Running a half marathon is difficult, but running it under an ambitious time target is a whole different ball game and sometimes is a matter of seconds. Every piece of information can help in shaving off those seconds which can be a difference between 1.59.24 and 2.00.34. This is a post for those who play with those margins. This is by no means an exhaustive list and is completely based on my experience alone. I made an 8 week customized Hal Higdon's Novice 2 plan targeting a first-ever half marathon, that too a sub 2 hr one. I failed miserably on the race day with a time of 2.24.27. I noticed my mistakes, corrected them, ran another one a week later with a time of 1.59.24. If you care about the backstory of how this all came to place, read below, else, jump to the list of tips.
The second month of COVID social distancing was very hard as isolation was starting to get to me. Gyms and indoors were off-limits, so I started running as it seemed like the best way to blow some steam off and get some exercise in. Starting the habit of running can sometimes be challenging but I remembered Casey Neistat’s running advice to running - “Just run a little bit more every day”. I started with a run to a park 4 blocks from my apartment and slowly tried to add on laps in the park, increasing by one lap every week. This definitely had a good impact on mental health.
I moved to Seattle to stay with a friend and see off the pandemic. PNW is bliss. Even though you are in a concrete jungle, nature is always just 10 min drive away. We started to run in state park trails as a way to pass the evenings. There was a 1.6-mile trail called coyote trail and slowly we began to time it and improve on it every week. We started at 11 min miler and slowly shaved off minutes in a matter of weeks. The competition against each other and the trails got the best of us. The goal at this time was to do a 7min miler by the end of Summer. One day, I was in a very bad mood, so I just wore my running shoes and took off on the road. I just wanted to run as long as I can and I ended up running 6 miles at a decent pace. I had no idea I could do that. My legs hurt a bit but it wasn’t crippling. That day I decided that I wanted to run a half marathon.
I pulled up Hal Higdon’s free 12-week beginner plan and cut it short to 8 weeks as I felt I could do it. I also wanted to do a sub 2 hour half marathon and I obsessed over the pace. In five months, the journey that started with running to the park five blocks away ended with a plan to run a first-ever half marathon under 2 hours. I was on track for 7 of the eight weeks (missed last week because of the wildfires and smoke in PNW) and eventually attempted half marathon at the end of the eighth week. I finished at 2hr 24 min. 24 minutes short of the target, that’s an average pace of 10.55 min mile way higher than the required 9.09 min miles for a sub 2 hr. Here’s what went wrong.
1. Discipline is freedom
Training plans are there for a reason. Every recovery run, interval training, rest, cross-fit training is there for a reason. The simplest way to achieve the goals with half marathon is simply to stick with the plan. You need to have a 100% blind trust in them. Every missed cross-fit, the long run will be felt on the race day. You got to pay the fee somehow. If you don’t pay the fee during the training, you pay it on the race day either with extreme pain trying to achieve the set goal or by not achieving it or both.
The missed week due to wildfires in PNW hurt me as I did not run a scheduled 11.5 mile run before the race. My longest run before the race day 10 miles, and I could clearly see that my legs were not prepared for the final 3 miles. I probably could have breezed through the whole thing if I followed the 12-week plan.
2. Recon the race route
Make sure you know what the race route looks like. You do not have to practice running on it prior (it helps though), but make sure you know the profile well. The elevation gains and dips, the gravel path, the dirt path, etc and be prepared for that. Gravel and dirt route will slow you down. Incorporate that into the training. Make sure there are no closures or reroutes. Make sure you know what to expect. There should be no surprises here.
There was a dirt route in my path which slowed me down a bit. There was also a trail closure leading me to re-route on a sunny hill with 150 ft elevation gain that crushed me at around mile 10.
I carried a hydration vest (never used it during training) with water mixed with lemon juice and salt, as I ran solo. This added a kilo to my weight and it makes a difference over thirteen miles. I did not feel the weight initially but around the 7 miler, even with reduced weight, I could feel it in every step. If you plan on carrying the hydration solution (vest, hand bottle, belt), make sure you also train with it at least in the second half of the program. The best solution is to run without the pack and hide the bottles in the bushes along the route or even better is to run laps around the one place you put your bottles. One other drawback with the hydration pack is you will want to sip water with higher frequency than needed and you will waste time doing this.
This is the trickiest part to get right. Most plans advise you to take it easy during training on the Long-run day and show intensity on the race day. Some of them tell you to take it real easy at the start and do negative splits in the second half. I beg to differ here and I might be wrong. All I can say is, it is very hard to maintain the pace throughout without crazy training and you would slow down in the final miles. My rule for pacing is not to push yourself in the first half and just maintain the pace without voluntarily slowing down with an idea of conserving energy for the second half. The saved energy will not give you the gains lost through voluntary slowing down. Again, if you go with the highest possible intensity in the first half, you will run out of gas. The idea is not to ever slow down from the comfortable pace thinking you might need it later on.
5. Time of the day
Race times are usually in the morning and sometimes the sun may be up. If it is hotter than your usual run times, you might be caught off guard. Wear a hat, it does wonders. Even better, run a couple of long runs at the same time as the race time. You will know exactly what to look forward to in terms of race feel and nutrition on the race day or the day prior.
6. Injury is never worth it
There is a very good chance you might pick up an injury as this half marathon distance might be the most you ran if this is your first half marathon. Sometimes you are so hell-bent on finishing the run, that you might push through an injury aggravating it. It is totally not worth it. You could either walk the rest of the way or quit in the middle. Just live to fight another day. You can always run the following week or two weeks later on your own but the injury will kill your confidence and is not worth it.
In summary, the whole theme revolves around being disciplined in the training and making sure there are no surprises on the race day. Give your best and don't worry about failure. Every run is making you better and stronger. If you fail on the race day, there is always the week after when you can get back at it to crush the target time.
My first attempt was full of surprises and I was in pain during the last three miles with a cramped up left calf around 11 miles and right calf around 12 miles. I eventually completing at 2hr 24min. I was devastated, but I vowed to correct all the mistakes and give another attempt a week after. A week later, everything fell into place, I corrected all the mistakes, and I finished at a time of 1:59:26. I felt like a million bucks.
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