Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The marathon, as it feels after a few days

I wrote this in three parts:

Sunday, October 16th, 5pm
Wednesday, October 19th, 3pm
Tuesday, November 1st, 6pm

So, it has now been a week since the marathon at Chicago. Grishu and I are now in India and meeting up with friends and family and indulging in a mutual catch-up of our lives with them. In between, we are also trying to enjoy our vacation. Add in a couple of festival days, a few visits to relatives, a couple of get-togethers, a few shopping visits, a couple of lost days (for me) to common cold. You get the idea - “It’s been hectic” is an understatement. Nonetheless, there are always empty moments for all of us to savor for ourselves. Those moments of mine, more often than not, have been filled with fond thoughts of the minutiae of last Sunday’s run.

The week’s time since the run gives me some perspective. But first I want to recount the day’s details, for myself. So here it goes. The gang of runners got up at various times between 3-4am on October 9th, 2005 and most headed to the on-site restaurant where special arrangements had already been made to serve breakfast to the runners. This was yet another example of the excellent work by the Asha organization crew of Deepak, Renuka, Pradeep, not to mention the coaches Tony, Rajeev Char and Rajeev Patel as well as others who have done such an excellent job throughout the run and the training program. My hats are off to them.

The first bus left the hotel for downtown Chicago at 4.50am and we were there at the start time at 5.30am. In hindsight, we over-provisioned by about an hour. It was biting cold and I took out from my bag sweats and jeans that I had brought with me for the purpose of wearing after the run. The group then went towards the Charity Village where Asha-Chicago volunteers had arranged for an “Asha Tent”, where most of us crowded into (the scene was very much like a crowded railway compartment in an Indian train). At about 7am, we got up to take photos and started to walk towards the actual start line. I had already gone to the porta-john 3 times by now. We also did a small warm-up run and a very light stretch. By the time, we (Sankhya, Manish, Rajeev Patel, Anu, Lily and me) reached the 9min/mile speed starting area, pushing our way through the crowd, it was already 7.30am and the enormity of the event was dawning on us. Imagine the scene: 40,000 runners eagerly waiting for their turn to start, chatting, laughing and most certainly looking forward to the run with great energy and expectation. For me, I already needed to go once more. Rajeev, Anu, and Manish had already climbed the fence (that separated the runners from the spectators lining the roads) and lightened themselves up near a distant wall. I did the same though climbing the fence was tough. It was now 7.50 am. Everyone’s eyes rolled upward toward the three helicopters above us. CBS was covering us live for 4 hours, someone murmured. I don’t recall being nervous at all. I was in fact really looking forward to the start and feeling good. The legs felt fresh and the memory of the last really long run (23 miler three weeks ago) had almost completely faded. I was determined to start slow and then settle into a rhythm. Half lost in these thoughts, I realized that it was past 8 and the faster runners had already crossed the mats on the start line. Soon enough, it was our turn to roll. I think we must have crossed the start line mats at 8.05am. Rajeev, Anu, Manish, Sankhya and I were together. Very early on we had lost Lily, who obviously thought that we were going too slow J

The first mile was over in a jiffy. We did it in 10:31, including the 1 minute walk break (we were doing the 10/1 walk break). I learned that Rajeev was helping Anu to finish in under 5 hours. He was carrying a cell phone in his fuel belt which I used a couple of times to sync up with Grishu. In my next run, I am definitely carrying a cell phone myself… By mile 2, Rajeev wanted to take a leak. He caught up with us in another half a mile. One more mile, and now Anu and I wanted to take leaks. Then, Rajeev, showing very quick thinking, shoved us to the side as soon as one of our walk breaks started and asked us to take the leak right there, just behind some spectators on the side of the bridge. Manish and Sankhya waited. We realized that this is it. Its no point being shy, and we did the needful. I think it was only a minute and a half before we were done and could resume the run. I was feeling light and very good after that. All the runners were all still very close together and we were running a bit slower than the rest of them on the left side of the road. I was feeling social and chatted with a few fellow runners. Two of them said they had target times of 4:30 and I was feeling pretty good that they are still together with us (or vice-versa). The spectators were awesome and continued to make our run feel easy and fun. When I saw the marker for mile 10, I overheard someone saying to his friend “this is great. The miles are passing by in a hurry”. I could not agree more with him. I was feeling wonderful so far. Manish and I were now running together and a bit faster so we had lost Rajeev, Anu and Sankhya by now. Pretty soon, we caught up with KJ and Vignesh. They were going pretty easy and looked calm and like they had things under control. In the next 3-4 miles we would often pass them because they were not taking walk breaks, while we were. But otherwise, our pace was the same.

It was mile 13 and Manish wanted to do some stretching. We did that starting on one of our walk breaks and just took a longer break to do the stretches. After the stretches, we were both feeling better, though we were probably too fast by about 20s/mile in the first half. We finished the first half (13.1 miles) in about 2:20. The next 3 miles went smoothly too. The race so far had been close to perfect. Our GU and water intake was almost ideal. Our pace was comfortable but good. In fact, I remarked at mile 17 that if we were to be able to keep this pace, we can finish in 4:30. We could still see some people in the 4:15 pace group (supposedly) around us. The only caveat to our feel-good was that both of us could sense some fatigue at this time. In fact, Manish stressed on another stretching mini-session sometime around mile 18, which we did along with taking the normal walk-break. He felt better after that, but we both knew that things are going to get astronomically more difficult now. The next two miles however we still kept going at the same pace in between 10:20 and 10:50. Manish remarked that we can now for sure finish in under 5 hours (even if we walk). Some portion of my mind was toying with the idea of 4:30, and “4:40 at the worst”. Mile 20 was now past us and fatigue had definitely set in, in both the body and the mind. Manish wanted to slow down and take more walk breaks. A part of me wanted to speed up and sprint the next few miles. Sometime in the 21st mile, I therefore bade goodbye to Manish and thought of speeding up a bit. The reality was however not that kind. Fatigue was now firmly entrenched. I increased my intake of fluids and Gatorade. It was now time for me to resort to “dirty tricks” (as Galloway calls them) to keep pressing on and cover more distance under my feet. I started observing the upcoming landmarks and just focused on first reaching the landmark right next to me. The landmark could be anything: a huge banner, a turn, an exit in the freeway running to our left, anything distinguishable from a distance. It was Mile#22 and the mind was now being persistent in its efforts to slow me down and take more or longer walk breaks. I was starting to feel bad now and both of my legs were aching on the back side. While I never thought of quitting, I do admit to have thought that “This is no fun. This will be my last marathon.” I also saw people around me. About 3 in 4 people were considerably slow. Some were walking. There was the odd runner running unusually fast. Clearly, such runners knew the art. Then there were others still in groups and enjoying the run as it were mile#2. Well, I was not and was indeed hoping for it to end. When mile#23 ended, I thought of my 23 miler and was comforted by the fact that I was feeling better than my 23 mile long run that had gone horribly wrong in the last 3-4 miles. In fact the experience of the 23 miler three weeks ago did me in good stead. The last 4 miles there were really tough and I was determined to put on a better showing here in these last miles. My mind wanted me to stop and take more frequent walk breaks. I was however determined to keep pressing further. I met up with Pramod at this time who said he was injured and was going to walk the remaining portion (it was the 25th mile). I took leave of him and thought that at least I have no injury so far. I had felt a twitch above my left knee but that was gone. However, I was still very fatigued. I looked up and saw the 40K marker in the distance. That perked me up temporarily as I got determined to go strong until that. I also thought that that would the 25 mile marker too, and so started my walk break at that time. However, that was about 200m further and I realized my mistake too late. The 25th mile did finally end and it was the longest mile for me in the run. It was also the toughest. With just one mile to go, a streak of thought crossed my mind to completely ignore everything and just speed up. After all, there was hardly a mile left. I tried that, but soon had to scale back as another part of my mind said that it is as much as a mile, and I can speed up later. So, I just continued at the same pace. There was a small hill at around mile 25.7 that was obviously tough, but now the finish line was palpably closer. I was feeling a bit light-headed at this time but was looking for the 26 mile marker and the finish line. As I looked up, I saw a mass of spectators lined up for the last half a mile or so. There was a sharp right turn after which I saw the mile marker displaying “26” on the next (left) turn. I smiled to myself and as I took the left turn, I could also see the finish line. There was a very strong crowd in this stretch, but all hell had to break loose at this time. I put my head down, got more determined and speeded up to finish strong. I pressed the stop button on my stopwatch, and it showed 4:46:15 In hindsight, I could have started this burst a bit earlier. May be.

As soon as I finished, I started walking around. I was not feeling great or happy. I was glad it was over. There must have been pain written all over my face when I saw Srini, Sachin and Pavan. Sachin was smiling broadly. I took a cookie out of Pavan’s plastic bag and ate it. My problem was that I was feeling light-headed and just wanted to collapse right there. I just wanted to sit down with my legs outstretched. The feeling of light-headedness was contributing to the feeling of desperation of wanting to sit down or better lie down. However, we had been coached to keep walking for the first few minutes after the end of the run. And so we did. I collected the medal, my food bag and learnt that they were out of ice. There were long lines at the people taking official photos for “marathonfoto.com”. I was still not feeling good and did not have any patience to stop and wait in line. I was still feeling a bit hungry and quite a bit light-headed. Later I realized that the reason for this must have been my poor posture in the last few miles. It is still my guess but you see, when things started getting tougher around mile 20-21, I was no more looking up at the runners ahead of us or the crowds around us. In a bid to focus the mind and somehow feel more resolved and determined, I was mostly looking down may be 2-3 feet ahead of me. In hindsight, that was bad. In fact this was a bad habit of mine in the practice runs and I knew that I need to correct it but just could not during the training program. However, I never knew that it could even cause this light-headedness.

Anyhow, I was now regaining control of myself and started walking towards the Asha Tent in the charity village. I was a bit cross with Grishu that I never saw her during the run. After all, the day earlier we had meticulously planned out all the points where she was supposed to come and look for me. What happened to her, I wondered? Meanwhile, as I entered the Asha tent, I saw Rajeev Char, Madhav, Lily, Sachin, Pavan, Prasad and others who had already finished. Of all of them, I must say that Lily was sporting the broadest smile – and why not, she had turned in a stellar performance, finishing in about 4:25. Meanwhile, Grishu arrived at the tent, and before I could vent my anger at her; she started getting angry at me and explained to me how much she had to walk from one point to another and still could never see me. Whoa! “You are angry at me. I should be angry at you for not showing up anywhere?” After talking for a bit, we resolved the issue J The approximate times that I had indicated to her the previous day assumed that I would start only at 8:15am. I was assuming that the mass of runners meant that by the time I reach the start line, it would be at least 15 minutes after the first runner started. However, I had crossed the start line at 8.05am. Hence, it turned out that she walked to every agreed-upon point but reached about 10 minutes later than when I crossed that point. And meanwhile, she had to walk a lot because of the blockades done by the cops to manage the traffic. She must have ended up walking about 7-8 miles! Ahh, a lesson learned for both of us.

We were both in a hurry to go back to the hotel (remember, we were to catch the flight to India the same evening). So, we took a couple of pictures and left for the bus. By this time, I was feeling pretty calm and the dizziness had surely gone. My initial thoughts that I could have done much better than 4:46 were also slowly going away, as I made the mental calculation that I could have barely shaved 5-6 minutes if I had tried extra hard in the last 7-8 miles. What’s the difference between 4:40 and 4:46? Nothing. What’s the difference between injury-full and injury-free run? Lots. So, in the end I am quite happy with my timing.

Having now had the time to think over the run, I am now all gung-ho about my next one. I don’t know when I will do that. In the three weeks after the run, I have run just once – and only 2 miles. However, I hope that this will not be my last marathon. I have learnt too many things from this marathon to not use them for my next one. In that spirit, I will end with the key learnings from this run as well:

  • Reverse the splits. Here are my average speeds for 5-mile intervals. I wish I could reverse them...
    • 10:47 (miles 1-5)
    • 10:29 (miles 6-10)
    • 10:50 (miles 11-15)
    • 11:09 (miles 16-20)
    • 11:26 (miles 21-25)
  • Absolutely must run with a buddy in the last few miles.
  • Need to correct my running posture. Must look straight up and not down.
  • Read up on jokes and replay to yourself (or better still, your running buddy).

So, here I say good bye to my marathon training program. I'll be back, with a target of 4:30 under equivalent conditions. Thanks to all of you who cared about me in various ways throughout this journey. And a special thanks to that special person: my wife, Grishu.