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Run run run… you better run!

One of the most popular and coveted marathon in the world is happening this weekend. Capt Seshadri talks about the Boston Marathon. 

There is only one marathon in the world that has ‘bandits’ participating. And no, not the Robin Hood or even the Gabbar Singh kind, but runner bandits. These were unregistered runners who were eager to participate but did not have a bib number. It was customary for them to be held back till the last of the starters had left the blocks and then unleashed unofficially. After a while, these bandits, like some of their folklore counterparts, became heroes among the spectators and the media. Such is the stuff of tales surrounding one of the oldest marathons in the world.

The Boston Marathon, to be held on April 16, has had a virtually unbroken run since its inception in 1897, even during the years of the great world wars. It probably took its origin following the tremendous success of the first marathon event in an Olympics, in the summer of 1986. In the early years, it was run on April 19, but was soon changed to the third Monday of April, celebrated as Patriots’ Day and now commonly referred to as ‘Marathon Monday’.

Humble Beginnings

What began as a local event, with just 15 participants on debut, has grown over time to receive recognition as one of the most prestigious marathons in the world. Every year, over 30,000 registered runners from across the globe, are cheered every bit of the way by around half a million spectators, that includes the ‘scream tunnel’, a more than a three quarter mile long unbroken chain of young ladies whose cheering can be heard for over a mile!

Can one possibly imagine thousands of athletes, some traveling halfway across the globe to run a gruelling 26 miles, only for the winner to be rewarded with an olive wreath? But, for over a century, the Boston Marathon was a purse-free event, until in 1986, professional athletes threatened to boycott the event unless a cash prize was instituted. Fortunately, corporates stepped in, and cash awards made their entry into the race.

It is one of the most difficult courses in marathon running, with the Newton Hills challenging even trained runners, and their apex culminating in Heartbreak Hill, reducing the most seasoned runners to near walking speed. With this being a physical and psychological breaking point, it presents a phenomenon that marathoners refer to as ‘hitting the wall’!

Women in Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon remained a male chauvinistic bastion until 1972, when women were officially permitted to participate. However, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb is acknowledged by race organisers as the first woman to have run the entire stretch of the marathon as early as in 1966. A year later, Kathy Switzer obtained a bib number and participated. Her run was marred by an ugly incident where a race official tried to tear off her race bib and prevent her from finishing. The gender equation rapidly changed since then; in 2015, around 46% of the participants were women. There is only one woman however, who owns the unique distinction of having run the Boston Marathon in two elements: earth and space. Astronaut supreme and record breaker for much of what happens in space – Sunita Williams. This amazing and tenacious lady ran the marathon, strapped by a harness to a treadmill aboard the International Space Station while the event was being run on earth!

Toughest Qualifying Standards

The event has stringent qualifying standards. Participants must be above 18 years of age and must have completed a marathon certified by a recognised body with international affiliations. There is also a pre-set qualifying time limit, depending on age. For many aspiring marathoners, to ‘BQ’, or qualify for Boston, is in itself a treasured achievement. However, to popularise the event and to honour charitable causes, around 20% of the participation has been thrown open to entrants from charities, sponsors, local running clubs, vendors and marketers, whose philanthropic endeavours garner close to $ 35 million in charity collections.

The Boston Marathon has thrown up many heroes. Foremost among them is Bob Hall whose request, in 1975, to participate in a wheelchair, was accepted, with the proviso that he would be recognised as a ‘finisher’ only if he completed in under 3 hours and 30 minutes, the time limit set for normal runners. The indefatigable Bob finished in 2 hours and 58 minutes. Thus was born the wheelchair division of the race; the event was soon to accommodate visually impaired runners as well.

In 2013, the event was marred by two explosions, around 180 metres yards apart, within the final 200 metres of the finish. Although many of the faster runners had completed the course, the fatality of three spectators and the injury caused to 264, forced the event to be called off, with many runners close to the midway mark. This deterred neither the organisers nor the participants, and the event continues to be a major draw among the fastest endurance runners of the world.

And, going back to the subject of bandits, Boston Marathon Director Dave McGillvray was himself once a teenage bandit!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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Nine days a week – Part 2

In this concluding piece, Capt Seshadri talks about Meb’s fitness and training mantras. 

Meb Keflezighi is an unusual athlete. Born in Eritea, one of the poorest countries in the African continent, migrated to Italy as a young boy and pursued his education in the United States. And, apart from being a world beating marathoner, is a complete family man, autobiographer, motivational speaker, businessman and above all, a wonderful human being.

Meb the athlete, breaks from tradition, and the shattering of pre-conceived notions of what a runner should be or ought to do, begin with his training. He trains over nine day cycles, vis a vis the usual weekly routine followed by most athletes around the world. He insists that this permits him maximum concentration, interspersed with the right periods of rest and recuperation. Quick, high intensity runs, intervals of rest, distance running and cross training help him build speed, stamina and strength. Core strength, running in rarified atmospheres and a high protein diet topped with large servings of fruit are the secret of his continued success over such a long period of time.

Meb the motivational speaker has, under his belt, over a hundred clinics on running and even on retail programs. He is a voracious orator, holding his audience spellbound with topics as far ranging as diet and nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, while bringing to the fore, his world class experience and diverse and colourful early life as examples.

For older runners, he has certain mantras which are both unique and effective. He believes it is never too late to begin or to continue running. While most coaches talk about age being only a number, Meb advises older runners to recognise their age and the limits it brings along, advocating adjustments, both in training and nutrition and to listen to their body talk. Not about numbers and miles run, but about consistency within boundaries.

Cross training must be an essential part of the daily exercise cycle, combining easy runs with short, harsh sessions on the elliptical. When it comes to nutrition, this running guru recommends a diet that offers a nice balance between weight and energy, while putting in enough calories to recover immediately after a training session. Warming up and warming down, stretching before and after running are a must for those flaccid or tired muscles. And never, ever overdo the schedule. Waiting for a day or two, he believes, is so much better than spending weeks on recovery from injury due to over exertion. So, right training cycles and methods, proper nutrition and listening to one’s body are the final mantras for longevity in running, especially long distance events. With these, age does remain a number.

Meb Keflezighi will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most talked about and chronicled athletes in distance running history. While training to qualify for the Rio Olympics at age 40, he quipped: “I used to get anxious before races, but at this stage I have nothing more to prove. I was thinking if I make the Olympic team at 40, wonderful; and if not, I’ve been blessed to have the career I’ve had.”

Post retirement, if such a thing is possible for this age-defying athlete, Meb looks forward to an almost full time career in public speaking, to meeting runners from different and diverse backgrounds and to render yeoman service to his foundation that works with kids to promote fitness and well-being.

A truly fitting legacy from a living legend!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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The runner with the strong wrist – Part 1

Meb Keflezighi, a distance runner who has gained fame for his extraordinary spirit on the course. In this two part series Capt Seshadri profiles this prolific runner

In his long career as a distance runner, this athlete has run 28 international marathons and is believed to have signed more than 30,000 autographs!

In a tiny war-torn country in East Africa, once called Eritrea, which fought a cruel war for over 30 years for liberation from Ethiopia, Mebrahtom ‘Meb’ Keflezighi, was one of 10 children whose early childhood memories were more associated with fatal encounters and dismemberment of his friends and neighbours from warring factions. His first brush with distance running probably occurred at age 10 when he saw his first car and took rapidly to his heels, thinking it was a ‘death machine’. He was later to grin and tell the New York Times: “that was one of the races I lost”. In 1989, at age 14, with his parents having migrated to Italy, Meb watched television for the first time and was left wondering how such big people could get into such a small box.

This was the kid who would ultimately transit from such ignorant beginnings in his home country to becoming a much sought after motivational speaker and brand ambassador to some of the world’s best-known corporates. This is the story that should go down in the annals of sporting history as the marathon of life!

Meb’s family moved to San Diego in 1987 where he began running in earnest. From 5 km and 10 km runs in San Diego High School and UCLA, he graduated both in academics and athletics, winning several medals in championships at the State and then the National levels. With the 2004 marathon silver medal under his belt, he ran on to win the 2009 New York Marathon and then the Boston Marathon in 2014, in the process, bringing gold medal glory to America for the first time after 1982. With this Herculean effort, at an age when most runners are reading about marathons than running them, Meb became the sole marathoner in history to win the New York and Boston Marathons as well as an Olympic medal. He was to continue competitive running at the highest level even at age 41, qualifying for the Rio Olympics 2016.

Setbacks never bothered him as, during the 2008 US Olympic marathon trials, he broke his hip and could not qualify despite finishing eighth, with the debilitating injury.  During the same race, his misery was compounded by the death of his close friend and running mate, Ryan Shay, who died of coronary failure. He rebounded the very next year, winning the 2009 New York Marathon in a personal best time of 2:09:15. In 2010, his achievements were etched in UCLA memory, with his induction into its Hall of Fame.

Runner, writer, trainer, motivational speaker and more. His autobiography titled “Run to overcome” deals with issues of his early life, his milestones and his achievements. MEB Foundation, an acronym of his name that reads ‘Maintaining Excellent Balance’ promotes the values of healthy living and provides a motivational and inspirational platform for school-going youth. In 2014, Meb Keflezighi’s achievements were aptly recognized with the Jesse Owens Award as the USATF Athlete of the Year.

Forty years and running, when even vehicles made of steel are considered vintage.

Read Nine Days a week for the conclusion of this story

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

Read more