Yesterday, I braved the snow and ice (thanks a lot, Nemo!) and went out for my last long run before the Disney Princess Half Marathon. I planned to take on 12 miles — my longest run to date. Though the packed down snow and icy patches along my usual route slowed me down a bit, I am happy to announce that I finished all 12 miles…and, most importantly, that I felt pretty damn good!
I know that many half marathon training plans only go up to 10 miles, but I wanted to see if I could push myself just a bit further. I needed to prove to myself that I CAN take on this distance…and I’m figuring the adrenaline and the excitement of seeing that finish line will carry me through the final 1.1 miles on race day!
As I was making my way through yesterday’s wintry wonderland, I did a lot of thinking. Knowing that it was my last long run after months and months of training (I’ve been working on building up my base since LAST AUGUST!), I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nostalgic about my running journey thus far. I have a feeling that there will be many more half marathons in my future, but because this is my first — and, let’s face it, because it’s taking place at Walt Disney World — I know it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Last summer, my idea of “running” was heading out for slow 2-3 mile jog a few times a week at the park near my apartment. It was just something I did to exercise when I had the time. At that point, I had also completed a few 5Ks and 4-milers “just for fun.” Yet despite my inexperience, for some reason, I felt compelled to go ahead and sign up for a half marathon.
The thought of running a half marathon — especially a RunDisney event — had crossed my mind several times in the past, but it was never something I thought I could actually accomplish. Those events, after all, were for “real” runners.
I had no idea then just how much clicking that “register” button was going to change my life, and as I tackled yesterday’s scheduled 12 miles, I found myself thinking about all of the things I’ve learned along my journey to my first half marathon. And, what a coincidence, there are 13.1 of ’em!
1.) Running is hard. I figured I’d start with the obvious. Six months ago, I saw running as little more than a cardio activity…you know, something you did to burn some calories and maybe even drop a few pounds. I had no idea how much jargon there was to learn (fartleks, anyone?) or the experimentation necessary to find the right sneakers or pre-race fuel or what it would take to complete a structured training plan of runs over the course of a few months. The act of running is pretty straightforward, I suppose — one foot in front of the other — but there is NOTHING easy about it.
2.) Runners are among the most supportive people — ever! As I’ve become more active on social media sites like Twitter, and even running-specific sites like Daily Mile, I have found nothing but support from fellow runners. Whether I’m chatting with people at races or sharing tips on-line, there’s definitely a “we’re all in this together” kind of mentality that comes from the shared experience of running. I’m so grateful for all the runners who have offered guidance, support, and that much-needed bit of encouragement along the way!
3.) Running is as much mental as it is physical. When I started getting serious about improving, I found that runners and running magazines and running websites and running books and all of the various sources of information I started studying seemed to allude to this fact. To be honest, I never believed it…until now. I’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to have your body quit on you, whether it’s during a 10-mile training run or a local 5K. Even when my legs feel like lead and I want nothing more than to take a nap on the side of the road, somehow, your mind takes over…and you just get through it. It’s that same mental toughness that has gotten me out the door to squeeze in an early morning run, run a race on a 85-degree day, or perhaps even tackle a 12-miler in the aftermath of a blizzard!
4.) Running is completely, utterly addicting. I used to see runners on the side of the road at 6am on a frigid winter morning or a blistering hot summer afternoon and wonder what the hell they were thinking. Now I know. The runner’s high is oh-so-very real, and I need it. All the time. If I’m sick or injured or am unable to run for any length of time — even just a few days — I can’t even describe the torture! I feel as though my life revolves around running now…when I’m not actually pounding the pavement, I’m registering for my next race or researching new workouts or reading magazines like Runner’s World. I know running can be tough on the body, but as someone who used to be addicted to food, I’d say this is a much healthier alternative!
5.) There are countless ways to get injured. I’m not stupid or anything…I knew running wasn’t exactly akin to yoga or taking a spin on a stationary bike, but I had no idea just how hard day after day of running 4 or 6 or 8 or 10+ miles was going to be on my body. I’ve become accustomed to being sore pretty much all the time, and I’m lucky in that I’ve suffered only minor injuries throughout my half marathon training. But the fear of knowing that I can injure myself enough to take me out of the game, so to speak, at any given moment is pretty damn terrifying. It’s just so easy to suffer a stress fracture or develop tendinitis or pull a hamstring, and that sort of leads me to my next lesson learned…
6.) You learn to appreciate your body and everything it can do. It’s no secret that I’ve always pretty much hated my body. A lifetime of being 30 or 50 or 100 pounds overweight at any given time and being called oh-so-flattering nicknames like “thunder thighs” throughout your elementary, middle, and high school years can do that to you. I may be a comfortable size 8/10 now, but my body is far from perfect — the years of yo-yo dieting have certainly taken their toll. But since I’ve started running, I can honestly say that I have completely stopped obsessing over my body’s imperfections. When you start proving to yourself on a daily basis just how strong you are, or how fast you can be, suddenly a little loose skin just doesn’t seem so important anymore. My legs are definitely larger than the average person’s, but you know what? Those legs have carried me through 10K races and 10-mile runs. I am truly ashamed of myself for poisoning my body with food and inactivity for so many years, and taking my health for granted…now that I’m a runner, I do everything in my power to take care of what I have and I fully appreciate just how far these “thunder thighs” have taken me.
7.) The right fuel makes all the difference. As a formerly obese person, my life pretty much used to revolve around eating…and even after my weight loss, I continued to battle with my unhealthy relationship with food. But then you start training for an endurance event like a half marathon, and suddenly, every morsel that passes my lips is evaluated for the way in which it will affect my running. I know exactly which healthy foods will help power me through my next run, and I’ve had to impose all sorts of rules on myself when it comes to racing or preparing for longer runs. Not to mention I had no idea just how difficult it was going to be to find the long run fuel that worked for my apparently sensitive stomach, and would help keep me going for miles and miles (the winner: Clif Shot Bloks!) Running has finally helped me learn to look at food for what it really is — fuel — and for that reason alone, I will continue to lace up my sneakers.
8.) You need more than sneakers. Don’t get me wrong, finding the right pair of footwear is CRITICAL, but I used to think that running was among the more inexpensive activities to get hooked on — especially if you compare it to something like my martial arts classes (not cheap!). If only I had known then the endless amounts of gear that would become essential to my running life, from fuel belts to GPS watches to BondiBands! And then, of course, there’s the wardrobe — my running attire now far outnumbers my “regular” clothing, and I have a full array of sweat-wicking clothing and accessories for every single weather contingency…and, I’ll admit it, in every color and pattern. Nothing wrong with looking cute while you run!
9.) Bad runs happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When I was getting started, I’d constantly battle the urge to throw in the towel after struggling to complete what was supposed to be an “easy” 3-mile training run. I still marvel at the fact that there are days when I take on 7 miles with seemingly little effort, and others when 4 miles feels more like 400 miles. There are so many factors that will affect your performance, from the weather to your level of hydration to what you ate for dinner the night before to what color nail polish you’re wearing (okay, I’m exaggerating), but the bottom line is that no matter how well-trained you are, sometimes you’re just going to have a bad run. And there’s no use in beating yourself up over it.
10.) Runners come in all shapes and sizes. I used to be completely convinced that I could never be a “runner” because I don’t have the typical “runner’s body.” I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I told myself I was too “fat” to run. But when I started participating in races, I looked around and saw people of all shapes and sizes lining up at the starting line…and now I kind of like to think of myself as proof that you definitely do not have to be “skinny” to run! I’ve learned that with proper training, anyone can learn how to improve, regardless of your size…if I can do it, anyone can!
11.) Discipline is EVERYTHING. When it comes to running, I’ve found that there is nothing more important than discipline. Runners succeed because they force themselves out of bed to squeeze in a 4am training run before work, or consistently choose the right foods and get ample sleep because they know it boosts their performance. Once I started disciplining myself to follow a consistent training plan and educate myself on proper nutrition to fuel my new activity, everything changed…suddenly, I could run faster, and felt so much better while doing so. You cannot train for a half marathon or a marathon or a triathlon or any kind of endurance event without having discipline, period.
12.) You can only compete against yourself. I know there are elite athletes, but of course, most of us will never be one of those runners. I spent so much time being intimidated by other runners and the fear of being “too slow” to participate in a race with those who can run a 6 or 7 minute-per-mile pace that it took me this long to figure out that running is a sport where you really only have to worry about yourself. Every race is an opportunity to set your own PR or put your own training to the test or challenge yourself in a new way, and you don’t have to be concerned with what everyone else is doing. You worry about running your own race, and that’s it.
And finally, lesson number 13.1 (sorry, just trying to be cute) I’ve learned while training for my first half marathon:
13.1.) There is nothing — NOTHING — like crossing a finish line. It doesn’t matter how many 5Ks I have under my belt, or the fact that the 10K distance no longer terrifies me…crossing the finish line of a race is an indescribable feeling. When I’ve found myself struggling during a training run, all I have to do is imagine the moment when I cross the finish line of my first half marathon to keep me going. Running is fun and all, but for me, every time I finish a race — regardless of the distance involved — it is proof positive that I am doing something that I never thought I could do. It is the ultimate metaphor for setting a goal and the pride that comes to seeing it through to the very end.
For me, running is kind of like achieving the impossible every single day. And maybe that’s why running my first half marathon at Walt Disney World is just so meaningful to me.
What were some of the things you learned while training for your first half (or full!) marathon?