Over the bridges

As a little girl, I used to read about and stare at all the sports figures in the local newspaper, The Statesman, The Telegraph or the magazines we got at home. I admired every one of the athletes. I took to all the sports that was available in my school Kendriya Vidyalaya, including hockey and soccer, which girls did not generally play! I continued with sports when I went to IIT and IISc as well, enjoying every sport I played. This slowed down after I graduated and started working. There were other demands on my time. In the last few years, I took a look at my list of things to do and realized that I had a childhood desire to run a marathon on my list. I had done little about it, given all the other commitments, which were higher priority, at the time.

It was going to be a tough training for me to be able to achieve this goal of being able to run a marathon, without injury. I joined Asha for Education for the training program, with a vow to raise funds for the education of under privileged children in India. Over the months, I trained hard, running 3 times a week and keeping to a rigorous training schedule. It was a real life lesson for my son Rahul and his friends, to see the power of goal setting and perseverance. Yes, you can! You just have to try!

Here is a report I wrote after I successfully ran my first marathon in 2005. My goal was to complete one without injuries.

Friday, 07 October 2005:

We flew out from San Jose airport, about 20 Asha runners on the same flight. Amit and Rahul accompanied me. Every other person on the Chicago flight looked like a runner to me! My family thought I was nuts! There was mild nervousness and a strange sense of apprehension for me. I had embarked on the marathon program with a goal to raise money for the education of under-privileged children in India. I was also hoping to show by example to Rahul and his friends that if you set a personal goal, stay focused and work hard towards it, the goal is attainable! I had already raised $3,200 for Asha and was close to making my second goal.

Saturday, 08 October, 2005 :

We headed out to the Marathon Expo. We got our bibs and RFID chips and headed to get our goody bags. The expo had all the big sports houses: Asics, Brooks, Adidas, Nike etc. There were booths selling double layered running socks, coolmax apparel, fuel belts, nipple guards for men, body glide, Gu, hammer gel, marathon charms and other paraphernalia that I knew little about until I started my marathon training!

At the Expo (left to right) Dr. Vidhya Gopalakrishnan, my running partner; Dr. Anu Tirumalai Singh, the livewire of the ASHA program who has been my mentor and very encouraging through the training program; me; Dr. Lily Patil

Sunday 09 October, 2005:

I woke up at 3:30AM (1:30AM California time) to get ready for the morning. This is the first time I felt “What am I up so early for?!” I reminded myself that I had worked very hard the last 6 months and in 12 hours I should be a marathoner! Get out and do what it takes!

@Hotel_before_departure

The hotel served us breakfast at 3AM! There was a queue to get oatmeal. The first-timers were out to leave the hotel first. They got to the Charity Village earliest, even beating the organizers -- in fact, so early that the muggers still hadn't retired for the night. The coaches and veterans showed up much later; of course, they just had to sleep the extra couple of hours to make sure everyone got on the second bus.

We saw a wall along the Hilton Hotel with names of all the Chicago marathoners. Folks were looking for their names. It was like kindergartners hunting for their favourite candy, screaming with joy at finding their names. We huddled in the ASHA tent since it was cold. Our coaches arrived and gave us their final pep talk. By this time, most of us were wearing transparent plastic garbage bags (“hobo-suits”) in order to keep warm till the race begins. We were about 50 odd runners from ASHA Silicon Valley.

Asha team @Village

As the clock ticked away, the anticipation was akin to the specter of the term quiz you get minutes before -- looming larger and scarier in the mind's eye. Am I well-prepared? Gosh, no! My longest is 21 miles and I ran only once. Anything beyond that is out of syllabus. When am I supposed to take Gu? Every 4 miles or every 8?

My running partner, Vidhya and I pushed our way through the crowds to get to queue up in the 4:30 minute line (being the superstars we are ; )) next to some gorgeous but frighteningly athletic women and handsome dudes. It was a beautiful day -- the sun was not yet shining, the birds were chirping, and the gorgeous woman next to us was peeing. She was pretty casual about it, even chatting with her mates as she let it go. We looked at each other and smiled. When you gotta go you gotta go! If they had to do the civil thing, it would have been impossible to get back through the crowd of anxious runners.

Melle before the race

Then, the sweatshirts and clothes started flying. A guy who was boring us to death got a sweatshirt socked straight into his face. We threw our hobo suits off. A few minutes before 8AM, the national anthem was sung and the race began. I could picture the elite Kenyan runners galloping away at the start.

Finally, we were moving, picking up speed, growling, like a swarm of bees when a hive is biffed with a baseball bat. We dodged mountains of sweatshirts as we nudged along. We headed straight into a tunnel from where we would emerge out into morning glory.

Except the men who had to stop and pee all over the tunnel walls.

Through Chicago Downtown

The roads were lined with colourful and cheering spectators, rattling away their cow-bells. There were posters and placards, cheering moms and dads. There were funny posters “go old fart”, “you run like Kenyans”, “run your buns off” etc. There were bands playing punchy songs, cheerleaders egging people to keep going. I was soaking in all that I got to see and hear. I saw Elvis, Batman, Superman, and Kermit the frog, all running the marathon. We crossed the Chicago river a few times during the run. The distractions were many and we did not realize that we had already run 10 miles! We were having a total blast. It was one huge party and I danced to every band, high-fived all the little kids and posed for all the kodak moments.

Along the way!

It is energizing to see familiar faces in the crowd. What better than Rahul and Amit at mile 10! That is Rahul's head in the picture. They caught Vidhya and me unawares.

The real run begins only after the half we had been told. How very true that is! It was great to meet Amit and Rahul again at mile 21 (China Town). While we were running, they were finding their way through the Chicago metro maze. I saw friends and relatives giving bananas to runners as they passed by, but it was only after the race that I realized why this was so.

@ChinaTown along the route Mile 21

From here on it was downhill for me. I had started cramping in my thighs by now. Hydrating seemed to cause stitches. I drank Gatorade as well, assuming, I was low on some minerals. Vidhya continued to ignore any complaints her body had and headed for the end. I tried to find a pace that was comfortable and had slowed down a lot by now. Everything around me, from here on, is a blur.... I stayed focused and went about getting to the finish line. The trick, as the coaches had told us, was to not let the left half of the brain take over. I was sure that it was not going to happen, but who knows what hallucinations begin at this stage of the marathon! I had only trained until 21 miles and did not know better!

@Finish

It was a great feeling to see the finish line. There were tall barricades the last few miles to keep the crowds from getting on the roads. The crowds were cheering, the music was loud and amidst all the excitement, my eyes were scanning the crowds to find Rahul and Amit. I was ecstatic to find them! I completed in 6:05.

Vidhya was waiting for me at the finish. We had trained together (along with Pratima, who runs her first marathon 30 October'05), the last six months and discussed a lot of philosophy, work issues, family/children on our trainings. It has been very refreshing to know her. It was great to have done this together!

This was the culmination of months or years of training and preparation to achieve a goal. For some it may be to win, for others to improve, while for others it was simply to finish. Regardless of their aim, the starting line showed everybody was united. Although, hours separate the first finisher and the last, the sense of victory and accomplishment is shared by each and every runner.

I have learnt so much from this 6 hour experience. There was a dad and mom, running a marathon, for their son, whom they lost a year ago. The back of their shirts said, “For our son Ian.... 05October 2000... 10Sept 2004.” I crossed them at mile 14 or so, they were going strong physically but she she looked emotionally drained. I was touched! There were many Asha runners who decided to forego their timing goals to “pull” some of their injured friends to the finish line. At the end of the day it was the Triumph of the Human Spirit and the feeling is euphoric. The will to stay on in spite of blanking out, cramping, hurting, bonking and grieving the loss of a loved one takes perseverance and determination- to stay beside an injured friend, foregoing one's own aspirations takes character.

Chicago Marathon Finisher

Back @ Village with my family!

I dedicate this run to my family! My dad, who turned 77 years a month before the run, has been a pillar of strength for me when I was growing up. He instilled confidence in me and my abilities. Growing up in a conservative society in India, I had the privilege to follow my dreams, unlike a lot of people around me! And I have done that, so far, unrestricted! Thank you Papa, thank you Mummy and thank you Raju!

My dear friend and husband Amit continues to believe in me! He has provided me all the support I needed through the rigorous training, taking care of things at home when I was out. My darling son Rahul has been encouraging me throughout. He has also volunteered early in the mornings at water stops, during my Saturday morning long runs. Thank you Amit, thank you Rahul! I could not have done it without your encouragement and support!

Thank you friends for supporting the ASHA program and sponsoring me to my first marathon! Your generosity and constant encouragement has taken me a long way through the last few months. I will continue to cherish our friendship for many years to come! Thank you once again for believing in me and standing by me through the years!