I don’t usually write reflective blogs about things I do, because I don’t do much of note, but I’m going to make an exception because… I want to. Conan O’Brien once said “Reflections” was a great title for an irreverent auto-biographical feature, so I’ll go with that.
This summer, I decided I wanted to run a half-marathon.
Why? Why does anyone want to run such an event?
I think we all have our own reasons. Some people love running (not me), some people love feats of strength and stamina (not me), and some people like the long-term health benefits (me, kinda, but not enough to eat well).
I chose a half-marathon for a bunch of reasons. In my early 30s, I noticed I was slowing down a fair bit. Soccer was becoming more of a challenge (the opponents are getting younger and younger…), and I had settled into that skinny guy carrying around a dozen extra pounds body type. It’s a very common body type; you look pretty decent when sucking in your gut or puffing out your chest, but once in a while you see an occasional unguarded photo and ask yourself “when did I develop such a paunch? That’s just a bad angle, right?!” It drove me nuts, because I am vain.
So my reasons in short? Sporting longevity and vanity.
Further, I have time. While some people have things like children or a family, I am not… burdened (?) by either, so I had no real justification for not getting in shape and training. Instead of making my usual bold internal proclamation that I would really get in shape this time, I immediately signed up for the Edmonton Half-Marathon, coerced my youngest brother, Blake, to join me (nothing like a little peer pressure).
It became important to me not to simply slowly jog a half-marathon, but actually do a good job. Most people can shuffle along for 21.1 kilometers, but I wanted to acquit myself well, or at least respectably. I think of myself as an above-average athlete, but long-distance running has never been a forte and looking at some of the times of last year’s half-marathon gave me pause.
Like a proper novice, I Googled “how to train for a half marathon.” The answer (in extreme summation) is a number of middle distance runs every second day, and a longer run weekly.
Training sucks. Especially at the beginning. My first 10K of the year was in April, and I barely kept it under an hour (59:24). Around the six kilometer point my legs began to get heavy, and the last four kilometers were a painful grind. I started to feel weird pains from under-utilized muscles around my knees (worrying pains), but trudged my way through.
A low benchmark is a great motivator for training. I knew that I would surely improve, because that was a pretty sorry display. I ran the same six kilometer loop two or three times a week, recorded all my times on MapMyRun (a precious resource for those of us who enjoying cutting down our times and recording improvement), and ventured out on Saturday or Sunday for a longer trek, usually adding 500 meters or a kilometer every week.
By following a rigid schedule and adhering to a few rules religiously (never go two days without going on a run, if you hurt yourself replace running with some sort of low-impact training, and never take fewer than 10,000 steps a day according to FitBit), the results were immediate.
My 10K times dropped from 59 minutes to 55, to 52, to 50, and eventually the high 40s. The 6K was even more encouraging; the previous year I couldn’t break the 30-minute barrier (despite that being last summer’s goal), but I soon flew past that, eventually running it in 27:00 flat. As the times fell, so did my weight; I dropped 10 pounds while maintain the high sucrose diet I’ve become so fond of.
The longer distance training was a new beast, as I had never run past 10K before. But the training websites are correct; by raising your distance by small increments, it’s palatable. I noticed my point of severe fatigue (which used to be 6K) slid back. I got to 8K before my legs got heavy, and eventually 10K became no big thing. I eventually ramped things up to 15K by mid-July, all the while gleefully watching my kilometer pace maintain itself despite the longer distance.
Naturally, I hurt myself. Soccer, squash, and running daily proved to be a bit much, and I overdid it. But thanks to the help of my cousin, Mike, a physiotherapist who advised me on training, set me up with exercises, and put up with the following exchange about 100 times, I belatedly got there.
M: How ya feeling?
S: Not great. Things are really sore.
M: Have you been doing the exercises I gave you and rested appropriately?
S: Well, when you said do 3 sets of 15 twice a day… did you mean do the stretch once in an elevator on my way here?
S: And by rest, I mean, you didn’t expect me to skip the soccer game right?
S: Nothing is working, all is lost.
I had to heal up for a few weeks, but I still felt relatively ready (thanks Mike, I owe you).
This Sunday, Brothers Tougas set off for race day. While we never trained together, I was aware my brother was also training and improving at an alarming rate. But I had trained a lot more; losing to him would be akin to someone beating your high score at a video game on their fifth try (something my brothers can do to me with regularity). My other brother (who had no interest in such a run) keenly predicted I would push myself to an extreme to avoid the humiliation of defeat, and never fully recover.
Blake and I read up on race-day food and solicited opinions. Eat a bagel. Carry a packet of mustard and down it when your muscles start to ache. Carry Starburst and eat them when your energy starts to ebb. Don’t have sugars at all (a slight contradiction to the Starburst). We settled on the bagel for breakfast with a glass of orange juice, packed a few Starburst, and couldn’t locate any packets of mustard in time.
The Edmonton Marathon is a cool, well-run event. You pick up a package of running goodies the day before, and the course starts at the Shaw Conference Centre, heads down Jasper Avenue, snaking its way west along the river. Volunteers are there to keep you on course and hand you drinks, all the while cheering runners on. Over 3000 people take part in 5K, 10K, half and full marathon events, and for beginners like me, running with others is a different experience. The half-marathon alone had 1726 participants, so even as the race spread out there are generally tons of other runners around.
I had a general game-plan for the event. Having run 15K a few times, I assumed I could get to that point with only moderate difficulty. The next 6.1K were uncharted territory, but friends had told me adrenaline would kick in and it wouldn’t be “as bad as you think.” I planned to run the first half at a 5:10 min/km pace (approximately 55 minutes), take a short rest, get to the 15K point, rest again, and then throw whatever I had left at the last 6.1K.
Naturally, I threw the plan out the window. It’s hard to pace yourself when people are flying past you, especially when those people are occasionally little old ladies. I went out too fast, but felt okay, and arrived at the halfway point at a 5:01 pace, around 52 minutes. I had a few twinges in my legs but no muscles had pulled/exploded/deteriorated/caught fire, and as I rounded the bend at the halfway point, I saw Blake a few hundred meters behind. If I could maintain a reasonable pace for the second half I would crucially finish ahead of him, which will make sense to you if you grew up in a household of hyper-competitive boys like me.
The next few kilometers weren’t too bad either, but after that it was starting to be a bit of a slog. MapMyRun tells you your pace “splits” when running (I set mine for every 10 minutes), and I was managing to maintain my pace, so I decided to hang on as long as I could. The kilometer signs on the course felt farther and farther apart, but as I approached 15K, I was doing okay.
Fifteen kilometers was a big decision point for me. I was starting to feel pretty shaky. My legs hurt, my stomach was upset (I’m still not sure why), and my body was handling like an old car that had been floored for a bit too long. But passing through a drink station, volunteers passed out water and gel packs (some sort of energy booster, I was led to believe), and whether it was psychological or physical I flew through the next kilometer.
Uncharted territory started pretty well, but I came down from that momentary high pretty fast. However, I knew if I slowed now, it would be stop-and-start drudgery the rest of the way. My running form had broken down to the point I was now focusing on dragging each leg ahead of the last. When hitting 17, 18K, I was now determined to try to maintain the pace I was going at, for reasons I can’t fully explain.
I’ve had friends tell me they usually run or pick it up for the last kilometer of a half-marathon, but that wasn’t my experience. I was so drained and fully spent that it took all my focus to keep dragging myself along. It was such a relief to cross the finish line I barely noticed when a runner behind me barreled into me.
1:45:21. I managed my 5:00m/km pace… just (and more importantly, I edged out the brother).
The strangest thing about a race day is its over before 10 a.m. While other runners casually walked around and had brunch afterwards, my brother and I collapsed on chairs, barely able to function (let alone feed ourselves). I needed the rest of the day to recover (and two days later, I still feel kind of off).
But I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s a great challenge, a cool event, and an attainable target for any Average Joe or Jane looking to get in shape.