthropic pressure that miles meant money for cancer research, I didn’t see the need to pick up my general pace to more than a quick stroll for any reason. I didn’t run another day until I decided to run my 2nd race (proof in my mind that I still wasn’t a ‘runner’). This time? Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Fran.
I picked San Fran because I’d never been there before, and it was in October when the weather would be good, the grapes would be ripe in Napa, and my boyfriend at the time could get the weekend off to come with me. We had two full days in town to explore before the big race — we did the trolley thing, and the fish market thing, and the alcatraz thing. He even humored me by taking a three mile warm up run through Chinatown the day before the race. That night, I had a good healthy carb load, and when the alarm went off at 3am, I was ready to roll.
Marathons line up typically starts hours before a race begins, in what is essentially considered the middle of the night by most people’s standards, so I was at the starting line by 4:30 for a 6am start. It’s cold, so you wear a sweatshirt or top layer which you’ll ditch on the roadside as soon as you warm up — usually at about mile 2. And, like any good runner, you cheat your average mile by a minute or so to be put in a start wave with people who are a little faster than you are, which helps keep up your pace.
The first few miles were easy and smooth. The gun went off in Union Square and we started to wind through the city streets, still chilly and guarded from the morning sun. A few miles in and around a big bend, all of a sudden you were in view of the bay, anticipating a grand sunrise view of the Golden Gate. I closed my eyes for a moment, so I could open them wide to fully take in this amazing wonder of the west coast I’d never seen before. When I did, I realized it was so freaking foggy out, you couldn’t see the bridge at all. Not one bit. It was one, big, giant fog fest. Buzzkill.
Up until about mile 4 or 5 it was pretty steady going. Then came the first hill. As we entered the incline, you could literally feel the energy of everyone around you, gaits shortening, and littler steps taking us up the road. It was really crowded, so I jumped the barrier on the side of the road and ran up a dirt embankment along the curb to get ahead. Reaching the top of the hill, you could hear the collective sigh of relief and feel the good mojo of ‘whew, we just did that.’ Then, we turned the corner. Looking ahead of me, I saw a hill that seemed to never end, at a geometric pitch that neared 90 degrees. Now the collective sounded something more like, ‘Oh shit, how are we ever going to do that.’
One tiny step at a time, I just kept on going, never looking up for fear that I’d never see the top of that hill. I focused on the ground, focused on my feet, ignored the hundreds of people on the roadside cheering us on, and the thousands of other sets of feet surrounding mine. My periphery caught sight of something coming up on the roadside, and my olfactory bulbs perked up — race volunteers were passing out orange slices. ‘Oranges! Power up!’ they shouted. They held them out long so you didn’t even have to slow down to grab one. I can only imagine what we all looked like from the front, big orange smiles and a moment of sweet distraction from burning calves and the overwhelming need to pee.
Some more flat road through an upscale neighborhood was admittedly easy but well deserved by mile 9, because it wasn’t long before it was time to hit another hill up (how were we not at 13,000 feet by now??). The hills start to feel easier the longer you’re in the race, partly because your brain is pumping anesthetizing chemicals your way to make you forget how miserable you are, and partly because you’ve surrendered to the fact that this shit is really hard, but you’re closer to the end than you are to the beginning, so you better keep moving forward. Then, more voices coming from the roadside. More volunteers. Yes!, I thought, more tasty treats. And you know what those tasty snacks were? Bananas. BANANAS!! Do you have any idea what it’s like to run up a giant hill with hundreds of other people with the ground covered in banana peels? I felt like I was in a Looney Toon cartoon.
At this point, it’s not even 7:30 am, so the sun is still making it’s way up to peek onto the city streets. It’s starting to get warm, but you’re already so sweaty it doesn’t matter. And then, something beautiful happened. I rounded a corner and found myself with an open view of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay. Light glistened off the water, and for the first time I was sure I would finish this damn race. Best of all? The next mile and a half toward the finish line was downhill. Score!
I quickly realized what I had never known about long distance running, especially having gotten my start in Florida. The downhill is harder than the uphill, and way more tiring. If you let yourself go too fast, if you lose your footing, if your knees buckle, you’re done for. It’s one big road rash waiting to happen.
I did my best to keep a good pace, and the finish line finally came into sight. My eyes scanned the roadside, looking for my boyfriend amongst the men, women & children packed along the sidelines with their neon poster boards & noisemakers. I took the last 50 meters or so at a sprint, crossed the finish line. Volunteers hand you a medal and wrap you up in a foil blanket. Covered in goosebumps and resting my hands on my wobbly thighs, I admired my medal, tasted salt on my sweaty lip, and did that half crying/half laughing thing that happens when too many chemicals are churning around in your brain at once. Standing up on the sea wall, facing the ocean, I fielded random congratulations from strangers & fellow racers, sharing that strange camaraderie of having a shared experience while being in your own head the whole time.
My boyfriend was nowhere to be found. He surfaced about 20 minutes later and found me in the recovery tent nursing a bottle of vitamin water and an apple, more out of boredom than of need. Underestimating the traffic, he had to park 2 miles away, which then made him late to the finish so he missed me coming across the line (somehow partly my fault for finishing so fast). So after running 13.1 miles, I walked another 2 to the car, slowly, proudly, and light on my feet. Until the next race — still not a runner.
The moral of the story is…
1- Be willing to do something you never wished, dreamed or expected. You never know, you just might be good at it.
2- It’s all uphill, and when you meet your first plateau, don’t get too comfortable — a steeper hill is around the corner, just enough out of view that you can’t anticipate it. Know when not to look up.
3- At some point, things will turn seemingly in your favor, but beware the downhill — it can be unexpectedly treacherous and the place where you get too comfortable, which will only end in road rash, which isn’t a good look for you.
4- You won’t know exactly when you’ll get to the finish line, or who will be there to congratulate you (or not). Learn to be happy for yourself, and let it be enough.
5- After all is said and done, it’s still a long walk to the car. Let your accomplishment give you that little energy boost — you never know what’s next.