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Why I'll keep coming back to the Mumbai Marathon

The 2018 Mumbai Marathon saw a total field of 44,407 runners in six categories. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, January 21, I was feeling particularly anxious. I was to start in my second Mumbai Marathon, the race that, it can be said, launched India's running revolution. I was no stranger to insufficient, less-than-ideal preparation -- this was to be my fifth 21.097km run -- and the resultant uncertainty about the quality of my race, but for the first time I was struggling with my breathing during training. I'd go too fast and run out of breath or fail to hold a rhythm once I got into one.

Surely, this couldn't happen in what was my favourite half-marathon? Like tens of thousands, I had loved the Mumbai marathon even before I ran it. The event was first held in 2004 after organisers Procam International, it is said, wanted to bring a big city race to India's financial capital. It had sparked a wave of city marathons all across the country, from Delhi to Chennai and Ahmedabad to Kolkata. It's hard to argue against the event's popularity, too. Mass participation aside, the fact that registrations are routinely closed within weeks, far before the last date, is further proof of its popularity.

Now into its 15th edition, I thought its route could be part of its appeal -- the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station, Marine Drive, Wankhede Stadium, Haji Ali, Worli Seaface, the Sealink, Shivaji Park, the Siddhivinayak Temple and Mahalaxmi Racecourse are all a part. Delhi has runners going past India Gate and Chennai has participants running along Marina Beach, but I don't think any other road race in India manages to include the most distinctive, easily identifiable landmarks of a city in its route as well as Mumbai does, which is part of what makes it so unique.

"The route could be part of the Mumbai Marathon's appeal -- the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station, Marine Drive, Wankhede Stadium, Haji Ali, Worli Seaface, the Sealink, Shivaji Park, the Siddhivinayak Temple and Mahalaxmi Racecourse are all a part."

Well, anxiety or no anxiety, everyone runs his own race, so off I went. As opposed to the high humidity on race day last year, the conditions this time were cool. Grateful, I looked around for pockets of relatively empty spaces to slot myself into when I entered the Sealink after the first kilometre, all the while concentrating hard on maintaining a symmetrical "1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4" cycle of inhalation and exhalation.

As the field spread out some more after the Sealink bridge doubled its width to four lanes, I began to feel at ease, my running got close to autopilot mode and my mind started to wander. I saw a flight taking off in the distance and imagined the surreal, unique sight some in that plane might be witnessing -- a sea of humanity gradually enveloping the bridge, on which there wasn't a single car in sight, except for a police jeep and a timing vehicle at the start. Passing under the towers that house the cables supporting the bridge deck, it was impossible not to look up and feel a sense of awe. I was, at that point of time, one of 14,950 people who was taking part in the half-marathon, in a total field of 44,407 runners in six categories.

As I crossed the halfway point, the first of the full-marathon runners passed in the opposite direction, including a running buddy from Pune. I called out to him and he heard me over the beat of the dhol, which, along with the enthusiasm of marching bands and the intermittent cheers from bystanders and volunteers, helped keep the spirits up.

Passing Haji Ali, I made sure to take in the sight of the mosque, an island of green and white surrounded by the inky blue, pre-dawn light, before steeling myself for what lay ahead -- a kilometre-odd stretch of incline formerly known as Pedder Road, which lies near the 14-km mark, a point in a half-marathon where runners, with their legs beginning to feel tight and heavy, aren't far from the hardest section of the race, if not already there. That's what makes it so difficult. Putting my head down and leaning forward a little, I began the grind uphill, my pace automatically dropping as I fought off the temptation to give up and just walk the climb like many around me.

I managed to run up the climb, however, and picked up pace descending the flyover that marked the end of that section in an attempt to build momentum, figuratively speaking, for the final 5km, and turned onto Marine Drive. The sight of the curved, almost-4km-long promenade bathed in pink-blue light, with the outline of its most distinctive sights at the other end faintly visible in the haze gave me goosebumps.

There is a difference, easily spotted, between the way the pros and most amateurs run. The feet of a pro, after each strike, kick back all the way to their buttocks, before coming back down for the next strike. This not only allows their feet to store more energy for each subsequent stride, but also utilises all the strength in the lower half of their body. Most amateurs, on the other hand, tend to lift their feet a few inches off the ground before bringing them back down. This, presumably, is easier but it does not make full use of the power in the thighs.

"The clock said I'd finished in about two hours, two minutes, but I later found out it was actually two hours, 13 seconds. I wished I'd made more of an effort to have a stronger last few kilometres. It might have given me a sub-two-hour time and, more importantly, it would've felt far more satisfying."

Feeling the energy in my legs depleted, I tried to lift my thighs more in an effort to make life easier. It worked but had little effect on my pace, which had by then settled on a level just below the point where I'd get a stitch in my side. Other runners began to overtake me but I had little left in the tank at that point, so I didn't try to fight it. With a kilometre to go, I quickened my pace, eager to finish the run strongly and soon. With 200m left, and the finish line finally in sight, I made the last dash and finished, happy and relieved in equal measure. The clock said I'd finished in about two hours, two minutes, but I later found out it was actually two hours, 13 seconds. I wished I'd made more of an effort to have a stronger last few kilometres. It might have given me a sub-two-hour time and, more importantly, it would've felt far more satisfying. That said, the run went better than I expected, given my preparation.

Now that I'm based in Mumbai, I think of the Mumbai marathon as my 'home' event. The weather conditions on race day can be unpredictable, the elevation changes make it more difficult, the large number of runners contribute to the energy, but can also be maddening to deal with. At the same time, it has a route that genuinely excites me and makes all of that physical and mental difficulty seem a little more worth it.

The Mumbai Marathon is the only run I've done more than once so far, and I have no doubt I'll keep coming back. It has a special place in my heart. I've already begun to think about next year's event and the possibility of it being, hopefully, my first full marathon.