Why training for a half-marathon beats watching the NFL

My next half-marathon is December 2 in Memphis. It will be my 5th half-marathon — my 2nd this year — but my first outside of Nashville. I always allow myself two months to train for a half-marathon, which means my training officially began yesterday. I ran just over 4 miles and tackled some unrelenting hills nearby. The objective was to increase physical strength and also endurance. I’ll go on longer runs later on that don’t involve so many hills, but I’m going to make my shorter runs as difficult as I can.

I’ve been running almost exclusively 5K’s since my last half-marathon on April 29. My monthly goal is always at least 50 miles. I was faithful to this goal all during the summer. But summer heat means shorter runs, and it takes quite a few 5K’s to add up to 50 miles. Now it’s turning cooler, so I can begin to lengthen my runs. You won’t be prepared for a half-marathon by just doing 5K’s.

Yesterday, I went to church, then came home and ran. I continued my recent tradition of completely ignoring the NFL. I have not missed “No Fans Left” since cutting it out of my life last year. There are some parts to half-marathon training that are not fun, but even the most demanding half-marathon training still beats the NFL without question.

Let me give a few examples:

  1. You can spend upwards of $100 on authentic NFL jersey. But why would you spend $100 just so you can wear some other dude’s name on your back when you can purchase a new pair of running shoes for less? I’ll get 350 miles (about 6 months) out of a good pair of running shoes. That’s money well spent.
  2. Let’s say you go to an NFL game with a friend or maybe your spouse. By the time you fight traffic, pay for parking, buy decent tickets, and eat overpriced concessions, you’ve dropped at least $300, not to mention having invested the better part of your day. Entry fees for the last 3 half-marathons I’ve registered for have totaled less than $300.
  3. Let’s say your team wins. Congratulations. What have you gained? Maybe you’re in it for the experience or camaraderie with the other fans. That’s great. And if that’s what you want to do with your time and money, then fine. But your joy is going to be fleeting. After all, you’re just piggybacking on someone else’s preparation and game day performance. You didn’t really do anything except make a little noise. Running a half-marathon (or any race of any length) belongs to the runner. He/she isn’t piggybacking on anyone else. If you’re a runner, then its your own preparation and your own race day performance that you get to celebrate.
  4. In the NFL, you’re paying to watch other athletes perform. In a half-marathon, you are the athlete. The spectators are cheering you and encouraging you. Granted, I’ve never performed at the elite level of an NFL player, I’m not earning millions of dollars, and no one’s asking for my autograph, but I’m also creating my own glory and authoring my own performance. Believe me, the joy and satisfaction I feel after finishing a race dwarfs any joy and satisfaction I’ve ever experienced after watching a professional team win.
  5. If I watch an NFL game either on TV or in person, I’m largely sedentary. I’m no better off after watching a game. I haven’t improved myself in any way. But running is all about self-improvement. The proof is in the satisfaction you feel after a training run, meeting a goal, or finishing an actual race.
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Back-of-the-packer

Competitor Running is an online publication dedicated to runners that I susbscribe to. They often have articles that I find useful, and a few days ago they ran a piece entitled, “8 different types of runners that you will definitely encounter.” I figured I’d scroll through the piece to see what type of runner I classify as and was dismayed to discover that I’m a “back-of-the-packer.” I bristled at the slight. The description fits me perfectly, but in self-defense, I typically finish around the middle of my age group and not the back. I don’t fit any of the other categories. I’m not an ultra-runner, I don’t dress up in costumes or excessive running gear, I’m not a “do-gooder,” I don’t do obstacle courses, I don’t run Disney races, and I don’t try to work my running into every conversation. So that only leaves one category: back-of-the-packer. According to the article, “This group will forever hold a dear place in my heart long after my running shoes have been retired. I easily fall into this group, so I’m slightly biased. These guys are out there, rain or shine, pounding the pavement for the sheer satisfaction of finishing. Yes, we have our time goals too. But we don’t race for the glory of the win. We race for the love and zest of life it brings us.” Well, that’s me.

The heart of a runner

Today was my annual physical. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s a necessary evil. Every three years my doctor orders an EKG as part of my labs. Today was one of those years.

I always show up well before my appointment time in order to knock out my labs first. That way, once I see my doctor, I’m done. So as I was sitting in the waiting room between my labs and the actual visit with the doctor, I received a call from the technician who had done my EKG. She needed to see me.

I knew exactly what this was going to be about. She had already shown my doctor the results of my EKG. They were concerned about my low heart rate. It was 40 beats per minute. She relayed the message that my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist for further testing. “I’m a runner,” I informed the technician. “I run half-marathons. My ‘at rest’ heart rate is always in the 40’s.” (Sometimes it’s even lower.) She told me to just talk to the doctor about it. In the meantime, she handed me a lab order I was to give the cardiologist when I made my appointment.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. The last time I got an EKG, the lab technician doing the test was a little concerned about my heart rate. It was something like 48 that time. Once when I went to the local walk-in clinic, I set off their low heart rate alarm when they were taking my blood pressure and pulse. So this is something I’m always prepared for.

At any rate, after sitting in the waiting room watching a small army of pharmaceutical reps take priority over the patients, I finally got in to see my doctor. I asked him about the EKG. I reminded him that I am a runner and that a heart rate of 40 is perfectly normal for me. “You know what,” he admitted, “I forgot that you’re a runner. I actually had you confused with another one of my patients who is overweight and doesn’t exercise at all.” He listened to my heart and lungs as part of the examination. “Slow and steady,” he remarked. “Don’t worry about that lab order. I’m not concerned.”

Make that two half-marathons in 2017

Several years ago, in November, 2012, to be exact, my wife & I attended our son’s high school cross-county banquet. We were seated with another couple and I got to talking to the dad about running. At the time, I was just a casual runner. My longest run up to then was something like 7 miles. He asked me if I had ever considered running a half-marathon. I told him something like, “That’s crazy. I could never run a half-marathon.”

I have since run 4 half-marathons (five if you count the one I did in practice).

After that brief exchange, I began to ponder the idea. How did I know I could never run a half-marathon? I had never trained for one, never even tried. Thus began an obsession. I set as a goal the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis the following year (December, 2013). That would give me 13 months to prepare for my first half-marathon. I trained like crazy, and even ran a half-marathon in practice 12 days before the scheduled event. (I remember it as the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2013.)

And then the race was canceled due to an impending ice storm.

I transferred my registration to what was then the Country Music Marathon in Nashville the last Saturday in April, 2014. That became my first half-marathon. I’ve done every one since, a total of 4 now.

Since the half-marathon-that-wasn’t four years ago, I’ve wanted to run the Memphis course. I just never have followed through. After last year’s race in Nashville, I wanted no part of half-marathons for a while. For whatever reason, that race (2016) was harder on me than any of the others, and I was a bit emotional after it was over.

A few months ago, I went ahead and made a hotel reservation in downtown Memphis for the night of December 1, just in case. Sign-ups for the St. Jude race opened this morning at 10 a.m., and it will also fill up before the day is out, so I jumped on it right when registration opened.

If last year’s half-marathon was difficult, this year’s was nearly impossible. It happened to take place on what would end up being the hottest April day in Nashville’s history. My time was 22 minutes slower than last year’s, so if there were ever a time to be turned off half-marathons, it should have been this year. Instead, I found myself psyched over the idea of running the Memphis race on December 2, and so I resolved to do it. It might be a case of wanting redemption after Nashville’s sweat-fest. It might be age. I’ll be 48 by the time the Memphis race rolls around. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to run like this. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more half-marathons left in me. But as long as I am physically able, I might as well capitalize.

So, Lord willing, four years after what would have been my first time running the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis, I’m finally going to do it.

The half-marathon training plan I will use from now on

A few days ago, I posted on the modified half-marathon training plan I had adopted this year in light of the fact that I was overcoming an injury and trying not to reaggravate it but also prepare myself to run a half-marathon. March and April have always been my primary training months, given that the half-marathon I run is always the last Saturday in April. Heretofore, my strategy has always been to run as much as I can as often as I can, average 20-22 miles a week for 8 weeks, and get in at least one run of 11+ miles leading up to race day.

Last year, I ran 189 miles in March and April, including the half-marathon. This year, that figure dropped to 115.3, a decrease of nearly 40%. I successfully ran a half-marathon three days ago after using this plan. It’s simple. My strategy was to run two or three 5K’s a week, plus a long run that increases each week until achieving at least one run of 11+ miles. Also, I was determined to avoid running back-to-back days. (I only violated this once.) So my plan was a lot more structured than before, and I stuck to it reasonably close. Here’s how it actually played out. (Distances are all in miles.)

March 4: 3.14
March 6: 3.14
March 8: 3.13
March 10: 3.12
March 13: 5.01
March 16: 3.15
March 19: 3.16
March 21: 6.22
March 23: 3.18
March 27: 7.07
March 29: 3.13
March 31: 8.02
April 6: 3.13
April 8: 3.12
April 10: 3.13
April 12: 11.02
April 14: 3.13
April 16: 3.13
April 18: 3.12
April 19: 3.15
April 21: 8.16
April 24: 3.13
April 26: 3.10
April 29: half-marathon
Total mileage: 115.3

And this is how I’m going to do it from here on out, at least for as long as it works. It’s far less strenuous (less injury risk) but also leaves me fully prepared to run a half-marathon.

Hottest run ever

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Today, I ran my 4th Nashville half-marathon in as many years. As expected, it was much warmer than is conducive for a long run. I’m talking off-the-charts warm, about 25 degrees warmer than I prefer. When I arrived at Nissan Stadium a little after 5 a.m., my car thermometer showed 77 degrees. When I left around 5 hours later, it was 84. The promised breeze never really materialized. The morning clouds did not stay around for very long. Mother Nature conspired to make the weather as un-runner-friendly as possible.

I’m not complaining. There was nothing I could do about the weather, and all the other runners were running in the same weather I was. In fact, I never heard a single other runner complain about the weather the entire time I was there. No one makes us show up to run half-marathons/marathons. It’s strictly voluntary. So I’m not complaining about any of this.

My previous three half-marathons, I’ve been able to run the entire distance without taking walking breaks. Sometimes it has been dicey, but I’ve always managed to keep running until the finish line. I knew going into this year’s run I was going to have to let go of that as a goal. I’ve never attempted a long run in weather anywhere near this warm, and I had to embrace walking breaks as a reality.

I was hoping to make it halfway through before resorting to walking. I took my first walking break at the 10K marker — almost halfway — and still managed to do more running than walking for about the next 4 miles. Everything changed after I passed the 10-mile marker, maybe 10.5 miles. I stopped sweating. I had been sweating profusely — I always do — and drank everything they offered at each water station (about every 1.5 miles). At one point, and I don’t remember exactly where I was, I reached up to run my hand across my head — I just got a haircut yesterday — and realized my forehead was dry.

Also at that point (between 10 and 11 miles), I started to grow concerned about the possibility of heat stress/exhaustion. I didn’t actually feel any of those symptoms, mind you, but while I was trying to prevent overheating that might lead to sickness (very embarrassing when that happens), I also trying to be mindful about other negative consequences.

So for the final 2.5 miles or so, I actually did more walking than running. I was not alone. The entire pack of runners I was in was forced to alternate walking/jogging at that point. We were all laboring, just trying to finish the race at all cost at that point.

My finishing time was 2:38:18, which was a little more than 22 minutes slower than last year’s time. Honestly, it’s about what I expected. I knew I wasn’t setting any sort of personal record today. It would have been foolish even to try.

Overall, I figure I ran maybe 10 miles out of the 13.1. I’m thankful I finished, because there was a long stretch of the run when I wondered, “How on earth am I ever going to finish?” Even though my time was off by a considerable amount, this one was special to me. Everything about today’s half-marathon was hard, going back to an injury I sustained 3 months ago, to the recovery, to the difficulty of today’s run.

I have to say that the race planners did everything they could to keep us cool. There were several “amenities” I’ve never seen before: water hoses spraying mist at every water station, cold, wet sponges around the 15K marker, and icy wet cloths after the finish line. Every little thing they did for helped in some way. It takes a lot of volunteers to be able to have a race of this magnitude, and the ones who clean up after us are the most awesome. There are literally tens of thousands of paper cups that have to be picked up, all those sponges, and it takes hours to stand there and pass out water/Gatorade to all the runners.

I honestly don’t know how anyone could run a marathon on a day like today. I say that about marathoners every year, because it is extremely difficult to run the “double half-marathon” even during ideal circumstances. The marathoners run with the half-marathoners for the first 11+ miles, and then the marathoners split off to take their own course. At the split, even though there were fewer marathoners than usual — I’m sure many of them switched to the half-marathon given the heat — the few I saw were walking/jogging just like us. I don’t know how a person can keep that up for so long because they still had 15 miles to go at that point.

I know it seems like self-inflicted punishment to run half-marathons. It has always been difficult for me, because 13.1 miles is right there at the edge of my limit. I’ve never been able to go farther. Yes, they are difficult, but I’ve never found myself wondering, “Why exactly am I doing this?” I do them because I really do love running, running 13.1 miles all at once is hard for me, and a person gets a true sense of accomplishment from doing things that are hard.

The morning of…

It is 5:19 a.m. I just made it to Nissan Stadium and the crowd is already enormous, so all the other runners appear to be saying, “Screw it, I’m running today.” It is 77 degrees (on the way to 90) with no rain anywhere. So it’s basically a summer morning in April. I’m even wearing a tank top. I only have one that is dri-fit. I rarely wear a tank top. But today I’m putting appearances aside in the full interest of comfort. I love being down here on race day and somehow this is going to be a fun experience. I’ve never attempted a long run in weather anywhere near this warm. I know I’ll have to take walking breaks, which I’ve never had to do before. The only question is how far can I go before I have to start taking walking breaks? Anyway, I’m signing off now. I’ll do a post-race write-up later today after I’ve regained my senses.

Two parts excitement, one part fear

The days leading up to a half-marathon are always incredibly exciting for me. I can’t really describe it for you, other than to say I’m excited at the prospect of standing on Broadway Avenue in Nashville Saturday morning with about 24,000 other runners and beginning what will be, Lord willing, my 4th half-marathon in as many years.

But there’s always an element of fear that never goes away. It’s not that I’m afraid of anything, per se, because I’ve done this three times before and I’ve successfully completed my training for this one. My injury from three months ago has fully healed. But still, there’s always the fear that for some reason or another, something will happen and I won’t be able to finish the half-marathon. Even the idea is unconscionable. Yet there is always risk involved with these, and so the little bit of fear I experience never goes away.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be aiming for a “PR” (personal record) Saturday. The weather is going to be much warmer than I prefer for a long run. It will probably be in the 70’s for the bulk of my run. There will be a good breeze, so that will help. If the clouds can stay around from whatever overnight rain we get, that will also help. The race begins at 6:45. Because of staggered starts, my group won’t hit the starting line until about 7:15. If my time happens to be the same as all my other half-marathons, I’ll finish about 9:30 a.m. But I’m not counting on this. My time this year may be several minutes slower than usual because of the warmth.

I’ve promised myself I won’t be so hard on me this time. My goal heretofore has always been to not only finish the half-marathon, but to run the entire distance without walking any of it. I’ve always accomplished this, but it may not be the case this year due to the heat. So if I absolutely have to take a break and walk some during the last part of the race, I’ll do it in the interest of finishing the 13.1 mile course at all cost. I’ve always seen walking as a sign of weakness. Maybe this is unfair. It may simply be reality this time. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

The way I see it, I can’t do anything about the weather, and all the other runners are going to be running in the same weather I am. So no one’s getting an advantage. The fact that I am even running tomorrow is an accomplishment. I suffered a torn calf muscle near the end of January that sidelined me for over a month and put the half-marathon in jeopardy. I eased back into running during the next few weeks, bought a compression sleeve (that I will likely be wearing long-term), and started running 5K’s again in early March. I consider my training a success when I am able to execute a run of at least 11 miles, and I accomplished this 16 days ago. I’ve always gotten in a run of 11+ miles during half-marathon training, and I’ve always completed the half-marathon. So I’m confident in my preparation.

I always enjoy running the Nashville half-marathon. Yes, the last few miles are always a grind. This is the “mind-over-matter” part of the run. I’m just thankful that tomorrow I’ll be there, because it was just a few weeks ago that I seriously doubted my ability to recover from injury and prepare for the 13.1-mile run. So I’m promising myself that I’ll enjoy the morning, enjoy the experience, do the very best I can, and that it’s acceptable to take a few walking breaks if I absolutely need to. There is no shame in this.

Tomorrow, I won’t have my iPhone with me. I won’t be snapping photos or tweeting from the course. In other words, I won’t be trying to capture the moment. I’ll instead be busy living the moment. I’ll be using my Apple Watch to track my run, hence the lack of need for the iPhone. Honestly, I won’t miss carrying an iPhone at all. It’s more pleasurable to run with your hands empty. I also won’t be running with earbuds. I always run while listening to music (usually Rush), but I don’t listen to music while running the half-marathon. There’s too much going on around me that I would miss if I were plugged in. I feed off the energy of the other runners and don’t want to tune any of that out. It’s the only time I find listening to music to be counterproductive. So no iPhone and no ear buds.

As always, I’ll do a post-run write up later tomorrow, or Sunday at the latest.

9 days and counting…

My 4th half-marathon is 9 days away. I have one more long run planned and maybe three 5K’s. I’m starting to look ahead at the weather forecast, and right now it looks like it’s going to be warmer than I like it, but also breezy. I’m not letting myself get flustered over the weather. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll have to run in the same weather everyone else runs in. If I can successfully complete the half-marathon — and my confidence is rising — I will permanently change the way I train for half-marathons, since I was forced to alter my strategy after injuring myself three months ago. I’ll do a write-up on my new training plan after next Saturday.

Injury update

Yesterday morning, I ran my first 10K since tearing my right calf muscle two months ago. It was slow and difficult, but it helped me meet a goal. My time was 58 minutes. My usual 10K time is 54-56 minutes. But I’m not disappointed. I deliberately slowed my pace in order to get the miles. And I was quite pleased with the miles.

I am running in the Rock-and-Roll Marathon in Nashville on April 29 (participating in the half-marathon). I am nowhere close to being in half-marathon shape. Recovering from an injury is tough. It doesn’t take long to get out of shape. I’ve been back to running for about 2 1/2 weeks now. It’s just now starting to come back to me. I’m going to run the half-marathon knowing I won’t be fully prepared. I’ll be mostly prepared, but probably not fully.

I am limiting my number of weekly miles this training season. It may seem counter-productive, but I cannot afford to re-injure myself at this point. So I’m taking precautions and trying to find a balance. I’m running two or three 5K’s a week, plus one “long run.” The long run will (Lord willing) increase a little very week. Last week’s long run was 5 miles. This week’s was 10K. Next week I’m aiming for 7 miles, and so on. I’d love to get in one training run of 11 miles. I’d feel a great deal better going into the half-marathon with an 11-miler under my belt.

So far, my injury hasn’t bothered me. I’m running with a compression sleeve (and will be long-term), avoiding running back-to-back days, and keeping my weekly miles under 20, since I believe I did myself in by running too many miles in too short a period (nearly 25 miles in a 7-day period when the injury originally occurred). At any rate, that’s where I am. I’ve got 5 1/2 weeks to prepare for my 4th half-marathon. It’s always a challenge, but more so this year.