And it was at that age…Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river.Pablo Neruda
I don’t know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned, from the branches of night, abruptly from the others, among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I am a (long) distance runner!
This wasn’t something that I wanted to say when people asked me during my childhood days, ‘What do you want to be when you grow BIG?’ (Well, not very long ago.) It is true that I wanted to be a sportsman – a dashing sportsman who would help his country to “awake to life and freedom” and help “the soul of the nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” This enthusiasm constantly pushed me to go for the selection trials of every team sport and preliminary events of every track and field event during my school and college days. All these events were nothing more than a coronation of one or few of them as winners and I duly obliged to be one of the ‘masses’ in celebrating these winners (who sadly, went on to be the ‘masses’ elsewhere)! A host of qualities required for most sports were non-existent for me – agility, strength, good reflexes, hand-eye co-ordination and not to miss out those frequent bouts of asthma induced by dust and cold weather.
Running arrived in search of me…
It was one evening that I took up to running to break free from my preparations(?) for the year-end examinations during my college days. Running around an empty ground, I soon realised that I can run longer if choose a steady pace and rhythm. Also that night, I had a sound sleep without being disturbed by congestion. It took me couple of days to recover from my first run but the feeling of finding the ‘miracle’ drug for asthma encouraged me to try it again. What more? It didn’t require any of the missing ingredients in me that other sports required. There was no one to watch me and judge my agility, strength or reflexes. There were no selection trials and I didn’t require to make ‘any grade’ to be classified as a ‘sportsman.’ The only challenge posed to me was the constant voyeuristic look of people at my legs with a question in their eyes ‘Won’t it break if you run longer”? The challenge has to be tackled by self-enforcing a moral code of wearing pants even through the scorching summer of Chennai. It was time that I declare to the world I am a (long) distance runner!
The marathon bug…
A 30-minute run at Marina Beach soon became a part of my daily routine. Running through the fresh morning air, watching brisk walkers across all ages, looking forward for the sun rise was the best motivation that I could look for to navigate the drudgery of my office life. A few minutes spent watching the vastness of Marina beach compensated for the day long claustrophobic cubicle life. Running was no longer a miracle drug for Asthma. It was a tool of self-discipline and a routine akin to eating or sleeping. Inspired by many morning walkers, who have been following the routine for decades, I too felt that this must form a necessary ingredient in my daily life. Added to these was the constant ego-boost of being faster than at least 90% of the crowd at Marina beach (including a Wimbledon quarterfinalist) with an occasional reality check provided by faster runners. The 30-minute run was occasionally stretched to a 45 minute run but never more than that.
At some stage, I wondered about the possibility of running a marathon. I read about the Mumbai marathon and found out that the longest distance that one could run there was 42.195K and wondered if I stand a chance. Having never run more than a 10K, I registered for the 2006 edition of the Mumbai Marathon. It would have logical to apply for the Half-marathon. Sadly, vanity has no place for logic. I felt that a half-marathon was for the less courageous and I wanted to try for the impossible. The preparation began with all sorts of festives – an expensive pair of shoes, flashy clothing (still full pants though!), air tickets to and from Mumbai, buying timing chips (optional then) – yeah, I am a (long) distance runner… soon to be a marathon runner.
The first marathon…
Those were the days when Mumbai Marathon started at 8:00 AM under the scorching heat. Got through the initial 5-6K with ease until I reached the Pedder road fly-over. I had run all the time on the flat stretches of Marina beach and this was proving to be an ‘out of syllabus’ task. On the down hill, I attempted to speed up and gain some momentum. This ended in a disastrous fashion with a cracking feeling on my knees. The knees were busted and I couldn’t continue running. I slowly navigated to the first timing point at 14K with frequent assistance from the medics. I kept encouraging myself by saying that I will come back one day stronger and finish the marathon. Even if the future looked encouraging, the present was dismal. There was no chance of running any further. I finally decided to walk the rest and somehow finish the event. I had no idea of the support available or if someone would be around the finish area to receive me. The walk began under the scorching heat through the roads of Mumbai assisted by some good Samaritans. There were few of them who were equally spirited enough to walk alongside me for some distances. The ‘pada yatra’ finally concluded at 2:45 PM when the organisers were winding up their tents. One of them was kind enough to give me a water bottle and also get a medal from the already packed boxes. Yes, I am a marathon runner… Ok walker…. Still, I am a (long) distance runner and one day, I would run the marathon.
Running a marathon
Running a marathon can never be an individual sport as I originally thought it to be. I realised that it has to be a team sport. One need others to educate, motivate, encourage, support (and sometimes humble) to see through the distance. It was late 2007 that I came across the group – Chennai Runners. It was the week before the majority of the team departed for the 2007 Singapore marathon. After struggling to finish the Sunday ‘classic run,’ I learnt my first lesson – respect the distance. I set my sights on running the 2008 Singapore Marathon with the group and started learning the nuances of long distance running. Running was not anymore about a daily 5K. It was about conditioning yourself with different distances and work-outs. I participated in few half-marathons with the group and learnt to respect those attempting half-marathons. The ECR runs showed me the way to run beyond the distance of half-marathon and I was soon running into the 30s. The support by the fellow runner who often volunteer in ECR runs and practice runs provided the foundation for the preparation for running a marathon. The dream of running a marathon was finally realised in December 2008 when I finished the Singapore Marathon in 4 hours 53 minutes. A sub-5 hour marathon to confirm that I had ‘run’ most of the distance. It was time to declare ‘I am a marathon runner.’ but chose a more appropriate ‘I am also a marathon runner.’ Now, I could say with more confidence I am a (long) distance runner.
Marathons and others
The continued association with Chennai Runners ensured that I don’t remain satisfied with just a couple of marathons under my belt. Each of the subsequent marathons I run had their own stories and unique experiences. There were moments of elation and so were there the humbling moments. On some days, a marathon was a walk in the park and on other days, finishing a 10K was like a conquest of the Everest. In January 2009, I went back to Mumbai to redeem the old promise and ran the marathon in 4 hours 53 minutes (a second slower than the Singapore marathon timing clocked the previous month). A year later, I struggled to finish the Mumbai marathon under 6 hours and yet, it was a memorable experience in its own way. It was not any more about the distance or timings. It was all about the experience of seeing the distance and ensure that the journey continues. I came across a quote that sounds something like
‘In life, as well as running, you don’t lose until you stop.’
All that I chose to aim for is to continue saying, I am a (long) distance runner.
The Ultra experiences…
The bars were raised yet again. Running with a group of highly enthusiastic folks, it was difficult to resist the temptation to see distances beyond a marathon. Attempted the first ‘Ultra’ (simply defined as a distance beyond 42.195K) in December 2010 when Shahid proposed a Alwarpet-Mahabalipuram run (aptly named as the ‘Shahid Ultra’). The elation of completing the 48K run prompted me to ‘do more’ and register for the Comrades Marathon 2012. Another run, another story to tell. It would be simpler to say that I scraped to finish the run under the cut-off time with 2 minutes to spare. Ultra marathon or marathons or half-marathons, the distance does not matter, as long I can continue saying I am a (long) distance runner.
The journey so far…
The journey so far into running, albeit a short one, is definitely not the one I ever imagined when it all started. The original idea was to get fitter and eventually look like ‘a sportsman.’ I might not look like a sportsman for the majority of the population but I feel like one though. There has been a very little change in me externally. Nevertheless, the fact that I look the same as I looked 10 years back could yet be considered an achievement and the clothes bought/stitched then fits me even now. Running has been more about fantastic buddies, friends across different cities, the comradeship on and off the runs, the lively conversations and not to miss out the festive occasions of attending various running events inside and outside India. It is about looking at sports and games in a different way. It is not anymore about the winners and losers; It is more about those who start and who hasn’t. Once started, it is unlikely that one would ever stop.
The journey has been rewarding so far and the destination seems immaterial. It doesn’t matter if I will ever be a sportsman for I am a (long) distance runner!
(Originally written for blog of The Wipro Chennai Marathon)
Nice one Balaji …