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This past weekend, I ran the Santa Barbara Half Marathon.
I signed up for the race on a whim. I had just pulled out of the New York City Marathon after a 3 week bout with COVID derailed my training plan. It wasn’t my first time withdrawing from a marathon (I deferred Chicago in 2019 while suffering from shin splints), but pulling out of these types of commitments always inflicts a little damage to the ego. Still, I would have had to accelerate my running volume in a very short period of time and after talking with my coach, we both concluded that the risk of injury (particularly as the aftereffects of COVID remained a little murky) outweighed any benefit to running a 26.2 mile race. And, to be candid, I still wasn’t in the kind of shape I wanted to be in. Sure, I probably could have muscled through it like I had in Chicago 2021, but… I didn’t relish the thought of running another near 6-hour marathon, even in New York City. So, I withdrew and didn’t immediately commit to a later marathon. Instead, I decided to focus on rebuilding my base, something to which I’d only provided sporadic and divided attention since 2018.
A few weeks later, Anthony mentioned that he might sign up for a half marathon in Santa Barbara, saying “I know you’re free that weekend because that’s the weekend you would’ve run New York.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but “free weekends” are so few and far between for me and there was something quite attractive about the idea of doing a long run through one of California’s coastal gems, with easy access to porta potties and hydration, and crowds cheering me on between each mile marker. A few days later, I registered online, without telling Anthony, my coach, or Facebook.
Eventually, I told Anthony, “Oh, I registered for that half you mentioned in Santa Barbara,” and he signed up too. This made me happy–it had been many years since we’d run a race together. Anthony reached out to a close friend who lived in SB and arranged for us to stay with them for the weekend, which then turned a random race weekend into a bit of an “outing” (our friend not only owns his own wood fired pizza oven, he possesses MAD pizza making skills). We arrived in Santa Barbara the Friday before the race and I made a massive pot of soondooboo chigae for everyone and it was so soothing, velvety and delicious that I wondered how it was possible that it wasn’t everyone’s favorite thing to eat. We spent most of Saturday eating delicious breads from a local bakery we discovered after our morning shakeout run along the beach (a teensy-weensy Scandinavian shop provocatively named “Oat Bakery“), and stuffing ourselves with homemade pizza. Yes, there was a lot of eating but this isn’t abnormal leading up to a long distance race (though not exactly how I would eat in preparation for a marathon).
My “race eve” was pretty chill–I placed my running shorts, sports bra, socks, and race bib into a small pile atop my running shoes right by the door of our guest bedroom. I decided last minute that in lieu of trying to find medjool dates (my go-to in-race nutrition), I’d bring a couple of the tiny Fuyu persimmons my friend picked up from the grocery the night before. I woke up to the Rocky theme song (my phone alarm) at 5 am the following morning, feeling pretty rested, slightly unprepared, and not a little nervous. I had no goals other than to finish and joked to Anthony and our friends “don’t wait for me at the finish. I’m going to be a while. Like 3 hours.” But still, it would be the longest distance I’d run since the NYC Half Marathon back in March and however much I enjoy running (in theory), running 13.1 miles is still hard and painful.
The weather was delightful–in the mid 50s at the start, working up to the mid 60s towards the finish. We drove out to the State Street Promenade an hour before the race, slid into a free parking spot about a block away from the start, and congratulated ourselves for having our shit so well together. I hit the porta potty once, just before the lines began getting prohibitive, and then headed back to the warmth of our car while Anthony loosened up on the still practically deserted street. At exactly 6:55, we sauntered over to the rippling crowd gathered at the start. We kissed and wished each other luck before Anthony went to the front and I went to the back.
It had been a while since my last race, and I’d forgotten how easy it was to trick your body into running a little faster than it was ready for. I’d spent the past several months running long and easy, averaging 12-minute miles. But, I ran the first three miles (most of which was composed of one long, relentless climb) at 10:46, 10:43, and 10:29, feeling no different than I had when I ran around the rolling hills of Westlake Village. I decided two things at that point: (a) slow it down, and (b) stop looking at my watch. I ran the rest of the race entirely on effort, picking things up after mile 7 to facilitate a negative split. In the end, I finished in 2:21, 39 minutes before my projected time of 3:00, but about 2 minutes slower than the NYC Half and 12 minutes slower than the very first half marathon I ever ran, back in 2016. I didn’t really care, though. I finished strong, sprinting past the finish line until I almost barfed (sort of a non-negotiable requirement for all Joanne finishes), where both my friend Greg and Anthony were waiting with hugs and smiles all around. I did not need to use the bathroom for the entire 13.1 miles which, for me, is a massive achievement in and of itself.
A few fun / notable highlights from the race:
- At the very beginning, I heard a couple of runners speaking to each other in Korean–two young men. I’d never heard Korean being spoken while running before, much less on a race course. One of them was clearly older than the other, based upon the formality of speech (“jondae mahl”) from the younger and the obvious lack of formality (“ban mahl”) from the older. The “dong seng” (younger) commented on how far away the 2:00 hour pacer was and the “hyung” (older brother) reassured, “don’t worry, we don’t need to even think about them yet.” In my head, I thought, “Dude, if you want to run a 2 hour marathon, you really cannot afford to be back here with me, lol, even for the first couple miles…” I tried to keep up with them for a bit, only because it was so freaking soothing hearing Korean while I ran, but they soon picked up their pace and I lost sight of them before mile 2.
- I ran the majority of the race without headphones on. Anthony always goes on and on about how much better it is to “enjoy the sounds of nature” while running, to which I always mutter, “uhm, ok, whatever.” I think people should do whatever makes the run less painful and studies have shown that listening to music can literally reduce the body’s perception of pain during running. That said, on race day, I do think there’s something rather electrifying about the crowds, your fellow runners, the live music, etc. At around mile 1.5, I overheard two men talking about how they wished they could walk past the finish line as “skinny dads,” how it was virtually impossible to lose enough weight to be considered “skinny” in just one race (unless it was an ultra marathon in the desert). The length of their conversation on this topic, together with the specifics they discussed, made me realize, again, that we live in a culture that is truly obsessed with being “skinny” and that it is shortsighted of me to consider that this affliction only affects women. Shortly after, they moved on to talk about the PS5 and how you can now buy one without resorting to the black market.
- I was moved by the number of white hahlmuhnees (grandmothers) in the crowds lining the sidewalks, how aggressively they cheered for all of us runners. They came out en masse, with their signs and cowbells, clad in light parkas and Patagonia fleeces, their white and silver coifs perfectly put together for the morning’s event. I never engage with crowds while I run (unless they’re related to me), but I smiled every time I passed another raucous crowd of suburban grandmas.
- By mile 9, they’d run out of cups. Apparently, cup shortages must’ve been nationwide. About .1 miles away from the water station, I could hear the volunteers hollering “waterfall! waterfall!” and I was like, “I don’t want a waterfall, I want a cup of water, thank you very much.” But alas, I soon discovered that a waterfall was my only available option, so I stood patiently while a college kid held a massive jug of Spring Mountain over my head and poured it into my mouth and over my head.
Running Tips for N00bs from a Non-Elite Runner.
I’m not an elite runner and, even in the best shape of my life, I’m not very fast (my half marathon PR is a 1:57), so I may not have the traditional “bona fides” to be giving running advice, but, then again, I’m also a James Beard winning recipe developer with not an iota of culinary training. To the extent you are a recreational runner or someone who wants to run a little bit more, here are things I’ve learned about running and racing in the past decade that you may find useful:
Dress light. It never fails to astonish me just how many runners show up to the start line wearing 21 layers of clothing. Ok, maybe not 21, but the overwhelming majority of folks at the SB Half arrived wearing hoodies, arm warmers, mittens, wool hats, and sweatpants. It was 55° at the start and the forecast said it could get up into the upper 60s when all was said and done. Accordingly, I showed up in a sports bra and running shorts. By mile 8, I saw several runners with their hoodies looped around their waist or hanging out the back of their shorts. Neither is optimal for running what are likely the most painful miles of a race. I was feeling a little too warm myself, at that point, so I can’t imagine how hot it got for folks running in sweatpants!! While everyone’s body is different, keep in mind that your body’s temperature will rise during a run and therefore, you should dress as though it’s at least 15° warmer outside than it actually is.
Don’t wear your brand new shoes for a long run or race. Thinking of breaking in your new Nikes on race day? Think again. However pretty your brand new trainers are, they are poor choices for a long run or race. Even if they felt amazingly comfortable at the running store, your feet will need to adjust to them. Instead of subjecting them to 13 miles of “new shoe,” it’s much better to allow them to settle in over short spurts (i.e., 3, 4, 5 miles). Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for chafing, blisters, and possibly even injury.
Hydration begins before long runs/race day. I’m really the last person to talk about hydration as I never drink enough water, but if you’re feeling a little “dry” at mile 1, no amount of in-race hydration is going to work. If you’ve got a long run or race coming up, develop a hydration plan that begins several days out so that your body has time to adjust and absorb. I like to carry a water bottle around with me during taper and sometimes, I add a half-tablet of Nuun or other electrolytes to make sure I show up to the start line feeling primed and ready.
But don’t forget to hydrate during the race either. Just because you hydrated yourself to a TEE in the days before your race or long run doesn’t mean you should barrel through the course without stopping for water. Hydrating while running will not only make your parched throat feel better, it can make you run faster, improve recovery time, and prevent injury. As I mentioned, I’m terrible at hydration, but on race day, I don’t mess around. I stop at every other hydration station and I take a couple sips, even if I don’t feel thirsty. If it’s a really hot day, I’ll pour the rest over my head.
How to take hydration while running. Hal Higdon recommends that you just walk through hydration stations, noting that whatever time you “lose” by slowing down, you’ll regain by not trying to run while dehydrated. But, just between you and me, I know for a fact that Hal, himself, rarely stopped to walk through hydration stations! I like to jog through hydration stations, as well (unless it’s a hydration “waterfall”), and I’ve used a trick I learned from Sage Canaday for years in order to make sure I get my requisite “two sips” while keeping my pace: I take the cup of water from the volunteer and then pinch one side of it with my thumb and index finger, to turn it into a sort of funnel. I tip my head back and let it trickle through the open side. Again, I don’t suggest you try and drink the whole cup–too much water can cause cramping and bloating.
Eat enough but not too much. One of my favorite running stories comes from my friend, Dave, also a DWR teammate. David trained for his very first marathon a few years ago. He had a modest goal: run the marathon in less than 4 hours. He trained in accordance with that time. The night before his first 20-miler, he went on a bender. Ate an entire pizza and drank LOTS of beer. Not the ideal way to prepare for your first 20-mile run. But, the following day, he ran the fastest he’d ever run in his life. In the end, he ran a 3:30 for his first ever marathon and since then, he’s been sub-3-ing his marathons like it “ain’t no thang.”
Now, I’m not suggesting you eat pizza and go to a kegger the night before your long run or race, but it’s important you eat enough. I always know I didn’t consume enough calories when I get hunger pangs at around mile 7. I like to stock up on fat free carbs the night before a long run. The morning of, I keep it simple: oatmeal, a plain bagel, or toast. In general, I’ve noticed that my body does not react well to fat when running (it feels like it’s burning the lining of my stomach…). I also avoid eating too much fiber or other foods that tend to require a little more digestive muscle (e.g., beans, broccoli, etc.) in the days before a race or long run. While not eating enough can certainly make a long run way more painful than it needs to be, eating too much can weigh you down, literally, during a long run. I once carb loaded with nothing but boiled potatoes and white rice for 4 straight days before a marathon and I felt like I was running with boulders inside my gut. Not fun.
Oh, what shall I wear?? For long distance runners, this is not a frivolous question. Not only do you have to intelligently handle the weather (see supra), if you’re running unsupported (i.e., not a race), you need to supply your own hydration and, in some cases, run with a phone (something I absolutely recommend for all women). I’ve run with all sorts of contraptions designed to help me carry water bottles, “goos” (energy gels), and phones, but having to put so much crap on for every long run eventually grew annoying and literally heavy. So, here is what I wear for virtually every long run and race (and sorry in advance–this will be specific to women):
- A sports bra that has a pocket down the back. I cannot overemphasize how radically the discovery of this sports bra has changed my running habits. I use the pocket for my phone or a very skinny water bottle.
- Spandex running shorts with lots of pockets. Not only do these shorts guard against chafing, all the pockets are deep and tight. I can therefore feel confident that my AirPods or goos or house key won’t go flying out without me noticing.
- Above the ankle socks. There’s nothing worse than blisters or chafing when you run. I’ve found that ankle socks tend to rub uncomfortably up against the back of my heel, depending on the shoes I’m wearing, so I like to have socks that go above the ankle. I also like them to be thick enough–while the idea of compression socks is intriguing, they are usually too thin and provide inadequate cushion between the soles of my feet and pavement.
What about the shoe?? I wear whatever shoes I find most comfortable. Right now, I’m wearing New Balance shoes. Wearing the right shoe for your foot is important, so my advice is to head over to your local running store. The folks who work there are trained to fit you with a shoe based upon an analysis of your gait and preferences.
In sum, running is one of the most inclusive sports out there. You can be a beginner or a veteran. For most people, you don’t need fancy equipment or gear. You don’t even need a gym membership. The SB Half Marathon was likely the slowest half marathon I’ve ever run. But, as I crossed the finish line, I thought about how I came to even run this race–with zero fanfare or anxiety, because at this point in my life, I’ve gotten to where I can just roll out of bed and run 13.1 miles in a row. Nine years ago, when I started running, I couldn’t even run one mile (in a row). With so much in this world that remains out of our control, there are few things more empowering than transforming our bodies well beyond whatever limits we assume for ourselves.
Hi, Joanne I wanted to ask you, if you hated running what got you to make the first step in your life change? What got you in those shoes for the first time, with the intention to run? Or did you walk at first? I’m about to be 25 at the end of this year, it’ll be my golden birthday, and the first quarter of my life experience, I’m sadly overwhelmed with my weight and body dysmorphia, I hate running, sadly my depression is amazing at kicking me down, but I want to start to run so bad…I’m not healthy the way I want to be, and I don’t exercise like I should. I just wanted to know what was the push that got you started? -Kalli
First of all, congratulations on your golden birthday! While it sounds like things have been a little tough for you recently, your 25th birthday is definitely something worth celebrating. Let’s tackle some of the easier questions first, shall we? Yes, I hated running. Actually, I hated all forms of physical activity, period. I didn’t like running, walking, biking, skating, dancing, or basically anything that required me to move from the couch. The only “sport” I enjoyed with any regularity was playing MarioKart or Halo. I’m not saying these things out of judgement for this previous version of myself. The “I hate moving” Joanne had really good reasons underlying her distaste for fitness. She was working a stressful job, was stuck in a stressful relationship (with a partner who had similar views on moving), and battled with body dysmorphic disorder her whole life and thus viewed physical activity as a form of punishment for eating too much.
So, what “got me into those [running] shoes the first time”?
Not surprisingly, it was the fact that I was, like you, unhappy with my weight, my body, my health. Coming on the heels of my divorce, I discovered I’d gained over 30 pounds. I hated the way I looked and, more importantly, how I felt–tired, easily fatigued, and irritable. I started doing at-home workout videos, anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes a day. These videos were designed for senior citizens, lol, but I didn’t care. They were challenging for me and I always felt great after completing them. After several weeks of doing these, I got bored and decided to add running to my routine. In college, I’d had success shedding pounds by getting on the treadmill, so I decided to try running along the lakefront path right by my house to see whether it would catalyze my weight loss. It was cheap (no gym membership necessary) and flexible (I could do it on my own schedule) and effective (I did end up losing weight).
But the more interesting question, Kalli, is why I continue running?
Even though I no longer run to lose weight, I still run for fitness. As I get older, I’ve found that exercise helps me to maintain mobility and agility, while also promoting digestive health. I have early signs of rheumatoid arthritis and regular exercise is one of the few non-pharmaceutical treatments for inflammation in my joints (I know, not what I expected either!). I also continue to run because it brings me confidence and peace. I like starting the day knowing that I’ve done something good for my body, and thus good for my brain. Running is often the only “me time” I get in a given day, and therefore, I use that time to catch up with myself, think about what I’ve got lined up for the day, or what I want to say in my next TikTok. Finally, I can’t really talk about the benefits of running without mentioning the broader running community. Runners are among the most non-toxic, supportive, and friendly group of people in the world. We are taught to see each other as peers before rivals, and therefore, egos tend to fall by the wayside. You will find runners of all levels at any race and therefore, you’ll fit right in no matter what.
Is running for you? Maybe. I think running can have a tremendous impact on a person suffering from disordered eating, BDD, anxiety, and depression. For me, running has turned into something that has very little to do with my weight or my appearance. If you look at my running photos, my thighs and stomach are often jiggling, my cellulite very visible–they are NOT the most flattering photos. But guess what? I’m still proud of every single one of them. Isn’t that amazing? Perhaps that seems normal for folks who do not have 10,000 selfies on their phone, but for people like me (and perhaps you), it is truly extraordinary to be proud of photos where my stomach is hanging out. That’s what running has done for me. It has taught me to appreciate my body not for what it looks like, but for what it can do.
My hope for you, Kalli, is that running might also be a reminder of that to you. That your body is worth so much more than the number on the scale, the reflection in the mirror, the size of your jeans. Your body is powerful, resilient, and tenacious. Your body is able to endure much more than you can even imagine, and proving that to yourself might be the single greatest gift you could possibly receive for your golden birthday. It will take courage, sacrifice, and some pain.
But… don’t you think you’re worth it?
Wishing you all the best.
- What I’m Watching: After watching every available episode of The Vow, I finally started another Korean drama at the recommendation of a friend (a journalist who writes about k-pop and therefore knows a thing or two about good kdramas): Under the Queen’s Umbrella. This is a period piece set in the Choseun Dynasty and it is magnificent to behold. The costumes and the cinematography are simply gorgeous. The story is typical–political upheaval in the royal palace, but the there are some pretty powerful storylines that continue to challenge, pretty directly, cultural norms and prejudices vis a vis women and the queer community.
- What I’m Listening To: In case you missed it, I had a really fun chat with Quinn Emmett, on the Important, Not Important podcast. You can listen to it here!
- What I’m Cooking: Chigae season is in full swing! In the past week, I’ve made kimchi chigae (with beans), soondooboo chigae, and white bean doenjang stew (which is basically a chigae). You can find the recipe for my kimchi chigae and soondooboo chigae on my blog and in The Korean Vegan Cookbook, and I’ll be adding the white bean doenjang stew to The Korean Vegan Meal Planner. Next up–my kimchi chigae chili!
When I went on my first run in 2013, I was so intimidated. Not only was my body railing against the activation of muscles long dormant, I was keenly anxious over how I’d be perceived by those who were “fitter” and thus “better” (in my mind) than I was. I lived in the city, right along Lake Michigan, and therefore, the lakefront path was crowded with cyclists and runners who’d likely traversed the worn pavement thousands of times. Who was I to pretend I could be one of them? I was, according to my physician, significantly overweight, and, considering how difficult it was for me to run less than half a mile before stopping to rest, I was obviously out of shape. As I sat down and rested beneath a cluster of tall trees at the turnaround point of my .75 mile run, I wondered whether “running isn’t for me?”
The thing is, even if that were the case, I had to get back home! I couldn’t just magically think my way off the comfortable nook beneath the trees all the way back to my apartment. So, I got up, positioned my arms above my waist, and put one foot in front of the other. Technically, my “run” ended about .37 miles later as I panted through the front door of my building and waved a sweaty hello to my doorman. But, in some ways, I never stopped running, even after I got into the shower, hopped out, changed into my favorite sweatpants, and grabbed a bite to eat. Because I was proud of myself, not in spite of feeling so out of place but because I felt like an imposter. It would have been so much easier for me to run that 3/4 mile if I were lean, long-legged, and blessed with Kipchoge-esque cardiovascular equipment. But doing hard things proves that we are capable of more.
Even for the fastest man on earth, though, it doesn’t take only 2:01:09 to run 26.2 miles. It takes years and years, thousands upon thousands of miles on your feet, including hundreds of “bad runs” to cross the finish line of the world’s fastest marathon. Endurance isn’t just for the road. However much we may be tempted to castigate ourselves for sticking around too long, for investing too much, or for not having the sense to cut our losses and walk away earlier, mettle can only be developed over time. Looking back, it’s tempting to say “I should have left my legal practice earlier,” or “I shouldn’t have given so much to my first marriage,” but the truth is, I wouldn’t be who I am today without those chapters in my life. There’s a part of me that’s proud of my capacity to endure for as long as I did, and I know there’s a great deal I learned from every step I continued to take.
So, however long the path ahead may look from wherever you are sitting today, remember this: you’ll never know what lies beyond the bend if you don’t continue to step forward.