The day an ex-Marine pushed me to perform at my limits…
“How long are you planning to run?”
I turned around, thoroughly exhausted, and saw a stranger, profusely sweating, and running like me. I had never seen him before and there was nobody around. He was obviously addressing me. This was not part of my plan.
This morning, the plan was to put in a ten mile run. Having already run a half marathon race six days back, I thought twice before deciding to go for ten miles. But then to up the stakes, I wondered if I could put in a fast one too. Fast by my standards, of course. I would probably prefer to do a 10:30 min/mile in Sep temperatures on a flat course. I can push to go for 10 min/mile or maybe even sub-10.
I asked myself if I could go for 9 min/mile if I allowed myself a break in the middle. Decided to go for it. Posted the first one at 9:40 as my sleepy body started waking up. Moment the Garmin beeped indicating the first mile was over, I started picking up speed very quickly. I have noticed that if I run the second mile fast and then take rest for 30 seconds and stretch, the rest of the run’s speed is governed by how fast I ran the second mile. I think that speed dictates how quickly the blood rushes into the tissues and the brain and body is put on alert on the effort it might have to adapt to. In any case, I finished the mile in 8 minutes with bursts of 7:40 at times.
Took a breather for 30 seconds and then started the long haul. Predictably the next miles started coming in around 9 min pace – give or take a few seconds. After about 5.5 miles, I had reached where the Chalupa group (my old Sunday morning running group) were finishing up. Drank up some water from the fountain and joined in the picture session with the Chalupa folks. And as they headed out for Starbucks coffee, I dived back into the trail.
After half a mile, the sun hit me pretty bad. There was a long stretch – over a mile where there was no shade and worse – there was a small incline upwards. The energy was starting to peter out very quickly. I started wondering if I could keep up the pace of 9 min/mile. I suddenly realized that not carrying water with me was probably not such a great idea.
Somewhere in the 8th mile, I got into shade and some soft boardwalk. Managed to catch up some lost time but I was starting to get cramps with all the fast breathing. Somehow dragged myself to the end of that mile. 2 more miles to go. The ninth was the worst. Sun was out again. I was fast losing all the mental strength. I toyed with the idea of breaking my own rule and just pull over to take some rest. Decided against it. But the problem was that I could not slow down. First, I had only a few seconds – literally less than a minute to spare to slack from the 9 min/mile pace. Second, overtime I would slow down, I would panic at the thought of missing my mark and would speed up.
Finally got very close to the end of the ninth mile. Still getting beat by the sun, I could hear footsteps coming up from behind. I moved a little more to the right to let the runner pass by me. I was expecting another young high school shirtless kid to zoom past me. But the footsteps never crossed me. It was almost like he/she was following me. I did not have enough energy to even turn around and see if that was the case.
It was then that the voice asked “How long are you planning to run?”
Talking was the last thing in my mind. I was trying to conserve all my energy and breath to finish the last mile before I started throwing up or cramping up too badly.
“10,”, I said, “and I am on my last mile”.
“I am doing 11. This is home stretch for me too. Can I run with you? I am completely drained out. I need some company”.
“Sure. I am not in a great shape either. But I wanted to finish strong”, said I foolishly.
I said “foolishly”, because the gentleman asked “Well, then let’s do it.”
“Do what?”, I asked
“Finish strong. What is your pace?”
“I will be happy with 9:30 right now”.
“I am 8:40. Let’s pace each other”.
Sometimes, having somebody running with you is a great boon. I am not a talker at all during runs but company often forces me to not slack off. Something like that happened. I was so near to dropping off. But his energy level rubbed off on me. Both of us picked up speed. I just needed to stay at 9 min. But I realized that I would be pushed to do 8:40. Funny thing… I was taking the longer strides and he was about half a step behind me. I am not sure I knew what I was doing but I just knew that he and I were going to finish strong. That had given me a second wind. My body was trying to adapt quickly. Sometimes I missed a step and sometimes I came too close to somebody as I passed them. But both of us just kept pushing our bodies. Half a mile later, he gave a loud grunt out and said we are definitely doing faster than 8:40. I glanced at my watch. We were screaming at 8:15. That is an unthinkable pace for me on the 10th mile. Half a mile to go.
All I remember was a minute or two later, he looked up and declared – “We are almost there. Let’s give everything we have”. That is when he started pacing harder. And I was like “Dude, I have given everything I had. And more…”. But I wanted to finish with him. By now, I was half a step behind him. And he kept pushing us harder and harder. One quick glance at the watch – we were doing sub-8s now. 7:55 to be precise. I was too confused to even worry about throwing up after I finished.
50 yards to go. A small hill in front of us. And we would be home!! He started peeling away with every step. He came up with the inhuman strength in the end and just charged up the slope. I tried my best – but I still came about three seconds after him.
Looked at my watch – that was a ten mile at 8:50 pace with the last mile coming in at an astounding 8:05. (astounding for me, again)
Both of us collapsed under a shaded portion of the trail head and all I could hear was my heart pounding away to glory and me panting as if a steam engine was coming thru. Checked the Fitbit – my heart was beating at 192 – over three times my resting heart rate!
After about four or five minutes, we got up.
“I am Tim, by the way. Thank you for that. I had lost all will to run that last mile. You pushed me hard.”
“I pushed you?? And yes, I was losing all mental strength before I saw you. Also, I am called Roy or Raj. The full name is Rajib Roy”.
We hung around for some time. Got to know more about Tim. He is an ex-Marine and told me about a few of the adventures he had as a Marine. Tim is from outside Chicago area and now lives in Georgia.
Towards the end, I asked him what was the biggest lesson he had learnt from his days in the Marines. He thought for a while and said “Probably the difference between pain and suffering”.
“I know what you mean”, I said.
I had a flashback to ten years back when many runners would tell me – I was a novice in running – something that I have never forgotten. And I have found that statement to be true in the larger context of life too.
In life, as in long distance running – Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
I did not have any energy left to go to the car to get my iPhone to take our picture. Instead, we promised to run together again!