My Marathon

by Ravi Athale

    The elevator doors opened and the smell of Bengay hit me like a wave!  The elevator was packed with a dozen runners of various ages and shapes, sharing just one common thing - a bib on their front showing their runner number for the Marine Corps Marathon.  One elderly lady standing at the back of the elevator without the bib laughed and asked me "Why do you guys do it?"  I gave her the classic answer of the mountaineers "Because it is there!"  That was not the first time I was asked that question since I announced that I was going to run in the Marine Corps Marathon.  Another answer I gave was "Look, I just turned 45.  So it is either divorcing my wife and taking up a 20 year old girl friend, buying a Corvett and start wearing thick gold chains round my neck or running the Marathon.  You must agree running the Marathon is the least of crazy of these."  To which one my friends replied, "Personally I will go for the Corvett and the gold chain, but it is your life."  Neither of these answers were quite accurate. 

It is not like I have been a jock all my life.  I have been in decent physical shape and I am not TOTALLY uncoordinated.  But that's about it.  I had been running off and on for past 20 years.  But  it was only a couple of years back that I broke the 5 mile barrier.  Then I went for 7-8 mile runs a few times.  I always had a fascination with the Marathon.  It stands as a hallmark of endurance and is frequently used as an adjective to describe an endeavor that required a long period of dedicated effort.  It is also something that has a definite goal, a well-defined end-point and a universally accepted definition of success and failure.  In my job as a researcher and a professor, that certainty was almost always lacking.  More than anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I am capable of undertaking such a project and see it to completion.  My wife, Chanda, had just finished a 6 year program culminating in M.S. (Nursing).  Over those 6 years she had taken 170 semester hours of courses without missing a single lecture or assignment and getting only one C.  That had certainly set a rather lofty example before me.  For several years I had said to myself "Someday I would like to run a marathon."  Like many other "Someday…" wishes, I always found a lot of very good reasons why that "someday" could not be that year.  For me, what tipped the scales was a conversation with Vikram, a young man of 25 years, whom I had known since he was 12.  To see his youthful enthusiasm, the fresh outlook towards life made me remember how I used to think 20 years back.  At that point I simply said that I WAS going to run in the Marine Corps Marathon this year…..

Not "I would like to..",

Not "I am going to try…", 

Not "I have the potential to…."

This was in middle of June 97 and my quest for marathon had officially started.

    First thing I did after registering for the marathon was to search the World Wide Web for marathon training programs.  I found one that was for 16 week and seemed to suit me fine.  I used to run may be three days a week.  The training routine included 6 days of running.  It went easy-hard-easy-hard-easy-LONG!  The easy part was to be 4 miles and the hard and LONG part were to increase every week till 3 weeks before the marathon I was supposed to run for 20 miles during the long run.  The weather was great in the early summer mornings.  I had a beautiful route in our neighborhood that took me around a lake.  I did not have to drive anywhere to run.  My training started very well.  I was in better shape than I thought and within 8 weeks I was doing long runs of 15 miles.  Then one day I had some pain in my hip joints.  I just stayed off running for a couple of days and everything was fine again.  Then in September the semester started.  I had 7:30 am lectures on Monday and Wednesday.  So I cut back my running to four days a week.  Still I kept making progress and I signed up to run in a 20 mile race on 28 September.  Then one week before that I had my first set-back.  I bought new padded socks in preparation for my long run and went for 18 miles that day wearing my new socks.  The course had several rather steep hills and while running downhill I noticed that my toes were getting jammed into my shoes.  By now I was used to minor discomforts and I ignored it.  By the time I finished, the toes had started throbbing.  When I took off my shoes I saw that both my big toe nails were in bad shape.  I immediately went to my personal healthcare provider - my wife, Chanda!  She immediately started me on antibiotics and asked me to soak my feel in warm water.  But she also asked to me to make appointment with Dr. Pathak next day.  After waiting in his office for ½ hour he saw me for about 5 minutes and repeated what Chanda had already told me.  I told him about the marathon and about the 20 mile race.  He ruled out the 20 mile race right away.  The marathon was still 5 weeks away.  Seeking some encouraging news I asked him if he thought I will be able to run in the marathon.  He asked me to dial 1-800-CALL GOD since that was his boss's number and only HE could answer my question!  With that bit of sage advice I left his office.

    I decided to turn this event to my advantage.  Since I could not run (even walking was somewhat painful!) I started doing stationary bike, rowing machine and stepper.  This "cross-training" was recommended anyway and I felt happy that I was still getting in better shape.  Two weeks went by.  My one toe nail had turned completely blue-black and the other was just sickly red.  But neither hurt and Dr. Pathak gave me the go ahead for running.  I decided to go for a quick 3 mile run on Saturday, 4 October.  The weather was nice, I was in good shape and I ran it in good time.  After I finished, the right hip joint felt a little sore, but I did not pay any attention to it.  But that night I woke up with a sharp pain.  I could not sleep in any position.  Slightest movement made the pain worse.  I almost felt like waking up Chanda and ask her to take me to the hospital but somehow held on.  Next morning I broke the news to her.  She did a complete exam and basically told me that I had aggravated  the hip joint but it didn't look like a fracture and put me on the regimen of Advil, cold pack and complete rest.  I also called Dr. Shrinivas, a marathoner himself.  From my description he also agreed with the diagnosis.  That effectively put a stop to my training and I started focusing totally on getting and staying healthy.  On my marathon form I had predicted my finish time to be 4 hours and 40 minutes.  I removed the thought of meeting any kind of finish time from my mind.  The marathon rules stated that runners who were not across the 14th Street bridge (21 mile point) in 5 ½ hours had to board a straggler's bus.  Ninad (my son) said to me "Baba, please don't be on that bus." To which I replied "Ninad, don't worry.  I will either be running across the finish line or will be on an ambulance!"  Next three weeks I did basic stretching exercises, used hot packs, took Advil and engaged in a lot of positive thinking.  I went to Los Angeles ten days later and found that if I maintained a slow pace, I could walk 30 minutes without any  pain.  The week before marathon I felt well enough to run on the padded outdoor track in front of our house.  I did well enough that I tried some street runs of three miles and found no extra pain.  I found though that it was critical to keep a nice and easy pace of 10 minute mile.  The week before the race I went and picked up my runner's bib, the electronic timer chip and the official souvenir sweat shirt.  The final phase had started!

    The day before the marathon Chanda thought it would be better if we all simply checked into a hotel in Rosslyn near the Iwo Jima Marine Corps memorial where the race was going to start and finish.  We found a room in a Best Western and all settled for a good night's sleep.  The next morning I got up and went down to get some coffee and found the hotel overrun with runners of all ages, and shapes and I started getting excited.  Chanda, Ninad and Neha were going to meet me at the 12 mile point with some snacks and change of clothes and again at 16 mile point.  I walked to Iwo Jima and found the crowds totally overwhelming.  The organization was haphazard and one lady remarked rather unkindly "Thank God we don't have to go to war any times soon!" I had arrived at the starting point almost 45 minutes early and was wandering around taking in the sights and sounds.  There did not seem to be any particular place where I was supposed to stand for the starting gun.  Then by a stroke of luck I saw Chanda, Ninad and Neha.  They had decided to eat breakfast later and see the starting of the race.  So I just stood by the side of Route 110 - the race starting road - and chatted with them.  The race was supposed to start at 8:30 am but the gun did not go off till 8:45 (we found out later the cause of the delay - one of the spectators suffered a heart attack and actually died on the way to the hospital!).  18,000 runners is a BIG crowd and I decided to hang around in the back.  Since the electronic chip was supposed to keep track of when I crossed the starting line and the finish line, it did not matter that I was at the back of the pack.  Washington Post had given some pieces of advice on Saturday and I had tried to follow most of it.  One I did not follow was to go to the bathroom just before I left the hotel room and my bladder had started complaining.  But the lines for the portable toilets were so LONG that I gave up all thought and started edging towards the road. 

As I started walking towards the official start line, I felt something cold slide down my T-shirt.  I had worn a gold chain with the Maruti locket from my childhood as a good luck charm.  It's hook had come undone and I started searching for the chain and the locket on the grass.  Then I tried to put it on for a while and ended up asking a marine for help.  By that time the last runner had crossed the start line and even the chase car had left.  So I found myself chasing after the chase car!  The weather forecast called for cloudy skies in the morning and rain later in the afternoon.  But the rain drops started coming down just as the race got under way.  But the euphoria of the moment was enormous and the cheering crowds added to it.  About 1/2  mile later I saw a number of runners suddenly leave the road and head into the trees.  Then I saw a sight that was so familiar growing up in Bombay - a line of dozens of runners taking a leak by the side of the road.  I happily joined in!  Then the race really started.  The marathon route went round the Pentagon, the Pentagon City Mall, back to Rosslyn, over the Key  Bridge, into Georgetown, down Constitution Avenue, past the Museums, by Union Station, behind the Capitol, back on Independence Avenue down to Lincoln Memorial, back to Jefferson Memorial, then to Hains Point and back, over the 14th Street bridge, round the Pentagon and finally finishing at Iwo Jima Memorial on top of a hill 26 miles and some 380 yards afterwards!  It was a mostly level route with wonderful sights.  People lined up along the streets.  In some places high school bands were playing.  Marines manned water stations every couple of miles.  It was like no other experience in my life.  I kept a tight check of my pace of 10 minute mile.  Initially it was like walking down a crowded street in Dadar rather than running in a race.  But the excitement was such that when we headed into Georgetown it was already 8 miles and I hardly even noticed that I had been running.  I had found a good looking young lady at 4 mile point who seemed to be keeping the same pace and decided to hang around her for good cheer.  That lasted till 10 miles when she decided that was enough of a warm-up and shifted into overdrive leaving me in dust!  I sighed and settled down to running my own race.  Before the 12 mile point my gold chain had come undone one more time and was in my pocket.  At 12 mile point I met up with Chanda, Ninad and Neha.  I got rid of my soaked T-shirt and sweat shirt, put on a new dry one, ate a banana and five minutes later I was on my way.  The field had spread out considerably and I had settled into a comfortable pace.  The drizzle continued but was not bad.  It was much better than a hot day!  I missed Chanda, Ninad and Neha completely at the 16 mile marker.  They just saw me run by on the opposite side of the road.  Then at 18 miles point we started going down Hains Point.  The Post article had warned about these 4 miles as the worst.  It was windy.  Being so much out of the way, there were almost no spectators.  That's where I started slowing down and my thighs started cramping.  Fortunately the Marines were manning a "Bengay station".  I got a hand full of the stuff  on the run and rubbed it on my thighs.  In a few minutes it felt much better.  Then there was the station with Power Bar snacks.  I snatched a couple and started munching on it.  The rain had picked up somewhat and at one aid tent I stopped and got a plastic bag with holes cut out for hands and head.  That helped me keep somewhat dry.  I had heard about the "20 mile wall" when the body simply loses all energy.  I did not really feel that exhausted but at 22 miles, my knees started hurting.  So I took to part-walk and part-run.  But I had successfully crossed the 14th Street Bridge at 4 hours and 30 minutes.  The rest of it was simply a matter of doing it.  After 24 miles the running just became too painful and I started walking.  I took long strides and pushed off quickly.  But the knees couldn't take the pounding action of running.  During the last two miles, the crowds started building up again.  An equal number of runners were walking back to their cars with finisher's medals round their necks as were running (or trying to, anyway!) towards the finish line.  By now the rain was quite steady and the hill had turned muddy.  I had found that if I lock up my knee joints, I could sort of jog and it did not hurt much.  It was in that gait that I crossed the finish line 5 hours, one minute and 45 seconds after I crossed the starting line.  The place was a complete mess.  I couldn't see Chanda, Ninad and Neha anywhere.  They gave me a "space blanket"  which hardly provided any warmth.  The rain was coming down even harder and I started shivering uncontrollably.  After collecting my medal and some snacks, I started wandering around the tent where runners with names from A-H were supposed to meet.  Then I started yelling out for Ninad, Neha and Chanda.  After 15 minutes I finally caught-up with Ninad who took me to where everybody else was waiting.  We walked towards our hotel.  I took a long, hot shower and ate something.  With aching body, we drive home.  I went for my 7:30 am class next day wearing my marathon sweat shirt.  The only concession I made to myself was to ask for a Handicap Parking for one week.  Three weeks later I had started jogging slowly.  Three months later, I am back to my three-days-a-week running and other exercising.  One of the students in my class had run 10 marathons.  His comment was "You are allowed to talk about a marathon only for five years.  After that, you have to run another one!"  I think I have finished my "talking-about-marathon" phase.  I guess when I go to India, I may talk about it again.  But more than that, I have been in a soul searching phase, trying to describe what the experience meant to me and trying to put down on paper my thoughts, emotions, and some peculiar things that happened in the race.

I had heard that after 20 miles, body gives up and the mind carries you, that you enter a "zone".  I don't think anything like that happened to me, at least not consciously.  One T-shirt summarized what I felt at the 20 mile point "If you think the pain of continuing is bad, think about the shame of quitting!"  Quitting was simply not an option.  My worst fear was getting injured.  I actually made up a runner's prayer by modifying the famous prayer ascribed to St. Thomas of Aquinas "Lord, give me the fortitude to bear the pain and continue running, give me the courage to stop running if I am injured and the wisdom to distinguish between the two!"  I think with my knee pain I showed better judgment and stopped running.  There were a number of people in the crowd who held signs for cheering their friends or family.  One memorable one was "Have you two finished proving your manhood now?"  One young lady held up a sign for nobody in particular that read "Tight butts are sexy".  I couldn't help but feel that had it been a young man, he would been hauled off by the park police in no time.  But seeing that sign at 19 mile point brought a much needed smile for runners.  Besides, it was an equal opportunity comment applying to both men and women!

When I entered the marathon, I had an idyllic scenario in my mind.  The day was going to be cool but sunny.  I was going to finish strong across the finish line.  My family was going to be waiting at the finish line and I was going to burst into tears as I hugged them.  Then a young marine was going to come salute me and hang the finisher's medal round my neck while congratulating me.  It did not turn out exactly that way.  The rain was coming down hard and I was not a pretty sight when I crossed the finish line.  Chanda, Ninad and Neha waited at the finish line for 20 minutes around the time when they expected me to come.  When I did not show up they got worried and went off to find out if I had already finished or if I had dropped out.  The young marine at the finish line did congratulate me and asked me to hand him the electronic timer chip that was tied to my shoe laces.  I looked in his eyes and said plainly "I am sorry sir, but I don't think I can bend down".  He smiled and kneeled in front me, undid the shoelaces, took the chip out and almost lovingly tied the shoelaces again.  Then straightening, he handed the chip to me and congratulated me again.  And when I did meet Ninad, Neha and Chanda it was just as sweet and heart warming as I had imagined.

I learned a number of things about myself.  I always knew that I was not one that treated life as a 100 meter dash but as a marathon.  In the marathon as in life, I did not race against anybody.  I had set my goals and I tried to meet them.  I felt that throughout the training and the race I kept a positive attitude and did the best with what I was given.  This is something that I try to tell Ninad, Neha and this is what we learn in the Chinmaya Mission Sunday School.  I felt proud to have practiced what I preached.  Now I just need to apply it to the rest of my life!  In this whole endeavor, I got support, encouragement from a lot of people.  From my family, to my friends to the stranger in Georgetown who handed me a candy and the strangers who shouted encouragement and cheered me on, I owed a lot to a lot of people.  But all those four months, I trained alone.  And in the field of 18,00 runners, I started alone, ran alone and I finished alone.  All through my life everybody who ever knew me would have said that I am an extrovert and a "crowd person".  In this marathon I found out that in the middle of the crowd, I am a loner at heart!

Written by Ravi Athale All rights reserved.