Part 5 – The Humble Lessons

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart

Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner and thirty times finisher of Comrades Marathon, wrote a brilliant piece on the “Arrogance in The Comrades Marathon.” In that article, he quoted Bill Rodgers, 4 time winner of Boston Marathon. After dropping out of 1977 Boston marathon, Bill said

The marathon can always humble you.

Every runner experiences them in some form or other. Normally, in such ‘humbling experiences,’ one always end up looking for excuses and reasons. Sometimes, they are major like lack of adequate water in aid stations, soaring temperatures; and many times, the trivial ones like the bad taste of the energy drink at the aid stations. If there was a humbling experience combined with the lack of excuses, it must be the experience of running the Colombo Marathon on October 2, 2011. It was the first marathon since I registered for Comrades and was quite keen on finishing it with better timings. On finding that the event was certified by AIMS, I thought that it might serve as a qualifier for Comrades.

The idea of running the Colombo marathon was originally proposed by Tiger a.k.a Ramesh, and backed by a host of runners. Eventually, it was left to me, Ram and Neville to battle the full marathon and Andy Gana running the half-marathon. The trip would be fondly remembered for all events other than the actual marathon. With no Visa formalities then, Sri Lanka was obviously the best foreign country that any Indian passport holder could have traveled.

at airport
Photo by Ram

Along with the runners, Ram’s wife Sita also travelled with us and an appropriate headline to announce it would have been ‘Rama and Sita together travel to Lanka for the first time!‘ The marathon starts at Colombo and ends at Negombo, a beautiful coastal town north of Colombo and the route runs along the sea coast.

We reached Colombo on September 30, and stayed at Negombo. The first day was largely spent locating a decent vegetarian restaurant leading to some hilarious consequences. Staying in a beautiful beach resort, we planned to do a relaxed run along the beach, the following morning. Neville and Andy chose to go easy with an extended sleep while Ram and I chose to step out to do a bare-feet run on the patch between the sand and the sea. Unlike the beaches of Chennai, this beach was only a beach and served no other purpose in the morning hours. While I was reluctant to get into the water, Ram (falsely) assured me of his swimming skills and encouraged me to take a plunge. We further tested our photography skills.  One of the pictures that I clicked of Ram later found its way to couple of news paper articles on him, thus making me a photojournalist!

Ram
Photo by Balaji! All rights unreserved!

Later that day, we went around Colombo, collected our bibs, treated ourselves in ‘authentic’ vegetarian restaurant, some ‘tea’ shopping – all thanks to a wonderful support from the driver, Thilan, assigned to us by the tour operators. His presence proved to be a boon both on that day as well as the next day. The bib collection process was a tedious one as it involved a medical examination. The organisers, also the tour operators, were kind enough to waive the entry fee and also ensure a quick and easy medical examination. It goes without saying that I looked less like an athlete amidst all the athletes who were participating the following day. The doctor couldn’t believe that I am the one who will be participating and need to check on me twice.

bib collection
With our Bibs. Photo by Sita

The race was set to begin at 6:00 AM on October 2. We left our hotel as early as 4:00 AM as the roads gets congested during the morning hours.

At start
Andy, Ram and Neville! We had to wait almost 2 hours for start.

We were amongst the few ‘international’ runners in that event. Although the event has seen many editions before (including one edition cancelled due to a bomb blast), it still lacked some of the basic ingredients of a ‘quality’ running event. All the runners were grouped together irrespective of the distance they are likely to run; The start was delayed by 20 minutes to ensure that photographers get good pictures of the starting line-up; Aid-stations carried nothing other than water and were non-existent beyond certain distance; the route was not cordoned from traffic, atleast within Colombo and many such complaints. The weather made the conditions even worse. At the 24th KM, I almost chose to quit the event and give up. Neville had made some extra preparations for the event. He planned a mobile aid-station in the car that we meant to drop us. He further prepared a few bottles of isotonic which came handy during the event.

Bunk Shop
Neville’s model bunk shop for runners

With this support, I managed to keep myself going and finished the event in 5 hours 45 minutes.

It was at the finish line, where I came to know about the misfortune that Neville faced during the event. At the 29KM, one of the runners was hit by a speeding motor-cyclist who did not stop to help her. Neville went to her rescue and was hit by another motor-cyclist, who incidentally came forward to help the victim. Despite getting hit badly, Neville asked the motor-cyclist to go to the nearest aid-station and call for an ambulance for the victim. He waited there until the ambulance arrived and ensured that the victim was taken care of. Ignoring his injury, Neville proceeded to finish his run in about 5 hours. Ram had finished his run a few minutes before Neville. On spotting Neville at the finish, he quickly rushed him to hospital to get him treated. Neville came back before the presentation ceremonly with a sling holding his arm. He had suffered severe bruises to his shoulder bone and also on his legs (thankfully wasn’t a fracture), yet managed to hold on to complete the marathon.

Ram with medal
Ram with medal and certificate
Neville with Medal
Neville getting his medal!

Returning to the hotel, Neville calmly remarked, “This is the type of event you need to participate if you are keen on doing the Comrades.” What looked like an inconvenience looked like a challenge for Neville. He had no complaints about the inadequate support during the event, no complaints about the lack of medical service or even about the motor-cyclist who hit him. He just saw them as a challenge and faced them head-on. As the eldest in the group, Ram did have some ‘elderly’ words of advice for him not to attempt something similar in the future.

A marathon is a challenge that one is expected to face by themselves. The support and facilities are only enablers in achieving the target. To expect any facility in a marathon is by itself defeating the challenge. That was the last time I thought about complaining about weather or lack of support/facilities in an event.

Neville continues to inspire me through his ‘Dawn to Dusk’ attempts every year. To know more, do visit his site here – http://www.nevilleendeavours.com/

Part 4 – Registering for the Comrades

In the early morning thou wouldst call me from my sleep like my
own comrade and lead me running from glade to glade

In March 2011, Amit Sheth came to Chennai to launch his book ‘Dare to Run‘ and also participated in the 5th anniversary of Chennai Runners, the following day. He delivered an inspiring speech about his running adventures, and Comrades Marathon, for which he happens to be the Event Ambassador in India. Towards the end of his talk, Amit threw open the question,

‘Who amongst you are running the Comrades in 2012?’

The first two enthusiastic hands to go up were those of Karthik Padmanabhan (KP) and Ramani (Sir). KP, fully charged up after the speech (as well as receiving a ‘precious’ gift from Amit), turned around and asked me to put up my hand. It was an awkward moment and I had no choice but to raise my hand to keep KP’s rising spirits alive. Running Comrades Marathon was never on my plans, as I am least likely to be inclined to travel all the way to South Africa, and end up getting picked up by a bus midway through the run. After getting back home that evening, I made sure that I  make an announcement on behalf of KP and Ramani, “KP and Ramani will run the 2012 Comrades Marathon.” The registration for 2012 Comrades Marathon were to begin in September 2011 and I was rconfident that most would forget about the promise before September.
I had registered for the Hyderabad Marathon in August 2011 (where again, we meet Amit)! This was a marathon with a difference for me. Along with KP, I had agreed to drive the 5-hour bus. A pace setter or a driver of a pace bus is normally an experienced marathon runner who assures the fellow runners that he/she will complete the marathon in 5 hours. They are usually expected to finish the marathon between 4 hours 58 minutes and 5 hours (Gun time and not chip time). First time runners can tag along or be along these pace setters to ensure that they achieve a sub-5 marathon. Normally, runners with a personal best timing below 4 hours 30 minutes and have consistently run (say, about 10 marathons) under 5 hours attempt to be pace setters. KP and I did not fulfill any requirements that normally pacers would possess. After initially agreeing to be the pacers, we went to confuse the organisers by pulling out from the pacers team and joining back alternatively. The organisers tolerated these confusion and still rewarded us with a beautiful red shirt to wear on the race day.

Photgraph by Anju KP

A well-written detailed report on the marathon is available on KP’s blog – http://smokingrunners.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/aug-28-2011-hyderabad-marathon/ A combination of good weather, excellent support, and some luck helped me and KP cross the finish line in 4 hours 56 minutes. The time restrictions did pose a challenge that I haven’t experienced since the Tamil exams during my school days. At every hour and after every kilometer marker, you would need to reconcile you pace to check if you are well within the comfort zone. Contrary to my own expectations, it looked pretty comfortable throughout the race that we would finish it well within the time. There were a few nervy moments but nothing seem to deter us from finishing under 5 hours.  Running looked easy with good company and I was lucky to have KP besides me that day.

Photo by Ridhima

Personally, I was buoyed by the continued ‘success’ that I was enjoying in my adventures in endurance. It started with the Shahid’s Ultra in December 2010 followed by the cycling Tour of Tamil Nadu, which I managed to complete about 90% of the distance (including the ascendance of Ooty and Kodai); Auroville Marathon 2011, where I tried to combine running a marathon with my organising duties, and Hyderabad Marathon 2011. The marathon was on August 28 and registrations for Comrades begin on September 1. Assuming KP would keep up his promise made to Amit, I decided to take the first step towards Comrades Marathon 2012.
On the auspicious Vinayaka Chaturthi day, the registration for comrades was formally done… Only to realise later that KP had no plans to keep up his promise in 2012! Ramani, who was on a marathon running streak around that time, also backed out. It was finally left to Ram to offer some solace to me. He registered for the comrades marathon. If not during the run, he would sure offer a great company on the tour and I got much more than what I expected from him!

Part 3 – Running Beyond a Marathon

Ultra marathon, in simple terms, is essentially running more than 42.195 Km – a definition that is inconclusive though. Some are satisfied with going past that number whereas others love to stretch to the maximum distance that they can cover or the maximum number of days they can run. My first attempt to run beyond a marathon was rather “an accident.” In November 2010, Shahid announced his plan to do a Madras-Mahabalipuram run (you never know, it could become the Comrades 90 years later!). Despite announcing it as a self-supported run, he made excellent arrangements to support the run – a bus that would carry our baggage, stop every 10K to replenish food and water, and finally, bring us back to Madras. The finish point was a lovely restaurant at Mahabalipuram with facilities for shower and breakfast. We planned to start from our usual start location on CP Ramaswamy Road at Alwarpet and run all the way to Mahabalipuram which would be about 50 kms. However, on that morning, some of us suggested an alternative route which truncated the distance by 2 Kms. From 2011 onwards, Shahid made sure that we take the route that would be at least 50K.

Around that time, I was ‘trying’ to prepare for two events – The Tour of Tamil Nadu during the last week December 2010, and the Auroville Marathon 2011. I had an excuse in skipping most of the training during November 2010 in the monsoon rains. On the morning of December 5, 2010, my game plan was simple – Just run as much as you can (a marathon was the most optimistic target) and there is a bus for the rest.

Long distance running is not all about running. It also includes walking at some point of time during the run. Instead of seeing walking as an option to exercise when we cannot run, it can be used strategically. One of the protagonists of a such approach was Jeff Galloway, who advises mixing run and walk in regular time bound intervals. It was here that I got a chance to apply it ‘strategically’, thanks to Karthik Padmanabhan (KP). KP was a perfect company to run along with – very meticulous in time keeping, can talk on any topic from ‘Cricket to IPL’ and he would never run more than what is required. His blog is a great read – Smoking Runners. Although I am not much aware of the ‘smoking’ part (which he has since quit), his addiction to running is definitely “one hell of a true story.” Also, the blog makes my life easier as his detailed report here  gives me little to write about the run. What more, he could tolerate my talking for 6 hours and still, not moaning in his report!

The run was fabulous and we couldn’t have wished for a better weather. A mix of gentle drizzle in early stages to few minutes of heavy rain, and finally finishing in a scorching heat. At the 15K mark, we were joined by Bharghav who was running a 35K on the same day. It was surprising to see that I was maintaining a decent pace in covering the distance as well as my ability to converse, well inside the fifth hour. I realised that it was more than what I have planned for. The run-walk sequence seems to have entered its final phase with 1:1 ratio (1 min run and 1 min walk) after starting it at 5:1 (5 min run, 1 min walk). At 4 hours 55 minutes, KP made a quick calculation and suggested that if we keep our pace constant for the next couple of minutes and avoid a walk break, we can finish a ‘Marathon’ under 5 hours.

To run a marathon under 5 hours was my long cherished dream. I wanted to run my first Mumbai Marathon under 5 hours, but finished in 6 hours 45 minutes – mostly walking. Some of my well wishers still call it a ‘pada yatra’ and refuse to recognise that I ran the marathon. It was finally in Singapore Marathon 2008, and subsequently in Mumbai Marathon 2009 and Auroville marathon 2009, that I managed to run the marathon under 5 hours. A sub-5 marathon is a great dream to chase for. To start with, it confirms that you actually ‘ran a marathon’ – An average pace of 8.4 kmph is definitely not a walking pace for any normal human being. It is also the cut-off point for Comrades qualification, which I did not realise or not even bothered back then. It is said that most marathons in South Africa have a strict 5-hour cut-off, as the ultimate aim of every long distance runner is to run a comrades marathon. A sub-5 marathon is what I would call a ‘realistic target’ for every aspiring long distance runner. Sub-6 is achievable by brisk walking and sub-4 needs you to be ‘super fit.’ So, a sub-5 marathon in Chennai weather is definitely not what I could have ever dreamed about.

Inching towards the finish. Photo by Ram Viswanathan

On that day, I was nearing it and was all the more excited. Ran my heart out for the next 3 minutes as I followed a determined KP to finishd a marathon in 4:58. We felt that we had achieved something special and anything more, is just a bonus. We continued our journey towards Mahabalipuram and reached our breakfast point finishing the 48K run at 5 hours 45 minutes.

The run marked many firsts in my ‘running career’ – my first sub-5 in a practice ‘marathon,’ first sub-5 in a marathon at Chennai, first run with a companion from start-to-finish over a long distance, and my first ever Ultra Marathon. Running a marathon is never a solo effort. It is always a team effort – a combined effort of many visible and invisible people; from the organisers to spirited volunteers and the great comradeship from fellow runners is what makes a marathon achievable. On that day, it was my fellow runners who helped me to achieve what I thought was impossible at the start.

The Chennai Runners Team. Photo Courtesy – Ram Viswanathan

Part 2 – The Ultra Runners

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

Ultra marathon runners – “Fat people who just can’t run very fast; but have a high tolerance for boredom.” My personal experience of meeting Ultra marathon runners tells me that they aren’t ‘fat’ but they definitely have a high tolerance for boredom (not just in their conversation with me)! I would like to make a special mention of couple of such runners.

With Santhosh and Jacob
With Santhosh and Jacob

My first meeting with an Ultra runner was Jacob Boopalan, on the eve of Auroville Marathon 2008. I was attempting a half-marathon the following morning and was quite nervous about it. Jacob, on the other hand, was running a full marathon and was totally relaxed. He makes ultra running look so simple in the way he talks about it. It was then, I learned that marathons are just another Sunday morning runs. When I asked him what keeps him going on an ultra, he casually replied, “The food! You get a chance to eat a lot.” The following day, Jacob came first in the marathon event and looked less tired than most of the half-marathon finishers, including me. Jacob completed the Comrades marathon 2011. In 2014, he ran all the way from Chennai to Auroville to participate in the Auroville marathon.

Jacob Completing Comrades 2011 (From his Facebook page)

The next ultra runner that I was introduced was Santhosh Padmanabhan, a techie then, at Bangalore. It was a week before the Bangalore Ultra 2008 in which he was attempting a 24-hour run, a ‘crazy stuff’ indeed. On the same day, I was scheduled to do my final practice run of 35K for Singapore marathon, which did look really small after I heard about his attempt to do a 24-hour run. In October 2009, I had my first opportunity to crew and run with him. Santhosh was now in his new avatar as Guruji – He has become a full fledged running coach with Runners High. I was also part of the Crazy crew for Bangalore Ultra 2009. Accompanied him on the run for 2 laps and on cycle for another 2 laps all through the night from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM clocking a distance of 50K. For someone, who was dead against the night shift culture, it was an experience of its kind doing those nocturnal runs. Sadly, Santhosh had to abort his attempt much earlier than the 24 hour target due to the contrasting weather conditions between the night and the day. However, he returned in 2010 to complete the 24-hour run at Bangalore Ultra.

Another intersting outing with Santhosh was the Strides of Hope in 2010. An innovative 48-hour effort organised with a combined effort of the running communities of Bangalore, it was aimed to promote the cause of running and physical exercise for better health and raise funds for Asha Bangalore chapter. Staying with him over the night, feasting on the tamarind rice and curd rice prepared by his mom and the jocular company of various others, is an experience by itself and sure, can fill another blog.
Santhosh may not have run the Comrades marathon but a true Comrade at heart and in his life. His approach to running (which his extends to his life) is simple, egalitarian and helps people to think about running more than just an act of physical exercise. He introduced me to the Asha Bangalore team and field of alternative education in which running finds itself an active place. Currently, he volunteers actively at Sita School, Ananya School, and the Spastics Society in Bangalore and has brought a remarkable change in the outlook of many students. The students of Ananya school and Thulir, an educational resource centre based out of Sittling, Dharmapuri District, Tamil Nadu, actively take part in various running events and some of them even finish in the top 10 in the half-marathon category in such events. Running is often used as an instrument of punishment in most schools. Santhosh uses running as an instrument of fun, bonding and learning experience in these schools. It also enabled me to find some place in getting associated with these institutions. More about those activities in his less frequently updated blog here – http://www.runnershighkids.blogspot.in/. He is not just a long distance runner but also a versatile writer of ‘long e-mails’! While only a few are privileged to receive his mails, others can check his blog – http://teamasharunner.blogspot.in/ Not updated in the recent past but the old posts still make it a great blog to read.

Santhosh was also my virtual coach in my attempt at Comrades. Early May, I wasn’t sure of taking a shot at the comrades. His single piece of advice, “Don’t worry about anything else now – just stay positive and visualize yourself getting there every day.” Took extra effort to visualise myself finishing in the Kingsmead stadium wearing the green shirt of Team ASHA/Runners High every day during training and all through the Comrades run, until I really accomplished it. However, the atmosphere at the finish line was way too intimidating than I ever imagined! He continues to inspire many, not just to take up running, but also to become a running coach themselves and inspire others.

Part 1 – Comrades – An Introduction

Either you have work or you have not.

When you have to say, “Let us do something,” then begins mischief

My earliest introduction to the word ‘Comrade’ was when I attended a Bank Trade Union meeting with my father. It was certainly not my introduction to ‘communism’ in any manner. I could barely follow the proceedings in the meeting and was there only for the dinner that followed it. Few minutes later, I realised that I wasn’t alone. Apart from the name of the chief guest, whom I learnt later was an icon among public sector bank employees, I recollect two things from that meeting – some talk about BCCI (a bank in middle east that failed around the same time) and the word ‘Comrade.’

The Comrades Marathon was introduced to me (as well as most Chennai Runners) by Shahid in late 2009 when he registered for the 2010 edition of the event. While the rules of the game sounded weired, it was interesting to learn that it has existed for almost a century. I joined Shahid during his training runs on couple of occasions, and witnessed some of the hardships in training – from starting to run at insane morning hours to changing socks and shirts on the run, and getting a cooling shower from one of the gardeners of the palatial minister bungalows on Greenways road. It was around this time, I got acquainted with Amit Sheth – through Shahid – who was the Ambassador of Comrades Marathon in India.

It goes without saying that a majority of the Comrades runners in India (which is actually a minority) were inspired/made aware of the Comrades marathon through Amit’s book Dare to Run. My objective opinion on the book would be disputed for it contains some undeserved praise for me in one of the chapters. It is a simple, beautiful book with wonderful anecdotes from a ‘daily life of a runner.’ Just like his book, Amit’s blog Dare to Run has always been a wonderful read. One must definitely read about his 2012 Comrades experience which I was lucky to witness in person.

It was in the same year that Tanvir Kazmi, author of the famous blog Running without limits, also ran his first Comrades. Tanvir’s blog on the Comrades was a wonderful account of a first timer’s experience at the Comrades marathon. Tanvir has subsequently been active every year on the Comrades day tracking the progress of every Indian runner. It was a fabulous to see him to track the runners so earnestly in 2011 and followed it up in 2012 too.

Thou hast made me endless…

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.  This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

A week after running my first (and almost definitely, the last)! Comrades Marathon, I am still left with one unfinished agenda – writing my comrades experience. My writing however has been limited to only e-mails (annoying ones for the most part)!, some comments on others’ writings, Facebook©®™ status updates and tweets. I had taken up blogging in the past with mixed results and many unkept promises. Just like running, I keep trying again and again, take a fall, lick the wounds, and rise again, with my ego yet to be deflated. Over the past week, some of my friends expressed their interest in reading about my experience of running Comrades Marathon. Living in a world, where the virtual world is larger than the physical one, the ‘some friends’ gets automatically multiplied to many friends leading to a deluded presumption that there are many out there to read what I write.
Running 89.2K is not something that I have attempted even in one week, let alone on a single day. It was not just the run but the journey to the comrades has also been a long one. Just like one of the Saas-Bahu soaps, it is difficult to decide where to start and where to end. I make the start today and would work on getting the story over the next few weeks or months or years. The road ahead for the blog looks as bleak and uncertain as I was during the start of Comrades. Hope to have an enjoyable journey and if the journey is enjoyable, the destination is only a bonus. The journey shall continue till it attracts sizeable ‘likes’ on the Facebook©®™ – possibly, a Gold Standard for online attraction.
Running 89.2K is definitely not a one man effort, even if it is the individual who accomplishes the feat and bags the prestigious medal. Over the long journey, there has been many people who have encouraged, kept me on track, and directly helped me in getting past the finish line with 2 minutes and 2 seconds to spare. Over the next few weeks, I would do my best to credit each one of them and yet, it would be still incomplete.