|Five years ago, the doctors told him that he would never be able to run again. From that low point, to completing 50 marathons in the year 2011 so far, it has been a long journey for the Mumbaikar, Madhur Kotharay.
While everyone is now waking up to get ready for their tryst with Mumbai Marathon in Jan 2012, Khar resident Madhur Kotharay, 44, has completed 50 plus marathons in the year 2011 already. Incidentally, a marathon is a run of 42.2 kilometers.
Madhur is not your typical runner – a lean, mean, running machine. In fact, years ago, as a first year student in IIT Bombay, he could not even run 100 meters without going out of breath, coming dead last in his Hostel’s Cross-Country Race. His running pace used to be slower than his walking pace!
When Madhur went to the USA for his higher studies, he got an insanity attack: he decided to participate in the New York City Marathon. The year was 1989. He trained diligently, became very good at running and finished his first marathon in less than 4 hours. Since then, he has participated in many marathons in India and abroad, clocking some really pathetic times: 8 hours (San Francisco Marathon) as well as some very fast times: 3 hours 30 min (Atlantic City Marathon). He also ran many marathons in India such as Pune Marathon, Pondicherry Marathon, and our own Mumbai Marathons.
Towards the end of 2010, some of his friends were discussing about a 100 Marathon club. This is an honourable class of runners who have finished 100 marathon runs in life. Madhur had completed about 30 odd official marathon races and another 50 odd marathon distance runs in the last 20 years. So around Christmas 2010, he decided to go for an outrageous target: 52 marathons in 52 weeks of 2011.
“The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare”, said Juma Ikangaa, a Tanzanian marathoner and Marathoning World No. 1 in 1989. This meant that Madhur had to have a strategy to go with his goal as he could not run more than 15-20 km at a stretch. He laid out a simple method. Run 2 km, walk half km, repeat 17 times.
“People often push themselves too hard when they set a goal and that brings them down with injury,” Madhur said. With 22 years of experience in running and training many friends for the marathon, Madhur knew that the battle with such outrageous goal was in staying out of injury. Slowly, as his condition improved, Madhur started doing the marathons with 2 km run - 200 meters walk cycle. That became 3 km run - 200 meters walk cycle and so on.
In most developed countries, there are marathons in most cities and you can find one almost every week or month. However, in India, given our weather, there are hardly any marathons throughout the summer and monsoons. So if Madhur had to do one marathon a week, the only option was to do 42.2 km runs in Mumbai.
Mumbai weather is not exactly conducive to running outdoors for a long time. The summers are hot and humid. The monsoons are rain-drenched. And winter is hardly a fortnight long or two. Since Madhur would take 5 to 6 hours to finish his marathon runs, it was not possible to run outdoors. So he decided to do the runs on the treadmill in his gym, Leena Mogre’s Academy at Khar.
“The gym owners, Leena and Nikhil Mogre, were very co-operative and allowed me to run for long stretches of time,” Madhur said. Most gyms have a limit of 45 minutes for the use of treadmills but that was waived for Madhur.
Since Sundays are busy workdays for Madhur who has his own business, it meant he had to take a weekday off every week. That was problematic, as he couldn’t ignore work-related phone calls for the full day while running. He would have to stop the treadmill, come out of the exercise area and then take the calls. That would break his running rhythm, often an irritant.
Running on treadmill is a different ballgame than running on roads. First, on the treadmill, you do not get the breeze that cools you down. Second, while running you can slow down if you get tired, keeping the effort constant. On a treadmill, the pace is constant and you have to adjust your effort constantly.
During a marathon, one typically loses 4-5 liters of water as sweat. So one needs to drink water at regular intervals. In a race, there are people who hand you water or sports drink. In the gym, you have to stop and fill your own water bottles at the water fountain. Every time you take a break, it makes it that much harder to start again. Finally, staring at the blank wall in front of the treadmill for 6 hours is the worst punishment. “If you think it is boring to watch the proverbial paint get dry, try watching dry paint” jokes Madhur.
“People often say that it is easier to run on the road than on a treadmill,” Madhur said. “That is not true. The advantage of a treadmill is mainly in the last 10 km of the marathon, when you are tired. As you tire out, your leg muscles fatigue out and if there is uneven surface on the road, such as a pothole, you can twist your leg. Also, your reflexes drop as you tire. You may misjudge the speed or the exact trajectory of an oncoming vehicle.”
In a marathon, the 30 km point is considered the half-way point in physiological terms. That means, first 30 km are as hard as the last 12 km. This point is called the Wall, a predicament where your body runs out of glycogen or normal fuel. So in the first 10-20 marathons, Madhur had to eat extra the night before (called ‘Carbo-Loading’) and even have energy bars during the run.
However, as his conditioning improved, he could manage with less preparation. He would have a nice cup of tea – an anathema for long-distance running - and go for a run. In fact, he was very surprised to realize that in his last two marathons, he had set out on empty stomach (he ‘forgot’ to eat or drink anything before the run) and still finished strong at 7 pm. A whole day without food meant he was ‘Running on Empty’ and still managed to run well.
“The human body is simply a marvel. It adapts to stress and becomes stronger as long as you slowly increase the workload. The keyword is slowly. Push it too soon and you are in trouble,” Madhur said. Famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had once said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
Unfortunately, most people don’t learn from other people’s wisdom; they learn from their own mistakes. So it was normal that Madhur had to learn Nietzsche’s advice from his own goof-up.
In June-July, Madhur was not well and skipped a few weeks of marathons. As it happens in one day Cricket, a few dot overs in the middle simply push the run rate up. Soon, Madhur found he needed to do a marathon every 6 days, and then every 5 days.
Blindly chasing his target, Madhur was putting increasingly higher stress on the body without giving it time to recover. Soon, during the 40th marathon (M40), Madhur hurt his left knee. It became very painful to run in the subsequent marathons.
As luck would have it, around the same time, Madhur read the cult classic from running folklore – a book called “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. In the book, the author narrates his experience with a tribe called Tarahumara in rural Mexico. These tribesman run 50 – 100 kms non-stop effortlessly, almost barefoot.
One sentence in the book caught Madhur’s fancy. These tribesmen, even when they take part in a race, they run as a celebration of life, not as a competition. “Here I was, wincing every step, cursing my luck at the injury. And these tribal speedsters were saying that I should run more for fun.” Madhur said. “Since I was at the end of my wits as regards the knee pain, I decided to give this a try. I started to relax during the runs and not focus on speed or time targets. Occasionally, I even smiled at the blank wall in front of the treadmill! It felt weird initially but I found that it worked, with the pain slowly fading away over a few days, never to recur.”
Madhur also tinkered with the new concept in running: Barefoot running. It has been proven in the last few years than running with shoes causes more injuries than running barefoot. The latter even leads you to faster running times. That might sound illogical but the science behind it is incontrovertible.
Madhur started running barefoot as a sceptic but soon noticed the benefits. Unfortunately, the gym rules precluded running barefoot on the treadmills and so he opted for running with minimals, a new genre of shoes with very little cushioning. Madhur found that they improved his running form and speed. He estimates that for a 5-hour marathoner, running barefoot will give a 10 min advantage.
The knee pain ensured that the ‘run-rate’ required to achieve Madhur’s target of 52 marathons in 52 weeks kept climbing further. Soon, it became one every 4 days, and then it became one every 3 days. Beyond a certain point, Madhur found, even positive thinking does not help the body!
With 8 marathons to go and 28 days left, the stress of a very rapid escalation in workload took its toll on Madhur. He developed a stress fracture in his right ankle. A stress fracture is a small hairline fracture in the ankle that is caused by repeated impact of running. At least a month’s complete rest is the main solution.