Middle Age Non-Runner to Half Marathon in less than 6 months

My Story

At 41 I hadn’t run more than a few hundred yards in almost 20 years.  My initial goal was to run a marathon and I followed a marathon training plan, but I ended up completing a half marathon 5 months later.  Read on to find out more about my journey and the epic experience I enjoyed.

How the Goal was conceived

Everyone has their own reason for setting such a lofty goal of running a half marathon or full marathon.  My reason for running a marathon is a bit unique as my real objective was to improve my memory.  At the time I was living in China and trying to learn the language which was more than frustrating me. 

I read a lot of information on how to learn and tips on hacking your brain.  After reading some studies that strongly supported regular aerobic exercise improves brain function, I was determined to do start an exercise program. 

I decided the simplest cardio exercise I could do three times a week was to start running. After all, at a minimum, I only needed a pair of shoes. 

To keep me focused and motivated to stick with my new program I would need a big goal, one I could only achieve if I ran at least three times a week for weeks.  What bigger goal could there be than to run a marathon.

So now that I set the goal, all I needed to choose a race and register.  After a short time I found one locally that looked perfect, but the application was only in Chinese.  I spent days trying to register, but finally gave up as my language skills were barely intermediate. 

In expanding the location of upcoming races to only include ones with an English application, the perfect race appeared!  I was both thrilled and scared to death, it was on the Great Wall of China. 

I investigated as much as I could about the event and read many posts of people who had run it. I quickly realized that a marathon here was way beyond the level the fitness I could acquire in just a few months. 

As a result, I decided to register for the half marathon not knowing if I would have the fitness even for that in such a short time.  I was rightfully scared and only signed up after completing 6 weeks of my marathon training plan.  

First view of the Great Wall. Almost all the runners stopped at this point to take pictures.

For more on the brain benefits of aerobic exercise see these articles below:

Working out your brain – Harvard Health

Aerobic Exercise Boosts Healthy Brain Aging – Neuroscience News

The Training Plan

Since my ultimate goal was to improve my brain by getting cardio exercise three times a week, I needed to ensure I would not get injured. Again, my real goal was to exercises three times a week, which I can’t do if I’m injured.  I was trying to be as intelligent about this running thing as possible. So back on the internet I went.

First, I would need a very good pair of running shoes which I acquired (look for a blog on this later).  I then found a plan that started with a great deal of walking and very little running.  I have since lost the plan, but it was similar to the plan below. 

I found that within about three weeks I could run continuously for the 30 minutes and experienced zero soreness during the process.  I then switched plans to an actual marathon training plan.  I used Jeff Galloway’s minimum training plan for completing a marathon as the basis of my training. 

My strategy was to train for a full marathon and hope to complete the half marathon.

SessionWalkRunTotal Time
14 min1 min30 min
23 min2 min30 min
32 min3 min30 min
41 min4 min30 min
50 min30 min30 min
Walk/Run Program that I personalized when I felt ready to move to the next session

Marathon Training | Jeff Galloway

Walking, Running, and more Running

I was very discipled with my training plan and made sure to not run two days in a row. I read that many coaches say rest and recovery is probably more important than the run itself.  

I also kept a running journal as recommended which I am so glad that I did.  Once I started the marathon training schedule, I ran most of the time and only had walk breaks when I really needed them.    

As my long runs increased in mileage, my fears and doubts also increased.  I was certain I was going to get injured, and I was always surprised when I completed the scheduled long run.  Not only was I uninjured, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment. 

Some runs were certainly harder than others, but I tried to plan my long runs with some scenic routes to keep me excited.  I also started to vary up my shorter runs with fartleks and some tempo runs.

For more information on speed workouts read What’s the difference between fartlek, tempo and interval runs? (runnersworld.com).  

I completed all the training sessions and only had two small injuries which I was able to overcome.  I didn’t overdo any of the training (it was all I could do to keep up with them anyways) and I had a healthy fear of injury and failure. 

In the evenings I would read running books and watch YouTube videos during my downtime which helped keep me motivated.

Race Day

Finally, the day arrived, and I was SO nervous and excited!  The first half hour went great, but the next hour was quite a shock. I began to realize exactly why the Great Wall is one of the most challenging races in the world. 

Since I had never been to the Great Wall, I didn’t know the path up to the wall would be single file (no passing possible) or that most of the towers have a flight of cramped steps that must be scaled to get to the next section of the wall.  That meant a lot of standing and waiting, using up precious energy going nowhere.

When I was finally on the wall, I was not greeted by a wide flat road of stone, but rather mountains of crumbling uneven steps.  I thought to myself, I should have been on a stair climber instead running all those hours. 

Once the shock of these realities passed, I readjusted my expectations.  Now my goal now was to finish in one piece however long it took.   

I was extremely focused on my running and oblivious to the people around me.  I assumed everyone else was in survival mode like me, but I am so glad that was not the case. 

To my surprise and great pleasure there was one cheerful man that befriended me, and we conversed for a large part of my run.  He was running the full marathon, and this was not his first time running at the Great Wall. 

He was a strong runner with a lot of experience, and he made the race so much more enjoyable. He even pulled me through the toughest part of the course – literally! 

There was a point when I told him to go ahead as I felt utterly depleted.  Rather than say ok and leave me in the dust, he grabbed my hand and literally pulled me to the next aid station! 

I can’t explain what that meant to experience that kind of help and encouragement from a runner I never met before.   

After getting refueled at the aid station, I was so invigorated that on the ascent up to the wall for the second time (there was a loop off the wall halfway through) that I instinctually yelled out of sheer pleasure into the dry cool air. 

I’m a very conservative person, but I was so moved by the entire experience up to that point that I just couldn’t help myself.  I was totally high on life and appreciating everything and everyone that led me to that point in my journey.  It was then that I knew I could finish however painful or hard the rest was.

Eventually, my new friend disappeared while I took a little longer at my last aid station.  I never saw him again, but I will always be grateful for the spirit he displayed.  I hope I can do the same for someone else one day. 

I slugged my way to the finish line which I crossed with a time of 5 hours and 20 minutes.  According to my training journal, up to that time my longest run of 18.6 miles took me 3 hours and 34 minutes. This was almost 2 hours longer than any run I had done and all the previous training had been at sea level with virtually no hills. 

It was so much harder than I envisioned and I couldn’t believe I did it!

Man in the red shirt was the one who helped me through the toughest part of the race.

Lessons Learned

As you can imagine I was more than thrilled with this experience, but that wasn’t the best part.  If you recall, the reason I started running was to help improve my memory as I was learning Chinese. 

There is a small detail I didn’t mention about that runner that befriended me on the Great Wall.  He didn’t speak one word of English!!  We conversed all in Chinese for nearly 3 hours. 

What an amazing experience this journey was and it is by far one of the highlights of my life.  I’m sure your journey to a half or full marathon will be a highlight in your life too!

It’s been six years since I ran my half marathon and I have continued to run three times a week.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and grown tremendously through this journey. 

We are all capable of much more than we think. If you can dream it, you can achieve it!  It’s taken most of my adult life to believe this was possible for me and I know it’s possible for you too.

My metal and bib from the 2018 race

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