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31 Days, Day 10: How to survive your first half marathon

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With my first half marathon approaching (less than ten days – AAAAAAHHHHH!), I’ve been looking for all the prep and tapering advice I could handle. So when I saw a Facebook post advertising an evening with Dimity McDowell, my favorite mother runner, at Outdoor Divas to learn from the master about how to conquer your first half or full marathon, I signed up pretty fast. Faster than I will ever run. Like, Usain Bolt fast.

Dimity lives in Denver, and this night was one of those perks of having a local running celebrity around. The event was small – I think there were nine of us there – so it was a very friendly back-and-forth conversation for most of the evening rather than a spewing of info with no time for questions. Most of us were doing the half marathon, although a couple women were doing their first full. We talked about pre-race routines, how to chunk the run, recovery… it was good overview from someone who has run a lot, but also someone who has run this particular course.

So, here are the highlights for how to survive your first half (or full) marathon, and more specifically the Rock ‘n’ Roll here in Denver:

Visit the expo. Learn about all sorts of new brands of fun running products and flavors of race fuel. Don’t actually use any of them during the race, though, unless you’ve had time to train with them.

Load up on carbs. Don’t go nuts and eat your weight in pasta. But do add in a bagel to your breakfast, maybe some toast with your lunch, and have a normal size serving of pasta with your dinner. Be sure to avoid the carbs that bring fats along to the party, like pastries and ice cream and creamy sauces. Dimity wrote a great article about carb loading for Runner’s World.

Dress the part. A lot of people wear their cute tanks that they train in and that’s nice and all, but… why not have fun with it? Dimity said it’s common for people to decorate their shirt with their name so people lining the course can cheer for them. And a little bling doesn’t hurt; after the talk, I jumped on Team Sparkle’s website and ordered a skirt and visor to wear. My shirt and capris are basic black wicking stuff, so the visor and skirt will give them some pizazz.

Arrive early. The last thing you want on race morning is getting stuck in a port-a-potty line and rushing to your corral. Your warm-up is thrown off, you’re frantic and your adrenaline is out of whack. Know the lay of the land ahead of time and plan to get to the starting line early so there’s plenty of time for stretching and bathroom visits.

Imodium may help. If you’re prone to tummy trouble, popping a couple 30 minutes before the start may settle things down. As will avoiding race fuel with caffeine, which can make intestinal distress worse. And speaking of race fuel…

Be sure to eat something during the race. Whether it’s GU or gels or gummies or Starburst candies or crackers… make sure you’re getting something with calories as you go so you don’t hit a wall and run out of energy. Pretzels are also good; in addition to giving you fuel, the salt also helps replenish your sodium stores that have been depleted by sweat.

Start slow. My greatest downfall. But I’m going to make a more concerted effort than usual to not go out too fast. One suggestion was to stack my playlist with slower songs at the beginning. Another was to let people pass you and imagine what picking them off later will feel like (Dimity referred to people you pass late on the course as “kills” and I’m just competitive enough to think of them that way myself now).

Drink more than you think you’ll need. Between being at altitude and running in cold weather, the odds of dehydration are high. My plan is to stop at every hydration station (“stop” meaning “run slow enough to grab a cup and drink it without dumping it down my face”) so I don’t have to carry a huge belt. Really don’t enjoy the belt.

Have a mantra. Mine is “just keep swimming.” And I don’t just repeat it in my head; during particularly tough times, I will say it out loud. Whatever your phrase is, have it in mind throughout the race. Put it on your shirt, write it on your arm, pin it on a piece of cloth to your shoe… have it always at the read to remind you to keep going.

Break the race into smaller distances. Some people like to think of a half marathon as two five-mile runs and a 5k. Dimity herself gets into even smaller units, taking the race a mile at a time. I need to work on my mental game and chunking things out that way, but facing the distance one step at a time rather than dwelling on the fact that I’ll be running for over two hours or for over 13 miles should be helpful.

Don’t run for time. This will be tough for me, because I definitely have a goal pace in mind. But for your first time, it’s important to focus on the experience and the accomplishment of simply finishing. Setting an ambitious time goal and potentially not meeting it can ruin what should be a very special moment.

Rely on your training. If you run with music, race day is not the time to change things up. Nor is it the time to wear new shoes, experiment with new fuel, change up your stride, or futz around with what you’ve been practicing for months. The best race is one you can run on auto-pilot.

Eat something immediately. A lot of runners drink chocolate milk or eat a banana (or do both) immediately after finishing. Whatever you consume, try to get it in soon to help your body start the recovery process.

Take an ice bath afterward. The closest I’ve gotten to a true ice bath is sitting in a warm bathtub and putting the tap as cold as it will go so I gradually cool off. A real ice bath is hardcore. I haven’t decided if the best strategy is to be in the tub as it fills or get in afterward, but either way – it’s going to be cold. Ice baths can help control swelling and promote circulation to the places in your body that need a good blood supply, i.e. everything below the waist.

Plan for what’s next. Now that you’ve knocked one goal out, what’s the next challenge to tackle? With a schedule of post-RnR races, I’m already thinking about my next half. But I need to spend some time thinking about what my goals for those races are. Get faster? Negative splits? Lose a certain amount of weight beforehand? It’s easy to feel let down after a big race, and having a post-race plan or calendar can keep your motivated and on track.

And, thanks to the event being small, I got the picture I missed out on the last time I attended a mother runner event. Now I’m really ready to run.

Ignore my hair. I'm bad at girly things.

Ignore my hair. I’m bad at girly things. And right before this was taken, all I could think of to say was, “Oh wow, you’re tall.”




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