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A Spectacular Course to Run, Until…

The thick fog enveloping San Francisco’s night began to lift, revealing an azure sky on the horizon. I had been running for nearly 45 minutes. The early morning wind was chilly, but a shot of adrenaline rushing through my body made it bearable. The rusty red Golden Gate Bridge emerged in the distance like a beacon of light in the darkness. The track near the bridge was dusty but the view across the Pacific, magnificent. I let my eyes soak in the scenery and kept my feet pounding the pavement, simply glad to be part of the 2022 San Francisco Marathon, the 45th year of this grand event. 

I looked forward to the marathon. It would take runners from the waterfront near Embarcadero, over the Golden Gate Bridge, to Sausalito briefly in the north, then back across the bridge, across Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, and Mission before finishing on Embarcadero.

The beauty and grit of the SF Marathon. (Photo credit: Lalit Kumar)

About six miles into the run, the course started weaving uphill and downhill. I felt a twinge in my lower left leg around mile 13-14. Had I strained my calf muscles? I had a momentary respite thinking that I’d covered at least the half marathon; only half the distance to go! Looking ahead, the hill seemed challenging, the course daunting, and my legs felt heavy. I recollected reading that miles 13 to 19 would be entirely an uphill climb. I slowed to a walk but the pain in my left leg would not go away. Every step began to feel painful and intimidating.

Pushing Through the Pain

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, in his memoir titled “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” , writes about running as a way of life, how it is both an exercise and a metaphor for life itself. A quote from the book reads, “At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

The words flashed before my eyes and lifted up my spirits. I plowed on.

It is said that marathon runners usually hit a wall around the 20-22nd mile. “Had I hit my wall earlier?”, I asked myself. “It can’t be. Come on, I easily finished a half-marathon a few months back and I have come so far now.” But my left leg would not cooperate. 

Determined, I kept pushing through. I wanted to see for myself what it meant to approach mile 20. As the saying goes ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’, I knew the pain was temporary. I made a mental resolve, and silently chanted this mantra, ‘I am comfortable, I am in control’.

Lalit Kumar running the San Francisco marathon. (Photo credit: Lalit Kumar)

From Couch to Marathon Course

My mind went back to five years ago,  prone on the couch watching TV, not too proud of my belly bulge, caused by work pressures, travel and no exercise. I decided to make a change and joined a gym. Gradually, I began hiking uphill and swimming, which led to long-distance running events and triathlons. I wanted to experience adventure sports – skydiving, rock climbing, surfing, skiing, motorcycle racing, horse riding. It was a rejuvenating and exhilarating experience. I simply couldn’t stop!   

I had a training plan three months before this race, though I didn’t exactly stick to it. But I had been physically active almost every day leading up to the race– running, working out at the gym, and cross-training with swimming, cycling and other sports. In the past few months, I had completed a half marathon, a triathlon and rendezvoused with Mt Shasta. I focused on mobility and strength training. So I was fairly confident in the days leading up to this race. 

Runners making their way along the water (Photo credit: Lalit Kumar)

Reality Bites

But at mile 18, I was dealing with a searing pain in my right knee. My right leg felt heavy, stiff and my knee cap burned. My left leg had a strained calf muscle. I chugged along, one foot in front of the other. At mile 21, I was relieved to have moved beyond the dreaded “wall” .  I was in the final stretch of the marathon, just five miles to go.  I knew microscopic tears in my leg muscles were causing this pain; I had read about post-race blues that runners experienced. 

As I crossed mile 23, the pain in my knee grew intense. But I could see the finish line ahead. Finishing the marathon was a clear possibility. At the last aid station, the first aid doctor saw me limping and asked if I needed help. I refused because it felt  that stopping would take away precious time. In hindsight, that was a mistake. I learned later that they could provide gel pads for instant relief! 

The Final Stretch – Mind Over Body

Lalit Kumar beats back pain to finish the marathon. (Photo credit: Lalit Kumar)

I covered the last two-three miles limping, but mentally exhilarated. The finish line was near. The course meandered through AT&T / Oracle Park along the shore, and the final stretch of Embarcadero to the finish line became visible. This had been a grueling marathon. The public cheered from the sides, boosting our energy. I ran to the finish line to be greeted with the cool ‘finisher’ medal. I was elated!

Completing a marathon is an euphoric experience. I felt the rush of endorphins. A runner’s high? Possibly. I had overcome the hills, the brutal slopes, the wind chill and even rain. Nothing could deter my determination. I felt accomplished, completing all 26.2 miles of the marathon.

Finishing the marathon had given me renewed belief in pushing against all odds. If someone asks for life advice, I can simply say, ‘‘Life’s a marathon, not a sprint.’

Lalit Kumar

Lalit Kumar works in the Bay Area's tech sector and enjoys writing prose and poetry. He published “Years Spent : Exploring Poetry in Adventure, Life and Love” in April 2022. Contact Lalit on Instagram...