I had been mostly (ab)using this blog space to vent out my frustration. Today is different. I ran the perfect marathon yesterday. Great weather, scenic course, excellent crowd support and the best cheering squad in the whole world. I am truly blessed.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen." Hackneyed as it may sound, it couldn't be more apt in this experience.
I was inspired to run when my close friend, Sheela, ran the marathon last year. Finishing in sub-five hours and coming out strong in the end, she had made it look easy. Six months ago, I started training with the intention of matching her timing. I soon discovered that I was much slower and less-athletic than her. Running did not come naturally to me. It was an effort to run, much less enjoyable. In the past few months of training, my pace did not improve but I was able to run longer, and I could run without depending on music!! I started liking running, especially in the company of my co-runners and friends. Then came the dismal experience at the Disneyland half marathon. I was racing against time, trying to finish under 2:30. Bad weather, negligible crowd support and knee pain got me down and I had limped to the finish line. I didn't want to sign off with this bad experience and trained seriously in the latter part. I was on a running high when intense knee pain during my 20-miler brought me down again. The last 3 weeks have been desperate measures of damage control. My expectations were cut down to hoping to run the marathon and crossing the finish line intact.
My mentors and physiotherapist encouraged me and I took their advice to heart. I massaged and stretched the IT band regularly. Before each run I taped up my knees to prevent the knee cap from brushing against the muscle. Nitya showed me some stretches and advised to take it easy for the first 15 miles and speed up in the second half if I felt okay. Sapna narrated a quotation, "Run the first 10 miles with your head, run the next 10 miles with your strength and run the last 6.2 with your heart!"
Armed with sound training, broken legs and sensible advice, I headed out to DC. We met for dinner with the Asha runner group. I soon discovered that there were many runners who had come down with injuries, I was not alone. We reassured and encouraged each other to tackle the distance one mile at a time.
Now comes the fun part. My friends and family had accompanied me. My personal cheering squad was seven-strong, Laukik, Kaushik, Sheela, Tejas, Veera, Kishan and Aarthi. After we checked into the hotel, they sat together and made detailed plans for buddy running with me. I was quite impressed by their meticulous plans but tried not to raise my hopes. Sheela was managing the show. She had made sure someone picked up my race packet when we got late reaching DC. She pinned the bib to my T-shirt, put the chip in my shoe and made me drink a gallon of water on Saturday :-S
Due to last minute plans, we didn't have enough sleeping arrangements. We ended up fitting 6 people cozily in a room that sleeps 4. I slept fitfully that night. Woke up at 4:15 am. Showered, dressed, had breakfast, answered nature's call, pampered the ITB, taped up my knees, slipped on the ankle support sleeve and stepped out to meet the runner group in the hotel lobby. We headed out together at about 6:15 am, took the metro to Rosslyn, deposited our stuff at the Asha tent and made our way to the start line. It was about 7:45 am by the time we reached the start line and the cannon gun went off for the wheelchair competitors. We walked towards the 5 hour finish time corral but it was way behind so we simply waited with the 4 hour finish group. Divya and I had planned to run the first few miles together. Padma joined us at the start line.
At 8 am the gun went off again. We crossed the start line at 8:03 am. Started slow at a 14 mpm pace. Divya had a stop watch and was making sure we ran slowly and took timed walk breaks. The first 8 miles were through the woods and had a few hills, just like our familiar Central Park homeground. We met the Asha cheerers at mile 1, 5 and 9. I had written my name "SAM" on my T-shirt and random people were calling out "Go Sam!" I gave a big smile and a thumbs-up to all who cheered me on. I high-fived and low-fived everyone who held out their hand.
My ankle sleeve had started bothering my foot and I stopped at the water station on the 9th mile to take it off. I asked Divya and Padma to go ahead. I would catch up with them in no time. I saw Kaushik and Veera right after. Veera told me Tejas was waiting at mile 9 marker. I met Tejas and we caught up with Padma. The course was along the Potomac river and reminded me of Charles River esplanade on the Storrow drive in Boston.
Tejas ran with us for 3 miles, making sure we stretched on the way, had Gu gels and took sufficient walk breaks. He told me Laukik was waiting at mile 12 and would run with us on the golf course stretch. He handed us off to Laukik at the mile 12 marker and the 3 of us set off on the lonesome 4 mile stretch. Laukik told me that Divya had got there a few minutes earlier and was taking a loo break. We decided not to wait for her and hoped she would catch up. We took a loo break half a mile later and Divya zoomed ahead. We reached the halfway mark 3 hours into the race. I forgot to take the Gu gel at the water station but thankfully there was a medics tent at mile 15. I had the Gu, Padma had a Tylenol. She was getting knee pain due to her runner's knee injury and was putting up a brave face. We ran together till mile 16 but I lost her when she took a walk break.
Laukik handed me off to Kishan at mile 16 and I asked him to check on Padma. My marathon had become a relay race for my friends. They were passing me to the next person like a baton :)
Kishan and I headed out to the touristy part of the course - the stretch from Lincoln memorial, around the Capitol and along all the famous museums of Washington DC. He kept pointing out to random things, barking back at dogs and making a one-way conversation. In the meanwhile, I was focussed on sighting the next mile marker and running all the way to it. I reached mile 18 in about 4 hours and was quite happy as I had clocked it in 4 hours on my best training run. Kishan was thoughtful enough to pick up an extra glass of water each time at the water stations and ran with the glass in hand for the next one mile or so until I needed it. I was so grateful for it that I asked him to stay with me till the end of the race. I sighted Aarthi at mile 20 and she hopped along with us. We headed to the much-dreaded bridge (Interstate 395) on the 21st mile and soon Laukik and Tejas joined us.
I hi-fived Kaushik and gave a big hug to Veera. We were supposed to meet Sheela at this point. She had been ferrying other runners across the bridge and was (literally) running a bit late. By the time she met us, I was already on the bridge and she was shocked to see my troupe of bodyguards. We almost shooed her away and she decided to buddy run the other solitary runners. I caught up with Divya on the bridge but she was developing muscle cramps and we couldn't run together. By now, I was taking frequent walk breaks. I declared that running marathons is extreme masochism. I cursed Philipedes for initiating the idea. I swore at the Queen of England for adding the extra 1.2 miles to the course. I declared I was going to walk the last 6.2 miles to the finish. My friends coaxed, cajoled, threatened and deceived me into resuming running each time. I was getting a lot of attention and pampering and was having a really good time with the bunch. My knees and ankles had held up well. I blessed my PT a number of times, she was my guardian angel of the day. My only problem was switching from walking mode to running mode. I was getting knee pain in the first few steps but it went away quickly and I could run comfortably. Kishan kept reminding me that our brain signals fatigue much before our body is actually tired, and we shouldn't listen to it. I remembered once my doctor friend had also said the same thing.
We crossed over to Crystal city and went past the water station at mile 22 and onto a loop. I could see people running in the opposite direction and wondered how easy it was to short circuit the loop and save some miles. Honesty got the better of me and I pulled on desperately looking for the mile 23 marker. I caught sight of it but soon realized the bugger was facing in the opposite direction. This meant I had to go around the loop to reach it. The end of the loop was nowhere in sight (I hate loops). At long last we turned left, went around the square and were on the return journey. Just getting out of that loop I saw Mandar. He hollered and cheered for me loudly. That was like an energy tranfusion and I jogged on for few more meters.
I was taking too many walk breaks and my friends were constantly urging me on to run. Tejas was counting how many people I had passed when I ran. Laukik stayed a safe distance away from me to avoid allowing me have my way with the walk breaks. We had passed the 25 mile/40 K marker and then I ran. I ran past the 26 mile marker and mini-jogged up the steep slope on the last 0.2 mile stretch all the way to the finish line. I could see the clock was ticking 5:59:something which meant I had finished in sub-6. A marine congratulated me and wrapped an insulating sheet around my shoulders. I stood in line to get my medal from another marine. I posed for a picture in the backdrop of the marine memorial. Met up with my friends, took pictures, picked up my bag and refreshments from the Asha tent and headed back to the hotel.
I was out there running for close to 6 hours. My chip time is 05:56:44, a pace of 13:36 per mile. It was the best run I ever had. I was accompanied by friends and fellow runners throughout my journey. Tejas ran 9 miles. Laukik ran 10 miles. Kishan ran 10 miles. Aarthi ran 7 miles. Kaushik and Veera walked from one spot to another on the course and braved it out for 6 hours to cheer me. I was flanked by 4 friends on the last 6 miles and they took me to the finish line. I am touched and humbled by their selflessness and affection for me. They taught me a few things about friendship yesterday. As a popular saying goes, "You are who your friends are." I hope I will be able to live up to the example set by my friends and become a better friend.
Yesterday, I ran 26 miles to help educate the kids, the last 0.2 miles were for me. Similarly, the last few sentences are for me. My hard work and training for the past six months has paid off. I was able to overcome my injuries and my demons and run to the finish line smiling. I can now call myself a marathoner. I am a proud marathoner... 26.2 miles... no doubt about it!!