On Sunday I ran the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon (DX-A2)! In my goal time of under two hours (1:56:44) and feeling good.
It all came together: enough training, perfect weather, and good strategy in terms of pace, nutrition, etc. I even got a bib number that was an omen of good fortune: 777. Going into the race, my longest run ever had been 10 miles just a couple weeks earlier. This Sunday was the longest run of my life.
It was hard to pick a pace target to aim for. An online calculator suggested that based on some old Turkey Trot 5K times, I could run 13.1 miles in 1:12:00, and I’m more fit now than I was in those races. On the other hand, most of my training mileage was at speeds of 10-10:30 per mile, so it seemed like a stretch to think I could maintain 8:35/mile for two hours. In the end, I shot for the classic target of sub-2 hours, and I’d felt good running big chunks of my long runs at that pace.
I didn’t want to go out too fast and jeopardize my chances of finishing, but it turns out I could have sped up. The race felt surprisingly easy, which felt bizarre then and still feels strange to type. I chatted with one of the 9:00/mi pacers during miles 6-12, agreeing around mile 10 that based on how I felt I should speed up in the last mile. My pace over my last 1.1 miles was more like 8:15/mi, uphill.
I knew this race was a big deal for me, but I was surprised by how many friends and family encouraged me, and how much that meant to me. My wife and kids cheered me at the finish line (“daddy you ran so far, good job!”); my extended family asked questions and gave me props as I trained; my friends at the office and online congratulated me; and tons of strangers along the course shouted encouragement. Especially when I can look at runners who run faster and longer and think, maybe this wasn’t a big deal, it’s validating that friends and family show love.
Me, a runner?
I never expected to run this far. I’ve long not enjoyed running and disdained running culture, all the way back to the summer before 9th grade. I showed up to the first day of practice for the high school soccer team and the coach promptly had us run around the field for what felt like forever – probably 90 minutes. Then he gathered us together and announced, “I don’t know about soccer, but I know about winning.” He said we were going to outwork the other teams, and anyone who didn’t like that approach could leave. So I stood up and walked out, alone. I was terribly sore the next day and while the stupidity of his approach was clear to me then, it seems even dumber to me as an adult.
I briefly dabbled with running a few times since. (I wouldn’t have called myself a runner – that was for Type A people, I thought). In early college I was a dedicated weightlifter, and I’d jog to and from the gym and occasionally farther. I remember a day in fall 2003 when I ran with roommates from our apartment in Ithaca, NY’s Collegetown neighborhood up to Pyramid Mall and back, about 7 miles, as best I can tell now. As a stressed-out new teacher in 2006, I ran after school along Chicago’s lakefront, a few miles at a time. And I’ve run on and off in Ann Arbor, in 2014, 2017, 2019. Never more than a couple of times a week, and I eventually got injured each time.
The final injury in November 2019 was a nasty case of metatarsalgia / plantar fasciitis, which shut down my running – and walking. I went to Philadelphia for business and took in the sights, walking many miles in flat dress shoes and damaging my feet. After ignoring the pain for months, I was diagnosed and prescribed orthotics. Simple ones from the shoe store did the trick, along with stretching and easing back in.
Fast-forward to COVID. Before the pandemic, I transported my kids to school 5 days a week on my bike. That plus grocery runs was good for 25 miles per week on the bike, giving me a nice level of baseline fitness. COVID ended that, and I grew antsy without any errands to do. For exercise purposes, I prefer running to biking, so it was time to ease back into running. This time I was sufficiently older and wiser to take my time and avoid injury.
For the first time I followed the guidance of doing most of my mileage at slow speeds. Previously I’d figured higher heart rate = more exertion = more efficient exercise. Beginning in July 2020, I ran a half mile at a time, then 1 mile, then 2, slowly strengthening my feet. From August ’20 – Feb ’21, I ran about once a week, out of obligation and when the weather was tolerable.
Running was still not fun, then, but in the absence of bike commuting I felt better for having done it. That changed in the spring, when I started increasing my mileage. Once I could run 3-4 miles at a time, I could go places and explore. And because I was running at an easy pace, I didn’t have the discomfort of heavy exertion that had made running a chore, not a pleasure.
I built up slowly, adding no more than the recommended 10% increase per week (which initially was a half mile or less). At first my “long run” was 3 miles, then 4, then 5. It was a virtuous cycle: the more I ran, the easier it was to run farther and faster. Now I could lope along the river or through the Arboretum.
I realized this summer was the right time to try a half marathon, between the baseline fitness I’d accrued and the continued lack of bike commuting. I found myself waking up early to run in the cooler hours. Buying running shorts (and learning that they have built-in underwear!). Reading about nutrition for long runs. I’d become a dedicated runner, an idea I’d long scorned.
Strava, the running/cycling app, has a Fitness metric that’s based on exertion and associated heart rate. Its graph tells the story of my pre-COVID bike commuting, the COVID slump from March-Aug 2020, and my once-a-week running through the winter. Then the line chart skyrockets as I increased from 5 miles/week in March to 20/week now.
I’m not sure where I go from here. I ran this morning, it felt like the thing to do. So maybe I’ll keep it up. I think I like running now, and I’d like to maintain the fitness I’ve built. I slightly begrudge the time commitment, but my guess is that it will extend my life by at least as long as I spend running. So it’s like I’m just deferring those hours, not spending them.
Will I increase my weekly mileage? Sign up for another half marathon and aim for a faster time? Try a marathon?! No plans for that yet. The training commitment for a marathon seems loathsome. And if I resume bike commuting this fall, that might cut into my time and desire for running. But for now, as long as it feels right, I’ll keep on jogging.