How I Trained for and Completed My First Half Marathon: 7 Tips from a First-Timer

I did it: I ran my first half marathon!

Well, to be more accurate, I ran some of, jogged a lot of, and walked a bit of my first half marathon!

Still, I completed the whole thing, all 13.1 miles of it—that’s 21.1 km if you’re nasty. And best of all, I actually had a good time!

As I wrote an earlier post this year, I was training to run the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon at Walt Disney World at the end of April. So why am I bringing it up now? Well, I’d planned on writing more about the training process and the marathon itself, but I just never seemed to have the time.

My family was very supportive of me as I trained for the Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon. And it probably wasn’t just because they knew they’d get a trip to Walt Disney World out of it.

But then I decided that sure, it might feel like a long time ago for me, but you, my dear reader, probably couldn’t care less whether it happened four months ago or four minutes ago. As long as there’s some kind of interesting takeaway (and I’ll let you be the judge of whether this post accomplishes that), then I might as well write about my training now, since it’s not like that was the last half marathon ever.

Like I said, I do hope that I can always give you something interesting and valuable from reading this blog, so I decided to put together a list of seven tips for anyone who wants to train to run a half marathon, but who (like myself) feels a bit intimidated because they don’t know where to start.

This advice is obviously very subjective and based on my own personal experience, but I’ve tried to make it relevant and “extrapolate-able” for anyone out there.

How I Trained for and Completed My First Half Marathon: 7 Tips from a First-Timer

1. Find a Plan—Any Plan—And Stick to It

If coming up for reason to not exercise were a sport, I’d certainly have won another medal long ago. But by using a calendar that I’d literally printed out and marked every day I ran, I was much more motivated because everything was tangible, specific, and out in the open. I also started posting runs to Instagram under the user name “Fine, I’ll Run,” which helped me connect to other runners. That motivated me even more.

A lot of this advice may seem obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning: If I hadn’t had a plan and a training schedule, I would have had a much more difficult time in the months leading up to the run, and might not have been able to complete the run itself.

I said “any plan” above because I think that at least for me, the most important thing was to actually have a schedule that I was able to stick to. That made it much harder to put off something until later, especially when I knew that I might have to train the next day also.

I wanted to include a link to the website and the actual plan that I used, but for some reason I couldn’t find it for the life of me. So this picture I took of my printed plan will have to do:

Here’s a rather poor picture I took of the training plan that I was using. I had already edited it some, and I marked the runs that I actually did in red. Sure, I missed a few scheduled run days but all in all, I’m pretty pleased with how I did.

If you just search for “Half Marathon Training Plan” you’ll come up with loads of options. I also had to edit and adjust the plan anyhow because it included some notes like “S,” “MF,” and other things that I didn’t quite understand at first. I eventually figured out that they indicated that I was supposed to run slowly (S), or start at a medium (M) speed and then later go faster (F).

However, for me, the name of the game was consistency. See point 5 below. I knew that if I tried to speed up at the end of a 15 km run, I’d quickly be muttering another phrase that’s commonly abbreviated as “MF” (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s “Millennium Falcon” or something else).

2. Switch to Metric

This is kinda silly but I found it surprisingly motivating. When I found the plan that I mentioned in point 1, all the run distances were in kilometers. Plus I live in Costa Rica, where everything’s metric. However, a lot of the other stuff I found online, as well as the apps that I use for tracking my runs, all used miles.

Same run, same picture. You tell me which number looks more impressive.

Let’s not debate whether it makes sense that people in the US use the imperial system, while the rest of the world uses metric for most everything.

Instead, let’s just stick to the facts: 1 mile is farther than 1 kilometer. That means if you run a 10K, you’re only running a bit more than 6 miles. It’s the same distance, but I discovered that it provided a huge psychological boost when I changed all my apps to metric and was able to see some more impressive numbers.

I don’t really care about how I stack up to others since I’m not that competitive (at least not in running—trivia is another matter). Still, when I was able to see those impressive numbers—my numbers—accumulate, it spurred me to keep on keeping on.

3. Get Some Decent Running Gear

I’ve decided that I’ll do a series of reviews of running clothing, accessories, and apps. There’s just too much to cover here.

Ouch! Just looking at this makes my nipples hur… I mean, that’s to say, Just looking at this might make one’s nipples hurt!

To give you the gist, though, when I got a few running shirts and a couple pairs of running shorts, I immediately noticed that running became less awful, at least in terms of my own personal comfort. Also, as you can tell when you see some of my running pictures, when I say “decent” running gear, I’m not talking about the length of my running shorts. I was surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed those short shorts—even if I was the only one who enjoyed seeing me wear them!

So while you may really like the style of a cotton Iron Maiden T-shirt you got from Kohl’s about 15 years ago, it’s definitely worth it to buy a cheap running shirt. My chafed nipples really—oh, uhhh, I mean your chafed nipples—will really thank you.

4. Do What Works for You and Feels Comfortable

If you search for tips on how to prepare for a half marathon, lots of places will tell you that you need to train with someone else. They talk about the value of having a running buddy to keep you motivated and accountable.

That may be the case for many people, but like I mentioned before, my own motivations were a bit different, and I didn’t need someone to keep me running. As long as I had my running calendar on the wall and the Millennium Falcon medal on the horizon, that was good enough for me.

That also meant that I had more flexibility than I might have had if I’d trained with other people. So if I had to work on a day that I was scheduled to run, I could just move that run to the next free day.

Also, I was always able to go at my own pace. Here in the mountain of Costa Rica, that also meant walking occasionally. I don’t feel bad at all for doing that, either. It’s a real bastard to try to run down a hill (at least that’s what my knees screamed to me), and it’s also no fun sucking wind as you try to trot up a hill just to say that you didn’t stop to walk. It’s infinitely more comfortable and reasonable to just walk up the hill and keep running when you get to the top.

These are my kind of running buddies! They never push me too hard or tell me I’m doggin’ it. They do take frequent cud breaks, though.

I’m sure that if I’d had a running buddy or a trainer helping to “motivate” me to keep running in those types of situations, there’d have been at least one dead body on the side of the road by the end of the jog.

5. Slow and Steady Definitely Doesn’t Win the Race, But at Least It Might Help You Finish the Race

This combines aspects of points 1 and 5 above. When I started training for the half marathon, I knew that on race day I’d be a relatively lazy 38-year-old guy who had actively hated running just a few months earlier. I was under no illusion that I’d be winning the race. I just wanted to finish it.

To that end, I completely disregarded anything I read about intervals or negative splits or speed days or anything else with running or workout jargon. Is that because I didn’t know what those terms mean? Yes, but it’s also because I knew that I was going to aim to be as consistent as possible. That meant consistent training and running at a consistent pace.

Obviously, running in the mountains presents some challenges when it comes to maintaining a consistent pace (see my next point), but at least on the flat areas, I tried to always run at a speed that was just barely above what I’d consider a comfortable jog. When I started out, 5 kilometers was a long distance. But after a few weeks of training, I continually surprised myself by knocking out 10, 15, or even 20-kilometer runs, without even dying!

If you need an analogy, go with the tortoise, or the grasshopper, or even Thomas the Train Engine, but you just gotta keep on going.

6. Try to Train in Conditions that Are Worse than the Race

As mentioned before, I did almost all my training here at home in the mountains of Costa Rica. The high altitude (around 1,500 meters, or 4,900 feet), frequent hills, and ridiculous humidity all made running here pretty crappy at times. Oh, and then there’s the foggy, narrow, windy, pothole-ridden roads with no shoulders, plus tons of motorcycles, crazy drivers, and coffee trucks. And asshole dogs.

But I knew that the race would be in Florida in April. Now, I don’t know if you know much about the geography of the Sunshine State, but it’s not known for its mountains. It’s also decidedly not a high-altitude state, as evidenced by the fact that it’s likely to become an archipelago very imminently. It is humid, though, and if there’s one place in popular lore that rivals Costa Rica for its population of bad drivers, it’s surely Florida.

In any case, I was crossing my fingers that all of the things that made training here difficult would somehow be better or easier in Orlando. And as it turns out, I was right!

Being on an almost entirely flat course near sea level was so much nicer than what I’d been used to. What’s more, the half marathon took place on closed roads, of course, so I didn’t have to worry about moving to the edge of the road to avoid getting run over by a coffee truck emerging from the fog. And I was surprised to find that even swampy Orlando wasn’t as humid as Costa Rica!

Rush hour traffic in Berlin. I often ran on the left side of the road so that I could dive into a ditch if need be.

I also have to admit that I was helped along by the frequent hydration stations, the photo ops with Star Wars characters (more on that in an upcoming post about the race itself), and my fellow runners. Which brings me to my final point…

7. Find Your Inspiration—And Your Motivation

I should reiterate that I was definitely a first-timer when it came to running long distances. I’d run a bit in high school but I hated it. My words can be summed up by one of the old cowboys in the saloon in Back to the Future Part III:

But as I started to run more and more, my thoughts on the sport gradually evolved. I wouldn’t say that I started to like running, but I did start to enjoy it. Or wait, maybe I didn’t enjoy it, but I did like it. Actually, I have no idea which of those statements is true, but one feels like it should be true. Either way, my feelings towards running became a lot less negative when I learned to embrace it as an exercise and a pastime, and not just a means to an end.

I was more surprised by anyone about this change in my attitude. I think that Biff Tannen, the famous poet from Back to the Future Part II, put it best when he said:

That attitudinal transformation also helped set the scene for me to become properly inspired and motivated to keep running.

I guess I should make a distinction here between motivation and inspiration. In this case, they were often very similar, but not always the same thing.

As I said before, I was motivated by the fact that I’d get a Millennium Falcon medal if I finished the race. I was also greatly encouraged along the way by my friends, family, and other people I followed on Instagram.

And when it came to the race day itself, I was also motivated by my fellow runners. I’m not really a social person when it comes to exercise, but it was great to see all the other jocknerds out in their Star Wars costumes, and everyone was working towards the same goal. So that was certainly cool.

But my inspiration was less tangible.

Motivation? Inspiration? Does it really matter–it’s a freaking Millennium Falcon medal!

I think that I was inspired by the idea that it’s never too late to make a change that can make your life better. If a lazy-ass 38-year-old like me can run a half marathon, then most anyone can. If you don’t like running or think a Millennium Falcon medal is stupid, I also totally get that (well, at least the first part). But there’s always something we can do to improve our lives and/or the lives of those around us. The trick is to find that spark and to understand the best way we can capture it.

I’m under no illusions that simply reading this post will inspire you or motivate you to run a half marathon. But I do hope that in some cases, it might provide you with a few practical tips to help you along the way. And hopefully, you’ll find your own proverbial Millennium Falcon medal that you can strive for!

And what about you? What’s your equivalent of my Star Wars Dark Side Half Marathon? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading!

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