I had been thinking about running a half marathon for years. But I was never serious about it — I thought about it, but I never thought about it. It was one of those abstract notions that I figured would be an inevitable occurrence along the lines of getting married, buying a house or learning how to make lasagna from scratch. Compared to a full marathon, the half seemed achievable — therefore it was brushed aside to the outskirts of my mind. My mindset always was, “sure, sometime,” but with no real thought to when and with no intention of signing up for a particular race. But then, at the beginning of the summer, spurred by a chance rush of motivation, I decided to move the goal of completing a half marathon from the realm of “theoretically achievable” to that of “actively pursuing.” I laced up my shoes, walked out of my apartment building and went for a run.
Let me back up, and offer a disclaimer: I don’t consider myself an athlete. Not in the traditional sense anyway. I played lacrosse and some soccer in high school, but gave that up very quickly upon reaching college to hike and ski (and party) instead. But I continued to run. My relationship with running is, well, complicated. I’ve always liked running, but only on my own terms: when the weather is pleasant and the loop isn’t much longer than four miles. As the years have passed, I’ve gone through bouts of fairly-diligent running — three or four times a week — that have never lasted more than a few months at a time. Winter would come, and I’d retreat back to the familiarity of my ski boots. Alternatively, I’d skip a day, and then another, and then — you know how that goes. I am the definition of an on-again, off-again runner. So no, I wouldn’t describe myself as an athlete. Athletic? Maybe.
The point I’m trying to get at here is that I’m a fairly average person. I like being active, but I also like pizza, tacos, and beer. I’d certainly never let running get in the way of those things; if anything, it’s more of a justification for them. I’ve never raced, or even bothered to time my four-mile jogs. And I had no idea how to get from four to 13.1.
One thing I did know was that I didn’t want to take any shortcuts. As a journalist, I could’ve reached out to a professional coach or an athlete for a custom training program and in-depth tips. That felt like cheating, so I turned to the next best thing: the Internet. (If you know someone who runs half or full marathons though, you should definitely tap them as a resource — the more advice you can get the better!)
Run a simple Google search for “half marathon training plan” and you’ll wind up with nearly 2 million results. Plans can vary wildly — some are fairly basic, some are complicated; some are free, and some you’ll have to pay for. They also suggest different daily and weekly running goals leading up to race day. These plans can be intimidating. Many make it seem like you should be running nearly every day of the week, with shorter runs scheduled from Monday through Friday and a long run that builds-in distance on the weekend. For a newcomer, running every day seemed daunting.
I spent a few hours reading through various plans and finally decided to synthesize my own program: a hybrid of a complex and thorough regimen by Nike (complete with glossary and pace charts) and a more digestible plan by Hal Higdon that popped up high in Google’s search results. There was no way I was going to run five days a week with a nine-to-five, frequent post-work cocktail events and a 45-minute commute. And there was no way I was going to stop eating pizza and tacos, or nix my beer drinking.
My Goals: My primary goal, at the end of ten weeks of training, was to complete a half marathon in under two hours (and hey, if I could do it in an hour and a half, why not? It’s good to have a hard goal to shoot for). I planned to do this without altering my lifestyle in any way — outside of making extra time to run.
My Strategy: One of my biggest takeaways from all of my research was that training should be methodical, but not necessarily strict. Instead of planning for frequent short runs, I aimed for fewer, longer runs. Another thread that seemed to run through every plan was systematically building up weekly mileage totals along with the weekend endurance run. I knew I’d have to be strict about hitting both of those goals.
Let’s get this out of the way: I met that weekly mileage total three times over the course of 10 weeks of training. I missed the first two of my 10 endurance runs. I know this because I tracked every run I went on and recorded my daily mileage in a Google Sheet, which I highly recommend doing. I also took notes at the end of each week that summed up how the training went. I recommend doing the same. Here are some of those thoughts.
My Training Notes
Week 1: Immediately began speed work on Wednesday’s run to get my pace up. Bad idea – plantar fasciitis in right heel set in the next day and prevented from training the rest of the week.
Week 2: Didn’t cover nearly as many miles as I had hoped this week, largely due to a trip to Mount Rainier. That being said, I didn’t run but I did hike and climb roughly 20 miles and covered nearly 20,000 feet of elevation over the course of three days.
Week 3: First week back into a somewhat regular running routine. Still wary of reigniting my injury from the first week, so I kept things somewhat light. Went heavy on the pizza instead.
Week 4: Spent most of the week in Utah on a work trip but still managed to hit the weekly goal — for the first time. I’m trying, I swear.
Week 6: Only the second time I’ve met the weekly goal, and the first time I was able to squeeze four runs into one week. Scheduling has proven to be the trickiest part of the training process to figure out. I don’t feel lazy or unmotivated, but this log begs to differ.
Week 7: Tough recovering from last weekend’s 11.5 mile run. Far from meeting the weekly goal this time around (18.14 out of 24). Definitely getting tougher to keep up the schedule as the totals get higher.
Week 8: Way off on the weekly total this week, mostly due to a work trip to Oregon. I did complete my longest run yet — 12 miles — and longest of the training period. Ran it at a 7:58 pace and felt solid, which puts me in good shape to hit my low goal of beating 2 hours. Not enough for the high goal of beating 1.5 though.
Week 10: Tapering back before race day felt great!
I missed a lot of my training goals. But I don’t think it mattered. Simply approaching running in a thoughtful and methodical way changed the sport for me. For the first time, I kept track of my distance. I thought about pace, and I pushed myself to hit specific goals. I thought about gait (especially after getting plantar fasciitis during the first week). Early on I noticed — and I assume this was due to the approach I just listed — that I was improving. It was difficult at first, but it got easier. Ten weeks seems like a long time, but it’s not really. I was getting faster, and the longer distances were totally manageable, even in New York City’s miserable heat. Running was no longer just exercise, it was an activity.
My shortest training run was three miles. My longest was 12.02. My lowest weekly total was just over seven miles. My longest was 26.45. My fastest single mile was 6:09, a new personal best.
The race I chose was the Maple Leaf Half Marathon in Manchester, Vermont. I spent my formative years in the area — I learned to ride a bike here, I kissed a girl for the first time here, got drunk for the first time here. It seemed a fitting place for another first. Plus, the whole “hero returns home” narrative seemed all too apropos.
Race day dawned on a typical September day in Southern Vermont. The sky was cloudy, the air chilly and there was a spritz of dew in the grass. I mowed down a bowl of greek yogurt with granola (courtesy of Mom) and banana (courtesy of Dole) before heading to registration. I picked up my bib, number 37, and paced around the starting area in waiting.
Having never raced before, I wasn’t fully aware of how much any pre-race nerves would affect me; I knew that I was ready and that the training had worked, but my heart pounded away. Still pushing for that high goal of 1:30:00, I lined up with the seven-minute milers. It started to sprinkle with rain, and the starting gun went off.
In my research, I had read numerous accounts of inexperienced runners going hard off the start and burning through too much energy too early. That’s a real thing. Even knowing this, I had to constantly keep my pace in check for the first mile, before the pack thinned out and my adrenaline wore off.
Manchester is a small town, and the course weaved its way through and around most of its area. The defining aspect of the route might be the two hills — one long and gradual, the other quick and steep. I tried to keep my pace close to a seven-minute mile on flats and downhills, knowing it would decrease on hills and probably in the last few miles of the race too. That strategy worked — I didn’t bonk, or even come close to feeling like that was a possibility.
Running a half marathon might not seem like a significant feat to many runners. But to someone who has never taken running seriously as a sport — you might call him your average, everyday guy — a half is a worthy challenge and a great intro to what real training actually feels like.
Over the course of ten weeks, I ran a little over 180 miles. I ate 29 slices of pizza and 23 tacos. I tried to keep track of how many beers I drank but lost count at 30 (during what week this happened, I won’t say). I finished my first half marathon with a time of 1:36:00. And you better believe I went right to the local Mexican joint and got myself the biggest burrito on the menu.
My Race Day Kit
Waverider 20 by Mizuno $90
Run Lightweight Mini Crew by Injinji $12
Exo Pro Twinskin Running Shorts by Salomon $113+
Gauge Tee by Outdoor Reserach $41
Fenix 5 by Garmin $600
GoCap by Ciele Athletics $40
Run Gum by Run Gum $22