04 December 2009

From New York to Atlanta - in a marathon and a half

Seven summers ago, I moved from California to Atlanta. In addition to my meager belongings, I brought really aggravated allergies with me. Atlantans affectionately call their city the allergy-capital of the world. It was a classic ‘from the frying pan to the fire’ move. Atlanta was not kind to me; sneezing and wheezing were my byline(s). When you are sneezing and wheezing all day, you suddenly discover that breathing is a much underestimated art.

I had been very active playing lots of sports and leading the life of a semi-invalid was not exactly my style. To try and get back to a semblance of normalcy, I joined a gym close by, and started to run. Running was not fun, I could not run even for a minute without huffing and puffing. And, I wasn’t really running – my top speed was 4 miles per hour. It was a proud day for me when I could run continuously for 10 minutes @4mph. A little digression here - I don’t know what getting an MBA does for your career, but I do know what it does for your thought process. It makes you think and act jargonese. So, I decided to set myself a ‘stretch goal’. You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to guess my ‘stretch goal’. I had decided to run a marathon.

I started some research. Most of you know that the best, only(?), research tool these days is called Google. In the best traditions of my Indian heritage, I prostrated myself at the altar of Google Devta; Google devta pointed to me some local running groups. However, there was a catch there – most of them were ‘run for XYZ charity’ groups. You are required to raise a certain amount of money for the charity – usually USD 5000. I do not have much confidence in my selling/ marketing skills – I cannot sell even the best made product, forget the shoddy product that most marketing professionals con you into buying (ouch!). The charities said that if there was a shortfall, then I could contribute the shortfall from my own funds. That clinched it for me - being lowly paid and also being a cheapskate made the decision very easy for me.

Back to Google again. I found a website which offered free training advice and training schedules. life was uneventful – work was based on a regular schedule, no traveling, no overtime, no ‘on call’ et al. So, training was regular and I made steady, if very slow progress. At the end of 2002, I could run(?) close to 3 miles, albeit at a very slow pace.

And then Murphy struck. I found a better job opportunity in Knoxville, Tennessee. Initially, it was designated as a short-term opportunity and I commuted to Knoxville every week. I stayed in a corporate apartment and drove back to Atlanta every Friday. I tried to run as much as I could but I didn’t have access to a gym and I tried to run on the road. One month of running on the road and my knees started to hurt. That, coupled with my weekly commute, totally wrecked my training schedule. Thankfully, within three months, my client decided to extend my contract and I decided to move to Knoxville. In June of 2003, we moved to Knoxville.

I had, earlier in the year, applied to run the New York Marathon. The New York marathon is held every year on the 1st Sunday of November. Because of the large number of potential participants, the organizers conduct a lottery.In June I was informed that I was one of the selected participants. The move to Knoxville put my training back on track, or, to be precise, back on the treadmill. But I had very little time left – the marathon was only 4 months away. And, I was still running only 4-5 miles a day, and a total of up to 20 miles per week. I had to go up to 35 miles per week. I continued my training as best as I could. Come October, and my longest run was still a meager 12 miles – with breaks for water, for Gatorade, to breathe! I had absolutely no hope of making the 20 mile long practice run before the marathon. The good thing, though, was that my speed had improved – I could run at a little over 5 mph, for 30 minutes continuously. I was hoping to complete the marathon in 5 hours – that’s what I had put on my marathon application. A marathoner reading this would have laughed at this claim/ hope.

My brother-in law, who is a talented young actor, came to visit us in October. I took a two-week break from training and we took a trip to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. After we came back, we took another week off to take in the local sights. Could I have done any better sabotaging my own training?

The Friday before the marathon, we started the long drive to New York – about 700 miles away. After an overnight stay with a friend in Washington DC, we got to our hotel in Rutherford, New Jersey with only an hour left for me to go to the race expo in the Jacob K Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to pick up my timing chip and my bus ticket. I had a car, but there was absolutely no way I could have made the 8 mile trip across the Lincoln Tunnel in less than 1 hour. We took a cab; our cab driver turned out to be a Polish immigrant with a PhD in Physics.

On race day I took the bus to get to the starting point on Staten Island. Staten Island was teeming with people. The marathon allows 37000 people; imagine that many people in one square mile, or even less! I felt like I was on Victoria Terminus or Mumbai Central! And guess who I came across? Fauja Singh, the 92 year old sikh marathoner! He started to run after the death of his wife and he ran his first marathon at the age of 89. This was his first, and turns out to be his only, marathon in America; he had a large team of much younger runners running with him. I had absolutely no relationship with him, apart from our shared Indian-ness (incidentally he was running on a British passport), but I felt incredibly proud of him; at the same time, I felt incredibly humbled.

The race started around 10:00 am. It took me about 10 minutes to reach/ cross the start line and then just a half-mile ahead was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Going up the bridge, it felt like I was running the 14th or the 18th mile – such was my lack of training for hill runs. That meant that by the time I reached the top of the hill, the crowd had thinned and I had an almost free run downhill! The downhill run proved to be my downfall; once again my lack of hill running showed – I ran as fast as I could, and immediately pulled a hamstring. It wasn’t so bad that I fell down screaming or anything like that. It was more like a niggle, but it was bad enough to slow me down. Thoughts of pulling out crossed my mind, but were overpowered by the thought of not letting all the pain of the past year’s training go waste. I decided to continue; I was not even two miles into the marathon yet.

I do not remember much of the initial 7-8 miles of the marathon; I was still within my comfort zone and was intent on running. By this time, we were in Brooklyn and the crowds were out in full force. And the bands, too! The NYC marathon, over the years, has become an event and many bands provide live entertainment along the course of the marathon. The crowds and the bands took me through Brooklyn to Queens. I had done 12 miles now and was getting tired; my body was not responding to my brain! The crowds of spectators in Queens came to the rescue once again. The spectators there were wonderful. There was this old lady standing with plates and plates full of orange slices, there was another person with bananas, or there was another person with cookies. The ones who did not have any eatables still had their unlimited warmth and cheer to offer. There was this girl running next to me from the very beginning – she was wearing a t-shirt with her own name on it; the spectators could see her name clearly and kept cheering her on by name. That positively egged her on. I had laughed at her when I had seen her putting her name on her T-shirt, now I was envying her. The 16th mile got the marathon into Manhattan, but not before crossing the Queens Bridge. My feet felt like lead going up the bridge! The finish line was still miles away but Manhattan offered flat roads, with no more hills. It also offered large crowds – It was still early afternoon and the crowds were out in full force to egg us on. Two/ three miles into Manhattan and I hit the proverbial Wall! The wall is where your body’s store of energy runs out and you have to depend on your body’s stored fat to provide you with more energy. Stored fat I had in plenty, but I didn’t have the oxygen required to turn all that stored fat in to energy. I do not remember how I got into the Bronx and how I came back to Manhattan; my feet were refusing to move, my eyes were unfocused and my mind was wandering. However, coming back to Manhattan brought the finish line closer and I started to (try to) run again. By now the crowd of runners had thinned considerably and there were very few runners to run with. There was this 73-year old man running beside me – he was running his 17th New York marathon and his 43rd marathon overall! I ran with him for about 4 miles, and then I couldn’t keep up with him anymore. I focused on a group of Indians – three boys and a girl; they seemed to be office colleagues. The boys were tired too, but they were taking turns to cheer, and physically help, the girl on. I ran the last two miles with this group; by this time we had entered Central park where the marathon ends. The last two miles were a blur; and I somehow stumbled across the finish line!

I finished in 06:28:39 hrs, but my net time was 06:16:07! Remember the (almost) ten minutes that I took to cross the start line? The timing starts only when a runner crosses the start line. Of a field of 34729 finishers, I was the 33459th finisher; from a field of 23014 male finishers, I was the 22441st finisher. The person who came in first, ran the race in 2:10:30, almost three times faster than I did; I was placed in the 10th percentile. Yet, I felt proud of myself. Crossing the finish line/ running the marathon was not just a physically draining experience, it was a emotionally draining experience as well. I remember exiting Central Park and, not finding my wife and daughter at a first glance, across the waiting crowd, brought tears to my eyes. And then again, when my wife expressed her concern at my bloodied t-shirt (the shirt had chafed my nipples to the point of bleeding), that brought another round of tears.

The New York marathon is an experience I will forever cherish. New York is a truly incredible city. You can actually make do without knowing English in this truly multi-cultural city, not being white does not make you feel like an alien – the city welcomes all and sundry with open arms; not just for events like the marathon but at all times. Of course, you require a fat wallet to live in New York, only then you can get a taste of the ‘big apple’. But the marathon itself is something worth going back for. The people make you feel like a champion even though you know that you are dragging your feet, trying to put as many miles behind you as you can without falling down tired. And they do it in a manner which does not have a trace of condescension; the champion is greeted with the same enthusiasm as are the lowly finishers. If I get a chance, I’ll go run the New York Marathon again.

If you want to run the New York marathon, you can get more details at http://www.nycmarathon.org/. If you want to see some wonderful pictures of the marathon, especially of the runners on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Google will surely give you more than a handful of results.

*****

Running the NYC marathon got me hooked on to running. For one, it gave me a new found respect amongst my peers, never mind the 06:16:07. I had achieved something that not everybody does. I had also gained some self-respect, but more importantly, I had started to see the health benefits from running. The aches and pains of advancing age were still there, but their frequency was coming down and the rate of fat gain had started to slow down.

I continued to run on and off, more on than off and every year I applied to run the NYC marathon again. It looks like my (eventually false) claim to run the marathon in 5 hours still rankles in the organizers’ (or their computers’) minds; for they have not given me another chance to run in the NYC marathon again. I decided to find another marathon closer home this time; and I chose to run in the Atlanta half-marathon on Thanksgiving.

My family and I moved back to Atlanta in December 2007. Ever since moving back I have been traveling every week to my work and joining a Gym for two maybe three days a week, and paying the dues for an entire month, has not appeared very attractive to me. These days I have become a road runner.

Road running is not as scary as many runners, non-runners and doctors make it out to be. I remember, one month on the road in Knoxville had started my knees paining. Now, I have been running on the roads for almost two years and I have been fine. Road running has its own benefits. For one, you can time your runs to coincide with the neighborhood hottie’s runs. This will definitely make you a faster runner; you will be forever running to catch up with her. Jokes apart (this phrase is actually a CYA phrase, just in case my wife is reading this), road running has resulted in an increase in my stamina and also I have gotten more used to running hills. Also, it has exposed me to the vagaries of the weather; this has had two benefits – one intended, the other unintended. First, I have gotten used to running in all kinds of weather, from the dog(jog?) days of summer to the balmy days of spring to the icy days of winter. Second, and this is more a psychological and a more personal thing, it has made me a more disciplined and regular runner. I get only two days a week to run on the road, the rest of the week I run on hotel treadmill. So, I run despite what the weather looks like. Only if it is raining like crazy do I not run out on the road.

Hotlanta summers are crazy; although they are no match for sub-Saharan Africa or even the summers of Delhi, they can still be brutal. Lowest morning temperatures can be as high as 74ºF and maximum day temperatures can go up to 100ºF. In the summer, Sirius, the ‘dog star’ rises and sets with the Sun. Sirius is the brightest star visible to the naked eye, and in the old days it was believed that its heat, added to the heat of the Summer Sun, is what resulted in the hot and sultry weather of July and August. Whatever! I do run like a dog during those months though. Tongue hanging out, panting for breath, looking for the closest tree! The brain gets foggy and I have really fought many battles in my mind on many summer morning runs asking myself if it is worthwhile to die every day before death actually comes to you. On the other hand, winter runs are fun. The mind is perfectly clear and I can run for miles and miles without a drop of water with nary a bad thought crossing my mind. In fact, on some of those runs my mind (the space between the ears, you know) has been so clear that I can actually feel the wind whistling through it!

The fact that the weather would be more conducive to running on Thanksgiving in late November was a major reason for me to choose this marathon. I was at such a juncture in my training schedule that I could run the half-marathon without disruption to my training schedule. I applied to run the half-marathon. I am running approximately 35 miles per week these days, with my long runs hovering at 10-11 miles. My average time per mile in the summers was 10 minute per mile going up to 11 minutes per mile for the longer distances.

The Atlanta Track Club, that organizes the Atlanta marathon and half-marathon, has a very useful tool for prospective runners – the pace teams and practice pace runs. They had a practice pace run scheduled for 3 weeks before the marathon. The pace groups are for different times, based on your anticipated time to complete. I chose the 2:15 pace team, hoping to complete the half-marathon at an average speed of 10 minutes per mile. The pace run was my first opportunity, outside of an actual race, to run in a large group. The pace run was for 11 miles and part of it was along the actual course of the half-marathon. I did complete the pace run in the 1:50 that I was hoping to complete it in. I was as ready for the big day as I could be.

On the day of the race, I reached the starting point much before the scheduled start at 7:00 am. It was quite cold – around 38ºF and it was the best temperature to run in. But the start was still about an hour away, and I joined almost 2-3000 of the participants inside a Wal-Mart, close by, trying to stay warm. The Atlanta half-marathon has a staggered start, with the participants divided into groups based on their anticipated finish times. I was in the group expecting to complete in 2:15. I crossed the start line at around 7:10 am, and straightaway ditched my pace team. Much of the initial course was flat or slightly downhill, I ran the first seven miles faster than my pace group.

Thanksgiving is a major festival/ holiday in the USA and the environment was suitably festive. Most of the course ran through a mix of business and residential areas and there was a small crowd of spectators all along the way. Many of them held up posters encouraging their friends/ family members but they were nice enough to cheer on most other runners as well. There was no one to cheer me on, but I was doing well for myself - I had trained well, I had done hills, I had done long runs – I was feeling on top in this half-marathon. In fact, I tried to pull some of the people I was passing to run along with. Some of them practically asked for it – like there was this girl whose T-shirt read “If not for me, who’d you pass?” I gave her company for two minutes, and then I passed her. Or, there was this bald man whose T-shirt read “Go, Bald Guy, Go”. Then there was this young man whose shirt read “I haven’t really stolen anything, I am just running a marathon”. Then there was this old man whose shirt said ‘I’m slow, get over it”. There were many more, but I don’t remember more. What I do remember is that most of them brought a smile onto the face and/ or engendered a sense of community. You don’t know the person running along with you but you feel a sense of kinship, maybe just because of the singularity of purpose. If you have been on a trip to Vaishno Devi, you’ll probably have had that experience – everybody has the same purpose; and you can feel somebody else’s pain because you are yourself going through it.

I crossed the finish line in 2:11:42 – 42 seconds off my target of 10 minutes per mile. 8581 runners finished the half-marathon; I was finisher number 4958. Of the 4313 men to finish the race, I was finisher #3020. I was not in the bottom 10th percentile! And the top finisher was only 2 times as fast as me.

I felt good after completing this half-marathon; I had made progress! Next target, a full marathon in March! In a time below 04:30:00. After a week of rest, I am back running on the road. If any of you would like to give me company, I’d welcome the opportunity.

20 comments:

  1. Alok...I enjoyed reading about your experiences. Thanks for sharing..I will not be joining you, but may ride by on my motorcycle....Lazy me...Good for you...keep it up...I am impressed..
    Alan

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  2. Previous comment from: Alan Hammersmith

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  3. Man ... that was really exciting and inspiring too. keep going...

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  4. Great running Alok! Very happy to see you take the ultimate challenge and come triumphant! I will prefer to stick to Half Marathons only.

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  5. i cant even run 100m properly..leave aside marathon. but some how i never understood why people want to run marathon...apart from the health benefit (but i would say its "running any where" rather than "running in marathon" which has benefits).

    i keep promising to myself that will go to gym from tomorrow, but as we know tomorrow never comes :P

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  6. Fantastic and amazing experience, you shared. I sincerely wish you to achieve your "mile(marathon) stone".

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  7. Bleeding nipples! Good God! Now I get the bulldog tenacity. Your marathon run (and blog) are huge!

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  8. hi alok, now i got how it was possible for you to reach the finish line. oh sure you were weaving your story and momentum of inertia did the trick. yes some credit to polish cab driver.sanjeev chhatauna

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  9. Hi Alok

    It well written and full of emotion. I am impressed by your "marathon" writing of blog as well. Sanjiva

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  10. Wow Alok! What a story!! Most inspiring even to a couch potato like me. How about sticking in a couple of pics of yours from the half-marathon on this post.

    On another note there is story waiting there re. the T-shirt "grafitti", if I may call it that.

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  11. Great Alok.... No marathon could be tougher than the marathon you had won from Daltonganj to US.

    Keep running.......

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  12. Alok:
    Having know you for years,i never knew that you are a marathon superpower.Your writing skills are simply superb!!!(blending Indian touch).It is truly inspiring for everyone and will definitely motivate me to join our company gym coming monday morning.
    Best wishes,
    Sanjay

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  13. Hey Alok, Congrats. Your effort made me tired just reading. keep up the efforts. Don Lehman

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  14. Alok jee,
    This article has really made me sit awestruck!!! Amazing piece of inspiration.
    I guess this marathon might have some roots in Hatian marathon. Am I right?

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  15. Alok Jee,
    Sir, few days back I was talking to my roorkee senior Santosh Rai and he was bucking me up to run. And was saying it is not difficult if you will start building your stamina gradually. reading your blog gives me hope. Now I have to do it. Good one.

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  16. Alok...very well written and very inspirational indeed. Regards...Tarun

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  17. A great read Alok.Keep writing. I'm sure it would be as therapeutic as your running.

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  18. Alok ...That is what I thought about you. Very precisely you explained for your first Marathon's experience and then half Marathon. I liked your description, it gave us inspiration.
    Certainly I can walk Marathon if any but may not run. Definitely I will cheer up for your half Marathon in Atlanta next year. Thanks for sharing with us your experience.
    Mohan S Saini

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  19. Alok, hats off to your determination. I wish I could also do road running. Both my legs are giving me trouble so I could just jog 3-5 miles on treadmill.

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  20. very well narrated story. it is quite inspiring. grt job. well done.

    srini

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