On 20 Jun 2007, on a dark rainy night in Bombay I met with a road accident. Driving my bike, I failed to sight a taut rope tied across the road, and hit it resulting in my trachea (wind pipe) being severed completely and oesophagus (food pipe) partially. Thanks to some immediate and excellent medical attention, I made it out of the surgery to the ICU, where I stayed for long.
In those long months on the hospital bed I went through a range of emotions, from despair to rage, hope, relief, frustration and – sadly sometimes – self pity. It was then that a very dear friend gifted me something very precious, which was to change my outlook forever. He (who will know if he is reading this) gave me the revered book “Its not about the bike” by Lance Armstrong. The book really impressed upon me that impossible is actually nothing (ironic coming from a Nike sponsored athlete).
In the next few days, on a small paper (that I still treasure), I jotted down a mini “bucket list” – and running in any capacity had NO place on it. In short, I wanted to see the world (a high target but never mind), change a few priorities in my life, and most importantly, not waste a moment in my future doing things that I didn’t like or with people to whom I didn’t matter.
I was discharged in early 2008 and even then on a tracheotomy tube. Many surgeries followed (12 in all), but steadily I recovered far better than initially expected. And as decided, I began to search for my “list.” But despite being out of the hospital, I wasn’t completely out of gloom. It was then that two friends told me to join them in their daily runs. I was extremely sceptic, but their insistence was too hard to deny.
Reluctantly I agreed to join them for short runs, and it proved to be the second best gift I ever received. Infact I can even go so far as to say that it was the best decision I ever took in my life. What running has given me since then is definitely intangible, but it couldn’t be more conspicuous. When I ran my first half marathon in 2010 (in Bombay), I wasn’t a complete convert yet, but the event decided it for me.
Never in my life had I seen so many people turn up for almost nil rewards. Hardly any of them could hope for any prize, no professional favours, but only toil and suffering for hours. And then were the thousands who turned up to cheer. Sorry, not just cheer, but to volunteer assistance of various kinds. It was just surreal, 1hr 52mins of being treated like a celebrity. I knew that day, that there was no turning back.
I returned in 2011 and had a horror of a race. My first reaction was that I had lost focus, but the fact was, the run was no longer a challenge it was the first time. The elements were all there as earlier, yet the passion was slightly diminished. I knew there was the “full” up the ladder, but it was quite scary, for the elites, and definitely not for an average runner like me. As ever friends came into the picture, one of whom had just completed his second “full” and by the time registrations opened for the 2012 edition, I was motivated enough to choose the harder option.
The first thing I realised was running a marathon is not just a “one day” event with a little practice beforehand, instead its a full-scale commitment for about half a year. The training regimen I followed was just short of it (20 weeks), but demanded serious dedication. There was no point in going under prepared and embarrassing oneself, especially with the aura built around the event. Of course in today’s chaotic life, it was impossible for me to follow the schedule to the hilt, but I was lucky to manage without missing much.
If anything, I made it a point not to miss the important long runs and hence ensured to squeeze in a race (the Delhi half marathon) and the mandatory 20 mile practice run. If anyone would question me now, I would say that these runs go a long way in preparing one mentally, apart from the obvious physical aspect. The internal battle you fight to miss a weekend party for next morning’s run, when you drag yourself out after a bad day, when you run despite the schedule getting on your nerves, that’s when the pillars are building in the head.
No amount of preparation though can prevent from the last day jitters. Have I overused my shoes? Did I do enough tempo runs? Have I carbo loaded adequately? These are few of the hundreds of doubts that keep arising till the gun is fired. So finally after this abstract, coming to the race day experience itself.
This marathon was my sole focus and pretty much the pivot of my life for past 5 months. So it says a lot about my planning abilities, that I reached the venue 8 minutes late, long after the race had begun and not a runner in sight of the start line. Thankfully the race organisers provide everyone with a personalised timing chip, hence each competitor is timed individually when he/she crosses the start. Nevertheless it was far from ideal, especially as one does panic and overdo the start to catch up with the bunch, and then zigzag through all the runners slower than him.
By the time I turned around Nariman point, I was well settled and starting to enjoy the experience. I crossed a few friends, saw smiling (but focussed) faces all round and the Queen’s necklace passed in a blur. I was so high at this point that I even raced up the dreaded (for me) climb up Peddar Road. Move on to the Worli sea face and there were more high-fives exchanged as I crossed familiar faces running the half-marathon from the opposite direction.
Then came the main attraction of the day – running on the Bandra Worli Sea Link. This suspension bridge has become the new architectural face of Bombay, and while this was my third time to cover it on foot, each time the experience only grows richer. Maybe because this time I ran in the early morning glow, or since the breeze was much cooler, but I just could not stop grinning like an idiot as I jogged the 5 odd kms of tarmac hanging over the ocean.
The half point of the race arrived sooner than expected, and to my joy (which I would later realise was misleading) at a very comfortable effort. This dream continued as the route headed to Shivaji Park and the crowd began to get richer. It was probably my happiest stint of the day as little kids high-fived and people from all ages clapped, shouted and cheered. For a few moments I felt am going to sail through this.
But not for nothing is the marathon so feared and infamous. If it was such smooth sailing, it would never have attained the aura its associated with. At the 28km mark, I felt the first stings of trouble in my leg. As I reduced pace to shake it off, my head spun funny and within moments my dream world began crumbling manically. Approaching the revered Sidhivinayak Temple, the agnostic in me instantly converted to a devout and I duly tried pleasing higher powers.
Sigh they were not to be fooled! As kilometer 30 approached I was a total mess. The pain was getting unbearable, muscles aching, cramping, head spinning – in short it was all turning pear-shaped. I distinctly remember as I rounded the Worli loop, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying, it was just the pain, which was venting itself in this strange manner.
Even the dreaded thought of giving up or collapsing arose in my mind and continued for a good 10 odd minutes. But then as I looked around me, I saw grimacing faces, people struggling to put their feet ahead and it was obvious – I wasn’t alone. All these co-runners – many elder than me – were in the same boat, and if they could somehow keep going while suffering, so could I.
I also happened to exchange looks with a few runners in these moments. Looks that only fellow runners can understand. Looks where nothing is said, but two complete strangers fully understand what the other person means. We started pacing each other, one drafting ahead as the other weakened, duly looking back pulling the weaker runner on. Of course the ordered reversed with regularity.
And then there were the hundreds, who while not in the same suffering, were lining the route with pure support for each runner as one of their own kin. The most remarkable was a sikh family distributing water near the Worli dairy. Right from the octogenarian grand father to the 6-ish year old grand child, the entire joint family was out helping us runners – when that time could have been better spent elsewhere.
It’s with this faith that we (notice its no longer “I” now) approached the climb of Pedder Road once again. This approach is steeper and longer, which, added to the ailing limbs could spell disaster. Luckily this also happens to be the area where the crowds are the strongest and most vociferous. It’s just a wall of noise and appreciation that you pass through. Result – the gradient is as steep as ever, but the effort somehow diminished. And right from water, fruits, energy gels, biscuits, the crowd offers you all the supplements you could ask for.
The final phase is back on Marine Drive, albeit this time in bright sunlight. I have always found this to be the hardest part; not because it’s towards the end, but since its hot, and the other end is visible far away, somehow accentuating the task at hand. Even the support is marginalised by the “official” bands and corporate cheering squads. The innocence of the “sikh family” and purity of cheering is lost amid this electronic din.
However at this point you know that it’s just about survival. Keep plugging for a last few painful minutes and you are sure to reach the destination. That I did, just shy of 4hr 30 minutes – half an hour over my target time. Yet there was no disappointment. I also cannot say I was exultant or jubilant or ecstatic. They are just too extreme terms for the complete blankness I felt at the finish line. There was definitely a huge sense of relief and a feeling of “I really did this”, but you could not have realised that looking at my face.
It’s strange because after all the suffering and effort one should be jumping with delirious joy, but is conversely looking for peace. Its just a void, maybe it takes time to really hit what has just been accomplished. That’s the beauty of the event I guess, no matter who you are, no matter your time, no matter the number of times you have done it – the marathon will be a humbling experience. You realise that you do not conquer the marathon, you survive it. Just that few survive stronger than others.
I have never suffered so much in such a short duration, but I have never felt so alive either. This is an accomplishment no one can take away from me – ever, and I can proudly say hereon after, that I am a marathoner. And that one line makes up for all the pain.