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How I (almost) ran my first Marathon

Participants run during the Tata Mumbai Marathon in Mumbai. Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ahead of my first marathon at the Tata Mumbai Marathon on Sunday, I was feeling a mix of excitement, nervousness and anxiety.

Running a marathon is a dream whose exact origins I don't even remember anymore, but one I began actively working towards since late 2013, when I began long-distance running. And it was finally happening. It seemed fitting, too, that my first marathon would be at the Mumbai Marathon, not just because it would be my fourth time at what I find an exciting, yet challenging route, but also because of the event's importance. The Mumbai Marathon, first held in 2004, is the event that sparked India's running revolution.

Adding to the nervousness that is perhaps inevitable when attempting to run a distance as intimidating as 42.195km for the first time was the fact that I'd gotten injured towards the end of November, with less than two months to go for race day. When I returned after two-odd weeks without running, I had little time to get my last long runs in but also couldn't scale up too sharply. As a result, the longest run I'd done was just 30km. When preparing for long-distance events, it is common for runners to have their longest runs be at least a few kilometres short of the target distance. That said, I feared that having over 12km in uncharted territory was too much.

However, after having prepared for the marathon for an entire year, not giving it a shot was out of the question. I researched pacing strategies for a marathon and came across the 10/10/10 method, which involves breaking one's race into three sections - the first 10 miles, the second 10 miles and the last 10km. It says one must run the first 10 miles in a restrained manner, running slightly slower than natural or goal pace. The idea is to have fuel left in the tank for the next 10 miles, during which one the runner can take off the limiters and run at the pace they have trained for. The last 10k is all about the mind and whether one can still run strongly in the hardest part of the race.

I decided to adopt this strategy. Of course, having a plan is one thing, executing it a whole other. The first clear section of my race turned out to be the first half. At the holding area before flagoff, I ran into a friend from Pune, one whose first half marathon was the same as mine. Familiarity, the helpfulness of company while running and the fact that he was running his fifth marathon led me to suggest we run together as much as possible. He agreed and so, we set off. As we turned onto Marine Drive seaface and finished three kilometres, the difficulty of sticking together in a crowded field and the fact that my friend's pace was slightly faster than mine meant I fell behind. I resisted the temptation to chase him down.

Soon, I turned off Marine Drive and headed for the uphill section of Peddar Road. As the first of the half marathon participants began filtering through in the opposite direction, I moved towards the right, hoping to spot my dad and familiar faces from my running group so I could give them a shoutout. That didn't happen, but what did happen was that I was distracted enough over the next few kilometres that I didn't control my pace quite as well as I had planned. By the time I entered the Bandra-Worli sealink, I began to flag a little. However, just admiring where I was and appreciating how special it was to be able to run on a beautiful bridge kept me going and before I knew it, half my race was done.

I walked as I consumed an energy gel before setting off on my run's second section, which lasted up until 30km. Although the route passed by landmarks like the iconic Shivaji Park and Siddhivinayak Temple, much of it was a dull stretch devoid of crowd support and seemingly forgotten. Getting from 21km to 27km took what felt like ages and I was relieved to turn back onto Worli seaface. Unfortunately, my troubles were far from over. An irritating stretch of 1.5km followed, taking runners in the opposite direction from that leading towards the finish, in order to make up distance.

Once I was finally pointed in the right direction, I'd caught up with my friend and finished 30km. Any hopes I had of sticking with him and making the third and final section of my race a little more bearable were quickly dashed, however. I had a stitch in my side that no amount of dropping my pace was helping with. Even moving at a speed just faster than walking seemed impossible. As much as I wanted to grit it out and keep moving at a slow trot, I just couldn't. I once heard a marathon described as a 10km run with a 32.2km warmup. Going by that analogy, I'd spent all I had on the warmup.

From 33km to 36km, I walked most of the way, trying to use the extended period of easy activity to regain a semblance of control. Once up the Peddar Road incline, I used a short downhill section to gather momentum. Alternating short spurts of running with longer spurts of walking, I turned back onto Marine Drive for the final five kilometres. Running still felt excruciating, but the thought of the finish line and shouts of encouragement from two friends from the group as they overtook me kept me going. As I turned left after the Wankhede Stadium, with a kilometre to go, I realised that if I wanted to achieve my target of finishing within five hours, I'd be cutting it very close if I walked on. So I ran the rest of the way, feeling happy and relieved in equal measure as I finished with a time of 4:58:05.

I'm not sure if my first marathon experience, overall, is positive or negative. I'd like to think it's the former. Yes, I am slightly disappointed with just how badly the second half got away from me. But a first marathon was always going to be difficult, the more so given my impaired preparation. What is most encouraging from this experience, more than being able to complete a challenge or the perceived glory of being able to say I ran a marathon, is the satisfaction of setting a goal and achieving it, even if not in the most ideal way. The marathon is still intimidating, but it no longer feels impossible. I ran (most of) one after all.