I started running sporadically starting around 2015 and more regularly in 2020 after the pandemic started. I refuse to believe that anyone actually enjoys running when they first start running, but over time, like many others before me, I started to find comfort in the ritual of running. As a naturally anxious person, I found running to be a reliable way to simultaneously quiet and energize my mind.
I’ve always been a solo runner, at least within the brief history during which I’ve actually been running. And when I say solo, I really mean solo. It’s just me with my thoughts — no music, no podcasts. I started the “no media while running” thing as a part of my digital minimalism experiment, and I’ve found that I enjoy running even more now. I used to use music as a way to distract myself from the pain, but I realized that it was actually distracting me from everything. That included pain, but also the warmth of the sun on an otherwise cold day, the crunch of gravel under my shoes, the variations in the songs of birds, and the occasional nod and “good morning” from a passerby.
All of this is to say that I’ve always considered running something I do by myself, for myself, so I had never entertained the idea of signing up for an organized running event. But when some of my lovely colleagues at work brought up the idea of participating in the Oakland half-marathon, I decided to ride that momentum and sign up for my first ever race. It sounded fun, and it would be a new experience at the very least.
As a small, not very athletic person, I like to think that I make up my lack of athleticism with a good amount of endurance and perseverance. In college, I once stayed awake for three days in a row to finish a hackathon project. More recently, I did a 100 km ride on my road bike (also solo). Another time, I ran a half-marathon on a whim when, during one of my regular runs, I felt particularly good and the sun particularly energizing, and thought that maybe with some breaks, I could run one.
But the race would be different. I didn’t want to stop and take breaks, and I wanted to set some sort of goal for myself (especially since I paid $100 to sign up for it). There was some training to be done in the next 3 months before race day.
Before I started my training, I had consistently been running at least 100 km every month, thanks to Strava’s monthly running challenge. In practice, that generally meant roughly two 10 km runs + shorter run every week. For my training, I decided to increase the distance of one of my 10 km runs every week.
I ended up doing 10 mile (~16 km) run every weekend for 4 weeks before the race, with some interval training mixed in. Mentally, I thought of the half-marathon as a 10 mile run + a 5k. I told myself that if I can run 10 miles in a comfortable pace (for me, ~150 BPM heart rate), I should be able to tack on a 5k after that.
I also wanted to practice taking food while running, so I didn’t experiment with something new during the race. I brought a gel with me on some of my 10 mile runs and took it around halfway through the run.
As for pace, I gave myself a somewhat arbitrary goal of finishing the race in under 2 hours 15 min, and a similarly arbitrary stretch-goal of 2 hours.
Before I knew it, it was race day, and I found myself running alongside thousands of people.
Since I don’t listen to music or podcasts while I run, I occupied myself by taking mental notes of what was going on around me.
I ran for a bit with someone who was giving himself a pep-talk, which I pretended was directed at me as well.
I overheard a woman telling some neighbors that this race was her training run for a 100 km run she was doing soon. She said that she would think of it as six 10 mile runs. Wow.
I wondered why I had laced my shoes so tight, and whether it was worth it for me to stop and adjust them.
I wondered where the next water station was.
I ran by a drum group and noticed my cadence syncing to the beat of their drums.
I ran by a taiko drum group, which made me nostalgic about my childhood summers in Japan.
I wondered if I could wash my hands somewhere because the gel I had just taken made my hands all sticky and gross.
I forgot how many kilometers a half-marathon was, despite having my run tracker set to kilometers rather than miles.
I contemplated asking Siri how many kilometers a half-marathon was.
I ran by a guy offering everyone beer with about 1-2 km left, depending on how inaccurate my mental conversion from miles to kilometers was. Regardless of the remaining distance, I decided that beer was not a good idea. I yelled back to the beer guy, “Not yet!!!”
I wondered if I should try pushing my pace a little bit more for the final kilometers.
I repeated the phrase “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” (which I took from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) in my mind like a Buddhist chant.
I could see the finish line.
I wondered if I still had enough glycogen left in me to try and catch a few other runners on the final climb.
I wondered if the photographer was done taking my finish line photo, and if I would become one of those Strava athletes with an effortless finish line profile photo. (I did not.)
Finally, I hobbled over to the post-race free food section, picked up the biggest apple I had ever seen, plopped down on the grass, and dined. (At first, I accidentally typed “and died”, which might be more accurate in describing how I felt.)
The thing I was most curious about going into the race was how being in a race environment with lots of people would affect my performance. I’ve always heard that running in a race with a lot of other runners and being cheered on by strangers can really motivate you, but I wasn’t sure if the same would apply to me. Even before the pandemic, I never particularly enjoyed being in large crowds. Given the choice between a small 2-4 person gathering vs. a big party, I would choose the small gathering 100% of the time. In fact, I would even prefer spending time by myself vs. going to the big party. Maybe it’s my upbringing as an only-child.
The data surprised me.
For training, I was running my (flat) 10 milers at around a 6:30 min/km (or 10:27 min/mile) pace at around a comfortable ~150 BPM heart rate. I figured anything beyond that would be too painful to sustain, especially with the additional 3.1 miles for the actual race.
The race results say my time was 02:01:34, which puts me at a 5:45 min/km (or 9:16 min/mile) pace. My heart rate monitor says my average heart rate was 174 BPM, which is squarely in an uncomfortable HR zone for me, especially if I had to sustain it for 2 hours.
Where did this difference come from?
There are multiple variables at play here. For example, I usually don’t take any water on runs, but I drank 2-3 (small) cups of water and 2 (small) cups of Gatorade during the race. I’ve also only ever taken 1 gel on my training runs, but I took 2 during the race. I also occasionally drafted behind other runners to shield myself from wind resistance, which I can’t do on solo runs. (I know drafting can make a huge difference for cycling, but I’m not sure how much impact it has for running.)
But I don’t think those variables can account for all of the difference.
Anecdotally, when I passed by people (complete strangers) who were cheering for me from the sidelines, I noticed an extra springiness in my steps. It was also oddly motivating to be surrounded by thousands of other people who decided to spend their Sunday morning suffering through a race.
Perhaps there is some real scientific research that explains why athletic performance seems to improve on race day. (Is it just adrenaline?) But for now, I will indulge myself in the romanticism that I was propelled by a sense of greater human connection, by a sense of community.
I’d love to hear your running (or related) experience in the comments below or feel free to reach out to me.
Thank you for reading, and until next time!