How I Ran A 21km Half-Marathon Without Training

I remember the day we decided to do it. It was in December last year. My brother had just gotten married and the family was sitting around chatting over drinks and food until late into the night. I can’t remember who exactly suggested it to begin with- my brother-in-law says it’s my sister- but for some reason everybody thought it was a good idea, and almost all of us signed up immediately. We had 5 months to train, after all!  I thought it would be a good opportunity to demonstrate to my family that I was going to do what I said I’d do- I’d developed a rather unsavory reputation over the years of being all talk and no action. My girlfriend was there, and she was excited by the idea too- we’d finally do something together!

So from January to the end of May, we’d have 20 weeks to train. I went jogging around the block a few times the first couple of weeks or so- me and the girlfriend even went for an extra long walk/jog at the beach, and we felt motivated. I covered 3.2km on my regular runs, 5km on my more adventurous ones. We’d walk/jog about 7-8km together when we did.

It seemed like a long way away. I figured I didn’t need to run that much, and spent quite a bit of time at the gym too. By the end of February, I’d completely stopped running altogether. I spent time hanging out with my friends and bumming around. I did do some stuff on the side, but fitness-wise I was absolutely static.

When I had 14 weeks left, I sobered up a little, and made a plan. I’d slowly scale my way up, I reasoned. 5km runs for the first two weeks, 10km on week 6, 16km on week 10 and 21km on week 14- the day of the run. I figured I could handle it. How much did I run? Try… not at all. I’m good at making plans but not so good at executing them. By now I was playing the “Maybe if I don’t think about it, it’ll magically disappear!” card.

Before I knew it, it was registration day. Me and the girlfriend went to the exhibition center to collect our tags and goodies. Now the guilt started to set it. There was like a carnival atmosphere, if you can imagine a carnival full of treadmills, healthy food, supplements and other generally athletic activities. It looked so fun and everyone looked so fit that it seemed a damn shame that we hadn’t trained for it.

Race day. Not only had I not trained for the event, I was completely unprepared, even mentally. I forgot to charge my phone. I didn’t get as much sleep the past couple of days that I ought to have had, and didn’t take the trouble to eat properly and do all the normal pre-race preparation stuff. I was starting to feel tempted to not show up, but I managed to stop myself- that was the side of me that I’ve always been ashamed of, and I wasn’t going to let it hold me down anymore. I was going to face my demons, even if it was going to hurt. Really bad.

The run. We actually dropped off about 3km away from the starting point and walked there, to avoid struggling through traffic. It was kind of surreal as we were walking there, seeing all the people making their way to the starting point. When we got there, there was a big party going on, with giant screens, loud music, cheery emcees, hotdogs, fried chicken, popcorn, candy floss and all that good stuff. It was pretty epic. There were so many people, that when the race began proper, it took us over five minutes to cross the starting line. The emcees were riling up the crowd and the atmosphere was electric.

The first 8km was easy. We (me and the girlfriend) didn’t even really notice it. We sort of distracted ourselves by looking at people passing by. The crowd was so thick that we joined others who were running in the “return” lane- volunteers along the way pleaded us to stop, but few paid them any notice. It was fun just to soak in the atmosphere, to enjoy the night air and the co-existence of hundreds of other runners. The 100 plus at the hydration stations tasted really good, and it felt nice. At the 7km mark I allowed myself to come to terms with the idea that I was actually doing this, and it was actually happening- I was about to cover a distance 400% more than anything I’d ever done before.

The next 5km was a warning. I had tried not to think about the distance or the time up until this point- I figured that I would sabotage myself  if I did. But once I was reaching 10km, it started to dawn on me- this was truly new ground (literally and figuratively) for me. It was a little bit frightening and exciting at the same time. And my body was starting to feel it. My legs were starting to get heavy and clumsy. The “walk breaks” I was taking in between my jogs started getting longer and longer, and the jogs started getting shorter. I tried not to think about it.

Pure willpower and determination carried me over the last 8km. My ankles and hamstrings were screaming at me. Even walking was starting to hurt. From time to time I’d break into a sprint just so that the temporary sense of speed and movement distracted me from the huge amounts of pain I was experiencing. I felt like I was clawing my way out of hell at this point. When I reached the final stretch- when I could hear the music at the finishing line, and I could see the timer- I was deliriously ecstatic. I felt overwhelmed with emotion, as the welfare folk at the finishing line supplied me with water, 100plus and bananas. Bananas never tasted so good.

3 days later, the memory is still fresh in my mind- as is the soreness in my legs, ankles and back. So good. I feel like I’ve been to hell and back.

A rather pathetic finish, but hey- I finished. Not everybody did. And I lapped every single one of you on the couch.

So how do you do it? How do you run a half-marathon without training?

1. Be reasonably fit. I’m not that fit, but I can comfortably do 20 pushups- 30 or more if you pushed me. I can do about 10 pull-ups, and I run 2.4km in about 11 minutes. I also hit the gym fairly regularly. I do think it helped, to some degree.

2. Have a reason to complete it. My reputation was on the line. (I don’t mean to imply that I have any sort of existing reputation worth protecting- but it could get worse!) I spent the last 3km reminding myself of all the negative perceptions I’ve ever heard about myself- “Visa’s all talk and no action”, “Visa’s a pretentious twerp”, all of that fun stuff. I thought about what I’d have to tell people if I dropped out halfway, and the idea of it reviled me.

3. Have someone to complete it with. I doubt I’d have even made it past 15km without my girlfriend. At 13km, my legs felt like lead- and I told her to run ahead without me. I did this every time I felt like giving up- and the single-minded purpose of “catch up to her, catch up to her” pushed me forward through the pain. (I eventually overtook her while she was waiting for me, and ended up finishing before her, thinking she was still ahead.)

4: Be a little bit crazy. That’s like a prerequisite for surviving this world, though.