Continuing on from Part One, here’s the next part written in my Covid self confinement
Months went by and my half marathon achievement was all but a distant memory. My marathon plans long forgotten.
One day my colleagues suggested we go for a light run after work. Having not trained for a very long time, after barely 8km I was already struggling, slow and out of breath. Somehow my left knee just did not feel right. When they asked me how many weeks until my marathon, it hit me. I had only 8 weeks left. To put that into perspective, 3 months is generally the advised minimum time one needs to train for a marathon. Matt, my colleague and a veteran of 3 marathons, told me how he used to run 30km every weekend for his training before the race. And here I was, barely surviving a 8km run. This was the wake up call I needed, because there was no way in hell I was about to do 42km.
My training started that weekend. I decided to go for just a short jog around the neighbourhood because my left knee complained anytime I tried to go any further. As I drew close to the end of my run, I felt my foot catch an uneven part of the pavement. I stumbled and with my legs too weak to stabilise myself, it turned in a fall and I was propelled headfirst into the hot morning asphalt. I found myself on the ground in a strewn heap, momentarily dazed, my glasses nowhere to be seen. A crowd of old ladies started to gather around me, the inspecting the curiosity that had interrupted their morning stroll. As the pain finally began to emerge, I picked both myself and my pride off the pavement and apologetically signaled to the crowd that I was OK. I inspected the damage. There was a massive bloody gash on shoulder, a bruised face, my hand and wrist were torn with blood. ‘Well, at least my legs are still ok’, I assured myself. That’s all I needed to still run, right?
Bruised but unfazed, my training continued as I started adding more distance to my runs. I was still woefully slow, but I could see my pace gradually improving as I was surviving for longer. My regime of after work home runs begun again and the challenge now was trying to find creative ways to extend them further. I found myself running in the dark through unlit park pathways, chased by a phantasmagoria of awaiting murderers spurring me on faster. Not wishing for an encore performance of my fall, I also had to keep a keen eye on uneven surfaces in the dark. For inspiration, I listened to audio books by Haruki Murakami, Meb Keflezighi, and David Goggins. I remember, exhausted after one training run, when I finally managed to achieve the distance of a half marathon, 21kms, I thought, wow, do I seriously need to be able run that entire distance again? Every extra step I had to take was already associated with an exponential amplification of stabbing pain in my legs. It was also in that moment that I could really start to respect the distance of a full marathon, whereas before 42kms was merely an abstract number in my head.
Along with the training came the inevitable injuries. The pain in my left knee never actually went away as I had hoped. How far I could last was limited to the point when my knee would feel like it was detaching itself from its ligaments, whereby I would need to limp the rest of the way home. When I finally saw my physio, she questioned the efficacy (and sanity) of my masochistic tendencies. It also seemed that as a result of this injury, the right side of body had also been overcompensating for the imbalance and was now too tight. To untangle all the knots I never knew existed, she put me through brutal massage I had ever experienced, then strapped my leg with k-tape and sent me on my way.
About one month out from my marathon, the Sydney Running Festival was in town and even though I wasn’t a participant, I had planned on cheering my enthusiastic running friend Harshi at the finish line. It was also a training weekend so I needed to work out a plan for where and how I could still get in my runs in. Then an idea occurred to me. The festival’s finish line was at the Sydney Opera House, why don’t I just make my commute there on foot? No, I didn’t exactly live close by, it was around 28kms away I worked out using Google maps. Although the idea might have also seemed a bit crazy, sanity didn’t seem to be a restraining factor at this point in time, everything had just become a new challenge. So on the day, with my body still adjusting to being wrenched out of bed (these events seemed to always start painfully early), I laced up my Asics and hit the dew covered pavement. Between the rhythm of steady breaths, it was fascinating to be able to clearly see in the vista of the rising sun, the paths that I normally ran in the dark of night home from work. It didn’t take long for the sun to start aggressively wear me down and my enthusiasm start to wane as I traversed distances previously unencountered.
Battered by the time I finally arrived in the CBD, I also realised all the roads had been closed off for the marathon. Watching the competitive runners pass by and unsure how I was going to proceed to the Opera House, it occurred to me the most direct route there was lined with markers and cheering onlookers on both sides. As I slipped seamlessly unnoticed into the race, my energy suddenly lifted and the fatigue that had pulled me down moments ago all but dissipated. Shoulder to shoulder with fellow runners, my battle was no longer a solitary struggle, but one of solidarity with all of us striving and perspiring together against this Sunday morning asphalt. Over the overpass that had been especially built over Hyde Park, I felt faster and stronger, as I powered through corners and overtook other runners with ease.
That morning, as I met Harshi at the finish line (and no, I didn’t run through it), in the midst of a sea of other runners, I came appreciate what our shared experience meant to us. An experience in which words are too impoverished to describe, yet can be more easily understood with your running shoes on. It’s in the meditative rhythm of the body, bearing witness to the clear present experience unintruded by the disruptive thoughts of a stressful day. It’s in the catharsis of searing pain from your screaming quads as you are compelled to explode into another step forward. It’s in the fits of euphoria as you hurtle down the hill after every last speck of energy was spent ascending it. It’s in knowing that any obstacle, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, will eventually crumble, if we can just keep our attention, not on the raging monster ahead of us, but on the humble work of putting just one more foot in front of the other. This is why we run.
As the race drew nearer, more injuries came and went. I had a fight with a stationary bin as I was running towards it. The bin won and I was left with a bloodied gash on left arm. A blister had formed on my toe, and I had to keep applying Vaseline before each run to keep it down. I had now perfected my pre-run routine involving strapping my left knee with k-tape to keep it in place and stocking up on energy gels to use along the route.
My goal was to achieve a finishing time within 4 hours and 15 minutes. Although coming in under four hours would have made it a nice round number, that would be trying to achieve my sub two hour half marathon time back to back on my first full marathon. Realistically, given the pace I was doing on my training runs, there was no way I was even going to be close. In fact, just aiming to finish the race would be epic achievement in itself.
During a grueling 28 km running through scenic Kiama, my wife followed me along on her bike as we took in the breathtaking splendour of the Woonora river. Towards the end of the run, my right calf felt like it was being stabbed every time I put another step forward. In between my long distance runs, I also mixed in more intense interval training and performed lunge and box jumps to condition my legs. I needed to tread a fine line between being fit enough to survive the distance and pushing my body too hard and causing injury to my already stressed body. The longest training run I did was 35 km, where I had maxed out the number detours I could find on my route home. By the end of it, my legs were basically made of lead, as I struggled to lift one after another and wincing through the pain as I put the next one down.
On my final training run a week before the race, I felt like I was an old man, I was slow and my feet ached all the way, wearied from all the training. I now just needed to rest and let my body recover for the final day.