Running A Half Marathon As A Beginner Wasn’t A Picnic, But It Made Me Love Running For Real

Courtesy of Melanie Mignucci

In gym class growing up, I consistently came in dead last in everything. Running the mile, swimming laps, even pickle ball, I could be counted on to be really, really bad at it. And though my dad, a lifelong tennis player, tried to instill the value of sports in me — as he successfully did for my varsity volleyball-playing sister — I had already given up on any form of athleticism faster than you can say “newspaper club.”

Into college, I considered myself too alt for "real" exercise, but I deigned to drop into Saturday morning yoga classes at the community gym. This soon turned into a habit, if not a very serious one. I started to realize why in the world people did things like wake up early to run a 5k the morning of Thanksgiving; it feels good to move. While I never got into the competition aspect of sports, I could force myself to exercise — I could take and even enjoy a yoga class, then a pilates class, then a reformer class. Okay, maybe I was becoming an exercise person.

But I still couldn’t bring myself to face my nemesis: the mile run. Every so often as I gradually became more accustomed to working out, I’d attempt a quick loop around the park near my house, only to find that I still hated it. Like, my body was just not meant for running — I’d be out of breath in 25 seconds, unable to pass even the slightest grade at a pace faster than a New York City walk. Needless to say, this was not only uncomfortable, but kind of embarrassing, in a city where you can’t walk down the sidewalk without having someone zoom past you.

So when I opened an email from running apparel company Brooks, inviting me to run the Rock 'n' Roll half-marathon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the beginning of last summer, I initially laughed. Me? Running 13.1 miles? In three months? Hard pass, I thought.

Pause for a second here: If you read the headline to this story, you already know that, well, I did try to run this half-marathon, the first running event I’d ever signed up for in my life. You also know that I failed, like every other time I’d tried out a competitive anything in my life. It sounds cliche, but it's true: trying and failing to run the half completely changed my opinion on running, and turned me into one of those people who run, a runner. (I know — I can still barely believe it myself.)

I started chatting about it with some of my colleagues, who do run, and who said why couldn't I just try it? For one, they got into running by just lacing up some sneakers, they said. For another, it was an opportunity to challenge myself, to do something wildly outside of my comfort zone, with a literal finish line in sight and no expectations other than to cross it.

It also helped that Brooks connected me with Gabe Grunewald, an incredible pro runner who set us up with a training regimen and was there to coach us through every step of the process. The three month training plan looked daunting — remember, I had yet to run more than two miles ever in my life but I felt like, as a consummate Capricorn in every way, I could tackle it.

It wasn’t all perfect or according to plan.

The first training run in the middle of June was just as excruciating as you’d expect. I started out shooting for a two mile jog in my neighborhood, and slowed to a crawl after a little over than a half-mile. My face was sweaty. My breathing was uncomfortable. I checked the time on my phone and calculated that, if I set an optimistic goal pace of a 10 minute mile for myself, I would have to do this for over two hours on race day in September. Currently, I was tracking at a 14-ish minute mile. And my training plan had me attempting a five mile run in under a week.

But after I kicked off my sneakers, showered, and got accustomed to the feeling of having muscles in my legs, the thought that went through my head was, “Huh, that wasn’t that bad.” Not, as I would have thought in the past, “I’m literally never doing that again,” or “Why do people do this,” but “Eh, that was OK.”

So I picked up my sneakers and ran again the next day. I didn’t get any faster, but I did manage to go at least three-quarters of a mile before taking a 30-second walk break. And I did manage to extend my total loop to two and half miles, up from two.

That’s how my summer went; lacing up my sneakers at 6 a.m., running for slightly longer each day. Each day, it got slightly easier; each day, I liked it a little more. I ran down streets I didn’t knew existed and along waterfronts that showed impossible views of the New York City skyline. I read What I Talk About I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami’s memoir on running, and listened to Carly Rae Jepsen's critically acclaimed album E•MO•TION.

It wasn’t all perfect or according to plan. I managed this progress by taking frequent walking breaks, meted out by the app Couch to 10K. I definitely didn’t love waking up at 6 a.m., or the fact that I arrived at work at 9 a.m. still sweating profusely. And then, of course, there was the whole “failure" thing from the headline that I talked about before.

As anyone who’s ever done sports seriously before knows, when you go super hard on training in something you’ve never done before, your body is like, “I’m sorry, what?” It’ll adapt to the best of its abilities, but at a certain point, it’ll be like, “girl, bye.” And so when you force yourself to run six days a week because you’ve never run before in your life and you signed yourself to run a half-marathon in three months just to see if you could, something ends up giving out. In my case, that would be the bones in my foot, which started aching anytime I put pressure on it. My doctor told me I had a stress fracture, and instructed me to stay off it, take anti-inflammatories, and wrap it. And that was kind of it, as far as being able to run this half went.

At the beginning of the summer, not having to run the half would have been a best-case scenario for me. But after actually going for it and practicing and feeling every run get easier and easier, I was, for the first time in my life, sad not to be able to participate in an organized sporting event. Because when you’ve never done sports seriously before, you don’t realize you need to give yourself a break. Running my way through this summer taught me that, while this doesn’t come naturally for everyone, plenty of people are able to make it work for them anyway — because they just lace their sneakers up and go.

So now that, as my mandatory healing period and summer both end, I’m actually excited to swap my running shorts for leggings, tie my hair back, and circle around my neighborhood again. I might not be pushing myself super hard, but I will have found another way to stay active that I actually enjoy. And I might even sign myself up for a 5k.