Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pittsburgh in Pink

To read my season recap, please click here. This post is intended to be a trip down the memory lane for the weekend of May 7th. I do not guarantee the absence of life-lessons though.

I had arrived in Pittsburgh knowing that I hadn't quite had the kind of training season required to run a marathon, leave alone a hilly one. Basically a good patch of runs from March 3rd to April 10th, and then a fortnight of agony and anxiety, with limited amount of exercising. The best thing I could do was to rest my body the week of, and run without any pressure whatsoever. I did.

Running for a cause, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in honor of Elizabeth, my American sister, added extra meaning to the race, and staying with our Mom Gail throughout the weekend ensured that I was never short on inspiration (or as we like to call it, runspiration) and that my nutrition stayed absolutely perfect. The weather played its part too, and what unfolded was a dream, a run I doubt I could have executed even with 16-18 proper weeks of training. Less is more at times.

Sunday morning, Gail dropped me off in Downtown where a little walk brought me to the bag check area. Temperatures were still in the low 40s. With the race supposed to start off in 15 minutes, I started dressing down. An elderly gentleman co-marathoner walked by, suggesting I keep things on for another 10. So right he was. I could sense the contrast between NYC and a smaller marathon such as Pittsburgh. Not so formal and strict, no big waits anywhere. I reached the start corrals by 7:10 and got to begin running at 7:38:41 am. I didn't know anyone and could only see one familiar cap around - a purple Team in Training, so I wished her luck. It was a bit chilly, leading me to keep my arm-warmers on, and I just never took them off because they were from the NYC Marathon, and served as an instant reminder that I had done it once before, I could do it again. I just had to BELIEVE. Ok, I did not want to trash them either.

Beam them up, Scotty

At the start line

As soon as the race began, I could see that this was going to be a marathon to be done by myself. At NYC, there were teammates running the race too, and for example, I had asked Deb to slow me down if I reached her in the first half. I had had the comfort of knowing there would be coaches on course in the tougher stages of the marathon. Everyone alongside was going the same distance and hence, I could in some sense establish fellow runners as checkpoints of my own pace and progress. In Pittsburgh, there were half-marathoners and relay teams mixed in, and I wouldn't know who was doing what unless I over-took and looked back at their bib. Too much effort. Let's just go out and do my own damn thing. No one to compete with. No time goal. Just me and 26.2 miles to a finish line. Come on!

I had at the back of my mind memories of how I had felt in the later stages of NYC, how I had slowed down from an average pace of 9:55 in the first half to 11:23 in the second. In the interim, I had run two half-marathons, both negative splits, and I knew that it felt nice to achieve one. Doing it at a marathon though - uh, well, we'll see once I get to the mid-race hills.

The first 4.4 miles took me through Strip District, a flat bridge (the David McCullough) and around PNC Park, registering an average pace of 11:05/mile. I know this exact number only because I have the results in front of me as I write. Out there on the course, I wasn't looking at the clocks. Strava was registering my run, but it doesn't get the distances exactly, and hence I wasn't relying on my tracker to know my speed. Plus, I didn't want to know. Just me and 26.2-4.4=21.8 miles to a finish line. Another 2 miles and I was close to the West End Bridge, chewing my first Gu, in good shape, feeling fit.
On to the West End Bridge
The next mile turned out to be quite an eventful one. A heavy gust of wind uprooted a road-side entertainment tent and swung a pole right into the lady running in front of me. Had I been 2 seconds faster, it would have been me taking the hit. It just wasn't her day, it was mine. Sorry gal. Soon enough, we went down a steep hill, turned left, and again left, making a U-turn only to climb that same steep hill on a parallel road. I could not fathom why the organisers would make us do this. Couldn't you have added an extra 0.2 miles of flat land somewhere else in the city?!? But it was what it was. Did it, went on with it. No qualms. Just me and 18 miles to a finish line.

For 3 miles there on, we ran along the Monongahela river. I remember seeing an array of Army personnel cheering us on, and high-fived every single one of them. Because when you don't care about your finish time, you can afford to do fun stuff!! I was slowly and steadily inching closer to the big hills at mile 13, and a subsequent meeting with Gail.

This I feel is where I made my smartest decision of the day. I pre-poned my Gu by a bit, made sure I wasn't dehydrated or low on electrolytes before hitting that big hill, and crested through it. It rose 200 feet within a mile, and yet, had zero impact. Somehow, I just wasn't losing energy. Maybe my reduced training had been a blessing in disguise and left my body much fresher and stronger. Or maybe it was just psycho-somatic that after going through so much pain the entire season, I wasn't ready to feel it any more. Whatever it was, it worked wonders. 

The half-marathon mark came up in 2:20:32, although during the run, I only knew that it must have been somewhere between 2:18 and 2:20 from the few times I had seen the course clocks and the numbers I vaguely remembered. For comparison's sake, my NYC time was 4:39:00 which meant that if I could do a negative split, I would have a PR. This was the first time I got thinking about matters of speed. Before hitting the mile 14 marker, I met Gail, my biggest cheer-leader, along with Todd, a good friend from my Pittsburgh days. Being a runner himself, he told her I didn't look like I had gone 13 miles already. And I like to concur. The pacing, the no-goal plan had worked well so far. I was feeling good, and more importantly, happy to be just out there, able to run, and run for a cause. It also helped that I was running close by Carnegie Mellon, and I remembered joking with a few friends who had been there, that the marathon would look easy compared to what a Master's in Computer Science from CMU puts you through. 

My American Mom

I had heard of the generosity of the cheering squads in Pittsburgh and that was to be on full display in the next few miles. There were people offering orange slices, bananas, beef jerky, candy, beer, and what not. Unfortunately, I'm a stickler to Nothing New on Race Day and could not accept any of these. But it was heart-warming to see such gestures of kindness, which reminded me so much of my own days in the city, how I had met two of the best friends ever - Gail and Hugo, and so many other fabulous kind souls.

And then around mile 16-17 came my favorite memory of the day. I needed some fluid and at the upcoming Gatorade station, I could see a little girl, maybe 3 feet tall, holding out a cup. The runners though, weren't taking hers, maybe because they were tiring off and did not wish to bend. Me, eh, I was doing fine, feeling great, feeling grateful, so I approached her. And off she went jumping up and down, shouting Yay, telling her parent (most likely) that I took her cup, all while I slowly walked ahead, gulping down my dose. Over dinner with some good friends and folks who had helped our campaign, I would recite the story, and someone remarked - Maybe it was her joy that seeped into you, and got you to finish so strong. Who knows? Maybe it did. Thank you little girl for making my day, nonetheless.

By the time I reached mile 19, I could feel a little twinge behind my right knee, and a heavy bladder. It was also a bit uphill, and I slowed down deliberately, knowing that the toughest miles were still to come. And as fate would have it, just as I was running by a line of 4 occupied porta-johns with no waiting lines, one of them opened up, and I had my chance - 30 seconds in and out, and it even had hand-sanitizer and tissue paper available. Those things are a luxury in NYC. Alright, on to the last 10k, gaining speed, the average at 20 miles was 10:35/mile, which meant I was beating my NYC time. Again, I didn't know it exactly back then, but going by how good I was feeling, I knew it wasn't a distant possibility. Just me and 6.2 miles to a finish line.

By now, the course had become almost deserted. The half-marathoners had left us way back, the relay folks were few and far between, and with only 3439 marathoners around, our density wasn't high either. All of this meant that I could run at whatever pace I wanted, where I wanted. I could pick the shady side of the roads, under the trees, away from the sun, didn't have to worry about collisions while over-taking. I was definitely not feeling as great as I had at mile 14, but still, much better than I had at mile 20 in NYC. It was here that I brought out my mantra - reading out the poem If to myself. And when I do it, I replay the first and last paragraphs in Federer's voice from this video. I heard him say - If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that's in it. My eyes welled up and I know I'm being a bit crazy/narcissistic here but I did really think to myself - mine is the earth, mine is this course, mine is this day. That surge would be enough to soar me through to a 7:14 negative split, and a 5:10 PR.

At mile 24, we undid the 200 feet we had gone up earlier, allowing me some faster times, and a further push towards the negative split. In the next mile, I ran past the pacer for the 4:30 group, and it saddened me that he was walking, possibly with an injury. I couldn't imagine how he must have been feeling, having taken up a duty earlier, and knew that there wasn't much I could do for him. Getting closer to the finish line, I could sense that I could go full-blast and Strava would later tell me that I ran the last 2 miles in 16:49, that's 2 minutes per mile faster than my average pace. At NYC, I'd started getting emotional too early (mile 25.5 I think) and this time, I was trying to not repeat that. The marathon helped by placing the finish line around a corner, so it wasn't visible until the 200 yards mark. 

But boy did I realise something as soon as I did that corner. No matter how strong I wish to be, I can't resist crying at the sight of a finish line. And out came the tears, pew pew pew.
Sunglasses are a good tool for hiding tears
And then came the finish. Oh, that glorious finish. Just me and a finish line. So emotional, so beautiful, so rewarding. I wasn't physically exhausted that bad, but the season had taken its toll on the mind, and I collapsed on my knees, wishing I could sit there, and shed out my tears all day long. Damn you spotters for whisking me away against my wishes. 

I knew it had been a PR, I knew it had been a negative split. From a pure statistics point of view, I loved how my cumulative average pace across checkpoints never slowed except for that 1 second during the tough hills of mile 13.

I know I have written a lot about this in my season-recap but I'll briefly re-iterate just how much this marathon meant - the highest point in a season of incessant lows, an affirmation of the spirit, a stern reminder that no matter what comes my way, the love and strength of my support system will always be enough to break down all barriers. On the course, I was running by myself, but alongside in spirit and in my heart, ran everyone who had inspired me to not quit. It turned out to be a dream run, but even if it hadn't, I would have been just as happy, just as over-whelmed, and just as grateful to the people I have the honor of calling my friends.

What's next - On July 23, this trio takes to the streets of San Francisco, rolling through 1600 ft of elevation gain over 26.2 miles including the Golden Gate Bridge. It's been hugely inspiring to me in person to see these two wonderful people make leaps and strides, progressing steadily towards their first marathon, and I hope if you're in the Bay Area, you'll come out to cheer us on.

Until then, stay tuned, and have a great summer. Adios.


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