“If you want to cry, cry,” I told myself. “Don’t change your pace, but you can cry.”

I was somewhere between mile 9 and 10 of my first trail half-marathon and struggling to keep my pace. My biceps were burning and I was audibly wheezing. I had set a goal to go under two hours and was on pace to do so, but starting to drain.

Half-marathons are possibly the most addictive runs to do. If you haven’t trained for one, go find your pals and start cranking; you won’t regret it. Thirteen miles is long enough to get the endorphins flowing and leave you feeling accomplished, but short enough that you can train for it before the kids wake up.

Training for the half marathon

Training for the half marathon

This race, however, was actually 14.2 miles. I tried to block that thought from my head and focused on the hot pink shirt ahead of me. My running partner was using her expert meditation skills to peacefully glide through the woods, and consequently pulling away turn by turn. Following her lead I tried to calm my brain, relax, and let my legs naturally keep their rhythm. I was no Zen runner. My head was somewhere between a miserable, “Do I need to puke?” and an elated, “Hot damn, you’re still on pace!”

A few weeks prior, our training group had done 14 miles in less than two hours. The incredible ladies had made our runs more social hour than intense workout. We were putting in long miles at respectable paces, but had so much fun dodging in and out of the woods, chatting life, getting muddy, and yelling, “Who has to pee?!” that our long Saturday runs became the highlight of my week.

I approached the 10.5 mile aid station with 1:37 on my watch. My fiery biceps cooled when I realized, “You can do this, you can maybe actually do this!” I swigged the aid station Gatorade and started hauling. I could feel something wet burst in my socks—a blood blister. The elevation and heat had made my feet swell more than expected, but the thought of adding blood to the sweat and tears already on my Merrell Mix Masters sounded inspirationally fierce.

Trail running requires more attention and strategy than road running. Each stride falls on unpredictable terrain; there is no “zoning out.” The fallen tree ahead of you comes with a choice, under or over, and you have to pick the fastest and safest method that lets you keep your pace up. The good news is that trees don’t bite, and bounding over logs and hopping through mud are the most exhilarating challenges you can add to a run. At one point in the race I decided the fastest method around a tree was straight through. I flailed my arms like a propeller, gave a warrior cry, and kept on running. It was awesome.

What wasn’t awesome was the hill at mile 13. Over our pre-race tacos, the gals and I had looked at the elevation map the night before. The last 1.2 miles was uphill. A 200 foot gain, but nothing we hadn’t done before. I took my first stride up the mile 13 hill and instantly felt it. The runner behind me yelled expletives, followed by the runner behind him. Our family friendly race had just turned R-rated.

I tried to jog some, I tried to power walk some. Hills are best attacked by keeping good posture and letting your hips lead the way. I kept trying to recite a Kara Goucher quote about hills, but finally said my own expletives and bent over, shoulders over ankles, even pushing off rocks with my hands through one of the switchbacks.

Coming around the corner and seeing the “Timberline Marathon” banner was a feeling of incredible elation. I hadn’t made my 2 hour goal (thanks, Hill from Hell), but I had run hard, powered my way through low points, finished strong and muddy, and had the time of my life. I sprinted across the finish and between gasps of air said, “I really need to rest, and then I want to do that again.”

Marathon Training Tips They Don’t Tell You

Put Down the Razor
Any sort of skin on skin contact is a potential chaffing area. Freshly shaved skin is even more sensitive to chaffing. I never shave my armpits 2 days before a long run, and leave a nice wide unshaven patch around my inner thighs for 5 days before (sexy, eh?). I shave my shins, calves, and outer thighs to avoid ingrown hairs in cuts and scrapes from the trail.

Get a Happy Meal
Not a McDonald’s Happy Meal, but your own personal happy meal. Every runner works best on a certain food combination. Use your long runs before the race to experiment. Tempeh tacos, brown rice, and beans ended up being my perfect food. Let’s not talk about the time I thought I could run 12 miles on pizza.

A Bear Craps in the Woods, and So Do You
Welcome to the world of endurance trail running. You’re going to have to go to the bathroom. Waiting until the end when you can find a port-a-potty isn’t going to end well (see: “Get a Happy Meal”). Step off the trail, be 200 feet away from water, and drop trou. Fellow runners are too tired to turn their heads sideways to look, I promise. If you’re on a training run, it’s polite to dig a 6-inch hole and cover it back up. If you’re in a race, we’ll make an exception for you, just this once.

Run The Full Distance
Lots of half-marathon training plans cap you off at 10 or 11 miles with the theory that on race day, you can pull out an extra two from adrenaline. While this is true, knowing that you are physically capable of running the entire distance is a huge boost to your race-day confidence when things get tough. Run it at a slow pace with as many breaks as you’d like, and well enough in advance that you have time to recover, about 3 weeks.

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