Friday, September 20, 2013

The Experts Weigh In: Run, Katie, Run!


This is not a post about the best way to train for a half marathon (in fact, it may even be the worst). There are myriad resources for that, and I highly recommend that you consult them first. But the truth is, if I waited until I could do it the "best" way, I would have never started. I occasionally drink too much and burn the candle at both ends, I travel a fair amount for work to many different insomnia-inducing time zones and my diet can be pretty uneven in terms of nutritional quality (kale salad, kale salad, kale salad... side of fries, side of fries, side of fries). But that doesn't mean I don't deserve to feel like Superwoman every so often!

In my first attempt at a half marathon, I learned a lot about what motivates me, I surprised myself by actually finishing the thing, and I want to do more!

Before I (very noncommittally) registered for this race, I was running anywhere from zero to three times a week - just a slow 3-4 miles, when I felt like it, if the weather was nice or I needed to clear my head. Back in February, my boss casually forwarded me an email about the Budapest Half Marathon, which she had run before and which was conveniently taking place while I was travelling with her for a work conference. "Just saying..." she wrote. Then a ":-)". The smiley really sealed it for me, I guess because a few days later (with very little reflection), I completed my registration.

From where I was sitting, September 8th seemed far enough away not to be real, the registration fee was only $40 and I was going to be in Budapest anyway. The decision wasn't so much I'm going to do this! as I'm going to reserve a spot to do this in case I decide I want to later. I checked out some training schedules online that recommended training 3-4 months ahead. And then, like so many recipes or complicated hair-braiding tutorials that I bookmark, intending to get around to them at some point, I essentially forgot about it.

And then it was June...

And honestly, I totally would've started except June had me moving apartments, attending a friend's wedding out of town and travelling to Stockholm for work (note: you can, in fact, bring sneakers with you and run in other places, especially if you are registered for a race in Budapest when you reside in Brooklyn!). The next thing I knew June was, for all intents and purposes, over, and I had only clocked a total of 10 miles.

I made a goal to get myself together in July...

But in July, I was like... I don't know, it's hot outside, guys, and everyone's having parties and barbeque's on the weekend. At least I was starting to tell people I had signed up (between sips of beer). Most of the responses I got were somewhere between supportive and skeptical. I probably ran less in July than ever before because now it wasn't just running for the fun of it - it was Intimidating Half Marathon Training and it was also Already Too Late.

Fact: It wasn't too late! I don't know what finally flipped the switch in my head, but maybe it was the fact that everyone started asking how the training was going, or maybe the fact that my friend Aida came back from a research fellowship in Austin wanting to shed off a breakfast taco or two. I bought a new sports bra and started Googling things like "4-week half marathon training possible?" where I came across websites like this and this one, which said "It is possible, but I wouldn't recommend it", from which I optimistically gleaned the message "It's possible!".

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I asked Aida if she would try running 6 miles with me that weekend. Neither of us had ever run six miles before and it seemed terrifying. She was game, and from there ended up turning into my running buddy. Her support was really essential. Plus, scheduling time to run together meant we got to hang out more often (AND it was free).

Fun to note is that the day and night before our 6 mile test run, I spent at Lauren here's Bachelorette party. Still, we soldiered on the next day and much to both of our surprise, I suggested we make it seven miles as we approached the end of mile six. Stay out all night, go running the next day, run the farthest I'd ever run in my life... this was going to be easy! Still on our endorphin high, we agreed to go for eight miles the next weekend.

For whatever reason, that eighth mile was killer! Maybe since I was better prepared (and better rested), I expected to do even better than the week before. But no, I had to really push myself for the last 3 miles, and even stopped to walk for a few minutes on mile seven. I was planning to run 13 miles in just a few weeks, and I could barely run eight? This was NOT going to be easy.

To be honest, it's not always easy, and not every run is going to feel great. You can make excuses and put things off for 5 days, and then wake up on day 6 and still decide to go for it. For me, it's much more motivating to think I'll try this and see what happens rather than I have to do this no matter what. This was the attitude I adopted throughout my training AND as I approached my run!

The longest run I did before the half marathon was 10 miles, and that ended up being on a Tuesday evening after work (trying to avoid being stuck in the creepy part of the park after nightfall proved to be a good motivator). I also bought some magic beans...

And made a playlist...

I got to Budapest on a Monday and had a week to adjust before my race the following Sunday. My boss's last words of advice to me were something about not worrying if I saw the medic truck inching up behind me and to not walk all over the city or tire myself out the day before the race. She knows me too well.

During the week, I had dinner with three friends living in Budapest now, one of whom was a great runner and had done this race many times before. He warned me about a hill right near the end that was "really mean" and also that races in Europe are marked in kilometers, so I should look for 21 of those, not 13. Important to note.

It wasn't until I went to pick up my bib and chip the day before the race that it started to seem real. I saw the finish line. Or was that the starting line? Either way, an area. An official race area.

On race day, I cobbled together a good pre-race meal, strategically avoiding the cured meats and cheeses that characterized most of my European hotel breakfasts, cleverly stealing a banana for after the race, and off I went! I spent the whole metro ride over purging anything that wasn't Katy Perry from my playlist, and I got so busy that I almost missed the stop!

After navigating the various lines to check my bag, I remembered something a high school running coach had said about the warm-up being the most important part of the run (was that true, or did I imagine that?), and simultaneously realized I only had 10 minutes until the start. So, I "warmed up" by running to the starting area. I pushed my way into the sea of people there. Suddenly I got nervous. No one around me was speaking English, and they all looked like runners, wearing those little belts that hold water bottles, sporting defined calf muscles and doing little pre-race rituals. I bounced up and down a little like a weirdo and turned on my iPod for reassurance - at which point I realized I had forgotten the attachment that turns it into a pedometer and announces mile splits in my ear, so I had no idea how to pace myself (in kilometers!) during the run. I was under-trained and lacking my tools, but here I was. 3-2-1... Go!

Here's where I tell you the whole thing worked out fine...

After the initial chaos, I found a girl who seemed to be running at the same pace as me and tried to stay near her for awhile. The setting was absolutely beautiful as I traversed the bridges over the Danube that connect Buda and Pest, with people cheering for us along every stretch! Much to my surprise, even as I settled into what seemed like a slow and comfortable pace, there were still people behind me the whole time AND no medic truck nipping at my heels. To make things even better, one of my Hungarian friends, who I hadn't seen since 2005, rode her bike along the course to cheer for me at four different points. She had told me ahead of time where to look for her, and that helped push me along, along with the fact that I wanted to make my training buddy Aida proud! She'd put in so many miles training with me.

After a while, I think my legs went numb, or I just stopped concentrating on how they felt. I was just moving. By the time I got to 10k, I knew I was going to finish, and when I got to the "mean hill" around 17k, I still knew.

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The cool part about running a race in a new city was getting to run past all the scenic parts with the road closed off and the residents of the city cheering for me as I went by. The terrible part was having to fly home the next day, spending 9 hours crammed into an airplane seat while my legs calcified.

I'm not exaggerating when I say I could barely walk down the stairs to baggage claim when we de-boarded, and if I didn't have an elevator in my building, I probably would have spent the night in the lobby. But even as I'm typing this, I have three browser tabs open to pick a race to do next year. 

...I promised my legs I would train better for this one, and maybe I will.

Katherine lives in Brooklyn, New York. When she's not running or trying out complicated hair-braiding tutorials from the internet, she works in publishing. I'm also fairly certain she plans to steal my cat one day. How do I know? She's told me multiple times "It's not stealing if he willingly comes home with me".  I've got my eyes on you, Katie!

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