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Why I love running and 21k (half marathon) is the perfect distance

Updated: Feb 20

This weekend I completed a half marathon in exactly two hours. Is that a good time? Depends, I guess. Objectively speaking it’s a good, average time. It’s close to my personal record at an official race. It felt great—I never stopped once during the run and I had energy to spare at the end. And I wasn’t sore at all afterwards, a small miracle!


I’m pretty sure that nobody who is following this blog is interested in my passion for running. This kind of post doesn’t get a lot of readers. Even I, as I’m writing this, am struck by how boring and niche this topic is. Though I suddenly remember that someone recognized me from my blog once and said he specifically read for it for running inspiration (running in the foreign service), so you never know!


The thing is: I think of a million things when I’m running and I’m aching to write them down. It’s like being on drugs or something, so much adrenaline rushes through my body. It’s a pretty unique sensation I wish I could share. I also solve life problems and develop strong opinions when I run. Most of it is instantly forgotten once I finish the race and I return to planet earth, but some thoughts linger.


Pain is temporary, the achievement is permanent


At all of the big races I participated in (when there are many runners, like thousands) there is some bystander holding up a placard with that text on it. I personally feel really motivated by it, so thank you!


Running can be painful, both physically and mentally. Physical pain usually means bad training. If I don’t run for a few months and suddenly crank out a 10k, my right knee starts hurting. My achilles also tends to cramp up. I’ve had shin splints when I first started running years ago. Blisters. Chafing. But all of this is remedied by consistent running and pronating correctly. It’s not rocket science, it just takes practice, trying to do the best I can, and putting ice on sore spots afterwards.


Mentally, it’s all about finding my happy place. I noticed that it doesn’t matter how good my shoes are, what I’ve eaten, what the weather is  like or how many drinks I had the night before. Seriously—I’ve booked some of my best times, feeling great, with the worst kind of preparation. I just have to make a conscious decision to be happy. To be proud of being out there and sweating. About getting up and doing it. Even the worst runs serve a purpose because I’m building stamina and grit. I love the energy at organized races! But I also (try to) enjoy exploring the neighborhood and greenery near my house. And go on adventures to pretty areas near me. Sometimes I run with a friend to change it up.


Some… preparation


Preparation is still part of it though. At every stage of my running journey, whether it’s a 5k or 21k, I’ve needed to prep some things. I used to eat exactly two hours prior to running so I felt like I had enough fuel but not too much. I still do that now but not because I need the food—I just don’t want to be hangry when I run. I have a list of running songs to get past the boring parts when I don’t have fresh ideas to entertain myself with. Some people carry water or take ibuprofen in advance—it just depends on your needs and worries and this changes over time.


My main preparation is mental: I really look forward to long runs, and especially the races. I’ve completed over 30 official races in the past 15 years. These organized runs tend to take place early in the morning on a Sunday and really require me to set my mind to it. It’s like waking up to catch a flight; I focus on it before I go to sleep and wake up ready to go. I have the best times (literally and figuratively speaking) when I wake up extra early and have a relaxed breakfast, play music, and generally treat it like a party about to happen.


What happens to your body when you're 'a runner'


Physically, running doesn’t really alter how you look, I think. You’re not gonna lose all your belly fat just by running, get great posture or develop amazing muscle. Body shaping is done in the kitchen and to some extent in the gym.


You burn a lot of calories when you run, but obviously that doesn’t mean anything if you eat them all right back. That said, being fit from running allows and empowers me to do lots of other active things in my life, so it’s definitely helping. Since I proved to myself that I can run a whole marathon I never take elevators, carry all my own shit, and happily go for day-long walks because I know I can, and I want to keep it that way.


The main benefit of running, for me, is the chemical reaction in my brain. On Sunday morning at 8:00 AM I come home from a run and I just know it’s gonna be a nice day, no matter what happens. I’m not gonna feel bored or on edge. I feel accomplished and clear. Any kind of anger or frustration I’ve already dealt with during the painstaking run. I’ve worked through problems and found reasonable, common sense solutions.


Training? Avoid gyms like the plague


Using the gym, especially when I have one in my apartment building or a membership somewhere, can seem convenient. It’s also safe and climate controlled. I live in Mumbai, which is objectively speaking a terrible place to run, and yet I exclusively run outside. Even if I can stand only thirty minutes of fighting through the smog and the traffic most days.


The treadmill just isn’t like real running. It doesn’t prepare me for road conditions, the temperature, or improve agility. Besides the benefit of building stamina and burning calories the great thing about running is that it alerts your brain and muscles to adjust, jump, shift sideways, and do all the other things that keeps your body functioning well. I really think treadmills are a waste of time. Makes me feel like a hamster, too.


That sweet runner’s high


The ultimate runner’s high is when I don’t even need music or a concrete thought and just propel myself forward without having any end point in mind. The worst possible thought is: where the hell is the finish, and how long is it gonna take?! I try to distract myself from these thoughts with all my might.


Running can be a form of meditation. I used to do it just so I didn’t have to be home with my people for thirty minutes. Now I do it because it’s just overall a great way to spend time and the longer it lasts—which is why 21k is so great—the more fun I have. This is what's going through my mind during the different stages:


The first 3k:


I’m getting into it. I take it slow and try to ignore the annoying fact that everyone is crowding at the start. When it’s a regular run I’m probably trying to reach a “nice” area (a park or something) but traffic is slowing me down. Meanwhile, I’m congratulating myself for just getting out there.


3-5k:


I’m picking up the pace. I don’t want to burn out but I’m thinking I should run strong and set a good pace for myself. The run might seem daunting, but I’m fully in motion, all warmed up, and I actually don’t want this run to end. There’s no great satisfaction in running only a 5k--no chance of achieving a real runner's high.


5-10k:


If this is a 10k run, I’m urging myself to really go for it. Until 8k I might hold back a little, turn on some music, have some water along the way, and then power it up until I finish. If this is a longer run, like 21k, I’m settling in for the long haul. I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about. This run will take a while, but I’ve done it before. Are there some things I’m mad about today? Aggressive feelings can help, but I push them away after a while. Mostly I just think about an issue very slowly. Usually I think of something like advancing my personal goals, talking in my head through every detail.


I look around me. If it’s a race, I check to see how many women are participating. Usually not many. Wait, is that a woman who is already on her way back? That’s awesome! I raise my hand to greet and encourage her and smile. She might not notice, but that’s okay.


10-15k:


Okay, this is getting serious. Look at me, I completed 10k already and I’m still going! Surely not many people can do that.


I turn on some music: a carefully curated Spotify list that really motivates me. Very uptempo. It has some of my favorite songs that I save for when I run. I listen to the lyrics in a way I otherwise never do. I hear things like: “there’s only one carrot and you all gotta share it (Bruno Mars)” and laugh about it, repeating the silly phrase as I run along. I feel the power of music.


15-21k:


I'm almost there, or at least I'm getting close to the finish, if this is a half marathon. There's no way I'm quitting now. This is taxing. Some part of my body is probably starting to complain. I kinda feel like I'm flying though, like this isn't even real. I'm passing a lot of people--not because I'm so fast but because I'm consistent where others run out of steam.


I try to ignore all the distance markers until the finish is literally within sight. Do I have energy left? Sure! I never push myself much, because I don't want to get injured or overheated (I get hot so easily). Should I sprint to the fisnish? Nah, it won't alter my time by much. It would make me nauseous. I just jog across the finish, maybe with one arm raised to express how glad I am I did this. I grab a bottle of water and check my time.


Now let's go home quickly before the running shivers begin. I need a blanket or a hot shower as soon as possible.


Ehm… racing?!


The competitive part about organized races and (half) marathons might scare some folks. I noticed that people around me--even if they work out regularly and like being fit--don’t sign up for official races very often. In the US, races can be prohibitively expensive. But if you can find races that cost only a nominal amount I think it’s totally worth it. In India it only costs $15-25 so I sign up for races even when I’m not sure I’m gonna go. In Europe it’s double the price but still reasonable. If it works out, I think the money is worth the fun, the camaraderie and the extras (warm-ups, t-shirt, water stations, medals, snacks).


But despite the official race formalities of timing and prizes, for the most part they’re not competitive at all. Everyone is only running against themselves. That’s why everyone gets a medal! For showing up and finishing, which are big accomplishments. And if you beat your own PR, it feels like a party!


But it’s so early in the morning!


I swallowed hard when I first realized that in Mumbai all the races start around 6:00 AM on a Sunday. So now I’m not as wild as I used to be on Saturday nights—but I still am on Friday nights ;) I found that it’s not undoable to wake up early, even if it’s outside of my normal routine. Before, it was just fear and laziness that held me back. Once I realized it’s okay to wake up early I never looked back. It’s a small sacrifice, definitely manageable.


I run about once a week in my neighborhood. I don’t get the same high as when it’s for an official race. In that sense I’m being spoiled in Mumbai, because I have so many options. I don’t run nearly as many timed races when I live in the US or Europe because it’s more expensive and you have to sign up far in advance. Also, I’m unsure if there are as many timed races there. In Mumbai it’s like every charity and university and major company organizes a race. But there’s a good alternative: local running groups. They exist all over the world and tend to be inclusive and fun.


Some running groups seem super athletic and serious though. This perception has deterred me in the past, so I've only joined a few of them. I always worry I can’t keep up. Men tend to run faster than women, that’s a fact. But men know this so when there are women in the group, the expectations and running experiences are typically adjusted to this reality and it’s fine.


More observations about female runners


I haven’t met many female elite runners. Though there are a couple at every major race, there aren’t many of them in general. Surprisingly, most women who show up at amateur races are a bit older. In fact, at most of the races I’ve been I mainly saw middle aged people! I don’t think of myself as old but hey, I’m approaching 40. It’s nice to know the competition is around my same age. Besides, there are always age categories, so no matter how old you are you still have a chance to top some list, if that’s your thing. Sometimes I finish in the top three, other times I’m much, much lower on the list. It doesn’t really matter though. There are 50-year old women that beat me handily. Good for them!!


I once met a female ultra-runner champion I’ll never forget. She was my ‘pacer’ when I completed my first and only full marathon, ten years ago. Her companion runner was her runner-up national champion on the 50k. She said: “She (the champion) doesn’t run fast but she can run forever.” She told me they'd completed several 100k runs together, and about 40 marathons. And they were so normal and nice! They had regular jobs. They didn’t even look like athletes, were of average height and build, around the age of forty. They gave me an entirely new perspective on running: it’s just a cool and adventurous hobby. You never know where it will take you or what you might achieve.



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