Sunday, October 18, 2015

Race Recap: Bengaluru Marathon

At 9 pm in my hotel room last night it hit me: I would be running a marathon in the morning, and I'd need a fair bit of water for pre-race hydration.

In India, you can't drink the tapwater. The hotel had provided a small bottle of water for the room, but that was it. I wanted at least a couple liters! So I had to get off of my comfy bed and trudge outside the hotel to find a vendor willing to sell me a large bottle of water. 10 minutes later, that problem was solved, but it's the sort of problem I've never faced before a race. If you need water, you just get it out of the tap.

It was one of many details that make running a marathon in India a somewhat-different experience from the US. Even negotiating my way to the marathon expo to pick up my race bib and shirt was an adventure. I had to find an auto-rickshaw driver who just wanted to get his cab fare (most drivers seem to want to give you a "free" ride to their favorite shopping places instead of the place you actually need to go). Then I had to explain where he was going. He had never heard of the Koramangala Indoor stadium, where the expo was located. I found it on Google Maps, but he didn't want to look at the map; he needed a nearby landmark. Fortunately he knew the Koramangala Police Station (I didn't ask why), so we were off. The expo itself was smallish, but familiar to a runner -- you have to go all the way to the back past the booths in order to get your race packet. I didn't see any booths selling anything I needed, so I just took a quick selfie and went back out to find the same auto-rickshaw driver, who again needed me to explain how to get to my hotel (he had picked me up at a Starbucks a mile or so away).

Ready to go!
Finding a carb-laden dinner that wasn't likely to lead to an upset stomach was also a challenge. Fortunately the regional specialty, biryani, is relatively mild and full of rice (though I couldn't resist ordering some tandoori shrimp as well).

The stadium where the race started was right across the street from my hotel, so I walked over to check out the start / finish line.

Pretty cool!

The large stadium is used primarily for soccer and track meets
Here's how close I was to the stadium: I could literally see it from my (dirty) hotel room window:

The room was clean on the inside, honest!
After I got my water, all that was left was to channel-surf for a few minutes to watch some Bollywood-style music videos, and then try and get a little sleep. The race started at the unbelievably early hour of 4:40 a.m. (I think this was mainly an accommodation for traffic), so I set my alarm as early as I could fathom: 3:30.

Naturally I awoke at 3:20. After a quick shower, I changed into my running gear and headed over to the stadium. It was a pleasant 68-degree morning, very comfortable for strolling around, but about 20 to 30 degrees warmer than what I'd prefer for a marathon. However, I'd been training in warmer temperatures for the past 6 weeks so I felt like I should be able to do okay in these temps.

About 10 minutes before the start, we all lined up. There looked to be about 1,500 runners (the much-larger half marathon, thankfully, didn't start for another hour). Soon we were running in the darkness through what looked to be a very nice park. The course was basically an out-and-back, so I took note of the tree cover, which would provide welcome shade during the return trip.

My plan was to run around a 5:40/k pace (9:09/mile) for the first half, which had more downhill than uphill, and then see if I could hang on to the same pace for the return trip and finish under 4 hours. If I wasn't feeling it, I could slow to a 6:00 pace and still finish at around 4:07.

There was a 4-hour pace group, and they seemed to have a similar strategy, going out a little fast (probably more like 5:30/k) to bank some time for the uphill-heavy return. The 5:40-ish pace seemed comfortable, and I even let it drift to around 5:30 on downhill sections. I took care to get plenty of water at aid stations, which were liberally placed every 1-2k on the course. I also dumped some water over my head to cool off. Even though I didn't feel particularly hot, it was always a welcome sensation!

I was keeping the 4:00 pace group in sight, which was nice, except they tended to mob the aid stations so it was sometimes difficult for me to get a cup of water. Even with these delays my pace remained around 5:30-5:40 all the way through 20k (21k is halfway). At some point I saw the leaders headed back on the return of the out-and-back. Even in India it looked like one of the runners was an East African, but the others were all Indian.

I had been concerned about traffic during the race since I'd heard that last year's race was overrun with traffic, but this year the police and volunteers were doing a pretty good job keeping cars off the race route. Typically we had half of a divided four-lane road to ourselves. However, as I approached the turnaround at 22k (it's not a perfect out-and-back), some drivers started becoming a bit more aggressive and impinged on the course. That, plus an uphill approach to the turnaround were slowing me down. I had noted that I passed the 21k marker at around 1:58:00, which meant I had an extra four minutes on the return trip. A quick calculation suggested that if I could keep my pace under 5:50 I should be able to sneak in under four hours.

But right about the point I turned around, now headed downhill, suddenly everything seemed much more difficult. Within a couple kilometers I was starting to think about 6:30 splits instead of 5:50 splits. By 28k, with 14k to go, 7:00 splits were becoming difficult. By 30k my splits were closer to 7:30.

I managed to hang on to that pace until I hit the hill I was dreading -- a long, steady climb from roughly the 33k mark to the 35k mark. My GPS records this as only a 30-foot hill, but it definitely felt much worse. It was also exposed in the sunlight. I took my first extended walk-break, and paid the price. My splits for kilometer 33 and 34 were 11:07 and 9:11. Yikes!

When I reached the top I was able to pick up the pace, barely, even hitting another 7:30 for kilometer 37. Now there was quite a bit of traffic impinging on the road and we were relegated to either running in the dusty shoulder or a rough "sidewalk". I chose the shoulder. I kept it up for a while but took another extended walk break with 5k to go. We were now in the shady park, so I felt relatively cool, I just couldn't convince my body to move any faster. I passed Ram, one of my friends from the Chennai runners, who was run-walking the half-marathon, and he cheered me up briefly. But with about 4.5k to go I was still walking. A Western runner passed me (I think he was just going for a run, not racing) and said "c'mon, it's just 4k to go...really?" It was 4.5k, but of course he was right. I did manage to start moving a bit faster, but not fast enough to stave off the 4:30 pace team.

Finally with just over 1k to go the 4:45 pacer ran by, solo. I asked if he was still on pace and he said he might be a minute slow. I decided to try to keep up. It was definitely tough, but it was doable. I think he even picked up the pace, but I stayed with him. There were signs for 500 meters left, 300, 200...and then we were running into the stadium. The pacer backed off to let me have my moment on the finish line, but I said I wanted to run across with him, so he grabbed my hand and we crossed together. My Garmin recorded the time as 4:43:47. It wasn't sub-4 or even sub-4:30, but it felt great to be done.

At the finish line I met up with Ajit, my contact for the Hyderabad Runners, who had completed the half-marathon and looked much better than I'm sure I did. I gulped down as much water as I could, got my medal, and then watched the finish-area festivities. There was some great funky Indian pop music playing, and lots of runners were up by the stage dancing their hearts out. I could barely move my legs, so unfortunately there was no chance of my joining them. It was also now 10 am and the sun was blazing down on my bare shoulders. I decided to head back to the hotel. I shuffled my way there, showered, and then thought about my post-race meal.

Normally after a big race I eat the biggest hamburger I can find. In India, that's not really an option given that the vast majority of people believe cows are sacred. I decided that I could substitute some good old-fashioned American fried chicken -- at KFC. Unlike in America, to get there I had to haggle with a rickshaw driver over price and convince him I really was in no condition to go shopping, but the chicken at KFC was just as I remembered it. Then I went to Starbucks and had a huge iced-coffee and a slab of cherry chocolate cake. Almost like home!

Unfortunately given my distress during and after the race, I don't have any photos to share of the actual event. But if you're interested, you can check out the details of my race below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Starting to think about race day

The Bengaluru Marathon is now just five days away. I've been in India for nearly seven weeks and training has gone okay, so I should be ready to race.

That said, I'm still recovering from injury. I've never gone into a marathon with my fitness level so low, so setting goals for myself has been difficult. I've always felt that even when running a marathon "for fun," I should be able to complete a road marathon in under four hours, but as I think about this event, I'm not quite sure that is a reasonable goal.

A 4-hour marathon requires a 9:09 pace per mile, or 5:40 per kilometer. Most of my training runs -- even the short ones -- have been slower than that. In principle, there's nothing wrong with taking your training runs slowly. Often runners say they have difficulty keeping their pace slow enough compared to what their training plan proscribes. In my case, it's been so hot and humid that I've had little trouble keeping my runs slow. My difficulty has been in getting enough mileage. Since I'm recovering from injury, I don't want to push the mileage too far, but I still want to be prepared for the race.

When I'm healthy I like to peak at 70 miles per week during marathon training. I haven't gotten anywhere close to that training for Bengaluru. The past 6 weeks have looked like this: 43 miles, 40, 31, 40, 36, and 29 (the last two weeks are taper weeks). Again, plenty of people run marathons on mileage like that, but I'm not sure how many of them are breaking 4 hours.

Where I've been lacking is speed work (I've done practically none for fear of injury) and long runs (my longest is 28k [17.5 miles]; I would have preferred to run a couple 32k [20-mile] runs). How will I perform in the final, uncharted 14k of this race? I don't know.

The final variable is temperature. It should be considerably cooler in Bangalore than it has been during many of my training runs. Here's the current forecast for race morning:

Race starts at 5:30 a.m. and ideally I'd finish by 9:30
Even by the end of the race, it should be cooler than nearly all of my runs here, but it's still considerably warmer than what I'd like to see--my ideal running temperature is around 40 degrees! I know the weather will be slowing me by the end of the race. The question is, should I try to bank a little time at the start when temperatures will be cooler? Another argument in favor of a faster start is the elevation profile:

Elevation is in meters!
It's not a super hilly race but there is definitely some climbing, and most of that climbing happens towards the end of the race.

My solid "B" goal for the race is to run 6:00 per kilometer, about 9:40 per mile. This would have me finishing in 4:13. To hit my "A" goal of sub-4-hours, I need to run 5:40/k or 9:09/mile. I think a reasonable approach to that goal is to shoot for sub-5:40 pace on the downhills at the start, running closer to a 6:00 for the uphills. Then if I'm feeling good after the turnaround 22k in (13.7 miles), I can try to stay below 5:40 even on the climbs. If I can push through the big climb around 33k at that pace, then I will have a shot at sub-4; if not, hopefully I can at least hang on for 4:13.

I read an interesting article yesterday about running in the heat. The take-home message is that runners perform better in the heat if they pre-cool. In 65-degree temps this probably just means not bundling up before the start, bringing some cold water to consume at the start, and also probably taking every opportunity to dump cold water over my head during the race, even before I feel hot.

The article also offers some advice for heavy sweaters like me, and offers a strategy for hyper-hydration before a race. Since I haven't had time to test this out, I'm not going to try this during the race, but it's an interesting strategy that I may try some time in the future.

During today's run it was relatively cool (around 70 degrees) and I was feeling good, so I allowed myself a few kilometers at sub-5:00 pace (it ended up around 7:50/mile). It felt fairly solid; my hamstrings seemed none the worse for the wear, so I think I should be okay running anything up to about a 5:00 pace during the race on downhills. Anything faster than that would probably stress my legs too much, but even a 5:00 pace will allow me to bank some time.

When I was initially thinking about running a race in India, I was concerned about the quality of water provided to the runners, but since I've gotten here I've been fine drinking water provided by restaurants, etc. Everyone knows that you can't drink tap water, so what's provided at the race should be fine. Therefore I'm not going to use the hydration pack I brought for the race; I'll use the regular aid stations like everyone else. That should save me some weight and allow me to go a little faster.

Wish me luck!