Half Marathon Lessons Learned

Run...Always
Image by Nwardez via Flickr

I’ve always said that I’m not a runner, I just run. Lately several friends have begun running as well and I’m excited to follow their journey as they begin. After completing our 4 x 4 x 4 (4 half-marathons in 4 cities in 4 straight weekends) recently, I thought I would give an average guys guide to what I have learned. This might offer some suggestions as others look ahead to completing this task too.

1. Enjoy the journey – The key to every half-marathon I have run is to enjoy the run. I have run some of these with a goal time in mind and those are the ones I would tell you were my toughest runs. I didn’t enjoy it as much. I was too focused on that time to see and hear all of the excitement that goes in to race day. It’s good to challenge yourself, but not to the point that you miss the ride. Read the signs! Give the little kids 5 as you run by! See the landmarks! Soak in the cheers! Read other people’s shirts and find the stories of why others are running the race too.

2. Break it up – Before each race, I take a good look at the race map. I get a feel for the long stretches and when we make some important turns (halfway for example). I break down a race into small milestones along the way.

  • Mile 4 = single digits
  • Mile 6 = almost halfway
  • Mile 8 = one hand

It may seem silly but it really helps to make 13.1 miles more “bite sized”. It also gives you something to look forward to. Once I reach mile 8 and hit my watch, I raise my hand with all 5 fingers extended. I do the same at 9, 10, 11 and 12 with a count of how many we have left extended. It’s cheesy, but I started doing that in my first half and have continued the tradition.

3. Pick a Good Playlist – If you’re like me, you need tunes to keep you going. Some can go without and I am not one of them. Before each city, each half-marathon, I custom select a playlist that will be memorable. Weather it’s something local (like “Carolina on my Mind” in Charlotte) or something to remember why you’re running (praise and worship is great when you’re struggling), be intentional about your playlist. It will bring back memories when you hear those songs later.

4. Share the Road – It’s interesting. I have run a few half-marathon’s by myself and several with my wife. I’m not exactly “Chatty Cathy” when I run. I actually don’t talk at all. Yet my best races were the ones I shared with friends. You don’t need to be together the entire race, but it helps knowing someone else is out there too. It keeps you moving and pushes you when you know you can share “war stories” at the end. It also helps motivate you. It really is better to share the journey.

5. Nutrition and Stuff – I don’t get crazy about all of the tips in magazines, but there are a few you really should pay attention to. Be strategic about your water, your gels, and your nutrition during the race. Don’t wait until your body is saying you need it. By then, it’s too late. I usually get a water at miles 4, 6, and then as needed the rest of the way. I also stomach one GU Gel around mile 6 for a little lift by mile 8 or 9. Eat a nice dinner the night before and your regular breakfast the morning of. Also, go “potty” before the race starts if possible. Lastly, I’m embarrassed to say it, but use vaseline where necessary…..if you know what I mean. You’ll be glad you did.

6. What To Wear – I noticed in looking at pictures over the last year and a half that people probably think I only own two pair of shorts. I’m a bit superstitious and actually, just love the way that one particular pair of basketball shorts I have feel on race day. No, they we’re not designed for running, but they feel great and I’m not there for a fashion show. I try to find a shirt with a message before every race too. Again, not necessary, but it’s as much a part of the race for me as the race itself. Find a cause, represent something, send a message, remember a friend or family member. It will be worth it when you look back on the race.

7. It’s all relative – I hate to make it sound cliche’ but if I can do this, anyone can do it. If you can run a 5K, with training, you can run a half-marathon. It really is all mental and relative. There are days when I feel like I can’t go 4 miles and wonder how I did it. You will surprise yourself. Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to put in the work before hand. Believe me, I’ve witnessed others that haven’t and it ended bad…real bad. But with the training comes the joy of finishing the race. You CAN do this!

8. Finding the time – For most that read this, one of the greatest challenges is finding the time to train. We’ve got 3 kids (and a dog) and 2 adults that train for the races. We have to schedule our time and then support each other to make it work. If possible, I invite the kids to go too. They can ride their bikes beside you and it makes for great bonding time. Do your regular runs during the week (4, 5, 6 milers) and then a long run on Saturday. Often, my wife and I will meet at the door (one returning, the other headed out) on the weekends, but we have managed to get them in.

9. Comfort Zone – I’m a huge, huge, huge believer in shoes. If there is one big expense that it worth it for the miles, don’t ignore your little puppies (feet). Get to a good running store and have them check out your running style (Road Runner Sports is by far my favorite). Let the experts recommend a shoe and an insert for you. Your knees and muscles will thank you later. It is an investment and a regular one at that (about every 300 – 400 miles), but worth it. Injury and pain can shut you down and steal your joy. There are so many factors you can’t control, but a good set of kicks isn’t one of them. Trust me on this one. Get some great shoes.

10. Believe – I remember thinking I could never do it. Before we ran the Cleveland Marathon (having only trained for a half), my son (the boy), made a statement I have always remembered. He said “if the people on Biggest Loser can do it, you can do it too”. The wisdom of an 8 year old carried me through more than once. My wife also once told me to “stay within the mile you’re running”. In other words, don’t think too far ahead. Take them one at a time. Things will change throughout the race so stay within your current mile. Believe you can do this. When you do finally cross that line and it’s all over, you will be so glad you did on so many levels.

Again, I’m no expert. There are tons of magazines and web sites with articles about the how and the why. I’m not smart enough to even understand a lot of what they recommend. But for the average guy/girl (of which I am REALLY average), this is possible. You can do this. Take it one day at a time and one run at a time. I can’t wait to hear your stories and share in your accomplishments too!

On the journey…..

4 thoughts on “Half Marathon Lessons Learned

  1. Hi Aaron. I got to your website through your wife. I met her through NW. When I started praying about running, the first person I turned to is her. I had some huge setbacks along the way but I just finished my first 5K on May 1. If I can do it, anyone can do it! I am so far from the average person but I had a plan and the support. I found that was key. I tried doing it by myself and it simply did not work. What great tips you have. Im so happy that your races went well for you. I would like to get a few more 5K’s under my belt before I jump into the 13.1! Although…in my heart of hearts…that isn’t too far off!

  2. Kim – Thanks so much for the reply and for letting me share in your accomplishment! That is EXCELLENT that you finished your first 5K. Like I have told other friends that have done the same, it is something that no one can take away from you. No matter the distance, each race and each finish line represent something to everyone. Crossing that line can mean the end of something much more than a race. It can also represent a new journey. Congratulations again! Best of luck as you work towards your other 5K’s too

  3. Lisa – GREAT! I’m excited for you. To do that with such a large group will be so fun. Enjoy every mile. Soak it all in. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life. I left a lot of “baggage” on those 13.1 miles of my first race. I’m embarrassed to admit it but even got emotional at one point. It’s hard to explain and I think you have to do one to understand. It’s so therapeutic. Please let me know how it goes. Can’t wait to hear about your experience! Good luck.

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