Tuesday, 1 May 2012

How I Ran The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon With My (Almost) Flat Feet And A Bad Back

Flat, Flat Feet

I am almost flat-footed, always have been. I remember enthusiastically participating in every running race at school and coming last in each and every one of them. The only time I won a prize in any sport or game (other than chess) was when I came first in a sack race. I was around eleven and had devised a method of dragging my feet through my sack (which was the widest entered in the race) rather than jump forward, as everyone else did.

Puppy Runs

I started jogging in the mornings when I was around fourteen and I used to consider a lap of two kilometres to be a decent effort. I remember going for a run with a friend one morning. ‘Heel first and roll on to your toes,’ my friend told me in an authoritative voice and I followed suit. I continued to land heel first for many, many years afterwards. As I grew a bit older, I switched to push-ups and dumbbells and stopped running. Later I joined a law school in Bangalore which was conveniently close to the Sport Authority of India’s Southern Centre (SAI). I enrolled for Judo classes at SAI, which was just a kilometre or so from my hostel. In the mornings, I would jog from my hostel to SAI, practice judo and jog or walk back depending on how tired I was. Though I was diligent, I wasn’t particularly good at Judo and had to put in some extra time on my own just to keep up with the others. After three years, the Judo coach at SAI got transferred to some other sports centre and wasn’t replaced. After that, I stuck to working out in the gym. I got myself a bicycle and would cycle to SAI and back and stopped jogging altogether.

Good Morning Back Problem

One day while doing a set of Good Mornings with 40 kilograms on my shoulders, I hurt my back pretty badly. I was in my final year and a few months away from leaving my law school hostel. After a few weeks off, I went back to the gym but from then on, avoided doing heavy weights.

Lawyering and Running

Once I started working as a lawyer in Mumbai, I had very little free time and barely managed to visit a gym for 30 minutes or so in the mornings before I went to work. I worked six days a week and sometimes ended up in office on Sundays as well. Once every few weeks, on the rare occasion when I got off work early or on a Sunday evening, I would go running around the Oval Maidan – I stayed in Colaba in those days, initially in the YMCA and later as a paying guest. Usually, I would manage a couple of rounds around the Maidan, always landing hard on my heels. Once in a blue moon, I would run three rounds and that would make me very happy, as if I had accomplished something substantial.

Slipped Disc

After four years in Mumbai, I decided to go to the UK to study at the LSE. After packing up from Mumbai, I took a train to Kerala where my parents live, planning to spend a couple of weeks with them before going to London. On the train, a few hours before reaching my destination, I suffered a ‘slipped disc’. I had lifted my hand to take a blanket from the upper berth, everything was fine for a moment and suddenly I was breathless with pain. I somehow managed to get out of the train at Kottayam. Some kind souls helped me offload my luggage. I spent the next two weeks in bed, but still managed to catch my flight to London!

In A Country Of Fitness Freaks

As a student in London, I had subsidised access to the London University’s swimming pool in the ULU Building and for a whole year, the only exercise I took was my daily swim. Up and down an Olympic sized pool for around forty or fifty minutes daily, I must say that I found it pretty boring. It was after I started working as a solicitor in London that I started jogging once again, alternating it with gym sessions and weekend swimming. I continued to land heel first.

The percentage of Britons who are bitten by the fitness bug is far, far higher than in India. Also, things are a bit more organised out there and it is relatively easy to make time for regular exercise. It is very common to see office workers go for a jog in the afternoon just before lunch. Most offices have showers for employees. Also, the cool weather makes it easier to run longer distances. One doesn’t sweat as much as in India and provided one is warmly dressed, one doesn’t get as much tired.

While in London, my back problem flared up a few times, usually when I picked up something heavy, like a suitcase or a piece of furniture. A couple of weeks’ rest would see the pain subside and I would be back to my normal exercise routine.

Marathon Dreams and Plantar Fasciitis

The annual London Marathon is a very popular event, a lot more popular than the annual Mumbai Marathon. A number of colleagues at the law firm I worked for were taking part, all of them raising money for charity at the same time. I was hooked as well. I slowly cut down the time I spent in the gym and increased the length of my bi-weekly run. I was soon running about 7 or 8 kilometres at a stretch, twice a week. I kept increasing the distance I ran. When I crossed the 10 kilometre mark, I developed a pain in the sole of my feet. I stopped running and the pain went away. It started all over again when I ran more than 10 kilometres at a stretch. I was puzzled and devastated. I consulted a few friends at the gym and the name Plantar Fasciitis cropped up. I assumed that I had developed Plantar Fasciitis because I was almost flat-footed.

New Shoes

I bought myself a new pair of fancy New Balance shoes from the London Marathon Store at 63 Long Acre in Covent Garden. The store made me run a few yards on a ramp fitted with sensors and analysed my running style before they sold me the shoes I have been running in ever since. I was told I was landing too heavily on my heel (not really surprising) and that the extra cushion in the New Balance shoes would reduce the effect of that impact. That ought to have set me thinking, but it didn’t. I continued landing on my heel, secure in the knowledge that the impact was being cushioned. I continued to develop a pain in my sole every time I crossed the ten kilometre mark. I continued to assume that I wasn’t able to run longer distances because I was almost flat-footed.

Heel Versus The Mid-Sole

I lived in the UK for eight years altogether and returned to India in December 2010. I started working in Mumbai from the beginning of January 2011. Pretty soon after I reached Mumbai, the Standard Chartered Marathon took place and once again I found myself wishing I could do a full marathon. Just as I was planning to consult a sports doctor to find out if I could do anything to fix my flat-footedness and prevent a recurrence of the dreaded Plantar Fasciitis, I came across an article on the internet which debated the merits of landing on the heel versus the mid-sole and the toe. Whoa! It was as if I had been suffocating to death and someone gave me a lungful of fresh air. According to that article, landing on the heel doesn’t work for many people, and I guess I am one of them. Why didn’t someone tell me about all this before? I wondered. I had been an idiot all along! I searched and found a lot more articles on this topic, such as this, this and this.

On The Marathon Track

Until April 2011, I was unbelievably busy, trying to sort out a number of things including my daughter’s admission to a Kindergarten. Once the school admission was taken care of, I was able to rent a house close to the school and move my wife and daughter to Mumbai. Once I settled down, I started jogging once more, this time taking care to avoid landing on my heels, using my mid-foot instead. And it worked. I was able to cross the 10 kilometre barrier without suffering any ill-effects. I was soon running between 30 to 40 kilometres a week. In August, I went ahead and registered for the full-marathon race, though I wasn’t sure I would be able to go the whole hog.

I continued jogging with increased vigour, taking extra care not to land on my heels, still apprehensive that my soles would start hurting again. Luckily it didn’t. I played it safe by giving my legs a 24 hour break after every two dozen kilometres or so. Most days I ran around seven kilometres. I would run from my flat to the Bandra end of Carter Road, run up and down the Carter Road promenade twice and then run back home. The monsoon disrupted my training to some extent. A few times, I went running in the rain, but ending up catching a cold after a couple of runs. After catching a cold for the second time, which developed into a cough and lasted over week, I stopped running outside if it was raining. Instead I switched to running up the stairs in my building, taking care to make as little noise as possible. Thankfully, no one complained.

Chickening out?

In the middle of December, I ran a little over twenty kilometres at a stretch. It was the longest I had run till then and took me around 2:30 hours. At the end of that run, I was exhausted. In fact, I was so exhausted, I was convinced I could not complete a full marathon. I enquired if it would be possible to run the half-marathon after having registered for the full one. I received a polite no.

I spent Christmas with my parents in Kerala and went on a week’s vacation in Sri Lanka after that. I didn’t do any jogging in Kerala and in Sri Lanka I went jogging on Bentota beach a couple of times. My tapering down had begun a little earlier than it should have!

The Jeff Galloway Technique

A week before the marathon, I read about the Jeff Galloway tactic for running a marathon. Not for elite runners hoping to crack the existing world record, this technique developed and made popular by Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 US Olympic team, advocates that marathon runners ought to take frequent walk breaks, right from the first kilometre, in order to perform better.

I suddenly started to feel confident of completing the marathon. By my estimate, I was taking around 7 minutes per kilometre. Assuming I could maintain the pace for the entire 42 kilometre stretch, I would take around 300 minutes or five hours to complete the run. Of course, I was going to take longer since I planned to take a lot of walk breaks. The organisers had imposed a deadline of six hours to complete the full marathon. Six hours after the commencement of the race, they proposed to open the road to vehicular traffic. Also, runners who took over six hours to cross the finish line would not receive timing certificates. I grimly promised myself that come what may I would keep moving forward for six hours, after which, if I hadn’t reach the finish line by then, I would turn around and take a taxi home.

Gels and electrolytes?

A few days before the marathon, I decided to buy myself a waist band with pouches for carrying gels and bottles of water or electrolytes. However, deciding to buy such a waist band and actually buying it are two different things. I went to a few stores in Colaba, Nike, Reebok, Adidas etc., and they had all run out of waist pouches. Most probably, a number of other marathoners had made a similar decision and acted on it before I did. I ended up buying a small bag which could be worn across my shoulders and would carry a bottle of electrolytes and some chocolate bars or gel sachets. I tried running with that bag and it wasn’t too bad. But it wasn’t too comfortable either. I was then advised by a good friend who had run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon earlier that the water, soft drinks and electrolytes provided by the organisers and the chocolates and biscuits provided by well-wishers enroute, were more than adequate for the average runner. I decided to count myself as an average runner and ditched the shoulder bag I had purchased. I bought a few Mars bars and Dairy Milk chocolate bars, enough to fill one of the pockets of my trousers and left it at that. The other pocket carried my mobile phone and some money wrapped up in polythene.

Final Paperwork

Two days before the marathon, I went to the Bandra Kurla Complex and collected my running bib, timer and a goody bag which had a number of pamphlets and sample sachets of health and beauty products. The latter include a fairness face wash, which I decided to save for a special occasion and am yet to use even now.


The best part of running the marathon was the loading up on carbohydrates on the day prior to the race. I used to be a big eater when I was much younger. Over a period of time, I have intentionally cut back on my diet considering the fact that I don’t exercise as much I would like to and I am much shorter than the average Indian. The day prior to the race, I started with a breakfast of three fried eggs and a few slices of toast and topped up with some oatmeal porridge. I had chappatis, dal and chicken kebabs for lunch. I ended with an early dinner of curd rice, prawns and some vegetables. It was guilt-free eating and good fun.

15 January 2012

On the morning of the race, I woke up at 4:00 a.m., ate a couple of boiled eggs and two pieces of toast with jam. A pre-booked taxi took me to Azad Maidan at CST where all runners were advised to assemble at least an hour before the race commenced at 5:45 a.m. A number of mobile toilets were parked at one end of the maidan and I used them a couple of times, because I wasn’t too sure about the toilet facilities enroute. The toilets were reasonably clean, though the floor was wet and I was glad I wasn’t one of those running the marathon barefoot. I did see one barefoot runner with a pair of chappals tucked in a band around the waist, for use at toilets.

Finally, Am On My Way

We started running towards the start line in a big mob and I crossed the start line at around 5:41 a.m. I guess it is not physically possible to have all runners cross the starting point at the same time. The timing chip tied to my shoe would record the time I started the race and the time at which I crossed various points enroute and my final finish time.

Familiar Landmarks, Comfortable Running

I felt calm as I ran towards Flora Fountain, to Nariman Point where I work, past the Air India building and through the Marine Drive towards Pedder Road, Worli and beyond. I ran without a break for the first five kilometres when I came across a public toilet. I also didn’t stop for any water until I had relived myself once. I did see a number of runners help themselves to water and electrolytes at water stations from the third kilometre onwards. I ran comfortably till I reached the Bandra Sealink at Worli, a distance of around 14 kilometres. From then on, I started taking walk breaks every two kilometres or so.

Jokes Fly As I Cross The Bandra Sealink

Running over the Bandra Sealink, which was closed to traffic, was good fun and there were jokes flying around aplenty. A man running next to me pointed to a message from the traffic police which was flashing up ahead. ‘Do Not Overtake’ it admonished us. The 50 kilometre speed limit sign flashed overhead all the time and I kept wishing I could run at half that speed.

No Turning Back

After crossing the Sealink, I reached Bandra in around 2:20 hrs and turned around to begin the long journey back to Azad Maidan. At that point, it was so tempting to stop running and take an auto rickshaw home. I am glad I didn’t. I was very pleased with the fact that I had reached the half-way mark in 2:20 hrs and started to dream of finishing the marathon in less than 5:00 hours. Unfortunately I hadn’t trained as well as I ought to have had. Also, it might have been a good idea to take walk breaks right from the beginning rather than after the first fourteen kilometres.
After I crossed the 28-kilometre mark, I started taking walk breaks after every kilometre. I would stop running when I neared the kilometre milestone and walk till I crossed the mark which usually had a water station. I helped myself to water at every alternate water station.

The Elite Runners

On my way back, somewhere between Mahim and Dadar, the elite runners who started their race a couple of hours after us amateurs, raced past. With bodies made for running, they sped past us in a blur, their legs churning effortlessly, reminding me of the vast gulf between myself and the top runners.

Hitting The Wall

I hit the wall at around the 32nd kilometre. By this time, the front part of both my feet felt numb and rather heavy. I considered sitting down somewhere, taking off my shoes and massaging my feet. However, I was scared that if I sat down, I would never get up and so I plodded on. I motivated myself by trying to imagine how after completing the run I would boast to all and sundry that I had completed the Mumbai Marathon. It worked to some extent. I then tried to imagine how it would look if I didn’t complete and had to explain to my friends and colleagues that I had chickened out at the final lap. That tactic worked a bit better.

The Final Stretch

I started feeling better after I crossed the 36th kilometre mark. I don’t want to use the word ‘second wind’ since I don’t think I ran any faster after that, but the feeling of despair and fatigue sort of slipped away and I pressed on. Once I was back on the Marine Drive, I started feeling exultant and euphoric. It was all I could do to not start celebrating right then and there. Once I exited the Marine Drive and ran past Not Just Jazz By The Bay and the Ambassador Hotel, I knew that I had won. But I hadn’t. Yet. It took my weary feet another fifteen odd minutes to get to within sight of the finishing tape. I had planned to hold up my hands shoulder high as I crossed the finish line and I thought I did just that, but the photograph I got from the organisers show my hands lifted up waist high. I guess I was too tired to lift up my hands properly and didn’t even realise it.

Final Timing

I completed the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in Five hours, Twenty Four Minutes and Fifty Seconds.

Public Support

Words can’t describe the degree and extent of public support runners receive from the Mumbai public as they run the marathon. Not only do lots of people stand outside their compounds to watch the runners go past, many of them bring out trays of biscuits and chocolates to hand out. Occasionally there were bananas and oranges as well. I made it a point to accept chocolate bars from every kid who held it out to me, though I didn’t eat most of them and had to stuff them in my pocket. Since the bib on my tee-shirt had my name written on it, it was not unusual for kids to shout “Go Vinod Joseph Uncle Go” or “Run Vinod Joseph Uncle Run”.

After The Race

Most of the roads were still blocked and so I caught a train to Bandra and an auto rickshaw from Bandra station to my home. I was feeling fine and could walk at a reasonable speed. I took a nap in the afternoon and felt even better. However, the next day, my joints felt so stiff that I could barely walk. I went to work nevertheless and my colleagues had a laugh at my mincing penguin walk. The biggest damage was inflicted on my big toes, both of which turned a dark purple. I now understand that black toenails are a common hazard faced by runners when they run much longer than they have run before. This article has a detailed explanation of how and when long distance runners suffer from black nails. My nails are still discoloured and are in the process of being replaced by fresh ones. There is no pain.

My Next Marathon

I don’t think I am going to be one of those runners who run a marathon every month. Considering the fact that I have a job which requires me to put in long hours and also because I spend a fair amount of time blogging, writing short stories, book reviews and other stuff (my second novel is likely to be released in a couple of months from now), on a good week I barely manage to run forty kilometres. Most weeks I manage only twenty and sometimes I don’t run for days at a stretch. However I do want to run a marathon again and hopefully improve my timing. In all probability, I will run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon again rather than take the trouble of travelling to a different city to run a marathon. I mean, when India’s best organised marathon takes place in my backyard, why run elsewhere?


Abi said...

Congratulations, Vinod!

Thanks for sharing this inspiring story.

Winnowed said...

Thanks a lot Abi

tite said...

Namaste' marathoner! U have a new life ahead...of hard...sweat. Just add some Iyengar yoga and u ll see

Nanda said...

Nice writeup! Congrats on completing as close to expectations as you had. I loved the part where you explained your feeling from 32k onwards.. :) I have registered to run the same in 2013..will be my first also though I have done a couple of 1/2's. Hopefully, I can also get inspired after hitting the wall (inevitable!?) and still finish.

pearl said...

Hey, I’m a reporter for Right Choice magazine and I’m writing an article on ‘Are padded shoes essential for jogging if you have flat feet?’ I just need your comments on this query. Can you please get in touch with me at pearl@hillroadmedia.com? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Kollaaam :) Happy running -- Oaduvin Unni