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Also Ran – Part I

By Rohit Grover

My name is Rohit, and I am a runner. I came to running late in life. I am not the fastest runner I know (by far), and will never be as fast as many of the people I run with. The fastest I have come to running a marathon under 2 hours and 30 minutes is running near Galen Rupp and Peter Bromka. But I have come to love running even when I’m cheering and chafing at the people passing me effortlessly on the road.

Wait, eyes can be lazy?

I was born with lazy eye — I memorized the term “amblyopia” when first diagnosed — because until then, it wasn’t clear to me why I could never connect with the shuttle in badminton, or the ball in cricket, or catch a ball, or play anything that required binocular vision. In fact, I was probably the only kid in third grade who knew such a thing as binocular vision existed.

The fix for lazy eye is to be forced to wear a patch over the dominant eyeball. I looked like a geeky pirate, but it also worked. After a few years, I was able to play numerous games with minor proficiency — badminton, basketball, field hockey, table-tennis, tennis, squash, and racquetball. I had a natural ability to abandon one sport for another without gaining expertise in any. Possibly a lack of an early ability to play sports rendered me unable to develop the hand-eye coordination necessary to be mildly competent quickly. I wasn’t terrible, just not great.

I was probably best at being a field hockey goal-keeper, but the lack of complete protective gear due to funding constraints, and a coaching philosophy that emphasized bravado (“Do a session without pads!”) meant I eventually lost my nerve. An attempt to resurrect my field hockey career at IIT Bombay lasted only as long as my obligations to completing graduation credit requirements under the National Sports Organisation, and as a backup for one away match in Pune.

I started playing tennis in 8th grade, but never quite got the hang of tossing the ball up straight for the serve, though when I did get the toss right, I could serve up some doozies. I was at least able to leverage my tennis skills when playing squash and racquetball as an adult, though purists may point out you don’t play either sport like tennis.

Having graduated from IIT Bombay (abandoned hockey), and completed grad studies at Maryland (abandoned squash and racquetball), I moved to the Portland, Oregon area for work, where I successfully restarted and restopped playing squash and racquetball. What did stick for many years was training on an elliptical trainer and lifting weights (not really a sport), but after a few years, working out by myself in a smelly gym or at home with repeats of “Criminal Minds” got less than interesting.

Although running requires only limited hand-eye-coordination, it didn’t quite show up as an option during my first twelve years in the Portland area (though I was later to learn that Oregon is a running Mecca). Here’s how it finally happened …

Running is faster than walking.

In late-2014, when I turned 39, I realized that I needed a new sporting hobby.

Picking a hobby the next year, when I turned 40, would be a cliche – I might as well buy a used red Miata (because I couldn’t afford a red Ferrari). Besides, I needed to pick something now, before I turned 40, or everyone would call it a midlife crisis, sports car or not.

Around this time, a friend (Ron) and I had been talking about the annual Hood-to-Coast relay, which runs nearly 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the slopes of its namesake volcano to the coast. Hood-to-Coast seemed like a fun 2 days of running and drinking beer. While I didn’t see myself as much of a runner, I could drink beer, so I had half that equation solved. Another friend (Sri) mentioned that he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40, so the “must-do-this-before-I’m-40” became boldfaced and italicized in my mind.

Social media too played its part. My Facebook feed had numerous posts from friends notifying everyone of their training runs and race times — among them a close friend from grad school, and others from IIT Bombay. The popular race distance seemed to be the half-marathon, with a smattering of marathons. And the last straw: After a series of food-indulgent visits from parents, and visits to India, I could no longer wear the one formal suit I owned for the yearly wedding anniversary date. The suit was one I had worn at my wedding, so this cut deep, especially around the waist.

The first priority was to drop some pounds, so I bought a Fitbit a week into 2015. It quickly became clear that on a normal day all I got was 4000 steps, so I had to incorporate time for walks to hit to magic number of 10000. And then it took too long to hit 10000, so within a fortnight of getting the Fitbit, I realized I needed to graduate to running to get more steps in.

Are you aware that a marathon usually involves running?

So … running.

Ron, the same Hood-to-Coast friend, suggested starting simple — using a run/walk strategy, with about 30 seconds of running followed by 30 seconds of walking. Using this, my first workout was a 5.5 mile run/walk about 3 weeks after the Fitbit purchase. Another friend mentioned Portland’s annual Shamrock Run, so I signed up for the 8k race. 8k seemed like a good distance to use as a challenge. Having plunked down money for a race, I quickly progressed to longer distances in training, ramping up to 3 times a week, and raising the bar by switching to the 15k race to get more of a challenge.

I knew I also wanted to run a half marathon, so when a neighbor mentioned a 5k race she was to run in April, I looked it up, and found that something called the Hop-Hop Half Marathon and 5k was scheduled for a few weeks after the Shamrock Run. After some excellent detective work, I knew that the name had nothing to do with skipping and jumping for 21k (13.1 miles) — it was a reference to the Easter Bunny, since the race was scheduled around Easter. And it wasn’t that much longer than 15k, so I could use the training I had been doing for Shamrock with just a little more added training mileage. So I signed up for the half marathon, making the 15k both my first road race and a part of the training effort towards a half marathon.

For a solo runner, running can be monotonous, but it can provide a welcome respite from work. I could take a small vacation more than once a week if muscles were recovered from the previous “vacation”. Like most good vacations, running leaves me sweaty and tired, sometimes sunburned, and ready for a restful day of work. With the aid of judiciously placed earphones, I used my time running to catch up with everything I’d missed in the rap scene from the 1980s through the early 2000s, a lot of electronica, NPR’s Radiolab, and many of Marc Maron’s long-form podcasts, until it was finally time for the Shamrock Run.

The Shamrock Run is notorious for poor weather — Portland in March is typically rainy and cold, and that year’s Shamrock Run managed to hit all the low points. On a cold and rainy day, with rivulets of rain runoff in the street, I lined up wearing a pair of Nike Pegasus shoes, embarrassingly long basketball shorts, the race shirt and a jacket. (I later learned that wearing a race shirt during the race is a major faux pas among serious runners. You’re supposed to wear it as proof you finished the race — most veteran runners call it a finisher’s shirt.) The first part of the course was flat, and I was able to run continuously until I hit a hill around mile 5. I managed to run a fair bit up the hill, but had to walk for about a half mile to recover my breath until the top, from which I was able to manage a strong sprint to the finish. My finish line photo doesn’t show it, but I really did have fun.

I had run Shamrock at a pace of 5:38 min/km (9:08 min/mile) on a very hilly course, so I had hopes that I could hold the same pace for a flat half marathon, finishing in under 2 hours (5:39 min/km, or 9:09 min/mile). It was a fairly ambitious goal, because while most beginners have a goal of running half-marathons under 2 hours, and marathons under 4 hours, most beginners aren’t nearing forty.

Bravado at 39, not 40: that was my goal.

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