Don’t we love the underdog stories? Rocky Balboa black eyeing Apollo Creed, the phoenix rising from its ashes, the ogre called Shrek who marries a princess , Croatia toppling some major teams in the 1998 world cup, Bangladesh thumping us on a few occasions and in recent memory Ireland making a mess of England in Bangalore. The lore around them is the belief that each one of us is capable of doing something majestic, something extraordinary and running has been a path to a door that opens up these possibilities. Running reiterated the fact that I was capable to star in my underdog story. Kaveri Trail Marathon and I starred in it handsomely, content with the riveting experience of the training and enormity of a race, the experience brought tremendous belief to trust the process of training and leave out the result. Coming from Santhosh’s tutelage, results didn’t matter, didn’t matter if I came first or last and I managed to achieve the latter and the chief was witness to it and he was one proud mentor that day. But for some reason I needed the validation, the validation of a measure of that effort, it’s a single dimension and however hard I tried to shun that thought and bury it, it seemed to rear its ugly head and come right back. And I literally tried to bury it too. I went out on a motorcycle ride to the ocean for a good 1000 kilometers after Bangalore Ultra. Sitting on the beach, some of the boys built castles while a few of us got busy building elaborate graves and hacking tombstones out of cigarette packets. A few of us threw in cigarette butts and buried it, symbolic to the act of quitting and lit another right away to mourn the passing. While we performed the final rites, I mentally threw in a few numbers into that pit, my KTM timing, my appraisal numbers and the numbers in a bank, all thrown in and buried. As we set the final tombstone, I was convinced I’d put behind these measure units and continue doing the things that brought me joy, but that was not to be. The obsession with the numbers returned. It seemed to have gained some demonic powers and shaking it off seemed tough.
There were certain episodes which reinforced this thought of embracing a timing certificate, embrace it tight till the colour runs off the paper and sticks to your very being. The minute you mention in passing that you have run a full marathon, the prodding questions begin and end by enquiring your time. If it’s a fancy fast time, it holds their valuable attention and the endless questions about hydration and awe continues otherwise if it’s a measly timing like mine, there is a lilt in their voice which can’t be camouflaged with words of praise, because words anchored on sarcasm is a well steadied boat. And it is glaringly insulting when a fellow runner does that and I was pretty astonished to be at the receiving end of a few. I treated the inappropriateness with a shrug of a shoulder and a Zen like approach and went about my training runs in the same disdain but frankly I was never able to shrug away the clock that heavily weighed down my neck. Why all this retrospect in a race story? SCMM 2014 was a disappointment for me in terms of timing, I fell behind by a good time, let’s say the flight was on the runway and about to take off and I was still checking in baggage, that behind.
But was Mumbai a disappointment is any other way? Not a chance in the world. Landed a day before the race, collected the race bib and soaked in the abundance of the city. The quick footed Mumbaikars, buzzing from station to station, the rapture at the WTC when you spot not a fellow runner but a gang of fellow runners. When I first ran in Mumbai in 2012, we were a handful and this year RH was represented by a hundred plus runners, how cool is that and you keep bumping into them all around the city. By lunch I was already the proud owner of the bib, some pasta to fill the worldly demands and I walked with a few friends along marine drive and saw Mumbai gearing up for the race. A quick check in at Azad Maidan to recce the start point with fellow marathoners and calling it a day at Gaylords with dinner. Picture perfect.
I trained all season with a time goal, practiced negative splits run after run and ran the Chennai half marathon as a time trial. Time trial? Spot on. The thirty plus runs I embraced and split them on their head negatively. The thirty two kilometer run in Bylakere with a late start was a ripper, toiled hard in the sun, ran among stinking dead dogs and buzzing flies. The run in Nandi was a tough one for me; I took it easy and enjoyed the views, ran like a bandit with a covered face, scaring a few runners by stalking them and was chased downhill by them. Fun training that didn’t end too well. The last long run before the race was an eighteen in Bylakere. First fourteen was splendid then I felt a shooting pain in my left knee and with every step it increased, I hobbled the last four to a concerned finish and went back home to ice my knee. The bells rang loud and clear, with a week to go; this was a tough one to sneak away from. And it wasn’t, twenty six kilometers into the race and the pain in my left knee reappeared, just that it seemed to have partnered with an evil ally, the ITB this time.I followed the five hour bus led by Michael. His race plan matched my training and race strategy. A real easy first half then a slightly faster second half. By the time the race started and we turned into Marine drive towered over by the Trident, I was in rhythm. Michael sang, we joined the chorus, he rolled the stiffness off his shoulders, we followed suit. He pointed out the aid stations, we grabbed up water and enerzal. He asked us to relax and we smiled and we rolled away. Fifteen kilometers done and dusted. Had to stop for a few minutes and I lost the group but regrouped again after two more kilometer on the sea link. That mighty structure should have looked like the heavenly gates because it marked the end of the first half and home was just a turn away. But it was more like the gates of Mordor beyond which lay treacherous roads and chasms of pain and the gate guarded by the ever roving eye of Sauron and he was bloody eyeing my knee.
By mark twenty I lost the bus, I wasn’t going to jeopardize the rhythm by speeding up to catch up, I had my training to fall back on and I stepped away, sometimes waving and sometimes slapping high fives to fellow runners. A poster said I was running better than the government, what more goading words do you need. This was the stretch that Srini V had discussed in detail during the race plan, shaded at most times and flat, the stretch to switch guns and push a little hard. Srini V was a phenom on race day and a great mentor and coach through the season, so much to learn and unlearn by just watching him run. He knows the Mumbai course by the back of his hand and his approach as meticulous as it could ever be and he was spot on when he told the section to push would be this. I tried and could feel the pain start as niggle, this was by mark twenty two, by twenty eight I was in a whole new world of pain. The niggle started at the bottom of knee but now lay on the side and every step was a knife plunging in. OK, not a sharp knife, but sharp enough. I took walk breaks and tried running again and the pain was very much there, just present and increasing in pain, by thirty two I couldn’t fold my leg and that’s when I decided to walk out the rest. I had company though, good company. Paroma had a pretty bad spasm as well and we more or less walked the rest of the way. Those last ten kilometers was a turmoil, I saw my timing goal slip away further and further and it was back to being dogged about it and finishing the race.
I tried everything on offer to fix the pain. Sprayed pain relievers, they seemed to be scented sweet and a little too mild. I took rock sized ice cubes and froze the joint. Made an impromptu ice pack with my bandanna and tied around my knees. Tried to run once in a while only to be frowned and abandoned by the pain. We talked about a zillion things to keep motivated during the walk; we didn’t want any thought of giving up creep in. We talked about Pete Jacobs who went from winning Kona in 2012 to struggling to finish the race in 2013. His post-race interview spoke of his love for the sport and the respect it deserves to finish it, not walk away. I was here to do the same; I signed up for the experience not a timing. And we walked and walked. The aid stations were abandoned, the roads strewn with sponge, paper and plastic. Also strewn was the sweat of a thousand runners ahead of us and we were following in those footsteps. As we entered the climb on peddar road, we stopped in front of a shop and flexed our muscles at our reflections on the display window. I looked fine, the bandanna around my neck gave away my military aspirations but the biceps needed some working, jotted down that mentally and climbed and ran downhill until my knee told me to. And we walked past the left overs of cooling stations. Tower fans and ACs lining the pavement like spectators. A bus pulled up next to me, it was the bus picking runners who had stopped. They looked dejected and defeated. They shot out words of praise and encouragement even as I waved the bus away. Marine drive and the navy band were last of the bread crumbs I had to follow and one final left turn past the revolving restaurant and it was the home stretch. It felt lonely here, most of the runners, walked a little hunched, shoulders slopping down, each in their own zone. I ran a little and walked a little and the final two hundred meters picked up some left over strength and jogged across the finish. There was Neha , Ajay and Paroma to welcome me with a bear hug and tell me immediately that time was irrelevant, those were encouraging words, it made the finish effort even more sweet.
I was sad for a long time after the race, distraught and talked to Santhosh over lunch. His belief in my capability hadn’t ebbed an inch and am looking back at how things have to be rectified. I have to embrace the fact that I’m injury prone and sometime nonchalant about it. That has to change. And will. On a closing note, the effort to finish would never be possible without the training and the kinship shown by each one in RH. The coaches, the runners and the friends, heartfelt thanks to one and all. And a kudos and bow to all the runners who blazed past the finishing line. The effort and sacrifice is as gorgeous, PB, milliseconds or not.
This Mumbai wasn’t, the next one will.