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How not to do a half-marathon
So you’ve decided to run a half-marathon. Good for you! But before you start preparing, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Is it a street race or a trail run? Paved roads provide steadier, more consistent terrain, whereas a trail can be full of tree roots, stream crossings, and dramatic inclines. Conventional wisdom would say a first-time runner should begin with a road race, so naturally you’re going to want to sign up for a trail run.
Now, you may hear some people recommend that you go out to the course well in advance to get used to the terrain and plan a racing strategy. Ignore them. You are far too busy for that. I recommend that you don’t even set foot on the course until the day before the race. Every day of training leading up to that should be on nice, paved streets with very few hills.
The modern runner has at his or her disposal a vast wealth of information about training methods and schedules. In fact, a simple Google search will point you in the direction of several free websites that will generate a training plan for you. This is the easy way out and should be avoided. It’s really best if you make it up as you go, based on your experience running around your neighborhood in your spare time.
Many of those fancy websites and experienced marathon runners say that you should do several shorter runs during the week and do a long run just once a week, gradually increasing the distance until race day. This is to avoid the kind of injury that can occur from adding too much distance too quickly. You, however, are invincible, and don’t need to worry about such things. You’re only running 5 miles a day right now, so if you’re going to be ready for a 13-mile race in a couple of months, you’re really going to have to start training hard. I recommend a long run about every four or five days.
Once you get up to 9 miles in training, you may begin to feel some slight hip trauma. It is very important that you do not seek medical attention at this point. Pain is just the body’s way of letting you know that the training is working. Even if the pain persists for a week, under no condition should you stop your training. You already paid the registration fee for the race and it’s non-refundable.
If, on the off-chance that your hip problems increase to such a degree that you can no longer run, you may want to take some time off. Stretch, walk on it, stretch some more, whatever. If nothing helps, then four days before your race you may seek the help of your friend the Osteopath. He will find that one side of your pelvis is completely out of place and will fix it for you. Of course, your hip will still be in quite a bit of pain for the next several days.
By this point, you have not done any real training for two weeks. This is not ideal, but what can you do? (Don’t forget those essential words: non-refundable entry fee). Fortunately, the day before the race, your hip should be feeling better. Not totally healed, but better. Now is when you want to actually try out the course for the first time. It will help you limber up after your overlong resting phase and, when you see how fun and invigorating it is to run on a trail for a mile and half, you will gain the overconfidence you need, coupled with the blissful ignorance of how impossibly cruel those hills will be in the final three miles of the course.
It’s finally Race Day. Wake up early, eat a healthy breakfast of oatmeal, and be sure to take three Ibuprofen. This will mask the lingering hip pain during the start of the race. When you get to the starting point you’ll feel great. For the first time in weeks you’ll think you can actually complete this run at the pace you’ve been training at. Don’t bother trying to warm up. You have a mile and a half of paved roads before you get to the trail, and you can use that to loosen up. Let everyone else start out ahead of you, then pass a good number of them in the first 5 miles. Even though you’ve been telling yourself that you only want to finish the race with a decent time, you have to treat it like a competition: if you pass people more than you get passed, you win.
Feel the soft ground you’re running on. It feels pretty nice, doesn’t it? And that cool breeze blowing across the lake, and that sun shining through the trees. It’s a gorgeous day for a run, and you feel fantastic. You feel like you could run forever. This is your runner’s high kicking in. You should assume this feeling will continue indefinitely and increase your pace accordingly.
Since this is a trail run you’ll be navigating hills almost constantly throughout the whole thing (they don’t call it Thousand Hills Lake for nothing). Most of these will be no problem for you. There will be some slopes, though, that are so steep that it’s nearly impossible to run up them. Make sure you keep running anyway. Even if you have to use your hands to help support you, as long as you keep your feet moving you’re technically still running. Your legs may burn once you get to the top, but you’ll have a good five or ten seconds of downhill running to recover before you get to the next hill.
Even if you maintain a moderate pace, the never-ending hills (and perhaps your two weeks off, if you're really honest) will begin to take their toll, and you will begin to grow fatigued. By mile 9 your calves will feel tight and sore, and by mile 10 you will no longer be able to run up the steeper hills. When you get to this point it’s best if you just stop caring. Stop caring about your goal of running the whole way. Stop caring about your time. Stop caring about the people who are now passing you. Your only thought should be to get to the finish any way you can, even if that means walking up the hills and running the rest.
With a little over half mile left you will exit the trail and reach a nice, flat gravel road to the finish line. Normally, this would be time to open up your stride and use everything you have left to run in to the finish. However, when you finally get to this point you won’t have anything left. Every muscle in your legs will ache and it will take all the will you have just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t get discouraged when the 40-year-old man you’ve been fending off finally passes you.
When you are in sight of the finish line, you’ll see your loving wife and kids waiting and cheering for you, and despite your fatigue you’ll feel a little rush of delight. Enjoy this moment. You deserve it, because even though the way you trained and ran the race was probably not the smartest, you just finished a 13-mile race, and within a minute of your goal time. And even though you'll barely be able to walk for the next few days you'll know it will only be a matter of time before you do it again.
Congratulations of finishing the race. That’s impressive.