The Detroit Marathon: Part Deux

Running a marathon has always been on my bucket list, but I always figured it would be one of those things I’d do when I was older. The amount of training involved means that you pretty much have to focus on running and nothing else, and I didn’t want to give up lifting weights, Tae Kwon Do and the many other things I’ve picked up over the years.

For some reason I wasn’t thinking about this on the morning of January 1, 2011 and at 9 am that morning, I took advantage of the early-bird discount and signed up for the Detroit Marathon. Why Detroit? Just about all of you know that I used to live there, and I have a deep fondness for the city. But I’m guessing far fewer readers are aware that the Detroit half-marathon was my first long-distance race, and it has a unique course that involves crossing an international border, running 4-5 miles through Canada, and running an underwater mile back into the United States. With fond memories of a great course, I decided Detroit should be my first marathon.

As the time from January 1st to October 16th passed, I hit a few roadblocks along the way. I went snowboarding in January and took a nasty fall off a ski lift (it’s actually the hardest part of snowboarding). I could barely move my right knee for a week and couldn’t resume running till March. As my time at Kellogg finished, I again found the time to seriously train, and actually ran the Tough Mudder in Wisconsin as an intermediate race. Unfortunately, just when I should’ve been ramping up my miles in August, I went to India for two weeks instead. The mere thought of trying to run the streets of Pune terrifies me, and I opted for a two-week break. I came back from India, and transitioned back into my training regimen until mid-September, when I pulled my right calf pretty badly on a 16-mile run. That run would be the longest training run I put in before the marathon.

For the next few days, I tried to keep up with the training regimen, but it was obvious that something was wrong. It popped up 1.5 miles into a 5 mile run, then 2.5 miles into a 10-miler. On the worst day, it started aching half a mile into a 12 mile run. With that, my training schedule went out the window and my focus switched to healing my calf. I took tons of Excedrin and bought heel lifts for my shoes (to help rest the muscle when I wasn’t running). A week before the marathon, the pain finally went away, but the drama wasn’t over.

On the Tuesday before the marathon, I decided to try my calf on a short run of less than a mile. By the time I finished, my LEFT calf was now hurting. From what I could tell, my right calf, in its healing process, had tightened so much that it’d changed my stride, which was putting stress on the other leg. I was officially panicking.

I spent all of Wednesday stretching the right calf as much as I could, either by doing squats with my weight on the balls of my feet, or pushing my toes against the cubicle wall under my desk. I never stretched it too far, but I did stretch it often. On Thursday, I went for a three mile run in my neighborhood, and lo and behold, my legs felt great- so great that three miles eventually became seven. Normally, such a long run right before a marathon would be a bad idea, but the confidence I built in my calf was worth the wear.

After work on Friday, I headed for Detroit, staying the night in Kalamazoo, and then picking up my bib Saturday morning at Cobo arena. I watched the Michigan-MSU and Illinois-Ohio State football games with some friends, before rolling into bed at 8:45pm, just as the Detroit Tigers were about to give up nine runs to the Rangers, and effectively end their season.

I barely slept and when my alarm went off at 4:45 I was up and ready to go. I stepped onto the balcony in my hotel room, and gave thought to which of three wicking shirts I’d wear. I chose the medium-weight one: the official shirt of the Detroit Marathon, and I threw an Illini T-shirt and a running rain jacket on top. I wore my regular running shorts, which are lightweight but heavy enough that when I put things in the pockets the pockets don’t move too much as I run. (Part of running the long runs in training is that you get a feel for how every little thing affects you over a long distance). I taped up the middle of my feet, making sure it was tight enough to offer support, but not so tight that it cut off circulation. In a risky move, I also taped up the 2nd toe on both feet. These toes were visibly abused from my long runs, and on a whim I decided to tape them, but I hadn’t tried this before and didn’t know how it would turn out.

I left the hotel at 5:30 am and was parked in the city by 6:10. I was at the starting corral by about 6:20 and was refreshed to see other runners wearing bibs. It’s funny how vulnerable a state you’re in at that point. Every time I looked at a runner, I looked straight at their bib to see what race they were running. If it was a half-marathon or a relay bib, I grew a little resentful of the person, almost jealous that they’d be enjoying the finish line while I suffered through running another 13 miles. If it was a marathon bib, I immediately felt a sense of camaraderie.

The one thing people don’t realize about these races is that it actually takes some time to get everyone across the start line, and I was across at around 7:10am, well before the sun was up in Detroit, Michigan. Given my leg problems, I’d long ago given up my 4 hour goal and concentrated on running my race, finishing and enjoying a unique view of the city. The course has changed since the last time I ran it, so the Ambassador Bridge to Canada is about 2.5 miles into the race, earlier than it used to be. Just as the sun was rising in Detroit, I was running into Canada. Most of the first half of the race is a blur to me though. I know I ran the whole thing: Windsor, the tunnel, Jefferson St, Joe Louis’ fist, Cobo arena, Joe Louis arena; but I can’t recall anything other than the major sights of Detroit. The half-marathoners split off just before the 13 mile mark, and the true challenge suddenly became very real.

Miles 13-19 are the least scenic part of the race, and they’re also the most frustrating miles from a running perspective. Most of Detroit’s most iconic sights fall in the first nine miles and since the course loops back at the halfway point (for the half-marathon runners), the crowds are huge up until the 13-mile marker. After 13 miles, though, the crowds are gone, the sights are gone, and you suddenly realize that the amount you’ve run is exactly the same as what’s left. I hit the halfway point at 2:05 and by design, I walked for 5 minutes. From there my race became a mix of running about two miles and walking for 2-3 minutes. The 17-mile marker fell in Indian Village, one of Detroit’s nicest neighborhoods and one of the neighbors was nice enough to set up a free beer stand — one of the more memorable roadside amenities. Yes, I indulged in about 2 ounces of beer, and yes, it pushed me to mile 19.

Having gotten through the most difficult part of the race (from a scenic standpoint), I was about three-fourths of the way through, and about to embark on the bridge to Belle Isle, the largest island park in a US city. Outside of the views of the Windsor and Detroit skylines, the park also consumed about half of the remaining mileage. At 21 miles I hit my permanent wall. From there, most of the race consisted of me walking 1-2 minutes after every mile marker and then jogging to the next mile marker. When I left Belle Isle, I had just under four miles to go, right along the Detroit river. All I can remember from this point is a lot of pain, but the deep feeling that no matter what I knew I’d finish. Luckily, I was getting closer to the finish line, so the crowds were getting bigger. This was aided by the fact that the Lions had a 1pm kickoff and some of their fans decided to ditch their tailgates to stare/yell at the freaks running the streets of Detroit. At the 26 mile marker, which came just before the last turn in the race, I suddenly found new life (my hamstring disagreed).

I ‘took off’ (not really), turned the corner, and in the distance, I could see the place where I nervously stood about four and half hours earlier. More importantly, just over that spot stood giant banner that read ‘FINISH’ that spanned across Fort Street. There weren’t any other runners near me as I approached the finish line, and the announcer called out, “And from Evanston, Illinois, we have Shailesh Ingale!!” I triumphantly raised my left fist, crossed the finish line, and stopped my stopwatch: 4:33:26, not what I wanted, but a very solid time.

My calves hurt, my hamstrings hurt, my back hurt, even my shoulders hurt. But I also had another surprise. Within minutes my phone was lit up with texts from friends who’d been following me online and seen that I’d finished. I walked back to my car, had to stop and sit down once, and even took up a nine-year-old offering a free chocolate milk. I drove home, rested, relaxed, and somehow even found a way to enjoy the day with friends.

When I told friends who’d run marathons that this would be my first and probably last, they all told me I’d get addicted. And they’re right. I’ve already started thinking about running Chicago next year, and if all goes well, maybe the Marine Corps Marathon in 2013, but first, I need to get myself off of the Excedrin and rediscover the gym.

To finish this post, I absolutely have to thank two sets of people. The first is the organizers and volunteers of the Detroit Free Press Marathon. I can’t imagine the logistics and planning (not to mention getting up way too early on a Sunday morning) that go into putting on such an event. Your presence was valued at every aid station on the course.

The second is my friends Margaret, Michele, Shaun, Angela, Daryl, Caroline, Tom and Stacey who helped me celebrate in style on Sunday afternoon. Going on an 8-hour celebration spree isn’t exactly easy on a Sunday afternoon.

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10 2011

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  1. Ravi Athale #

    I don’t check my facebook that often but during my check, I ran into your blog about your marathon. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS! My next thought was how eerily parallel your account and experience was to my own. I almost feel this must be somewhat of a universal experience for first timers. I am not sure if I shared my narration with you or not. If not, I would definitely to send you the article I wrote after my Marine Corps Marathon and the poem I wrote after my marathon wioth Ninad and Satyajit.

  2. Samantha #

    I am coming from Texas to run my first full in Detroit next weekend. I definitely enjoyed reading your experience 🙂

  3. 3

    Dear Shailesh,
    It was so nice to read your blog, especially your experience of Detroit Marathon. Do write such articles regularly.
    Mangesh Nabar

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