I recently returned from an incredible adventure; participating in two half-marathons. Half-marathons are 13.1 miles in length, and mine happened to be on back-to-back Saturdays; one at the base of the Grand Teton mountain range in Wyoming, and the second around the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park in Montana.
While traveling out via car did allow us a start to acclimate to the immense altitude change (Chicago is 500 feet elevation, and our races were each in the 7000-8500 feet range), it actually takes a good couple weeks typically to fully acclimate. A great deal of training for a race is about building up your endurance and lungs, but when your highest neighborhood hill maybe reaches 30 feet in additional elevation, the mountain air proved a very real challenge in completing the races.
We arrived in Wyoming on Friday night, with our first race in the Grand Teton area being Saturday morning at 6:30am. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous. I had not properly trained for the race due to a recurring hip injury that I simply couldn’t get managed. Plus, did I mention, it was my very first half-marathon ever?
Thankfully, my friend, Lauren, who had driven out with me, kindly stayed with me throughout the first race, despite being much more physically prepared. I had expected to be able to interval run at least part of the race. Meaning, I would run then walk at set time intervals; however, it became immediately clear that the altitude was no joke. Running a mere 100 feet created a severe shortness of breath, and a burning in the lungs that took a good few hundred feet more to recover from. Because I walk nearly eight miles a day in dog walks, I knew if I just upped my walking tempo, and simply opted to forgo running altogether, that there was a chance I could finish it in the four hours allotted.
So, I dug in my heels and was determined to walk each mile at the fastest tempo I could muster. Thankfully, Lauren paced me beautifully, pushing me to dig deep. When the 13 mile marker was behind us, I felt an overwhelming sense of completion! As I approached the finish line, way under the allotted time, and they announced my arrival, I felt elated! I did it! That medal was so heavy and shiny; I felt such relief. As we stretched out in the grass, and I was taking in the sea of runners, it dawned on me that my medal was the same as the elite runners. It didn’t matter how much I walked or ran; just that I had finished.
When the following Saturday rolled around, and it was time for the Yellowstone Half-marathon, I felt a lot stronger. Two days before the race we had hiked a mountain and reached an elevation of 10, 243 feet! And, while that was intense altitude changes, I felt muscularly a lot more confident. This race I was on my own. My friends, who are much more seasoned runners, decided that they were going to run seeking their strongest time. While waiting in my corral to begin the race, the announcer reminded us to keep an eye out for Grizzly Bears, which immediately prompted in me the drive to stay close to the group. I knew before I started that I could finish, which was a very powerful feeling. I was able to interval run the first eight miles; running one minute, walking one minute. I was amazed at how intense even those short intervals actually felt in my lungs and quickly weakening muscles. At mile five there was an incline of 500 feet in elevation, and I assure you, every runner felt it. I walked that mile. When I reached mile ten, all I could envision was that red battery alert you often see on electronic devices. I felt completely spent. Walking next to me, at a slightly faster pace, were two wonderful women from Oklahoma. I decided to use them as my pacers and push myself. At mile eleven, I was hurting. Thankfully, they had half bananas and water at the mile marker. I walked on, just insisting I not stop. When it was clear the end was in sight, I decided to muster all I had left and ran to the finish. That medal felt so earned; I had done what I had set out to do!
I want to dispel the myth that to complete a half-marathon you have to be able to actually run thirteen miles. It’s simply not true. Don’t erase it from your bucket list. Let this be your inspiration. You can do it.