Long Walks On Leafy Streets

2/15/2020 Rock creek Park, Washington DC    
(Continued from previous post -- part 1 of conclusion )

My 2019 Marathon Experience - Conclusion - part 2.

Around the 10 mile mark the race enters the West Potomac Park and then continues along the Potomac river for about 3 miles. This is one of the most beautiful sections of the race. At this point, as mentioned in part 1, I was starting to get into a rhythm and to feel comfortable. The pain in my right thigh had subsided and I was consuming electrolytes and sugar as planned. I was also maintaining a steady 8 to 8.5-minute pace.

Then the rain got heavier, and the south wind started blowing at us because we were running north to south. At times it was gusting at over 20 mph. I still maintained the same effort, but my pace was reduced because of the head-wind and the rain.
I gave thanks to all the wonderful groups of people who were lined up along the route cheering us up in various ways. I passed the clock at the halfway mark at a pace of 8 minutes 50 seconds. This was much slower than what I was targeting but it would only get worse.

As I made the turn at Hains Point and started running north on the east side of the peninsula the wind was behind me, but I could not increase my pace as I was hoping to. My legs started feeling heavy and I also started feeling light-headed. This was something different. Clearly my muscles were getting tired as they were drained of glycogen but there seemed to be something else that was wrong. So I stopped trying to increase my pace and just focused on continuing the run. I must have exerted more effort than I could afford to, probably, for the first 13 miles of the race.

After 15 miles the race returns to the city and we run on both sides of what is called the National Mall, from the Lincoln memorial all the way to the Capitol building and then back to 14th street. I was trying to keep a smile on and maintain my pace, but both were becoming difficult. I started worrying that maybe this is the time that I don't finish at all. Every time you go out for a run longer than 5 miles you don't know what will happen. At any point you could sprain an ankle, strain a muscle, or have some other more serious issue with your body. I have been fortunate so far to be able to finish my runs, whether they are easy practice runs or half marathons or full marathons. Except for one or two days every year when I get really sick and for the few weeks following the marathon, I manage to run at least 3 miles every other day. But the fact is often you have doubts whether you can finish the run, and somehow magically each time the body is able to adjust and manage to make it. On this morning the doubts were stronger. By the time I was at the 18-mile mark I was really struggling just to continue on. The lightheadedness and near-dizziness came and went periodically. In the previous year Nicole and Prashant surprised me by greeting me in the mall area but this year because of the rain they could not. I ran slow enough so that the breathing was easy and decided to just focus on avoiding anything serious and finishing the race on my own two feet.

I must say I am lucky just to be alive. Twice I have been in serious accidents when I didn't even know what happened just before the accident, due to temporary amnesia. Both happened in Pasadena, CA during my first year of being a graduate student at CalTech. All I know is that I woke up in the hospital each time. The first time was during biking and I was saved by a helmet that got crushed instead of my head. The second time was at the pool. I didn't know swimming at the time and maybe panicked upon going under the water, but I will never know how it happened. All I know is that a girl named Eva who was diving in the pool saw me at the bottom and alerted the lifeguards. So I am very grateful for every moment and hope I can give something back to this world that has given me so much.

There have also been a few times in my life when I felt like I might collapse but managed to get through. The last time I remember this happen is when I hiked up Mauna Kea in Hawaii without any high-altitude training, during the first and only time I visited the islands. You can see a photo blog of that hike on flickr.com/sankarx. (Go to the album titled "Mauna Kea hike"). I parked my car at the visitor center at 9000 feet and hiked towards the summit with its observatories. I must have gone about 4000 feet and almost reached the summit but my breathing was becoming very heavy and I was also getting light-headed and dizzy, so I decided to turn back, perhaps wisely. I managed to make it back to my car before sunset and it gave me a great sense of accomplishment and confidence in myself. During that entire 8 hours or so of that hike I didn't see a single human being on the trail. When you are in an extreme situation, perhaps close to death, you have to reach to the depths of your consciousness and being, beyond the little ego and self-identity that you carry in your head during daily life. You can say that only God's grace carries you through.

The marathon is the purest form of sport there is, I think. Except for a few elite athletes, the only opponent for you is yourself. At some point during the race your inner being or higher ego or higher consciousness takes over. Only your will-power keeps your feet going. On my first race I ran a slower pace during the first half of the race and finished more or less comfortably. During the previous marathon (2018) I had started late and ended up running slow during the first half. But during the 2017 marathon and this one I think I might have run a bit too fast in the first half and burned up whatever calories were stored in my body. The last half then became one of struggle, just willing the body to keep going.

I passed the 20-mile mark in just over 3 hours. This was a big relief. There were only 6 more miles to go and even if I walked the rest of the way I would be able to finish the race under the 14 minute per mile time limit. So I felt like I made it. Although I still couldn't run at anything above recovery pace, there was no strangeness. Around 21 miles the race enters Crystal city and you see a lot of people cheering and offering various drinks and food items. As we made the U-turn in Crystal city and started running north again a black lady was holding a big bag of pretzels. Instinctively I grabbed a handful of them and ate them. My body really needed it, obviously!

I didn't realize it at that time, but this led to a major revelation. The reason for my fatigue, muscle weakness and other issues during the 2017 marathon and this one was primarily the lack of salts (electrolytes) and maybe some vitamins. Perhaps during the latter part of the race I drank more water and less Gatorade. My body needed the pretzels because of the salt they contained, not the carbohydrates. I remember the same lady giving out pretzels at the same place in previous marathons. I researched sodium and potassium deficiency and all my symptoms matched those caused by their deficiency. Also, I found that potassium can stimulate the body to produce more insulin, thus converting sugar to glycogen. The fact that my body doesn't store enough glycogen might primarily be due to potassium deficiency. Since the marathon I have been making sure to get more electrolytes and vitamins and have noticed a big difference in energy levels. No longer do I feel the end of the week fatigue and crash that I used to feel. I also have fewer symptoms of high blood sugar. I will find out on my annual blood test this year if the sugar levels have really gone down but I suspect that they have.

The last two to three miles of the marathon are always the hardest, especially when you are out of fuel. Every step becomes an achievement. With the rain and the wind it was even harder. My legs were really tired by this point but I tried to run as fast as I could on the quarter mile uphill run near the finish line. I don't think I ran any faster but for sure my legs cramped up really well and took a few days to recover. I was happy to finish at 4 hours and just under 24 minutes, and gratefully acknowledged the crisp salute of the marine greeting me at the end. This is a new ritual that seems to have been added this year. I could barely stand up, so my salute was probably the worst he had ever seen.

As I passed the greeters I saw the Vice President Pence among them. Some people were going to him and wishing him well. At that moment I would have given him a hug but I just walked on. The race had stripped away all my ego and left me with only the bare, naked humanity that I was born with. In that moment I had forgotten all my notions, perceptions, prejudices, preferences and all the other parts of my self built up over a life time and only saw the human being named Mike Pence.

As you could tell this marathon revealed many things to me. What I gained most is the feeling of freedom. Freedom from worry, fear, and most of all, ego and ambition. The biggest burden I have carried with me all my life is my ambition to do something, to be someone. One may tell oneself that all of it is in the service of a higher cause, but ego is subtle and sometimes you can delude yourself. Understanding the need to let go of that burden and to replace it with the joy of living and breathing each moment is probably the most important legacy of this experience. As Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) says in his talk to the British House of Commons, we can be the light that shines each moment of our lives.

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