Humans can never outrun a horse, a cheetah or even a greyhound. That’s a well-established fact. A lesser known fact is that on an extremely hot day, the human body is built to run long distances faster than any animal on the planet. We regulate our temperature via sweating, and sweating helps to maintain a consistent, fast pace over long periods of time without risking heat exhaustion. With appropriate training, anybody in good health can run a full marathon. And mine was about to begin in under 2 hours at Morgan Hill, California.
I was asked the ‘why’ question a few times. Why was I doing this? Why did I spend my weekends training, running 20 miles under the blazing sun in the 95F heat? Running with a bunch of professional runners so passionate about the sport can be a great motivator. But I was running with ordinary people like me, and this made it better as I could relate to them on so many levels. So did I do it to raise money? Did I do it to prove something to the world? Did I do it for fitness? Let’s go with fitness for now. It’s always a convincing reason, a safe bet.
When I reached the race venue, I thanked my carpool buddies and headed to the start line. I met a couple of Team Asha runners. I wanted a partner to run with but didn’t find one. It was just as well. I started to run anyway. The Morgan Hill Marathon was a quiet one. Running through the lush green forests and hills, passing a lake or two on the way, being alone with your thoughts amidst the desolate scenery were some of the highlights.
Mile 1-5 was a bit of a challenge. Running uphill can be pretty taxing, especially for someone who had decided to try her luck by skipping the past week’s runs! At mile 5, my only thought was – “where is the water-stop!!”
By mile 8, the runners were haphazardly dispersed on the course. Running alone felt good, the peace and the quiet. At mile 10, the pain in my thigh I had been experiencing for a few weeks returned. I didn’t want the setback to cause me to drop out. A runner passing by I had never met before came up to me and said: “keep moving”. The true spirit of a marathon is most evident in the goodwill of strangers- fellow runners who push you through the hard miles, volunteers who put in hours of planning, organizing and figuring out the logistics and spectators, who take the time to line up by the side of the road to cheer the runners.
Mile 13 was a significant crossroad. You could decide to take the left path and finish the half marathon strong, or decide to trudge along the right path for another 13.2 miles. Mile 18 seemed to go on forever. When I finally saw the 19-mile mark, I was almost ready to dance with joy! Taking in nutrition at regular intervals helped. We had to loop back the last 4 miles and I already got my first glimpse of runners who were triumphantly running towards the finish line. All I wanted was to finish, with a smile on my face. No, I take that back. All I wanted to do was lie down by the side of the road.
After what seemed to me like 1000 miles from mile 20, I saw the happiest sight of the day- Mile 23. My mind was conjuring up various images of the 6am training runs. My coaches’ positive words and fellow runners crossed my mind. Trying to draw some inspiration from it all, I realized how exhausted I was. This was my first 23rd mile. This was a distance that was completely new to my body (as we only trained up to 22 miles). When the runners’ high starts to wear off and the pace starts to drop, it’s easy to be overcome with a general feeling of helplessness.
I tried to maintain a good form and fight the exhaustion and trudged on. An Asha volunteer ran with me the last mile. But when I finally saw the finish line, I was unprepared to believe that this was indeed the finish line. There, I saw a lady jumping up and down with medals in her hand, flailing her arms wildly. I vaguely remember thinking this would have been funny at a different time, in a different place. I didn’t want to limp past the finish line. I summoned up all of what was left of my strength and ran as fast as I could. The lady then flung a medal over my head, someone shook my hand and someone else clicked my picture. And then, it was over.
On an average a runner’s feet pound on the ground 55,334 times during a full marathon. A lot of runners ‘hit the wall’- as it is termed- on the home stretch when their legs feel like jelly and every cell in their body is ready to give up. At this point, running defies all logic. Their minds begin to function poorly just like their muscles, and they lose the power to fight, to reason, to convince themselves that they need to continue . So why did I do it? Why would anybody want to do it?
Long distance runner Emil Zatopek said “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon”. During training, I met a mom of three who ran 13 miles every weekend. She aptly put into words what I wanted to take back from my experience – “You can deal with life if you can deal with running. You can deal with the pain if you can take the pain that comes with running”.
Over a 1000 marathons are held around the world each year and thousands of men and women run them. It isn’t an extraordinary feat to be a marathoner, in terms of what your marathon means to the rest of the world. But it is in terms of the enormity of the personal challenge. Each day you train and each day you beat the previous day’s mileage record, you experience a small sense of pride. This motivates you to do greater things. On days when you don’t know if you can pass an exam, get through an interview or run a marathon, you will always remember that you once did. “Out on the roads”, said Dr George Sheehan, “there is self-discovery and the persons we are destined to be.”