NO, I AM not referring to a certain west Asian country the way the US president George W Bush does. I am talking about the fact that I ran the World 10K race in Bangalore that elicited fantastic response from the city which suddenly woke up to a new passion – running. Sport wise, running is the most raw, basic, natural and not to mention cheapest one to take up. All you need is a will and a pair of decent shoes and you can be off! There’s no need for sophisticated training (everyone can run, it’s basic instinct!) and the best part is that running is not so much about competing against others as it about competing against yourself. The will power, determination and tenacity required to overcome your own shenanigans are much more important than turning the tables on a bunch of competitions. And if you are part of a race like the Open 10k (10Km run), the competition is secondary. Everyone is determined to finish the race battling fatigue, heat and 12,000 other people getting in their way. Yes, running is a challenge any fit enough Tom, Dick, Harry or Dino can take up.
Around the finishing stretch of my very first long runAfter having seen the first ad, I suddenly had the urge to register my name for the race on a whim and a prayer. I had not run, at one stretch, even about 2km in my life, much less 10. But that didn’t deter me from going ahead and putting my name in. Of course, there were just two weeks left to the event and I realised if I had to get out of the ordeal alive, I needed some training, however rudimentary. That evening I ventured out to the nearest sports showroom, and tested the saleswoman’s patience as I went hunting for a proper ‘running’ shoe. I was asking for options as if I was an Ethiopian long distance runner. Of course when they quoted the price, I realized the only thing Ethiopian about me was my income, woefully insufficient to fund what looked like shoes right out of ‘Star Trek’. I was almost tempted to ask if they had anything that would help me fly! Nevertheless, in about an hour, I had a new pair of shoes and a running T-shirt (I bought one that boldly said ‘RUN’ in red on the front – just for effect!). Now only if I could get up early enough in the morning to do what my T-shirt said. Luckily, the next morning I did. I planned a regime (well, at least that’s how I made it appear) to increase distances over the two weeks and get as close to 10Km as possible. After two weeks (well actually more like 6-7 days since the others I decided to take ‘rest’) I had barely touched about 3 to 3.5 km. Not bad, I thought, at least I won’t collapse till the first 2 miles! Race Day arrived and I reached the stadium early.
Our race (the Open category) had a 9AM start and the weather was impeccably clear, the sun blazing hot. My heart sank as I checked out the route map for the umpteenth time. In fact, I had gotten so obsessed with runs and maps, that any map I saw reminded me of running. A colleague of mine handed me her engagement invite, which had a route map of how to get to the venue. I kept staring at it and wondered about the distance and how much time it would take to run it! So, finally the time had almost come, for the race. I waited with bated breath in our ‘holding’ area and tried to strike up some conversation with my fellow runners. We watched from close proximity the dead heat in the women’s race where the first two runners breasted the tape at exactly the same time (32:02). One guy forgot safety pins and didn’t know how to fix his bib no. I lent him one of mine and wished him the best of luck. Another British gentleman was making his dog fetch a tennis ball, and an American woman was fixing her iPod on. I fixed mine too; at least that would be my ‘performance enhancing drug’ through the race. Another Belgian expat, Jenny, working here at an IT major asked for the map from me and after checking it suggested that we run till the halfway point and take an auto rickshaw from thereon! She lamented that there was no one she knew well here and hence no name and number she can put in as emergency contact on the back of her running bib. She was still upbeat claiming ‘I am not quite planning to die today so I should make it quite OK to the finish line.’ Encouraging words indeed, Ms. Jenny!
THE START LINE
The starting line was buzzing with people lined end to end in a sea, well a big sized lake anyway, of humanity. The digital clock on the starting gate inched towards 9AM, the scheduled start and spontaneously the crowd started an impromptu countdown with 10 seconds left. 10…9…8…finally the moment it struck 9 (well, digital clocks can’t really strike, but I guess you get the idea!) everyone erupted. The 10k race had begun and it took me about a couple of minutes to cross the starting line in the melee. Great! Only 10 kilometers left!
The first kilometer was all about fun and frolic. Everyone started at a gentle pace not exerting themselves too much (just as the race guides had suggested) and talking to each other as they tried to jostle into a position where they’d not be cornered by the hordes of other runners. Some preferred the sidewalk; I enjoyed the feel of tarmac under my shoe sole. The sun was beating down at its hottest this Bangalore summer and I tried hard not to think about the remaining 90% of the race under the same conditions. My iPod played some retro Hindi number, but I was too excited to notice, because about 5 minutes into the race, I had spotted the first kilometer marker.
Things calmed down for sometime as the runners decided to take water breaks (there was a water station near the first km marker). I refrained partly because I wanted to look a little macho, and partly because I thought it was not a good idea to drink water too soon. Moreover, this stretch was mostly covered in shade thanks to the trees that line up the street near Cubbon Park and the Chinnaswamy Stadium. That made this the easiest stretch of the race. The picturesque setting around and the two female runners trudging alongside also made it the most pleasant. As I approached the next water station, I got tempted enough to pick up a bottle of water, but then proceeded to empty it on my head in anticipation of the stretch ahead.
By the time the 2nd km marker was crossed we (me and about 12,000 other runners!) had hit Cubbon Road, which ran parallel to MG Road. This was a road not blessed with foliage as the earlier stretch and the first signs of fatigue set in for everybody. The pace slowed quite a bit, although everyone kept running. I took a couple of swigs from the water bottle and proceeded to play around with the empty container to keep my mind off the fact that there (to paraphrase Robert Frost) were miles (well about 4 and a 1/2 miles, actually) to go before I finish this 10k run!
This was when I saw the first group of true ‘spectators’ for the race. Earlier stretches were dotted by sponsored teams of ‘cheerleaders’ (dangerous term to use, this!) but here were ordinary folks lined up along with families egging and cheering the runners on. They clapped as I ran past (I had consciously changed my style to that of a ‘leaping gazelle’ to make sure I look good while running that stretch!) and I put up a hand in acknowledgement. At last, here was something that had never happened in my pathetic public displays of sporting prowess earlier – somebody was clapping for me! My heart leapt and for a moment I was oblivious to the fact that the race isn’t even halfway through and the temperature had touched 32 degrees; my heart beat about three times that!
Since the day I managed to lay my hands on the race route map, I had one simple target. Even if I never complete the entire race I had to get till the stretch which went by the Ulsoor Lake. It was, as I had imagined, a fantastic setting. The lake ran by your right side, trees covered almost the entire road providing welcome relief from the sun (there was at least a 5 degree temperature difference, I am certain) as residents with houses facing the lake suspended their Sunday routine for once to gawk at the runners. I noticed an American gentleman, beer can in hand, by the lake ushering on some sort of ‘teammates’ of his. It later transpired (after I spoke to him post the race) that he was B J Conley from Atlanta who’d been also running the race along with members of a running group named ‘Greater Bangalore Hash Harriers’. In Mr. Conley’s words theirs was a ‘Drinking group with a running problem’ and he himself had taken a detour after the third kilometer to hunt for beer at a convenience store. As luck would have it, he did find a shop and bought the beer (even though it was warm). And he was not cheering his club mates; he was convincing them to drink the warm beer! Much about the group’s philosophy later came to light when I noticed their T-shirts proclaiming ‘Water is good. Beer is better!’ Speaking of which, I badly needed some hydration myself.
Just as I crossed the halfway point of the race, I was surprised at my own ability to have held up thus far. This was beyond anything I had done in my ‘training’ and my body started registering its surprise and repulsion. I took water again from the nearest station. The sun was getting hotter; the field spreading thinner. Suddenly, I felt alone in the race as runners sprinted past. I composed myself and luckily my iPod belting out Avril Lavigne’s latest hit helped me pick up the tempo. I noticed bunch of people in white T-shits that identified them as employees of FCB Ulka, the ad agency. The T-Shirt said on the front ‘They say usually the clients make the agency run’ and on the back ‘They Were right!’. Humored, but spirit dipping fast I concentrated harder on my feet hitting the tarmac and carrying me faster. The build up of lactic acid in the muscles deprived them of oxygen and it suddenly was an uphill struggle. Two Wipro runners ‘Running for the spirit of Wipro’ ran past, as did couple of young kids, followed by a huge team from Thompson Reuters. Before half of corporate India left me behind and the phrase ‘Kya aap Paanchvi Pass se tez hain’ took on a whole new meaning, I decided it was time to step on the gas.
My muscles were almost giving up, especially the calf muscles, and for the first time in the race I was genuinely tired. We had hit the return stretch of our route and it was back on the unforgivingly shade free Cubbon Road. The sun at about 9:45 AM wasn’t the most pleasant either. The iPod belted out Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’. Strains of Turner’s classic song egged me on as I slowed down to catch my breath—I had to at least prove to myself that I was the best. From one of the army offices that line Cubbon Road, a banyan clad officer shouted out ‘Ruk kyon gaya Jawan! Daud! Daud! (Why have you stopped young man? Run! Run!). The stimulant was enough to push me over the seven kilometer marker where I switched roles and became the motivator as I pushed a fellow competitor along. “Only Three more kilometers buddy! Let’s go!” I told him as we high fived.
As we approached Cubbon Park for the home stretch, the tiredness only swelled, making my water breaks more frequent. I had one eye on the watch and I realised I needed to hurry if I had to complete the race within the 70 minute limit I had set myself. The field had spread really thin by now and there were no strangers to motivate or high five. I offered water to a fellow struggling behind and saw a photographer ahead. Alas, by the time I was in the sights of his camera, he’d run out of memory! We crossed the High Court with more bewildered souls looking at tired, sweating and panting set of runners with an Ambulance honking behind. Hopefully, I won’t need that today, I thought. The song on my iPod was ‘Suicide Blonde’ by INXS. If running 10k on a hot Sunday morning with barely any training for no joy at all wasn’t suicidal, I don’t know what is! Or, maybe there was some joy after all…
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s statue pointing the way forward became the inspiration for this last stretch till the finish. You walk two kilometers everyday before breakfast, I told myself and pushed myself to carry on. Well, I actually do walk 2km before breakfast, mainly because I walk to my office every morning and catch the first meal of the day there. The body felt like it was about to fall apart, but the mind leapt up in the knowledge that the finish line is barely a kilometer away. I could already hear the blaring music from the Kanteerva Stadium where we were supposed to finish. ’18 till I die’ sang Bryan Adams on my iPod. As I crossed the 9 km mark, I felt young again.
I ran, and I ran and I ran. As hard as I could at this point and managed to overtake about 30 runners in the process. A gentleman came on to the road off the sidewalk and high fived me with the finish line about 500 meters away. The thrill was indescribable. It was pain and pleasure all rolled into one. Much like ‘Bad Medicine’ which Bon Jovi was singing on my iPod! I dashed the final 200 meters, worn out calf muscles and paining ankles be damned! The cameras lined up at the finish line and I spontaneously held up the victory sign for them as I reached the finish gate with the event crew cheering on. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a hero. What position I finished, you ask? No idea! Maybe 2,000th or 2,300th or 3,500th. I had no clue. But I knew this much – I had completed the 10k race (completed!) and the time was 1 hour 8 minutes. Being the mathematically minded geek that I am, I calculated that my finish time would surely be above the median finish time. I had done it! A race which nobody (including myself) honestly thought I’d complete had been conquered, and in decent time!
BEYOND THE FINISH LINE
After the finish and the exhilaration came the bureaucracy. I had to report to the refreshment counter to collect my ‘refreshments’ (water and some biscuits courtesy the main sponsor) and then proceed for the snaking queue waiting for the participation certificate. I met Jenny again and told her, ‘Well done! Still standing.’ She congratulated me in return. None of us had exactly died and we had made it to the finish, and now we had the documentation to prove it! Feeling proud would be natural and I did feel proud—of having completed the race in one working piece, of my fellow runners who were genial and generous all the way, of the city which had responded brilliantly to the event and made it one to remember, of the event crew who’d probably run a few km everyday themselves as they set the logistics of this in order and lastly of the human spirit which is indefatigable and incredible. What else can explain the motivation of those who ran the race on that Sunday morning? In a world where truly pure spirited good moments are hard to come by, this Sunday morning had translated to a host of them for me and hopefully all my fellow runners from Bengaluru city. Here’s a huge shout out to everyone! And yes, marathon…here I come 😉