Coming last in the Colombo Marathon – October 2012
It was 2am and unable to sleep, I tossed and turned in the heat of the Sri Lankan night. The fan whirred above my head and despite having a net to protect me from the hungry mosquitos, one had managed to find a way in and was buzzing near my ear.
Maybe it was the ironic worry of not getting enough sleep that was keeping me awake or the thought of what I had possibly forgotten to prepare for the marathon that I would be running in a few hours. Whatever it was, I was finding it impossible to sleep. I got up and went to the bathroom and as I did, I looked out of the window towards the sea. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear the sea, pounding at the shore.
A few hours later, I woke with a startled jolt. It was still dark, and 3.30am.
Despite the lack of sleep, I quickly got out of bed. I didn’t bother with a shower, changing straight into my running clothes that I had organized the night before in a tidy pile by my bed. I checked numerous times to make sure I had everything. Bib number…..CHECK, money……CHECK, phone…..CHECK, doctors note…..CHECK.
I turned to look at my bed one last time before closing the door softly to my hotel room. I thought to myself, the next time I would see this bed, I will have ran another marathon, no doubt my hardest yet, little did I know how difficult it would be.
I walked against the warm ocean breeze. The entire town was quiet, nothing moved except the leaves of the palm trees that lined the street. It was quite the contrast to the day before, when hoards of people were enjoying the beautiful sunset on the beach, flying kites, eating from the vendors and enjoying life.
I approached the hotel where I had planned to meet one of the race officials. He had kindly offered to spare me the cost of a taxi by offering to take me to the starting line. The hotel looked dead, the only sound I heard was the occasional canned laughter from a small television which was being watched by a security guard, half asleep.
Despite being 15 minutes early, I questioned if I was at the correct hotel and wondered what my backup plan would be if I was not. After a few minutes a man, came down the hotel stairs and I gave a sigh of relief when I saw that he too was dressed in running clothes. A feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ washed over me as I saw him fastening the Colombo marathon bib number to his shirt. At least now I wasn’t going to miss the marathon on my own!
“Are you running the Colombo marathon, I knowingly asked?” “Yes, my name is John” he said and we shook hands. It transpired that we were both waiting for the same official to drive us to the starting line.
Another man came down the stairs and he too looked like he was dressed for a marathon and we motioned him over to join our growing group. His name was George.
George was from Germany and was deaf. Despite us speaking different languages and being unable to communicate through speech, we didn’t let that stop us from introducing ourselves and getting to know each other better.
A few minutes later the official from the race arrived and all three of us, squeezed into the back of his car, ready to road trip to the capital of Sri Lanka to run a marathon.
Through a combination of pointing, writing, drawing and the universal language of smiling, all four of us continued to chat and learn more about each other. It’s amazing how a bonding experience such as a marathon can bring together people so quickly. If it can work at 4am in a foreign country with people who don’t speak the same language, imagine how effective it would do at other times!
George was an inspiring guy, he had ran many marathons before, in a number of foreign countries. His wife was also deaf and they would combine traveling with George’s passion for running, something that resonated with me.
It can be hard enough to communicate with people when you are traveling in foreign lands. I know myself how patient you need to be, however I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be if you are deaf. Reading people’s lips as well as the the sound of cars and other dangers must be such a challenge. Not to mention the hazards when running, unable to hear anything around you. George’s disability didn’t stop him though, quite the contrary he had been further and done more than most people who could hear.
As we had arrived at the start of the marathon, I could easily make my way to the starting line, something that I had never had the opportunity to do before. The atmosphere was electric. I was surrounded by pro and semi pro athletes ready to run the race of their lives. Another interesting and welcome occurrence was that the vast majority of the runners were Sri Lankan. There were also hundreds of children running (I learnt that these local children were given free entrance to the race and were running either the 5km or 10km race, which started at the same time as the marathon). All the children were especially excited. Many were running without shoes and others were running simply for the joy of running. I loved how the race officials had allowed these passionate young children the opportunity to run for free. Their enthusiasm was contagious.
An eclectic looking runner walked past the starting line, into the open road like a loan sheep who had escaped from the pack. He turned to us all and started dancing and blowing on a whistle. With cheers and laughter, the crowd encouraged him in his attempt to get everyone excited, happy and distracted from the hard run ahead. I looked forward to unknowingly meeting this manlater in the race, a person who would be instrumental in helping me finish, little did I know at this point however.
With a bang the starting gun went off and like a sluice gate being opened the torrent of runners made their way forward through the streets of Colombo.
Kids of all ages ran past me, happy to be free and running, in memorable race. With all the excitement and the fast pace of being at the front, I knew my pace was too quick and I tried to slow into a more manageable one.
I had already started sweating. The sun had yet to rise and the temperature was already 25 degrees celsius (around 80 degrees fahrenheit). I pushed back the thought of what the temperature would be like in a few hours.
I passed colonial style buildings, built by the British from a bygone era and watched as locals curiously looked as a sea of people ran through the streets at this ungodly hour.
As I looked to my left I could see a shimmer of the sun starting to slowly rise over the horizon, winking at me as if to say “Ready or not, here I come”.
Less than 3 miles into the marathon and things were already very tough. Maybe I just needed to get into the zone, I reassured myself, as beads of sweat dripped down my face. I tried to ignore the huge ball of fire in the sky that was the real cause of my problems.
I continued running, slowly, taking breaks at the sparsely located water stops. The bottles of water were becoming warmer at each stop, acting as a barometer for the blisteringly hot day that was unfolding.
Runners passed me, but I didn’t care, all I tried to focus on was the next mile.
The 5km runners had finished many miles ago and I could now see the finishing line for the 10km race. As I ran past, I noticed that there were far fewer runners in the field now.
I could feel the heat starting to affect me. I have been in hot countries many times to know the debilitating affect of dehydration and I knew that if I didn’t do something that it could be dangerous and I would not be able to go on any any further. I stopped at the next pharmacy that I past and asked if they had any energy drinks or anything for dehydration. In perfect English the pharmacist gave me an orange flavored drink and told me that it was meant for babies suffering from dehydration, but it would help me also. The salty liquid tasted disgusting but I downed it in one gulp and continued on my journey.
At mile 10 I noticed another problem. My thighs were chaffing, making every step even more uncomfortable. I stopped at another pharmacy, asked for another kids dehydration drink as well as some vaseline to rub against my thighs.
At the water stops the ice had melted a long time ago, and the water had turned from cold, to warm to hot. Luckily I had brought enough money with me to stop at the many cafes along the road. The locals must have thought I was quite the sight, dripping with sweat, taking a coke from the fridge mixing it with a salt tablets, drinking it one go and running on.
As the road ran north, parallel to the coast, I was impressed with how far I had come. I ran on the road when there were no sidewalks and often had to battle against busses and tuktuks as we jostled for our own personal space on the road. No roads had been closed off at this point in the marathon, there was just the occasional chalk arrow and mile marker on the ground pointing us in the right direction.
Stopping every mile to rehydrate, I was depleting the small amount of money I had fast. I passed the half marathon point where a small crowd cheered the finishers and race officials waved me on. I still had another 13.1 miles to go, if I could manage one more mile I would be proud of myself.
After the half way point things started to become very sparse, both in scenery and with the number of other runners. I couldn’t see anyone and I often wondered if I was going the right away, feeling reassured when I would see an arrow painted on the road guiding me on.
I stopped at another cafe’s for a coke. The condensation dripped down the bottle as I paid the store keeper and I took a minutes rest, sitting on a makeshift table and chairs constructed out of crates.
As I set the bottle down on the table after taking a big sip, a race official came into the cafe. He must have seen me coming in. “Are you running the Colombo Marathon” the man asked, as I sat there dripping in sweat, with my Colombo race bib number dangling from my shirt! “I nodded”, trying to conserve the little energy I had left bothering to answer a question which I felt had an obvious answer. “You are the last runner. We will drive behind you in the support van”. It took me a second to comprehend what he was telling me……… I was in last place!
When you start training for a marathon, everyone seems to have at least one of two fear: What if I can’t finish or What if I am the last person to finish!
Runners who have completed marathons, assure you that if you have finished the training you’ll
easily be able to complete the 26.2 miles. In response to the second fear, they say “Out of the plethora of people running the marathon, there is no way that you would be the last. There will always be someone slower than you.”
It was official. I was living that nightmare scenario of coming last. I was the last runner in a marathon. At first the thought of having a support vehicle follow me was extremely off putting. What if I wanted to stop running or take a break? This, combined with the initial embarrassment of being last, almost pushed me over the edge to quit then and there. I could ride in the van to the finish line, which was very close to my hotel. It would be a good excuse to come back to Asia and run another marathon.
I was so close to quitting. I was already badly sun burnt and my energy and mental strength were at rock bottom, this was the final nail in the coffin. But something strange happened. You know when you get caught in a rain storm without an umbrella and you become so wet that there is no longer any point in trying to stay dry? It was a similar feeling. I just decided to embrace being last and enjoy the experience.
I had nothing to prove or any reason to feel embarrassed, if anything being last in a marathon is one of those stories you can pull out of your toolbox and tell for years to come, laugh over the experience. When another person who is thinking of running a marathon says,”What if I come last?”. I could say “Don’t worry, I did that and it wasn’t all that bad!” I was that guy
After taking one more sip of my coke, I stood up and continued my journey with my unwanted entourage behind me. I had a new lease of life, I stopped worrying and this had a remarkable effect….I got into a grove, and I found my stride again.
Sometimes setbacks end up helping you. My initial trepidation was unfounded, not only was the van motivating me to run faster and for longer with fewer stops. They also had (cold) bottles of water which they would hand out to me whenever I wanted them from the window of the van.
After a mile of running, in the distance, like a marriage, I saw what looked like another runner, bobbing up and down in their unique running style. After being alone for so long it was a refreshing sight to see another runner. With each stride I was catching them. As I approached, I greeted them and instead of overtaking , I decided to run with them, using our combined energy to help us both move forward.
Ben, was from America and an exchange student studying in Kandi, a city in the middle of Sri Lanka. He was suffering from bad cramps. He didn’t have any money to buy drinks or food, so at the next roadside stall I bought him some bananas and an ice cold coke. After our brief stop, Ben caught his second wind, refreshed and motivated, we caught up with another runner who we saw in the distance and not long after we encountered a third.
This third runner turned out to be Mohan, the dancing guy at the start of the marathon. His enthusiasm and humor was exactly what we needed. Mohan was running the marathon in Crocs! He had a camera around his neck which he would use to take photos at every possible moment. To him this was a big party, and I loved his happy attitude. We had a multi national running group, myself from the UK, Ben from the US, Mohan from Singapore, and others now from Sri Lanka, and China.
We talked, joked and stopped to rest whenever we needed to, buying cokes and freshly cracked coconuts to refresh and hydrate ourselves. We had water fights at each water stop to cool each other off (this didn’t work because the water was searing hot from the heat of the sun) and distracted each other with stories and games.
From almost quitting, to being alone for many miles, now I had a group that was pumped up and ready to cross the finish line together.
We ran through the town of Negombo, with cheers from spectators who had come to see the their friends and family run in the marathon. We knew the finish line wasn’t far, as we weaved through the streets. As we entered a park, we were greeted by a refreshing sea breeze and the most beautiful sandy beaches you’ve seen.
As Mohan took his Singaporean flag from his bag, we joined arms and crossed the finished line together in joint last place!
As we crossed the line German George came to congratulate me with a huge grin on his face. He had managed to achieve an amazing time of under 4 hours.
As I sat and recovered on the beach I took in the beautiful scenery and the huge obstacle that I had overcome.
Thinking back to mile 5 I never thought I would finish, but somehow, together, we had done it. It was certainly the hardest marathon that I had completed, and it shows when I tell you that It took me 5 hours and 45 minutes to complete. I was initially embarrassed about the time but now I’ve come to realize that it was my biggest achievement, both mentally and physically. I almost quit but I was able to find something inside of me to continue.
That evening, after showering and resting, I returned to the beach where I finished the marathon. I watched the sun set as I ate some street food. Some local guys came over and I joined them in singing the day away as we enjoyed an amazing end to a remarkable day.