Long Walks On Leafy Streets

12/1/2019 Rock creek Park, Washington DC    
It has been over five months since I last wrote on these pages. Time has flown by so fast that it is hard to believe it has been so long. It has been a rather hectic period. Summer went by very fast with visits to Rehoboth Beach and Sandy Point beach punctuating research and other activities. Once the semester started, teaching took up most of my time and any free time left after family duties was spent in training for the Marine Corps marathon that took place two weeks ago. I do have plenty of things I want to write about and hopefully will be able to write them all in the next few weeks. But right now I am eager to tell you about my experience with this year's marathon. It was quite an experience and I learned some very valuable lessons from it.

I started writing this on what was probably the coldest day so far this fall, couple of weeks ago. It had been a warm summer and an unusually warm fall, as they tend to be in these days of climate change. I went running on the little track around the baseball field near our house. It was in the low forties with winds around 15 to 20 miles an hour but once I started running it felt more comfortable. In fact it even felt liberating just as the marathon was, in ways not just related to the weather, although the stormy weather was a main part of it.

People run the marathon and other endurance races for so many reasons. Each individual may have different forces pushing him or her along. I know that is true for me. There is the raw, visceral energy of competition, of running faster and outlasting the other person, but this is something I try not to build on. Then there is the triumph of spirit and will-power over emotional and physical limitations. Again, I try not to think of it as a battle of mind over body. As Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) says, one's body is a temple and one needs to listen to it and take care of it and be in harmony with it. Running the marathon is also a good way to practice setting goals and achieving them. This is something I do try to learn, although ultimately even that is not the best reason to run a marathon. For me the best way to think of the marathon is as something that promotes good health, develops concentration and calmness of mind, fills you with the joy of just being outside and the feeling of the earth passing under your feet while you take in the sights and sounds. Easier said than done! Then there are others with far bigger hearts than mine who run to honor the memory of a loved one. Many soldiers who lost friends in battle do this. There are those who try to cheer up a very ill or incapacitated loved one by pushing them on a wheelchair for 26 miles. I try to give at least a thumbs up to all such people. I can see how running the marathon can help them deal with the unbearable pain of losing a loved one.

Nevertheless, the urge to achieve a personal best was strong and all year long I had been practicing running faster for longer. When you do that the body builds a lot of muscle and that in turns raises testosterone levels which in turns increases the urge to compete. As the day neared I felt very confident of beating my best time of 4 hours and 1 second that was my time last year. Indeed, my dream is to run under 3 hours and 30 minutes and qualify for the Boston marathon. I had been eating according to the nutrition plans, trying to sleep better, and keeping my body especially the legs strong and rested. I had even broken down the course into sections and planned how to run each section. For example the first two miles are uphill and I planned to run them at a reduced pace and then speed up on the next two miles which were downhill. After that I was going to run at a steady pace and then slightly increase speed after ten miles. I had also studied the food stops and knew which snacks I was going to take.

My main concern, based on past experience, was running out of fuel after the half marathon mark. I didn't have a problem with that in my first race in 2016 when I ran a steady albeit slow pace throughout. In 2017 it was a mighty struggle just to finish the race because I got sick and couldn't eat well. Last year it was much better although I still couldn't speed up as much as I would have liked after about 20 miles. That is the point where runners hit the proverbial 'Wall.' My theory was that my body was not storing enough glycogen to last the whole race because it was not doing a good job of converting sugar to glycogen. This theory was supported also by elevated levels of blood sugar shown in my blood tests from past few years. So I had been paying special attention to eating enough carbohydrates and that too of the low-glycemic variety. I had also been practicing running faster with less effort. When you run at 70 percent effort or less your body burns more fat than glycogen.

No matter how well you prepare, there is one thing you have no control over and that is the weather. I had been looking at the weather starting two weeks before the marathon and they had been showing a possibility of rain on the Sunday of the race. Past experience had given me hope that as we got closer to the day it would change. Everything else was going to plan. Nicole had been very supportive of my running and although she herself had a very hectic schedule she was letting me rest more during the week before the marathon. Yet on Friday evening when I went to pick up my race bib at the National Harbor convention center, I felt a bit lonely and cranky. Last year I took Prashant with me and it made me a bit nostalgic looking at everyone walking around with their loved ones. Perhaps the increased testosterone was part of the reason – they say it makes you a bit more irritable, apart from increasing the urge to compete. I tried to be more mindful and just enjoy the crowd and the atmosphere and it did lift my spirits some. Nevertheless, I could tell that it was going to be a struggle to stay more mindful, not just in the marathon but in general. One has to learn to channel all that raw energy into creative activities that are constructive for oneself and others.

Saturday came and the weather report didn't change. It is very unusual that the prediction from 10 days out more or less remains the same on the day before. But there it was, heavy rain forecast exactly for the time period that the race was going to take place. No matter how much I tried to relax and focus on enjoying the moment, I couldn't escape the damper on my spirits this brought about. I must admit this comes at a time when my career seems to be stagnating. I have been working on a math problem for years and each time I think I have made progress it turns out to be a mirage and I start wondering if I would publish anything ever again. Meanwhile despite my best efforts my teaching hasn't been going well either. I feel like I am doing the best for the students at the same time as listening and paying attention to their needs yet only a few seem to truly like and appreciate it. At home taking care of elderly parents has been adding some stress as well. I had run into a brick wall in my efforts to make a difference in the fight against climate change. So running was becoming kind of a refuge and I was looking forward to running a good race this year. I was going to turn 53 soon and who knows how much more running is left in the body.

Yet I also knew that one's happiness doesn't depend on any external things. Even if one were to honor the limitations of one's mind and body one could lift up the spirits by staying positive and hopeful. This is what I was trying to do. I had planned on how to deal with heavy rain and revised race strategy accordingly. I reminded myself of the times during training when I had run at a good pace even when it was raining all the way. I was determined to just enjoy the rain and the run, and there was even some hope that the rain would not be so persistent or heavy that one couldn't run a good pace.

I woke up on Sunday the 27th around 5 am. The race was to start at 8. It was also Diwali day. The weather report was as bad as it could have been. I woke up feeling sluggish and low energy. Little did I know the true reasons for this sluggishness, nor what kind of a momentous day it was going to be in my life.

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