Long Walks On Leafy Streets

1/1/2018 Rock Creek Park, Wshington, DC.
Marathon, Part IV (Conclusion).

It is New Year’s Day, 2018 and bitterly cold air from the Arctic has blanketed the Eastern two thirds of the U.S. Those who doubt the science behind climate change will no doubt proclaim an end to global warming but simple statistics and common sense show that things are just not normal. The Arctic air is not staying within the Arctic circle anymore. Anyway, Prashant and I are at the bakery Paul in Georgetown while his mom is doing the annual New Year’s Day hike with the Sierra Club. We did this hike together when she was pregnant, in 2015. In 2016 I did it with my good friend Neal and his family while Nicole stayed home. I didn’t do it last year. This year Nicole is training for the annual One Day Hike that goes from Georgetown to Harper’s Ferry and back, a distance of 100 kms (62.5 miles). She plans to do the 50 km option. That hike takes place on the C&O canal towpath along the Potomac, as does the 10-mile hike today.

The holidays have been a mixed bag this year. Nicole’s beloved maternal grandfather, whom Prashant is named after, passed away a few days before Christmas. He was 98. Nicole was in Philadelphia for a couple of days attending the funeral. We are grateful that he went peacefully and that all of her family was able to gather together to celebrate his life. After that her mother, brother Michael and her cousin Hakim were with us for a few days. We had a somber Christmas celebration. The three of us guys saw Star Wars. I found it to be surprisingly satisfying, with its forays into philosophy. This idea of an energy that is present in all of us is close to my heart. As I have written before, the core of Advaita philosophy is that the universe is One.

I have also been running in the cold weather. Yesterday I ran 8 miles. The temperature was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. With the wind it felt even colder. The first two miles of a run are always the hardest, but in cold weather even more so. I ran at a steady pace and started feeling warm after 2 miles but still my fingers and toes were almost numb by the time I got home, even with gloves. It felt good to put them up against the hot radiator pipes. That was the longest I have run since the marathon. I am continuing to run mostly at an easy pace, in accordance with what the running coaches (on the internet) advise. The body is getting used to the longer runs. Apparently running at an easy pace helps the body develop aerobic capacity and the ability to use fat rather than glucose for energy. Regardless of what happens, I really enjoy the runs. The Marathon gives that extra inspiration but I have always enjoyed running.

When I stopped the last post I was writing about how my good friend Alan was there to cheer me on between mile 7 and 8 and that I was so happy to see him that it caused a rush of blood to the head. My eyesight became cloudy and the interplay of light and shade due to the trees along the Parkway made me feel vaguely dizzy. I must admit I was a bit concerned at that point even though it was mild and did not last very long. I knew it was due to low blood sugar but I wasn’t feeling terribly tired or weak, yet. Had been running at a pace well below what I had planned. I was hoping that somehow the body would be able to find some reserves of glucose, in spite of having been sick and not eating much in the preceding days. The last thing I wanted to do was to become a statistic, let alone drop out of the race.

I had been consuming the gel blocks, which are just concentrated sugar, starting around mile 6. I had planned to take more of those than usual. I also drank Gatorade whenever it was offered. The idea is to take in as much as possible in the beginning because in the later stages the body is too stressed to absorb anything. Just before mile 10 someone offered oranges. Oranges are amazingly energizing, especially when you are low on fuel, and I gulped them down. I wished they gave more than a couple of slices!

My pace, already less than planned, was slowly getting reduced further. I was still running under 9 minutes a mile, but barely so. It still was not too bad. I maintained hopes of finishing under 4 hours. Between mile 12 and 13 is what is called the “Blue Mile.” The road is lined on both sides with pictures of fallen Marines. The runners go quietly on this stretch. Seeing those young faces that were taken away before they could even get started on their promising lives filled me with sadness. One has to admire their commitment to their country, that they were ready to give their lives for it, whether or not one agrees with the reasons for the wars. I personally am a pacifist and against all wars, but given that I live in this country and benefit from it I have to recognize the debts I owe to them and to this country.

I hope in the future we have more enlightened leaders who would wage war against mankind’s real enemies – disease, hunger, environmental degradation, slavery and killing and oppression of our fellow human beings. Right now the biggest threat facing us is climate change. How I wish there were millions of young people ready to die in order to fight it! If it were not for the fact that I have a family I would certainly be willing to do it, in a peaceful way of course. Even now I hope to do more to fight climate change. Death can happen in any field of work, so one cannot avoid doing things because of it. Over this break I watched a documentary about the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, the current President of France. There is a scene where his security team tries to prevent him from meeting some people because they are afraid for his life. He tells them that this is how it is now, there is always the threat of violence, but we cannot stop doing the right thing because we are afraid. He certainly is an enlightened leader in many ways.

From mile 11 to 15 we are also running around Hains Point, in what are called West and East Potomac Parks. This is one of the most scenic areas in Washington, DC. There is the Franklin Roosevelt memorial here, as well as a public Golf course, fishing piers, picnic areas and places where kids can run around. It is actually an artificial piece of land created by dredging the Potomac but with views of the river and the tidal basin all around it is a great place for a family outing. I have taken my parents here and Nicole and I have been there with Prashant. The halfway point of the Marathon is located pretty much at the tip of the Hains Point peninsula. After passing that I heard what sounded like a big army marching behind me. Pretty soon a whole bunch of runners passed me by, headed by a guy with a flag saying “3:45.” This was one of the pace runners sponsored by Cliff’s energy bars. They maintain a steady pace throughout the 26 miles. In this case this guy was running at an 8:30 pace, to finish in 3 hours and 45 minutes. I knew at that point that there was no way I could catch them. They were soon far ahead of me and vanished from view.

I was still hoping that eventually I would be able to increase my pace or at least maintain enough of it to finish under four hours. But after the 14th mile I started steadily slowing down without even realizing it. Although I was trying hard to maintain my pace, the body had simply run out of gas. The right side of my abdomen started hurting. It is probably what they call a side-stitch, resulting from either improper breathing or unbalanced gait. It could have been also because the liver was stressed because it could not produce any more glucose, but more likely it was just side-stitches caused by stress induced heavy breathing. This happens when I run too fast, beyond the body’s capacity to maintain it. Although I had run well within myself, the lack of sugar had made it difficult.

So I slowed down further. After mile 15 I was barely moving. In last year’s marathon I maintained a nine-minute per mile pace until the last six miles. Even in those last six miles I ran at close to a ten minute pace. But now I was shambling along at over 11 minutes per mile. By now we were back in downtown D.C., running along Independence Ave. There were hundreds of people along the way cheering the runners. I had barely enough energy to smile at anyone. Every marathon runner seemed to be passing me by but I didn’t care anymore. Between mile 17 and 18 I spotted my friend Manuel. I wasn’t expecting to see him so it was a very pleasant surprise. Manuel is an old friend of mine. We met at a biking meetup first. We have biked together a lot. He has also been to many of my hikes and we often go out to watch football games. He was one of the groomsmen at my wedding and played saxophone while my nephew Nitin sang a Tamil movie song. After getting married and having Prashant we haven’t been able to hang out much but still meet up occasionally. I was very happy to see him and it gave me a big boost.

I was now running at a steady pace of about 11:45. The body was slowly relaxing and the pain on my right side had subsided. Clearly it was burning fat at this point but try as I might there just wasn’t any glucose left in the body for me to increase the pace any further. The gel blocks and the Gatorade provided enough sugar to provide energy for a few minutes or about half a mile but then I had to wait for the next one and for the next mile and a half it was back to the slog. Somewhere in downtown DC someone gave me a few pieces of pretzels and I must say they sustained me better than the gel blocks and the Gatorade. We passed by the museums and more crowds of people many of whom were holding signs for “Priti” and then through the “gauntlet” of cheerleaders just before the 14th St Bridge at mile 20. One of the conditions of the race is that one should “beat the bridge” by 1.15 pm, maintaining a pace of 14 minutes per mile. I was still running at an overall pace of 9:30 so I could at least feel good about that. All the crowds and the music and the beating of drums momentarily lifted me up and I even enjoyed it for a few minutes.

But then once you get on to the bridge it was just you and the other runners. There were no cheering crowds, just a half a mile of dreary asphalt (or is it concrete?), the first half of which was uphill. There were even some policemen near the ends of the bridge. Were they making sure no one tried to make a shortcut by running under the bridge to the finishing point thus cutting about six miles from the race? Probably not but that is what it seemed like to me, at that point. Pretty soon the 4 hour pace team passed me by and I knew even 4 hours was beyond my reach. It was a bit of a disappointment because last year was my first marathon and I ran it at just over 4 hours. But at that point I was so tired I did not even have the energy to be disappointed. By now my goal was simply to finish the race and I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to just stop and take the nearest available mode of transportation to the finishing point. I was glad that at the least my feet were moving and that no part of my body was hurting or collapsing.

After crossing the bridge we ran for a couple of miles in Crystal City. By now I was completely out of gas and my pace had gone down even further, down to 12 and then 13 minutes per mile. I was making myself go from water point to water point. As I mentioned before these were located every two miles. Chew on a gel bock, drink Gatorade, get a momentary boost for perhaps half a mile, and then keep going for the next mile and a half by putting one foot in front of the other and pushing the body to its limit until the next water point. In Crystal City there were more cheering crowds and thumping music and people handing out various snack items. A nice lady handed me a cup of soda, perhaps it was Coca Cola I couldn’t tell. I rarely drink soda these days, but that cup of soda was my best ever. It gave me a surprisingly large burst of energy. Not to make me suddenly run faster or anything but enough to make me feel normal for the next half a mile or so. There was also a guy dressed in a shirt and for whatever reason only underwear below the waist that was handing out beer. I used to drink beer for a few years in my thirties but stopped that because it was bothering my mother. I could not marry a Tamil Brahmin girl arranged by her like she wanted but not drinking alcohol was easy because I was only doing it for social occasions anyway. Also I don’t know why drinking beer is such a big deal. Maybe you have to drink enough of it to really enjoy it but I seem to get enough enjoyment in life and energy for it without coffee and alcohol. To cut a long story short I did not accept the beer. I did try everything else people offered, many of them from sponsors. One person passed out packets of cookies but after one bite I just had to throw it in the trash. Whoever thought giving those particular sweets in the last few miles of the marathon must be a good idea has not really ever run one.

After Crystal City only two more miles were left in the race but they were the hardest. We were now running on a highway and except for a few volunteers cheering people on it was just runners, and the roads were not as packed with them as before. People were just dragging themselves along. Some were run/walking or walk/running. As I saw last year, all along the race you pass by people who either stop and drop out or just collapse on the side. In these last couple of miles some were throwing up and getting medical attention.

As for me I was going by pure will power. The body and the mind had long lost energy and enthusiasm. When you go through something that tests the limits of your body and mind it peels away layer after layer of your ego and attachment to this thing that you call “I” and you have to dig deeper until you reach something that is beyond what you call “I.” You are then able to find the courage and the energy to do things that, if you listened to your body and mind, you would never be able to do. From a young age I have been a bit different, thinking about such things as why do we exist and what is life, etc., Lately I have been thinking a lot about death, especially after attending the memorial service of our beloved colleague Ralph Turner. But thinking about something is one thing, feeling it powerfully in every cell of your body is another.

We go about our lives developing what the Buddhists call “mental formations.” The Hindu scriptures talk about the samskaras. Basically what we are is a bunch of skin and bones wrapped around something called the ego. And we go about our lives differentiating ourselves from the rest of the universe, forgetting that we came from someone else who came from another and so on going back to the fishes and the lizards and then the one celled creatures and that everything on this planet came from the chemicals in the soil which in turn came from clouds of dust in space. But on that day after having shed layer after layer of ego and digging deep into my consciousness until I could tap into the Force and feeling gratitude for multitudes of strangers none of whom I had ever met before and without whose help I would not have finished the race, at least for a few hours I felt a different person. I felt like I could reach beyond my little self and reach out to everyone with love and do more for the world and I hope to keep that going and I have been trying these past few months to keep that feeling alive.

It was a big relief to see Nicole and Prashant near the finish line. I finished in 4:28:43. Her smile and warm welcome and seeing Prashant reminded me what I was living for. I felt doubly blessed. May you be blessed as well and awaken to love and peace.

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