From Couch to Half Marathon

At the end of October last year, a group of work friends came up with the idea: Let’s all participate to the RAK Half Marathon as a fun group activity.

I am not really into sports. Except some basketball in my teenage years, I never participated in regular physical activity or — perish the thought — go to the gym.

So the premise was not great for me, but got convinced fairly quickly. The run was close to my 34th birthday and it seemed like a fun goal to strive for. A challenge to make me more active and have an achievement to remember. And I don’t even dislike running that much.

It took three months of training and, on February the 8th 2019, I ran my first half marathon. In spite of my non-optimistic expectations, I managed to finish the run in 2 hours 12 minutes and something. A time that personally I, as a couch boy, find excellent.

From the whole experience of training and running the race I would like to highlight five things that struck me.

1. Don’t obsess about gear

The marketeers have won. They have successfully managed to associate in our brains that buying stuff equals progress towards the goal.

It’s not really surprising. We live in a materialistic and consumeristic age where we don’t just buy things, we express ourselves through our purchases. We project ourselves in the things and experiences we pay for. The extensions of our personality.

Even we, the just-doing-it-for-fun group got infected with the bug. You (obviously) can’t be a runner just by running. You have to look like a runner, track your activity like a runner, and share to the world that you’re a runner.

We were all absorbed by gear porn. Latest and greatest shoes. Gadgets to track anything and everything about our runs. Dozens of apps and training schedules. Energy gels. Anything for that feeling of belonging to the club. Getting closer to the finish line with dollars not with kilometers.

A bit of self awareness will go very far. Put the time on the track and not online shopping.

2. Find a way to fight boredom

Another thing that surprised me is how bored I get during the long distance runs. When sessions became longer than an hour it became gruesome.

Thinking of training for a full marathon, with running sessions that reach well into 4 hours, sounds awful.

The way I kinda solved the problem is that I started to listen to podcasts while I run instead of music. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History has 3-4 hour long episodes so they were perfect during the long runs.

Listening to spoken content makes me get out of my own head and it’s like the time passes by faster. And I feel a bit more productive because I also learn something while exercising. Btw, did you know that the Persian empire had more humanistic values than the greeks? Screw you, Leonidas!

3. Don’t fight with your mind, trick it

I trained strictly for distance. Running with the goal of keeping my heart rate around 150bpm; my anaerobic threshold. So, theoretically I would never run out of breath, and I could focus on my legs.

Every week I aimed to increase the maximum running distance. What I realized fairly soon is that getting to the previous accomplished distance was always harder than going beyond it.

I used this hindrance while setting the mental goal before a run. My mindset was to reach the previous distance record I set. I obviously knew I could do it. I’ve just done it the previous week. Any excuses my mind could’ve come up with to make me abandon the challenge were moot.

So, when I reached that goal, I would set the new target: 2-3 kilometers more, depending on how tired I felt at that point.

I can tell you that, when you get to the record point, it starts to be the most enjoyable. Knowing that every step you take is farther than you’ve ever run before makes is easier.

I was excited to get to the benchmark, because I felt that only after that, the run mattered.

4. Find something to give you a sense of progress

Being able to run a bit farther every time is infectious. The chemicals released in your brain after every milestone reached are pretty cool. I can still remember the high I had after we finished the 21k.

I understand why some people that get into sports start obsessing about it.

If it weren’t for the boring sessions I might have caught this virus too. What I am going to do now, is to try and find an activity that is healthy, fun and gives me a sense of progress.

5. Appreciate the pros more

The “Dunning–Kruger effect” seems to apply to sports too. It’s really hard to appreciate the athleticism of gifted individuals until you’re trying to do the same thing.

The pros are ridiculously good. The winner finished in 58 minutes and 42 seconds. Also, this year, 11 men finished under an hour. That’s a pace of under 3 minutes per km. If I sprint I can’t do less than 4:40.

The whole experience brought me a new appreciation the edges of human ability. So, Charles Morse was wrong saying “What one man can do, another can do.” You need the mix of elite nature and nurture to reach this level.

I will probably never run that long. For me, a 10k run is sufficient to scratch my running itch from time to time.

Keeping it simple and just training is really overlooked. Also while sport might not be a part of my life, I’ll do a bit more effort to keep this meat sack serviced better.