The day before the race was about lists. Gu gels and salt packed in individual pouches, sugar tablets loaded, cap picked out, T-shirt selected. I went over my list of gear over and over again. I cut my toenails, readied my garbage bag, drained my legs. I felt prepared and pumped. I visualized myself at the finish line in glory, celebrating.
I went to bed early. But, I could not sleep. I tossed and turned. Obsessing over details, I suddenly wanted to wear my blue long sleeve shirt. I woke up an hour into my sleep charade looking for it. I couldn’t find it. I tried to convince myself saying my first choice – the athletic gold short sleeved team T-shirt was the better one anyway. Back to sleep. More doubts kept creeping in. WhatsApp messages kept pinging. My running mates were obviously in a similar state of feverish nervousness.
The eventful day arrived. It was way too early, yet I ate my breakfast as planned. I went to the restroom as planned and drove myself to our carpool location. I was so glad to be going together. We found our spot and put on our gear – special mention here of the stylish garbage bags we donned. Selfies done, we marched somberly into the waves. Restrooms were clean and no lines at this hour – first restroom stop of what I didn’t realize was going to be the saga of the day. We located the rest of our group. The cheers arose, more selfies were taken. We were ready to go and conquer.
I started slowly. My new GPS watch gave me a good pace – as I had planned. My greedy mind began extrapolating the sense of well being to the entire race. I salivated internally going over optimistic scenarios of finishing with a good pace. My coaches would have disapproved of trying to run the clock in our very first marathon, but the mind wanders off track in strange ways during long runs.
Around Mile 4, heading out towards Golden Gate bridge, trouble began. I was on my period and with that sometimes comes a general feeling of incontinence. A little into the run, I began to feel the urge to go to the restroom again. This was not in my plan. I had emptied my insides – or so I had thought. My mind was slowly being taken over by my gut. You know how they always tell you to listen to your gut? Now I know why. When your gut talks, there is no listening to anything else.
Mile 5, right before Golden Gate bridge, I found myself in a frustratingly long line of restroom bound runners. I waited impatiently, telling myself that once I took care of this pesky business I would be all speed. I watched my running mates run past into the fog.
Finally, I put my shoes on the road again. I noticed at the bridge how wet the ground was. It was slippery. It was cold. I didn’t realize then, I was probably already low on sugar. I had taken some Gu before I made that pit stop so I didn’t understand what was happening at that point. I met some of my running mates. Was I glad to see them! I didn’t want to admit it, but I was beginning to feel miserable. All through I kept fighting the urge to go to the restroom. The Golden Gate bridge seemed very long that morning.
Mile 9, on the way back from the Gate, there was one more restroom stop. This time, the line wasn’t that long but the porta-potty was out of toilet paper. I internally thanked my coaches for their vast coverage of running topics and congratulated myself on my foresight of packing some bathroom tissue. Small victories!
Mile 12 or so, we reached the Golden Gate park. I had lost count of when I took the last Gu. I did eat somewhere in between, but I realized I hadn’t taken any salt. So I popped in one salt tablet. I met up with the bigger group at the park. It was the most comforting thing at that time to catch up with the group.
Our mentor Rahul’s voice boomed through the fog in my head reminding us to take our Gu and salt regularly. I resolved to be more attentive to my intakes for the rest of the run, but my brain was already feeling a bit scrambled. Later, my running mate Pramoda aptly described my situation. It was like you go for all the Lamaze classes and read up everything you can about childbirth. But when you are in labor, you forget all the foo and faa. All you want to do is scream.
Mile 13, I saw the half marathon exit and I found myself detachedly wondering how it would be to finish at that point.
Around Mile 15, Pramoda noticed I was in some kind of distress. She slowed down with Roopa – another running mate. My heart overflowed with gratitude for them. They pushed and goaded me. I managed to stick to someone or the other for the rest of the run. I heard myself constantly complaining. I was becoming very petulant. I called my husband somewhere in the park hungry for plain old sympathy. Pepped up a little after that, I trudged on. Looking at my pace only added to my distress so I told myself to skip it altogether. I kept running in auto mode. I was not in much physical pain just a sense of fatigue and despondency.
My mind was compromised, but my body had gone through the training – my limbs kept moving pushing through my low morale. And even when the details seemed to have dissolved in my mind, thanks to my training, I just could not entertain an option of giving up. I kept going.
Around Mile 17, one more restroom stop occurred somewhere in the park. I began to realize I had to fight this feeling. I told myself it was all like Maya – an illusion. I also realized it was very important for me to keep up with the group.
I had a wistful thought at some point- While the rest of the runners were enjoying the misty fog on the golden gate, the beautiful trails of golden gate park I was partaking of the scenic insides of wayside porta-potties.
Later, after the race, I went through the snapshots I had unconsciously taken during the run – images of such bravery- I am overcome by humility. A one-handed man breezing through, septuagenarians speeding past, a woman pushing her handicapped daughter in a stroller, my own running mates running smilingly with through falls, blisters, pain, limps. Everyone vanquishing their own demons. Persevering. Finishing.
Roopa had a pearl of wisdom while we were comparing notes during the run. You go through all the preparations and scenarios, but who knows what happens on that day. You just have to go keep going. Finish it. We were all going to finish what we started. In any condition.
At mile 19 or so, I was overjoyed. Single Digits to track for the rest of the run! I took my sugar as a well-earned reward. Towards the last bit of the race, my goal was just to see the next Vibha volunteer. What joy they brought! Warm hugs, eyes shining with pride, words brimming with encouragement. It was such a boost to our spirits. I have so much gratitude for them. Poonam with the samosas like manna from heaven, Gita and Nafeeza with curd rice. Thomas suddenly appeared like an oasis in a desert, goading us on. And then, Sharda at the end – seeing her meant we were ever so close.
Last 5 miles – I was now running with Archana, my running mate. She was in pain but in such good mental spirits. I borrowed some good cheer from her as well as from Roopal limping through like a diva and Pramoda steadily pushing through. Keep going, keep going.
At one point, I caught myself looking longingly at fancy restrooms on the way. I knew I was going to find all this funny very shortly, but at that time it was yet another frustrating distraction.
The last few miles were very long. Archana and I kept looking for the promised red arrow sculpture. Finally, we saw the finish line. The last push! We saw our families cheering.
My 4-year-old ran and finished the last few steps with me.
Months of training, miles of running. 26.2. DONE.
It was the end of one journey but hopefully only the beginning of more running journeys.
Postscript- The miles after 26.2 :-
This is perhaps the most important part of the write-up. Finishing the Marathon was one thing, but I will always be grateful to the coaches, the mentor and the team to highlight to us that the finish line was not the end. Since then, the team has come together on practice runs, done a 50K and signed up for several more races. The race taught me that everyone’s goal and their journey is different. Clocking in a set time or breaking a PR might be someone’s goal, but may not be what you are after. What is important is to enjoy the runs – the race day as well as all the runs leading to it and after. For any of you contemplating it, do it! It is a wonderful gift to yourself. Happy running!