According to history, legend, or something of the sort, the first marathon was run by the ancient messenger Pheidippides who ran 26.2 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to proclaim victory over the Persians. Immediately following his pronouncement, Pheidippides collapsed to the ground and died from exhaustion, his mission complete.
I like to imagine that if he had run half that distance, he would’ve done exactly what I did — waddle to the State Street Chipotle, down a Gatorade and sit on the floor of his shower while trying not to vomit. But something tells me my journey was slightly less heroic than his.
I had always wanted to run a marathon. When I was younger, I’d see those damn oblong 26.2 stickers on the backs of Subarus and think of the stories my dad would tell me about running around glaciers in Alaska. He was in his early 20s, “140 pounds sopping wet” and had gotten into running while living with family in Argentina. But everywhere he and my mom moved — up until he got hurt and couldn’t anymore — he ran. He ran half-marathons in Alaska and trails in Maine and New Mexico, and from his stories, I created a really magical view of what running long-distance was.
More than anything else, it seemed like a test — one of willpower, of strength, of mental fortitude. And I told myself that one day, when I was strong and capable, I would force myself through months of physical and mental training to become the type of person who could run a marathon.
But a few weeks ago, when deciding what I would immerse myself in for this edition, I decided that I might as well expedite the process. I would immerse myself in the very thing I had always wanted to do: I would run a half-marathon just to prove to myself that I could.
Now, by no way, shape or means was I actually prepared to run 13.1 miles on the snowy Friday morning I chose to do it. I had decided I was going to do so only four days beforehand. I had not trained to run long-distance, nor run more than four miles consecutively in years, nor made a route. But what I did have was a truly awe-inspiring amount of unearned confidence.
When I told my friends and anyone who would listen about my grand plan to “just run a half-marathon,” my youthful bravado engendered three distinct types of reactions.
Most people looked me in the eyes, touched my arm delicately and said, “Charlie, this is a spectacularly bad idea.” In fact, I believe it was my club wrestling coach who, in a casually nasal and perplexed tone, said, “You won’t finish, and even if you do, you won’t be able to walk.”
The realists, having recognized that attempting to dissuade me was pointless, tried to give me practical advice. They told me to tie my shoes tight and stay off concrete town roads, and that mile nine would be where I’d want to give up.
And the last camp — composed almost exclusively of my closest friends — reassured me by saying, “You’ll be fine. Anyone can run a half-marathon” before turning back to Madden.
I chose to listen to them. They made me feel better about the run.
Now 16 hours before the run, I decided it was time to buckle down. All the online articles I read emphasized preparation, so I did just that. I turned down drinks at my roommate’s birthday party the night before and even a cigarette offered to me by a Good Samaritan. I drank three servings of Liquid IV the morning of. And I stretched for a good 20 minutes while contemplating if my light wool jacket and long johns would be enough for the low-20s temperature.
Funnily enough, my wardrobe was what I spent the most time curating. Other than my shoes, which have been my everyday shoes for the past year, I dressed like I knew what I was doing. I knew I wanted to start cold, so I wore two light layers on my upper body, paired with Adidas fleece pants and long johns on my legs. I even remembered gloves and a beanie.
At 1 in the afternoon, I was ready to start. Ill-advised or not, I had convinced myself that this was something I was capable of. The evidence suggested that I wasn’t — but I looked in the mirror and told myself I could do it so many times that I actually started to believe it.
I think secretly, I had chosen to run a half-marathon as my immersion experience because I wanted to make fun of myself for an attempt at a feat I felt incapable of. I assumed that I’d wheeze my way through most of the distance, and then be forced into either giving up or accepting a really ugly and embarrassing finish. I was certain that I’d just write an article mocking my arrogance and move forward with my life.
But somewhere along the line in the mental process of imagining the run, I had accidentally turned the half-marathon into more than a joke. I really wanted to do this — whether I could admit it to myself or not. I wanted more than to just make fun of myself; I wanted a damn 13.1 sticker for my water bottle.
So on that Friday morning, I just started running. I tugged headphones on and ran through campus and the trail by the cemetery next to my house, and I became completely engrossed in moving. I didn’t think about my life or my friends or the work that I hadn’t started. I didn’t think at all. I just ran.
I intentionally ran slower than I thought I’d have to, and my feet took me a lot farther than I expected. For the first seven miles — except for a cartoonish slip on ice — I had no issues. Every mile or two I’d convince myself, OK, now it’s getting hard. This is where I’m going to start feeling pain. This is where I’ll want to quit. But I never did. I got so lost in the shuffled Spotify “liked songs” playlist and the snow crunching under my feet and trying not to slip on the downhills that I didn’t even feel tired. I just ran.
At mile seven, I stopped for the first time to take my beanie off and drink water. And then I stopped a mile later to put my beanie back on because my hair had frozen, only to find that my beanie, too, had frozen.
In fact, it wasn’t until mile nine — just as I had been forewarned — that I started to slow physically. I’d catch glimpses of myself in glass reflections, trudging with my just feet inches off the ground, and I had to slow down to a walking pace every three-quarters of a mile. But mentally, I’d gotten to the point where I no longer cared.
I was four miles away from finishing. I wasn’t going to let myself stop, and for that reason, I was giddy.
Runners always talk about the elusive “runners high,” and I don’t know for certain, but I think that feeling was it. As I got to the 11th mile and circled around Ross, nothing mattered. In fact, everything else just seemed funny. I remember being a few miles from the finish and starting to laugh: at myself, at the fact that I had chosen to do something so dumb, and especially at the fact that I was enjoying it.
Exactly two hours and 14 minutes after I started my run, I finished a few steps from the Block ‘M’ at the center of campus. I downed a Gatorade, walked to Chipotle, and then went home and slept for three hours. Each time I woke up, I’d try to move, decide it was too much effort and continue my nap.
I think the aftermath is where my lack of preparation did the most harm. During the run, I was fine, just slow. Afterwards, everything was sore for days. My calves burned. My back ached, and, somewhat surprisingly, my arms felt leaden.
I know it sounds sick of me to say, and I know it’s probably masochistic. But above all the aches and pains and the fact that I walked funny for a day or two, all I cared about was that I had proved something to myself. All I could think about was how much I had enjoyed it, because everything I had disliked about the run came second to how proud I felt to have accomplished it.
A week later, I decided I would go out for another run. I wore the same clothes. I ran the same route. I even listened to the same music. But after two miles, I decided that I’d had enough. I turned off the road and walked to the Mosher-Jordan Dining Hall instead of going any further.
As I ate, I started asking myself why I had loved running 13 miles and disliked every second of running two. And to this day, I still don’t know. But if I had to guess, I don’t think it has anything to do with the actual running. I think what I had liked most was the novelty of proving myself wrong, and satisfying a goal I’d set years ago — one I had mostly given up on in the process.
And so if you’re reading this, and you want to know how to run a half-marathon with no preparation, it’s very simple. Have far more confidence than you should, and find a reason to make the milestone important. From that point onwards, the running is the easy part.
Statement Columnist Charlie Pappalardo can be reached at email@example.com.