From a wheel chair to a half marathon. A guide for 48 year old dads

26 mins read
From a wheel chair to a half marathon
From a wheel chair to a half marathon. Number 115 right next to my trusted walking stick

My spark of madness

I run for a long list of reasons. Insanity is certainly one of them, but it is not the only one.

I run because pushing limits changes you as person. You live when you push back. You don’t when you give in.  Running a set distance a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes faster does wonders for your self-image. There are no medals waiting at the finish line, just satisfaction that you managed to do something you have been doing for a while marginally better. Over the years the marginally better adds up.

I no longer run to win or prove anything. I run so that I can find a better me. I run for myself. The competition is no longer the person running by my side or a step ahead of me. It is the older me pushing harder, higher and faster.

I ran competitively before I gave up in 1989 to become who I am today. The 18-year-old me ran to prove the world and my coaches wrong. That I had talent and I could win. The 48-year-old me runs because it’s the only way he gets to meet the 18-year-old again.  Some time to rekindle faith in old dreams you have to meet the original dreamers again.

I run for my children and my better half. In the hope that some part of this insanity will also brush off on them. It does and it has.  Children of fathers who smoke are likely to smoke themselves. Children of fathers who run should have a better shot at running?

When I teach students about ideas that change the world, I ask them a simple question. Is your big idea worthy? Where is the magic in it and how can you make me see it? Is it worthy of your time, your commitment, your sacrifices?

Running makes it possible for me to be a better father, a better husband and a better son. That is the better me. A cause worthy of the effort it demands, worthy of sacrifices.   The sunsets and sunrises, the personal bests, the memories, the wipeouts and recovery are an added bonus.  But being a better, cooler, fitter dad beats every single one of them. Even if I fail to become one, there is magic in trying to be one.

I run for maintaining mobility, not for longevity. For the longest time I didn’t run because I thought it would be damaging in the long run for my joints. I was wrong. Like a lot of other myths in recent years, science has moved on and has a new opinion on the impact of regular running on knees.

I had more issues with my knees, connective tissues and my health as a 40-year-old who didn’t run then I do now as a 48-year-old who does. For three decades I believed that running, especially road running damaged knees, hips and ankles and was not recommended beyond a certain age. Recent evidence suggests otherwise[1]. Recreational running, defined as running less than 57 miles a week[2], leads to significantly lower odds of developing Osteoarthritis in later years.  Only 3.5% of recreational runners develop the disease compared to 13.5% of competitive runners and 10.5% of sedentary and non-active population.

You read that right. A 70% lower chance of developing arthritis compared to general population. It’s not a midlife crisis. Its use it or lose it.

Become a better dad. Put your shoes on. Find a road. Run.

How do you start?

I knew the Osteoarthritis reference would catch your attention. It certainly woke me up.

You don’t start with thinking about the half marathon or wanting to run one.  I was very sure I didn’t want to run one.

All I wanted to do in the beginning was to walk without a stick and maybe run a lap around a football field without killing myself.  

Before I could do that I had to figure out a way to ditch the wheel chair.  I was lucky the ailment that knocked me off my feet and landed me in chair was a temporary condition and ultimately treatable. But it still took three months to get rid of my new ride.

Then came the walking stick. It was significantly easier to dump than the wheel chair.

The two were followed by a depressing hotel room on the outskirts of Tehran.  It was the hotel room that got me running after a break of 27 years. While Tehran was an experience, the hotel room was not.

There is your answer. It all began with an act of desperation. 

If it wasn’t for the hotel room, I don’t think I would be writing these lines today.

My benefactor was a loft with dark tones. Other than the wall of the next block, not much of a view outside. Well-kept and clean, yet depressing.  Reasonably sized but not well lit.  There have been in hotel rooms in my life that made me think of paradise, that would make you forget all about home by their breath taking beauty and opulence. This room wasn’t one of them.

To be fair by this time I was already the fastest cripple of airplanes. My agility with my faithful walking stick would surprise air hostesses and fellow passengers in equal measure.  The transition from shuffling feet on the tarmac to shuffling feet on a football field wasn’t too painful. It helped that it was early, the field had been abandoned on account of cold weather and there wasn’t anyone around to see the soft fluffy football shaped me roll and limp around the field.

50 seconds before 50 tells the first part of the journey – from this humble start to running the 400m dash faster than my twelve year old daughter in less than six months. By August 2016 when I wrote 50 seconds before 50 things were looking good.  A lot can happen in two and a half years.

My two teenage athletic stars, my training partners and inspiration, both opted for early retirements. Work came back with a vengeance. I had been slacking off to spend time with my kids and get back in shape again. Those two off years created a back log that couldn’t be ignored. You could raise kids, get fit, spend quality time with family or work, but there is no way you could do all four together. I certainly couldn’t.

Training days on the field came down from 4 days a week to a day on alternate weeks. I ran my first cross country event in January 2017. A year after the beginning.  I was outpaced and out lapped by a bunch of 13 years old girls and two 55-year-olds who were in better shape than I was.

Training for cross country got me into long solitary runs and I shifted sights and gears to longer distances rather than breaking the 60 second barrier for the quarter mile.  If you were wondering I broke the 60 second barrier, I didn’t.

I moved the goal posts.

At 9:38 am, on the morning of 17th February 2019, three years after the first shuffle on the football field on the outskirts of Tehran, I crossed the finish line at the Special Olympics Half Marathon in Karachi after running 18.58 kilometers at an average pace of 7 minutes and 23 seconds per km under my own steam.  

Technically speaking it wasn’t a half as it is lovingly called. We were short by 2.5 kilometers. Once again there were two 55 year olds ahead of me (not the same, a different set) and this time it wasn’t just the teen age girls who outpaced me. Everyone did. No mercy, no quarter. But it was a gorgeous sunny day, we had great company and I didn’t care. I ran to finish it without pacing myself to a time. Finish it I did.

If you had predicted as I limped around airports and hotel lobbies that one day I would be able to walk, let alone run, 18.58 kilometers on the open roads of Karachi, I would have laughed out aloud. 48-year-old desi fathers of three don’t have the luxury to dream impossible dreams.

But the universe conspired together to ensure that I could. And I did.

Step one – What gets measured, improves.

I ran my first formally clocked 5K at 6:45 am on a Sunday morning on 16th July 2017. My records show I ran it in 32 minutes and 18 seconds at a steady pace of just under 6 minutes 28 seconds per kilometer.  It was the longest distance I had run as a road runner in 28 years.

Do I have perfect recall? No. I logged it and looked it up.  You should too.

Track it and log it is step number one. What gets measured, improves. You may think that you are the local version of Flash himself till you take a look at the stop watch.

Track it and log it.
Track it and log it.

If you are not tracking and measuring it, you are not likely to improve. Distance, pace, stride length, cadence, average heart rate and time to recovery are all cues for fitness levels and athletic performance. A log helps you see if training is working and helping you improve. A bigger concern at my age is muscle loss and performance decay on account of age related decline. A log helps you keep track of where you are with respect to where you were a few years ago.

I had been training for a year and a half but the tracking application I had used for my earlier, longer runs had issues.  The challenge with most fitness tracking apps is getting stride length right and as a consequence pace and distance covered. If you vary your pace across your runs most low end trackers get confused and mix up the final tally.

Find an app or a fitness tracker that gets it right. Especially the ones that get varying pace right. Once you find something that works. Stick to it and religiously log your runs.

I experimented a bit and then settled on Run keeper after a fellow runner recommended it.

When the time came to make a call on running the half marathon, my running log gave me much needed confidence. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it. But my training runs for 10 weeks before the half closely mirrored training programs for preparing one to run 21 kilometers. The log once again came to the rescue.

Without the confidence of the log behind me, I don’t think I would have signed up or shown up on the big day. The log also showed me how far, how frequently and how fast I had run. It made the pace planning decision for the half fairly simple.

Coupled with heart rate data through the Fitbit app I had comfort that the old ticker was in respectable shape to risk the half.  Fit enough for me to take the big step up from 10.1k, the longest distance I had run prior to the half, to 21k.  Or as we found out on the day of the race, 18.58 km.

Step two – Time, commitment and the respect it deserves.

The half is serious business. Specially for the elderly and the not so young. I know 48 is not an age that most 48-year-old consider old but I do. Let’s just say I am not 18 years old any more.

A half is not something you want to attempt without proper training and exposure. It is not something you are going to run two months down the road on a whim. It is also advisable that you speak to your personal physician and your cardiologist before following this path.

I had been lucky enough to have access to qualified physicians. They didn’t actually sign off on the half (are you mad?) but they didn’t forbid it.  There was some implied encouragement on the cardiac health front but no explicit approval for running the half. I didn’t ask; they didn’t tell.

The initial consultation is just the first in the long series of professional advice you would need.

My second life saver was the local track and field club. The coach my kids trained with. Ahmed Wali at Speed Star Track and Field club was the voice of sanity that would hold me back on days that I felt like Ethan Hunt, John Rambo and Terminator combined and the gentle push I needed on days I felt like a wuss. You need these voices of reason around you to prevent doing damage to your fragile ego and equally delicate dad’s bod.

Good coaches like Ahmed are very clear in their thinking. You have to take it slow to ensure you don’t injure yourself. Your body needs time to transition and train itself to run miles after miles. The process doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience. Muscle gets built quickly. Ligaments, tendons and connective tissues take much longer to transition to bear the load you are putting on them. The older you are, the longer it takes.

When I started running the half was the last thing on my mind. I wasn’t interested. The group I ran with was running them left, right and center. I just didn’t see the need to risk my ability to train and run by adding unnecessary load.

Primarily because it had been a long and painful journey and I didn’t want to restart the pain cycle again by getting injured.

When I started running again in the spring of 2016, it took me a week to run a full lap around the football field. A month to run that lap at warm up pace with my kids. Two months before I felt strong enough to risk a quarter mile dash at full effort. Ten months before I ran my first 1K. 12 months to my first cross country run. Fifteen to my first 5K. Sixteen before everything came to a halt because I tore a ligament. It was the day I had been feeling like the Terminator.  

During these 16 months I had trained an average of 4 days a week with a day or two of strength training work using barbell complexes.  When you start serious training after a break of three decades a world of pain awaits you. The pain, sometimes muscular, sometimes bone deep never really ends because after reaching one milestone you set your eyes on the next one. You keep on pushing harder.  Your neuro-muscular and skeletal system keeps on adapting.

The injury was unexpected but provided a much needed break. Two months forced rest and we started the pain cycle all over again. A month to build up endurance to attempt my first 5k again. Fifty 5ks on the road before I attempted my first 10k.

That is a full year worth of road running and strength training combined in case you were wondering. On top of the 16 months with the track and field club a year earlier.

But it wasn’t enough. It took two additional 50 km mileage months and four weekends of practice 10ks before I thought I was ready to run something a bit longer than a 10k.

36 months from the first step to the first half. If you are just starting now the half will have to wait. It may not be 36 months in your case because you will not be starting from a wheel chair. But it is not going to be next quarter.

Start with small bites. While you can get plans that will get you from a couch to a 5k in 3 months or less don’t rush into running hard. Focus on building a broad and solid foundation of fitness over time using a mix of endurance, strength, stamina and speed work.  Then move to incrementally bigger goals. When you are ready you will know.  

If you want to do a quick assessment of your ability to run a half, take a look at your running logs. If you can run a 10K comfortably once a week and have been doing that for at least two months you are there. If you have averaged 50k plus in mileage a month in the last few months that is also a good sign.

If you have a heart rate tracker, review your heart rate data from your longer runs. Track two trends specifically.

One, are you doing the same runs at the same pace with lower average heart rates? Is your peak heart rate trending lower with longer runs?  Are there any sudden spikes? Two, how long does it take for your heart rate to recover or drop to lower levels after the run? If the heart rates trends are flat or drifting lower, you are good to go. If you are struggling, you are not.

If there is time, try and complete a 12-15 km run two to three week before the half and see how you fare. If you can recover within 12-18 hours from your long run, you are ready. If it takes longer than a day to get your stride back, you need more time.

Step 3 – Cross Train

You can’t run 7 days a week. On the days you run, you can’t use the same pace or speed combinations. While sprint and speed work may not be for you, it helps to train one day a week at a pace faster than race pace and once a week at a pace slower than race pace. You mix paces and gears to work different muscle groups and fuel systems to avoid overtraining and injuries from repetitive use.

I also mixed in running surfaces. Packed hard cinder or dirt (the most common track available in my part of the world) is faster than roads. Roads are faster than cobbled pavements. Cobbled pavements are faster than grass. Rubberized walking tracks are faster than roads. Tartan tracks are faster than all preceding choices. Beach runs, after grass are the slowest of the lot.

In the beginning I would word across road, cinder, grass and tartan tracks to avoid putting on too much load on my knees. Three years later my preferred running surface is the ordinary black top tarmac. The common road we drive on.  If I am pacing myself and doing a time trial, I prefer roads. If I am not I am happy with sandy beaches, grassy fields or hills. Treadmills didn’t work for me.

On the days I didn’t run I opted for weight training.  When travelling for work if I had access to a pool, I mixed in swimming and water work. Weights came in because I wanted to ensure that my knees stayed in decent shape. While you can’t do anything about the joints, you can upgrade muscles and ligaments around the joints. For knees that means the complete chain from the Achilles tendon to your glutes and hips. A trainer recommended barbell complexes over leg press. Deadlifts, half squats, overhead press, barbell curls and weighted calf raises. They change how you approach strength training by focusing on activating multiple muscle groups with one lift.   You need a bar, a collection of weight plates and you can do your sets just as well as at home.

I stepped up from doing half squats with just an empty Olympic bar to a half squat one rep max of 140 kilos. Total travel time between the two ends – three years. Like endurance strength also comes in small measures.

Time to crack another myth. You do need leg work with weights even as a long distance runner[3]. When I started training all those years ago, distance runners didn’t emphasize strength training. Conventional wisdom suggests that you only need endurance training (read long runs) and speed endurance (high intensity interval training). Data and research studies suggest otherwise. Beyond performance gains, strength work on your core, your legs, lower back and shoulders significantly reduces the chance of injuries, improves mobility and function and increases running efficiency. The how is not well understood.  But the impact of strength training on improving running efficiency is well established. There is also interesting new research focused on documenting usage of fast twitch muscle fibers and endurance work especially in marathon runners. 

It was certainly true in my case. Any work I did on leg days paid off in spades on race days.  Cross training also provides relief when you get knocked out by an injury that rules out running for a few weeks. If I couldn’t run because of a sprain or a muscle pull, I could always weight train my non injured muscle groups or opt for weighted cardio sessions – combining strength training with endurance work – light loads, high reps, short rest periods.  

The biggest challenge though was finding time for training. With a job and a family to take care of most dads will be hard pressed to find that elusive slot for late evening or early morning runs. Or extended workout sessions at the gym. Even when one finds time, it is difficult to keep it secure for training sessions given our responsibilities as fathers, husbands and sons. There will always be something that has higher priority. When you do find time, make it count. You don’t know if or when you will be to do your next training session.   

Step 4 – Find a group to run with. If you can’t find a group, start one.

Runners united first run - November 2018
Runners united first run – November 2018

Distance running is a lonely business. You end up facing your personal demons alone on the road, even when you have company. Running partners help but only you can face the ogres when they come out of darkness. Mileage and time spent training add up quickly and so do the monsters. Despite the personal nature of our battles, pack running is significantly better than solo runs. Company pulls you back from the abyss when you are wobbling at the edge of the cliff.    

A training group helps with discipline and motivation. It becomes easier to get out of bed on a cold December morning when you know someone is waiting for you to show up. None of my personal bests would not be possible without my running partners and pacers. Pacers make the world go round. They are the ones who know how to eke out that last ounce of performance out of you when every other signal is telling you to stop. The difference between beating a personal record by a few seconds or living with regret till you get another shot at it.

From a motivation perspective convincing yourself to catch the runner just ahead of you and then repeating it again with the next one is the oldest trick I have used to finish a long painful run. When mind and body are saying stop, company is what keeps you going.  

The real reason why I ran the half marathon at the Special Olympics event in Karachi? I was originally planning to run the 10K. My friends, pacers and training partners were all running the half. Guess what I ended up running?

So find a running group. If a city like Karachi has over a dozen hard core road running groups, you should be able to find one in yours. If you can’t find one, found one. Start one, you would be surprised how desperate road runners are for company and how quickly the group grows.

Within Karachi if you want to run a half marathon, train with Revolution Fitness on early Saturday morning before sunrise. Hira Diwan, the founder, is Pakistan’s women national record holder for the full marathon. She cracked it at Berlin in September 2018. Berlin was her seventh full marathon in a row. The group typically clocks 10-15km early road runs every Saturday and meets on Thursday evening for a fitness boot camp. If you are looking for something more than a group run, tag along with TCW. Run by Sherbaz, Jansher and Zermeena, the all family team meets more frequently and does a mix of fitness, life style, endurance and conditioning workouts. TCW also manages the monthly beach run initiative – run the coast – a chance for you to run on isolated beaches in Karachi. If you are looking for company for a Sunday run in exotic Karachi location ping Karachi Striders and Dr. Talha Shahid on Facebook.  All three groups also run together every few weeks as Runners United and include the largest number of serious and recreational half marathon and marathon runners in the city. If you are looking to run shorter distances, get in touch with Ahmed Wali or Roma Altaf at Speed star track and field club at National coaching center. The club and coaches that trained my kids and got me out of my wheel chair and started on the path to fitness again.

Groups have their own personalities. Watch out for that. Find one that fits your running style, your goals and your moods. Good groups give you space to find your own pace, pace you when you need it, push you when you can be pushed and respect your preferences. Group runs also experiment with new and safe tracks, terrains and paths to run on in your neighborhood.  It sure beats running indoor on a treadmill by yourself.

Training for a half marathon
Training for the half marathon is easier when you have a group of fellow crazies to train with

Step 5 – Understand the negative split.

I had heard about negative splits but never really understood how to execute them. While researching the half marathon the week before I was running it, I came across the term again. This time I experimented and finally understood what running at a pace slower than your slowest pace actually means. I tried it out on a trial run a few days before the half, on the day of the half and the week after and finally got it right.

If you run distances beyond 10K the negative split is something you have to understand and learn to work with. If you are running a half marathon the negative split means the difference between finishing the race and giving up somewhere in between.

Using negative splits to run faster half marathons and 10Ks
Using negative splits to run faster half marathons and 10Ks

The concept is simple to understand but difficult to implement for new distance runners. You begin with breaking the race into smaller components. For instance, a 10k may be split between two 5ks, a half in four. You run the first 5K slower than the second.  The mistake most first timers working with the negative split make is the same one I did. I couldn’t figure out how I could run the second 5K faster till I understood that it is not about running the second 5k faster, it is about running the first one slower.

A half is four back to back 5ks plus a bonus kilometer tacked at the end. Rinse and repeat.

Run the first 5 slower than your slowest pace. My comfortable pace for a 5k, the pace at which I can run forever is between 6:25 – 6:55 minutes per kilometer. My race pace is a minute faster. The difference between the two means depleting your energy reserves within 30 minutes versus running without a break for two hours.

I planned on running my half at an average pace of 6:40 – 6:50 per km. I ran my first 5K in the half at 6:46 per km. I had to consciously stop myself from running faster as my friends and running partners sped away. When I reached my second 5k my pace was steady at 6:50.

I finished my first 10K in the half feeling light and comfortable. By running the first part of the race slower and holding myself back my 10k time during the half was within 30 seconds of my previous personal best for the distance. More importantly I wasn’t dying and still had enough fuel left to complete the next 5k without any significant discomfort.

For my first half my only goal was to finish it. It was unchartered territory. In my life as a runner, I had never planned running this distance. There was no time goal for the race. If I could complete it and walk away from the finish line under my own power, I would be happy.

Running the first 5K slower made that possible.

The science behind the negative split is simple. When we run at a comfortable slow pace we burn fat for fuel. Someone like me has an infinite supply of that fuel source. When we run faster or sprint we burn glycogen, the default energy store or fuel in our muscles.  For ordinary mortal the body’s store of glycogen is enough to fuel two hours of physical activity – a burn of roughly two thousand calories. The default limit for the length of our workouts is defined by the amount of time it takes us to deplete glycogen stores.  For longer runs such as the half marathon, we want to stay in the fat burn range for as long as possible. So our transition to using glycogen as fuel is deferred.   It increases the length of our performance window.   

Step 6 – Feed yourself with the right fuel.

Four food groups.  Complex carbs. Proteins and Fat. Minerals and nutrients. Look them up. Research them. Understand them and consume them. As in low GI multi grain multi seed whole wheat bread, brown rice, banana shakes and natural honey. Lean meat and eggs. Milk, cream and cheese.  Mix in fruits and veggies as desired and per your taste. Potassium, calcium, vitamin A, C and E. Natural sources only, no supplements. Walk away from simple and empty sugars like chocolate bars, sodas, baked desserts, white flour, white rice and white sugar.

If you are like most 48 year olds your existing dietary habits and pattern could do with an overhaul. Find a nutritionist if you can. Read a credible author or physician if you can’t. But start eating real food and stop drinking calories. I am not a nutritionist and I have run the full gamut of seasonal diets before I finally settled on real food. If you are serious about running this is the first thing you will have to fix. You can’t train for more than a few days without real food. You can’t heal, recover or refuel without it.

You can’t train seriously and maintain a calorie deficit diet. You have to eat, which for most of us means weight gain. That is a difficult conversation you need to have with yourself. If you thought, you were going to lose weight by running a half think again. You are not. You are going to gain it.

Step 7 – Don’t get injured.

In May 2017 after a year and a half of training I was in peak shape. I had possibly clocked my fastest time for a 5k on a cross country multi surface path with cinder, mud, pace breaking hills, boulders and sand. A week before my time trial where I was planning on attacking 70 seconds for the quarter mile dash as well as a 5K time trial I tore a tendon in my left calf. It’s a common running injury called the plantaris tear that create discomfort and pain at the base of the calf. Above the Achilles tendon but below the calf.  In my case it was caused by heavy load generated by hill work and a weighted speed session the week before the time trial.   

The tear took 8 weeks to heal and killed my pace. It has been two years since that injury but I haven’t seen that speed again.

The tear wasn’t the only injury. Hill repeats is an important component of pace and endurance training. We sprint upward on a steep incline surface for 35 – 45 seconds, walk back and repeat.  It is a short fun intense work out that you can quickly knock out when you are running short on time. Twenty minutes and you are done. It also has an immediate impact on your pace and speed. So it is tempting to opt for it a bit more often than recommended. Fourteen months after the plantaris tear, I sprained my Achilles tendon. The guilty party this time was also hill repeats.  

Athletes get injured all the time. It is part of our lives. It is unfortunate. It can be avoided and it kills seasons. But for 48-year-old dads, injuries are a lot more damaging. They break the discipline of training and increase the probability that you won’t come back.

Once the fitness chain breaks, it is difficult to rebuild it again. Rebuilding endurance takes a lot more work and is equally painful. More importantly training changes your metabolism. While exercise after an initial conditioning period acts as an appetite suppressant, when you stop training you continue eating at higher rates. A typical training break on account of injuries or work schedule would add 3 to 5 kilos to my weight within a span of a month. This is when I was being careful. That weight gain is difficult to get rid of at our age.  Serious injuries can put a permanent stop to your running routine and be even more damaging than shorter breaks.

So before you shift to Terminator mode or write the screen play and shoot your own personalized mission impossible, remind yourself. The objective is not to dominate the course, impress your fellow runners, win a medal or break a world record. The objective is to run forever. You can’t do that with injuries.  

A large part of avoiding injuries is listening to your body and recognizing signs of over training. Rest and recovery are part of training regime. You need to include them in your calendar. That is a day or two off training every week. The other part is working in warm ups, cools downs, early morning and late evening stretches to your daily routine. If you can find a good therapist, throw in a deep tissue massage every alternate month. For longer runs, I would routinely wake up two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure that I would get in a proper warm up session before I left home for the venue.

Step 8 – Enjoy your runs.

Creek side views discovered while exploring the streets of Karachi as a runner
Creek side views discovered while exploring the streets of Karachi as a runner

Despite the fact that you may train with groups, you are likely to run long stretches alone by yourself. You would be fortunate to find a fellow pacer who starts at the same time as you do and has the same target pace as yours. Most running groups are stretched like a long string of pearls on roads with significant gaps in between. A typical 10k run could be as long as 90 to 120 minutes for some runners. That is a long time to kill if you don’t know how to engage your mind without a book, phone or friend.

For me personally, the choice is sun rises and sunsets. The reason why I love running by the creek. In winter months Karachi mornings and evenings offer a palette of colors that can captivate the most discerning of art critics. I am neither discerning nor an art critic yet I find them incredibly calming. I have another friend who is captivated by campuses. A third prefer beaches. A fourth would kill for a city center marathon.  

A number of my friends run with their headphones or their ear buds. But the joy of morning runs includes listening to silence of sleepy lanes on weekends. I also carry a list of questions from my writing engagements in my head. When all else fails, I pose one and let my subconscious ponder it while I focus on maintaining my breathing rhythm and my pace. Then there are days its best to let the mind wander.

Karachi sun rises by the creek
Karachi sunrises by the creek. The real reason why many of us run

Over years I have honed the art of having conversations with myself down to a fine point.  The half was a great example of self-entertainment. Given my pace on that day anybody and everybody had already passed me by. When we hit the 5K mark we were also done with the morning sunrise. So my official entertainment channel was gone.  That is when I started a brand new conversation in my head.

At the 5K mark – I love the run slower strategy. Look at all these fools running at the faster pace. I am going to beat them all. Just you wait Mr. Higgins, just you wait.

At the 10K mark – 10k already done. Look at my splits. I am the king of the road. I am not even breathing hard.

At the 15k mark – Shall we stop for a quick drink and moving shower? No water after this point.

At the 15.1k mark – #$%^ where did I put the keys? Engine start? Scotty where is the warp drive? Make it so? Ready whenever you are. Scotty? That drink was a bad idea.

At the 17k mark – Don’t look up, look down. Otherwise you will see how far we are from the finish line and die. Where is everyone? Finished already? Bastards. French connection UK to you too.

At the finish line – I have stopped running. Why is it still hurting?

On the drive home – Don’t laugh. This is harder than it looks. It is even harder than that last kilometer. I hope Aba is not having breakfast outside.  

Step 9 – Get family on your side.

Dads trying to get back in shape come with family. The family bit is why we are called dads.  

Given the amount of time you are going to be spending on roads or working out in gyms, you need to ensure that family understands the rationale behind your latest round of insanity. Also where to find you in case you go missing.

If you want to continue living under the same roof, keep them on your side. Help them understand why you run and why it is important to you. It takes time but they come around.  They love you despite your madness because it defines you.  Don’t make it hard on them.

I was very lucky in this department. The big battles had already been fought when Amin and Salwa started training. Given the paths chosen by them and the impact athletics had had on their lives, it didn’t take much to convince my significantly better half why I woke up at four am on weekends to go for my 6 am run. It helped that I learned to be quieter, that I took out my kit the night before and I stopped waking up the entire neighborhood with my creaking joints.

Family also plays a big role in getting you back on your feet after a grueling training run. It took me a day to recover from my first 10k. By the time I got to the half marathon, Fawzia had seen me crash a few times and had the recovery drill down cold.   While I had expected otherwise, between her, Amin and Salwa they had me up and running and out the door in two hours and a half hour flat.

Step 10 – A training kit fit for kings.

Shoes. Shorts. Vest. Cushioned socks. Bib. Don’t break the bank but don’t short change yourself either.

Ask around, test, experiment, read. I won’t recommend any given brand because hardcore runners come with hard core preferences for shoes they recommend. Wear whatever is comfortable, comes with cushioning and treats your feet and joints gently. I tried three shoe manufacturers and eight designs before I found the one that worked for me. Like training this also took a few years to get right. Keep an open mind. Don’t be in a rush to get married to a particular design or name. Especially on account of a brilliant advertisement campaign that moved you to tears. Just because they got the marketing right doesn’t mean they got the shoes right too.

You are not going to run faster or get to the half sooner just because you spent an extra two hundred dollars on cutting edge footwear technology. The objective is to get there in one piece and then stay there for as long as you can. Wear whatever makes you feel like a marathon man, is kind to your feet, doesn’t chaff, blister, cut or burn.

Find your own spark of madness.

At some point in time you will have to figure out the answer to the big one. Why? My father asks me this question every time I crawl out of my car after a big wipeout or stumble into his room to say my salaams after a long half or a painful session at the gym.  Like on the 17th of last month when I could barely drive, speak or walk after the half marathon. Much more than completing the half, I was proud of making it home all by myself without a designated driver. I needed help to make it up the stairs but I was proud.

There is also this bit about pain. It becomes a part of your life. There is a limit to how much punishment a 48-year-old body can take. We get better at handling pain but there are limits to how far you can push yourself.

The insanity is not in wanting to improve yourself or in pushing limits. The insanity is knowing the amount of pain that awaits you when you cross that line, going back and crossing that line again and again and again. You end up breaching limits every week when training at peak. You end up crossing them every time you run competitively and beat a personal best. That is eight months a year, year after year. Eight months of being willingly locked up a personal version of hurt locker.

Like dreams, every limit has a price. You pay it when you cross it. With some limits you keep on paying the price long after you have stopped running.  

Are you stark raving mad is a good starting point! You could begin there. It’s a good first question to ask. While my flavor of insanity is going to be different from yours, and so will be your journey, it is the only word that describes it well.  Madness.

Parting words

An isolated private beach awaits runners to explore it.
An isolated private beach awaits runners to explore it.

Running was never about winning. It wasn’t about medals and trophies. It wasn’t about pain. It wasn’t about proving the world right or wrong.

The version of me that came back from the half marathon was different from the one that left in the morning. The one that started thinking about the half was different from the one who trained for it. The one in Tehran who took that first crazy hesitant shuffle on the empty football field was different from the one who is writing these lines.

I know they are different. I am not sure if they are or were better. I would like to think so since they all they did things earlier me thought were not possible.  They were all consumed by the desire to be slightly better than their previous edition.  And they were.

Am I really a better person because of this journey? I am not the right person to judge or answer that question. You would have to ask my loved ones if this is true. Their opinion is the only one that matters and counts.

There is one thing that I do know. Just like the 18-year-old me, who I finally met after I started running again, I would have never gotten a chance to meet the other me if I hadn’t run the half. Together they showed me that there is a different world, a better world, just beyond my reach. All I had to do to claim it was to want it.

Maybe one day you will too.  

[1] See “The Association of Recreational and Competitive Running With Hip and Knee Osteoarthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 2017 Volume:47 Issue:Pages:373–390. It is an important paper that reviews 25 studies with a sample size of 125810 individuals to conclude that as a recreational runner your odds of developing arthritis of knee and hip joints are significantly lower compared to competitive runners and general population.

[2] See Running and Osteoarthritis

[3] See Strength training in female distance runners. Impact on running economy,  The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, November 1997 as well as The impact of strength training on distance running performance, Sports Medicine, June 2003.