Monday, November 22, 2010

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon

When I told my trusty driver Kailesh about my plans to run the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, his reaction was innocent and upbeat, "I hope you win." My response was a little more honest, "I just hope I finish."

While home in the US during the month of October, I did an adequate job of keeping up on short runs; however, I also did an adequate job reacquainting myself with my favorite microbrews and restaurants. The net result? A few added pounds and not a lot of confidence building distance running. Bottom line, I had no real business even signing up for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. Having taken to running in the past couple years and making it through my first two half marathons in 2009, I had some idea the level of distance training deemed appropriate. Let's just say I hadn't done that appropriate amount of training.

The 7:30am start (I had no idea something involving 30,000+ people could begin at that time here; the only time I've been up at that "early" hour here is if we happen to be traveling) required a 5:30am wake-up. After picking up our friend Kristin, whom I had convinced that this race would be a good idea and fun experience even if we weren't properly training, we were on our way into Delhi for the early start.
Kristin and I before the start of the race; the visor is back!
We had no idea where runner drop-off was but saw a bunch of people that looked like runners walking into Nehru Park. We quickly told Ashok (our other trusty driver) to stop and let us out of the car. After a short walk through the park, we found the runner's entrance and parted ways with the wife. There appeared to be a queued corral of runners to the left waiting anxiously to get into the starting area. To the right of them, there was an open section. Kristin and I opted for the open section and quickly cut in front of those waiting. Once past the corral, we had to pass through security, because, you know, runners are a threat, and found our way to the first waiting area.

While waiting in the first section, we ran into a small group from Gurgaon Connection that we had met at a Bollywood-themed party on Friday night. It was nice to see that we weren't the only one's to eschew training so close to the race. Passing through that first holding area, we made it to a second. Waiting there a couple minutes, they literally opened up these large plywood gates and the runners burst through like cattle. I thought that might be the official start to the race, but we ended up walking through a small cordoned area, turning right onto the street before seeing the official starting line. Seven or so minutes after the official start, my timing chip crossed the starting line.

This was my first race with this many people; my previous half marathons had been the ultra-tiny 300 person Alpine Races Half Marathon in Lake Zurich (which is a lot less hilly than the name might suggest) and the 2500 person "The Other Half" in Moab, Utah. I fully expected to fight through the crowds for the first couple miles, but the elongated multi-layered corral system actually spread people out fairly well. Still, as we ran some of the straight roads, there was an absolute sea of people on the road in front of me.
Kristin and I just after the start, surprisingly uncrowded
The course was basically an out-and-back that stretched from Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri (the section of Delhi with the embassies), along past Safdarjung's Tomb and Khan Market, up to India Gate and finally turning around in a round about near the Le Meridien Hotel. As always in this type of race, the most humbling experience is when you're not quite at the 1/3 mark and see the leaders passing you from the opposite direction, sprinting past the 2/3 mark.

Thankfully, right around the halfway mark of the race just before passing India Gate for the second time, I found myself running next to Sameer, one of the fellow expats I had met on Friday at the party. We unofficially used each other to pace most of the rest of the race. I also appreciated how he took it upon himself to clap at people in the crowd, thus eliciting cheers and claps on our behalf.

Like most experiences in Delhi, the diversity of what we ran past was impressive. From shanties with the poor watching quizzically as we passed to the leafy provincial estates of New Delhi to the impressive structures of Safdarjung's Tomb, India Gate, and Rashtrapati Bhavan, there was a little something for everyone on this course. Thankfully, it was basically hill-free, the only true elevation change being a flyover in each direction to keep us honest.

I found myself struggling less than expected and found it helpful that rather than mile markers there were kilometer markers. Twenty-one markers instead of thirteen means, quite obviously, that they come just that little bit more frequently that keeps you going to the next one. By the nineteenth kilometer, I felt myself starting to fatigue, though it was close enough to the end to just power through.

As I approached the finish line, I saw an attractive woman fumbling with a camera. As I got closer and closer, I realized I recognized this person. I had no idea how she had staked this position, but surely enough, the Wife had found the perfect spot to snap me triumphantly crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, as I got closer, I recognized a growing look of panic as she wasn't quite ready for the shot. I was a little earlier than I had told her (I honestly had no idea what my time would be based on my lack of training), though in my defense, I was one of very few 6'2" white dudes running the race; I kind of stuck out. Unfortunately, she missed the shot.

The story she told of getting to that location was as impressive as the story I just told about finishing the race. Apparently, in the course of the three hours since she dropped Kristin and I at the runners' entrance, she had made her way into the "elite athlete's" tent to use the rest room and run her own little race to sneak into the media area. A classic case of skipping the whole "asking permission" part and waiting to beg forgiveness if it came to that. Well, either that or playing the "ignorant foreigner" card.
Feeling surprisingly good after the race
Even with no triumphant shot of me crossing the finish line, the race was a fun and memorable experience. As is the case for nearly anyone that runs a half marathon, simply finishing is in and of itself, the accomplishment. The medals garlanded on each finisher* pretty much said it all: "I am a finisher."

*So not all finisher's actually received their medal, which wasn't an entire surprise to me. Upon checking the race website today this message greeted the homepage: "It is unfortunate that a section of the Half Marathon finishers in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon did not receive their finisher's medal due to unforeseen circumstances." Based on what I could tell, those "unforeseen circumstances" included a bunch of people at the finish line that hadn't run the race trying to get a medal. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me.


  1. Congratulations on finishing! Now you can cross "running a half marathon in India" off your bucket list. Sounds like you had a great time.

  2. I'm still a few behind you....was sort of thinking of running another one in Gurgaon in a couple weeks; think that's going to need to wait.