About a year ago, I was standing around after a run when fellow Ssideliner Arash asked me if I was “joining in Copenhagen”. “Joining in Copenhagen?” I asked, perplexed. He told me that a big group was heading to the Danish capital to run the half marathon in mid-September. I laughed and told him that that was out of the question, as I’d never really run further than just over 10K. “Oh, come on, you’re a good runner. Of course you can do it” he said and went to get another glass of water.
The next day I signed up for my first half.
With only about four weeks to go I needed to push myself to try out running some longer distances. As the race drew nearer I got more and more nervous. I told everyone I was happy just to finish, but I was secretly hoping to do a sub-2:00, though I did not dare say it out loud. One fine September day we jumped on a train and headed south with a suitcase full of spandex and dreams.
On the day of the race, the rain was pouring down. By the time I reached the start I was freezing and couldn’t for the world figure out how I would ever get warm again. The rain had soaked through my bright green running anorak, my drenched shorts felt heavy and my Nikes were making that squishy sound as I jogged on the spot, listening to my specially made playlist and waiting for the race to start. I was wondering what had possessed me to take on this crazy challenge. And so the crowd started moving. The music thumped in my headphones and that little buzz of excitement that I always get from a race went through me. We were off!
If there is anything I learned from my first half marathon it is that 21 195 metres is a lot longer, yet much shorter than you expect it to be. Passing the 10K control at just under the 55 minute mark I was still feeling fresh and happy and making good time. I couldn’t believe I had almost come halfway and was feeling great. Passing 15K i realized that I was entering into new territory, running further than I’d ever gone in one go. At 17K the drizzle became a downpour and I finally hit the wall. I was wet, my legs felt stiff, my hips were hurting and I felt like I would never reach the finish line. Slowing down, I think I might have even cried a little. Then I straightened myself up and started to scour my brain after something to strengthen myself. I listened again to the music in my ears as I searched the runners around me for someone who made running look easy. A few runners ahead of me I spotted a wiry but strong looking man in his sixties, running at an even pace and looking like he could easily could go on forever. I speeded up until I was a few metres behind him, focused my gaze on his calves and feet and turned off my brain.
With just a few hundred metres left to the finish I found that I had somehow managed to replenish my energy just enough for one last push. I couldn’t feel my legs as I passed the finish line. I was surprised that it was already over. See, I told you it’s not that far! I panted as I walked through the park to get back to the BTG tent where I was met by happy, satisfied runners. People were on their phones checking their results and my hands were shaking as I entered my own name. 1:59:25. I had achieved my goal with 35 seconds to spare! True to Ssideline form we celebrated by going to the beer tent for a cold one (thank you Denmark, there would never be a beer tent at a Swedish race) while hugging and high-fiving and congratulating each other to a great race.
After catching our breath it was time to return to the hotel for a shower and a nap to get some new energy for the Urbanears Rundown in the evening. But that is a totally separate story.
So, my first half marathon experience was a mixed bag but the sense of accomplishment and community totally outweighs the fact that I was wet, freezing and in pain at some points. However, there are certain things I wish I had known beforehand, so here is a small checklist if you are planning to do your first half (perhaps during #BTGSTO this september?).
Preparations are key. And no, I don’t mean all the training that comes before. I mean the actual stuff you need to do within the 24 hours before the race. Drink lots and lots of water, eat good, large and healthy meals that you know that your tummy can handle (you don not want an upset stomach on race day). Get a good night’s sleep. Make sure your toenails are trimmed.
Wear clothes that you know. Shoes are, of course, most critical so make sure you have at least 50K logged in them so that they are properly broken in. Your favourite bottoms and a t-shirt that doesn’t have seems under the armpits – they can chafe. Make sure you are comfortable. A cap is good too, it will keep both rain and sunshine out of your eyes.
About that chafing. It is almost inevitable, but there are things you can do. Keep a small jar of Vaseline in your race kit. This goes under your arms and between your thighs. For boys it is a good idea to wear tape over your nipples (for girls a good sports bra will serve this purpose).
Here is one of my favourites: if you, like me, stay focused by listening to music, create a really, really good playlist with songs that have a good bpm for you. If you don’t know your cadence (how many steps you take every minute while running) opt for songs in the 170-180 bpm range which is generally considered pretty optimal for good energy preservation.
I have two sets of headphones. My Urbanears Active operate by bluetooth and changing songs and volume can be done without touching my phone, but if the weather is hot my ears get really warm. In that case I go for a set of regular in-ear headphones. I tuck them through the back of my cap (along with my ponytail) and the back of my t-shirt, through my sleeve and to the phone in the case on my arm to keep them fixed and avoid flapping cords.
If you are used to run with a heart rate monitor watch, it is a good way to keep track that you are keeping the right pace for you and not over exerting yourself. I personally recommend using one with an optical sensor that reads your pulse from your wrist, because the band around your chest can chafe (again with the chafing, but believe me, I have first hand experience of this, there was actual blood).
Stop for water at every control. It is worth those moments, you will make them back. If you know that your stomach can handle it, sports drink is good as it helps the body retain the fluid and gives you some extra energy in the form of sugar, but if you’re not sure – skip it. Some people start feeling sick from it.
Energy gel is good, but again, only if you are used to it. Some people go for a few pieces of candy (with wrappers!) or dextrose tablets tucked in an easily accessible pocket. Personally, I have never had edibles along for a race but I am experimenting during long runs to figure out what works for me.
Lastly, you will be tired, and perhaps you will even be in pain. It will feel like you have been running forever and there will probably be a point where you want to stop. But there will also be moments when you feel invincible, like when you run through the cheering zone, and especially when you cross that finish line. It will be an achievement that nobody can ever take away from you. And if you are lucky enough to have a crew they will all be so proud and happy for you.