Everything that people say about running a marathon is wrong. So, DREAM BIG.
I am not a runner and before 2013 I had never competed in any long distance races (except for that one 10K that I literally walked) but with a little bit of training I still ran the 2013 Bank of America Marathon and completed it in 5:02:22 (officially in 5:22:43, more on that later). Although I did not win the race, I was able to beat about eight-thousand fellow competitors (the 32,000 that beat me are irrelevant). The chart above reflects my performance during the marathon but does not tell the entire story of how I got there. Here is the story of my journey to become a marathoner.
1. Deciding to run a marathon: I have wanted to run a marathon for a long time but did not have the courage to do it. I could barely run a few steps and a flight of stairs left me panting for what seemed to be an eternity. On the Thanksgiving Day of 2012, I told my friends, of my desire to run a marathon, which they likened to a joke. I took that as the spark to ignite the fire in me and registered for the Bank of America Marathon, without knowing that it is one of the biggest marathons in the world.
2. Finding a cause (Fundraising): Registering for the marathon was easy but there was a strong probability that I would not complete it because it was probable that I would not train properly. In the past I had started numerous exercise regiments but never completed a single one. I needed something solid to motivate me to train hard. Therefore, I started a fundraising campaign with a modest goal to raise $1,200 to help Himanchal Education Foundation install wireless internet in three rural Nepali villages. I used social media (facebook and twitter) to announce it to as many people as I could. Now my family, my extended family and their extended family, all my friends, and my colleagues knew what I was up to. I had to do whatever it took to complete the marathon. Failure was not an option.
3. Training: I registered for the Marathon in February but the arctic cold in Chicago did not permit outdoor running until April. I occasionally ran in the gym but did not enjoy it at all. On April 20, 2013, Day I of training, I geared up: basketball shorts, cotton T-shirt, ankle length white socks, and 6 year old shoes (hardly used). I felt like a stallion just freed from years of captivity and I ran like one. After about a minute, I was done. It felt like my rib cage would not be able to resist the pressure of my diaphragm and my heart would burst out any minute! I was done for the day. That day I realized that marathon training is much more daunting undertaking than I had hoped for. I contemplated accepting this fact and postponing it for another year. But I had already announced to the world that I was running a marathon. More importantly, I could not disappoint my friends at Himanchal. I had to find a way.
That evening I visited about a dozen running websites that scared me even more. Most of them suggested I start with 10Ks, then in a year try half-marathon, then may be in two years I could contemplate running the full marathon. I had six months. I then found a smartphone app called Runkeeper which has training programs for beginners as well as advanced runners. I selected a program for sub-four hour marathon, without realizing how hard it would be, a classic beginners problem. Hey, at that time 4 hours seemed a loooonnnnnggggg time. Clearly, I did not realize that 26 miles is a looooonnnnnnnnnggggggggg distance! Anyway, I was supposed to run 4 miles on the first day but even at a tortoise’s pace (13:09 mpm (minutes per mile)) I could only complete 2.22 miles.
4. Quantitative approach (counting steps): On the Day II of training, I quantified my performance using a very simple rule: for every 100 steps I ran, I walked 100 steps. At that time I did not know that walk breaks improves speed!!! Remarkably, using this approach I was able to complete the entire 4 miles the very next day. Then after, I followed the Runkeeper program such that I completed 4-8 miles three days a week and longer 8-10 miles in the weekends for the next two months. I gradually increased my pace during the shorter runs, for example, the second week I ran 500 steps punctuated by 100 steps. Eventually I reached 2500 running steps with 250 walking steps for shorter runs. I tried running as much of the longer distances at my weekday pace but if I could not, I adjusted my pace accordingly making sure I could cover the longer distance for that weekend. Remarkably, my pace improved to ~11:09 mpm! Within two weeks I ran 10.09 miles and after a month I ran my first unofficial half marathon (13.13 miles at 11:28 mpm).
The difference with my approach was that by counting steps, I was able to monitor my improvement. Also it prevented me from quitting at random spaces: if I got tired in the middle of 500, 1000, or 2500 stretch of running, I knew I just needed to complete that stretch and I got to walk for a while. So the challenge was not to run many miles but very segments of the distance. Running a marathon was a mental problem for me and I tricked my brain!
If I was able to run 500 steps on Monday, that was my threshold for the week. If I got tired before 500 steps, I knew I could continue running, it was just my mind playing tricks on me. So I continued running until I completed my stretch. In a few days running 500 steps became easy but I did not increase it immediately. I ran faster. I focused on increasing my speed during the shorter runs and focused on the distance (sometimes at the expense of speed) on the longer runs. Compared to the first day, I made significant improvement on the second day. Compared to the first week, I made progress on the second week and so on. The improved pace and the longer distance I completed encouraged me and motivated me to keep training. I kept updating my facebook status. My improvement impressed my friends and they started donating for my cause. Over the summer my wife and I raised $1700, far more than my goal of $1200! Eventually, I ran my first marathon, the Bank of America Marathon, on October 13, 2013.
5. Lessons learned: Towards the end of my training, a friend of mine loaned me a Book on marathon running for beginners. After reading the book, I realized that marathon running is not about competition. It is not about finishing it fast. But it is about having fun while conquering the un-achievable. So on the day of the marathon, I decided to have fun. I took time to high-five all the kids on the sidewalk. I waived at all the seniors cheering from their balconies and I even crossed the street to high-five all those wearing Green Bay Packers jerseys. I had a blast the whole time. A few days after I completed the BofA Marathon, I looked back and was so proud of myself. I started not being able to run more than a few hundred steps and here I was, a marathoner. That was probably the most incredible achievement of my life. I realized that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. Nothing is impossible.
After the marathon, I felt tremendous boost in my confidence. Before the marathon, I was overweight. Although I shed some of the extra fat (but gained muscles such that net weight loss was almost zero), I still was slightly overweight. Still, I had enough confidence to tuck my shirt and even some of my friends said I looked better in my new fashion style 🙂 The new look and boost in confidence rejuvenated me. I was not the overweight unfit slob waiting for a heart attack anymore. I was a freaking marathoner. Take that!
Through the fundraiser, I learned four important lessons for life: 1) A single person can make a significant impact in this world. As I mentioned earlier, we raised $1700, which was enough to install wireless internet in four villages in Nepal. Many villages in Nepal are rural, remote, and devoid of infrastructures we take for granted. They are almost completely isolated from the world, as they have no roads, no hospitals, and even to this day children die of diarrhea. The ability to connect to the world via internet can mean the world to the children of these villages. 2) Small things can make big difference. I used to think that to make a significant difference in the world, one has to be an icon, like Bill Gates or Nelson Mandela. The fundraiser made me realize that is not true because the funds we raised can save lives in the rural villages of Nepal. For example, Mr. Mahabir Pun of Himanchal is running a telemedicine program in rural villages of Nepal. Through this program, doctors in nearby cities can regularly chat with the villagers via the internet and prescribe simple homemade cures for diseases such as diarrhea. It was amazing to think that I was helping save lives! 3) People are good. It was incredible that we raised most of the $1700 within two weeks. Even before my family could donate, many of my friends, started donating. Most of them were not even Nepalis and many of these good people were cash deprived graduate students or average income Americans. This reinstated the value of charity in me. I too have started giving. 4) My wife is awesome! Marathon training was very hard for me and many times when my body was aching I needed encouragement and comfort. My wife was always there for me throughout this process. Without her, I would not have been able to complete this daunting task. Thank you Nanu.
There are many other lessons for life that you can learn from training for and running a marathon. For some of the life lessons you can learn from marathon running, visit this blog.