Fear · racing · running · training

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

All of this summer, I’ve been so excited about my new bike and getting into cycling, I’ve only mentioned half marathon training in passing. I’ve done a bunch of shorter races by now, mostly 10k. After the last one, a 10k in the sweltering heat in July, I decided that maybe it was finally time to tackle the half. If I could run 10k in 30C and survive (though just barely), perhaps there was a chance I could run twice as far?

To be honest, I was super intimidated by the sheer distance. I could do 10k, but I’d end up exhausted, and at races that included a half marathon option, I always wondered how the hell it was possible to double my distance. But plenty of people were doing it, and some of my running mates were egging me on: “if you can run 10k, you can do a half marathon, no problem!” and “anyone who runs a bit regularly can do a half!”. They meant well, I know, but this sort of encouragement made my anxiety worse. What if I was the sort of person who could run 10k, but not 21? Or who could run more or less regularly, just not very far? I was really quite scared of the idea of trying to run 21k.

Photo of an unsurmountable-looking, ice-covered mountain face. This is how Bettina felt about the half-marathon distance when she first started training.
Photo by Stas Aki on Unsplash

I’ve always been one to avoid a challenge rather than risking failure, but it’s something I’m trying to work on: getting out of my comfort zone and push myself to take on things that are a bit of a stretch. Learning to maybe fail.

And so I scoured the web for an autumn half marathon with a flat course that was close enough so I could get myself there on the morning of the race. There was no way I was starting out with a hilly half. I settled on a small race around a former US Army base called the Franklin Mile Run. The US Army left a lot of its German bases in the 2000s and these areas are being redeveloped now, and the event website promised an entertaining and – I noted with relief – almost completely flat course. 29 September, I was on!

I started training “in earnest” following the aforementioned 10k race in early July, so I had ample time to prepare. I didn’t draw up a particularly sophisticated training plan: the idea was to run two to three times per week (ideally three), with one long run on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance up to 18k a few weeks before the race, repeat that a couple of times, and then taper the week before race day. I mapped out the long runs on the calendar, knowing I would hit my first 18k at the end of August. Then we’d go on holiday, during which I would do a couple of shorter runs and one more long run before tapering.

Initially, the long runs were tough. I had this mental block caused by my Fear Of The Distance (FOTD): I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it would be too hard – essentially all the negative self-talk that was trying to protect me from failure by sabotaging me, as Cate recently pointed out. It was also really, really hot. And so I would go out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete my run, and any difficulty I’d run into – it still being too warm, being slightly uncomfortable in my gear, etc., would compound that feeling and leave me starting out jittery and nervous. There was one particular run, my second 14k, during which I hit a wall at 10k and spent the final 4k shuffling along in suffering, convinced I would never be able to run a half marathon. In hindsight, it was really just too warm that day. I should have taken something to drink and taken it easy. But at the time, it was quite discouraging.

And then one day, I ran 16k and was fine. I’d taken a water bottle and decided not to sweat it (haha!), and it really helped. A friend of mine, who has done several half marathons, had also given me an amazing pep talk the day before. Not the “anyone can do this” kind, but the “you, Bettina, can do this, I know how much you train, you’re clearly in great shape”, kind. After this successful run, I was much more confident. I even knocked my first 18k out of the park. By early September, I was ready. I was feeling strong, doing great for speed, the temperatures were finally coming down, and my FOTD had subsided. Then, we went on holiday, and I got sick. Not ideal, but at this point, two weeks out from the race, I still thought I’d be able to do it.

I got back, went to work almost recovered from my cold, and immediately picked up a stomach bug that was going around. A week and a half out from the race, it was getting seriously worrying. The week before – I hadn’t run in almost three weeks at this point – I was still not feeling 100%. The race was going to be on the Sunday. On the Tuesday, I had planned to do a trial 10k but didn’t manage to get out of work on time – it was also one of the busiest weeks of the year, of course. I finally got myself out for a run on Thursday. I did 10k, which went alright, but it was abundantly clear I wouldn’t be able to do the half marathon. I was gutted. I had been ready! And now, I clearly wasn’t.

It was especially disappointing because I knew I couldn’t just sign up for another half a few weeks later once I was fully recovered. Just two days after the race I was going to have a hyperactive parathyroid removed, which would keep me from exercising for several weeks. By this time, the season would be essentially over and I would likely have to wait until next spring for another go at the half-marathon distance. (There are of course winter races, but none of them meet my criteria of ‘no overnight stay required’ and ‘mostly flat course’.) But there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had just been unlucky. I now know that I can do it, so training myself up for another go will be much easier. Still tough, ARGH. Double-, nay, triple-ARGH!!!

Luckily, the race had a shorter option and it was possible to downgrade on the day, so I decided that at least I was going to run something, even if it wasn’t a half marathon. Read on this upcoming Wednesday for the race report…

Have you ever had to bow out of a race (or another challenge you had worked hard for)? How did you deal with the disappointment? I’m curious to hear your experiences.

4 thoughts on “Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

  1. I love this post and am looking forward to the next one! You are so right: “Anyone can do this” is the worst possible advice. If you end up doing it, it doesn’t feel great, because ANYONE can do this. If you end up not doing it, then you’re not anyone… 😦 I’ve had to bow out of races because I felt undertrained (and was undertrained). In retrospect, it would’ve been nice if I had felt like I could do them anyway. Some wisdom for self to take for the future…

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  2. It’s a great blog post on how wasteful and demotivating to follow other /general expectations rather than your own. It’s sobering to think how much some people base /measure their achievements in life against expectations of others.

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  3. Bettina, I’ve been there! I think it was my very first half marathon that I dropped out of mid-race. I had no illness and no training reason. My cat had died the day before and the grief was too heavy to carry around the race course, so I walked away at 10k. And then in April (more than 20 years later!), I sabotaged my own training for a half. While I finished the race, it was a worst ever. If I hadn’t done it all, I might have recovered better psychologically, because the “failure”was painful. Of course, its up to me to take care of the disappointment. But that does’t mean its always easy. Anyhow, all to say–you should only run it if you feel good about the prospect!! Not anyone can do a half marathon—but I’m guessing, based on everything else you’ve written, that you can, when you are not struggling with a cold, followed by a stomach bug.

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