Monday, March 28, 2011

Two Black Eyes

Oakland Marathon (26.2 miles) – March 27, 2011

Dave: ‘What could you tell a runner with two black eyes ?’

Me: What ?

Dave: Nothing, as you had already warned him twice.

Morning – March 27, 2011 –I did not sleep much in night, as my new iPhone was not working, and I could not set the alarm. Besides Prem was having cold and cough so we had to monitor his breathing through the night. He was breathing noisily and fast. It was after a long time, his cold/cough was threatening to build up into full blown breathing issue.

Woke up, looking at the clock, it was 7 AM already, race was at 7:30 AM. Tried to wake Promila to ask her to drop me, but she was not understanding, just smiling and trying to calm me down. Finally, unable to get through to her, I started running for the start line. Came across a stream, which was too wide to cross and flowing at full, looked around. Bad dream. Woke up at 12:15, then finally at 3:30 AM.

Reviewed my list which I prepared last night, Cytomax powder form, 2 Cliff bars – chocolate Chip Mint (Prem’s favorite), bib tagged on shirt, poor quality sweat (which if lost, you would not care), Mortrin and GPS watch. I was eating spinach-cottage cheese dish when Promila woke up at 5, and started making her ginger tea. Dave knocked at the door around 5:25 AM when I was sipping tea. He had his coffee mug in hand. Soon Norm appeared and Promila offered him tea too. We were chatting when Vimal showed up, felt a shiver to see him dressed in his half sleeve thin technical shirt.

I have been running for over 6 months now with Dave, Vimal and Norm. After couple of months Dave looked around to find a good race, and decided on Napa Valley Marathon, however, because of some family function he did not register for that. Oakland Marathon was another one during similar time frame, so he asked me and registered for it. I did not check the course, and when I did; I found out that Oakland Marathon course was a tough one. There was no looking back now, I followed him and then Vimal and Norm. I rationalized this would give me a good opportunity to come back and do another Marathon to improve my timings later.

Two weeks before Dave and I had completed a 23 miler with 2600 ft elevation gain, in decent time of 4:15. That monster run gave me confidence that I should be able to complete the Marathon. Most of our long runs were in Alum Rock Park trail. And there is a creek which fills up during the rain. Dave always love to cross that creek, while I try always to avoid crossing it. We ran 3 times in rain, things get still after 7-8 miles, you can hear full flow of the creek, very quiet and almost nobody in the park during the rain and feet build some new intelligence while splashing in puddles or coming down the slippery slopes. After one of these long runs, I saw Dave slipped in the creek once.

Besides that 23 miler, my training was falling apart in last 6 weeks, my weekly mileage (excluding long Sunday run) was averaging around 10-12 miles, which was not much. I fell during one of my earlier long run, and had 3 clotted toe nails from my 23 miler practice run. I was not stranger to having bloody toe nails, I had them during my long hikes. I was banking on race day adrenalin and ready to push myself and thinking of breaking 4 hours. Since my last Half Marathon was in 1:47 minutes, my strategy was to do first Half which was a tougher course, to try to stay with 3:40 pace group (completing first 13.1 miles in 1:52) and then naturally slow down. From my long runs, I knew my easy run was around 9 min/mile, at this pace I can talk and do not sweat much.

Dave had PR of 1:41 on Half Marathon, I was on 1:47, Vimal on 1:52 and Norm (though he never ran Half before) finished around 2 hours for 13.1 miles as per his GPS watch. We were lucky to have everybody around the same time zone. It helped that during certain days, any one of us could be leading the pack. If I was not feeling well, I would just try to hang in there. Dave was the only one who had run two full Marathons (close to 4 hours) and two Ultras. He kept telling me that the Marathon distance needed to be respected (especially by the first timers), and kept telling me about ‘Runner with two black eyes’. I did not realize what it meant till I ran the race and found out at mile 16 when all my plans went haywire.

Promila took a quick photo of us before we departed home. While driving, we were wondering as why there was no shoe tag (electronic chip which measure your splits at different intervals) and why timing chip was buried in the bib itself. Dave clarified, it was because the course is so tough that most of us would be crawling at finish line, rather than running ! We laughed and did not know how true that joke would come out to be.

At start I followed up 3:40, Vimal followed up 3:50 and Dave and Norm followed up 4 hour pace groups. Faster pace groups lined up first, so that they are not slowed down by slow runners. I climbed the hills (670 elevation gain) and came down strong, and finished 13.1 miles in 1:53, Vimal was couple of minutes behind me, followed by Dave. At mile 16, my calves started cramping up and my toes curling up. It had never happened before in any of the training runs. Could it be because of steep dip where you lose almost 600 ft elevation in less than a mile ? Really scared, I forgot that I generally needed only 16 ounces of water during my long runs, I started drinking a lot, ate a Cliff bar and started having sports drink. I would run for another 400 yards, and the cramps would come back.

During our practice runs, only Vimal had the tendency to cramp up. And we all tinkered with nutrition, as what to eat before the long run, and during the long run and how much sports drinks were needed and when. Generally, I associate cramps with nutrition, however, after another couple of miles, and drinking too much sport drink, my belly swelled. Since these drinks have salts in them, body was retaining much more water. May be it was too late to hydrate myself if you were cramping during the run. Lesson learned ! So I started doing some stretching, and was afraid to see few runners, lying on the side of road, cramping even more than me.

I knew it would be a long 10 miles now, and tried to find some inspiration. DNF (Did not finish) was a real possibility. I thought about Prem, and tried to emulate his breathing, quick and short to bring some much needed oxygen in cramped muscles. I thought about ‘Touching the Void’, and started counting my shuffling steps - hardly lifting my knee and keeping stride very short. I found that I could do till 100 steps and then have to walk for 20 steps on my heel, using different set of muscles which would give break to my running calf muscles. Vimal passed me between mile 16 and 17. I was waiting for Dave and Norm to pass me. At mile 23, when I saw 4:15 pace group flag, I thought Dave and Norm might have already passed me. I finished in 4:22 finally. Vimal was waiting for me, he did it in 4:01.

He told me that he was cramping at mile 16 too, however, since he had more training as how to run through cramps, he was able to keep up. He told me that his secret to break cramps was to shake your legs like Elvis Presley while singing his song. I was kicking myself for not having my iPhone to take the video, when he did the full demo. I asked him as where was Dave, he did not see him either, now that was surprising. So we looked around for another 30 minutes and then finally saw him; it was clear it was not his day today, completing the Marathon with 4:53, and soon Norm arrived too.

Though I was not happy with my times, the Marathon intrigued me. It was not cut and dry; and there were a lot of factors to consider. And that is the real challenge. Out of 4 of us, only Vimal ran close to his potential. Dave had told us earlier that it takes around 7 Marathon, before you could fine tune various factors. We were all thinking about the reasons of our bad timings. Experience is what you get, when you do not get what you want. Looking back, I think these are the learnings I would take to my next Marathon (if and when I decided to run it).

1. Instead of running the last long training run (23 miles) two weeks before the race, schedule it 3 weeks before.

2. Most of our long runs were on trail not on hard pavement, I think my nutrition was OK before and during the race, however, I really did not train on hard pavement for my long runs or interval training. The muscles might had taken the beatings till 16 miles in the race which had the steep downhill portion and then gave up.

3. There is a big difference between Half and Full Marathon. For Half Marathon (the distance we were running every weekend), you really do not have to worry about nutrition, water, pace and cramps. After you hit two hours, and you have another two hours to do, it is a different game.

4. Most of our long runs were not at Marathon Pace, I think I would have one of shorter long run (12-15 miles) at targeted Marathon pace to improve muscle memory of that pace.

5. We did Yasso 800s between 3:20 to 3:30 (Dave, Vimal and I); which as per the online calculator meant that we should all be able to run Marathon in that time; did not happen for any of us. Most of the calculators which extrapolates your mile, 5K, 10K and Half Marathon distance to give your estimated time for full Marathon, did not really work for any of us.

6. Increase week days mileage from 10-12 miles to 18-20 miles, to get to weekly mileage of 30 plus.

7. Continue Cross training of biking and/or swimming to give running muscles break.

8. Continue interval/speed training.

9. Carbohydrate loading should be just for one day before the run, not for 1 week. My weight was increased by 6 pounds in last 6 days, before race.

10. Find a flat or all downhill course for next Marathon.

Marathon running is tough and challenging, both physically and mentally. Why people do it ? Everybody has their reasons. Personally I would not say that I loved running Marathon distance. As I write this, I have been walking, with a stance two feet wide, more like Sumo wrestler, my calves still hurting and quads trashed; and I am thinking about my next race (I would like to think I am alert mentally). Two years ago I used to see Marathoners with neon light over their head, flashing ‘Crazy’. I started running just last April (never ran before in my life) and almost gave up. Now after experimenting for one full year, I have utmost respect for runners. Long runs (18 mile plus) would have been more painful without good company of friends. It was intrigue of challenge which was the driving force for me to run the Marathon. And also, that it gives me confidence, that if you put your mind and persist, anything is possible; except that you cannot teach anything to a runner with two black eyes.