Evolution of a Runner takes place in steps. First he/she does a simple 5Km, then he/she moves to 10Km, then slowly that keeps on increasing and he/she reaches 21.1 Km (Half-Marathon). By this time, the Runner has already taken part in several Running Events in order to test himself/herself. Now, for a distance other than a Marathon (42.2 Km), people might be comfortable with running any event. But when it comes to Marathon, I believe every Runner wants to participate in at least one big event and finish it off in style. In this case I am no different and that brought me to Mumbai on 19th January for the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020, which is not only the biggest Marathon event in India but also one of the biggest in Asia. It is also the only Marathon in India to be officially recognized by the World Athletics Organization. Without further delay, let’s jump straight to the morning of the run.
The starting line for Marathon category was at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and the start time was 5.15 am. I got up around 2 in the morning and started to get ready. I take time as I need to get into the mind-frame to run such a big distance. No matter what they say about not thinking about the distance, you cannot totally ignore it. I rechecked all my stuff which I would be carrying with me. I usually carry a lot of accessories – my bag, smart watch, head & wrist band, small towel, elbow & calf sleeves, extra spectacles etc. (which are my armours and shields). I avoid eating anything on the morning of the run, though almost all runners suggest eating something. But I feel scared as to how my body might react to it. The last meal I eat is the night before around 7.30 pm.
I got ready and reached the venue around 4 am. I had to enter through the station (that is the normal entry point) in order to get to the venue which I found a bit amusing as I have never experienced such a thing before. As I was walking towards the huge waiting area and saw other runners, it was starting to slowly sink it. Before that it was kind of a superficial feeling about how big the event is, but now I am here surrounded by some of the best runners from different parts of the country. I may not have anything to prove to anybody as running is supposed to be for your own self, but somehow I felt a kind of competitive spirit. Soon the huge place started to get filled with people. I looked for a spot to do my warm-up exercises (very essential before a run or any sort of physical activity). There were many others close to me who were also warming up. Each and every-one was clad in their own armour, ready for the battle to begin (a Marathon is no less than a Battle).
Now, I had taken my own preparation in my own way. Yes, it is true that after August of 2019, I have not run a huge distance like a Marathon, but I had the confidence to pull it off just by practicing Half-Marathons and weekly one 15-16 Km. I had done normal exercises and stretches, light-weight training in my office gym – whatever was possible. But at that time, when I was surrounded by all the people and seeing how fit they were, I was slightly worried whether I was underprepared. To add to that something happened in December (one month back) in a running event in my own city, which had made me a bit tensed in every event I have run after that (will tell about that incident another day). There was one other thing, which was my biggest concern – the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon incident. I had suffered a severe cramp at around 18 Km that day and with that somehow completed the 42.2 Km (this is another story for another day). I still do not know what caused that cramp, I can only assume this and that. The painful experience was a concern and it was bugging me. One other thing that was worrying me was the Pacer-Bus. I have never run a Marathon in less than 6hrs, but here the last Pacer-Bus was for 5hrs 45mins. So, I had no other option that to take this Pacer-Bus.
With all these baggage I entered my holding area (which was D and automatically assigned by the organizers based on my previous Procam record in other events). However, Pacer-Bus for 5hrs 45mins was in E. I really needed to run with the Pacer-Bus in order to keep my energy expenditure in check and then I did something which turned out to be a masterstroke for me on that day. I dropped myself to holding area E and started with my choice of Pacer-Bus. You know, while coming to the ground, waiting at the holding area etc. there were so many thoughts going on in my mind. I was tensed, no doubt about it. Was I scared? The Hyderabad Marathon did flash scary memories. But the moment you cross the Starting Line, you enter a different zone altogether. I have always felt that and this time was no different. With the loud cheering from the stands and my silent prayers to God, I started.
The Pacers for Mumbai Marathon were all Comrades Marathon Finishers. There were two Pacer-Bus for 5hrs 45mins finish time. So some followed one bus and the others another. Both of them had different running pace strategy and people were following whichever strategy suited their pace. We started off slowly to try and warm up the body. In a long distance run, it is always the first 3-4 Kms which can help you set in motion for good. It is similar to heating up your car engine and slowly putting in motion and then after sometime accelerating. So that is how it began and soon before I could think anything, 1 Km was over.
Everybody around me, including me, shouted “1 Km down, yeahhhhh”. It was actually fascinating running alongside so many people together at the same pace.
In Mumbai, during this time, the Sun rises at around 7 in the morning and Runners like me were actually banking on it. The reason being, even though it is January, Mumbai is always very hot at this time, especially the morning remains humid. At the holding area some runners who had run in previous 3/4 editions were actually delighted that they were not sweating like other years. So, if one can cover a majority of the distance before the Sun comes up, then that could be an advantage, but that distance coverage should not come at the cost of losing steam and energy.
Coming back to the race, we kept on running and soon reached the Marine Drive. Just on reaching and turning left, 3Kms was done and dusted. We ran in that direction towards Air India building for quite some time and almost reached the end, did a U-turn and started running in the opposite direction along the other lane. Now, the sea was on my left side. It was still night time and so all the street lights were on. It was the kind of experience that people usually narrate about when they visit Marine Drive at around 3 at night and see the Queen’s necklace.
We were all running like a pack of wolves, shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jay”, “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”, “How’s the Josh? High Sir” for charging each other up. It was super fun.
Soon we reached Chowpatty and crossed it, took a right turn towards Babulnath Temple and moved towards the dreaded Peddar Road. Now, if you ask anybody about Mumbai Marathon, Peddar Road is going to come up at least once in every discussion. This is because this is the only portion in the entire course which has elevation. The rest of the course is almost flat. This Peddar Road stretch is about 1 Km (from what I assumed). Now, while going, this comes at around 9-10 Km. Everyone is still fresh and energetic. The reason why this is called the ‘dreaded’ is because every Marathon Category Runner is going to revisit this portion of the stretch while returning and that is at about 36-37 Km. Imagine you are 36 Kms tired (because of the distance length and the Sun) and you have to climb an elevation, hence the difficultly.
While going, at the direction of our Pacer, we walked and ran slowly along the stretch and soon reached the flat stretch in front of Haji Ali Dargah. Even at that time in the morning, the Haji Ali Juice Center was open and all the colourful fruits hanging from the ceiling made me thirsty. I was drinking small portion of water from time to time to ensure I remain properly hydrated. There were energy drinks (Fast & Up) at about 4-5 Km interval. Because of so many runners and everyone spilling water, the hydration points were becoming accident prone zones. One can easily slip if not careful enough. I tried my best to warn people to keep to the opposite side of the hydration point.
One thing that fascinates me about big Marathon events is that it takes place in the heart of the big cities and usually covers the major landmarks of the city. You cross one landmark and wait in anticipation to reach the next. This is what was exactly happening here. At the end of 15 Km, I knew I would be entering the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and while running through 12km, that was what made me excited. By this time our entire pack was super charged and we were running at good pace (by my standard). Everyone was talking casually about some of their experiences from other races. Our Pacer explained to us about Comrades Marathon and how difficult the course is. It was fascinating hearing about all those and soon we entered the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Now, this sea-link is one thing that could only be enjoyed in Mumbai in India. Moreover, in all other instances, I have crossed the sea-link by car. This is the first time I crossed it on feet. Also, this is the only opportunity one can get to stop on the Sea-Link and click photos and courtesy to the event appointed photographers, I have quite a few good photos of me running on the Sea-Link.
The end of the sea link is marked by the Toll-booth and by that time I have covered more than 18Kms. So, I was almost half-way through the course. At this time, I had a slight uneasy feeling in my right leg, a slight cramp like feeling and it scared me a bit. It was like a small jolt or something. I stopped at the medical camp where many other runners were applying pain relief spray. I rolled down my calf sleeves to apply the spray. Now, this bending and all was a difficult issue as I had to keep in mind that I do not put pressure on the running bib attached to my chest as the timing chip is there.
Before I finished, my Pacer-Bus had already resumed their running and was slightly ahead of me. I didn’t increase my pace unnecessarily in order to catch up to them, rather I ensured I maintain a steady pace so that I do not lose sight of them. After sometime they started walking and I slowly caught up to them. At this point in time, running strategy had started to change. Initially we focused on a bit of continuous running but now it was 800 m run and 200 m walk. So, this is how we kept on running. The Sun had started to shine brightly but thanks to the buildings on either side of the road, it was not beating down on us directly. I changed my head-band to cap because of the Sun. Personally, I had started to feel a bit tired now.
Slowly and steadily I overcame the half-way mark. Next target is to reach 25Km. Now, this is extremely important in a long distance run – marking your target distance and this is only for your own self, in your own interest. Also, nobody can do it for you. This is similar to how cricketers plan every session in a test match or when the match is in a difficult situation. They start to take session by session, bowler by bowler (whom to hit and whom to defend). Similar is the case with running also. You have to analyse your internal condition, weather conditions, the terrain you are running in and then break your entire course into small distances, especially if you are running a Marathon. For a 10 Km I do not think much. For a Half-Marathon I do some break-ups but not a very stringent one. However, for a 42.2 Km, strategy is very important. You have to think in order to ensure you make proper divisions of the 42.2 Km course.
Coming back to the race, between 19 – 25 Km I crossed important landmarks like the Lilavati Hospital, Mahim Church, Shivaji Park (where Sachin learnt cricket), Siddhivinayak Temple. The Temple seemed to be closed at that time. I looked at the Temple and then looked up at the sky and asked for strength to overcome the rest of the distance and finish strong. To be honest, I felt a bit strong after praying. After that I reached the 25 Km mark. Now, 25-35 Km is considered to be the testing phase of a Marathon. Everyone says that here is when the real test of endurance happens. Since this was not my first Marathon, hence I had an idea of how this phase goes. I have always found that if the course is similar (city runs are usually flat) and weather conditions are more or less the same, same type of strategy usually works out. Also, if you had run a particular distance, your body and mind seems to get an idea of that and the next time you run that distance, you can easily adjust to it. So, the main challenge is getting your body and mind familiar with the difficulties of a particular distance and next time they will act on their own and you can adjust well.
At this time because of fatigue setting in, I was not able to always maintain pace with my running pack, but I never lost sight of them. When they were walking for 200m after running for 800m, then I ran a little more and caught up with them. So, for me it was more about 900m running and 100m walking. Around the 24/25 Km mark, the Elite Athletes (both Men and Women) passed us by. I told my fellow runners that if they want to be on TV, there are only two moments one can have – when the Elite Men and Women pass you buy with some time gap between them. So, we all looked at the camera with the anticipation that we would be shown live on TV.
I kept on taking the occasional hydration breaks. Instead of drinking normal water, I started to mix a bit of salt to it. This is to try and compensate the loss of sodium from the body due to sweating. Many runners directly consume salt, but I prefer to mix with water and consume. At the hydration stations, they also had glucose biscuits, cut fruits and chocolates for the runners to replenish the glucose level. I myself was carrying about 7-8 pieces of seedless date-palms in a small pouch and consumed pieces of that from time to time.
Slowly and steadily I continued overcoming the distances – 26,27,28,29,30. With each and every distance, I was feeling a joy of accomplishment. After all, I was running the biggest Marathon in India. Every distance conquered needed to be relished. To add to that, since I was running with the Pacer-Bus, I was covering those distances in record time (for myself). I had never covered 25Kms in a Marathon in less than 3hrs 30 mins and within 4 hrs I had completed 30 Kms. So, I was right on track to complete the Marathon within 5hrs 45mins. All these thoughts were going on in my mind, but you cannot let them affect you and make you comfortable. Because running is more than just these mathematical calculations. There are more variables involved and ignoring one of them can be detrimental. So, I maintained by calm and composure and focused on the road in front of me.
Finally, came the last 12 Kms. I do not know about others, but I consider the last 12 as the final phase of the race. By this time, I had actually starting to slow down. I was finding it difficult to maintain pace with my Pacer-Bus. Still, I ensured that I do not lose sight of the pack. Now, this continued till about 32 Km, when I finally decided to give up on the Pacer-Bus, slow down and maintain a different speed. I started to mix more walking with my running. The Sun at this time was really beating down on me. I did mention earlier that 25-35 km is a challenging phase. I will explain why. See, for a runner who can complete in 3 or 4 hours, the difficulty might be something else. But for me, a 6hrs+ finisher, the weather condition becomes a big adversary. I told you that I was getting tired and was slowing down and this was mainly because of the rising temperature. Now, I was habituated with running under the Sun but a body which is 30 Kms down, the same sunny weather can have a different affect. My water consumption increased along with my pace decreasing. It was not a significant decrease (as I found out later from my pace break-up data). The most important thing during this phase is to ensure that cramps and all do not develop. So, it is essential for every runner to listen to the body and what signal the body is giving out and act smartly. It is necessary to keep the body well hydrated in such hot weather conditions. Otherwise, you might finish one race with record time but sustain a permanent or long-term injury.
So, from about 32Km onwards I was running alone. Not literally alone as there were lots of people running beside me, but I was not with the Pacer-Bus anymore. This also meant that I would not be able to finish my race within 5hrs 45mins. The vast sea was on my right side as I kept on running, but there was almost no wind blowing from the sea to give comfort. This was the same route which I took in the morning and entered Bandra-Worli Sea-Link. Now, I was returning back the same way (no Sea-Link on the way back). Soon, I reached the Haji Ali Juice Center. Just like in the morning, I again wanted to enter the shop and have some tasty fresh juice. This time because of the heat and tired body, the attraction towards juice was even more.
By this time 34Kms was down. I was approaching the 35Km near Jaslok Hospital and it was also that I was approaching the dreaded Peddar Road. I told you earlier about this. With a 35+ Km tired body, a slight elevation can be a real test of endurance. But you know what, when I saw the elevation, I actually smiled and wanted to laugh out loudly. Since the road was elevated, I can see a huge crowd in front of me – everyone on the slope and everyone was WALKING. So, I was not the only one tired. We were all birds of the same feather. Just like me, everyone had the same strategy – to walk up the elevation. Due to buildings on both sides and the road being narrow, there was shade which was a bit comfortable. One thing that I haven’t mentioned earlier is that throughout the road at different points, the Runners were being cheered and encouraged by the Mumbai people. The magnitude of the support I have not experienced anywhere else till date. The level of support and encouragement reached a new height on Peddar Road. People were standing on the side of the road and offering Kitkat chocolates, small bottles of water. Small kids were holding up posters of encouragement. Some of the people were running to and fro, took water bottles from the hydration points and handed it over to the runners even before the runners reached the hydration points. It was actually very helpful.
The Mumbai Police also did a fabulous job to maintain the traffic and cheer us along the way. So, this is how, with everyone’s support, I overcame the Peddar Road and entered the last leg of the race. I was done with 36Kms and was almost near to 37Kms when I returned to the Chowpatty from where the road will lead to Marine Drive. For any runner who plans on running the Mumbai Marathon and is a 5hrs+ finisher, there is another challenge that awaits you – the long Marine Drive with the full blaze of the Sun, no shade, no wind to comfort you and you are 37Kms tired. There were a few water sprinkling tunnels set up along the road, which was not helpful for a person who wears glasses. Anyways, the water there didn’t give any comfort. I took one bottle of water from the hydration point and poured it over my head. The water was in normal temperature but my body was so heated up that even that water felt cold and comfortable. The fatigue was settling in at a rapid pace now. With about 4Kms to go, I was actually getting a bit impatient at this point, something which should not happen. Keeping calm and composure is essential. But at that moment, situation was becoming difficult.
In a Marathon, the last 5/6 Kms is always about will-power, mind over body. Your body says something, your heart something and your brain something. There is an inner battle. Although you should listen to your body, but do not think with your heart. Listen to your mind and move forward. So, I kept on running overcoming this battle.
At this point, I was taking more than 9 minutes for every Km. By the time I completed 40Km, it was close to 5hrs 30mins. I realised that finishing within 5hrs 45 mins is out of the question as I cannot accelerate at this moment. But I was excited at the prospect of finishing within 6hrs and achieving my Personal Best (PB) timing in a Marathon. I actually was so excited that I started shouting and telling people “Only 2Kms to go, only 2Kms to do. We are almost there, let’s finish strong”. I do not know what they thought of me. But I was damn excited and felt a rush of energy inside. The last 500m, 400m, 300m — it was like a countdown. “Soon, I will have the Mumbai Marathon medal around my neck” was my exact thought. From around 200m, the Organizers had kept a lot of photographers. I posed for all of them as I ran with both my hands in air.
Finally, at 5hrs 53mins 07secs (official timing), I finished by race. My Third Marathon done and dusted and I felt like being on the top of the world.
Mumbai Marathon is not any ordinary Marathon. It is a Gold Label Road Race as categorized by World Athletics Organization (previously International Association of Athletic Federation a.k.a. IAAF). So it is at par with many International Level Marathons as per rank and status. Also, it is one of the biggest Marathons in Asia. Hence, when I crossed the finish line, I not only completed a Marathon, but also reached a certain level as a Runner.
[Check TATA Mumbai Marathon video on HotStar, between 1:26:33 and 1:26:39 (as per the SEIKO watch on the screen), you can actually see me on live TV video (shot by Star TV Network)]
(Written by Anirban Banerjee)