half marathons

What I learned from running my first half marathon

Quote: Running well is having the patience to persevere when we are tired, and not expecting instant results.
Image: Runners World

It’s been two weeks since I completed my first half marathon. The race was a challenge — much more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Here are some lessons I learned from the experience:

Proper training
Physically, I thought I had it in the bag. I was logging 20-25 miles a week. I felt strong and confident, and still enjoying the high from running a PR in the Pikes Peek 10k the week before. But the training wasn’t enough. Most of those miles had been treadmill miles, which is very different from road miles. Some people can’t do the treadmill because it’s boring, and they say the miles seem a lot longer. But it works for me. Yes, it can be boring, but the conditions are perfect. You don’t experience any bumps or turns, no steep hills or declines, no excessive heat or strong winds forcing you to sway. It’s just straight and steady in an air-conditioned room. The problem is though, if you’re training for long outdoor races, it’s important to get your body used to running in those types of conditions. And my body was not.

Proper nutrition
I now know why all of those energy and protein bars and shakes and gels and what have you exists. I never thought I would ever say this, but sometimes I’m just not hungry. And forcing myself to eat, especially heavy carbs and protein, makes me feel sick. But, the thing is, it is absolutely necessary to fuel your body properly before a race, and that was something I failed to do before the half marathon.

The carbs you eat the night before a race is mostly stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver. Glycogen is your body’s most easily accessible form of energy. When your body burns through all of the glycogen during a race, that’s when you hit “the wall.” Your body slows down, and begins converting fat for energy. But converting fat into energy isn’t as efficient and takes longer. That’s why proper carbo-loading can help runners maintain energy throughout the race and avoid hitting the wall.

Getting enough sleep
I couldn’t fall asleep the night before the race. I tossed and turned, flipped my pillows a few times. Nothing. Nothing, until well past midnight. I was tired when I woke up at 4 a.m. to get ready for the race. I’m not sure how to deal with this problem yet, because it’s not like I didn’t try to go to bed early — I was under the covers at 9 p.m.! Maybe it was anxiety about the half marathon that kept me up. Hopefully this will pass as I get more comfortable running these races.

Getting to the race early
This is one thing I did right. I don’t like being late for things — it stresses me out, so I knew getting there early was key for me. One of the volunteers at the Frederick Running Festival on Saturday (the day before the race) strongly advised participants and spectators to arrive no later than 5:45 a.m. Road closures began at 5:30. I got there a little before 5:30, found an awesome parking spot, and had plenty of time to relax and stretch before the race.

Pacing is important
Running is the art of pacing. And I did not pace myself well during this race. Part of the reason was that I honestly thought I could complete the half marathon in less than two hours. Ha. I was not prepared for Frederick’s hills and frequent turns. I started in the 2:00 wave, when I should have started in 2:10 wave. And not only that, I felt myself going faster than the runners in my wave. It was too fast, too soon. This is something I definitely need to work on. Proper pacing is essential to a more successful run.

Ice is magical
One of the many great tips from my colleague, Kevin: Ice your legs after the race. When I got home from Frederick, all I wanted to do was pass out. I didn’t even want to shower. (But I did!). After the shower, I filled a couple of gallon-sized Ziploc bags with ice, put on a sweatshirt (to stay warm), and iced my legs for about half an hour. The ice constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which helps reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. When the ice is removed, your legs warm up with increased blood flow that speeds circulation and helps with the healing process. Ice is magical. My legs were barely sore the next day.

Those are my six takeaways from my first half marathon. Running that race was a lot harder than I thought it would be, and sometimes (a lot of times, actually) I have doubts about whether I’ll be able to complete my 50 states challenge. I’m hoping it’ll get easier. I guess we’ll see. Next week, I take on Virginia at the Alexandria Running Festival.

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