Pain, Sweat and Tears: My 112 Minute Half-Marathon
As I sit in the comforting warmth of Starbucks with my latte and my oatmeal, the pain, sweat and tears of my first half marathon are trying to fade into a distant, rose-tinted memory. Still, no matter how hard they tries, I’m not sure I’ll forget the 1:52:33 of pure, unadulterated hell any time soon. I’m marking the one week anniversary of the toughest experience of my life (it really was that tough, I’m not just melodramatic. Read on and you’ll see) by writing about it in glorious detail to share with all of you who are thinking the exact same thing I was around the 16km mark – why the hell am I running a half marathon?
I’d been training for this run since I registered for the race back in April. A couple of weeks later I ran my fastest every 10km in the annual Sun Run, and was feeling positive about my running schedule for the next two months. I very quickly went from running 15-20 km a week, alongside step classes, spinning and regular strength training, to running 50-60 km with no room for anything else. Every run counted, and I alternated between endurance and speed sessions to build up my half marathon base. I had to miss a couple of weeks after having three wisdom teeth removed, but I pretty much stuck to my training schedule like glue. By the middle of June running was turning into something I had to do, rather than something I looked forward to, and I knew I was ready to get out on the road and get it over with.
Before long, it was time to begin the single best ritual in the history of food and fitness: carb-loading. My race was on a Sunday morning, and from the Thursday afternoon I cut all vegetables, salad and wholewheat anything from my diet. These were replaced by greek yoghurt, eggs, white bread, pasta, tuna and chicken. Fibre was out, and protein and carbs were in. Being ordered to eat copious amounts of peanut butter on white toast was an absolute dream, and almost made up for the fact that I was mentally preparing for the longest run of my life. Almost. My last training run was on the Friday before work, and was an easy 8km. The rest of Friday and Saturday were spent drinking water as if my life depended on it. Then it was time to sit back, rest my legs and wait for Sunday morning.
I was up at 5:45am on race day, with just enough time to cover myself in sun screen, get dressed and pack my bag before I left to catch the 6:30am bus to the start line at UBC. I was very lucky to have a sleepy but supportive boyfriend make the trip down there with me, and he waited patiently with my bag while I ran around the site to warm up. At the last minute I got removed my thick pants and jacket and headed to the start line feeling very much ready to go. The start horn sounded, people cheered, and a minute later I was crossing the start line to the tune of Cobra Starship’s Snakes on a Planeand heading for the 1km sign. I was timing myself with my digital watch, and made a stronger start than I’d expected. At 2km I made myself slow down slightly, and at 3km I just kept thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m running a half marathon right now’. 5km came and went, and I was keeping a steady pace. I knew from the route map that there was a steep downhill from 8km – 1okm, and I was fully intending on using that to my advantage. A little after the 8km flag the road started to drop beneath my feet, and I began to pick up speed. I absolutely flew down the hill, and as I passed the 10km split mark (still in UBC) I realized I’d beaten my Sun Run time by a full 2 minutes, without a specific 10km goal in mind. This was the victory I needed to keep going; if all else failed from here onwards, at least I’d have achieved something that day.
As the road began to level out, my speed began to drop and I could feel my heart rate increasing. It took a while for my legs to realize that there was no more long downhill, and that the rest of the run wasn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as the past ten minutes. As I passed the 12km point I realized that I was 3 minutes ahead of my fastest ever 12km, which kept me going until the 13km point where we finally, finallyleft the grounds of UBC for the residential streets of Kits. It was at this point that I started to struggle, and I soon realized that my pace was not going to be sustainable for another 8km. As I forced myself to slow to a more doable pace, other runners began to pass me. At 15km I hit the first sizeable hill, and at this point I had to take my first of three walking breaks. I gave myself 30 seconds to take some deep breaths, swig some water and mentally reset for the final 6km. When I passed the 16km mark, I wasn’t sure I would make it to the end in one piece. I cursed myself for starting too strong, as I knew that my second 11km was going to be much slower than my first, which is exactly what the professionals tell you to avoid. Those runners who had saved their strength until this point began to pick up speed around me, and I felt even worse. My mindset had gone from ‘wow, I could do this in 1hr 40 if I keep this pace’ to ‘well, my original goal was 2 hours, but it’s OK if I don’t make it’. It was at that point I realized how tough it was running a race of this length by myself. I didn’t have anyone to urge me on or tell me I could do it, and I clearly couldn’t rely on my own brain to do that for me.
By the time I reached familiar Kits territory, the Burrard Bridge was looming and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it up the steep incline. I ran this bridge at the end of almost every long training run so that it wouldn’t phase me on the day, but I’d never met it after running 18km in less than 95 minutes. I didn’t make it all the way up, but another quick walk break gave me the time I needed to refocus for the final stretch. As I finally hit the downhill coming off the bridge, I was thinking back to my speed training and how I’d pictured myself going into the final 2km stronger than ever, pushing past the pain to get to the finish. In reality, I was far too tired to pick up my pace, and it took every ounce of mental strength to just keep moving. I kept my eyes focused on the feet of a girl in front of me (a tactic I used throughout the entire run, hence the photos of me staring at the floor) and blocked out all other distractions. The closer I got to the finish, the more people lined the roads with banners, signs and general enthusiasm. I appreciated their support, but didn’t dare look up in case I broke my concentration and ended up in a heap on the floor.
I wasn’t 100% sure where the finish line was, but I knew it was just inside Stanley Park and not too far from the main road. It might be the world’s biggest cliche, but that final km really did seem to go on forever. At one point I was fairly certain I’d stopped breathing, and was already looking around for a medics tent when the finish line finally materialized less than 50m in front of me. I used every last ounce of everything in my body to sprint towards the line, and was so happy to see the familiar face of Stacey cheering for me from the sidelines as I finally finished. Again, the glorious moment where I calmly celebrated my victory was not to be. My thighs seized up the second I stopped running, and I was so thirsty I could barely get the straw out of the plastic wrapper on the juice carton I was handed by my still supportive boyfriend. Seeing him at the end after leaving him at the start less than two hours earlier was an amazing feeling, until he opened his mouth to tell me ‘I’m absolutely knackered, I thought I wasn’t going to make it in time to see you finish so I ran all the way from the bus stop’. After resisting the urge to throw up on his face (graphic I know, but really), it was all I could do to keep moving enough to pose for photos with Stacey and her gorgeous daughter Isabella. Stacey made a last minute decision not to run in the race this year due to an injury she”d just recovered from, but she supported me the whole time and I was so happy to be able to celebrate with her at the finish.
I thought my months of training would stand me in pretty good stead for recovery after the run, but that was not the case at all. The 20 minute walk home from the finish took closer to 45 minutes as my left leg kept cramping in my thigh and my hamstring, causing me to stumble continuously. I made it home eventually, though I was glad I’d thought ahead and added a box of chocolate covered almonds to the bag with my jacket and spare clothes. I spent the rest of the day giving into alternate cravings of sugar and salt, and felt lucky to be at a baseball game with copious amounts of coca-cola and pretzels within reach. It was four days before my screaming thighs let me walk down stairs again, and 6 days before I braved the gym. I was so excited to be able to do anything I wanted as opposed to having to run, that I jumped on the elliptical, the rowing machine and the free weights bench. That was yesterday, and today my aching backside is a painful reminder that I clearly haven’t done squats in a while.
I haven’t been for a run yet, but I’m definitely going to keep it up. I impressed myself with my 10km time and my next goal will be to push for a sub-50 minutes. I’m looking forward to spending the summer swimming, cycling and maybe even taking up yoga (maybe). My diet has been pretty horrendous this week, but I’ve now gotten all the poutine and fudge out of my system and am craving vegetables, salad and outdoor activity. My finishers medal is hung up in the bedroom, and my certificate is taped up by my desk at work. Next time I’m having a tough day and am feeling stressed, I’ll look at that certificate and remember that it’ll take something petty horrific to match the traumatic (but ultimately satisfying) experience of running 21.1km.