9 things I learned while training for a half marathon

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When I first started having knee problems about two years ago, I went to see an orthopedic doctor.  After a lengthy round of Q&A and a few X-rays, the doctor simply concluded that “some knees just aren’t made for running.”  Really, doctor?  Apparently the x-rays didn’t show the stubbornness that fills my bones like a tough impervious marrow.  From that day forward, I’ve wanted nothing more than to run farther, longer, and faster than I had the day before.  I love running, and I wanted, no, I NEEDED to prove that doctor wrong.

In December, I signed up for the Charlotte Racefest (my first ever half marathon), but after four long months of training ending with yet ANOTHER knee injury, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run it.  This time around, I hurt my knee doing lunges in a bootcamp class at the Y.  When will I learn?  I took it easy the entire month before the big race, but when race day arrived I still wasn’t confident I’d be able to run 13.1 miles.  At that point, I only had two 10-mile runs under my belt.

Since I’d already forked out the cash for the half marathon, I decided to at least attempt to run it.  During the race, I tried not to think too much about my knees, but as the miles ticked by I couldn’t help but feel dumbfounded that I was still running.  Most of the race was shrouded in a euphoric haze, but as I neared the finish line I started to feel nauseus.  My pace slowed, and I began to feel dizzy.  With every step, the looming finish line appeared to be one step further away.  At that moment, the BF jumped out from the sidelines smiling and hooting and clapping his hands like a crazy man.  I was so close.  I put my head down, dug my heels in, and pumped my arms.  Seconds later I crossed the finish line clocking in at 1:56:58–literally seconds below my original 9-minute mile goal!

As I hobbled to the sideline, I could do nothing but let out an exasperated “BOO YA.”  Some knees just aren’t made for running, my ass.

Here are the top 9 things I learned while training for my first half marathon:

#1  101110-165-013Buy good shoes.  This one is #1 for a reason, and I can’t stress it enough.  The first time I hurt my knee, it was completely and solely due to the fact that I was wearing a cheap pair of old cross trainers.  I urge you to go to a real running store and hop on the treadmill.  Have the sales associate watch your running patterns and check to see if you under or over pronate your ankles.  Is your stride too long?  Are you heel striking?  (I was!)  Don’t buy shoes based solely on the sweet color or the cool gel thingy in the heel.  It’s hard, I know.  I LOVE my Asics Gel Nimbus 13’s, and plan to get a new pair this month!

#2  Create a plan (brownie points if you use Excel).  When you’re training for a long distance race, especially if it’s your first one, you can’t just approach it all willy nilly.  Are you serious about completing the race?  Yes?  Well then sit your butt down, do some research, and create your plan of attack.  Make sure to factor in short runs, long runs, and those extremely important recovery days.  Check out my half marathon training plan here.

#3  Stick to the plan.  Here’s the bottom line:  if you miss a run, you are only cheating yourself.  Plain and simple.  Remember, all runs are important — not just the long ones.

#4  Listen to your body.  YES you need to stick to the plan.  However, there’s a big difference between missing a run because you’re feeling lazy and tired and just want to curl up on the couch and watch Big Bang Theory reruns versus missing a run because of an injury.  When I hurt my knee AGAIN a month before the big race, I was forced me to miss out on 75% of my last month of training.   My knees had had ENOUGH.  I knew it.  My knees knew it.  Had I forced myself to continue to run through the injury, the injury would have gotten much more serious.  Period.

#5  Food.  Food is extremely important.  Your body needs to be properly fueled, especially for long runs.  Choose your pre-run grub wisely.  Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all meal plan.  Each of our bodies reacts differently to different foods.  It may take some trial and error to help you find balance between energizing yourself and not feeling weighed down.  For long runs (longer than 1 hour), make sure to bring a snack.  Something soft and easy to chew (like a Larabar) is ideal.  I do not recommend fiber bars for mid-run snacks.  I speak from experience on this one…  Enough said.

#6  Go #1 AND #2 (I’m talking pee and poo here) before your long runs.  This is serious.

#7  Stay hydrated.  EVERY. DAY.  Dehydration can cause all sorts of problems–headaches, fatigue, and JOINT PAIN.  I’ve found I tend to drink more when I have a glass with a straw, so I keep a tumbler full of ice water on my desk at work all day long.

#8  Cut your toenails or face injury.

#9  Your legs and toes might go numb mid-run.  I’m not sure if everyone has this problem, but I sure do.  I’ve found that doing a few quick high knees and a few toe scrunches helps to keep the blood flowing without having to stop and stretch.  During a race, I make sure to do this quick combo at every mile marker.  Sure it may look a little funny, but heyyyy I can feel my legs!!!

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21 Comments

  1. You are awesome! (and crazy- had to include that of course), but seriously you never cease to amaze me. I wish I had some of your drive but I’m totally the girl laying on the couch watching reruns… You look so athletic in your pic! Might have to pick me up a jogging stroller with my tax refund :). Go Mary!

  2. Every time I see that photo, I worry about whether pushing yourself THAT hard is a good thing. Still, I’m proud of your determination, and I love Jarrod for helping you with that final surge of energy. Your list is great–it took me a while before I realized that by #1 and #2, you meant bodily functions and not the first two points on this list! Also, the toe nails . . . yes, important!
    Love you!!!

    1. I definitely pushed myself hard training for this race. It was an amazing experience and I’m extremely glad I did it — though it’s not something I’d want to do very often. Maybe one or two per year, tops.

  3. I have to tell you that back in January when I was searching for a new training plan for the half I am going to run in May , I came across your blog and decided to try the schedule you put on. I looooove it! I have decreased my time by almost a minute a mile on my long runs. I will be running my 9th half next weekend for the Fargo Marathon and I’m crossing my fingers to get under 2 hrs! Thanks for posting how you did!

    1. I’d love to do one in the fall — but I haven’t picked out a race yet. I’m thinking about looking for one in Charleston, SC!

  4. Great article. I’m going to send to my training partner! I just finished my 3rd half yesterday…the first 2 I walked (I’m a long distance walker so I meant to walk the first 2) but really wanted to run this 3rd one. I only ran part of it…but want to do another and will keep your article in mind to keep me motivated. You are right…you only cheat yourself when you skip a workout :). Great job. I only hope to look as good as you in my pics from the race 🙂

      1. thanks so much…no record breaking time for me but i will use your training plan for next time and see what happens. great blog!

  5. Kelsey – how was the Fargo marathon? I grew up there and my sis ran the 5k. I am considering running the half next year. Lmk when you get the chance.

  6. Suzanne, it was awesome this year! The day before was scaring me because it was 95° out. Saturday morning it was low 60’s and had rained over night so the humidity went down. I used this training program for the first time and cut 12 mins off my fastest half from 2 yrs ago…did it in 1:58:11! I felt so good the whole time. It seriously felt like I didn’t even run when I was done. Could have went again! You should do the half next year for sure! There is also a half this October in town too…FM mini Marathon is the name and it should be up online tomorrow to register.

    1. great job kelsey! i heard how hot everyone thought it was going to be. i’m seriously considering the one next year…maybe i’ll see you then! (i’ll check out the mini marathon, too.

  7. I had almost the same thing told to me by a doctor! They couldn’t find anything specifically wrong but he told me based on all my years of gymnastics a my knees just weren’t meant for running.
    In addition the SAME thing happened to me with wearing the wrong shoes for my first half marathon and subsequently injuring a knee and ankle. I’m so happy to read about your success!

  8. Thank you for your helpful tips! I have had many people who have completed multiple marathons and half marathons told me I can do it. I think you may have me actually believing I can! 🙂