Chasing the Fast Pack: Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020

Mumbai, 2020

“How is Mumbai’s course?” he asked. “I don’t know, but not the fastest for sure” I said. This isn’t a kind of question that concerns me. But being asked I began thinking of it from a recreational runner’s perspective. I haven’t quite thought of marathon courses that way. The seconds haven’t mattered. Maybe, there is less inclination to competitive spirit in me. Finish times have mattered though. As an internal reference, I have used it to mark my progression along the years.

“What is your plan?”, he asked again. “I’ll try keeping a steady pace”, I replied. “What is yours?”, I asked. By this time we had begun to jog down the two kilometer road to the holding area from our hostel on D’Mello Road. As we got closer there were many more runners and their numbers kept increasing. Finding our way through them we continued jogging. “Just go all out”, he replied, raising his voice above the noise of loudspeakers and crowd. “Go all out” he repeated. It was a calm, matter of fact style in which he said that. He was a fast runner. And that morning, he was out there to give it his all. He did. I stayed with that approach of going all out. No rationing, no budgeting. Just put yourself out and go for those 42 kilometers with all the energy you have. That was an appealing thought than the usual strategy of a controlled release and maintain a steady pace than bouncing off in the beginning and shuffle into the finish line exhausted. It works for a marathon format, I imagined. The risk wasn’t much compared to an ultra run where  having a strategy, even if a bare minimum one, is necessary to survive the ultra distances. 

What was different from last year’s run was that I felt well rested. I anticipated a faster run and was definitely ready for a faster average pace than my previous runs. Chasing a fast pack of runners, I spent the first half of the run. It flew fast. I heard the waves slapping against the piers of Worli Sea Link. I had kept a pack of electrolyte to drink at the halfway mark. The pack around me shuffled its order. Some overtook. I stuck to the white line on the shoulder as I eased out of the flow, trying to memorize the morning blue and take a quick look at how I felt when I stood there last year, doing the same. It felt a better space, this morning. It felt as though I was out for a jog and soon I’d get back to breakfast table. Even as I got out from the start line, there was a floating thought that I’d be looping back in a couple of hours. I figured that was the difference in the state of mind from this run to the previous. As I stepped on the timing mat at the halfway point, I slowed down. I ripped a sachet of electrolyte powder and took portions of it mouthful of water. Resuming, I sped up to get behind the bunch chasing sub 3:30. There were groups of them. Now was the time when orders tend to reverse in the run. Those behind start taking of like delayed planes on the tarmac. Soon a few pairs passed, a few groups of 3-4s too, reading out pace timings, taking check on their pals estimating their finish times. These were fast moving pairs of legs with calves flexing as the runners extracted more from them. I saw the difference between a well trained pair of legs and mine that had begun landing softer and shorter. By 32nd, I knew it would be tough for me to sustain the pace. I was trying hard and burning fast. It is remarkable how deep that connect with the body can be. The road was full of human bodies running on precision, attempting precision, throttling their inner engines, trying to snatch those slipping minutes for themselves. As other years, every once in a while I looked up to see the face when a tiny pair of legs would scuttle in, on the road, to pick up a thrown water bottle. Those tiny legs and palms.

Peddar Road took another sachet of electrolyte. Soon, I was back on Marine Drive with a countdown to the finish line. I thought I went all out, grew cautious and backed down to a controlled pace. But six kilometers to the finish line moved back to running with the residual energy. By now, Mumbai’s sea front had assumed its usual character. It wouldn’t yield much space. The sun reflected bright on the tarmac. There was noise. There was all sorts of music and songs being played along the route. For a moment it didn’t feel any different from one of their festivals. Every occasion here is for dance and loud songs. I missed my evening runs at GKVK in that moment. In those six kilometers I had left the body as though on autopilot and began noticing all that was around me. Grunts, aches, loud cheer, smiles, self-talk, defeated looks, determined paces, chugging paces, zooming in runners, policemen, sirens and the sea. 

I pushed my pace. With the way my run was going, I wondered if I had settled into a finish time zone that will continue to stay. My training for these runs has been a joke. Evening runs have been 12-14 km runs at leisurely pace. Looking at the faster runners, who were nailing sub 3 and sub 3:30 finishes, that feeling struck again – of wanting to do better. I remembered my friend calling my runs and my tendency to sign up for longer distances as just another rat race. Yet, I wanted to be faster. I was closing in on the last two kilometers.

In those two kilometers a desire to train better emerged. I felt I’d want to restructure my time and work schedule to fit in focused workouts. I’d want to chase the fast pack better. It is a chase. My friend is perhaps right about it being a rat race. But I am enjoying it right now. And hell, there are no side effects to being a better athlete. I passed over the timing mat. Slowed down. Turned back to look at the finish line and stood there watching others finish. That morning, I stood there for the next three hours to see runners finish – teary, relieved, disappointed, delighted, elated, frustrated, some collapsing into sobs. I knew I had to get back better. Train better!

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