When an 11-year-old boy or elderly woman zips by me in a race, things get ugly. It's not healthy and I'm not proud of it, but an inner voice – I call it my negative Nancy – immediately starts comparing my fitness level to others around me. I feel inferior, try to catch up, inevitably burn out and end up walking to the finish line.
And never mind all of those lithe runners – they're enough to make me run in the opposite direction. However, training for a goal, the cheerleaders and fundraising for worthy causes have kept me coming back to organized events. So I need to find my right speed to endure for 21 kilometres, and Nancy needs to be silenced with less than three weeks to the Toronto Women's Half-Marathon.
I searched for a pace expert, a fitness coach and a non-judgmental therapist. I found all three in Jenna Martin, who sets training goals and pace times for triathlons and is a trainer at the MedCan health clinic in Toronto.
After studying my run times, she planned my pace and doled out this calming advice: "There will always be someone behind you and always be someone ahead of you." Even with a few walk breaks, she estimates I will finish the half-marathon in two hours and 30 minutes. I'm baffled, because that doesn't sound completely embarrassing for my first time.
Still, if I want to complete the race, I need to keep my pace slow, says Alan Chud, my running sage at Absolute Endurance in Toronto. "Heart rate drift is common for new half-marathoners," he tells me. Drift is that phenomenon in which a runner's heart rate mysteriously soars at a reasonable pace – mine jumps after about the 10-km mark. "These long distances are new for you," he says. "Slow is key."
I put his counsel to the test and invite my zippy runner boyfriend along for a 15-km training run. Nearly a foot taller than I am, with nary an ounce of body fat, he does 10 km almost daily. But – bless him – he has never mentioned his finish time.
At first, I feel like dead weight, slowing him down. But after a few kilometres, I forget all about it. We swap childhood stories, and I laugh and run simultaneously – until I notice his feet.
"Why don't you just speed walk?" I ask as we trot. "You can probably walk as fast as I run." He refuses my self-deprecating offer and says: "This is your run, not mine. If I'm here or not, it's about you and what you achieve. Where to next?"
We're home in less than two hours, and I'm proud of my new record distance. My face is entirely red and dripping – and there is not one drop of sweat on him.
I won't fully kick the comparison habit, and maybe that's a good thing: Being surrounded by people who are better than I am is inspirational, if I keep it positive. I'll get there. That run taught me that no matter what happens on race day, it's still about me and my feet.
Slow and steady won't win the race, but I am hoping it gets me to the finish line.
The key to pace
To those running their first half-marathon, running coach Jenna Martin says getting to the finish line is a matter of finding a comfortable pace, and planning well-deserved breaks.
"Breaking your run into increments will help ease your mind and get you into a nice stride," Martin says.
For 10 minutes, run at a pace at which you aren't struggling to breathe, that feels comfortable without strain.
Then walk for one minute. "Take this minute no matter how good you're feeling."
Repeat until you're two kilometres from the finish.
When you hit 19 km, she says, "you'll have some fuel left – and you can really just sprint. Your adrenalin will carry you to the finish line."