5:09 AM. I woke up before the alarm was set to go off. I swore, like i usually do when i wake up before the alarm rings, and suddenly felt a chill go through my heart. The half marathon! This was one of my first pre-race jitters in a long while – more than a whole year, in fact. Then realisation dawned and I rolled back on my side to sleep. The run was the next day. But I couldn’t sleep anymore that early morning. The alarm went off at 5:30, putting an end to any further attempts to doze off. I went through the mundane gamut of my morning chores: freshening up, making coffee (or was it tea?), researching for assignments due in the final week, fixing myself some lunch and leaving for Uni by 9 AM. I was back home by the early afternoon. I can’t really remember what i did that whole day, except fuss over public transport timings for the next day, and fix myself a pasta dinner. It’s tradition. And maybe a little bit of superstition.
I believe i went to sleep that day a little later than i wanted to, but i was up at 4:45 AM the next day as if a gunshot had gone off in my room and woken me up. I had laid down my running gear and everything else i’d need for quick pick-up-and-go, the night before. I had fallen asleep on top of my running clothes and jacket to warm them up for what would turn out to be a brisk dawn. On the way to the MCG, where the race venue was, i set up a spotify playlist with a few decent recents and a few old golds. I named it melbmara. On the bus i caught to the train station, I was accompanied by a few other runners. And the subsequent train to Richmond was chock full of them. I had never been inside the MCG before, but it’s a truly humongous place, with seating capacity of a hundred thousand (i think).
The scale of the place felt unreal, and even more unreal was the absolute sea of humanity which was in the process of occupying it and its surroundings. I don’t know all the numbers, but later i heard it being announced that about ten thousand people were running the half marathon. Let that sink in. Some of the biggest marathon events i had attended in my country had about that many participants in total.
Before i got too overwhelmed by all this, i headed to the designated tent space for participating university students.
I stripped down the warm clothing, cloaked my bag, snacked on a few cereal bars, had a pre-race massage for my quads, a quick detour to the loo (i would later regret the ‘quick’ part), clicked some pre-race photos inside the stadium, warmed-up and got to the starting line with about 5 minutes till the start of the event. In my eagerness to get as close to the front of the crowd as possible, i sorry-ed and excuse me-ed my way ahead, and when i couldn’t go any further, found myself right near the 2:20 pacers. It seemed like a good place to start.
My hard target for this HM was 2:15, with a soft target of 2:08. I put my earphones on (first song on shuffle was ‘Instinct’ by Roy Woods), and waited for the countdown.
Kilometers 0-3: Just Following My Instincts
The gun went off at exactly 8 AM, but i was almost two more minutes till I got to the actual start line. I started off with nervous energy, probably a bit stronger than HM pace, but I knew I was only gonna find my groove a few kilometers down the line. For the first couple of kilometers i was busy with trying to avoid collisions with the other 9,999 runners and keeping myself from tripping up on sidewalks. The first mile or so took us down Flinders st., right by the iconic Flinders street railway station (all covered up in construction scaffolding right now, unfortunately). We were heading down towards the Albert Park Lake, and against all weather predictions, the sun was shining bright that morning.
Kilometers 3-7: Positioning, Maneuvering, Repositioning and Re-Maneuvering
Fresh off Chromeo’s ‘Tenderoni’ perking up my gait, i was steadily gaining momentum, passing by dozens of runners every minute. I don’t think i was straining myself too much right then (all the speed runs, hill climbs and interval training sessions seemed to be paying off). Then i spotted a red, waving banner in the distance. It was 2:10 pacers. I slowly creeped forward – switching lanes, looking for openings, jumping up on kerbs to get ahead when i couldn’t find any, sticking to one runner, overtaking them, on to another one (short-term goals, anyone?). I don’t exactly remember when i passed the 2:10 pacers. I just remember being aware of it around kilometer seven, when we took a right turn towards St. Kilda beach.
Kilometers 7-14: Here comes the wall
By kilometer 8 we were inside the park and had just passed a drinks station. I was well-settled into my race pace by then, and was awaiting the two major upcoming events: hitting the halfway mark, and hitting The Wall. The former, i was looking forward to. Self-Motivation becomes much easier when you know you’re at the symbolic crest of the race. The point from where onwards, in theory, all you need to do is keep doing the same thing you were doing till then, the same way, all the way to the finish. But an experienced runner knows that you’re not done climbing just yet. That there’s another, steeper hill to crest. The Wall. By kilometer 10 I was running right alongside the 2:00 pacers, which is where i planned to stay for the next 5 kilometers. It was a good strategy, one driven by wisdom and lessons from past races. But all the wisdom in the world can’t beat exuberance, excitement and that false high running gives you a while down the line. The high that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and half-drags, half-pushes you into thinking you can go longer, faster, harder, indefinitely. And so, my head bloated with endorphins, i puffed past the 2:00 pacers as well. The day was warming up nicely, and by kilometer 12 i was somewhere halfway between the 1:45 and 2:00 pacers. For a fleeting moment, i thought of trying to catch up with the 1:45 group. But, like in one of rare occasions when good sense prevails while you’re drunk – when you don’t cross the line and take your shirt off or kiss that girl you’ve been eyeing without her consent, i let that thought go. A drinks station appeared, along with a row of dunnies. My bladder was starting to fidget. I told myself it was just my abdomen starting to cramp up, and kept going. Bad move. Buoyed by Nucleya’s ‘Tamil Fever’, i passed kilometer 14, now heading back towards the stadium. The Wall approacheth.
Kilometers 14-18: Give a little more
Bystanders along the road boundaries. Friends, parents, brothers, sisters, children. “You are doing great ABC!”, “I’m here to support XYZ”, “Keep it up!”, “Keep fighting!” on placards. Little kids handing out high-fives and candy. Warm, excited, happy faces. And i was feeling miserable. My bladder was feeling it. My quads felt so strung up that they’d snap like cables on a suspension bridge, any second. The graft in my knee was loudly announcing its presence. The loos passed me by twice after kilometer 12, and yet i didn’t stop. Didn’t want to. Not while i was still ahead of the 2:00 pacers. Drunk on hope and desperate excitement, the kind a miner feels when he first spots yellow metal in a dark cave, i pushed on. Maroon 5’s ‘Give a little more’ made me give a little more. A lot more, actually. But i was slowing down. People were now passing me by. Then I started digging down. I thought of the countless runs i’d went on, prepping for this half marathon, and the others in the past. I thought of Siddharth and Ganga, my Manipal Runners’ Club family. I saw them running beside me.
I thought of all the people who’d be running the Bangalore marathon back home, a few hours from then and thousands of miles away. I thought of the pain of not being able to run, or even walk properly. I thought back to the time i was walking with a torn ligament in my knee, and those moments in the operating theatre, shivering uncontrollably in the frigid room while the surgeons bent over my numb legs. I thought of finishing. Kilometers 15, 16, and 17 passed by slowly. In the training runs leading up to the marathon, i hadn’t gone beyond 16 kilometers. I was pushing my body beyond anything it had experienced since it reset into sedentary mode, after the injury. But when i got to Kilometer 18, I knew i was on the home run. We turned left into a short loop, went past the National Gallery of Victoria, into a tunnel and out the other side. Another kilometer and the loop ended, and the penultimate mile-and-a-half began.
Kilometers 19-21.1: End of playlist
The final stretch of the run began with a hill ascent: up a bridge linking the banks of the Yarra to the MCG compound. I could see the behemoth in the distance now. Cheerleaders and photographers lined the road. On reaching the peak of the bridge, i got a short-lived sense of relief on spotting the path straight ahead to the stadium. Short-lived because we weren’t heading straight, but down and into a hairpin bend, followed by another hairpin bend, putting us on the actual final stretch – lined with dozens of supporters, emcees, and speakers blasting out high-energy tunes. We went down the road, under the MCG, with its eaves of thousands of seats and millions of tons of concrete above us. We approached a turn. I paused my music. This was The One. The last bend that would take us inside the stadium. I could hear a dull roar of applause, cheers and scores of speakers broadcasting the running commentary of the race. I saw a giant TV screen, then the rows upon rows of seats, and just like that, i was inside the stadium.
The route had us lap almost three-fourths of the ground before we approached the finish line. I don’t think i’ll forget the rush of amazement, relief and elation when i saw the timer above the finish arch, which read 1:52, for a long while to come. I was amazed because i had pegged myself for about 1:57, relieved because i knew nothing was gonna stop me from crossing that line now, and elated because i was about to finish what i had started when i clicked on ‘Register’ on the marathon website, what seems like an eternity ago.
And that’s about it. I crossed the line, took a bunch of photos, received my medal, gorged on post-run snacks and treats, got another massage (two days after the event, my quads are still knotted and my foam roller beckons), and headed back home. Back to assignments, reports, presentations, deadlines and all that jazz. But i know now that no one can or could take away from me the moments and the events that transpired between 4:45 AM and 11 AM on 15th October, 2017. And that, via documenting them as such, I can go back to them at any time before my next run. And the one after that. And so on.
(I later found out that while 1:53 was my net time, i finished the Melbourne Half Marathon in an official time of 1:51:33, which is now the personal best time i set since i began running, 7 years ago. All the runners from the Manipal Runners’ Club contingent who participated in the Bangalore Marathon, across HM and FM categories, finished strong. This was the first time a couple of them had participated in a half marathon, and Ganga even finished among the top three female runners in her age category for Half Marathon. They are all already looking forward to their next run, and so am I.)