Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

This is an article by invitation.

Kumar Rao, now 70, started running 25 years ago during his stay in Caracas, Venezuela. He was then an employee of American Express Bank. A colleague urged him to take up running.

His first race was ten years ago, aged 60; a 10k run in Bengaluru, where he resides currently. At the age of 63, he attempted his first half marathon and two years later ran his first full marathon.

In April 2019, Kumar ran the Boston Marathon (he is among the oldest participants from India yet, at the event) for the second time and followed it up two weeks later with another full marathon at Big Sur International Marathon, held in California with the Pacific Ocean and its adjacent seashore for backdrop.

At Boston, Kumar Rao ran his personal best (PB) of 3:59:33. Though his finish at Big Sur International was tad slower than his Boston Marathon timings, Kumar considers it his best race primarily because he achieved a negative split for the first time since he took up running marathons. He also got a podium finish in his age category.

Kumar is on track to complete the six World Marathon Majors by the end of this year. He has already finished five of these events and is slated to attempt Berlin Marathon later this year to complete the tally.

Here, he talks about his journey to that second stint at running Boston Marathon and his participation in the Big Sur International Marathon.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

The last one year has been quite eventful for me, culminating with two very good runs – Boston Marathon and Big Sur International Marathon.

At 2019 Boston Marathon, I got my first sub-four hour finish of 3:59:33, a personal best. Also, I finished in the top 10 percent of the 70-74 age-group (18/189), well within my BQ time with 20 minutes to spare.

This was an improvement of more than five minutes from my previous personal best at Tokyo in February 2018 and a 25 minute improvement on my previous Boston Marathon race in 2017.

At Big Sur, I finished in 4:03 hours but here for the first time ever I managed to get a good negative split. I finished the first half of the distance in 2:05 hours and the second half in 1:58.

This was also another Boston Qualifier for me. Additionally, I won the second place in my age group and earned a spot on the Big Sur all-time Top-10 M70-74 finishers list.

Both the finishes were well within the Boston qualification time for my age group (M 70-74). My age-graded equivalent time for both races was below 2:59.

After a year beset with an episode of debilitating Chikungunya viral fever in June and an accident while running last December, I was quite pleased to score some significant achievements in these tough hilly marathons, separated only by 12 days.

When I signed up for Boston and Big Sur last September, I was recovering from the Chikungunya attack of June. This had caused some serious Rheumatoid Arthritis type joint pain along with pain in my hands and feet for several months. I had also signed up for the Chicago Marathon that was coming up in October 2018, for which I had barely started training with less than six weeks to go.

Most of my Chicago training entailed running in the afternoon through the monsoon season, as my joints used to be quite stiff and painful in the morning. This also prompted me to adopt a strict anti-inflammatory diet and practise intermittent fasting, which helped me lose four kilos weight. I was not feeling confident about finishing the upcoming Chicago Marathon, let alone running two major marathons in two weeks.

Chicago was my eighth full marathon and I covered the distance in a reasonable time of 4:25:23. My performance here gave me confidence to pursue improvement in my timings in future races.

At Big Sur (photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

The next major race was the half marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon in January 2019. Training was going quite well as I had resumed my normal training schedule of running in the morning and gym training in the evening.

In December, I had a mishap during a race on a hilly road on the outskirts of Bengaluru. It was quite dark when the race started. I seem to have some problem seeing in the dark. I tripped and fell after 2 km and had to run back to the start with my upper lip completely split and bleeding profusely. I was rushed to the hospital and had to undergo plastic surgery which unfortunately kept me off running during the critical two-week period of TMM training.

At TMM, I was quite pleased to finish on the podium with third position in my age group of 65-69 years. I finished that race in 1:49:26. I had also secured a second place on the podium in my age group at the TCS 10K run in May 2018, with a finish of 49:27.

With personal bests in all distances (10 K, HM and Marathon), and unsure of the state of my recovery after Boston, I nevertheless decided to attempt the Big Sur of April 28, 2019. I ran enjoying the spectacular landscape and entertainment along the route, stopping to take photographs at several points such as the spectacular 4 km climb up to Hurricane Point and the drummers at the top, the iconic Bixby bridge with a view of the winding highway and the Pacific Ocean, the pianist on the far side of the bridge; you enjoy classical music throughout the course, including a complete orchestra at one point.

After crossing the midway mark in 2:05:05, I decided I was doing fine and should try to beat my pre-Boston PB of 4:05. The weather was ideal with temperatures ranging between 8 and 13 degrees Celsius; there was cloud cover as well.

The hill training that I put in for Boston Marathon helped me immensely. At Big Sur, the hills did not pose any challenge. The second half took 1:58:20, a huge negative split by 06:45 (about 5.5%).

Kumar Rao; at Big Sur (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

The 2019 Big Sur went off well. I finished without any cramps or major aches. Feeling fresh at the end of the race was quite surprising to me, as just two weeks earlier, Boston had appeared tough. From the perspective of the course, Big Sur is probably tougher with 665 meters of elevation gain as against 200 meters for Boston. It also has more hills as well as steeper ones.

In 2019, the Boston weather turned out to be quite warm prompting me to shed some layers of clothing during the race. I ran this race trying to maintain an even effort throughout and complete it within four hours.

At the start point, I took some time with my dynamic stretches and lunge matrix. By the time I started almost all runners had already left and I found myself running alone down the steep first mile of the course to the applause and cheers of the crowd, feeling like an elite runner. Soon I caught up with other runners and was able to get to my goal pace. I was conversing with other runners on the way until I hit Newton hills.

I stepped up my effort on the hills and started to feel some pain in my quadriceps and hamstrings during the final four or five miles but willed myself not to cramp.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

I found myself overtaking runners in front of me and could hear cheers of “ Kumar, Kumar” from the crowds that had lined up in the late miles. After the turn on to Boylston Street I sprinted to ensure that I would complete the race in less than four hours. I ran this race without stopping even once or walking at any time. I was carrying my own hydration and fuel. I felt tired at the end but after collecting the medal, was able to walk to the meeting point I had agreed to with my son, Abhijit. As soon as I got there, I had severe cramps in both feet and was unable to take another step. I collapsed into the arms of my son, who had been waiting for me with some warm clothing and a delicious smoothie. After some rest and stretching, I was able to walk back to the hotel room a few blocks away from the finish line. A hot tub-soak did wonders. After that my son and I went out to celebrate the achievement. Overall, this ` B2B challenge’ was a great experience and I am likely to repeat it next year.

I now have TCS 10K coming up on May 19 and am slated to run two more marathons this year – Berlin in September and Marine Corps in Washington DC in October.

I have enjoyed this journey and have learnt a lot since my first run t an event, ten years ago. Running has been a great hobby and I hope to continue with endurance running for as long as I can, at least until I can learn to swim and substitute it for running as a means of maintaining fitness.

(The author, Kumar Rao, is a runner based in Bengaluru.)

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