January 05, 2014

Lessons learned from training and running a half marathon

Don't really remember what I was looking at there.

I ran and completed the half marathon on 15th of December. It was a splendid achievement for me, not because of the distance (21.097 Kms) and certainly not because of the time taken to complete it (a poor 2.54 Hrs); but the fact that this thought had been brewing since past 4 years, and I finally made it possible. 

Every feat, whether big or small, brings with it a handful of lessons, which are equally important for the future self to remember. I enlist a few that I learned (or proved), while training for and running the Delhi Half Marathon 2013. Most of these actually are common sense, but some of us require proof even for that :)

1. It's not as difficult as you think: It wasn't easy to convince myself that I could run 21+ Kms, when I wasn't a regular runner at all. I could hardly run 2-3 Kms properly at the start. It's only when I met a 'normal' person who had a run a half marathon, that I started to think that I could also probably do it (you will never know that you made the difference, but thanks 'normal' person!). But, the belief didn't come yet. It's only when I saw myself slowly progressing from 2-3 to 4, 6, 7, 9 Kms that I really started to believe that I could run a 21. 21 Kms was difficult for sure, but not that difficult to require 4 years to convince myself.

2. Having a training partner helps, a LOT: My initial thought was to announce to everyone that I was going to run a half to keep myself accountable, but I resisted to do so until I made some progress. But I involved 2 of my closest friends into this evil idea and we decided to post our daily/weekly progress to each other. This made sure I had plenty of accountability week after week. Call it envy or competition, but whenever I saw them running slightly more distance than my last run with slightly faster speed, it spurred my not-so-motivated-butt to get up and get moving. I hope I made similar difference to their training plan.

3. Have a training plan: I think it's important to research and find a suitable training plan with respect to the time you are left with, before you start your training. I couldn't follow my training plan end-to-end with my 'busy' schedule not permitting it but I progressed on roughly the same path. This made sure I wasn't trying too hard too early or making progress in a haphazard manner.

4. Invest in good running shoes: I was reluctant to buy new shoes, partly because of my minimalism and also because I preferred to run in my slippers (!). They didn't take time to wear, thus reducing the time for your mind to convince you not to go for your runs; they were also light, hence advantage of carrying less load on your feet. But they caused bruising on the sides of the feet during long runs. So, I switched to my own sports shoes, and even borrowed from family members. None of them were comfortable enough to run 5+ Kms. I would frequently have problem in my lower legs. So, finally I bit dust and bought myself a pair of running shoes. The effect on the runs wasn't magical, but I did feel that it decreased the stress on the feet and lower legs hence I was able to run longer.

5. Your worst runs would be your most memorable: There were some days when I had tremendous amount of pain in my shins while running. So much that I was reduced to tears. Sometimes I didn't have enough time to complete the run scheduled for that day. But I ran anyway. Most of the times, I won't be able to complete the distance I had decided for that day, but there was always a sense of victory that I didn't give up when the circumstances weren't favorable.

6. Decide once, and keep it final: When I finally decided to that I would run in half marathon, I made up my mind that I would participate in it no matter what. Doesn't matter if I am not trained enough (I would only run as much as I could), doesn't matter if I won't be able to complete it on time (I would give myself a certificate if it took more than 3 hours), doesn't matter if I won't be able to run on the half-marathon day due to injury (I would walk/crawl my way to the finish line). This type of thinking gave a signal to my mind that no amount of rationalization was going to help. I would have to train, there's no way out of it.

7. If you are doing it impress somebody, good luck! : Running a half marathon just to impress your friends is a very lousy reason to be trying this feat. If you are not an athlete, running isn't an easy task. It gets sweaty, you run out of breath, you have to endure pain many times. The motivation of running to "impress" won't take you far in those kinds of situations. My motivation was to convert my dream to reality, proving to myself that I could commit to something and complete it no matter what, and also doing it as gratitude for my closest friends.

8. Keeping a running journal helps. Just keep it short: When you keep a running journal and record your progress in it regularly, it automatically builds enthusiasm to go for your next runs. It also helps to record how you felt during the run and what could be done better next time. If you make the journal public and post regularly it will bring in a lot of accountability as well. I also created a blog on Wordpress to maintain my running journal. But it became so elaborate and difficult to update that it started taking almost the time to cover the actual distance! Hence, I couldn't update it properly during the last half of the training.

9. "The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat" : I couldn't complete my training properly. I had to pay the price with diminished speed especially during the last 3-4 Kms, as I didn't have much experience of running in that portion of race. On the other hand, I had trained on hard and uneven foot paths, which made it easier to run on plain roads during half marathon.

10. Research and find out how to improve: I discussed with my training mates to identified the root cause of the pain in my ankles and shins. We shared notes on how to improve the running time. I also discovered that taking regular 'walk rests' during running made it easier to manage the fatigue. I figured out my optimal speed and stuck with it throughout the training. This helped me identify the potential time I was going to take to cover the distance, and how to manage the speed during different intervals of the full run.

10. In the end it's about enjoying the process : We got ourselves special Tshirts to run under the common banner of "Team Bhai Log", it was great fun to run with thousands of other citizens, empathizing with what they would be going through, the scenery was beautiful (you don't get to jog around India Gate and CP, that too in the middle of the road, every day). Even while training I listened to my favorite songs and it ALWAYS felt good when I completed my training for the day.

The half marathon is over and now I am eyeing the triathlon, and have just started my training for it. I hope I can apply the above lessons to my near adventure.