Last Sunday I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon. I can’t believe I am writing this.
I did it. I nailed it! Two months ago, I never ran, and now I’m a half marathon finisher.
I documented the entire process from start ’til 13.1:
Part 1: why I decided to sign up for the San Francisco Half Marathon
part 2: how I injured my knees in the second week
part 3: how I felt like a failure and contemplated quitting
part 4: how I stayed motivated and smashed records
part 5: how I got halfway through my marathon training & what changed since the beginning
part 6: the apps & devices I used to track my progress
part 7: the roller coaster of emotions during two months of training
How did I feel during race weekend—and now what?
Day Before: Ready
On Saturday, the day before the race, I knew I had to be smart. I had to keep calm and eat decently. I needed to be as rested and fueled as possible. So when I finished all the necessary preparations (picking up my race packet at the expo, buying food, stocking up on power bars), I focused on doing nothing.
If you know me, you would understand how much torture that is: I like to enjoy my weekend out of the house, biking around, going out and being active. But not this Saturday. I had to force myself to stay in.
While I was preparing my outfit, my bag and the food I was going to bring, I suddenly realized what I had gotten myself into: running a very long distance with very little preparation. I felt scared, but also ready for it. I realized it would only take three hours of my life. I just had to keep strong during that time.
I got into bed at 10 p.m. and slept like a baby.
Two hours Before: Encouraged
When I got out of bed at 4 a.m., it was the afternoon in Belgium (where I am originally from), so I woke up to tons of encouraging messages from my friends and family. They empowered me, and it was nice to know that while all my other U.S. friends were sleeping (it was 4 a.m. after all), I had people cheering for me at the other side of the ocean.
I got up, took a shower, put on my brand new and carefully selected race outfit and got out the door while chewing on bananas and peanut butter.
After ordering my Lyft ride, I switched my phone to flight mode. I wanted to enjoy the morning excitement by myself. I had embarked on this adventure by myself, I did the training by myself, I did the running by myself. Now I wanted to enjoy every minute of the powerful feeling of accomplishing something completely by myself.
In the car, I was looking at the dark city and the lights of the big buildings in the Financial District of San Francisco. I was taking it all in, enjoying every minute before the madness of the race would start.
30 min before: Unprepared
I arrived at the Embarcadero 30 minutes before my starting time. In that time I had to get ready to race, drop off my bag with belongings and get to my starting point.
I took off my sweater, felt the cold on my skin, put it in my bag and handed it over to the San Francisco Marathon volunteers.
Suddenly I was carrying my phone, an iPhone sleeve for my upper arm, three power bars, a bottle of water and my bib number in my hands. Which wasn’t really practical.
I didn’t bring pins to attach my bib number to my shirt, so I taped it to my pants. Bad idea. After 4 steps it fell off, so I taped it to my shirt. (I would eventually lose it after an hour of running.)
Only 20 minutes left before my start. I wanted to start my Spotify playlist music, but I had no idea how to work the iPhone arm sleeve, which I had borrowed from my friend. Could I tap the screen through the plastic? Did I have to put in my phone upside down? How was I going to activate all my running apps from my upper arm? I freaked out and decided to put my power bars in the iPhone sleeve and hold my phone in one hand and my bottle of water in the other. Just like I did during my training.
I felt so unprepared. How could I have not tested this beforehand?
I had 10 minutes left, so I walked up to my starting point. The street was blocked by people and I had no idea where to go. Suddenly I heard a firm voice shouting “People from Wave 4*, please step forward.”* I passed through the crowd and saw the starting point and banner in front of me. I heard a voice counting down from a microphone and quickly took a picture of the sign while the crowd pushed me to move forward. I crossed the line and started running while activating all my running apps, streaming those to Facebook so my supporters could follow me.
5 AM, dark sky, off I went!
Mile 0-5: This is fun!
I started running alongside the Embarcadero to the piers, a route I had done so many times before while running home from work. The darkness gave a whole new dimension to the running experience. I enjoyed it and was smiling at everyone on the way.
I passed by Boudin, the famous sourdough bakery. It was still closed, and I could see the bakers preparing the breads. I was having so much fun seeing new things, experiencing San Francisco in a way I never did before: early morning and in the dark.
I was watching the people around me and forgot I was listening to music. I even forgot I was running.
Mile 5-8: Is it over yet?
During miles 5, 6 and 7 I was running on the Golden Gate Bridge and back. When the first excitement of ‘I am actually running on the bridge where normally cars drive’ was over, I realized I was getting frustrated by this part of the race. There were runners running to the opposite side of the Bay (away from San Francisco) and there were runners running back. We were running close to each other, there was hardly any space, we were running alongside the cars and it was really foggy. It sucked.
I was so focussed on how I didn’t like the part that I started focussing on the wrong things. I started feeling my little pains. I started to get frustrated by other runners. I was counting down time and mileage. Was the race over yet?
Mile 8 – 10: I am ok. No, I am not. Yes, I am.
I do not remember much of miles 8 and 9; I must have been running on auto pilot. I do remember that my body switched between feeling fine and feeling in pain. When I focussed on my knees, I felt pain, but when I was looking at the beautiful scenery along the coast line, I didn’t feel a thing and could keep running.
Mile 10: I am dying.
“Oh God. I can’t do this anymore. I am injuring my knees. Why am I doing this again?” My knees where throbbing. I started to feel pain in my back, too. I never had back pain during my training, so I was legitimately worried.
I couldn’t think clearly anymore and forgot why I was actually doing this. It must have been the only time I was actually thinking of quitting. Giving up. I felt broken and realized the medal wasn’t worth severe and permanent injuries.
But I looked around and saw everyone struggling. I saw a man struggling so with what I had left in me, I ran over and I shared the last half power bar. Seeing other people struggle, being able to help them a little and realizing we were all in this together gave me the energy to go on. I was not going to quit this race. Not this time.
Mile 11: I am a loser. I hate you SF.
I knew once I left the Presidio, the route was going to be easier and I would run in a straight line to Golden Gate park where the finish line was. But I didn’t take into account that 27th street is possibly the hilliest street of San Francisco. One mile long, it contains little hills that you run up and down. And up and down again. When your knees are hurting, running up and downhill is the worst imaginable thing.
I had one goal during this race: I wanted to run, not walk. But I couldn’t do it. My knees denied service, and walking was the only thing that felt ok at that time. While I was walking, I felt like a loser. I felt time ticking away, realizing I wasn’t going to finish in 2 hours and 30 minutes, and it made me feel even worse. I saw the hilly street in front of me and could see clearly how far I still needed to go. I focused on the people around me and saw faces I recognized from earlier in the race, so I knew I wasn’t the only one walking the distance.
I was pissed. Why did the organizers choose this street instead of a flat one? why weren’t there more people encouraging along side this street?
Mile 12: Keep going. JUST KEEP GOING!
Throughout the race, there are poles telling you when you’ve reached a certain mile. When I saw the “12 mile” landmark, I knew I had almost made it. I started to run into Golden Gate Park, encouraged by the many people on the sidewalk cheering. I took off my T-shirt and in my sweaty bra I kept on running, only thinking about that finish line that was going to pop up soon. “Just keep running, Judith.” I reached the point where I was continuously talking to myself, cheering myself up, keeping strength.
Mile 13 + 0.1: Willpower
When I took the last turn in Golden Gate Park, blue and white balloons appeared in the distance. I knew it was the finish line, and suddenly something amazing happened: I started sprinting. I have no idea where the energy came from or how it was even possible that I didn’t feel any throbbing of my knees. I gave everything I had in me. I passed people, I even pushed people out of the way (so sorry for that!), I was so focused on that finish line and staying under 2 hours and 30 minutes.
In those last feet, I got into a bubble. I didn’t hear a thing, I didn’t see a thing but the finish line. And I just kept on running. I was running on willpower.
I crossed the finish line and I couldn’t believe it was over.
The first thing I saw after the finish line was my Addapp coworkers that came running to me and high-fiveing me. I felt like I was rambling a bunch of half marathon experiences to them, while my knees were literally shaking. I am surprised I didn’t collapse on the ground. “You don’t look that tired,” they told me. I didn’t feel tired. I was experiencing severe pain. And in need of my medal.
I walked on to the “Finishers’ Zone,” where a volunteer crowned me with a medal and a heat blanket. I rolled myself in my heat blanket and while I was by myself, overlooking the finish I started crying. I was so happy it was over.
The rest of the day: I just want to sleep.
Once I left the park, I was thinking about what to do. My Addapp coworkers invited me for coffee, but I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like anything. I didn’t feel like having tons of mimosas or a brunch with a zillion hamburgers to make up for the 1,600 calories I had just burned. The only thing I wanted to do was to go home, take a shower and sleep. It was 9 a.m., but I had been awake since 4 a.m. and been running for 2.5 hours.
I followed the signs of my body and went home, took a shower and laid down in bed. I called my parents, who had been following my progress the entire time. I called my close friends and fell asleep afterwards. It felt good to give my body that much-needed rest. I was exhausted.
When I woke up in the afternoon, I still didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt hungry and lost. How does one feel after running a half marathon? I felt like I had to be proud and feel like I achieved something, but I didn’t feel it. I crawled out of my bed and attempted to put on clothes and some high heels. Surprisingly the high heels felt good on my knees. I went outside and enjoyed a decent breakfast: french toast with french fries. No alcohol; just water.
Besides good food, I made sure I was in good company. People that had a twinkle in their eyes when they saw my medal. People that were more proud of me than I was of myself.
Maybe I am just not that materialistic, but having people around me that encouraged me and were proud of me was the most rewarding and the only thing I really needed after the half marathon.
Two months ago, I had a clear goal and deadline. It’s all over now. So what’s next?
Near the end of my training, when I looked back on my progress, I noticed that this process was not about running the half marathon. It was never about the race. It has always been about the training. About keep going, about not giving up, about challenging your mind and body.
A couple of weeks in my half marathon training, I felt when I didn’t run in a couple of days that my body was aching to go running. I still feel that. We’re two days after the race, and I feel like I can go for a run again (if it weren’t for the pain, that is). And I want to listen to that.
Will I stop running? No.
Will I stop running Half Marathons? Yes.
I discovered I like short runs. 30-45 min runs. That time span allows me to run home after work. Or to run to my friends. I like running with a goal. Running from point A to point B. I don’t like running for 2 hours without a goal. It feels like a waste of time and a burden for my body.
Since I don’t feel like I achieved something with running a half marathon, I don’t feel the need to do it again. I really liked the adrenaline rush at the starting point, though, so I definitely want to run a 5K for speed, but I am over running a half marathon.
I am happy I did it. I learned a lot during the past two months, I’ll take all the lessons with me, but it’s time for a new challenge. Boxing? Getting back to tennis? Yoga? Dodgeball? Learning to skateboard? Who knows…
* Depending on how much time you need to finish the race, you start in a ‘Wave’. It are different waves of people starting a couple of minutes apart from each other