I’ve never been much of a runner.
Even when I played sports as a youth, I hated running. It was dumb and pointless to run solely for the sake of pounding the pavement, I thought, without the point of scoring a goal and hearing that satisfying swoosh of the net; all that heavy breathing hadn't been for nothing.
Despite these previously held beliefs, I still found myself saying yes to my editor's invitation to run the JetBlue Long Beach Half Marathon with her. I'd sealed my fate with a hesitant nod and a smile on this mid-August morning in the Long Beach Post newsroom, when my editor Keeley Smith decided she had more faith in me than I had in myself.
A quick Google search shows that 12 weeks is the ideal length of time for a novice to train for a half marathon. Keeley—who’s run multiple half marathons before—proposed the idea eight weeks in advance, and I naively accepted. I’ve never really pushed my body very close to its physical limits, so I thought it would be an interesting experience to see what I could handle.
We agreed on running three times a week, twice after work and once on the weekends. Our training routes usually consisted of the pedestrian paths along the beach and the Los Angeles River Trail in Long Beach. We started off doing three to five-mile runs, keeping a constant speed without burning out too quickly.
“It’s all about pacing,” Keeley would cheerily remind me as I tried my best to keep up.
By mid-September we started averaging five to six miles a run. On one particular Saturday morning we tried running five miles but only did about three because the heat was so intense along the beach path. During an evening run one Sunday, we were able to complete six miles. It was the farthest I'd run in my whole life at that point, and I was pretty proud of the feat, despite the shin splints I'd developed. The injury scared me and made me more careful to avoid a worse injury down the line.
After a few days of rest and many stretches with a foam roller, I was able to hit the pavement once again.
The most difficult part of our training came when we added the Queensway Bridge to our route. The stairs we took to get up and down the bridge were torturous. I’ve never hated stairs so much in my life.
Once October hit I started to worry about actually being able to complete 13.1 miles, without injury and without walking. Up to that point we had only done one eight-mile run—about half of a half marathon.
On the Tuesday before the race we decided to shoot for a 10-mile run. The run was made infinitely more bearable by the cool, breezy air that evening, and finishing boosted my confidence and prevented me from having a full-blown panic attack.
On the Friday before the event we ran only three miles, and on the Saturday before I focused on preparing my gear and curating a killer three-and-a-half-hour playlist. That Saturday night I didn't fall asleep until closer to 11:00PM, partly because I was watching a really good soccer game on TV, but mostly because of nerves.
My alarm sounded at 4:00AM on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I couldn't bring myself to eat more than two bites each of a fig bar and banana, and drink only a few sips of water.
Keeley and I made it to the starting line at 6:00AM, taking full advantage of the sanctioned early start time for half-marathon runners due to a heat advisory for the day. I did a few stretches, tied and re-tied my shoelaces, and then stretched again for good measure.
As the announcer gave us the green light to go, I pushed play on my iPod shuffle and hit the pavement. Things started off well in the first two miles as I kept up with Keeley, but my run took a turn when I reached my nemesis, the Queensway Bridge. Not only did Keeley speed up her pace and leave me in the dust—or more probably, I slowed down—my iPod died. I can’t remember the last song I heard, but I do remember freaking out about being left to my own thoughts.
Then, at the third mile, I choked on water I tried to gulp while running. I had a coughing fit that lasted a good quarter of a mile. Between miles three and six I entertained myself by listening to the tunes other runners blasted through their phones. I was also amazed at the different types of participants—like the parents who ran while pushing their kids in strollers, or the much older runners who were in much better shape than I am.
Once I hit the beach path, I came in direct contact with the full power of the sun's heat. Whatever plan I had before of keeping up a strong, medium-fast pace went out the window as I bargained with myself to just cross the finish line without walking—even if it meant jogging very, very slowly. I still had some sort of goal for myself. During that time, I nearly threw up twice, which scared me out of consuming my energy gel—even though the flavors were a yummy salted caramel and strawberry banana.
Though miles seven through 11 were the hardest for me—who am I kidding, it was all hard—I know I could not have done it without those on the sideline cheering us runners on and holding up signs of support. We may not have been able to wave, or even smile, but the thoughtful actions didn't go unnoticed.
I’d like to now give my personal thanks to the following people:
To the volunteers at the water stations, ready with cups in-hand, thank you. Also, I’m sorry if I crashed into you and/or accidentally threw water in your direction.
To the lady holding out a box of tissues so us runners could wipe away the various types of fluid released from our orifices, thank you. To the two guys who cooled me down with their water guns, I appreciated it very much. To the other lady with a box of doughnut holes, thank you, they were delicious. To the live bands playing along the beach path, thank you. I had Billy Idol’s “Midnight Hour” replaying in my head and pumping me up for a good while.
As I ran the last two miles, the need to stop and sit was growing with every step I took. At one point, I felt something sliding down my leg. I looked down, thinking I had lost control of my bladder, but then realized I was just sweating profusely. I cursed myself for agreeing to such a torture and vowed to never put my body through this hell again.
Then I turned left to Shoreline Drive and finally saw the finish line.
I focused on the downhill home stretch and used whatever carb-energy I had left from that tasty doughnut to cross the line. I immediately felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—followed by mind-numbing thirst and exhaustion.
I got my medal, a few drinks, and made my way to my friends and family. At that point, I was ready for breakfast, a shower and a long nap.
Reporter's note: I finished the half-marathon in two hours, seven minutes and 30 seconds and averaged 9-minute, 44-second miles.
Photos courtesy of family and friends of the author.