Looking majestic on one of my few outdoor training runs.

A Game Plan and a Half: How Good Prep Saved An Over-Worked, Under-Trained Dad from Half-Marathon Disaster

I’m not a runner, but I run. I’m slow as shit, but I run.

My slowness is the result of a couple of things. At 5′ 6″, I have to take quite a few more steps to cover the same amount of ground as my taller friends. At 170 I’m still about 20 pounds over my ideal weight, though I’m way down from my highest weigh-in at 234.

However, after running a decent-ish 5k (28:11) earlier in the year, I decided I needed a new, big fitness goal, and rather rashly signed up for the Rock n’ Roll Denver Half Marathon.

I was thinking about a lot of things when I signed up – having a life accomplishment that none of my friends had achieved, the athletic challenge of competing in a long race, and the glory of crossing the finish line as “All I Do is Win” blared from my headphones.

What I hadn’t counted on was my training schedule.

I work a full-time job, I’m a husband to a beautiful woman, a father to our young child, and I also run a couple of professional side projects. The upshot of this is that I’m usually burning the candle at both ends already.

The only truly free time I have to train is during my lunch break, and occasionally – if there’s not a birthday party, family get-together, softball game, emergency choir practice, etc., etc., – on the weekends.

Most days, I would eat my lunch at my desk before taking a break and cruising over to gym a couple of minutes down the road, where there was a running track and temperature-controlled environment that made running during all weather simple and straight forward. It also had a shower facility, a lifesaver for my coworkers who undoubtedly would not have appreciated the post-run stank that comes with going back to work without a good dousing.

However, even my lunch break training was a bit spotty – there were days where the most time I had between meetings was half an hour. Training those days simply wasn’t happening.

Try as I might to make a schedule that would work for me, life’s shenanigans made any training schedule impossible to stick to. The result was a halting, uneven method of training. I’d run 3-4 miles (any more and I wouldn’t have time to shower up before my next meeting) 3-4 days a week, and sneak in a longer run on Fridays or Saturdays.

I found that at a heart rate of 140 bpm, I could run for seemingly as long as I liked, though it was rare that I got a chance to run more than 4 miles.

As the days ticked away, and I couldn’t find the time to increase my mileage, I began to panic. I somehow managed to slip in a 7-miler a week before the race, but that was as far as my training took me. I was bolstered by the fact that I still felt strong after 7 miles, and terrified by the fact that a half marathon required almost double what I had done already.

Another reality of my training was that it was all indoors and on a track, at around noon. Though I had run a few outdoor sessions, none had hills, none were done in the 40-degree weather that was predicted for race day, and none were done before 10 AM. The shock of the pavement had to be considered as well.

What did I do? What could I do?

I studied, a lot. I read up on strategies for running hills and chose one to try – keep a consistent, fastish pace up one side, and cruise down the other. I read about how to prepare for race day, physically and mentally. I found out how to flow through the porta-potties, gear check, and parking in a bout an hour. I read about not experimenting with new gear less than two weeks before race day and laying out your gear a night previously. I discovered the absolute necessity of using body glide on one’s nipples and nether regions to prevent a bloody, painful mess that one wouldn’t want to discuss with anyone else.

I practiced with in-race energy intake, probably looking like an idiot munching on Extreme Beans after running on the track for 20 minutes. I read up on how to keep warm before the race and selected an old hoody that would become my pre-race warmup. I got into a routine of cheerios and fruit before my runs, to keep my stomach from launching a mid-race rebellion.

I worked on my mental game. I would try and get myself mentally ready for a run around 7 AM, even though I was usually in my car on the way to work. In my training runs, I never completed 3 of the 4 miles for that session – it was always 3 of 13 miles. I ran like I was going to run 13 miles, even though every run was well short of that mark.

Pre-Race

Looking confused on my way from the car to the start area. I wasn't sure I'd remember where I parked. Spoiler alert: I didn't, and walked around for about half an hour after the race trying to find the right lot.
Looking confused on my way from the car to the start area. I wasn’t sure I’d remember where I parked. Spoiler alert: I didn’t, and walked around for about half an hour after the race trying to find the right lot.

My best-laid plans were almost thwarted before I left the house.

I laid out my outfit, packed my gear bag, and reserved a nearby parking space the night before. I had good breakfast of cheerios and fruit, and was feeling well-hydrated and fueled. All set to head out the door, I went to find my keys.

I couldn’t find them.

The result was tearing madly enough through the house to cause a horrific mess while doing it quietly enough to not wake my wife and son.

Although I found the keys hidden in my wife’s purse, I was already a half hour behind schedule. I hopped in my car and tore downtown, parked, and used the half-mile between my car and the starting area as my warmup run.

I still managed to get to the starting 40 minutes before the gun was set to go off, though I was 20 minutes behind the mental schedule I set for myself. I managed to hit the porta-potties to drop the bombs and apply body glide as directed, check my gear, pop some caffeinated gum and get in a quick stretch before heading to my corral. I had hucked the throwaway sweatshirt I had been wearing in my gear bag as I was feeling very warm from my dash run from the parking lot, and was down to just my usual cool weather running gear:

  • Compression undershirt

  • Long-sleeve tech shirt

  • Short sleeve tech shirt on top

  • Running Belt with my phone, 3 packs of energy beans, and caffeinated gum

  • Headphones

  • Garmin Vivoactive HR

  • Sunglasses

  • Bandanna

After standing around for about 10 minutes waiting for the corrals in front of us to be released, we were finally ready to go.

I was about mid-corral, looking up at the start banner, and surprised to find that I was quite confident. My training may not have been what I wanted, but I was prepared as I could possibly be.

Miles 1-3

I turned on my Garmin as we crossed the line and turned it immediately to HR mode. In the only race I had run before – the previously-mentioned 5k – I made the mistake of going out more quickly than I would have liked and had to pull back more than I wanted to in the middle. I knew that mistake would be fatal, but whether it was adrenaline, caffeine, or some other combination, I was sitting around 165 bpm for the first mile, no matter how slow I felt I was running. My first mile was still at a 9:05 pace, way above where I wanted it to be.

I pulled back even more and began to interact with the world around me. I knew one other person running the race, but she was running with her yoga studio and we hadn’t made plans to meet. So I high-fived the odd spectator, thanked every police officer I passed. I had front-loaded my race day playlist with chill out music, and did my best to get my mood in-tune with my music.

Around mile 3 I eventually found my groove and the 2:30 pacer was in-sight, but my heart rate was still at 160 bpm. I was feeling good, though, so I decided to just go with it. We cruised through downtown, around by the Pepsi Center, and headed towards the one big hill that threatened to de-rail my “run the whole thing” goal – the run up Wewatta Street behind Coors Field.

It may not have been a challenge for some, but for me it was a mountain. I was starting to feel a bit fatigued as we approached the hill, so I popped the first of my energy beans before we reached the bottom.

Miles 3-6

As we started up, the pacer was putting some distance between herself and me. Unmoved by her charge, I took my steady, quick pace up the hill and kept my feet moving. I managed to get to the top, still running and still feeling good. With a smile I cruised down the other side, with the 2:30 pacer still in-sight, though further away than she was before. Finding my groove once again, we meandered through downtown and a few much smaller hills until turning onto 17th street to head towards City Park.

Miles 6-9

I found myself oddly inspired by the interaction I was having with the people lining the race course, and the run up 17th street gave me a unique opportunity to give back a bit of what I was getting. The course takes its turnaround at mile marker 10, which is the end of 17th street after running a couple of miles through City Park. The left side of the street (which I was on) was heading in, while the right side was filled with the faster runners on their last 5K to the finish. I hugged the middle line and cheered on the faster runners as I ran down 17th, clapping and shouting encouragement especially to those who looked less fresh. I popped another pack of beans and kept my legs moving, trying not to think about the fact that I was now heading into personally-uncharted running territory.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and – lo and behold, the one person who I knew running the race somehow found me in the sea of runners. Her yoga group had decided to stop for a rest, but she had decided to charge on. At this point I was running a pace where I had lost the 2:30 pacer, and decided to to just be happy having a running buddy for a bit. We ran together and held a breathless conversation through the park until her yoga group caught up with us around mile 9.5 – and then promptly decided to take a break again. Though she hung back with her group, we had made up time on the pacer, who was now in-sight (though maybe a quarter mile off) once more.

Miles 10-13.1

I had the 2:30 pacer in-sight and about 5k to go. I made a point of hugging the center line of 17th as we made the turn and gave encouragement and high fives to the runners bringing up the rear. I slowly and steadily made up ground on the pacer, and caught her as I popped my last pack of beans at about mile 11.

Once I passed her I finally flipped my watch to check my time and pace. I was feeling good, and running a little bit ahead of my 2:30 goal. In fact, 2:25 might be reasonable.

I decided to go for it. I took my phone and turned on Van Canto’s version of “Holding Out for a Hero” (a weird choice for my favorite running jam, but there you have it) and turned on my tiny afterburners.

I was going to give this last two miles everything I had left in the tank. I burned my way down 17th and fought the urge to slow at every step. I didn’t check my watch for anything now – I was either going to make it under 2:25, or fail my newfound goal while giving my absolute best effort.

As I turned towards the finish line in front of the Civic Center, I could hear the crowd but couldn’t see the finish. I hadn’t afforded any energy for the small hill up to the capital steps that hid the finish line from view. I pleaded with the small crowd there to give me some noise and encouragement; they responded admirably. In a moment of pure, blissful coincidence, as I crested the hill and started down the other side to the final sprint to the finish, “All I Do is Win” came on my headphones.

I was feeling great. The finish line was all downhill from there – literally – and I started to wave my arms to pump up the crowd as I turned the final corner. Their kitten-esque roar spurred me on, and harkening back to my days as a sprinter in high school, I threw myself into the final 400 meters. I hit my watch a few seconds after crossing the finish line, and was overjoyed to see it showed 2:24:58.

Post-Race

Fighting both the tears in my eyes and the immediate tightening of my calf muscles, I took one of everything from the finisher’s chute, got in a quick stretch, picked up my medal and gear bag, and went home to my waiting son, who had been with his grandmother that morning while my wife sang in the church choir. After his grandmother had left and he had gone down fro a nap, I got my clothes off and got one foot in the shower before my son woke up absolutely wailing from a nightmare. After a quick hug, diaper change, and a story, he was back down, and I was back on my way to the shower – only discover that my nipples were on fire.

The body glide had done only part of its job. I made a mental note to try athletic tape next time.

In the end, finishing was a bigger reward than I could have imagined. I spent the rest of the day hobbling around the grocery store, the park, and my living room as we painted it, all with the biggest smile on my face.

What’s Next?

What started as a rash decision to obtain a far-reaching goal had become reality. As I write this today, I’m not sure what route to take. A full marathon seems out of the question for the very reasons my training schedule put me behind the 8-ball while training for a half.

Is it time to step back and check off the 10k distance I jumped? Focus on the 5k? Try a spring triathlon? Hang up the shoes and never run again?

No way.

I’m not a runner, but I run. I’m slow as shit (finishing 225th out of 360 in my division), but I run.

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