As both my first 13.1-mile run (and farthest I’ve ever run, period) and night race, I went into the half with zero expectations. My longest training run allotted to 12 miles, so I knew I could physically handle 13.1, but my primary concern had to with the race’s evening start time of 6:15 p.m. Prior to last night, I don’t remember the last time I ran at night; in hindsight, I should’ve completed at least one p.m. long run. Because Tromptown was a race of many firsts, I didn’t set any goals.
Inside the DeRuyter Central School gym, a DIY packet pickup was held. It was a bit strange getting my race bib and t-shirt by myself; at all other races I’m run, there have been volunteers on hand to distribute race gear and check identification. Tables were marked off alphabetically, but each section lacked a volunteer. I guess they don’t have problems with bandit runners!
Before the race, I saw my old JV basketball coach. He’s a big runner who’s completed the race a few times, and he gave me some last-minute pointers: skip the first water station (because the water tastes “funny”), pace off someone slightly faster, and remember the first hill is the worst. (Sidenote: He finished the race third overall and first in his age group; yeah, he’s legit.)
The race featured a two-wave start—one at 5:30 p.m. for runners who would take more than two hours, and another at 6:15 p.m. for runners who would finish in less than two hours—and in hindsight, I should’ve signed up for the earlier time, especially because this was my first half-marathon. Based on my 4th of July 10-mile time, I knew it 13.1 miles would take about two hours, so I should’ve played it safe and signed up for the earlier start time. Oh, well. Live and learn, right?
As I walked to the start line and stretched out, I didn’t feel ready to run. Although I followed a low-fiber pre-race eating plan, my stomach seemed a little full; not uncomfortably so, but it wasn’t ready to tackle 13.1 miles. (For my next afternoon or evening race, I’ll skip the bowl of oatmeal and slam an energy gel instead.) Mentally, I felt off, too. It was strange getting ready to run at 6:15 p.m.; it didn’t feel natural or comfortable, which, as a morning runner, I should’ve been expecting. Before all of my races, I’m psyched and ready to go, but I wasn’t last night. These firsts—following a new eating plan, running a new distance, running at a different time of day—were not ideal race-day conditions, and they made me feel uneasy. Overall, these factors made it difficult for me to get into the zone, yet I hoped my mental outlook would improve once I started running.
Anytime I run, the first five miles are the toughest, a fact I kept in mind during the beginning of the race. Plus, I knew after the steep incline at mile three the terrain would consist of rolling hills; I just had to make it past the incline, and I would feel fine. However, as I logged miles five, six, and seven, I knew it was going to be a long race. Everything that gave me trouble during past training sessions—mainly my calves—felt fine (thanks to tapering), but I couldn’t get myself into the run mentally. Running in no-man’s land didn’t help either; there were big packs in front and behind me, but I ran the majority of the race alone. Normally, running solo isn’t a big deal—it’s what I do during every run—but being alone in an unfamiliar environment proved to be an issue. Basically, the entire race didn’t feel “natural,” which only worsened my mental game.
Even though I was in a less than ideal mental state, the volunteers and spectators provided spurts of encouragement. There were encouraging course marshals around every turn, and the people manning water stations were also very supportive. When I passed a spectator around mile six, I couldn’t help chuckling when whe exclaimed, “Run with your tits!” Yeah, she was probably buzzed (she was holding a beer can), and the comment was definitely obscene, but it made me smile.
From a mental perspective, the final three miles epitomized sheer exhaustion. It’s not like I mentally checked in to the race at the start, but I was more than ready to be done once I hit mile ten. Luckily, I ran the remaining 5-K with a bobcat, aka a good-looking older gentleman. He set the pace, and I totally zoned out. After crossing the finish line—with an unimpressive and unofficial time of 2:11—I thanked him for running with me because I was struggling mentally, and he said I helped him, too.
Overall, aside from confirming the fact to never try anything new on race-day, I experienced firsthand how running is 90 percent mental and 5 percent training. I prepared for the cardiovascular component, but the mental challenge surprised me. Plugging into my iPod didn’t help my mental approach, but zoning out and keeping pace with someone else seemed to work. For my next half-marathon, I will definitely run with a friend.
I’ve always respected people who complete half- and full-marathons, and now, I have even more esteem for those who tackle 26.2 miles. My mentality for 13.1 miles was subpar at best, and I have no idea how I could keep myself mentally (and positively) engaged for that period of time. I’ve been truly running for only one year, so I hope this mental strength comes with time and experience.
Tell me about your first half-marathon. Was it a morning or evening race? Did you run it alone or with friends? Have you ever struggled mentally during a race?