In writing about my first half marathon, I could play the standard “what a life-changing experience,” “I’m so proud I finished” and “I learned so much” cards. That’s all true. But what I want to do here instead is provide an honest account of the real experience–all of it. This was certainly one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve encountered in my 23 years, but it was also easily the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I want to paint the full picture of my experience, because the highs AND the lows are both part of the overall insight I gained through this adventure. I hope you will find it interesting.
That said, I absolutely want to express my firm belief that everyone should try to run a long-distance race. The insight running a long distance offers into both the human body and mind are, in my opinion, unparalleled by any other experience. I came away from my first long-distance race with a better knowledge of what it means to be human, and what I want it to mean; and that’s one of the noblest purposes I can think of for any activity on earth.
Before the Race
- I had a knee injury crop up 3 weeks before the race, and had to take a week off of training because of it.
- A week later, I took 9 days off unintentionally, simply because of a set of unfortunate circumstances related to the unpredictable nature of living abroad. This meant I had only ever run 9 miles before the race, which would be 13.1 miles total.
- I had a fever of 101 three days before the race.
- I was (and am still) suffering from some strange digestive issue, which began four days before the race. I feel fine before eating, but have to lie down for fear of exploding from stomach pain after every meal! So, my strategy for the race had to be to eat as much as I possibly could the night before, in case I couldn’t stomach anything the morning of.
On top of all this, the next morning, the worst part about being a girl reared its horribly cruelly-timed head THREE HOURS BEFORE THE START OF THE RACE. This wouldn’t be so bad, but I suffer from crippling stomach pain accompanying this phenomenon, which leaves me dead to the world for two-three days per month and is so severe I usually have to call in sick to work.
However, despite ALL the adversity (and after a quick breakdown in my parents’ room), the pre-race adrenaline took care of most of it. I ate a big bowl of yogurt with muesli and strawberries, took a mega-dose of ibuprofen, and headed off to the race early with Georgia and Peter, one of my fellow Fulbright Greece comrades and her British boyfriend who decided to run the race as well. The race atmosphere was SO exciting! Runners were everywhere–stretching, talking, chugging water, warming up. The people-watching at these events is, of course, phenomenal! And, as I’m a happy-crier, I totally teared up at the sight of the finish line. I was terrified because of my disastrous pre-race fiascos, but so happy to finally be there, waiting for the run to start; and, frankly, excited for it to be over in a few hours!
Miles 1-4: Excitement and Humility
The most interesting thing happened during the first few miles: almost everyone passed me. Really. I’m not exaggerating here. Quite quickly, the entire crowd passed me at a gallop, leaving me at the very back of the pack. Even though I knew I’d be taking it slow, and wasn’t concerned with my time, I found myself feeling uncontrollably disappointed and humbled by this. (There was a very good reason for why this happened, but that will come later! FORESHADOWING!)
Miles 4-7: The Reckoning
I crossed the river and headed into the more modern, less pretty section of the run, cursing at a large billboard featuring a picture of some lucky mouth enjoying a massive, cold beer which we all had to run toward for about a mile–how cruel is that?!
Soon enough, my distance counter told me I had reached the halfway point–6.5 miles! Grinning over this milestone, I came up to the next signposted distance marker… which read 8 kilometers, or about 5 miles.
I’m not entirely sure what curse words came out of my mouth, but they were many, and loud. As I kept running, my mind was reeling. My distance counter was wrong. Who knows how long it had been off? I had checked it against a gym treadmill when I first got it, and had been satisfied. But this sort of thing doesn’t usually happen abruptly. I can only assume that it had been incorrect for a very long time.
…Which means that both my average pace AND the furthest I had ever run (which I had thought was 9 miles) were both incorrect.
Devastated, all I could do was continue. I was shocked, upset, anxious and even terrified for the miles to come, as I now had to face an even greater distance of new territory and the tremendously humbling realization that I was even slower than I had thought. But there I was, all alone with my music, the pavement and a handful of other runners. At this point, I was reminded of one very important thing: I’m mortal. Relying solely on my own body to propel me forward, with legs that were already starting to ache, my only choices were to quit or be a human-powered machine. I chose the latter.
Miles 7-12: Welcome to Hell
As I was coming up on mile 7, I saw my mom on the sidelines! It was such a lovely little pick-me-up, and I will now always go watch friends of mine in races like this when I can, because seeing a friendly face along the course is such a huge motivator.
And at the 7 mile mark, my distance counter read 9 miles, so I’m assuming that the furthest I had run before the race was 7 miles (just over half the total race distance).
After that, my memory gets a little hazy. My legs, especially my inner thighs, were hurting quite a lot from 8 miles on. The soles of my feet ached from this point on, too. I remember thinking, “This race is never going to be over. I’m going to be running these 13.1 miles forever,” several times, as the course just seemed to go on and on and ON. But somehow, I just kept moving. It was never a conscious decision to keep moving forward–it was almost like I was outside myself, watching myself just keep plugging on. Occasionally, I even thought, “Huh. I’m still running.” Wacked out on endorphins, I think if you had come up to me and asked me where I was born, it would have taken longer than it should ever take to come up with the response.
By mile 11, I was in a lot of pain. Still at the back of the pack, there were almost no spectators left to cheer me on along the route, and I must say, it was pretty bleak out there. I never lost hope or thought about quitting, but I was absolutely miserable between miles 11 and 12. It really seemed like the race would never end. At one point, I even wondered what level of hell I had entered. But, you can only finish a half marathon by moving forward. So I did.
Miles 12-13.1: Glory
At about 12.5 miles, I saw my parents again! They were right on the edge of the course as I came up for the big finish. We blew each other kisses and I rounded the corner to cross the bridge and finally finish the race.
As I came around the corner, I put on my favorite running song, which couldn’t have been more perfect with everything I had gone through before and during the race. In contrast to the rest of the course, I was ecstatic to see that the last kilometer was still packed with spectators, who were all cheering and clapping!
And then, I was flying. I mustered up a sprint out of nowhere and charged through the last kilometer, with tears in my eyes and cheers in my ears. I rounded the last bend and crossed the finish line, uncontrollably yelling, “YESSS!!!” For all the pain and misery of the miles before it, that single moment when I crossed the finish line was one of the greatest of my whole life. Because I was so spent and so out of my mind with the runner’s high, it wasn’t even about accomplishment or pride. It was just joy, pure and simple. It was a joy so great that I couldn’t smile hard enough, breathe deep enough or make any sound to fully express it. All I could do was bask. And I did.
I also almost fell over. Then someone came up and took the timing chip off my racing bib, and someone else put a medal around my neck. A bag containing an orange, a banana, and an energy bar was put in one hand, and an insulating foil blanket in another. I had no idea what was going on. I think I may have muttered something like, “What’s… what’s thi… oh, food, thanks. …Foil? I don’t… I’m not… what? It’s a cape?” as I somehow kept walking. Then I saw the water table. A WHOLE TABLE OF WATER! I staggered towards it like it was the Holy freaking Grail, half afraid it was a mirage. Those were easily the four best glasses of water I’ve ever had in my life.
After the Race
After a fair amount of dazed walking in the wrong direction, I found my parents and Georgia & Peter at our designated meeting place. I enjoyed their warm congratulations, and loudly proclaimed that I would never do that again. I took off my shoes, which was blissful!! I had a fully spherical blister sticking out of my right big toe, and one of my toenails was black. I couldn’t even think about eating any of the food they gave us, but I also couldn’t get enough water! We took a bunch of pictures and headed home.
And then… I felt like death for about four or five hours. Slowly, everything began to hurt. Everything. I choked down the banana, as my heart rate monitor (which read above 90% of my maximum for the entire race) told me I had burned 3,137 calories during the race–but that banana was all I could eat for hours. My whole body just felt totally out-of-sorts. I couldn’t get comfortable; I couldn’t even nap unless my legs were stretched out perfectly straight. I just kept drinking water and half-sleeping. Eventually, I took a shower and ate the energy bar, and slowly began to feel like a real human being again.
Finally, we all felt hungry. So we went out and positively mowed down on fantastic Indian food!! It was about 9 PM by the time we got to the restaurant, and since the race finish at 3, I had eaten only the banana and the energy bar. Consequently, I had two giant samosas, three huge chunks of naan, and two massive helpings of butter chicken with rice, with Pilsner Urquell to wash it all down. It was utterly magnificent, and only made better by the fact that we wore our medals to dinner!
My legs were astoundingly sore for days. For the next two days, going down stairs was exceedingly painful, which made flying back to Thessaloniki a whole lot of fun. Dear people trying to get down the stairs to the tarmac behind me: I wouldn’t be picking up each leg with my hands in order to move it unless I had to. Sorry.
And now, a week has gone by, and I feel great! I feel strong and invincible when I run, and thinking of the race makes me smile. Though I swore I’d never do it again after the race (like every other first-timer), I (like every other first-timer) am officially hooked, and have been Googling half-marathons in Boise for next year. I want to do it again because I learned so much about my body and my mind; watching my body rise to the challenge and then go through the recovery process was totally fascinating, and being left alone with my thoughts for almost three hours as I faced all kinds of challenges that day let me really delve into my own mental depths. I want to see what it’s like the second time around, hopefully with less adversity!
So, if you’re thinking about running a long-distance race… do it!! Know what’s ahead of you, and know that no matter how much you train, anything can happen on race day. But also know that it’s worth all of it, no matter what “all of it” is. Running a half or full marathon will add a whole other dimension to your collective mass of human experiences, and it will be one of the most fruitful, joyful and intense you’ll find.
Cheers, to runners everywhere!