I crossed the starting line at 9:20am and just as I was getting used to people around me, the Garmin beeped to say that the first mile was up. I was like – “Already? I can do this another 25 times”. Second mile came a little later. Third mile was noticeably later. By the time I came to the one third mark, I was wary – but still full of energy.
The one-third to one-half mark seemed long. Annoyingly long. But that was nothing compared to what happened after the half point. It was a long uphill plod. Every mile was getting more and more painful. All those kids by the street extending their hands so we would handslap each other was not getting cute anymore. All those old ladies standing outside and clapping and yelling “Bravo” was being appreciated but I was not smiling back to them any more.
I was waiting to hit the wall anytime after the 16th mile (25 KM). I knew the sun was getting unbearably hot and it was going to be a thin line between keeping myself hydrated with sips and getting sick with too much water in my stomach. More importantly, I was losing salt and electrolytes quickly with the salt. So, I kept on sipping my Tailwind mixture by instinct.
At 17th mile (27km), I thought I got dizzy a little. But there was absolutely no shade – just barren mountains and small towns. Finally, around 18th mile (29km), I pulled under a bus stand in a small town and gave myself a break. I knew I needed to keep my chemicals in balance but the mouth did not want any more sweet tasting Tailwind. It just wanted to taste simple water.
Pulled back into the road, felt a little dizzy for the next couple of minutes but plodded on. At the next water station, grabbed half a banana, very slowly ate it, careful not to take in too much air or choke myself. And then grabbed a bottle of water. Throwing training to the winds, I decided to run with two bottles in two hands – Tailwind in one and water in the other. The dizziness went away slowly.
Finally reached the top at 20 miles. Then started the downhill run. The slope was welcome. The sun – by now, it was well past 1PM and for the last two weeks, Greece has been having an unseasonably warm advent of winter – was seemingly merciless on the skin. Especially on my shaved scalp – inspite of the cap. Slowly but surely, the energy was draining. No wall yet though.
By the time I pulled into the penultimate water break station on mile 22 (37 km), I could barely think. I was having difficulty converting miles to kms. (I trained in and my watch showed miles, but the markers for the race were in kms. Sometimes 13 km seemed a long ways to go. But when I thought about it as 8 miles – I was like – okay, I can do this). Everybody had slowed down. We just needed to play safe and finish up the last 3 miles (5km). My mind was a total etch-a-sketch at that point. I knew I was low on salt and sugar if I could not figure how to multiply or divide by 1.6.
I grabbed a bottle of water at the station. Told myself – it is downhill – go with the rest – one way or the other I will make it. Just don’t fall down, trip up or pull over. (at this point it was more painful to stop than to just keep going). Sitting down was a no-no. I would get dizzy the moment I attempted to get up and then no one knows what would happen.
But something did happen at that moment. And there is no way I can describe the exact onset of the moment. In fact, till that point, I can give you a continuous description of the great experiences I had had. After that, though, all I have been able to do is stitch together some distinct memory points I can recall. As I was saying, after a flurry of bad possibilities went thru my mind, it was like a beast mode came on. All I know was the last 5 kms were a blur. I remember returning the bottle of water after one long swig and ran the rest with only my electrolyte bottle. I remember that instead of keeping steady pace or even going slower…. I SPEEDED up.
I remember watching my Garmin which was steadily pacing at about 11 min/mile go to 10:45.. then 10:30… 10.15… 10.00…9.45 and then I stopped checking. If there is ever a thing called a Runner’s High, I must have been on it. I remember weaving thru many many runners – almost tripped on one of them. Astonishingly, I now realize that I skipped the final water station. Apparently, I must have blithely sailed thru. But more as a man possessed than as a man who knew what he was doing. Everything I was doing at that time is exactly what I will tell somebody not to do. But, frankly, I am not even sure I know that “I” that seemed to have taken over.
With 2 km to go, I remember gliding thru the city crowds. Five hours into the race, they were still five people deep on the sides of the street. I was still weaving thru the runners. I remember that unlike the rest of my run and all the runners around me, I was not running with my head down and bent torso. I remember my head being up and the torso being straight and the ankles hitting high like they say you are supposed to do. That posture gave me a lot of confidence in the run. However, in one moment of consciousness, I suddenly realized what I was doing and told myself to slow down. It is precisely then I saw the first glimpse of the stadium. I went back into my stupor again.
The next thing I remember was taking a left turn to get into the entrance of the stadium. An amazing spectacle of history, architecture and thousands of citizens cheering on is what met my eyes. And I also remember speeding up again. I could feel no pain. I could only see the arch that marked the end point.
Even more surprisingly, once I finished the run and my consciousness came back, I expected to droop my head, sit down on the side and catch my breath. But nothing like that happened. In fact, my first action after finishing the run was to help a runner take a picture of herself with the stadium as the background. Evidently, whatever had possessed me was taking time to leave me.
For the last twenty four hours, I have been trying to drum up some logic into what happened to me. Clearly, running a minute or so faster per mile for the last three miles wasn’t exactly going to make me look like a hero when the whole race was going to take me nearly five hours. I was not trying to beat any other friend that I was competing with either. I have no idea what the heck happened to me.
I did find the answer to one question I had woken up to that morning. Remember, that picture of myself as the competition – my mind versus his body – who would be the better man?
Looking back at that moment when I gave back the water bottle – that was precisely the moment and place where that decision was made….
The rest was just about keeping one foot in front of the other repeatedly.