Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Hyderabad Marathon – The Replacement Pacer

          It was race day. I felt stupid with a floating helium balloon tied to my shirt. The number “4” was written on the balloon in big letters indicating that I was the pacer for folks wishing to complete the marathon in 4 hours. Somebody asked me if my previous best full marathon time we lesser than 3:30 and I truthfully replied that it was more like 5:30. I was supposed to be part coach, part friend, and part mentor at least for four hours apart from being an experienced long distance runner who sets a steady pace. Instead I was anxious and doubt constantly gnawed me.
Me at starting point with balloon
           I had always wanted to complete the Hyderabad marathon in 4 hours and during Bib collection asked Steve (one of the organizers) for more information about the 4 hour pacer. The pacer had not turned up and we set about the arduous task for finding a replacement pacer. And they are as rare as a pig in flight.  Anybody who can comfortably do a 4:00 hour marathon would rather push harder and aim for a better finish instead of herding newbies. Steve decided that we would have two pacers for the 4:00 hour bus with me running the first half (21 kms) and another fresh-legs runner starting from the midway point till the end.
Ever since I moved to Hyderabad from Bangalore a few months ago, I had started running with more discipline. I put in intense quality workouts instead of just adding more miles. I started running with the “Hyderabad Runners” group and was taken in by the camaraderie and support of its members. Not only did I run with them, I also attended shoe clinics and weekly fitness sessions with them. Somewhere along the line I realized that I could run much faster than what I thought I was capable of. And that’s when I decided that I should run a full marathon within 4 hours. And how I planned to do cut off more than 90 mins from my previous best marathon distance, I had no idea! I just knew I had to do it. I choose the Hal Higdon’s advanced 1 marathon training program and stuck with it. I lost weight and was fitter than I ever was. But I had no pretensions about being able to successfully lead a group of runners along with me at the finish line.
Majority of the runners in the 4 hour bus (group led by pacer) were Tamilians from Bangalore- Suresh Seshadri, Nari, and Vasu and we had a blast during the run. Gopal, Brajesh, Dr. Umesh and Neera Katwal also joined in. My job was to lead the group until the 21k mark in around 1:58 mins. A few kms into the run I could clearly see that Neera was more than capable of a 4 hr FM but was holding back only because it was her first Full Marathon. Around 12 kms into the run, Suresh came down with cramps but was still running if only to give me company for some more time. I took a few breaks here and there but maintained the speed as indicated in the pace band I wore on my wrist. The flyovers soon took their toll on Suresh and he slowed down. I realized I could not slow down for him and neither did he expect me to. We hit the 21k mark in exactly 1 hr 58 mins and Raju was waiting to take over my balloon. Neera and Brajesh were ahead of us and Nari, Vasu and Gopal were a few meters behind me. My job as pacer was done.
Now I was running for myself. Dr. Umesh kept running with me while the others sped ahead with Raju. When I hit the 32k mark, I noticed that I had to run the last 10k within 58 mins for my dream finish. I realized that I had underestimated how tough the route was. I kept chugging uphill after uphill and there was always one more round the corner. Dr. Umesh had fallen back and I was running alone now. Thankfully a few cyclists from the Hyderabad Cycling Club and my friend Madhu from Hyderabad University paced me for a few mins. When I hit the 38k mark, I still had to cover 4 kms in 20 mins. That’s when I realized that my dream of finishing within 4 hours would remain that – a dream. And that’s right about the time when the body does not want to go forward and your spirit is already crushed. I started walking in agony and pain for the first time in the race.
Picture with Elaine at end point. The photographer jumped the trigger before we jumped!

After a km of run/walk, somebody from behind shouted – “Don’t walk. Do a slow jog instead. It keeps the blood flowing” and I did as instructed. A few hundred meters into the run, I understood that there was nothing to feel let down about. All expectations were of my own choosing and I could still be proud of finishing a few minutes outside of the 4 hour mark. Somehow I found the energy to sprint the last hundred meters and overtake that gentleman who had egged me on. Time on my garmin watch showed 4 hr 7 mins and 12 secs, exactly 81 minutes faster than my previous best. The marathon distance is indeed a microcosm of life – full of little joys and disappointments. When you finish one, you realize the person at the end line though temporarily down on energy is a stronger person than the one at the start line a few hours ago.