RUNS AND RUSE

“A runner must run with dreams in his heart, not money in his pocket.” – Emil Zatopek

It's only the pain that goes away

EARLY IN the morning on Sunday, June 5, Baba Ramdev and his supporters were not the only ones on the run in India. 22,000 intrepid and enthusiastic Bangaloreans were also running although for entirely different reasons and motivation. The TCS World 10k generated an overwhelming as ever and as in the past 3 editions, yours truly was also a part of the thrill known as the 10k road race.

This IAAF Gold Label road race is a matter of pride for the city and personally it has been an experience I have looked forward to every year since I made the leap of faith in 2008 with the inaugural edition hobbling across the finish line in about an hour and eight minutes. A lot though has changed since then.

Heck, a lot had changed since I had run the race last year. For starters, the title sponsor of the race had changed. And India weren’t World Cup cricket champions yet, nobody had really heard of Anna Hazare, Osama Bin Laden was still alive and I was as yet oblivious to secrets and power of the pranayama or ancient breathing exercises. But as I would later disappointingly discover, none of these epochal events would have much of an impact on my race. To paraphrase Led Zeppelin, ‘the race remains the same’. It’s you against the road, as you pound down on it and it pounds back measure for measure. Like a heavyweight boxing bout, it’s about who outlasts who. And that is why finishing every race is special.

IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP

I had gone into this year’s race with dismal preparation. In the weeks leading up to the event, I wouldn’t have clocked a total running practice of 10km let alone 10km at one go. Essentially I would be relying on muscle memory and the phenomenon known as the runner’s high. As I went into the runners’ holding area about an hour ahead of the race, I looked around to size up the competition. There were the usual suspects – jawans from an army police training camp (whose commanding officer asked me how we were supposed to get on to the track and to the start line. When I told him we have to wait for the gates to open and patiently get out there without causing a stampede, he promptly asked his jawans to jump the 8 feet high fence around the perimeter of the stadium!), die hards from running groups like Runners For Life and another gang called the Chennai Runners, huge corporate contingents from companies such as E&Y, Net App, Northern Trust and more, foreigners who had traveled huge distances like the gentleman from Japan who had run the Tokyo Marathon and was in India on assignment with a Japanese MNC (his story was touching, he was running to help the pain serve as a reminder of the disaster of the earthquake and tsunami), teenagers, septuagenarians (Mr. Janardhan was the one I met, a sprightly man of 75 looking fitter than most of us around and running in feet shaped shoes because he earnestly believes that running effectively barefeet is the best technique, multinational footwear brands be damned) and every age bracket in between. Some were more enthused about the occasion and ambience than the race per se as evidenced by their carrying about 50 times their body weight in photography equipment and happily clicking away at everything. But one thing was clear, this field was quite serious about their business of running generally. Their quiet kind of determination was perhaps the indicator of a brutally competitive race ahead.

Having polled people over Twitter as to what should go into my raceday playlist, I had loaded up on AC/DC for the pump and the push and slipped in some Rocky OST as a failsafe. And as the clock struck eight and the gates opened for the start line, the mad rush and the 2011 World 10k Bangalore had gotten underway. Like always it was quite a commotion to begin with, every runner jostling for his or her place on the track as we headed towards the starting point near the exit. Everyone was so cramped for space, we were practically walking. In the sea of 7,500 odd runners, there were Gul Panag and Rahul Bose also hidden in there somewhere (Gul Panag would later tweet that a lot of shoving was going on among runners to get between her and the camera that was covering her!) but the race was what was paramount in my mind.

AC/DC’s ‘Thuderstruck’ got me started as the feet tasted the feel of tarmac after the first bend out of the stadium. The conditions initially looked great – overcast conditions, no sun and a light breeze with mild temperatures. Little was I to know that I should have thought about the humidity as well. As I struggled to find a place to peacefully run in (Runners always look for a certain amount of space around while running to get into a rhythm. If there’s too much commotion and zig zag motions going on it’s hard to do that and you struggle for a groove.) the contingent hit the 1 kilometer marker. I checked the time – 6 minutes. Not a good start. AC/DC reminded me that ‘It’s a Long Way To the Top’.

WHO MADE WHO

Till the first kilometer marker in a 10k race is all fun and frolic where runners share a joke or two, and maybe even tie each other’s shoe laces. But the business end begins as the 2nd kilometer starts. By the 2nd km, the running ‘space’ starts emptying up, and finally you can find your groove. In this race too, it was pretty much the same story as we headed towards Anil Kumble circle with the field thinning and spreading out and open spaces becoming available. To make sure that I make good pace and don’t slack off, I chose a marker. Typically, a marker should be another runner of the opposite sex who you find ravishingly good looking and maintaining good pace and rhythm. Ha ha, I am kidding of course, just good looking is enough! Anyway, jokes apart I chose a lady from decathlon, the sports company who was so far running an inch perfect race in the fluorescent dri-fit t shirt which said at the back – ‘Decathlon – we recruit only the sports passionate’.

There’s some backstory about this recruiting the sports passionate that I must give you though. A friend of mine works for the company in marketing. Apparently his interview was not in the usual cabin/conference room setting but was a full 10k race with the CEO! Being as fit as a fiddle, he got the job easy, but I was just wondering if there’s a question in the interview which says – where do you see yourself 45 minutes from now? And the trick answer to ace the interview is – ‘Um, at the finish line’! With a steady rhythm I continued tailing Decathlon lady as we hit the first water station and the usual ritual of loading up on enough water to make putting mobile toilets along the route worthwhile began from the participants.

Now here’s a chicken and egg question. What gives up first in a race? The body? Or the mind? Running, I have always believed is quite a mental sport and as Ian Chappell so brilliantly puts it in a recent column of his about retirement, “Whenever the conversation turns to ageing batsmen and retirement, there’s much conjecture about what goes first, the eyes or the legs. In reality, it’s usually the mind.” My mind was tiring faster on this humid day than my muscles and a weird kind of fatigue set in by the time the 4th kilometer marker was in sight. I was still quite in sync with Decathlon lady, but the gap was imperceptibly increasingly every passing step. The disorientation caused by the 3km marker being placed after the 4km marker did not help matters, either.

Physical exhaustion you can overcome with a swig of an isotonic drink or two but when the mind weakens even the isotonic drink starts tasting sour like it did when I laboured till the halfway mark. I had slowed down to walk by then, a cardinal sin in a race like this (you should always keep a running rhythm even if you are very slow) and a fellow runner tapped me on the back and declared rather tersely, if you have to walk keep to the left. It was the exact wake up call I needed. Needled by his remark, I suddenly picked up pace and ran overtaking 20 odd runners in 100 meter stretch. After even the voters in West Bengal had decided not to keep left, I was in no mood either. It was now a question of whether the body can make the mind believe again or will the tired mind shut out the body. There were only about 3.5 kilometers left in the race to find the answer to the question as to ‘Who made who’?

I GET KNOCKED DOWN, BUT I GET UP AGAIN…

I passed the 7th km, usually the spot where the agony hits a peak and makes you curse the moment you registered for the race. But I had kept on running, stopping for a couple of seconds for a bit of water. In the meantime, regrettably, I had lost sight of Decathlon lady who by then I guessed would have been a half a kilometer ahead. There were no annoying cheerleaders this time along the roads but there were these indefatigable drummers who beat up quite a rhythm that drowned the beats of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ that had just kicked in at the opportune moment on my shuffled playlist. All the runners were squeezed into the narrow road in front of Vidhan Soudha, thanks to the metro construction, but thankfully the field was thinned out enough and there were no jams as everyone desperately searched for the second wind that will glide us over the finish line. I crossed the 8thkilometer and then a while later came on to a 8th km marker again! Cheating, I called out to the runner on my right, that should be 9! He admitted that the signage had been weird and disorienting. Spirit fast draining I realized I had about 5 minutes to make it through the last kilometer, but it turned out to be the proverbial Longest Yard as the body convulsed.

I desperately searched for inspiration from anything I could and suddenly lessons of my pranayama classes flashed back to mind. To use more of your lung capacity, the instructor had mentioned, you should take ‘ujjayi’ breaths – deep, I mean really deep breaths which take in a lot of air. I tried the tactic and it provided some relief. If only I’d thought about it a little earlier! Breathing in a rhythm that can best be placed somewhere in between ‘panting like a dig with the tongue out’ and ‘ujjayi’, I finally made it past the finish line with the sinking feeling that I had missed the 1 hour mark. One look at the stopwatch confirmed my worst fears, it said 1:01:12!

No one likes climbing down from their own benchmarks (mine has been to do the 10k under 60 minutes – have done it thrice!), and for a moment I was crushed, but I soon realized that the runner’s high is not about timing, it’s about finishing. And I had just finished a great race in trying conditions. Rather than feel disappointed like a batsman who just got out agonizingly short of a milestone, I should be feeling like Sehwag, the sheer thrill of having batted with such gay abandon. I must thank every single person who has encouraged me through the race, whether it was my near and dear and loved ones, my friends, colleagues, friends on twitter, friends on Facebook (even friends on Orkut!) or the runners who were strangers but helped me along the way with an appreciative pat on the back, a high five or the spectators who tirelessly applauded the runners or the volunteers who handed out the water and energy drinks. And of course, the unbelievable fellow runners who ran so well and so hard. Every bit of that goes into making running the race so special.

As I crossed the finish line, I saw a spectator hold out a sign ‘It’s only the pain that goes away’. I smiled at him and applauded in his direction and shook hands. He was right indeed. The high stays forever. The timing is just a number!

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