As many of you [probably all of you actually] know, I ran my very first half marathon this past weekend. I have never been a runner or even enjoyed running, but completing this 21km race was something that had been on my bucket list for years. After watching my dad finish his 8th marathon last year, I felt the urge to work towards accomplishing my goal. When registration opened up for the Ottawa Race Weekend many months later, I knew this was my chance, I hadn’t stopped toying with the idea of racing since the year before and I knew if I really wanted to cross a half marathon off my bucket list, this was the time to commit.
Over the past year I have put a lot of focus on improving my health and fitness. I have changed my diet drastically to help improve my quality of life, completely omitting all foods containing lactose and gluten as they were making me feel terribly ill and I have taught myself to eat less sugar and processed foods. I must admit, I still have some stomach issues, but I am definitely feeling better than I was this time last year. I am learning to be more intuitive with my eating and focus on nutrients rather than cravings. But what does this have to do with running a half marathon – nothing really, but the focus on my healthy eating gave me the drive to push myself harder with my workouts. Just another reason to amp up my training and commit to a race.
Now the logical next step for a first time runner would be to join a running group and train with like-minded people. Unfortunately for me, the thought of group running gives me more knots in my stomach than running the race itself, so I set out to train on my own – in the dead of winter. Yes, Canadian winter. Luckily I had a seasoned vet to help me devise a training plan [thanks dad] which comprised of two short runs and one long run a week, along with a few group fitness classes and spinning as cross training.
As I mentioned before, I was not an avid runner before signing up for the race. I had run a total of two 10k distances in my life (one race when I was about 10 years old and one training run after watching the events at the Ottawa Race Weekend last year). To me running was boring and tedious. I would also get tired and breathless after a few minutes and I never felt like I was improving so I often gave up. I would go through phases of off and on running (5km max) and then eventually replace the workout with something I enjoyed more. Now that I had committed to a race, I knew the option to give up was completely out of the question. I had to do this, I had to prove to myself that I could follow through on my promises.
I had signed up for the 2:15 – 2:30 time corral, figuring that with enough training I could do 21km in 2 and a half hours. After talking to my dad about my decision, he surprised me by signing up to run the race with me, at my pace. However, he told me I should opt for a quicker time and that he believed I could finished between 2:00 – 2:15, so following his lead I changed my corral. I must admit, I was nervous. 21km is a long way to run and in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes – that seemed impossible, but my dad believed in me and I wanted to make him [and myself] proud.
I won’t lie, training is tough. Sticking to a schedule when there is a snowstorm really ups the ante. My first major lesson about running is that the sport requires as much physical stamina as it does mental. If you don’t believe in yourself, you will not make it through those tough runs. Some days are harder than other and a short run can feel like it is taking an eternity. During those runs I often found myself thinking negative thoughts – “you’re too tired for this” or “just turn around early and call it a day, you’re not running fast enough to make it worthwhile” but I pushed through it and eventually forced myself to think positively. No matter how bad I felt I would tell myself “you’re strong and healthy” or “look at how far you’ve come from this time last year” and it really helped me to stay motivated.
The second lesson learned from training for this race was that I love winter running. I like bundling up and being the only one out on the paths and so what if my feet get wet, I can always take a hot shower when I get home, or even better, run faster to keep myself warm. As I mentioned before, running in groups isn’t something that I enjoy, perhaps the solitude of winter running made it more appealing to me. Training during the colder months was also a great excuse to pick up a few new pieces of running gear, which satisfied my inner shopaholic!
Training for any race, especially a longer distance one is about enjoying the good runs and gutting it out through the bad ones. Some days I just didn’t feel like running, but I geared up and went anyways, I always felt such a great sense of accomplishment after pounding the pavement. As the half marathon approached I started to get more and more nervous. Would I be able to finish in time, would I be able to finish at all, how will I fit all my training runs in? During my 5 months of training, I had convinced myself that I wanted to finish my first 21km race in less than 2 hours. This was a long way from my initial goal of under 2:30 but I had been bitten by the sub 2 hour bug and I couldn’t let it go. This is where my third running lesson arose – set your goals high. This goal gave me something to work towards, but it also sent my nerves through the roof. I didn’t want to let myself down and I didn’t know if I would be proud of myself if I finished in anything more than 2 hours. Either way I pushed myself harder than ever in my last month of training because of this goal – and I chose not to share it with many people, just in case I couldn’t accomplish it [which was extremely silly of me]. Which brings me to my fourth lesson, stop comparing yourself to others. Running is an individual sport, you can only beat your own person best. A little healthy competition among friends is okay, but in the end you are competing against yourself.
A few weeks ago I was worried about fitting a long run into my schedule and Neil told me not to worry, it is just a run (referring to the half marathon race day) – which is totally understandable, because I had been saying that since the day I signed up. That’s when it hit me, the truth is that it wasn’t just a run – I had been devoting five months of my life to prepare for this one race and hearing him say what I had told him out loud made me realize how badly I wanted to succeed. Unfortunately, realizing this was probably more detrimental than it was helpful – it added a whole new level of pressure. What if my race day run was weaker than my training ones? What if I failed? I spent a lot of time thinking about these things during my last few training runs. In the end I realized that no matter what happened on race day, I had accomplished something big – I had stuck to running for 5 months and had even started to enjoy it. I knew deep down that finishing the race in itself was an amazing achievement and that unfortunately some runs are better than others and if you have a bad run on race day, at least you got out and pushed through it.
So here we are, five months of sticking to my training schedule and getting my runs in no matter what and I am proud to say I ran my first half marathon in 1:58. I have never felt so accomplished in my life. Yes it was tough – the last few kms were definitely character building for me. I wanted to stop and walk many times but my drive to finish with a sub 2 hour time pushed me forward. Were there moments of doubt during the race? Of course. The second half of the course was hilly and windy which made it much more difficult than the first. Seeing a few familiar faces [and great signs] right near my house helped take my mind off the race, but unfortunately that didn’t last long. Just after the 18km mark I didn’t think I could do it – the negative self talk came back, and that that point I was almost out of extra energy to push it aside. Luckily the crowds of people lining the finishing stretch carried me on – telling me I looked strong and that I was doing amazing, also running with my dad who was encouraging me the whole way through was a life saver. Without him I am not sure I would have made it to the finish line so quickly – during that last km all I could think about was proving to myself that I could do it, my dad had already told me it I had it in the bag. The excitement of the finish line gave me the final push I needed and I managed to kick it up a notch and run in strong. I have never felt so proud of myself before.
Will I run another half marathon? My initial thought was no. As I crossed the finish line I thought to myself, thank goodness this is over. Now two days later the running high has set in and I am starting to consider another race – I guess we will just have to wait and see!
Thanks again to everyone who made this weekend possible, from the organizers to the volunteers, to the runners, the security, the medics, the spectators, and especially my family and friends who believed in me the whole time. This is an experience I will never forget and as cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe training for this half marathon and running in the race has changed me as a person. I’ll be the first to admit that I hated running – now I can’t imagine a week without it… I guess that makes me a runner?!