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Boston Marathon runner series, Aadithya Prakash Credit: Mike Wisniewski , Mike Wisniewski

Aadithya Prakash isn’t wearing headphones.

“That’s cheating,” he says.

Most who choose to listen to music while running enjoy it for the many advantages it offers: It’s motivating. It makes the run more enjoyable. Most of all, it preoccupies the brain and distracts it from realizing the pain the rest of the body is feeling.

And therein lies the problem.

“It’s cheating and it also cheapens the run,” he goes on. “I love music — it’s a great way to express yourself and all, but I think running is my way of expressing myself, getting my problems and throwing them all away.”

Aadu, an Engineering junior with an ideal 6-foot-2, 155-pound runner’s frame, wants to experience the hurt of each half-mile. He wants to struggle through it, to feel as if he won’t make it and finally push through. Without beats pumping into his ears and reverberating throughout his body, there’s nothing to think about but the pain.

So I keep my own headphones hidden in my pocket and hastily hustle to follow him up Locust Walk for the final leg of his eight-mile tour of University City.

Pain — Aadu had a lot of physical pain in his freshman and sophomore years, when recurring knee problems kept his running shoes confined to his closet.

You could say he went through psychological pain out of “utter embarrassment” when it took him 15 minutes to finish a mile in the third grade. A year later, after taking part in 5Ks with his dad, he broke seven minutes.

And then there was the emotional pain of his senior year of high school, which he channeled into a fundraising effort in memory of his late history teacher. It’s what got him fixated on the 26.2-mile trial in the first place.

Yet tonight, he’s not feeling much pain at all. His metatarsal malady is nearly gone, and he’s just about finished breezing through a light workout as he dashes up the central vein of Penn’s campus.

“Let’s get it!” he turns and yells to me as we approach the camel-hump bridge that transverses 38th Street.

Aadu zooms up the incline on the balls of his feet — not slowing down, perhaps even gaining speed as he climbs. Hills are his specialty. I’ve kept up with him and his gazelle-like pace for the initial half-mile, but I lag behind as we climb up the crossing. It’s okay though — I make up the lost ground as we descend down the other side before re-establishing our regular pace.

Though tonight is an overcast, breezy evening only about 10 degrees above freezing, he dons just a thin short-sleeve gray shirt and dark running shorts. Bundled in two layers of Under Armour and a gray hooded sweatshirt, I’m still freezing. And I could really use some music.

At 40th Street, we complete a turnaround — touching our feet to the pavement there before doing a 180 and going back in the opposite direction. It’s not until we’ve nearly reached our endpoint and come to the final sprint, from 39th back to 38th Street, that I finally fall behind.

Immediately upon reaching the bridge, he begins his cool-down stretches. I follow suit when I reach the top a few moments later.

“Not too bad, eh?”

Sure, not too bad for me — I only ran the last mile with you.

Though he’s not wearing a watch tonight either, he estimates he finished at about a 6-minute, 40-second pace, or nine miles per hour. He’s far below where he needs to be, but he’s got a ways to go — his ultimate destination is 13 months away.

Still, 6:40 seems fast to me. Then again, I’m not training for the Boston Marathon.

  • * *

It was his senior year of high school. John Near, a beloved history teacher of his, had passed away, and he and a classmate decided to organize a run in his honor. They were going to fundraise for an endowment in his name and collect pledges for each mile completed.

Of the 40 or so students who participated in the Golden Gate Headlands on April 3, 2010, only Aadu ran the full marathon.

“He knew he had a harder challenge than everyone,” says Arthi Padmanabhan, the classmate who helped coordinate the affair. She opted for the half-marathon. “Even though he was gifted and he was a cross-country superstar and he was known all around campus for his running, he really accepted that he had a lot to learn about the process.”

It was his first marathon, and Aadu trained alone, seeking out advice from anyone and anywhere he could — frequent marathoners, runners’ blogs, the internet. Though finishing one had been a goal of his for some time, he kept the priorities of the race in perspective.

Arthi remembers a time in the final week before the event when the two journeyed to check out the trail early. A gifted tennis player but self-admittedly not a runner, Arthi took one look at the course and became overwhelmed by the hills.

They didn’t bother Aadu. He’d rocket up them and wait at the top, check out the view and offer Arthi instruction.

“What amazed me through that process and the way he approached his first marathon was his character and his ability to take and give advice,” Arthi says.

On top of that, she estimates he was responsible for half of the $7,000 which was ultimately raised.

The race itself was bittersweet for Aadu, who clocked in at 3:49:01 but had to walk for a portion of the course. He blames his own training and believes he pushed himself too hard beforehand.

This intense desire to force his own body to its limits and ignore pain cost him his freshman and sophomore years at Penn as well.

“I wasn’t such a happy camper my first year and a half,” he says. “I had no outlet to take out my frustration and anxiety, all that. Some people shoot hoops. I run.”

He acknowledges he doesn’t like admitting defeat.

“Before I felt like injuries were me being weak, being defeated,” he says. “I’m all into pushing through pain, but back then when it was a certain kind of pain, I didn’t know you should stop. I do now, but then I didn’t.”

  • * *

For most people, it’s just the city; for marathon runners, it’s the ultimate race. It’s the Kentucky Derby of distance running. It’s what Aadithya Prakash has had his eyes on for quite some time.

“I told myself I would be in Boston one day,” he says. “I told myself sophomore year, when my knees were getting better … I’ve told myself that since freshman year of high school, even middle school.”

Held annually since 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest — and arguably most prestigious — marathon. The 26.2-mile trek across hilly New England terrain begins southwest of Boston in Hopkinton, Mass., and passes through seven towns altogether before it finally enters the city proper at mile 25. Of the 22,485 participants who started last year, 21,616 finished, including eventual winner Wesley Korir of Kenya, who took home $150,000.

But Aadu won’t be chasing after prize money when he takes his place at the starting line on April 21, 2014 — he’s not in the pro circuit. Instead, he’ll be gunning after what the majority of entrants will be striving toward that morning: running the race of a lifetime.

He almost didn’t get the chance.

Just 50 miles up U.S. Route 101 from Saratoga, Calif. — Aadu’s hometown — San Francisco holds its annual marathon at which competitors can qualify for Boston by completing the mountainous course in 3 hours, 5 minutes or better.

There, on July 29, Aadu crossed the finish line in 3:06:15. It was a personal record, but still 1 minute, 15 seconds shy of qualifying for Boston.

“That killed me,” he says.

It killed him — but through the pain it also propelled him to scrap his old training program and undertake a new, more challenging one, focused on pushing himself further than he ever had been pushed before.

“That’s what training’s all about,” he says. “Put yourself in scary situations and learn to cope with them.”

He set his sights on Nov. 18 — the Philadelphia Marathon.

  • * *

The night before, he was restless. At 4 a.m., he rose from his bed after an hour and a half of uncomfortable sleep, taped up his knees and shins and, after readying himself, set out for the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Ben Franklin Parkway, where the course was to commence.

The weather was ideal — brisk but bright with a gentle wind. His start was not. A bathroom-break detour left him with only 15 minutes to stretch and prepare before the starting gun. Water sloshed around in his stomach for the first few miles. But eventually it passed, and he found his groove.

He cruised through the first half at a 6:29 pace (he had averaged 6:52 in San Francisco), and continued until he hit … the wall.

“The wall is really scary,” Aadu says. “I knew when I was about to hit the wall, and I did stumble over it a bit because I was like, ‘Here it is! Here it is!’”

It was hitting the wall that had cost him in San Francisco, and hitting the wall that had slowed him down to a literal “waddle, for a good 15 minutes,” at the Golden Gate Headlands.

Not all racers hit the wall, during which one feels a sudden sense of fatigue caused by the lack of glycogen. Until you experience it, you don’t know what to do when it happens.

“I knew what to expect,” he says, “and what to do when I got there to overcome it. But it’s the scariest thing in the world.”

Even after all of his training to prevent himself from hitting the wall, Aadu had no choice but to lessen his pace.

He soon chose to ignore the pain. It wouldn’t stop him again — not this time.

When he noticed the pace he was on, he increased his speed and eyed breaking the 3-hour mark. An adrenaline kick allowed him to up his tempo even more in the final mile.

Eventually, in the final 200 meters, he came to a full sprint — a dangerous proposition because of the risks of overworking one’s heart, but he didn’t care. He passed one, two, three competitors along the way.

As his bright blue shoes crossed the finish line, the clock read 2:50:53.

Aadithya Prakash is wearing a medal, and he’s going to Boston.

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