1st half marathon: May 4, 2014
Official time: 2:15:08
Training method: Ran approximately 3 times a week, paid very little attention to diet, no strength training, no cross-training, no hydration schedule, no sleep schedule, did not drink alcohol the week before the race.
2nd half marathon: August 1, 2015
Official time: 1:52:46 (1st place for age group in an all-women's race)
Training method: Ran 3-4 times a week, ate clean 90% of the time, strength trained 4 days a week, cross-trained once a week, no hydration schedule, no sleep schedule, did not drink alcohol the month before the race.
3rd half marathon: January 23, 2015
Official time: 1:47:06 (3rd place for gender & age group)
Training method: Ran 5-6 times a week, ate clean 80% of the time, strength trained 3 days a week, cross-trained once a week, regular hydration schedule, regular sleep schedule, no alcohol or coffee since January 1, 2016.
Did I wear an athletically fitted adult undergarment during my half marathon? YES. What?! Listen: You're asking so much of your body when you put it through a long, grueling run. There are only so many times my bladder can repetitively bounce up and down without responding. It's not as if I'm full-on peeing myself (though have I done this during previous races? YES! Things happen!) but wearing something protects me from little dribbles here and there. When you get the dying urge to pee and you're in the middle of a long race and don't want to lose time, you will thank yourself.
Sorry to start this list off with two incredibly TMI entries, but I want to be real with you. Having a bowel movement before your race starts is imperative because YOU DO NOT want to feel like you're going to have a bowel movement during the race. This is why I always eat a banana two hours prior. Clear the system before you go or you WILL regret it.
I'm not here to preach to you about the foods you eat, but I will say that the foods I ate made a WORLD of difference. If you want to train seriously for a half marathon, take a hard look at your diet. Does it include fast food? Processed food? Fried food? Sugary desserts? What kind of bread do you eat? Is it white or whole wheat? What about rice: white or brown? Do you eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables? Do you incorporate lean proteins and healthy fats? These things are important. Your body is a machine that needs to be fueled properly. Fill it with junk and it will slow down on you.
This is one of those things that was so tough for me at first and then eventually became very easy. There are a lot of people who will disagree with me on this one, but in my opinion alcohol and running do not mix. Alcohol is dehydrating, for one. Secondly, alcohol contains sugar. In addition to all the usual side effects of alcohol (dulled senses, impaired judgment, loss of discretion when it comes to food choices), alcohol has a way of lingering in the body. Drinking a glass of wine Sunday night can have a great impact on Monday morning's run. It's so much better for me if I just skip it altogether. Another thing I've cut out completely: coffee. I know people LOVE their coffee and I know people swear by its caffeinating powers, so I'm not going to stress this one too hard. But I will say this: coffee is dehydrating, too. Try to at least lay off it the day before and the morning before your big race.
The only way to know how much effort to expend on the big day is to train during the months prior. Those long runs you do (usually on the weekends) are your dress rehearsals. Treat them as if they're the real thing and run as hard as you can. (Some advise against this. Some say long training runs should always be slow and steady, and you should save all your big energy for the race itself. Do what works best for YOU.) Make sure you're tapering off in the weeks prior to the race. (This is why it's important to follow a program.) Your long run the weekend before the race shouldn't be longer than 8 miles and your mid-week runs the week of your race shouldn't be longer than 6. During the race, adrenaline is going to push you a little faster than you're used to going. I generally try to ride out the adrenaline rush for the first few miles and then settle into my normal pace around miles 4-5. Race Day is not the day to suddenly decide to push significantly harder than you normally push. Your body will likely allow you to go a little faster than you normally do, but not a lot. Go too hard in the beginning and you will crash toward the end. The goal is always to FINISH, so pace yourself accordingly.
Races aren't cheap. When you pay a race entry, you're usually paying for a timed chip, shirt, medal, and post-race provisions. This can seem like a bummer when you don't really care about the shirt of medal and you leave the race without digging into the free food, but it's still nice that it's offered. It takes a lot to put on a big race. If your race goes out on the streets, police may shut down traffic for certain intersections of the course. This is not a free service. In fact, nothing comes for free. If you want to race, you'll need to invest in proper shoes and gear. All of this can add up, so choose your races wisely. If it's important to you to get a drink ticket for beer or wine or a meal ticket or some other specific perk, do your research and find the races that offer those things.
What you wear is important. It's especially important when the weather is either very hot or very cold, but it's also important every time in between. Before you put any clothes on, think about the temperature. If it's hot, put on sunscreen. Whether it's hot or cold, put on Body Glide or a similar product to guard your feet against blisters. Invest in socks specifically designed for running: their main ingredient is not cotton and they're designed to wick away moisture. If it's going to be cold, you'll need base layers. If it's going to be really cold, you may need gloves and a hat. It is extremely helpful, if you're wearing multiple layers, to have someone you know standing on the sidelines somewhere along the course so that if you decide to ditch a layer, you can toss it to them and move on. This is exactly what happened to me on Saturday: I started with a rain coat because it was raining, then got too hot as I increased my speed and threw the jacket to my parents on the sidelines around Mile 5. I also peeled my gloves off a few miles in and threw them in the pocket on my water holster. This reminds me: get a water holster. I have one that holds two eight-ounce bottles of water. This is usually enough for me and I don't need to accept any of the water cups offered at water stations. I generally take one big sip of water every mile. For ME, this works perfectly.
Hydration can be a tricky thing because you want to be sure you're properly hydrated but you don't want to feel like you have to pee during the race. My solution for this is to work on being super hydrated the week before the race (aiming for well above 64 ounces a day), but only drink 8 ounces of water the morning of the race. By doing this and taking my one sip of water every mile, I stay on track without overdoing it.
I was lucky to have a very flat course for this last race, but that's not always the case. If you're going to encounter hills during your race, you MUST incorporate hills during your training. The only way to learn how to run on an incline is to practice running on an incline. And here's a tough truth: Incline running NEVER gets easy. It gets EASIER, but it never gets easy. You will never run up a large hill and feel as if no energy was expended, no matter how fit you are. Hills are tough. Hills will always be tough. Hills will slow you down. If you haven't been running hills and you start adding them in, prepare to watch your times slow dramatically. It's okay. Running inclines is one of the easiest-yet-hardest ways to become a stronger runner. If you're the type of person who can stomach a treadmill (I'm not), challenge yourself to run on an incline. If you're running outside, find the biggest hills you can. Run to the top. Run to the bottom. If you have anything left, run to the top again.
JUST DO IT:
You're not going to feel like running every day. You're just not. Trust me: I do not feel like running every day. If it's cold or raining or cold AND raining or if I'm tired or busy or tired AND busy, I'll want to skip my run. But here's the thing: I can't. When you're training for a half marathon, you're training for a half marathon. That's all there is to it. Miss training runs and your entire training program falls behind schedule. Skip your long runs and you won't know how hard to push during the real race. Skip short runs and your pacing will never improve. If you're sick, don't run. If you're injured, don't run. If you're having a mental breakdown, don't run. Otherwise: Run. Just do it.
KRISTEN DOES IT THIS WAY:
I read an interview recently with Gretchen Rubin, author of THE HAPPINESS PROJECT. When asked about her 2016 mantra, she said something to the effect of "Be Gretchen." I love this. You're the only person who knows what you're truly capable of, what works best for you, and how you need to go about approaching your goals. You can ask other people how they do things, you can read articles like this, you can do all the research in the world, but at the end of the day the most important thing is figuring out the exact prescription for what works best for you and you alone. Not everyone can run six days a week and be happy. Not everyone can give up alcohol or cake, and not everyone should. It doesn't matter if you're aiming to run a half marathon in 1:30 or if you're aiming to run it in 3:00. It doesn't matter if you walk. All that matters is that you do your own thing — whatever thing works best for you. Everything I'm talking about in this list is something that works for ME, so take it all with a grain of salt.
If it's cold outside, you'll need to wear layers. If it's raining, you'll need to wear layers. If it's cold and raining, you'l need to wear layers. If it's cold AND raining, or if it's snowing, or if it's windy, or if there's some other inclement weather going on, you'll need to wear layers. For me, that looks like this: short-sleeved running shirt + long-sleeved running shirt + lightweight rain jacket with gloves, neck wrap, headband that covers my ears or running hat over long pants. I put hand warmers in my gloves during shorter runs, though this actually gets me TOO hot during a long run like a half marathon.
I can generally make it through the first 9 or so miles of a race simply by watching my pace, visualizing the finish line, and running to the beat of music. For the last four or so miles, I need more to keep going. This is where mantras come in. Mantras are little phrases I repeat over and over to myself, saying one syllable inside my head each time my foot hits the ground. During this race, I had different mantras for miles 9, 10, 11, and 12. Mile 9's mantra was "I am strong enough to handle this." Broken down into syllables it looks like this: I-am-strong-e-nough-to-han-dle-this. Mile 10's mantra was "I trained for this" or I-trained-for-this. Mile 11's mantra was "Trust the process" or Trust-the-pro-cess. Mile 12's mantra was "Thank you Fit Girls Guide" or Thank-you-Fit-Girls-Guide because using their programs helped me to build my strength, fitness, stamina, endurance, and confidence. For me, focusing on these mantras (and nothing but these mantras) during my last few miles was the difference between quitting and finishing.
I always assumed that when you improve as a runner, you continue to improve no matter what. If you're running an 8-minute mile one month and a 7:40 mile the next, you're not going to go back to running an 8-minute mile the next month, right? Guess what? Wrong. Your body gets tired. Your mind gets tired. Your body and mind working together get tired. You're not going to set a new personal record every day. You're not going to improve every day. Sometimes you will slide backwards. Sometimes you will slide backwards for weeks at a time. There are few things as frustrating as being able to run a 7:40 mile one week and slipping back to an 8-minute mile the next week, but you have to trust the process. There are reasons some runs are slower than others and there are reasons some runs are a LOT slower than others. Your body may be in recovery mode from your last big run. It may be in conservation mode for your next big run. Trust the process and trust your body. It can be frustrating to stop improving and even more frustrating to slide back, but as long as you keep working you'll eventually push through. Trudging through a slow, sluggish run isn't a lot of fun at the time, but you'll ultimately be rewarded for your consistency when you hit a new PR a few weeks down the road.
Several weeks before this last half marathon, I started to get a nagging case of self-doubt. I was having a lot of not-so-great training runs (see above) and feeling like maybe I wasn't ready for another big race, despite all my training. Or maybe I was overtraining? What if I was exhausting myself before the fact? I started to question everything I was doing. But then I got a hold of myself. I reminded myself or my mantras: I am strong enough to handle this. I trained for this. Trust the process. If you've been training hard, you're ready. My mind was trying to convince me that even though I did just fine in my 14 and 15-mile training runs, I wasn't ready for my big 13.1 run. I had to remind my mind that I WAS ready, and I'd done everything I needed to do, and it wasn't a question of whether or not I'd finish (of course I'd finish) but how quickly I'd get it done. I AM STRONG ENOUGH TO HANDLE THIS. I TRAINED FOR THIS. TRUST THE PROCESS. On bad days, repeat these lines over and over until you believe them.
This last half marathon was the first one I've done with pacers, and I absolutely loved the experience. Pacers are people who have trained themselves to maintain steady paces throughout the race, so they know pretty much exactly when they expect to finish. This race had pacers in 15-minute increments, starting with a 1:45 pacer. (Runners expecting to run faster than 1:45 were on their own for pacing.) I really liked this system because I knew that as long as I kept my eye on the 1:45 pacer (he was literally holding a sign that said "1:45" during the entire race), I would be able to finish around that time. Since I'd been training to run about 1:50, I knew to keep my eye on him but to also hold back a little. I figured I'd finish about two minutes behind him and I was right. It worked perfectly. If there aren't pacers at your race, you have to rely more on other cues, like technology (most running apps will tell you your mileage) and intuition (How do you FEEL? Are you breathless? Are you running at a pace you can maintain? Do you feel like you're going either faster or slower than normal?) Half marathons are tricky because it's a big enough distance that for most people, you can't just go all-out and run as hard a possible for the entire 13.1 miles. The trick is finding the sweet spot where you're running hard but not TOO hard. You want to be able to finish the race and you want to be in one piece at the end of the day.
QUALITY VERSUS QUANTITY:
This is a hotly debated topic in the running community. Some runners believe that the best way to train is to run the minimum amount of miles that you can per week and still improve. The theory here is to train harder, not longer. Other runners think the way to improve is by logging more miles, period. I've approached different races with different training methods and I can honestly see the advantages of both. When you're running less, you're more refreshed. You have more energy, which can lead to better times. When you're running more, though, your body gets acclimated and you quickly build up the endurance and stamina to withstand longer runs. The sweet spot is probably again somewhere in the middle: running three days a week may be too light and six days may be overkill.
Last month, Portland had its rainiest December in history. I ran 33 of my last 41 training runs in the rain. Sometimes this was a light drizzle and sometimes it was an absolute downpour, but either way I had to be prepared. If running in inclement weather sounds like the worst thing imaginable to you, you may want to rethink the idea of a winter race and aim for the spring or summer instead. If you're going to race in winter, you're going to have to train in winter. For me, the best way I've figured out how to train in rainy weather is to just do it. Put on your lightweight running jacket, put on a hat with a brim so the raindrops can bounce away from you, put on your heated gloves, and just do it. I'll be honest: the five minutes I spend warming up for my cold, rainy runs are the worst five minutes of my entire day. But once I get into the rhythm of running, I forget about the cold and the rain — unless it's raining so hard I can't forget about it, in which case I allow myself to feel like a total badass for persevering. After your run, peel off your wet clothes, take a hot shower, and get on with your day.
Strong muscles are able to carry you over finish lines. Do not make the mistake of focusing solely on running if you're training for a half marathon. Running is only part of the equation. Incorporating strength training helps you to build stronger muscles and it also gives you a diversion. Even people who love running get bored doing it day in and day out. Strength training days shake up the routine and allow you to challenge your body and mind in ways that don't happen out on the road.
My best advice about technology is to a.) use it and b.) expect it to fail. I absolutely rely on running apps for my training and I also rely on music and GPS to power me through my runs. At this point I've been in enough races to know this: things happen on race day. I got a new phone the day before one 10K and was quite surprised to discover three minutes before the race began that the music from my old phone had not neatly transferred to my new phone. I had to run that entire 10K in silence. During my final 5K of 2015, my hands were so cold that I couldn't properly press the button I needed when one of my running apps paused, so it simply stopped recording my miles three-quarters of the way through. And at this last half marathon, my music didn't start playing alongside my app right away and when it finally did after some sweaty fumbling, it didn't play the running playlist I had carefully set up; instead, it cycled through my entire library of mostly super-mellow folksy and singer-songwriter songs. Running to Willie Nelson singing "You Were Always On My Mind" is not an ideal scenario. But guess what? Stuff happens with technology, especially on race days. I just had to run with it.
Invest in proper-fitting sports bras. Don't wear cotton underwear. Practice your runs wearing the underwear you plan on wearing on Race Day. I have some pairs of underwear that, for whatever reason, start to slide down when I run. Trust me: You do not want to be dealing with underwear that's falling down while you're running. Figure this out well in advance of Race Day. The last thing you want to be thinking about is your underwear. (Practice wearing ALL the clothes you're going to wear before the race itself. This is not the time to bust out a cute new outfit.)
VALUE OF A SUPPORT SYSTEM:
Running is a pretty solitary endeavor and the truth is that no one can run your miles for you, no one else can motivate you, and no one else can feel either the physical sensations or the emotional changes that you'll experience as a result of running. Still, it's important to have a support system. I'm not the type of person who announces my runs to all of my friends before my races, but I can see how if I did it would be nice to have a crowd of people there cheering me on. I prefer to keep my support system a little smaller, though, so I pull my strength off the support offered to me by my parents and husband. My husband's support is especially important because my lifestyle impacts his. I need for him to be on board with me eating specific meals, going to bed at early hours, and spending weekends NOT meeting up with friends for a wine tasting, but instead getting up at 5 a.m. to drive to the race site. My husband helps me with grocery shopping, meal prepping, cycling through the never-ending piles of sweaty workout laundry, and everything else. My husband drove to the venue the day of the race while I focused my mind. He was standing on the sidelines of the course to cheer me on at both the halfway point and finish line. Seeing his face halfway through encouraged me to keep pushing. My parents come to every race I run, and there have been multiple occasions when I've thrown things to them (this time my rain jacket, another time my entire phone) on the sidelines because I needed to get rid of those things to run my best race. My parents and I also have a post-run tradition of going out to breakfast after every race. Sometimes this is what I'm thinking about the most when I need to push through: as soon as I finish here, I get to go eat something delicious. Just X more miles, and then I can go have breakfast. Without my husband and parents cheering me on, the motivation to continue would dwindle.
I generally wear three rings: my engagement ring, my wedding ring, and my grandma's engagement ring. When I'm running or working out, though, I don't wear any of them. They're too precious and I don't want to be worrying about them when I'm covered in sweat and mud. Instead, I wear a silicone ring from Qalo on my ring finger during workouts and runs. This is just a little symbolic thing I do for myself: I feel like I'm honoring my marriage, of which I am so proud, without mucking up the real rings of my marriage. It's a way for me to feel connected to my husband without worrying about dragging something so beautiful through such brutal workouts.
XTRA, XTRA: PLAN AHEAD OF TIME:
Planning ahead of time is the key to my success. Whether it's prepping my meals, setting my workout outfits out ahead of time, or just knowing the schedule the week before it starts, it pays to stay on top of things. Training for a half marathon is incredibly time-consuming. I also have a career, a marriage, a social life, and a house I like to keep clean. There's only one way to balance all these things and that's to be as organized as possible. Sometimes this means I don't get to do everything I want to do. Sometimes I have to turn down cuddling up to watch a two-hour movie because I desperately need those two hours to go grocery shopping or finish the laundry. When training for a half marathon, you'll encounter a lot of choices. Knowing what you want ahead of time will help you to manage your time and make the decisions that are best for you.
YIELDING TO YOUR BODY:
When I was talking about mantras before, I should have mentioned the most important one: Listen to your body. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Lis-ten-to-your-body. Trust me: Your body knows. Your body is a very smart machine. When your body sends you signals (I'm exhausted today / I think I'm getting sick / I feel sore / Please go easy on me / I have extra energy today / I need more sleep / I'm thirsty / I'm hungry), LISTEN. Yield to your body. Yield to your body even if it's the biggest race of your life to date and your body is saying "Please, please, please slow down" but your mind is saying, "Let's push through and go for a record!" Yield to your body. Your body knows.
Here's my big secret about running half marathons: I've never actually run a half marathon. At least, I haven't mentally run a half marathon. I've never thought to myself: I'm going to run 13.1 miles today. Can you imagine how daunting that would be? Here's what I think instead: I'm going to run a 5K. Easy breezy. When I reach three miles: I'm going to run another 5K. Six miles: I'm going to run another 5K. Nine miles: I'm going to run one last 5K. Twelve miles: I'm just going to run one more mile. Thirteen miles: I'm just going to run until I get to the finish line. 5K, 5K, 5K, 5K, 1 mile, finish line. During that last .1 mile, I zero in on that finish line like you wouldn't believe. I don't have to be the best. I don't have to be the fastest. I just have to make it through that finish line.
This is the most comprehensive post about running I've ever written, but if you still want more, I have more. Try these previous posts:
Let's Talk About Running Apps (a breakdown of ALL the running apps I use)
2015: My Year in Running (a reflection on the improvements I made and lessons I learned while running in 2015)
Park Project (in which I share how running to a different park each time I ran helped bust running boredom)
Twelve Months, Twelve Races, and a Lifetime of Lessons (reflecting on the 12 races I ran during the 12 months of 2015)