What It Was Like to Run My First Half Marathon During a Pandemic
When I first imagined running my first half-marathon, a very specific picture came to mind.
The year was 2018, and I had recently run the Flying Pig 10K in my hometown of Cincinnati. I pictured my first half as a bigger, better version of that. The familiar contours of my hometown’s rivers and bridges. The smiling faces of the crowd with their funny, inspirational signs and cheering words. Other runners, hundreds of them, on all sides, making it so the only option I had was to keep moving forward. Pig costumes, pig cookies, pig balloons.
I knew that race map so well, its lines and edges familiar places I’d been going for most of my life. I would come stay with my family, and they along with my fiancé, Andy, would meet me somewhere along the course to cheer.
There was just one problem with this picture-perfect image of my first half-marathon: 2020.
I celebrated my 28th birthday the same day my workplace went remote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few short weeks later, the half-marathon weekend I’d been dreaming of was postponed to October. I eagerly updated my vacation days from May to October, grateful for the extra time to train.
I don’t think I have to tell you that none of us imagined October would roll around and those same postponed races would end up cancelled and/or pushed to virtual events, but so it went. I got the email, and I had to make a decision: was I going to run this thing virtually, or wait until 2021?
If 2020 had been my first go at toeing the starting line for a half-marathon, I think I would have easily made the choice to hold off for the “real” race day experience I’d dreamed of.
But, I had originally registered for the Flying Pig Half in 2019 and deferred that race due to medical complications. Already, the goal had started feeling impossible, and I didn’t want another year of buildup. 13.1 was this looming thing, this intangible distance I was no longer sure I’d ever complete.
So, I clicked the button. I would run 13.1 miles “virtually.”
In other words, I would map out a course along sidewalks and running paths in Pittsburgh, and I would run these miles alone. No trip back to my hometown. No smiling crowds. No adorable pink pig-shaped balloons (this is, for some reason, a big selling point for me). Just me, the pavement, and the occasional drop in water bottle swap with my fiancé.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the notion of paying for a virtual race since the concept really took off in the year of virtual everything. Opinions are mixed, to say the least.
Personally, I’ve been in online running clubs for years, so the concept itself isn’t new to me. For this distance, this terrifying, looming distance, though, I had some reservations.
Without the crowd energy, what was stopping me from, well… stopping?
The months between clicking the button and race day went by much more quickly than anticipated, and while I trained eagerly for a number of shorter races, I hadn’t quite exactly stuck to a half-marathon training plan.
As October 11th loomed, I began mulling over excuses not to try. In the end, none of them were good enough for me (or, more accurately, for Andy, who knows when I’m trying to talk myself out of something I shouldn’t).
And so, race day dawned overcast and foggy. I woke up at 5am and had my usual breakfast and coffee. I put on my race day attire: my favorite shorts, a t-shirt with the saying “This is what strength looks like,” and a buff to cover my mouth whenever my route crossed paths with other humans who were, most likely, not running a half-marathon that day.
Andy drove me to the makeshift starting line, aka, the parking lot where I would set off on the run. A Pittsburgh native, Andy helped me map out a route that would be mostly flat — a perk to not running the notoriously hilly Flying Pig Half Marathon itself.
We went over the route one more time before I started my RunKeeper app and headed off. No starting line music, no emcee amping us up, no talk of sponsors, no scouting out people’s race costumes. Just me, my headphones, and 13.1 miles of Pittsburgh pavement.
Early on, I decided I should break up the mileage by snapping a quick photo each time I reached a new mile. That way, I could try and keep my brain compartmentalizing, running the mile I was in, rather than panicking that it was going to take me around 3 hours to run this 13.1… and that was only if I stuck relatively to pace.
I am notoriously forgetful when it comes to directions, so I spent the first 3 miles or so worrying about the part of the run where I’d have to make a turn onto an unfamiliar stretch between one trail and another. In between fretting about getting lost, however, I took time to enjoy the riverfront trail where I began my route. It’s one that Andy and I had run before, a relatively easy distance from the parking lot to Pittsburgh’s Point State Park and back.
As I passed people along the way, I felt a bit robbed. They had no idea what I was doing, what I was up to. No one clapped or cheered or encouraged me on. No, today, that was my job.
Well, and a little bit Andy’s.
Before race day, the longest distance I’d run in a single go was 7 miles. So, it was apt that around mile 5 was when Andy planned our first meetup. He happily made a fool of himself shouting and cheering as I approached, then handed off my fresh water bottle and fresh GU energy gel.
Here we met our first race day mishap: the bathroom problem. Normally on race day, the route includes aid stations and a few planned locations where portable toilets allow runners with needy bladders (me) a brief rest stop. Andy had plotted my course to include a parking lot where where he swore there were portable toilets. There… were not.
Being the supportive partner that he is, Andy ran back to the car to grab some toilet paper for me in case needing to pee became an emergency. Thankfully, it didn’t — but more on that later.
Having crossed the river a second time, with toilet paper in hand, I continued along the route (after Andy helpfully pointed out which direction that was).
Mile 7 came, and went. Soon, I was running distances I had never done before, every step the new longest run of my life to date. At this point, the route took me along a wooded path along the other side of the river, where I was mostly alone, aside from the stray dog walker or biker.
It was in this section of my race that I missed the crowds the most. The comradery, the competitive spirit that would push me not to take quite so many walking breaks.
Still, the leaves along the path were just beginning to turn, and there was a crisp fall note to the air. As I considered how many miles were left to go, I was surprised to find that quitting wasn’t on my mind. Based on accounts of other people’s first half-marathons, I had expected at some point to fully believe I couldn’t possibly finish the distance. To be hurting so badly that I wanted to quit.
I had expected, all this time, to fail.
What I hadn’t had the faith to believe in was this: I’d been training for this race for two years. In spite of the setbacks, injuries, and chronic pain diagnosis, my body was ready for this. It turns out, when you’re trained for it, race day can sometimes be… not a nightmare?
As I continued along the quiet path, I took a moment to enjoy the sheer amount of solo time my Sunday morning half-marathon adventure afforded me. I reminded myself, a little bit sadly, that some people took long runs like this on a regular basis. The only thing making this “race day” was the fact that I claimed it as such.
Shortly after I hit Mile 10, I found myself in familiar territory once again. Looming ahead in the distance was the AMC movie theater at which I’d been a regular guest in the pre-pandemic days. I took a moment to take in the sheer awe at how much of the city my feet had covered today. I had run from the Point to the Waterfront. I had run 10 miles.
I had less than a 5K left to go.
I hit the “singing out loud to amp myself up” point just before I met up with Andy, who handed me another fresh water bottle and settled in to run the last few miles with me. Another thing that wouldn’t have happened in the in-person race.
Andy endured me singing aloud through the streets of the waterfront, and gave me the cheerleading I sorely needed.
He could tell I was holding back. 10 miles in, he expected the version of me he’d gotten during a very poorly timed 10K when I was returning to running fresh off an injury. Instead, I was cheerful and singing and sweaty but not at all broken. In other words… I was probably not giving myself my personal best effort.
Instead of walking the last three miles like I was tempted to do since no one was watching me anyway, I maintained enough bursts of running that I met the “finish line” with a pace of less than 13:00 minutes/mile. My goal had been to finish with a pace below the original race cutoff of 16:00 min/ mile.
The finish line was, I think, the hardest part to do the nontraditional way. Instead of racing across a finish line surrounded by people, I simply… stopped running when the tracker hit 13.1. We were in the middle of a gravel path near the Waterfront, close to a pack of goats diligently chewing vegetation.
Andy cheered, and I cried a little bit, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a little anticlimactic. Not as much as I expected, but… where was my post race banana? My medal? The hugs from my friends and family members in Cincinnati, who would be completely dumbfounded that I just ran that far on purpose?
Maybe finishing my first half marathon would always have felt a little bit surreal, but there’s a little bit of an “if a tree falls…” feeling to finishing a half marathon with exactly one witness.
Do I regret not holding off for an in-person race?
The short answer is, no. As much as race day looked nothing like how I imagined, I’m glad I finally proved to myself that I can run / walk / hobble 13.1 miles. In spite of missing so much of the fun atmosphere that got me into running in the first place, the main thing was there: the sense of pride at rewriting your limits, proving to yourself you can go further than you previously imagined.
My medal and race t-shirt are still making their way to me from Cincinnati, where I would have loved to race but where I wasn’t destined to. When I get them, I hope the accomplishment will feel a little less like something I might have imagined.
In the end, it isn’t about the swag (at least, not entirely). I ran a half marathon, something I never would have imagined possible back in high school struggling through the mile in gym class. And that, virtual or in person, feels like one hell of an accomplishment.
Thanks for reading! Want to know how you can run your best virtual race? Check out my tips here.