Running 21 Miles for the First Time Ever

Runner - Ao Nang Beach, Thailand

Just about a month ago I talked about running fifteen miles for the first time ever. Then, ten days ago I did another fifteen-mile run. Felt better the second time. Yesterday, I was close to not running at all. I wasn’t looking forward to running in the rain and cold (74°F). That is very cold for where I am in Thailand.

I couldn’t even decide that I was definitely going to run yesterday. I had planned a long run. I was hoping to get over to the mountain trail for an attempt at three times up and down, something I’ve never done. The couple days of solid rain put me off though because as it turned out my wife had the car and I was stuck with the motorbike in the rain.

That meant I had to go to the park to run. That meant, since a hard day was planned, I had to do at least 12 miles. Or so. If I got 12 miles done, I’d be happy. Thing was, it was so damn cold that I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. Anyway, long story short, because the video shows most of what went into my decision to go work out, I went to the park in the pouring rain to see what happened.

I walked around a couple laps of the 1.25 km loop to loosen up. I was in no real mood to run until that point. The decision to run was a rather, ahhh, WTH, might as well run if I’m walking sort of thing. Once running I slowly got my entire body soaking wet. There were puddles completely across the path. The grassy areas I thought were  drier than the puddles turned out to be worse, with mud – sucking me deeper and making the effort three times as hard as if I’d just stayed on the wet path.

The first ten miles went by like nothing. I had one small Gatorade up to that point. Usually I’d have had two, but as I said, it was cold and wet and I really wasn’t sweating much – only when I put on the rain poncho in the very hard downpours and I was chilled to the bone did I sweat like mad because the plastic trapped the heat.

Splashing in Puddle

[Photo copyright Jesse Millan at Flickr]

I grabbed my other Gatorade and stretched my hamstrings a bit, my calves a bit, hoping to avoid the tightness behind my knees which stopped me from going further on my first fifteen mile run, and kept going.

If you’ve never run long distances before, I hope my description of it helps you to do the same. It’s daunting to think about running twenty miles when previously you’ve only run under fifteen miles. I may have run up to fifteen when I was seventeen years old, but I honestly don’t remember. I didn’t keep track of my one really long run as a teen, but maybe I came close to fifteen that day.

A month ago was my first fifteen mile run since then. Then, ten days ago I did another fifteen mile run. Yesterday, doing twenty, I thought I could have done the full marathon distance. Problem was I ran out of time, and I hadn’t been eating anything to fuel me the next six miles. I just didn’t think I had it in me before I started, so I didn’t consider bringing food and salt with me to the park. This is the third time this has happened, so I’ll be bringing salt and food in preparation for all long runs in the future!

There is something that happens as you run beyond ten miles, if you’re properly hydrated and have put in some base runs of six miles most days of the week. You can run beyond ten. Maybe well beyond.

My base mileage has been low – averaging around 3-4 miles per day when looked at over the month. I tend to do six to ten miles when I can, and that’s usually a few times a week. I have been ill over the past couple weeks and wasn’t sure I was ready to do a real long run, but that’s the thing about long distance, slow running – you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re out there and doing it.

Running slow is so much easier than running near max effort. When you run enough miles in preparation, running slow over twenty miles is almost like sleepwalking. I mean, it isn’t, I’m exaggerating, but, it isn’t much different from walking. Once you’re at the point where you can have 3-3 breathing as you run long distance, you can maintain that for a long time until something starts hurting and you have to fix it.

So, that’s the state I was in after fifteen miles. I was just sort of mindlessly bumbling along the flat loop and getting rained on by inches of rain. I gave up trying to avoid the puddles after the second lap and just smashed through them.

Smashing through the puddles is great for a few reasons:

1. There is a floating feeling for a brief instant if you hit flat footed in at least 3 inches of water. That is a nice change for the feet that have been pounding asphalt for a couple hours already.

2. It cools the feet down a bit.

3. You no longer have to waste energy trying to figure out how to dance around them, you just run straight through and save some energy.

4. It feels carefree and fun, like it did when you were a little kid.

For three hours there wasn’t even one person at the park exercising. That’s strange because usually there are a couple to a few hundred others. Then a guy came with an umbrella and did two laps. Running in the rain gives you absolute solitude!

So here is a bit about what it feels like running from 15-21 miles.

Breathing is 3 steps in during an in-breath, and 3 steps for the outbreath. If it gets into 2-3 or 3-2 or 2-2 then I’m going too fast and I slow it down. Breathing is easy and smooth, and the least of my worries. Strength to run is also, the least of my worries because at such slow speeds it near enough to walking that it isn’t an issue at all.

The issue as you’re running long distance is monitoring the pain. That’s what I do the entire time. I make myself aware of any pain and I see if it changes – getting worse or better. That’s it. That’s long distance running. If the pain gets worse, I try to make it less. If it gets better, I try to continue whatever I was doing.

At various times during the long run yesterday I had pain:

  • in outer band of R knee
  • on top of L knee
  • in L quad
  • in L adductor
  • in head – slight headache appeared to be coming on during part of the run
  • in R bicep – from a pull that happened doing something non-running related
  • in both calves as they threatened to cramp
  • in arches of both feet as they too threatened to cramp

One thing you’re going to face, no matter what shoes you wear, is foot pain. For me, besides the occasional cramp in the arch, it’s just a dull pain that builds up very gradually over the miles. At twenty miles I wish I had another pair of shoes. I don’t know why I haven’t gone in search of another pair of shoes that are better suited to running on the hard asphalt, but I haven’t. I have suffered three times now, and not looking forward to suffering much past twenty miles without some decent shoes.

At the moment, and for the past couple years, I’ve run on the roads in the Nike Free 7.0 v3 I think they are. Maybe v2. They are minimalist, very flexible, very light, and have a 7 mm drop. During my long runs I’ve worn Nike Free’s and had no problem with blisters at all, even during heavy rain.

Nike Free 7.0 v2 Blue Shoes

Apparently what I need to help foot pain, if all the hype is to be believed, are Hoka One One’s. If you’ve never watched David Bowie in moonboots, you probably have never seen anything like Hoka shoes before. They have a massive foam pad that soaks up the energy of your feet slapping the road tens of thousands of times during a long run. Apparently their extra foam costs heaps of extra dollars. I just found them priced around $150 USD. I paid half that for my Nike Free’s.

Michael Arnstein highly recommends Hoka One One for ultra runs on the street AND the trails here. He says ‘running down hills in them is like running on wet sponges.’ He ran the Leadville 100 mile race in them.

Hoka One One Blue yellow Shoes

Still, there is no way in hell I’m paying $150 because the shoe has extra foam. Foam costs about 3c a pound. What are we – stupid?

I’ll have to research today to find an alternative. As Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Saucony, Asics and some other companies see Hoka’s success, they’ll also start making something similar. Price will be much less and again I’ll be able to pay just $75 to $100 for 3¢ of foam, 20¢ of rubber, and a nickel of nylon cloth.

Funny, we’ve come full circle with minimalism vs. maximalism. On the technical mountain trail I run in New Balance Minimus with a 4mm drop. They are excellent for that trail, but little else. I’ve noticed my foot strength has improved considerably and I no longer roll my ankles like I used to be plagued with.

So you can see, long distance running is basically pain management. If all the above came at the same time – I’d either stop for a while or stop the run entirely. Thing is, they come on one at a time, or in groups of 2-3 sometimes. When pain comes like that, it’s manageable. You can get through it.

There’s something about running long distances that’s great to realize. You need not run the entire thing. You can walk. People in marathons and ultra-distance runs – walk sometimes. It’s OK. It’s necessary sometimes. Don’t feel bad about it. You’re not cheating. Just walk if you need to. A short walk can do wonders, rejuvenating the body and giving you a boost that allows you to go further.

Something else to think about… nutrition. Besides fueling up with Gatorade or your carb drink of choice, eat something if you’re planning to run over an hour. Dates are great, and my favorite food for eating while I run over a couple hours. They are packed with calories and they digest pretty easily if you have some liquid with them.

Coke or some other soda will crank you up like nothing else when you need a kick in the pants. I had a red Fanta with ice from a vendor at the side of the road as I ran. Then, an hour later, a coke with ice. Both times, just ten minutes after drinking them, I felt great. I had energy, and after stopping to buy the drinks my body had a slight rest, so I got the benefit of that too.

I’ve read countless stories from some of the great ultra-runners grabbing a coke during a race and it’s like having a shot of adrenaline for them. The effect is astounding, especially when you don’t typically drink the stuff. I don’t.

Michael Arnstein, one of the world’s premier ultra-runners, told his wife to begin eating within twenty minutes of beginning a long run. Apparently it’s that important to keep a steady stream of calories coming in.

Some people run listening to music. I haven’t tried that yet. I think that would take me away from monitoring the pain too much and I might miss something that is gradually getting worse. Then, when it’s too late, it knocks me out of the run. That wouldn’t be ideal.

Some people think and solve life’s problems while running big mileage. I cannot think unless I’m walking. Not sure, but there is a brain-short somewhere in my head that stops all ability to think about life while I’m running. I can only do a few things… 1) meditate. 2) manage pain 3) think about food.

What about you? Can you think when you run? What about after 15-20 miles – can you still think?

If you have anything to share about running long distances for the first time – tips, or whatever you want to share – comment!

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