Kolkata Full Marathon

My last day in India and the day of the Kolkata Full Marathon. The race started at 5am, close to my hotel, so I’d set my alarm for 4am. Just before 3am I woke up to odd sensations; please don't let these be stomach cramps, I thought, as I’d been so pleased not to have any dietary afflictions in India. But small stomach cramps they were, and followed up by a vomiting session. What terrible timing. For three milliseconds I contemplated not doing the marathon before continuing with my preparations. I had no more problems although all I could face for breakfast was a black instant coffee and I didn't fancy the dry biscuits I had planned to eat.

This was a much smaller field than Mumbai (in fact there were only to be 121 official finishers and this included just 9 women, but I think a few women missed the 6 hour cutoff) and I positioned myself well to the back. I only saw two other non Indians. I started out slow and to summarize my performance: I got slower. It was dark until 6.30am but extremely humid - the weather forecast had said 90% humidity dropping to 80%. I felt I was suffering from the start. I wonder also if the pollution was a factor. I can see in hindsight that I was not well that morning but because my unwellness did not involve pain I was able to disregard it.

The bulk of the route, 21km done twice, was within the Maidan, the huge area of dusty parkland in the centre of Kolkata. The Maidan has many cricket pitches, club houses for all sorts of organisations, paddocks of grazing animals, is flanked by important buildings and is criss-crossed by wide roads. Its pride and joy, curiously, is the Queen Victoria Memorial at the southern end, an enormous edifice to colonial India completed in 1906.

I have come to love Kolkata in my three days here, it is so vibrant and real (goats being herded through the traffic, the anachronistic rickshaw wallahs, the bathing ghats, chaotic bazaars everywhere) but I did worry about the motorized traffic. It is crazy busy and pedestrians are the lowest of the pile. It was just as well the roads we used were closed to traffic. One short section went beyond the Maidan into a commercial area but it was roped off.

There were very frequent aid stations with water bottles and a sports drink (which I liked) in plastic reusable cups; you had to return the cup after drinking from it and I am sure they were not being washed before being refilled, but I threw caution to the wind for the first time this trip. There were also baby bananas quite often, and dry biscuits. The aid station volunteers, of whom there were masses, were really friendly and supportive. So were the marshals showing the turns. It was a complicated route with many out and backs and I was concerned about finding the way when the field thinned out. I only thought about this afterwards but there was not a single female marshal or aid station worker, although some of the race staff at the expo had been females.

My worst problem in the early part, apart from the high temperature and humidity, was that I found the asphalt slippery and I worried about falling. Later in the day this problem vanished (on the same roads) maybe as the roads dried out from the early mist. There must have been a thin film of oil on the damp surface. I noticed a low mist over some parts of the Maidan.

I was looking forward to the stretch along the Hooghly River but we couldn’t really see it, despite running alongside it, as there is a railway line between the Maidan and the river. But there was a slight breeze along here.

The front runners were passing me on their second lap by 16km, not a good omen but I didn’t care. I just wanted my sore places (glutes, hip flexors, feet) not to give me grief, and likewise my stomach. I can’t think of another time when I’ve not run for two weeks and then my next run has been a marathon. But in all my time in India I only once saw some joggers, here in Kolkata, and they may have been running to catch the traffic light. I don’t honestly believe I could have found somewhere to train.

Most of the route I looked around at the Maidan scenery; there were lots of cricket games. We had some good views of the Vic Memorial from different angles. Later on there were more 'normal' people on the roads, walking along with baggage or in families. They looked at me but few outright stared and those who said something were all friendly, calling me Ma'am.

But I was glad I had taken the precaution of walking to the race in jeans and intended to wear those jeans on the way back too. I could not imagine being seen in the shopping streets in shorts.

Around half way I fell into step with an Indian guy. This was his first marathon and he said he would use me to help him break six hours. I could make no guarantees at this point but I didn’t want to go over six hours either. He told me that his training, which started two weeks ago, had consisted of running for three hours every day and doing a full 42km last weekend. He was wearing a tracksuit. We chatted a lot as his English was very good and I was able to get answers to some things that have been perplexing me. He counseled me against drinking the sports drink from the dirty glasses but I did so anyway. I didn’t tell him about the vomiting.

There was a woman running in a sari and my friend explained that she was wearing it in the Maharashtra way so that she could run in it; I wasn’t surprised because you clearly could not run in a normal sari. Apparently she was going for the world record of running a marathon in a sari but she didn’t make it.

After a while I found even talking and listening to be hard work and I tried to pull away from my friend. But he always came back to me. I was secretly surprised at how well he did but I think this was a factor of my being so much further back in the field than I would usually be towards the end of a race.

I was becoming very keen to finish but I found it hard to keep up running for long. I took an awful lot of walking breaks but still passed people who were walking slower than me. On the home stretch, which was almost 3km, we had to cross a road which had been reopened to traffic; cars, buses and motorbikes were hurtling along and I wasn’t happy picking a break in the flow to cross. While I was waiting my friend was yelling "left! left!" as if I were standing there not knowing which way to go. Really I wanted to avoid getting run over in my haste to finish.

Finally we finished, together, in 5:48. The moment I crossed the finish line and stopped I felt really faint and I knew I had to sit down urgently. Every man and his dog wanted a selfie with me. I think the expression on my face must have been scary. I collapsed down on the dirt at the side of the finish chute. Everyone sits in the dirt in India but not at this place so I elicited a lot of concern, which was touching.

My friend took me to the food area and brought me the post race meal: which I thought was 
potato curry, dal, roti and rice, and an earthenware cup of chai. The chai was the best bit. I had a problem because the stuff I thought was dal looked just like what I had vomited up this morning. But when I carefully tasted it I found it was halva which is really sweet and just what I needed. But I was in a daze staring at the palm trees. I couldn’t eat much at all, and wasn’t hungry when I got back to the hotel. I hadn’t eaten even hours later. An absolute first for me.


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