I Ran a Half Marathon: Confessions of a Reluctant Runner
I was about to run my first half marathon, and the morning was not going well.
My sister and I stood shivering, watching steam rise off Lake Monona, waiting in line for one last chance to pee.
The temperature, 80 when I left Durham the day before, was a zippy 37 degrees. I’d had no idea how to dress, having run in a tank and shorts for the past five months, and had brought only a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt and capris.
The back of my ankle stung where I had nicked it while shaving the morning before in a rush to get to the airport. My toes were wet from the walk through a grassy field to the bathroom line.
And these were only my new problems.
When my sister talked me in to running the Madison Garden Marathon with her, it was less than two months away. It had been years since I’d run more than four consecutive miles. So I was already on a compressed training schedule when I was sidelined by the accident, which I will heretofore call the “injury” because it sounds more athletic and less clumsy.
But clumsy is what it was: just me hitting the back of my head on the car door frame while retrieving Noah’s water bottle from the back seat.
It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened – I’m constantly bruising my hips on corners of furniture or bumping my shoulders against door jambs. I’ve probably even hit my head the same way before.
But this time was different. The headache and stiff neck that immediately followed became a headache and stiff neck that lasted for a week, and then two, with additional symptoms – fatigue, tingly fingers – after running that I couldn’t say for sure were real or paranoia.
Just three weeks before the race, my doctor determined that I probably had a mild concussion and maybe whiplash, but cleared me to continue training. That left me time for just two long runs.
And now here I was, with cold, soggy toes and a Daisy Fuentes for Kohl’s T-shirt, about to run 13.1 miles.
I never wanted to run a half-marathon.
My relationship with running was on-and-off for the last ten years. It officially started with a Couch to 5K program as part of my look-good-in-a-wedding-dress push. I shocked myself when I ran three miles.
I had been mildly athletic as a kid: basketball and volleyball, mostly. But running was nothing more than a necessary evil for those sports. Why else were the sprints from line-to-line on the court called “suicides”?
Nonetheless, running always seemed like something I should do. I remember meeting with my neighborhood friends early one summer morning to go for a jog. It was the ’80s, after all. I had emptied out one of those bear-shaped bottles that honey came in to use as a water bottle. We probably went three blocks. That was my first and last jog for the next decade.
My next one-off run occurred during my lean (financially, not physically; I was subsisting on beer and cheese) years in Chicago. After losing my dream movie job, I was unemployed for nearly three months. It was the middle of winter, and I filled my days applying for coffee shop jobs, surfing the Internet at the library and studying for the GRE. One day I randomly decided to go for a run.
I had not exercised at all for several years and smoked socially. I can’t even imagine what clothes I owned that were suitable for running, much less running in Chicago in January. But I went outside and made a desperate loop around the block before, lungs and legs burning, I went back inside.
Couch to 5K taught me how to run; it started with walk/running and built to a full 3.1 mile run. It was a welcome change in approach to my go all out/collapse three minutes later plan.
But in the ten years since I first ran that 5k, I hadn’t been particularly motivated to do much more. Sure, there was one slow 10k. And I did most of the training for a 10-mile race, but peaked with one 7-mile nighttime run around my neighborhood that resulted in a chafed inner arm and the decision that I didn’t really feel like driving all the way to the starting line so early on a Saturday morning anyway.
So yes, while I’ve always had an excuse, most of my running progress has been squelched by good old-fashioned laziness. But even after I started my big fitness push in April and was working out most days, I decided there was something else: I liked running for fitness, but I didn’t love it. If I had to focus my limited free time on just a few things I’m passionate about, running wouldn’t make the cut.
But wouldn’t you know that something I am passionate about – spending time with my family – would find a way to sneak it back in. In the form of my sister, specifically.
As I mentioned in our July vacation recap, I ran with Katie while visiting her in Madison, and she mentioned that she was training for a half marathon in September. Coincidentally, I was already planning on traveling back to the Midwest that same weekend to celebrate my mom’s 65th birthday.
“You should totally run it with me!” Katie said.
“Ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Pass the donuts,” I replied.
But after I returned home, she kept bringing it up. How fun it would be to run together. How nice it would be to have a partner for a race. How pretty the course was and how nice the weather would be in Madison in September. I was going to be there anyway, so at that point, my options were to run it with her or cheer her across the finish line wondering if it could have been me.
So, against my better judgement, I said yes.
My training was less than stellar. First, running in North Carolina in the summer just sucks. It especially sucks if you’re lazy like me (see previous comments) and refuse to get up early to beat the heat. Traditionally I’ve run at night, but it’s not much cooler. Plus, I was exhausted after spending the whole day with the boys.
I planned my long runs for weekend mornings. But even then, I didn’t make an effort to go to bed early or get up early. By the time I made breakfast for myself and the kids and rolled out into the street, it was nearly 9:00, the air like bathwater. I spent every run darting from shade to shade. Even on cool days, I dislike running in the sun. I’m the running equivalent of a vampire.
Then, of course, there was the injury.
I took the entire first week off after the head bump, then got back to short runs. I felt crappy after them, but was also getting nervous about losing any more time. If I was going to run this stupid race, I wanted to be ready.
Finally, after feeling horrible after a 6 mile run and a headache so bad I spent the night googling “brain aneurysm,” I saw the doctor. She gave me a prescription for muscle relaxants and the okay to keep training.
I guess it was what I wanted to hear.
The next Saturday I ran a miserable 7 miles. My iTunes didn’t work, so I spent the majority of the run listening to the sound of my own huffing and puffing, interrupted only by a brief phone conversation with my sister in which I cursed her for ever getting me into this. I limped through the final two miles.
Then the weekend before the race, Katie, Mike and Finn came to visit. Katie had completed a “great” 10-mile run the weekend before, and was looking forward to another one with me.
I, on the other hand, was full of dread. Dread bordering on anger. I complained about how hot the next day was going to be. Katie said we’d go early, before it got too hot. I grumbled about what a literal buzz-kill it was that we couldn’t have a few drinks and stay up late like normal people do on vacation. She told me get over it, it was one day.
I got to sleep too late and woke up at 5:00, a full hour before my alarm was supposed to go off. I couldn’t fall back asleep, so instead I lay there, hating running, wondering why in the world anyone did such stupid things as running long distances, rueing the day I let myself get talked into signing up for this dumb race. Right before 6:00, I turned off my alarm with an angry stab at my phone screen and got up.
The funny thing is that the moment I was standing, I was fine. Even though my bedroom was still dark, even though I had only 5 hours of sleep, even though the heat and humidity were already creeping in.
Katie and I ate our peanut butter toast with the sunrise, then drove to the trail where I planned to do our run. I was no longer feeling hateful, but I wasn’t looking forward to it, either.
And then the strangest thing happened: it wasn’t that bad.
I mean, yeah, it was slow, and I walked part of the last couple miles. But the run itself, all two hours of it, felt pretty good. The trail was pretty and it was energizing to be out with so many other runners.
And then, the best part. You know the “runner’s high” everyone talks about? I thought I had felt it before. A general good feeling after a run, a sense of accomplishment, a pleasant tiredness.
Well if that’s a runner’s high, after our 10-mile run, I had runner’s delirium.
Now, it could have been a lot of things: the donuts we got immediately after the run, the novelty of having Katie in town, the thrill of having finished. But it was something else, too. I was a lunatic. Punch drunk. I was starving and food tasted amazing. The beer I had a lunch was the most delicious I had ever encountered. I had crazy madwoman laughing fits. I punctuated stories with karate kicks.
I took a nap. A long, coma-like nap that practically required an ice bucket challenge to wake me.
Guys, it felt awesome. THAT was a high I could get addicted to.
But I still had to run the race.
One week and one short run later, I wasn’t so sure that I cared about that high anymore.
We were off, running our first few miles slowly. Katie was giddy, singing and giving me an exaggerated pep talk.
Shut. Up. I told her.
There were 13.1 miles ahead. I was not in a joking mood.
We had agreed to run the first three miles together and then split. Katie had been training longer and harder than me, and we both wanted her to have the best race possible. I also realized that our temperaments may not have been well-suited for running the race together.
Katie was driven and competitive. I just wanted it over.
It was like all the tests I took in college not caring what grade I got, as long as I could just stop studying and worrying about it. As long as it was just done.
I watched her orange hat bob off ahead of me, and trudged on.
I made a deal with myself to get halfway before I stopped and stretched. Around mile 7 my knees were starting to hurt, something that had not happened during my training. I did a quick stretch and plodded up the next hill. When I got to the top, I peeled my long-sleeved shirt off my tank and tied it around my waist. The weather had turned out to be perfect: with the sun going in and out, I was slightly chilly, but I’d take it over hot any day.
I made it to mile 10 reasonably well. I had knocked 20 minutes off the time it took us to go 10 miles the week before. There were only three miles left! How bad could it be, I cheered myself.
Pretty bad, as it turns out. The next two miles were hard. I plodded along, my quads burning. I slowed for seconds-long walk breaks to shake them out, only to find that my legs had turned to floppy rubber bands.
I made it to mile 12. Almost home free. Only one more mile! There’s no excuse not to crush this mile, I thought. Make up some of the lost time from the slowing down in the last few miles. Burn to the end.
Except for the small problem that there was no gas left in the tank. Compounded by the fact that most of the final mile was uphill.
“Go!” my brain yelled, only to watch my legs grind slower and slower against the pavement.
iTunes shuffled in “The Distance.”
We climbed up through the neighborhood. I ran past a gorgeous house with a for sale sign in the front yard. It was perched on a hill overlooking the lake. “I wouldn’t run a full marathon if someone offered me that house for it,” I thought.
And then, with one terrific downhill rush, it was over. I saw my mom, Mike, Katie, Finn and Katie’s friend Marie. I did my best elbow/wrist pageant wave as I ran by on my way to the finish line.
It was done. Two hours, 25 minutes. Slower than my pace during the first half of the race had me hoping, but faster than I could have dreamed of a week ago.
I did not get quite the runner’s high I had during my last long run. Runner’s exhaustion, yes. Runner’s inability to go up stairs without clutching the bannister, yes. Runner’s nausea from downing a carton of chocolate milk, a beer and two cups of coffee in quick succession, absolutely. I saw a flash of the high once, in some uncontrolled laughter over something at brunch. But mostly, I felt wrung out like a wet washcloth.
But I also felt proud. Really, really proud. I never wanted to run a half marathon. I never thought I could have. And now it was done. I had a medal and an official time to prove it . It’s like all those dreams where I’m back in high school or college looking for a classroom and realize I’ve missed the class all semester and now it’s time for the final, but then in the dream I remember “But I already got my diploma. That’s already mine.”
Even if I never ran another step in my life, this is my accomplishment to keep.
But of course I have already run a few miles. Turns out that I may be a little more into running than I was admitting to myself. That it may be a little higher on my priority list than I realized.
So I’m going to keep running. I’m going to keep chasing that high. Even if it’s just to make a donut taste that much sweeter.