Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My first half-marathon

In late August I took what was at the time, a poorly-conceived decision. I would run the 21.1 km Airtel Delhi half-marathon. Why was it poorly conceived? Well, it ignored a few facts. Until then, the longest distance I had ever run was 8 kilometers. That was 6 years ago. It didn't seem to matter that it took me 70 minutes to complete that distance and it also didn't seem to matter that I spent the next 24 hours in bed. In pain.

The websites said I had to train for at least three months. Fantastic! Time was on my side. Long story short, I managed to stick to my training schedule. By race day I was fairly confident I would finish well within my target time.

So here's how 'Race Day' went. After getting through security and dropping off my backpack, I walked towards the holding area. Being a first-timer, I was in section C. I later heard that's also where the slowest runners from the previous year were placed. Some were jogging around, others stretching; even more were waiting in interminable queues outside the few mobile toilets. Some couldn't wait and we were treated to the fine sight of grown men unburdening themselves behind trees. Some were so burdened they didn't bother hiding behind trees. 

I was so far back in Section C, I didn't even hear the gun go off. Possibly, I'm told, because they opted not to have a gun and just shouted 'Go'. I did hear the crowd cheer. After that, it took five full minutes to reach the starting gate. Yup, LARGE crowd.

Almost immediately, I ran into trouble. Here, trouble took the form of a few runners who noticed that Bipasha Basu had flagged off the race. These fine athletes stopped dead in the middle of the track to photograph her. Once past them, my half-marathon actually begun.

In a way, I'm kinda glad there were so many runners. It kept me from running faster than I should at the start. Naturally, the crowd thinned out further into the race.

Some highlights along the way.

Right after the 4km mark, we passed the Blind Relief Association. Standing outside the gates were a few of the pupils, cheering us on. That was heartwarming and I got quite a mental boost seeing them. Hundreds of other people lined the route to cheer us on but the blind students stayed in my mind.

Just before India Gate came one of the most phenomenal things I've ever seen. I first noticed a silver-gray SUV with a large clock on top speeding by on the other side of the road. At first I thought: 'How considerate. They've arranged for a car to tell us how long we've been running'. Then I saw 3 African runners blitz past behind it. Their pace was frightening. They finished exactly 11 minutes later. At the time, I was only about a third of the way in.

My next big memory was running past India Gate itself. It was the day after 26/11. I saw the flame and the soldiers standing guard. Memories of those terrible three days and the sacrifice of so many brave securitymen came back to me. A poignant moment.

Then came my first glimpse of Major DP Singh. I didn't know who he was then. He had a prosthetic on his right leg and was moving along faster than many other runners. Guts, I thought and waved a thumbs up to him. I found out later that he'd been injured by a Pakistani shell in Kargil. As I read that, memories of India Gate came flooding back.

By the time I got off Mathura road and back onto Lodhi road, I had just 2 kilometers to go. OK, time to up the tempo I thought. Bad move. While I was hydrating every 15 minutes and popping energy gels every 30 minutes, I wasn't getting enough salts. 500 meters into my burst, my left hamstring cramped up. Exactly what happened two weeks earlier on a training run. This forced me to slow down to a brisk walk for about five minutes. I knew my chance of making it in less than 2h20m was gone.

Once I hit the 1K-to-go mark, I picked up the pace again.

With 500 meters left, I was in a world of hurt.

At the 100m mark, I gave it all I had and managed to finish right between two packs of runners. 2h:22m:44s was the official time. I wasn't doubled over in pain and I felt like I was walking on clouds.

As expected after the bout of cramps, I missed my pre-race target by 2h20m. Then again, it wasn't that big a disappointment. At the start of training I was hoping to finish in less than 3 hours. By mid-training I figured 2:40 was a good goal. So in retrospect, 2:22:44 wasn't a bad time. Even better, I saw later that my timing placed me in roughly the 70th percentile of all runners that morning. Not bad for a first-timer.

Hours after the race, I had a massive headache from the dehydration. Two days later, my thighs and calves are sore as hell and walking is painful. So, would I do it again? Absolutely. ADHM 2012, here I come! :)

If anyone from the organising committee is paying attention: I'd advise a few small changes the next

1) Walkers should keep to the sides. Many crowd around the middle and force runners to weave in and out. That's not safe or good for the joints.
2) Have clear instructions for bottles to be disposed right to the side of the road if dustbins are not available. Several runners slipped and fell on bottle-caps and empty bottles. It's not safe for barefoot/ minimalist runners either.
3) And yes, please tell Bipasha-photo takers not to crowd around the start! :)

Other than that, perfect race. Great organisation and great atmosphere!       

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