Monday, July 26, 2010

My first Half Marathon (13.1 miles)– (July 25, 2010)

This run is dedicated to all the people in my circle who, like myself a year ago, have never considered running Marathon.

Finally my tryst with Running came to a tangible accomplishment with my first Half Marathon. Personally, this is very special to me; as it was not only my first Half Marathon, it was my first race ever, in my life. I never ran in school or college, never competed in any kind of distances before. Sure I played badminton, tennis, Cricket and Table Tennis at various stages of my life, however, running opened up my eyes to a whole new level of fitness.

When I started running back in March 2010, I found it extremely hard to run outside; and treadmill running was not much fun. After reading couple of books on running, I was blown away to know that even in distance running, there are many different levels – 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, 50K, 50 Miles, 100K, 100 miles and then 24 hours running. Anything over Marathon is considered Ultra Running. And most of the ultra runners are in it for fun (not most of Ultra races have much of the prize money or recognition or endorsements); there is no way to train for 100 mile run, i.e. you do not run 100 miles in training to prepare for the run; unlike Marathon running. So my current accomplishment, to run 13.1 miles, may seem just a warm up for an Ultra Runner.

When I was around 10 year old, my dad always used to ask me and my brother to come with him for morning walks and runs. We never did. For a long time, I used to think why people even bother to run; that we should save that energy and use it in sports etc. I did not know at the time, that if you keep the heart rate to consistently higher level for more than 20 minutes, your body’s metabolic rate increases for the whole day, meaning that you have more energy and you burn more calories for the next 8-10 hours. Though most of my exercise and running routine happens in evening, I find sometimes unable to sleep after a good evening workout. Preferably exercise should be done in morning so you can reap the benefits of high energy levels, however, some exercise in evening is better than none at all.

One of my earlier blogs described, as how I stumbled upon running. It was my love of books and see if that could result into some actionable accomplishment. In last 4 months I had read over 10 books on running. I trained myself, through trial and error, using these books and talking to few runners. These books and runners convinced me that Marathon is very doable.

After personalizing my training, I started logging more and more distance and tried to increase my pace. Soon in 6 weeks, I had started hurting badly in my shins. Though I could complete my run, I needed to warm up for 15 minutes, stretch for another 5 minutes. Needless to say it was becoming work, rather than fun. I bought expensive pair of shoes from a Running shop based on my gait analysis etc. I think it made matters worse. So I stopped training for whole of June; and started to focus on changing my running form. Any changes means, I got extremely slower than before; however I wanted it to be fun so such things could not be forced. One good thing came out from sharing my running fiascos in my blog, that I got couple of suggestions. Norm Ngim and Susan Byrne asked me to try Chi Running (IMO fancy name/technique for mid-foot strike or running on balls of your feet). Based on the books I have read, with totally conflicting advices, there are all kind of successful runners with different kind of foot strikes and idea is to run as lightly as possible. Norm mentioned about ‘Born to Run’ book, it was a revelation, almost written like a fiction; highly recommended. After reading this book, I threw my running shoes, and bought thinnest flat sole canvass shoes. Running in these shoe automatically changed my running form. All this experimentation was happening in beginning of July after Half Dome hike on Father’s day weekend. After couple of 5K runs in the canvas shoes, and changing my foot strike from Heel first to Mid-foot, I felt better. At that time, I was not even thinking of running in ‘The San Francisco Marathon’. Back in India, my niece, Smiti, asked me if I am still running or what. I realized, just like what I used to think an year back that Marathon run is unthinkable and mainly for crazies (could not understand why people would do it !), there were few people looking up to me to see if I could do it. And if I could do it, then it may open up their mind to consider it at some stage in their life.

So on July 12, when I was feeling a lot better with my small runs, without any pains, I kept running till 10 miles, as fast as I could. I finished the run in 1 hour and 27 minutes, which was less than 9 min/mile pace; never happened in any of my earlier run. It appeared that the new form was less painful and my timings had started to improve. So I decided to register for Half Marathon, kept reminding myself, that Run should be enjoyable first; I should be light on my feet and I should not worry about pace.

Thomas, from the hiking group, who did Half Dome with me last year; loves running. He did one Half and one Full Marathon last year. This year he registered for Full Marathon. We took Caltrain on July 24 to San Francisco to get our bib and attended the Marathon Expo, where there were lot of vendors and couple of lectures by renowned runners. Thanks to all the books I read, I could recognize almost all the names of the runners. Thomas told me that this event is one of the best organized event. It was not hard to understand why. As soon as you register, they ask about estimated completion time, based on that you run in different waves of runners. A wave number is assigned to you, this helps in avoiding slow runner blocking your path during the run (there were 24000 runners registered in this event). Fast runner would always be in first wave. Course is USA Track and Field certified and race is a prestigious Boston Marathon qualifying race. Besides they give you a electronic chip which you put up on your shoe lace, and it records your timings at different portion of the race. By the time I finished, my timings were already loaded on the website, including the splits. Free beer, Jamba Juice, smoothies, and over 10 different snacks were waiting for you at the finish line. It was hard to imagine if it could be further improved.

Thomas and I shared our trainings and stories during the train ride. His goal is to qualify for Boston. He was surprised to know that I run only 3 times a week; he was running every day. Before I read the Running books, I used to think all Marathoners must be spending an awful lot of time in training; and definitely I did not have that kind of time. How wrong was I? I spent much less time in training than earlier when I was just using Gym machines. For Half Marathon, I used less than 2.5 hours/week in training. There is no commute time. For full, I believe, I would not spend more than 4 hours/week in training.

When we reached the station, it was evident that we both were challenged to read the map and find the place in San Francisco. Thanks to Thomas who offered to drive on race day, and though we reached in time, it took some map reading again as the parking lot address, we got, was wrong. Since I was running second Half, my race started almost 2 hours after the Full. I thought I would be able to see him during the race and may be run with him. There was a free shuttle from the start of Full to start of second Half Marathon. I wished him best for his run; he did not prepare as much this year (new baby just 4 weeks ago); his goal was to finish the race in 4:30. Last year he finished under 4 hours. I could appreciate these numbers now and recognize how much skill, dedication and effort is needed to run at that pace.

When I reached 2nd Half Start area, it was cold and clouded. There was a long queue for portable potties. However, again very good planning/organization, there were over 30 of them. There were outdoor heaters to keep the runners warm before the race started. And since almost all runners were wearing sweats, there was a Sweats check-in available, and you could collect your sweats back at finish line. I reached there at 7 AM, still more than one hour before my wave starts (8:23 AM). I was shocked to see that there were already runners from Full, were appearing on the course. That means that they completed Half the distance in less than 1 hour 30 minutes.

I watched them for 30 minutes and most of us cheered them. These were mostly very fast runners, gliding effortlessly. Since it was cold, I did not try to stretch much. Some runners were jogging to warm up, however, I decided to keep my energy for the run. Mood was festive and I was looking forward for the run. Based on my runs, my goal was to finish the run, and second was to finish in 2 hours. There were pacers carrying flags. I stood next to 1 hr 50 minute pacer. I thought if I shoot for that, I would probably finish within 2 hours. Lindsey McCartney in my office, who helped me by putting together some stretches and running-muscles-strengthening exercises; told me not to race initially, just pace myself so that I could finish stronger. She was right, first time runners gets excited and start racing with faster runners and it gets difficult to finish later on. Same thing happened to me, I got a high by moving faster and passing most of the runners. I thought once I am out of breath from racing, I would just take a walk break. I did first 7 miles at sub 8 min/mile pace. Never before in training, I could complete 3 miles at 8 min pace. I think it was cold crisp air, breeze and racing environment that did it for me. There were only 3-4 small hills which I was able to glide through. I had a big wide smile on my face and was enjoying my run.

Just like most beginner runners, I would huff and puff during my training runs, as there was a huge scope of improvement in my aerobic capacity (VO2 max). Also, in training, I realized that I always runs faster when I was running into the air; as it aids my breathing. During my training, I never reached to a point, where my legs were the bottle neck and slowing me down; I would slow down due to my aerobic capacity. I was told that soon, breathing would not be the issue, and legs would be the issue. It was not very pleasant to find about that during my first race. With 4 miles to finish, I started slowing down. Breathing was no longer the issue, my legs were getting tired. I was not taking water breaks and soon my hands were getting numb. Lessons learned, take water/electrolyte breaks at every aid station. Volunteers and people on side walk were very generous. Though official water stations, were every 2 miles, some locals were giving free beers to runners, some were playing live music (it helped during those last 4 miles) and others were just cheering (just 3 miles to go; looking strong; great job).

I slowed down further in last two miles (9:20 min/mile). After finishing, I was pleasantly surprised to see my finish timing at 1 hour 50 minutes (well it was 1:50:58 but seconds part is generally not mentioned), with overall pace of 8:28 min/mile. It did not take me much time to find Thomas at finish line, he finished some time after me. As expected, like most of his Kerala Club friends, I found him at Heineken stand, blissfully chugging on his free beer. He seemed to be in extremely good condition; I thought that I would have to haul him back; it was great to see him finish strong, with so less training (may be that is the key – less training !) and in good time, just above 4 hours. After the race, we reached Thomas’ home, Promila wanted to celebrate with cake, however, we settled for fresh strawberries from Farmer’s market. Vinaya gave us the refreshing lemonade from the beautiful kitchen garden in the backyard.

Long Distance Running requires some dedication and would be boring and painful if you do not enjoy it. So it is not for everyone. It helps if you have company while training, though I did not see many runners on street or park during my training. It is hard to get company. Personally, I am realizing that gym machines, more or less do not work out well. From time commitment point of view, running outside requires much less time and give you much more fitness related benefits. I recently did my cholesterol check, and was shocked to find it to be 80 points less than last year; only thing changed in my routine was running. Though we were eating healthy even before, now Promila has been addicted up to just very healthy foods. Most of our diet has become vegetarian and with lots of fruits, in last 4 months. That means, eating outside has become less and less; and Farmer’s market has been a life line for us. I think I need to get my cholesterol checked again, just to be sure.

What’s next  Full Marathon is not a goal for me now, my aim is to get faster for shorter distances first, before achieving endurance for Full Marathon, so that I could run it in good time. I am looking forward to hike Mt Whitney in August end. And Thomas twisted my arm in getting me to sign up in San Jose Rock’ n Roll Half Marathon in October.