Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chicago 2006 - what a high!

To get the statistics out of the way, I finished in 4:41:57 (a PR) -- averaging 10:45 min per mile. That gave me an overall place of 22,059 out of 33,633 finishers. In comparison, last year, I had run the same course in 4:46:15, finishing at 22,543 out of 32,868 finishers. So, I improved my time by 4:18, or by 9.85 seconds per mile. That there is a lot of scope for improvement in this department is shown from a rather humbling piece of data -- the median male finisher in US clocks 4:20 (as reported by the December 2006 issue of Runner's World). Another interesting fact obtained by doing simple math on some Chicago race results -- there were approximately 5 finishers every second around my time! Finishing a marathon may be hard but it is certainly getting less and less rare...

I did not meet my "stretch" goal of 4:35, not even my "should-be-able-to" goal of 4:40. But who cares? Everytime I think about how I felt during the run, it gives me such a high that these minutes and seconds do not hold any more significance than they should anyway. You see I was feeling really good in those most important last 4.2 miles. My last mile (which included a small hill) was 9:27, bettered only by a faster 9:23 at mile#15. When I saw the sign for the last mile, I was thinking "It has come too soon. I will now not have a chance to improve my time that much." About 600m must have remained after crossing the last (and the only) hill and I could not help but grin all the way in those last few minutes. I felt on top of this world. I raced faster and faster till the finish line came almost too soon. The party had gotten over too early.

4.2 miles earlier was when my upper shelf had gotten rid of any and all clutter. Up until then, experience and sound advice had told me to wait, wait and wait before thinking of accelerating. After all, every marathon race course is littered with stories of excruciating fatigue and pain in the last few miles, spoiling the whole experience of the previous many. It could get bad any moment -- the endorphin-infested brain may just succumb to the realities of the legs, both quads could suddenly start feeling like a plush mattress, the entire backside of both legs may ache like hell, any of the hamstrings could still cramp, the area underneath the right or the left knee may still suddenly start twitching. After all, all of this had happened some time or the other in the last few miles of my practice long runs.

I waited at mile#18 for something to happen in anticipation. Nothing. Mile#20, nope. Wait till mile#22 then. Oh yes, something is happening. But, luckily only the familiar urge to take a pee break (my third of the race). And after I had watered the wall in a relatively empty (but barely 10m away from the race course) area, I was feeling ever so light. The much rated "high" had struck. Bigtime. The feeling of feeling so good at this point in the race was extremely satisfying. The mind was free to let go completely. I accelerated and was able to finish the last 4.2 miles at an average pace of 10:12 min/mile. My spirits were high enough to think of and wish of a 9:30 pace but the body still had its limits.

Rewind a few hours to 4:10am. The alarm sounds. The first question to pop up in mind was about the temperature outside. That answer would have to wait till I got out of the hotel. The second thing was that the hindside of both legs felt a bit sore! Ouch, I thought, that is not too good. Did I walk too much yesterday? Anyhow, I somehow successfully ejected that worry out of my mind. It was time to get ready. I had packed the bag the previous night with two layers of clothing and another set for changing after the race. I donned my dark blue Asha shirt to which the bib with number 22657 had already been safety-pinned last night, then another layer on top and finally a sweater. Over my pair of split shorts were a pair of sweat pants. A headband to protect the ears and gloves to warm the hands rounded up the attire. I headed to the breakfast room where Asha coordinators had already arranged for a healthy breakfast to be served to the runners starting 4.30am in the morning. Had a bagel, a banana and some orange and grape juice. At 5.30am, it was time to gather up in the lobby to wait for the bus to take us to the start line in downtown Chicago. Our hotel was about 40 minutes away -- as all hotels close to the start line had already been booked way in advance. Here is a sleepy and cheery me with some of the other runners. Anurag looks like his usual jovial self.
As soon as we walked out of the hotel door to climb the bus, I tried to feel the weather. It did not appear too cold, no doubt because of my layers of clothing, because it was apparently sub 40F. The two buses carrying 70-odd Asha runners started from the hotel at 5.45am. (Friends and family members of runners were to be brought later by the bus at 7.30am or at 10am). Soon enough, we were in downtown and got dropped off by the bus. We made our way to the Asha tent in the "Charity Village". It was not raining, but the ground was still wet from the overnight rains. All of us huddled inside the tent and found ourselves a place to sit. Someone was eating a banana, someone fixing their clothes, but mostly people were preparing for the cold experience that lay ahead. The nicest part of the charity village was the abundant porta-johns in this park. I had to use them a couple of times -- it was cold.

At around 7am, folks got out to warm up and stretch, but by the time I got back from the Porta John, everyone was preparing to walk to the start line. So, I didn't get a chance to warm up or stretch. I assured myself that warming up would anyway be difficult in this weather, and that I will stretch when I reach the starting line. I was right about the first, and dead wrong about the second. A few of us slowly made our way up Columbus Dr. where 40,000 runners were lined up facing the start line. It soon dawned on us that it is too crowded to walk up to the desired location (around the 4:30 finish time group). We could barely move up to the 4:45 area. Five of us -- Abheek, Chakri, Mouli, Tharak and myself -- found ourselves a spot. There was barely room to stand, let alone stretch. I looked around. What an intoxicating atmosphere it was!. Runners of all shapes and sizes were there -- some with smiles and some with anxieties written all over their faces. Every minute or so, you could see sweats or gloves or hats flying as people tried to let go off the extra layers that they had gotten with them. I hung on to my white disposable jacket and pants, looking like an astronaut waiting to get into its space shuttle. I also managed to do some easy in-place stretching for a few minutes. I started chatting with someone who was doing her first marathon. Suddenly, a sweatshirt camedown flying at her face. She took it off her face and flew it somewhere else. Pretty soon, that shirt was outside the runners area where a few people were quick to grab it.

It was now 7:55am and we heard a voice announcing the start of the wheelchair race. Soon enough the runners were walking towards the start line (which was barely visible at this time). Suddenly, one of the five of us said that a restroom break would be nice. Each one of us somehow found the idea appealing, but we decided that it would be hard to find a Porta-John right now (we would have had to jump over the fenced area surrounding the runners to find a PJ). We decided to look for one after the start. I made a mental note of looking for a secluded place after the start -- previous experience had told me to look for an empty area instead of spending many minutes in the line outside a PJ.

Soon, it is 8:19am and we find ourselves crossing the start mat. I reset my watch. Barely 20m into the race, we are in a short tunnel. I see a couple of men lined up, peeing on the side, with their backs to the runners. No more encouragement is necessary. I rush to the front of the line. One by one, all four of my buddies do the same. So, here we are, 20 seconds after the start, all lined up with our backs to the sea of runners eagerly starting their races. I wish I had a picture of that.

We lose about 2-3 minutes in that luxury. As soon as we start running after that, I feel so much lighter and make a comment about it. I am feeling good, in fact so good that I almost feel as if someone is pushing me from behind (may be the wind was). The legs are just moving, one in front of the other, as if on a conveyor belt. Soon enough, mile#1 signpost comes. We take a 45s walk break (as planned). I am not feeling cold, and it feels like gloves are the only thing I need now. As we cris-cross through the streets of downtown, I try to recall how I felt in last year's Chicago run. All I can remember of the early portion of the run is that someone had said on seeing mile#10 "miles are just flying by". I blurt it out inadvertently, though softly. We are still only at mile#3...

We are maintaining a steady 10:30 minute pace when it is time to take the first Gu-gel. Chakri lets go of his tear-away pants and says that he is feeling so much less obstructed. I decide to do the same at the next water stop at mile#6. Meanwhile, Abheek wants another pee break. It is cold and he can't be faulted for it. He says that he will go in a corner and catch up with us. Maan, he catches up with us in less than a minute later. This bloke is quick.

Mile#6, I get out of my papery pants. It takes me some time to work them out of my shoes. I tell others to start running as I am taking too much time, and need to take Gu also. We lose Tharak at this time as he wants to stretch a bit. It takes me a couple of minutes of running before I catch up with the rest of the gang. We coast together till mile#10. I probe myself if I am still feeling that the miles are flying by. I am not. I feel that things are a bit more rushed than last time. But, I am not tired. In fact, my legs are feeling as light as ever -- the papery pants having been discarded, I am feeling a new sense of urgency in my step. Mile#12, it is Chakri's turn to look for a PJ. He is the more shy of all of us, and insists on either finding the perfectly secluded place or a PJ. None are in sight. He finally finds a PJ and asks us to go ahead. We promise to keep on the right and ask him to catch up with us. Unfortunately, I am never to see him again during the run. As we had run most practice runs together, I miss his company throughout the race.

Meanwhile, we see Kalyan taking pictures. I go to him and hand him my head band and my gloves. (I would come to regret taking off the gloves later.) We now cross the half-marathon marker. Timex on the wrist is showing 2:20:47. My "stretch" plan was to do 2:16 in this half. I figure that I lost 3 minutes in the first pee break. So, I assure myself that I am not that far off. The truth is that we had tried to make up a bit by running a bit faster (or at least I felt we were trying to make up) but were always plagued with doubts about how much faster to go at this stage of the run. My heart knew that 4:35 was probably not going to be today. It is funny how we fuss about 4-5 minutes in a marathon that lasts about 4-5 hours... Turns out that my splits so far are 24:47 (miles 1 and 2 -- forgot to set the split at mile#1), 10:43, 10:23, 9:52, 10:44, 10:49 (Gu#1 at mile 6), 10:18, 10:22, 9:50, 11:40 (Gu#2 at mile 12), 10:40 (mile#13). As it seems now, we are all over the place; unable to still find a running rhythm.

Immediately after the half-way mark, we lose Abheek. But, soon I find Chandu (Chandra Guntakala) and start running with him. Mouli is trying hard to keep pace with us but he is not used to this pace and we may have done him harm to encourage him to keep up with us. Anyhow, we take another side-of-the-wall break and feel light instantly. Chandu's Garmin Forerunner is so handy. He keeps uttering our speed as shown by it and we correct our speed if needed. We decide to keep a running pace of 10min/mile and take a 1 minute walk break at every mile. But we break that in the very next mile (mile #15) which we do in 9:23; though helped generously by a pleasing tailwind and a 100m long gradual downhill. Mouli graciously offers rotating the use of his gloves, and we accept. It was still cold. Mouli wants to slow down at this point, while Chandu and I want to go ahead. We take our 3rd Gu at around mile#16 and stretch a little as well. Thanks to Chandu for giving me a Gu gel at this point (as I had space to put only two packets in my pocket -- the rest I had asked Chakri to keep in his fuel belt). This mile costs us a 12:45 with the Gu and the stretch break. We are unable to pick it up in Mile#17 (10:46). Mile#18 is next, and we grab a packet of Gu being handed out for later. Chandu calls his wife to sync up on a potential meeting place and we are on our way after a somewhat extended walk break. I am still feeling good, but vaguely recall that it was in miles 18 to 20 that I had rapidly deteriorated last year. I think of letting go of my disposable white papery jacket. However, I don't, thinking that I may still feel cold later on. I know that I sweat profusely which when evaporating sometimes causes me to feel very cold. Besides , I think, jettisoning the weight may help provide an additional moral boost in the tougher miles to come. I also look at my watch. 3:15:04 for 18 miles. 8.2 to go -- can I do it in 1:20 (80 minutes)? Sounds tough, but anyway too early to think about these things. March on. Next two miles are 9:45 and 10:11. I look at my watch again and re-evaluate my condition. Mile#20 has passed and I am still feeling good. I finally let go my white jacket. The watch is showing 3:35. Can I do 6.2 in 60 minutes? Probably not, but may be in 65 minutes... Also, I suddenly feel hungry at this point. Remarkably, they are handing out bananas right ahead. I grab one and now need to look for water. I stop to tie my laces and stretch just a bit. As I am looking, Abheek spots us. Bugger. I had always thought that he was behind us -- he was actually ahead of us. However, this mistaken belief of mine had helped me unexpectedly: quiet a few of my walk breaks were done walking backwards. That gave my legs such a relief that I was always glad for it. Chandu, Abheek and I run for a couple miles together. To the right is a photo, courtesy a stranger by the name of Mark Draughn who tracked my email address later from my bib#! Boy, were we all focussed at this time.

I now want to go faster than the crowd would allow me to. Abheek is not feeling that great and wants to fall back. Chandu and I are still together. We are continuously weaving our way through the tiring crowds. Briefly, a thought flashes my mind as to how pathetic my condition was last year at this very stretch. This is closely followed by smugness about how good I am feeling this time around. The thought gives me an extra kick and I want to notch it up a bit. Chandu asks me how much. I say let us do 9:45 pace. We do it, but still take walk breaks. Chandu meets up with his family; while I ponder where Grishu would be. She was not there with the Asha Chicago gang that had shouted "Go Asha" between miles 19 and 20. The New Balance "final five" miles had already started and there are crowds on both sides of the road, cheering their hearts out. I had lost hope of seeing her or other Asha cheerers. I would not be looking for them anymore, I think, trying to focus. As it would happen, Grishu and I miss each other at mile#25 where she has been standing for a long time waiting for me.

We cross the bridge over Highway 94 and see a big sign with "Illinois Institute of Technology" written on it. We make our final turn into Michigan Ave. I just want to go as fast as I can at this point. Chandu is tiring a bit, but giving enormous support. The way he gets off running so quickly after a walk break is amazing. I take my own time to get into the rhythm. Not him. Amazing starter.

Mile#24 is where we take our final pee break. At this time, I tell Chandu what my heart really wants to do "let it rip". He coolly asks how much? I say, 9:30 may be... He says, let's go. We come across Sudarshan, run with him a bit, but continue on. By now, I am running with a seeming purpose. The crowds are just a sound to me, my eyes are focussed on the road and I am thinking of how I am going to weave through the crowd. My breathing is heavy but my legs are still cooperating. I want to go even faster but it feels like the body can only go this fast at this time. I am enjoying every bit of the run now, more than at any other time of the race. I now see the sign for mile#25. Just 1.2 to go, 4:30:16 in my watch. Can I make 4:40? I ask one push of my body. My spirits are soaring. My mind wishes I could do a 8min mile. But, inspite of trying hard, I have only done a 10min mile in the last few miles. I have to try harder, and I do. Chandu wants a walk break. Dejectedly, I take leave of him to go faster. I now see the sign for the last 800m and suddenly a small hill -- aha, this was the hill they thought will come. Too bad it has come now, I am forced to slow down. When I get over the hill, I retry to gain momentum, but soon the sign says last 400m. By this time, a broad grin has appeared on my face; and I try to sprint. The final turn is made to Columbus Ave and the 26 mile marker whizzes past me. I am running fast to the extreme right to avoid the crowds, with a broad grin on my face, looking up with the sound of the cheerers around me. What a magical moment this is...

Soon the finish line is here, I raise my arms in celebration, hoping that an official camera could catch me in this pose (it did not). I cross the mat, stop my watch which says 4:42 (see the leftmost picture below, I am towards the left and middle of the photo, in blue shirt, just stepping on the mat and stopping my watch). The clock time shows 5:02. I take several deep breaths, happy that it is over, and even happier that I am feeling good.
The fatigue immediately shows up. And a sudden cold pierces the body. I get my medal, get the mylar heatsheet, a banana and get rid of my chip. A broad smile still hangs on my face as I am looking for familiar faces, and Grishu, my wife, the most. She is nowhere around. I feel a great need to talk to someone. My body is shivering and my teeth are clattering. I am hungry too. They are giving out fig cookies. I take one and almost want to throw up (they are just too sweet). I grab a water bottle and look for exit to the charity village. Meanwhile, I see the lines of the official photographers and brave the cold to stand in the line, feeling smug that last year I was about to collapse at this time and did not want to stand in the photo line. Meanwhile, the photo just comes alright.
I head for the exit, a bit cross that there's not more to eat. Portland flashes in my mind, where there were donuts, bananas, oranges, grapes, cookies, and juices. In fairness, there were bagels here. But they seem too dry. I decide to exit the refreshments area. Suddenly, Kalyan spots me and takes a picture. God bless this dude!

I walk back to the Asha tent in the charity village, still shivering, eyes searching for a familiar face. Then I see Rajeev Char standing outside the tent cheering me. He looks so calm and assured that it did not seem like he has himself run even a mile. Besides, he is standing outside the tent in the shivering cold to cheer the finishers while everyone else is inside the tent. Hats off to you, Char!

Rest is the story of the celebration, the photos, the food, going back to the finish line to accompany the most blessed of souls -- Vivek, Chakri and Kalyan. And of course the high. It even makes me think whether it was all too good to be true, and I ask the inevitable question -- was I too conservative? The last few miles will be etched in my memories forever. Or at least until the next marathon... Will it be Chicago 2007, the 30th anniversary of the Chicago marathon, and my hattrick?

Here are a few more photos. Thanks to the Asha family, the coordinators, and the coaches, all of whom, so remarkably, are volunteers. May the most yearned of your wishes come true!

After the run, Chakri, Grishu and I joined Vivek at the finish line to meet the remaining runners.

Some of us pose at the Expo on Saturday,10/21/2006

At the expo, Grishu writes "Team Asha" in Hindi and Coach Raman writes the same in Punjabi.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Portland marathon memories

On a cool Sunday morning that was also the first morning of October 1st (as well as marked the festival of Dushehra in India) I started my first of the three races of the month. The previous day was spent in the expo in the Hilton Hotel. The day before was spent pretty much in Rupal's car journeying from San Mateo to Portland, first crossing the California-Oregon border, then caressing the western side of the Cascades in Oregon and ending with the beautiful sight of Mt Hood towering over North Oregon.

The theme of my run was Not Yet. Starting from the fact that this was not my "official" marathon (that honor goes to Chicago), I had deliberately planned to relax and soak in the atmosphere, more than to run a race. But the most carefully constructed of plans go awry when you are in the midst of 8000 people effusing adrenaline. However, once I had invented the theme of my run, it was easier to hold back -- despite feeling extremely good at around mile 4 and then at around mile 15. A long line in front of the porta johns arond mile 1.5 had separated me from my running buddy, Anurag, condemning me to running solitude that I had not known the whole year. Challenging my theme of the run was the urge to catch up with the bugger who was now about 5-6 minutes ahead of me thanks to the long line of losers who did not ease up before the gun went off.

I actually never caught up with Anurag. I did catch up with some of the other Asha runners on the way -- Chandu, Ram, Diana -- and got a chance to run with them for some period of time, in the process further decreasing the hope of ever catching up with Anurag. Not that it mattered, at least not for this run. I had a longish run with Diana until I felt that I am not getting my rhythm at that speed (now I know when one of my mentees says he can not run with the rest as the rest of us are too slow -- except that he says this at even 9 min/mile pace!) and had to speed up to feel less work for my body. Don't cry me a snob, as I only sped up by 45s or so, and it still made a difference to how I felt.

Coming back to feeling good around mile 15. It was actually the feeling of feeling good at mile 15 that made me feel really good, if you know what I mean. At that time, I really wanted to speed up, but managed to repeat the Not Yet mantra enough to postpone my speeding up to after mile 18. St John's bridge came and went and now we were descending from the bridge and entering the residential area to the other side of the Willamette. Mile 18 was finally here and for the first time in the race I did some mental calculations of what my estimated finish time would be at the current pace. It seemed like I would do 5:05 but if I could speed up a bit, 5hrs would be achievable. I decided to NOT speed up here and postponed the speeding that I had promised myself to mile 22.

Good thing that I did that. There was like a half mile long steep downhill around that mile that was taxing my quads. Usually I am the happiest person going downhill, but you run 22 miles and no matter what pace you are doing, your legs will feel it. So, instead of speeding up, I slowed down and started walking downhill to save the quads for another day. I saw Mandar dutifully waiting for Diana to join her for the last 4 miles or so; and wondered where my wife would be. As for Grishu, she had called me at around mile 20 and after I told her what mile I had just crossed, she exclaimed saying that I am pretty slow today and that half of the people have already finished. Yeah right!

Now I saw what seemed like (and was) Uma from about a quarter mile away. I felt so happy that I sped up a bit to catch up with her. Unfortunately, Uma was hurting in her right toe but was still bravely carrying on. It was great running with someone and so we finished together, going slow but strong in the last 3.5 miles, giving our chip a time of 5:15. The first few minutes after the end are pretty intense as well. It is funny how you can finish strong but feel so weak immediately after finishing. At Chicago last year I had made the mistake of looking down in the last 3-4 miles (thinking that I could focus more that way to help me somehow cover those long painful miles that have grown so much sweeter now as memories) causing me to feel dizzy and wanting to collapse after the finish line. Here, I did not want to collapse but for sure wanted to sit down with a thump and stretch out my legs. I mean it felt awful here too, despite the cookies and the cool orange juice and the bananas and the bagels... But, heeding the advice meant walking around. And for sure, the miserable feelings lasted only about 10 minutes. Now, with the finisher shirt, the medal and a mylar sheet around me barely managing to keep me warm, my pain sensations were easing and getting replaced with an unmistakable high that I have only experienced through running (no, I haven't tried Ecstasy yet). It is to be noted that this high is different from the high I get while running. The former is a self-satisfied feeling accompanied with quiet euphoria of something nice that you have just completed. The latter is more meditative high giving you a feeling that you can do whatever you want and are in the process of doing it. The former is celebratory and static, the latter more flowing and alive. The former more backward looking, the latter more in the present. Both feed off each other and I am grateful that I have the fortune to be able to experience them once in a while.

I can go on and on but I have another marathon to complete and you -- my hapless reader -- have more blogs to read and emails to delete. So, I will write the more useful list of lessons I learned from Portland. This is what I will and will not do in my next marathon.

  • I will not move around the day before the marathon. If I want to do sight seeing, I will go to the same place some other time. Instead, I will play cards, read poetry, eat bananas, watch movies, read email and listen to the coaches. Woof, that is going to be one busy day!
  • I will double my hydration in the days leading to the marathon.
  • I will double my carbs in the days leading to the marathon.
  • I will not run alone in the marathon. Faced with the choice of going faster or going with a fellow runner, I will choose the latter.
  • I will conserve until mile 18 at the minimum. The wise ones say that the real race starts at mile 18 and gets hotter at mile 22. If I have to show myself my mettle, it is in the last 8 miles.
  • I will eat by 8pm on the night before the marathon.
  • I will sleep really well in the week leading to the marathon Sunday.
  • I will take with me two pairs of contact lenses, two pairs of shorts, two shirts, two pairs of socks, and two SD cards for my camera.
  • I will not take any GU gel with me (I am flying this time to Chicago :-)
  • I will try harder to convince my wife to run with me the last couple of miles :-)
  • I will sign up myself and my wife for runner updates on cell phone.
  • I will eat a breakfast (as usual) on the morning of the race.
  • I will warm up and stretch before the race begins.
  • I will take my GU every 5 miles without fail.
  • I will go to the porta john before the race. If I have to go during the run, I will not stand in a long line, but will instead go behind the trees.
  • When it gets tough after mile 20, I will ward off negative thoughts. I will focus instead on giving the best performance I can. I owe this much at least to my fellow runners, coaches and Asha.
  • I will remember the high I will get after the marathon is over and use it to propel me to do my best during the race, esp. the last few miles.
  • I will start with a smile, run with a high, and end with a smile.
  • If I am not able to do that for whatever reason, I will not fret too much about it.
  • I will not lose the fitness gained from my training after the marathon. Letting go of this hard earned fitness will be a crime! I will slowly and wisely restart my running or channel my fitness into new activities like swimming or biking or gym-ming.
  • I will party my heart out the night after the marathon.
Chicago, here we come.