The path stretches on, seemingly endless, and sweat drips into my eyes from beneath a black New Orleans Saints cap. I have miles to go before I sleep — another 2.3 miles, to be specific. Ignoring my pounding heart and the pain slicing my calves, I think back to why I'm doing this: Three years ago, at age 20, I glanced at the scale and saw the number 268. This was the lowest day of my life.
I'm not sure how it all happened: the spiral out of control, the scale's numbers gradually rising, my self-esteem plummeting. I had no self-control, and I worked all night at a college newspaper, eating junk food out of paper bags.
I started running three years ago when I joined the LSU Rowing Club. I lost weight, but after graduating, I needed a new activity to keep the pounds off. I found it in races, in which I learned there are many different ways to train for a half-marathon, and everybody has a different approach. "Everyone is a little different in the sense that they need to figure out what keeps them motivated," says half-marathon veteran Ann Elise Borchardt. Marathoner and LSU kinesiology senior Daniel Ragus cross-trains with biking and swimming when preparing for a marathon. Ultimately, though, any marathon training involves a lot of running.
As co-owner of sporting goods store Southern Runner Sports on Magazine Street, former president of New Orleans Track Club and a veteran of 10 marathons, George Owen recommends aspiring marathoners run about six times a week. Run a consistent distance for most of the week (I started with two miles a day) and go for a long run on the weekend that doubles that distance. Every week, add a mile to both the short and long run, and start training for the marathon months in advance. If completing a half-marathon is a New Year's resolution, there is easily enough time to train for February's New Orleans' Rock 'n' Roll Mardi Gras Marathon.
My training consisted of short runs at Audubon Park, starting and ending along the river at the Fly, and long runs looping half of City Park on the weekends. Mark Berger, an investing partner in Varsity Sports New Orleans and the creator of Varsity Sports Running and Social Club NOLA, suggests running in a group to receive both coaching and moral support. "It's easier to do it with someone," Berger says.
There is no fee to join his group, which meets on Tuesdays, Thursdays (when it starts and ends at various bars, including the Bulldog and Cooter Brown'ss) and Saturdays. Runners who want to join the group need only check the calendar at www.varsityrunning.com and show up.
"We try to involve everyone in the (running) community, whether they are running 1 mile or a marathon," Berger says.
Having others to run with really does help, as does proper gear. Owen says about 55 to 60 percent of runners pronate (roll their feet toward the inside) and two to three percent of runners supernate (roll their feet toward the outside). The rest have a neutral step. Vastly different shoes are needed for these different types of steps, which is why Owen and his team look at ankle structure when they help new customers. With the wrong shoes, "you could end up at the doctor," Owen says.
Repetitive stress, including overpronating the foot, can lead to plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the plantar fascia, a connective tissue which extends from the heel to the toe. However, the risk of plantar fasciitis can be reduced with proper footwear, according to an August 2004 Runner's World article. Runners already plagued with plantar fasciitis can mitigate its painful effects by wearing training shoes with flexible midsoles, like the Nike 5.0. A research study conducted by the University of British Columbia and published in the Dec. 2009 issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine found subjects reported a significant decrease in pain after six months of training in shoes with flexible midsoles.
It's also important to replace running shoes periodically. Owen suggests a new pair every 300 to 500 miles or every eight months, whichever comes first. However, these guidelines apply only if the shoes are kept dry. By alternating between two pairs of shoes, you can extend their longevity far beyond that of a single pair worn daily. When the shoes wear out, they let you know through pain in your knees, ankles and back. See a doctor if you experience persistent pain in the knees or ankles.
Because cotton socks absorb moisture, synthetic socks are a better bet. Synthetic materials wick away moisture, keeping the runner light and dry. It's best to layer synthetic materials in the winter rather than heavy cotton ones, in order to increase warmth and minimize uncomfortable friction. Berger learned this the hard way when he ended his first race wearing a blood-soaked cotton shirt, compliments of his rubbed-raw nipples.
Even if you have a solid foundation of training and appropriate gear, when you run a full or half-marathon, you will experience physical discomfort at some point, which is why many people fear long-distance races. However, coach Katelyn Young of Baton Rouge's Exerfit Family Fitness says she embraces the adage: Believe in yourself, and you can do it. "Too many people pass up the chance to do a race like this because they think it is beyond their capability," Young says. "Find a mantra and recite it to yourself when things get hard during your run."
Her advice rings true as I spot the end of the race ahead, complete with buckets of Vitamin Water, beer, a feast of fried fish and jambalaya, and an awaiting crowd. As I cross the finish line and the medal is lowered around my neck, I remember the day three years prior — before I ever ran a single mile — when I looked at that scale and saw the number 268.
The new number I have is 2:03:55, the time it took me to run 13.1 miles.