Running the Kolkata Airtel Marathon, 2010
For all the primal manliness associated with running long distances, the problems caused by it sound quite lame. Jogger’s nipple, cracked toenails and runner’s trot to name a few. It’s well worth it though. Besides maintaining physical health, it instills a sense of peace and lets you space out. I enjoy running very much, and just like driving enthusiasts dream of flying by the empty roads at night, I wanted to run through the roads of the city in the early morning. On my way home one evening, I noticed a billboard advertising a marathon organised by Airtel. This was a chance to live my dream out. Only the roads weren’t quite empty, but I’ll get to that later.
I found about the marathon about 3 weeks before it was scheduled. My preparation was shoddy, running 3 kilometers every few days, and on one instance I ran for 1 ½ hours. And throw in a half hour of half court basketball at college. That’s about it. I just wanted to see if I could complete this run irrespective of whatever my fitness level was.
The marathon was to start at 7 am, on a cool Sunday morning in February. Luckily it was cool, or half of us would not have finished. Well, about half of the runners didn’t finish anyway. They were dropping out like flies. Were it warmer, even fewer could have gone through with it.
I reached the spot at 6:30, and immediately started looked for the most important joint. The john. Before every race, I like to relieve myself. Lighten the load a bit. After snooping around, I found one, but it was only for the ladies. Anyway, there was a drain nearby. Moving on.
There was some small confusion about where we were to assemble. Eventually we were herded together in a field and I got my first look at the guys I’d be competing with. It was a mixed crowd. There were quite a few middle aged guys. Most looked fit with intimidating physiques. Real pehelwan types. There were a bunch of lean guys who really looked like they meant business. Then there were the casual runners, mostly young ones. Everyone was warming up in their own way. Stretching and jogging around. At first I just stood around, waiting for someone to enquire why I wasn’t warming up. I really wanted to scoff and say “You ever see a lion limber up before it takes down a gazelle?” a la Tallahassee from Zombieland.
After five minutes of staring at people in a calculated way to arouse their curiosity re me not stretching/creeping them out I relented and began warming up.
To add to the confusion, the participation papers cited two different qualification timings to be eligible for a certificate/medals. For perspective, the best timing of Arun Bhardwaj, the ultramarathon runner, is 3 hours 34 minutes at Meerut in 2006.
One of the papers said “3 hrs 00 mts”, other “3hr, 15 mins”. Wish they’d make up their minds.
We started off a few minutes after 7am. Predictably, quite a few runners started off fast. At the start of every race, regardless of its distance, some guys treat it as a 100m run. Maybe they plan to build a lead early. Some of them probably ended up finishing in the top 10. Most lost steam after a couple of miles. I kept it slow, enjoying the sights of the city in the early foggy morning. I figured it was going to get real rough about halfway through the race.
This was the first time I had taken part in any race longer than 10km. Outside of a race; I figure the longest I’ve ever run would be around 20km. I’ve always felt that I could run for hours at a slow pace with a comfortable rhythm. This was a chance to put it to test.
The first test came sooner than I imagined. Near the 5km mark, a guy overtook me. He was over 60 years old. Now that was hardcore. I hope when I get to his age, I can still take on a marathon and fly ahead of guys one-third my age. I still felt a manly impulse to race ahead of him; it took some self control to fight it down. Instead of speeding up, I let him pass, hoping we would meet again.
As the distance wore on, little by little I began to overtake some runners. By that point, those guys were just walking along. For me, this was a turtle race. I just wanted to finish, regardless of the time it took me. Although for the first 30 kilometers I did go at a strong pace. Later on, after crossing some slopes and bridges, my speed had reduced to a crawling jog.
I’ve studied management for three years.
One of the few things I’ve learned is that using symbols and graphs and comparing an x with a y is an impressive way to make a point. Hence the table. I barely fought down the urge to shove in a powerpoint presentation somewhere.
At one point, before reaching Science City, I was some steps behind a tough group of muscle bound guys. At the start of the race, I was in awe of their strength. Now, all I saw was the extra muscle mass they had to carry along. I hoped to overtake them in the next five kilometers, but luck was against them here. As they came up to an intersection, the policeman noticed us and waved the traffic to stop, but a truck kept on its course blocking the path of those guys. People shouted at the driver and he passed ahead quickly, but he had stalled them for a few seconds. After that point, they began to walk. I didn’t see them again.
Every few kilometers, volunteers were standing by, holding placards bearing the number of kilometers covered. They were usually stationed at crossroads and intersections to make sure the runners did not veer off the right path. Although there were a couple of occasions where I had to ask people who were coming from the other way to point me the right way.
There were also refreshment stands at intervals, where the volunteers gave out water and glucose in Styrofoam cups and bottles. They were also handing out biscuits with the regular fare in the last few stands. A quick tip for the runners, it’s not easy to drink from a glass while running and if you want to have a drink without slowing down or without spilling more fluid down you shirt than down you gullet, try this: pinch the rim of the glass to form a V, this makes it easier to pour the drink in a narrow flow. The refreshment stands also handed out wet foam sponges. These are used to squeeze water over your body to cool off. It really helped as my legs were scorching hot from the constant pounding.
There were only a couple of issues with the refreshment stands. Firstly, the litter caused by the bottles and cups looked ugly. This is standard in marathons, wherever they may be held. Although there are garbage dumps scattered all along the road, it may help to have bins placed about 100 meters away from every refreshment stand, for runners to drop their discarded glasses in. My motivation to take part in this marathon was as much as to go the distance as to run through the city. The run was made possible by the support of the traffic police and the general public who gave preference to the runners over the traffic of the vehicles for one morning. This was the first time I went around Kolkata without encountering a single red light. Littering the city along the way seems like an ungrateful way to leave a mark.
The second issue, albeit on a lighter note, also dealt with refreshment stands. Memory is hazy here, but I think this was the last stand before the finish line. By this point it didn’t feel like I was running anymore. My upper body was moving and dragging my dead legs along. By now the finish line was only a few more kilometers away. In the distance, I spotted a refreshment stand like a weary traveler on a desert looks at a mirage and sees hula dancers around a swimming pool handing out drinks. I approached the stand like a yapping dog with his tongue out. Now a word about the volunteers, they are instructed to jog alongside the runners and hand them drinks while keeping pace with them, sort of like changing batons during relay races.
At this stand the nearest volunteer came up alongside me and held out a glass. I reached out for it, and like a mirage, she started to recede into the distance. This was no vision. What was happening was, in trying to keep pace with me, she was actually going faster than I was. I frantically motioned to her to stop worrying about slowing me down and just hand me the glass before I collapse. She finally handed me the glass with an apologetic smile and said something encouraging. That helped a bit.
Around the 35 km mark, I suppose I may have been the last guy still in the race. I assume this because an ambulance of Apollo Gleneagles started to come up to me at intervals and offered me a ride to the finish line. It wasn’t very tempting, as I figured if I’ve made it this far, might as well as go all the way. After the 4th or 5th time of me signaling them thumbs up they got the hint.
There was another ride, a bus full of guys who had dropped out of the race. When it passed me, all of them collectively cried out and waved for me to join them, whether out of compassion or a ‘If I go, I’m taking you with me’ mentality I’m not sure. (I suspect the latter). I declined, as by then we had reached the maidan area where the run began. The run was almost over.
At long last, I came within view of the starting point. Fittingly, it wasn’t far from a basketball court. But things looked quite different than they did at the beginning. The pandal/platform was in the process of being taken down, and there was no clear finish line to be seen. Coming closer I crossed a point that seemed like the finish line. I hunched over for a minute, looking around for some sign that I had indeed completed the marathon. A policeman came over and asked me if there were any more runners behind me. I half shrugged and shook my head.
I asked around for the time, it was between 11:30- 45 according to my survey. Some people have a habit of keeping their watches ahead of time, so that they are early for things. Others keep their watches late, usually students who like to be surprised when a boring class ends before time. So I’m not sure about my exact timing, it was somewhere between 4 hours and 15-30 minutes.
There was a building nearby, where the organizers were gathered, they were taking back the chest numbers and giving out food boxes and a free Airtel t-shirt that smelled of kerosene. The food consisted of pastry and sandwiches. Five star meals didn’t taste this good.
I walked for half an hour in the direction of my home, as there wasn’t a direct bus in that direction until some distance away, also because its recommended to walk a couple of miles after finishing a marathon to cool the legs off.
Later in the day, I looked around the Internet to see who else (besides pro athletes) had completed a marathon in 4 ½ hrs. I came across this link:
As of 2005, 4 ½ hours is the average timing of the average US male. Seems that my timing was the same as Shia LaBeouf and Oprah Winfrey. The thought of my blazing speed being the same as that of a slightly overweight, middle aged women who is not a professional athlete is some major motivation for me to run a marathon again and improve my timing.
- Dude, are you telling me you can’t best her timing in a marathon?
Next year, I hope to shave off an hour from my timing. For those who completed the marathon in 3 hrs 15 minutes, Airtel gave them a certificate acknowledging their achievement. If I manage it, I’ll put up a picture here.
Update: So there wasn’t a full marathon this year. Here’s the report of a 7k run:
Running the Amity 7k Run