Monday, August 11, 2008

The Marathon

I knew it; running in Mexico was tough. Aside from the crazy traffic and lack of pedestrian zones and parks, there is also the pollution and altitude to manage. I love Mexico though! The food in delicious, people are friendly and happy, and the country is a vibrant palette of colors. Rich in diversity, culture, and history, Mexico satisfies the human craving for dolce vita. I was in Cuernavaca last weekend, which is about 80 KM south of Mexico City. I probably started my run way too late, hitting the road at 9:30AM -- I was going to do earlier, but at 5AM a massive downpour killed that plan and in my grogginess I reasoned what's the point of getting wet if I can sleep longer and go running later, rested. Mistake. By the time I got out the traffic was heavy, air pollution was bad, and the air was humid. It rains a lot in Mexico during this time of the year, but rarely in Cuernavaca during the day, only at night. The city is famous for its constant climate and sunny days, known as the "City of Eternal Spring" it is a popular weekend destination for the chic of Mexico City.

As I was running the hilly city, I kept thinking about not being able to finish a full marathon. It was crazy to think this way, I know, defeating my purpose before even starting the run. But for some reason I decided to have a bad attitude about the whole thing. So of course, I didn't accomplish much that day. I ran 13 miles in a boring 2.13h. The end came on a hill, which seemed eternal. I was running 35 minutes uphill nonstop, and the end just didn’t want to come. I was swearing the hill under my breath, and I was getting nervous. This destroyed my breathing, which became irregular and I was feeling hot, more than usual, interspersed with shocks of chills. I figured I was suffering from dehydration and on the verge of a heat stroke. There was no fun in this. I stopped running.

Defeated, I called my mother-in-law for a ride home. I wondered in that moment, will I ever be able to do it, to run an ultramarathon, if I couldn't even get up to 26 miles.

We left Mexico City for New York early last week. I was gone from New York for almost three months. Being back felt strange at first, but the pace of New York is such that you never have much time to think about things. So the re-integration happened fast. By-mid week I was back in my old training routine – running and weightlifting. My last Sunday run in Cuernavaca was far behind me now.

On Saturday I was up early - 5.30AM. However, I wasn’t hurrying to get on with the run. I was wasting time. I was nervous about the run -- the Cuernavaca experience was reconstructed in my head. I thought, "What if I can't do it again?" This would be another failed attempt at running a marathon. I don't know how exactly I structured my thought process to convince myself to try again and to feel good about trying, but I was out the door at 6.20 ready to do it. Maybe it was the Olympic spirit that got to me, with the Beijing 2008 Olympic games kicking off the day before.

I took off in the direction of lower Manhattan, towards the Financial District. From there I turned towards the Brooklyn Bridge and crossed it. Once in Brooklyn I reversed course and headed back to the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. 1.30h into the run I met up with my friend. We ran together up the West Side highway towards Central Park. He took a break at that point; I ran on. The full circle around the park took 40 minutes. By now I was 3.20h into the run, and had a little over 3miles to go to full marathon. I met up with my friend again. This saved me. In my head I already gave up, but having him run by my side gave me the edge and the will to keep pushing. At some point, I couldn't run up the hill anymore, breaking into a fast walk. My legs were cramping all over. This lasted for almost 3 minutes. I began to wonder if I would reach a point where I would be too weak to lift my legs at all. My friend kept pushing urging me; I kept telling him I can’t, and he kept saying you can. I was getting annoyed and upset. And there it clicked, the stubbornness kicked in and I regained a running pace and off we went from Central Park back to West Side Highway and back down towards Chelsea. At this point, I was even picking up pace, which surprised both of us. Running was getting easier. Perhaps it had something to do with the slight downhill we were on, or I hit another pocket of energy.

Finally, my iPod started to talk. It was Lance Armstrong congratulating me on my longest run yet. This wasn’t a dream. It was the real thing. I made it; I finished a marathon. It took me 3.44h, but that’s an irrelevant detail. I was overwhelmed with excitement and a grand feeling of satisfaction. I ran a marathon! Finally, just like that, on a non-particular Saturday morning in New York.

As we sat there in the grass, looking at Jersey, we started singing our Stanford Rugby song "We"re a bunch of bastards..." -- my friend and I played rugby together at Stanford. For a moment I felt like I was back at Stanford, sitting on the pitch after a bruising rugby match. I remember how it felt, the pain, the glory, the team, the satisfaction that come with an act of bravery. We were brave, the Stanford Rugby team.

And, we were brave this Saturday!

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