In the 5 years that I’ve lived in the USA, I’ve never traveled to the west of the country till very recently. The idea of travel for its own sake terrifies me. I have to be doing something I consider ‘useful’ or I tend to get back from my trip with a feeling of guilt. I realized I wasn’t going to see the rest of the country (or the world for that matter) if I didn’t travel to run.
My running obsession has taken me twice to Vermont, to all the five boroughs of New York City, to parks in Queens that border Long Island, and to the most inconvenient places at the most inconvenient times of the year. This year I decided to run a race across the country. Alaska has the perfect weather in August and no one I knew had ever gone there to run a marathon.
I signed up for the race in January, shortly after injuring myself during yoga( because that’s how depressing injuries can be). I had to minimize the amount of yoga I did so I didn’t aggravate my condition. I restricted myself to medium and low intensity runs and strength work with weights. I wasn’t able to do any significant speed work or hill repeats till June, I relied solely on weight training and plyometrics for anaerobic training.
I signed up for races during my training. They ranged from being excellent or mediocre to being debilitating shit shows. I made a PR during the Queens 10K in nasty and humid weather and my confidence soared. I trained during the worst part of the NYC summer, and as I recovered from my injury, I re-introduced speed work and hill repeats to my routine. I’m not and never have been a natural athlete, so I was beyond ecstatic when my weekly mileage peaked at 40 miles. I watched my diet and consumed almost no junk food or alcohol. I dropped a few pounds and felt like a whippet with boundless energy.
When I landed in Anchorage last Thursday, I felt a joy I didn’t know I could feel. The unbridled wildness and raw beauty are so unreal you don't want to leave. The flight from New York took 10 hours. I did a ton of sight seeing two days before the race. This included a helicopter ride, a trolley tour, walking around a trail, checking out antique stores and cafes, and shopping (Alaska has no sales tax, even the shopping there is wild).
My approach to this marathon was going to be different. I was going to start slowly, and keep persisting and pick up the pace in the last few miles. I wasn't going to space out and 'acquire the void' (ref: 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by Haruki Murakami), I was going to be present and 'mindful'. I did all of the above. I started slowly, and didn't space out or hit the wall, I kept myself hydrated and fueled at all times. It was raining, but it was still more pleasant than running in the New York humidity. The only trouble was, I wasn't able to get faster.
No one ever tells you how hard 'mindfulness' really is. This race taught me that. I had cramps (related to women's problems if you must know) and had the hardest time speeding up without cramping. No amount of hydration or electrolyte consumption helped. Mindfulness forces you to come to terms with excruciating physical pain. I have never taken pain killers during a race, and I wasn't about to risk upsetting my system any further. So there I was with my 'mindful' running, plodding through the Alaskan wilderness, forcing out any thoughts of irritation or anxiety. The volunteers, spectators and other runners were nothing short of supportive. The only other time I've experienced such genuine and generous encouragement was during a 50k in Queens. I was moved to the point of wanting to break down at mile 18. I suppose we don't remember intense pain very well, because the finer details are starting to blur.
I did run a negative split. After struggling for 20 miles I ran the last 6 faster than the middle 14, not fast enough to make a PR but not slow enough to be worse than my NYC marathon debut. Some races test your physical limits, some test your mental fortitude. This one tested them both. My muscles are not terribly sore right now. The only thing that is hurt is my pride.
I'm back home after 15 hours of flying between airports and timezones. I don't really know what I could have done differently to make the race go better. I'm not proud of myself and I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm merely trying to find the fine line between disappointment and 'lesson learned', and trying to stay on the more compassionate end of that spectrum.
Would I do it again? Yes! A thousand times over! I want to go back to run the ultra sometime. You know you've gotten over a bad race when you're starting to plan your training for the next one. Is there anything I would do differently? I would probably take more days off and explore other parts of Alaska, but that's for another trip. Till then I'll just keep running I guess.