I recently ran my first half-marathon, and even though I write about running and training, the run packed a few surprises. It was a fantastic experience, not to mention extremely motivating, but even so, I learned some things about my first 13.1-mile race folks don’t always disclose.
A HALF IS NO JOKE
It may not be a full marathon, but you’ll still need to train for your first 13.1-mile race. Give yourself a solid three months to prepare — and know the race won’t feel easy. Once I got to mile 9, for example, my body ached for the finish. My hips and legs felt like Flintstone wheels, just spinning around. Why? I’d undertrained. As a former athlete, I thought I could get away with ‘winging it’ on the big day. I’d been running as much as possible but old injury flare-ups or travel sometimes threw off my training.
Prepare as much as possible, whether you’re following a set program within an app like MapMyRun or through a local training group or outfitter. Some running stores, like Fleet Feet, also offer free pre-race Q&A sessions, so you can show up to your race feeling more in the know.
YOU’LL NEED FUEL
I’d packed some gels and electrolyte chews into my pockets for the race and also paused for the orange slices people handed out along the course. But it’s important to bring your own fuel, because you may not like what’s offered en route. There were tables with gels at the water stations, for example, but they only had lemon flavor. I heard a woman audibly gag as I passed one table. You might not be able to stomach certain items, and you certainly wouldn’t want to try anything new on the fly.
Train with fuel to learn what works for you and what you can stomach. And then pack some of it on race day.
YOU’LL RUN WITH A CROWD
I knew there would be thousands of runners at the race, but I figured we’d spread out. Not so. In fact, it was rare to run with more than a few feet of personal space. (Note: We were also running with marathoners until the very end of the half-marathon course). But here’s the thing: I loved it! Running surrounded by so many others helped me keep going. I didn’t want to slow down, and there was no way I’d give up with all of those runners, especially as we plowed up the many hills along the course.
YOU MIGHT NEED A POTTY BREAK
I didn’t expect to have to duck into a port-a-potty, and especially not during the first mile. I’d planned ahead in terms of timing my hydration and made sure to go before I walked to the start. I didn’t expect to get hit with some nerves, though, and when I had to oblige them, had to wait about 10 minutes in line to go.
The moral of this story: Stay calm, and know you may need to relieve yourself more frequently than you might during training.
YOU MIGHT CRY
At least I did. People lined the streets en masse, and cheered everyone on. Some held lawn parties for runners who wanted to pause (at 8 a.m. for beer!) or hilarious signs or those orange slices. The crowds on the sidelines cheered for everyone, and for me, this was huge. My legs hurt near the finish line — and the encouragement all around helped me push through.
YOU MIGHT GET HOT
This seems like a no-brainer, but when the temperature is hovering in the low 40s on race morning, it could come as a surprise. I wore an old hoodie while waiting at the start, and once I ran about half a mile, hung it on a bike rack as I passed by. I’d been told shedding clothes was normal for my particular race and found items would be donated. I hope that was the case!
Regardless, races can start early, and when you’re outside for a couple hours, the temperature can rise 20 degrees or more. In my case, it was more, and when I’d finished, it was in the high 70s. Expect to be warmer than usual — and if you can train the full 13 miles at the same time of day that you’ll be running the race, do so. You’ll have an idea of potential temperature swings, and how to properly dress.
YOU CAN SWAP YOUR CORRAL
You might be asked for your projected race time when you register, but sometimes even your best guess could be off. When I picked up my bib, I saw that my training pace was faster than what I’d predicted months earlier, so I exchanged my corral for a faster one. You’re able to move into a speedier group only then, and can slip into a slower corral on race day, if you choose. That said, if you plan to walk or pace slowly, you may want to start further back, so you can enjoy a more leisurely race.
WALK ON THE RIGHT
Walkers seemed to stick to the right side of the course, so runners could pass on the left. Not everyone followed this rule, so you’ll still need to do your best to stay safe. When I slowed to grab a cup at a water station at one point, and was right next to the table, another runner passed me, knocking my shoulder pretty hard. Still, peeling off to the right before slowing down was the best I could do.
YOU WILL HAVE FUN
Surely you’ve heard this before, but surprise: You’ll have fun and probably more than you’d expect! Even though your first half could feel grueling, it will be an experience you’ll never forget. You’ll meet people from all over the country and even the world. You’ll also get a tour of the city or wherever you’re running, without any dangerous traffic. There’s something so wonderful about ruling the neighborhood on foot at 7 a.m. And when you run with 30,000 people, you feel part of something, especially when you tackle hills or cross that finish line. You feel part of the human race, and you just accomplished something together, bigger than yourself.