What it Takes to Run a Half Marathon

It takes Surprises

I didn’t go into the track season this spring thinking that I would be running a half marathon. My coach and I planned on me competing in the 10K, and I hoped to qualify for NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Nationals in the 10K. The 10K is 6.2 miles on the track, which is 25 laps. I was a little hesitant about this distance because that many laps seems monotonous and boring. You basically turn left until you stop after 25 long laps.  Typically, we  only run a 5K for the cross-country season, which is 3.1 miles, so I haven’t ever raced at a longer distance before.

All the long runs that I do are just for fun have helped. I ran a half marathon in the summer of 2016 called the Pikes Peak Ascent which is a 13 miles up 7,000ft to the summit of Pikes Peak, which is 14,000ft above sea level. It wasn’t a race, it was climb – a very tiring, body-breaking climb. Getting above tree line, left me breathless and I realized why trees found the altitude uninhabitable. And I’ve run a 10mile run and a 12K run, but I have never competed or raced to get a specific time or distance. I like keeping my long runs chill.

But my coach had the idea right after Spring Break that I try to qualify for the marathon at nationals and thought that I would be the perfect athlete to train for it. He could tell how much I love running long distance after running 80 to 90 minutes at practices. He told me that I need a good half marathon time to qualify. This was on March 29th, the half marathon was on April 30th, and the marathon is at the end of May. I had one month to train for a half marathon and two months for a marathon.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.   

It takes Long Nights and Long Runs

My coach ran half marathons and marathons in his prime. He knows how to train for them, and he devised a running plan for me to follow to get my body to the right endurance level. 26 miles is nothing to bat an eyelash at. The plan that he gave me consisted of 5 to 6 mile tempo runs and 2+hour long runs. I love long runs, with a smooth easy pace and never ending trails, but two plus hours of running takes dedication and time.

The purpose of the mega long runs were to get mileage on my legs. However, all the homework, classes, and work shifts in the past month haven’t given the kind of time it takes to run for that long. I just didn’t have enough time in the day to study, work and run. So, I had to take time out of the night. My Sundays usually went like this: finish a 7 hour shift at work, go home and do a little homework, then around 9 o’clock I would drive to the trailhead at the Chattahoochee River. The parking lot would be completely emptied of cars, which is strange because it’s always packed during the day. The sky is a deep, dark blue at this time of night and faint stars could be seen over head. Crickets, bullfrogs, and the occasional skittish deer were the only signs of life on the dark trails. I had to force myself to not look at my watch a lot because every time I did only 5 minutes would have passed, and it would drive myself crazy dying to get closer to the 2 hour and 20 minute mark. I would get lost in thoughts and stories in my head while on the solitary trails, and yes, I would also get lost in the darkness because I couldn’t see where the trail ended and the forest began. It all looked the same. Running back to the car felt like running out of a fairytale, like climbing back through the wardrobe, because it was a magical time where all I had to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other – the worries of the world didn’t matter.

Putting in the work those late Sunday nights  taught me to be patient and appreciate the hard work put into a successful race.

It takes Training and Maintenance

While putting mileage on my legs helped with endurance, I also had to maintain some speed and pacing to achieve the qualifying time. That is where the 5 to 6 mile tempo runs came into picture.

The tempo runs were hard and easy. Hard because my other teammates were all training for shorter distances, like the 800m, 1,500m, and the 5K. I ran lap after lap to build my endurance while they trained their bodies for speed. They moaned when coach told them to run speed ladders, where you to 200m, 400m, 600m, 800m, 600m, 400m, and 200m, and I had to run my tempos all alone. Easy because I got used to the pace. My coach had me aim for 7 minute miles. My body settled into the pace easily, and after a while it didn’t take much effort to set my cadence to the right pace. I ran a few 10Ks at track meets the team travelled and I perfomed well in them. My pacing was consistent, I aimed for 6:40 a mile. A 7 minute mile felt like a walk in the park!

My body started to hate me, though. After the long runs, my knees would buckle with weakness. My roommate thankful gives wonderfully, painful messages. She worked on my calves and destroyed the soreness by kneading and pressing the pain away. My legs would be spotted with purple bruises left by her fingers. I would also get sick easily because my body was focusing on recovery my muscles, and my immune system was compromised. Drinking lots of water and taking my iron pills didn’t seem to be enough for my body. Getting more sleep definitely would have helped, as well.

Trying to build yourself up to a high level of endurance and strength is really hard when your body wants to fall apart.

It takes Sacrifices

You can’t gain something without losing something. Equivalent exchange is a scientific fact and it haunts me. What I wouldn’t give to have just another hour in the day! Running has often caused me to sacrifice a lot throughout my life. In high school, my only afternoon activity was running at practice. And my weekends were taken up my cross-country and track meets. It hasn’t changed in college either; I still have to set aside about two hours a day for practice. And on the weekends, the team drives to meets in cities that are anywhere from 2 to 6 hours away. I don’t mind not having the time to do other social things because my friends are the people on the team. But a free weekend not spent on the road or a day where I don’t have to wake up at 5:30 to run is a thing to cherish.

Some days, I can’t do it all. My homework may supersede everything else because I have a project due. Or work may supersede because my manager has already given me a final warning for missing a shift I had to miss to go to a track meet. And at times running is my top priority because it is because of running that I have a wonderful scholarship to a wonderful albeit expensive school. I have had to fail assignments, miss shifts at work or bypass a workout because I can’t do it all.

Running has taught me to be okay with making sacrifices and not stressing to give 100% effort with everything all the time.

It takes an Early Morning and a Steep Downhill

The half marathon I ran was the Teardrop Half Marathon in Chatsworth, Georgia, which is an hour and a half drive north of Atlanta and close to Dalton, Georgia. My coach reminded me constantly during the preceding month that I was guaranteed to qualify because 75% of the race was downhill. The start of the race is on top of Fort Mountain and drops 2,000 feet down into the historic downtown of Chatsworth. Most of the work was going to be done by gravity, right?

Wrong! While gravity helped, I still had to run 13.1 miles. Credit is due to all the people who helped me, though. My friends, Olivia, Emily and Ivana took the time out of their weekend to drive up and cheer me on. The race started at 7:30, so we all woke up at 5:30 to drive to the race from our hotel. Below the mountain, it was looking like a warm spring day. However, the weather changed as we made our way up the mountain road. Clouds began to accumulate and they were rolling in fast with cold breezes. The top was covered in fog and humidity. It could have started to rain, but thankfully it didn’t. My friends kept me company and gave me warmth, but they soon had to drive back down the road which would be closed for the runners. Before they left, my coach reminded me of the race strategy. I was to run a 7-minute pace, my comfort zone, for the first miles, and then during the downhill I would let my legs fall and the pace quicken with the fall. He wished me luck. I may have been nervous.

The race began at a little after 7:30. I was still in line for the restroom (or rather, port-o-potty) when I heard “Runners, time to get ready at the starting line!” The man with the bullhorn told us that we were to run down the road for 1.8 miles, then turn back around, go over the starting line and then head back down the same road and begin the descent. I was nervous for this first portion because it included the same amount of uphill as downhill. I had a girl in a neon green tank top pacing me for the first 4 miles. When I turned around, I passed runners still heading towards the turnaround point and they would excitedly cheer with exhausted breath. They’d say “Great Job, First Girl!” and “Go get’em, Girl!” I was excited to be the lead female. 

It wasn’t like I was on my own the same way I was alone on the long runs. There was a bald man running about 200 meters ahead of me. And while running through the beautiful forest that framed the road, I had songs playing in my head. I inched closer and closer to the finish line. Thankfully there were signs that marked each mile. Between mile 7 and mile 8 was my halfway point. I knew that the last three miles would be the hardest because that’s what everyone told me – conserve your energy, enjoy the downhill before finis, and don’t let my fatigue take over. The last mile went through downtown Chatsworth where the finish line waited. I came up over a bridge with a hill when I heard someone over my shoulder. It was another female runner, in fact, it was a girl from another college. I knew that she also wanted to qualify for the marathon at nationals.

She passed me for a moment – for that brief moment, I thought it would be okay to let her win. I thought it would be alright because I glanced at my watch and saw that I was on track to come in under the qualifying time. But then I passed my three friends cheering me on, and there was one turn left before the road led to a straight away with the finish line within reach. When I saw the finish line and the girl was two feet ahead of me, I decided to sprint. Or at least, it felt like I was sprinting. I exhausted every last effort in the last 800 meters of the race. I was ten seconds ahead of her when I crossed the timing mat, with a time of 1:26:50.

My favorite part is always the finish. Running puts you in a trance. Lots of people call it the runner’s high. But when I finish, I feel hyper, that is after the initial exhaustion and weak legs. I was happy to be done, to have won, to have qualified and to be with my friends and know they were proud of me. They provided food, drink and beers for those old enough, at a city center park. There was a band playing songs by Johnny Cash and The Lumineers. I received a glass award, which blended into my shirts in the picture that the race photographer took, which I think is hilarious. It was a wonderful race to be a part of.

It takes a Half Marathon to Run the Marathon

It’s scary to think that now I have to race 26.2 miles. But I also get the amazing chance to go to Nationals. The NAIA offers its athletes the opportunity to compete in the marathon, which is something the NCAA doesn’t do. I prefer to run the longer races. Usually, people like shorter distances because they don’t take quite as long, you get to finish quicker and they think “Who wants to be running for that long, anyway?” But I prefer to run for longer because it feels more substantial. If I put in months of training, I don’t want my race to only last a minute. I want it to feel like the trail never ends. I want the trial to never end.

The SCAD Atlanta Cross-Country Team is relatively small and for the track season, we only compete in distance events. SCAD Atlanta has never had someone compete in the marathon before, so I’m excited to break into new territory for myself and the team. Since joining the team, we have achieved a lot of firsts, such as going to Cross-Country Nationals as a team for the past two years, winning first as a team at Conference this year and sending two girls to Indoor Track and Field Nationals this past winter. Outdoor Track and Field Nationals is in Golf Shores, Alabama during the last week in May. I’m exciting to let you know how the marathon goes!

Photos taken by Foon Fu and True Speed Photo