Humbled in Honolulu

Following my run in San Francisco, I looked to fill up my racing calendar again. After a little bit of searching, I settled on Honolulu. I’d run a much shorter 3 mile cross country race in Oahu 7 years ago, representing and running with my high school team.

My nerves subsided closer towards the start. I worked my way through the crush up to my corral, which was in the very front. After the national anthem and the Hawaiian state song, the race director gave a few more instructions in English and Japanese, and the starting pistol cracked through the yawning morning air shortly after.

The first few kilometers were uneventful. Some fireworks syncopated in between spectator cheers, muffling out the footsteps of fellow runners. Other runners variated their pace quite a bit, but I held my pace steady. In races with no pacers, I’d often got caught in posturing and pushing the pace too early. I let the other runners dribble by while I kept on to my target pace of 4:15 / km.

At the 5km mark, I treated myself to some of my GU chews. I resolved to eat one each 4-5km, which would last me until the finish line. The aid stations were aplenty, and I helped myself to water and Gatorade at each one. The race course now cut into the heart of Waikiki, where there were many more spectators. My pace was still consistent, and I crossed the 10km mark at 42:30, slightly ahead of schedule.

The sun hadn’t come up yet, so it was still very dark outside. The lights of Waikiki faded away as we meandered through a small residential neighborhood and up towards Diamond Head. The road gradually sloped upwards, but I kept channeling the same effort and made it up to the top of the hill with no issues. I rewarded myself with some more GU, and helped myself to more fluids at the nearby aid station.

The runners at the front had completely thinned out at the 16km mark, and I could only see 3 other athletes within my field of vision as the course straightened out onto the highway. The sky began to change colors ever so gently as I crossed the half marathon mark in 1:30:30. Although I was behind pace to hit the 3 hour mark, I knew that if I held the same pace I could definitely earn back those 30 seconds. I continued to push forward, and took a left turn at the circular loop leading into the turnaround.

Turning around back onto the straightaway, I tried pushing the pace to retrieve those missing 30 seconds. However, around the 29km mark, I felt the same cramps in my legs that I felt during my first ever marathon. I ran them off as best as I could, at the expense of my pace slowing down. The pain subsided, but made return visits every 750m.

I couldn’t cope with the pain anymore, so I threw in the towel and focused on finishing instead. I walked off the cramps as much as I could at 32km, but it was getting much harder to continue to run. Alternating running and walking, I made it back to the Diamond Head incline. However, at the crest of the hill, the niggling cramps suddenly evolved into a full-blown, excruciating pain that I’d never felt before.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move forward. It hurt to stay still, but it hurt even more to move my legs. At a loss for options, I succumbed to the pain and collapsed on the side of the road. Within minutes, two paramedics swooped in and started attending to me. They applied pressure to my leg muscles, massaging the multiple pain points. They immediately realized that I was dehydrated, and offered as many cups and bottles of fluids and electrolytes that they had. I happily consumed every serving offered while moaning in pain. The muscles in my leg bulged in ways that I’d never seen, and they looked like they would eject themselves from my leg at any moment.

The paramedics continued massaging my legs, but with less intensity, in favor of offering more liquids instead. The pain would occasionally retreat but come back a couple minutes later, visiting different parts of my lower body ranging from my hamstring to my glutes. After 45 minutes of resting and recuperating on the side of the road, the paramedics asked if I wanted to continue. They offered to call a van to take me to the finish line, but warned that this ride would disqualify me from the race. I said that I’d rest a little longer before trying to continue.

Eventually, I was able pick myself up from the curb and start walking again. I thanked the paramedics and continued onwards. With 2km to go and the course flattening out to the finish, I tried running and found no resistance from my legs. I pushed the pace once more, eager to finish the race. I hit my stride when I crossed the 41km mark, running at my previous target pace of 4:15 / km. I powered through the finish gantry, and collected my consolation prize – some food, a finishers t-shirt, and a medal.

Unfortunately, since I didn’t carry my cellphone with me, I had no way of letting my friends and family know that I was fine or that I’d finished the race. To make things worse, for some reason the race results page did not transmit my final time of 4:14:11 for the next couple of hours, which left my close ones further in the dark. I walked the 4km back to my hotel in silence, quashing any residual pain in my legs. Finally, I reached my room and answered all my messages, filling in my friends and family on what had transpired.

I was quite shaken after finishing. I realized that I’d gotten very lucky given the circumstances. I shuddered at the thought of facing the same bouts of severe dehydration while running in the Western States 100 or the Badwater 135, collapsing on the side of the trail, tens of kilometers away from the nearest aid stations, relief, medical aid, and cellphone service. All things considered, finishing the marathon was a relatively good outcome.

In the aftermath, I resolved to take a short break from racing before trying to qualify for Boston again. While this race did deal a humbling blow to my confidence, I won’t give up. I will keep trying. There will always be more races.

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Rent-Seeking and the New York Marathon

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are my own. While I present the following critique of the New York Marathon’s registration and selection practices, I intend on submitting myself into the 2020 New York Marathon’s non-guaranteed race lottery. Running provides a fantastic medium for me to compete, to meet new people, and to travel, and I will not be deterred by a monopolistic organization.

Running is a great sport where athletes from all walks of life are able to compete and to triumph together in a beautiful way. I’ve ran in packs where the camaraderie was palpable, despite only meeting the fellow runners in the group a few hours prior. Spectators at major races are fans of every runner, and don’t swear allegiance to teams or nationalities. It’s truly a communal sport where there’s no zero-sum element involved. Everyone that crosses the finish line is a winner.

However, the New York Marathon and its organizers threaten the diversity of the sport. Since it’s one of the prestigious World Marathon Majors, elite, amateur, and recreational athletes alike seek out valuable race entries in any means possible. Whereas some of the other marathons in the World Marathon Majors series have a qualifying mark prerequisite, the New York Marathon’s standards are a bit more exclusive.

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon and is one of the World Marathon Majors. The race is a household name, and many runners seek out the prized Boston Qualification (BQ for short). For the youngest age bracket, 18-34 years old, a male runner needs to run a marathon in 3 hours or quicker, while a female runner needs to run a 3:30 or faster in order to notch a 2020 BQ. Most marathons around the world receive a certification from the United States of America Track & Field (USATF) or the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) indicating that a qualifying time run at the race can be used for a BQ. An athlete with a BQ can submit their name for entry, and the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) reviews each entry, with faster BQs generally receiving entry to the Boston Marathon [1].

Boston’s qualification standards create a meritocracy that rewards faster runners that have gotten the BQ. To ensure fairness, the BAA has worked with other race organizers to verify results at certain races, preventing bib mules (faster runners wearing another person’s bib in order to notch the BQ for the latter party) and other cheaters from achieving an entry unfairly. Furthermore, the USATF and AIMS have not shied away from revoking race certifications if they deem a race’s conditions to be not up to standard.

On the other hand, the New York Marathon’s qualifying standards are more restrictive. In addition to having faster qualification times for every bracket, the marathon restricts guaranteed entry to athletes who’ve achieved the qualification time at one of the sponsor’s affiliated races. Any athlete that runs a qualification time at a non-affiliated race will be added to a first-come-first-serve waitlist, with entry depending on the number of remaining slots after the athletes achieving guaranteed entry have been accounted for. The full qualification rules are as follows [2]:

All applicants who meet the time standards at the following New York Road Runners (NYRR) races in 2019 will be eligible for guaranteed entry in 2020: 

  • 2019 Fred Lebow Half-Marathon, 
  • 2019 United Airlines NYC Half, 
  • 2019 SHAPE Women’s Half-Marathon, 
  • 2019 Popular® Brooklyn Half, 
  • 2019 NYRR Staten Island Half, 
  • 2019 TCS New York City Marathon.

A limited number of time-qualifier spots will be available to runners who met the time standards in a non-NYRR race. These spots will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Verification will be completed prior to the 2020 entry drawing.

For the youngest age bracket (18-34 years old), a male runner needs to run a 2:53 marathon or a 1:21 half marathon, while a female runner would need to cross the finish line in 3:13 if running a marathon, or 1:32 if completing a half [2].

However, by restricting qualification to certain races, the New York Marathon’s organizers are able to control the scarcity of qualification marks, effectively monopolizing the qualification process. They funnel runners into their own races, threatening the diverse nature of the sport. Monopolizing qualification allows the organizers to levy higher registration fees, and to homogenize the demographics of the athletes. The qualification guidelines reward local athletes with deeper wallets and ability.

For the most part, running races welcome athletes agnostic of physical ability. Athletes with disabilities race in wheelchairs, whizzing through the streets in tightly knit pelotons, reaching speeds upwards of 40 kilometers per hour. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), classifies athletes based on their range of ability. Athletes with disabilities competing in a wheelchair usually fall under the T51, T52, T53, or the T54 classifications, meaning that they have some or full use of their arms but have limited or no trunk function.

Although the New York Marathon doesn’t indicate what the qualification marks are for the different IPC classifications, it’s safe to assume that there are similar qualification guidelines for IPC athletes. Disabilities charge interest. A T51-54 athlete wishing to compete in a road race not only has to pay the registration fee as any other runner would, but also has to arrange intricate arrangements in order to bring their specialized equipment to the race’s start line. The New York Marathon’s restrictive qualification guidelines severely damage an outside athlete with a disability from attempting to qualify. For instance, an athlete with a disability living outside of New York, should they desire to qualify, would have to make an extra trip to and from New York to compete in an accessible NYRR sanctioned race, as opposed to finding a race closer to home that may be readily available to them.

New York isn’t the only World Marathon Major to impose restrictive entry conditions for outsiders. The London Marathon gives preferential treatment to United Kingdom residents, considering them first for the lottery and charging them a cheaper registration fee than they do for international hopefuls. While it’s unfortunate that the London organizers inject nationalism into their registration flow, they aren’t alone. Many other smaller races also institute similar stipulations. However, these practices pale in comparison to New York’s qualification standards. An international competitor eager to compete in the New York Marathon would have to arrange for 2 different, disjoint visits to the United States – one to attempt a qualifying mark at an NYRR sanctioned race, and another for the actual New York Marathon itself.

Large races provide a significant economic boost for the host city. The 2014 New York Marathon was estimated to have produced a $415 million economic impact for the city [3]. Even smaller scale races still inject sizable economic boosts to their hosting community. The Monterey Bay Half Marathon, a personal favorite race of mine, attracts a smaller field of 10,000 runners annually, but provides an annual $8 million impact to Monterey County.

New York Road Runners (NYRR) is an established non-profit that organizes the New York City Marathon and its associated qualifying races. Charity Navigator, an independent non-profit that evaluates the efficacy of other non-profits, awarded NYRR an overall rating of 91.66 / 100 based on their financial filings and transparency. Taking a closer look at their financial filings, we can see that in FY 2018, the NYRR garnered $98,575,384 in total revenue, with total expenses of $95,489,937 [4].

The NYRR CEO, Micahel Capiraso, received a compensation of $479,195, while the President of Events & RD, Peter Ciaccia, received a salary of $487,105, both well within America’s top 1% of individual earners. These remuneration packages amounted to 0.5% and 0.51% of NYRR’s total annual expenses [4]. Thus, these two individuals personally received 1% of all registration fees for all of the races that NYRR organized.

Excluding the previous year’s New York Marathon, the other sanctioned qualifying races attracted more than 75000 runners. Assuming that each runner paid a $150 registration fee on average (fees increase closer to the race date), the New York Road Runners club stood to earn more than $11 million in registration fees alone. This does not include the additional expenses that runners would have paid for their race photos or for gear purchased at the race expos.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that as a result of the restrictive qualification standards, runner registration increases by 10% since new athletes are hoping to secure the guaranteed entry to the marathon. This would amount to an additional $1.1 million in registration fees, with Capiraso and Ciaccia pocketing $11,000 simply for making the standards more restrictive.

Let’s also say that the economic impact scales linearly per runner. The 2014 New York Marathon had roughly 50,000 runners, producing an economic impact of $415 million, and also earned the local and state governments $22.2 million in taxes and occupancy fees [3]. The qualification races had a total of 75,000 runners, so the government would have earned more than $33 million in taxes. A 10% increase in registration would mean that the government would reap an additional $3.3 million from the combined economic impact.

I also have no doubt in my mind that the NYRR and the New York government worked together to ensure the qualification standards exist in their present form. The municipal and state governments are well aware of the economic impact that these races can provide, and are certainly looking for their cut of the revenues. By forcing athletes to run in their city, they extract more tourism dollars in the form of transactional taxes. While these numbers seem small, the New York Marathon organizers and the associated local and state governments are able to part more runners from their money without providing any additional benefit or innovation. The New York Marathon is the headphone jack removal of marathons, and the organizers are fully guilty of engaging in textbook rent-seeking behavior.

Rent-seeking is when an organization desires to gain additional wealth without any reciprocal contribution of productivity. Robert Shiller, an economics Nobel laureate, provides a classic example of rent-seeking behavior [5]:

A feudal lord installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is not adding value in any way, directly or indirectly, except for himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free.

The world of athletics is no stranger to rent-seekers. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), a privately held company and the organizer of the Ironman World Championships, had for years set up a chain over what was a free-flowing river. Until 2015, individuals looking to compete in the Ironman World Championships had to enter into a lottery for the chance to compete. Candidates were required to pay $50 to simply enter the lottery, and, if selected as one of the 100 competitors for the actual race, were also required to pay the race’s registration fee.

Fortunately, the US District Court found that the Florida based WTC had violated state law by setting up and charging for a lottery. Since they had charged a fee to enter the lottery instead of giving away the chance to compete in the race, they had broken the law. The FBI and the United States Attorney’s office, ironically represented by 8-time Ironman finisher James A. Muench, had the WTC forfeit more than $2.7 million, the amount the organizers had collected from the lottery since October 2012.

After the WTC agreed to cooperate with the FBI and the US government, people wondered whether this precedent would change the registration flows of other races. Rich Kenah, the race director of the 60,000 runner Peachtree 10K, claimed that he had heard of other races charging a lottery fee, but didn’t name any specific ones. The Justice Department and US Attorney Office also left things in flux, remarking that they couldn’t comment on other ongoing investigations [6]. 

In 1920, the State of New York adopted Emergency Rent Laws, instituting the first set of rent control legislation. A century later, we can only hope that the same government will enact new rent-seeking control laws. Even simply treating every USATF or AIMS qualifying time equally under the lottery entry process would eliminate these issues. However, by engaging in exclusive, rent-seeking, and crony capitalist behavior, the New York Marathon tarnishes the sanctity of competition, amateurism, and camaraderie that the athletics community has cultivated over centuries. The organizers of the world’s largest marathon have the starting pistol in their hands. I hope that they don’t choose to shoot themselves in the foot.


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Home Field Advantage: The 2019 San Francisco Marathon

After my first marathon, I started training again for a race on my home turf. This time around, I resolved to be much more consistent with my workouts, cutting down on skipping longer and harder runs. My goal would be the same this race – to get the Boston Qualifying mark for my age bracket: 3:00:00. However, it would be a much taller ask as the San Francisco Marathon course included a total elevation gain of 1175 feet. This would not be a fast course.

Nevertheless, I trained consistently as possible, routing my runs along portions of the actual course. I didn’t skimp on the fast finish long runs, pushing myself at a sustained fast pace for the last 6-8 miles.

The days, minutes, and seconds melted away quite rapidly, and sure enough, I found myself toeing the start line behind the seeded and elite runners. The San Francisco Marathon had a 3:00 pacer this year to accommodate the quicker Boston Marathon qualification brackets. I spent the last few minutes before the 5:30am start talking with fellow runners in the pace group, and the pacer himself. The pacer said that he wanted to go a bit harder on the flat miles so that the lost time on the incline would even out just under 1:30 pace for the first half.

After the seeded and elite runners took off, it was our turn. I didn’t get ahead of myself in the first mile and a half, even though I was feeling fantastic. I kept myself beside the pacer, slotting behind him and the rest of the pace group after mile 2. From my practice runs, I knew that there would be some heavy headwinds on Marina.

I was still feeling comfortable – the pace didn’t seem like a tough ask. I made sure to eat and drink at regular intervals, taking a little bit of my GU gel every aid station, and drinking water every other aid station. We made it to the 5.5 mile turnaround shortly after, with the biggest climb of the run ahead of us. We slowed down considerably, but I made sure to keep the same controlled stride up the hill. Following another minor incline up the Golden Gate bike path, we made it to the bridge.

The Golden Gate bridge carried the race over and back on the eastern walk path and the western bike path, respectively. Our pace group bunched up on the narrow walkway as the sun was beginning to rise over the city. I’d also run over and back on the bridge during one of my practice runs, so I anticipated some heavy crosswinds. I dropped back directly behind the pacer and some other runners headlining our pace group, drafting again. As we looped around back down a dirt trail underneath a bridge, we all caught a glimpse of the orange sun waking up a sleepy San Francisco downtown. In the midst of running 6:50 miles, it was a magical moment to behold.

Running off of the bridge, we spilled onto Lincoln Drive, rewarded with a largely downhill mile. I opened up on the downhill after the mile 11 aid station, pulling slightly ahead of the pacer. The road dipped and then pulled upwards, and the pace slowed again. Through the Richmond neighborhood, we fought a multitude of roller-coaster hills, crossing the half marathon timing mat in 1:29:30. The pacers swapped out, and a new pacer joined us to take us through to the finish.

Crossing Fulton into Golden Gate Park, I started to feel a bit tired. It was getting harder to hold the pace, but I was soon reminded why I had to stay on. My family was camped at the mile 14 marker, screaming, cheering, and willing me forward through the right turn into the heart of the park.

All of a sudden, the pacer and the rest of the pace group disappeared. There was a congealed mass of second half marathon runners, covering the large width of JFK drive. I panicked but quickly found the held sign, and darted in between the slower runners, rejoining the group. We curled around and made our way up another incline. My family was there again to cheer me on and will me through. I lunged forward, pushing through mile 17, and heading the pace group.

Negotiating the incline towards mile 17.

Running past the aid station at 18.5, I started to drift back. The 3:00 pace group pulled away through the traffic jam of runners, and I lost sight of the pacer’s sign. I dropped my pace slightly, but kept on running my race. There was still plenty of race to go, and I wasn’t going to lose more precious seconds dropping back further.

On the other hand, the runners had started to thin out. I focused on passing as many people as possible, chewing GU from the 19.7 aid station along the way. The miles rolled along, and moments later, I found myself near my old apartment passing the 23.5 aid station. Around mile 24, though, I felt the same sharp searing pain that I’d realized in my first marathon. This time, I sustained the jolt in my legs, corrected my stride, and didn’t stop to walk. I was fighting for seconds, and each one counted at this point.

Just before the 25th mile, the 3:05 pacer passed me. I focused again on running my own race, channeling everything I had for the last mile. The cheers from the finish grew louder and louder. This was what the speed training and fast finishes were for. I kicked as hard I could, crossing underneath the towering Bay Bridge. My legs tightened up some more, but I continued to run through the pain, giving it everything I had. I couldn’t hear much anymore except for my family’s cheers. I ran through the final timing pads, completing the race in 3:06:16.

Almost there! Moments before crossing the finish.

It was bittersweet to drop off the pace on a well-run race. How close was I to getting that qualifying mark? It was only 6 minutes, but what would it take? In any case, I’d PR’d by more than 22 minutes – a great race by any standard. I was also pleased that the spread between the first and second half of the race dropped from 34 minutes to just under 7. Pacing myself evenly and hanging on after mile 20 would be the keys to getting the BQ next time.

There would be plenty of time to think about strategy, room for improvement, and pacing in the coming days before my next race in Santa Rosa. Until then, it was my day, and all I wanted to do was to share it with my supportive family and friends.

The loudest and the proudest fans on the course!
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A Tale of Two Halves: Return to Running

Running Out

It’s a crisp fall morning in Fresno, California. The day is November 30, 2013. I step up to the hastily marked white starting line along with my fellow Lynbrook teammate Justin Robison for what will be the final race of my high school career. After what feels like an eternity, the starter’s gun cracks and echoes through the autumn air. I join the droves of fellow competitors bursting forward, quickly jostling for position in the course’s starting funnel.

While I had built up this race’s importance, I certainly did not rise to the challenge. I never locked into a steady race pace, and while rolling through the first mile in a brisk 4:53, I foundered over the next two-thirds of the race, slumping to finish the race in a dismal 16:25, 35 seconds behind my personal best that I’d run a month and a half ago. After constructing a promising cross country season, it felt anticlimactic to end things on an incredibly disheartening note.

The following track season presented a new series of opportunities, but I wasn’t very inclined. A severe lack of direction and lack of motivation prevented me from improving on any of my junior year times, and I closed an uninspired track season by failing to qualify for any league final event.

During my undergraduate years, I had made some flimsy attempts to get back into running, but nothing consistent materialized. In the same period that I’d run over 65 competitive races during high school, I’d only run 2 recreationally during undergrad. My university would also play host to a large marathon every April, and I resolved that one day I would participate and finish it. During school, however, I always found that it was easier to invent an excuse than to train instead. I graduated in May 2017 without taking any steps towards meeting my lofty resolution.

Catch Up

It’s now October 2018. I’ve recently moved to San Francisco, and with the change of location, I’m trying to become more active. I notice that a coworker regularly devotes her early mornings before the workday to logging an hour’s worth of running. Inspired by her dedication, I dust off my running shoes and, for the first time in three years, go for a run longer than 5 kilometers. I have to take it very slowly, but I’m hooked.

I invest in new running shoes, and I also bring back my old high school running gear. I’m nowhere near my old speed, but I’m building up my mileage, and soon enough, I’m hitting 5 miles each day. Things are looking pretty consistent, and on a whim, one fateful day, I decide to go long.

I figured that since I moved up to the city, I might as well do some exploration in a grand way. I start running at around 10:45 in the morning, jogging through Embarcadero, Crissy Field, Golden Gate Bridge, then back around Land’s End. Looping back from Golden Gate Park, it’s now been 16 miles and counting. I’m feeling a little twinging pain in my legs, but my enemy isn’t the run itself anymore, it’s the stoplights. Every pause in the run brings back the niggling pain with a vengeance. I power through, following the tracks back to my apartment past the 20th mile. When the dust settles, it’s been nearly three and a half hours, but I’ve circled the city for 21.1 miles.

After the impromptu long run, I’m feeling more confident about lasting longer distances in a race environment. I decide to give my old college goal the old college try. I sign up for the 2019 Illinois Marathon, maintaining steady mileage in the meantime. The marathon will take place in late April, giving me four months and change to train.

Training-wise, things drop off in late December. I go abroad for vacation, but I neglect running daily while I’m gone. I try getting back into the saddle in January, but it takes a whole month to bring my mileage back up to 5-6 miles a day. Things are consistent again, and after a longer 10 mile run, I stumble on a reputable marathon training plan in Strava. Turns out, I’m going to need more than just plain long runs to get in shape for the upcoming marathon.

Although the plan begins twelve weeks out from race day, I jump into the workouts about four weeks in. These workouts are much different from what I ran with Jake back in high school, so it takes some time for me to find my tempo, interval, and relaxed paces when running. Sticking to the plan, I run 16 miles that weekend at a controlled pace. I start early in the morning and head south from my apartment, before taking a right turn up a hilly county park road. After coming down the hills, my legs are worn out from the massively exaggerated camber, but I press on through the countless San Francisco stoplights until I’m back home. It takes me much longer than usual and I feel exhausted afterwards.

While the first week following the plan was tricky, I end up following directions and completing the described workouts. However, things fall apart from there. I start inventing the same excuses as before to get out of longer runs and harder workouts, running only the recovery runs within the plan. Sure enough, this training debt mounts higher and higher, coming to collect on it on race day.

The final long run of the aforementioned training plan called for 22-26 miles, but I barely made it 14 before crying uncle. Feeling dehydrated and fatigued, I throw in the towel and end the long run early. Disgusted with myself, I take a bus to cover the distance, before walking the last few hundred meters back home – the real walk of shame.

Needless to say, I’m not exactly feeling super inspired for race day. However, I’ve already made my arrangements, so I’m not bowing out now. If it’s any saving grace, I taper off properly, keeping my runs before the race light and relaxed. Soon enough, after an impromptu carboload with my friend, it’s just hours away from the race.

I wake up early and pack up my drawstring bag with a couple of essentials, and start walking towards the start line. Although I’m severely unprepared, I’m still feeling the same kind of mixed anxiety and optimism that only a large race can bring. At the starting line, I take a few strides to ease my nerves before settling in my corral. The last minutes before the start melt away steadily, and, after a brisk national anthem, the starter blares a muffled airhorn. We’re off!

When a roller coaster climbs to the top of its first drop, it accumulates potential energy, and it accumulates excitement in its riders. Then, the roller coaster begins to roll faster and faster once it passes the peak, until all of the accumulated potential energy and excitement is released in the form of kinetic energy and screams. The final five minutes to the start builds upwards to the peak. The start releases all the potential energy within all of us, as we burst forward to chase PRs and qualifying marks.

All my anxiety and buildup prior to the race immediately fades away. I slot behind a few runners and we form a small pack, moving through the first mile at 6:10. The pace is too fast. I was planning on running under 3 hours, which means that I should be running around 6:50 per mile. Still, I’m hanging on, and the next mile goes by in a quick 6:20. The initial pack starts to thin out as the other runners move ahead. I’m holding steady, negotiating the gentle curves in the Urbana neighborhoods, and running around 6:25 per mile for the next 3 miles.

Around the 10K mark, I feel a little bit of fatigue in my legs. I ignore it and press on. I figure that it will subside as the race progresses, and I focus on the next mile markers. However, as if on cue, my pace starts dropping down to 6:40 / mile, and then down to 6:50 / mile through the tenth mile. Since I hadn’t followed the training plan and done proper speed work, the sustained speed in the first miles of the race brings back the same 10K fatigue, but a bit harder this time.

I had a pretty fluid stride going through the 8 mile mark of the marathon.

At this point, the half marathon runners that I was following for pace take a left turn towards the stadium to finish off their race. I turn right, and suddenly, things get a lot quieter. There’s fewer fans around, and the runner in front of me must be 200… no… 300 meters away. I cross the half marathon mark in 1:27:23, taking another right turn into the heart of Champaign.

Something isn’t right. I’m feeling a lot more tired, and now I’m dropping off the pace – hard. The next few miles are all over seven minutes each, well over my goal pace. More consistent runners pass me convincingly, and it’s a tall order to try and follow them. Around 18 miles, the same nagging fatigue turns into a sharp jolt in my right leg. I’m forced to walk until the searing pain wears off.

“You all right, buddy?” A traffic officer calls.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just need to walk it off,” I respond.

The pain recedes, but only temporarily. It becomes a regular guest every three-quarters of a mile, forcing me to walk even more. I wasn’t going to be able to hit my goal, so I focused on finishing instead. There were more runners to keep me company now, but I wasn’t feeling the same cameraderie that I felt during the first half. The clouds above darken, as if to curse my poor performance. I continue through the labyrynthic Champaign neighborhoods. Was that the 20th mile that I just passed? Or was it the 21st? I can’t remember. I keep pressing on, with one mile feeling like ten. The 3:15 pacer and his entourage blow past me. I try keeping up, but my haphazard hobbling can’t match their fluid strides.

After more intermittent running and hobbling, I cross Neil Street and pass underneath the Amtrak bridge marking the twenty-fifth mile. My legs are jelly as I turn right towards the stadium and the finish line. I will myself forward through the last few meters across the artificial turf. The clock is ticking towards 3:29:00, but I cross through the finish before it does.

It’s official – I’ve run a 3:28:50.

A respectable time, to be sure, but I can’t help and beat myself over my poor pacing. I ran the first half in 1:27:23, but then slumped as I did 5 years ago to run the next half in 2:01:27 – a massive 34 minute difference. What happened?

It’s the training. Instead of taking on the tougher workouts and longer runs, I was content running shorter and easier. Something will have to change if I want to be a successful marathoner.

While the pain eventually fades away over the coming days, something else doesn’t. I keep thinking to myself that while this was my first marathon, it certainly will not be my last. I have to do better. To that effect, I register for two more marathons – the 2019 San Francisco Marathon in late July, and the 2019 Santa Rosa Marathon in late August.

Once More, With Feeling

I give myself a single day’s rest before I work on the same training plan again, this time for the San Francisco Marathon. I’m still feeling soreness from the race, but the easy runs provide good recovery.

As it turns out, I’d registered for another race – the 2019 Yosemite Half Marathon – around the same time that I’d signed up for the marathon. The race would be only two weeks after the marathon, which means that some soreness during the race would be inevitable. I run the race as consistently as possible, treating it as a long run underneath the marathon training plan. While I open the first mile at 6:40, I slow down to a 7 minute mile pace and maintain that for the rest of the race.

The Yosemite Half Marathon was mostly a downhill course, with a majority of the race taking place on different roads.

The altitude and my general soreness slow down my race considerably, and even though the course is largely downhill, I close things out in a 1:32:30. Although it’s 15 minutes off of my personal best that I’d set 5 years ago, I’m much happier that I’ve run a much more consistent pace compared to two weeks ago.

Things start turning for the better with respect to training. My workouts are more consistent, I’m not missing any long runs, and I’m tackling speed workouts head-on. In fact, as of writing, I’ve not missed a long run in my training plan. Two weeks ago, I ran a 5 mile tempo in 31:58, a pace that I wouldn’t have dreamed of running in high school practice. Last week, I ran a 3x5K tempo workout, completing each interval at a controlled and consistent pace. And, two weeks ago, I came very close to completing a fast finish long run.

The Fast Finish Long Run is a special kind of long run that serves as a strong indicator for race success. First, you start slowly, running at an easy pace for the first 6 miles. Then, after holding the easy pace, you run the next 8-10 miles at your goal marathon pace. Finally, you push the last few miles very hard, running them at your 10K pace. Greg McMillan of McMillan Running remarks that “if you could finish a 14-22 mile fast finish long run with the last 8-12 miles at a fast pace and the last 2-3 miles very fast, then you would have no problem accomplishing your goal in the marathon.”

During my “training” for the Illinois Marathon, I’d only attempted the Fast Finish Long Run once out of the four times prescribed on the training plan. The run ended poorly; I could only hold on to my goal marathon pace for 1.5 miles.

However, in my most recent attempt, I did hold on to my goal marathon pace for 8 miles before tapping out. I was severely dehydrated, fatigued, and defeated, but I’d come much closer to finishing the run than I did before. While leaving the workout incomplete left a horrible feeling, there will be more chances to complete the run and prove my fitness before San Francisco.

In a recent long run, I took along an energy gel that I’d invested in. I held off on consuming the gel until around the half marathon distance, which is usually when I began to feel fatigue in my longer runs. The gel worked, and provided me with a solid boost that propelled me to complete the 20 mile run. I quickly fueled up, eating breakfast and drinking a smoothie shortly after, and felt none of the same fatigue that plagued me at the same distance two months ago.

An improved training regimen and a better nutritional plan make me much more confident in my performance for my upcoming races. Although bad races impart the worst feelings possible, as runners, we have to take them in stride and move on to the next mile. I’m hoping – no, I’m optimistic, that my next half of running will be a promising one.

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My Brick

I started working at Google two weeks ago, amidst a charged atmosphere following the dissemination of the internal manifesto. In light of the divide that has developed, I reflected on my professional goals that I had laid out during my last years at university. Here is a piece that I wrote for one of my classes that I feel still accurately describes my goals professionally.

April 18, 2016

As a child, I was told that I was very skilled at math. I loved solving problems, and I advanced this passion throughout middle school, high school, and even at the university level. I was very lucky to be the son of two engineers, because it meant that I always got the full support to study and pursue what I liked. In my later years of high school, my parents got me my own laptop so that I could work my own projects and ideas in my free time. After reading an NPR Article, which noted that personal computers were mostly “marketed towards men and boys”, I recognize this as a hefty, if not even an unfair privilege that nudged me in the direction of computer science.

However, growing up in Silicon Valley, I never felt that what I was studying was special in any way. My high school produced many other individuals like me, so striving to be a unique individual was much harder. I felt that this environment, while conducive for producing many engineering students, was not so forgiving for students wishing to study different things. Making the change to university was a sudden culture shock, because there were actually other students studying non-engineering subjects!

At UIUC, I feel that I am very lucky because there are others studying computer science like me, which means that I’m never alone. I don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed of my social identity either, because by virtue of the large student population, there’s always someone who shares my personality and values. However, as part of the majority demographic of my major, I worry that the face of computer science and engineering is becoming too homogenous. Whether we feel that the field is gradually becoming too “Asian” or too masculine, it’s not a good sign for budding minority students looking to study computer science.

While I hold the privilege of being a male in my field, I acknowledge the struggles that women face in the computer science and technology field. My mother has worked in the technology sector for more than 20 years, and from what I can glean of her experiences, life for females has not gotten easier. There is still a pervasive sense of chauvinism and sexism present in the workspace that deters other bright females from continuing in the field. Every day, my mother would work late hours as a software developer, complaining about the constant discrimination in her workplace and the lack of other female colleagues. An intern from USA Today was quoted saying “what’s the point of trying to recruit people from underrepresented backgrounds if they’re forced to assimilate into an unwelcoming culture?” which I thought accurately summarized my mother’s situation. This was reflected in the class resume activity, as we did not field any prospective female applicants.

The discrimination that my mother faced in the technology sector reeks of a deeper problem that needs attention. Tim Cook once remarked, “We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick.” As I move closer to graduating and entering the professional world, I want to hold myself to the highest standards, and to make a conscious effort to dismantle the crass “brogrammer” mentioned in a CNN article. I think that it’s important for all of us to not only be obsessed with what we do, but also to be ambassadors for our field. We should all strive to extend our hand to help fresher, newer minds to overcome the barriers that exist, and to enter the computer science field. I feel strongly that as a privileged individual entering the field, others should be afforded the same liberties that I’ve had growing up. My brick will be to encourage aspiring students of minorities to pursue the same passion that I’ve been chasing since I was a child, and as a rising professional, I hope to stay true to this mission.

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HackMIT 2015

A couple of weekends ago, I travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts for my first hackathon ever. I went to MIT with three other team members to participate in HackMIT 2015. I was very excited to have had the chance to be part of such a well-organized hackathon.

After a short day of Friday classes, I rushed to shove all the necessary hacking gear into my backpack. I quickly printed out my bus tickets and jumped aboard for the ride to Chicago. On the bus, I met with my teammates, and we discussed our plans, or rather the lack of, for the hackathon. What were we going to make? Cloud-sourced data mining? Some kind of web application? A delivery service? We couldn’t come to a consensus, so we simply agreed to table the discussion for the airport, and to catch a little bit of rest before our flight.

A heavy front of weather assaulted O’Hare airport when we arrived, pouring down sheets of rain. The inbound flight was delayed, which gave us more time to decide what we wanted to build. We eventually agreed to use a few of the available APIs at the event to write a web application for a delivery service.

Our flight touched down at Logan around 2 in the morning. We took a taxi to the Kresge Oval on MIT campus. My teammates and I immediately saw the HackMIT sign and approached the check-in tent. The check-in staff handed us an airbed and a dual pump for the night. We would be staying the night with assigned student hosts, and I was very excited to meet mine. We waited until our student hosts came to greet us and walk us over to their places.

I walked down Vassar Street with my host, getting to know him better. He was a mechanical engineering major, or a Course 2. True to his major, he analyzed the dual pump that we would use to inflate my airbed within seconds, pointing out its various mechanisms and valves that it used, and how the overall design could be improved. My host briefly showed me around his room, and we both promptly went to sleep.

After a few hours of rest, I made my way back towards Kresge Oval. The opening ceremony began, and each of the companies present made a small pitch about some of the prizes that they were offering. Following the pitches, we ultimately decided to use Postmates delivery API and the Google Maps API to write a web application that would deliver surplus restaurant food to food pantries and homeless shelters.

The hacking began right after the opening ceremony. We found an empty available table, and dove right into the coding. I began writing some simple starter HTML homepage templates for our application, while my teammates hacked away with the API in javascript and python.

HackMIT 2015. The hackathon was held inside MIT's ice-skating rink.

HackMIT 2015. The hackathon was held inside MIT’s ice-skating rink.

The hours ticked away very rapidly, and we soon found ourselves with less than 6 hours left of hacking. However, the build was far from complete. The frontend still looked very clunky, and we were having issues integrating the Postmates API with the frontend. We quickly resolved to use Flask for facilitating the integration of the APIs in python, and set out to complete the backend. For the next couple of hours, we immersed and gave ourselves a very brief crash course in Flask.

While I felt that we were moving in the correct direction, two hours of Flask was not enough to relieve our build of a menacing 500 server error. Despite the help and assistance of the corporate mentors present, we were still unable to release a stable, working build of our web application. The hacking promptly concluded after a false fire alarm that forced all of us out of the building.

After the hacking ended, we pitched our delivery web application to multiple corporate sponsors and individual judges. The whole pitching process harkened back to high school science fair days, as I felt the routine was quite similar. Despite making a somewhat incomplete web application, I still found it very rewarding and exciting to explain our idea to other people.

MIT's central library, taken from Killian Court.

MIT’s central library, taken from Killian Court.

My teammates and I left the award ceremony thoroughly exhausted. We trekked nearly 3 miles across Cambridge to check into a hotel to get some rest before our flight. All of us were asleep within a matter of seconds. Soon enough, however, it was time to catch our flight back to Chicago. We wearily boarded our flight back to O’Hare, and then caught our bus back to campus. Immediately after we arrived, we all hurried over to the Digital Computer Laboratory for our morning Computer Architecture lecture. It would still take us the rest of our Monday to drop down from our hackathon high.

Flying back into Chicago on an early Monday morning.

Flying back into Chicago on an early Monday morning.

Overall, HackMIT was a very humbling experience for me. It was enlightening to leave the Champaign-Urbana bubble and see the great ideas that other people were building. I personally enjoyed investing the time to build our idea from scratch. Although the hackathon left me mentally and physically exhausted beyond measure, I will be coming back for more. Our hackathon project left me thinking about avenues for improvement and new ideas, all of which I would like to see through in the future.

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Oh, Milan.

Oh, Milan.

Today it’s your birthday. Do you remember? We’d come over to your house, maybe jump into your pool (provided that Rahul didn’t throw up chicken in the hot tub), have water gun fights, and play Halo together while eating Chandra uncle’s legendary barbecue.

Not a day goes by where I don’t think about you and your definitive fighting spirit. You always exemplified the absolute best behavior when you battled brain cancer, and not once did you ever complain or lament “why me?”. Although you’re gone, you’ve left me much to think about. Every day, I try to espouse the amazing fighting attitude, tenacity, and perseverance that were all characteristic of your brilliant personality.

I know that you’re in a better place now, safe from Babai’s diatribes or Chandra uncle’s handshakes. Some say that a person dies twice – when their body ceases to function, and sometime in the future, when their name is spoken for the last time. I doubt the latter will ever happen, because I’m sure that I speak for everyone when I say that you continue to live on in all of our hearts every day.

Happy 17th Birthday Milan. We all miss you very much.

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mkdir cs225

As every computer science major knows, data structures is a very integral class in their curriculum. As a result, data structures can be considered the first major test if one wants to label themselves as a proficient programmer or computer scientist.

This semester, we would be working in C++, which was a considerable step up from Java. In preparation for the programming portions of the class, I took to Project Euler, a programming problem solving site that allowed me to hone my Java and object oriented programming skills.

Despite my prep, however, the first machine problem proved to be a patch of tricky footing for everyone. We were all faced with the novel task of writing our own Makefile and slogging through the syntax of C++ on our lonesome. Anticipating a long assignment, my friends and I convened together in an attempt to make some headway on learning our new second language. Within half an hour, we all found ourself walking into a brick wall editing our own Makefile.

We reached a crossroads of sorts, deciding that it would be unproductive to simply throw more time at the problem at hand. I voted to continue working on our machine problem at Siebel Center, where we could rely on the help of our course staff. My friends decided to stay back in hopes of slogging through and making some purchase on this tricky problem.

Riding the bus into the receding Urbana sun, I got off and ascended the few steps into the computer science building. I sat down at one of the basement’s resident EWS machines and began to work. Next to me was one of my classmates who was working on the same problem. We sat together and refined our individual Makefiles in hopes of allowing our program to fully compile. When I thought I was absolutely stuck, I reached out to the current TA, who walked me through the idea of Makefiles and also scanned my code for bugs. After a quick review, I compiled my code again: ./mp1 . The console showed no warnings, and using the terminal diff commands confirmed that my code was correct.

Just to be sure, I ran my final source code against the staff’s test suite, Monad. Five green “passed” markers greeted me, and I heaved a great sigh of relief. After nearly three hours of frustrating debugging and refining, I had solved my first true Machine Problem. I silently reminded myself that the programming problems would only get harder from here on out, but resolved to reviewing my current code for any other errors.

My programming neighbor wasn’t having the same luck, however. As he tried to understand the concept of flipping the PNG 180 degrees, the TA would constantly shoot him down, berating him with a sharp “为什么你不懂这个? 这是很容易。” (Why don’t you understand this? It’s really easy.) After the TA moved on to help another student in the office hours queue, I slid my chair over and began to walk my classmate through the steps that I had taken not so long ago.

“So I see that you’ve placed the target files on your desktop. Here, let’s put them into a new directory. Type in ‘mkdir cs225’ into the terminal, right over here, and press Enter…”

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Passion in Grand Rapids

Prior to my first semester of school, many of my close friends and family said that university would be some of the best years of my life, full of substance, variance, and enjoyment.

Two weeks into school, I wasn’t so sure about that adage. I hadn’t done so much as to set a foot outside my dormitory unless necessary, holing myself in my room with coursework.

I would say it was by chance that I found my social niche. Simply sitting next to different people in classes introduced me to a new study group, and a new crew of weekend explorers. I began to spend more time outside my dormitory, and sure enough, I found that more often than not that I would be outside my room.

However, going to school in Urbana-Champaign has, to an extent, pigeonholed me in a vacuous bubble. Despite finding my group of friends, I feel that something is still missing. When a few friends brought up the notion of roadtripping to Chicago and Michigan over the weekend, I really couldn’t refuse. After all, maybe I would finally chance upon something that I could hold on to and develop into a fully-fledged idea. It was certainly refreshing to leave Urbana-Champaign for the first time in two and half months. I was able to finally get a taste of Chicago life, and was also able to visit Indiana and Michigan as well.

Perhaps something that really remained with me from our adventures up North was our visit with Jonathan, my friend’s brother. I was very excited to meet Jonathan after reading (sorry, viewing) his laundry list of completed projects. Jonathan was a personable and motivated individual and was very excited about his work.

Though 1900 miles away from San Jose, Jonathan made me and my friends feel at home. He invested his time to get to know us better, asking us about how we felt about our classes and social life at school. He implicitly emphasized the importance of passion and motivation, showing us the multitude of documentaries that he had tirelessly filmed and edited, as well as his brainchild and budding social project “FoodCircles”. As he flitted excitedly around his laptop and recording gear, he detailed the development cycle and conception of each individual project. The point of passion really began hit home for me. “Rohit, is computer science what you really want to do?” he asked.

I don’t know. I guess it’s too early to tell, but regardless, I went with my instinct and responded resoundingly with a “Yes, Jonathan. I really think so.” I’ve definitely made decisions and uttered outlandish comments out of impulse, but I know that my answer was correct, because I can’t imagine pursuing anything else for the remainder of my life.

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Computer Science

First off, it’s been a while. I’ll try to write more often from now on.

It’s been two months since I set foot into my first college classes. I was, and still am, very excited to learn more about the vast field of computer science. To be honest, however, I couldn’t help feeling a few chills down my spine when my instructors repeatedly drove home that machine problems would constitute a sizable portion of the introductory course, calling them the meat and cheese of the class. I wasn’t very good at programming, and although I certainly wanted to become a better programmer, I secretly hoped that computer science couldn’t merely be trivialized to solving machine problems day in and day out.

When I scrolled through the major’s curriculum, It made me happy that computer science was so much more than programming. It warmed me inside that I chose a major that would transform me into a well-rounded, versatile engineer. I came to UIUC to gain a deeper and more profound understanding of how we manage data and allocate computing resources in an efficient manner. I left a cozy home 1,872 miles away to study computer science, not programming. And although I’m spending most of my first year grinding out machine problems with classmates, I look forward to some of the theoretical classes that I’ll take in the future. Writing code is fun and enjoyable, but learning why the aforementioned code works the way it does enhances the experience tenfold. I feel that the best of computer science is still yet to come.

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