‘Nobody said it was easy; nobody said, no one ever said it would be this hard / Oh, take me back to the start’ – Coldplay, ‘The Scientist’
IT TAKES much more than blood, sweat and tears to finish a race. That was the first thought that crossed my mind as I stood beyond the finish line of the TCS World 10K waiting to collect my finisher’s medal. This was my fifth running of the World 10K in Bangalore in the Open 10K category. I have been a part of the race since its inception and it’s been an incredible experience every single time. In a year, when Bollywood had already released a movie (Paan Singh Tomar) on a middle distance runner and there was another in the works (The Milkha Singh biopic ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ starring Farhan AKhtar), it seemed very appropriate that Bangaloreans ran a mean race with the enthusiasm and determination that makes this race one among the six 10K road races worldwide to receive the prestigious IAAF Gold Label.
As every year, raceday morning meant I was as excited as a kid at a candy store about taking up my position at the start line but running a race of any length required more than just showing up and running. It needed a bit of preparation, if not outright ‘Rocky’ like training montages spread over your life’s movie script, it demanded discipline, it demanded determination and grit when the going got tough under the blazing sun near that 6th kilometer marker, in needed concentration so that you don’t end up spending your entire race ogling at the Timex cheerleaders on the 4th, 7th and 9th kilometer marker and above all, it needed childlike enthusiasm – you had to just keep on running (to put a running spin on Van Halen’s ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’ – ‘…can’t stop running through…no matter what you say or do…I can’t stop running through’) come hell, high weather, imbalanced runners falling over, or mother and son crossing the street in your way.
Sunday, 27 May 2012, 8:52 AM, Cubbon Road, The 7th Kilometer marker of the Open 10K Race
I looked at my stopwatch. The number startled me. 44 minutes past since I had started the race. Having navigated tight corners (at speed’s considerably slower than Lewis Hamilton!) and congested running spaces I had quite eventlessly made it this far into the Open 10K run and as I caught sight of the 7th km marker, I was contemplating whether to pick up pace for the final push. The stopwatch screamed out a resounding yes! In trying to keep my pace even early on in the race, I had probably taken it a bit too easy and now suddenly I was left with barely a quarter of an hour in which to finish the home stretch of the last 3 kilomenters if I was to stick to my target of 60 minutes to complete the race. I looked to the left and saw a bunch of costumed drummers picking up the beat and pushed hard ahead. There was a middle aged gentleman next to the drummers, sitting exhausted on the pavement, fatigue getting the better of him on a hot day as a policeman advised him to take it easy and breathe slowly. I tried to cheer him up saying ‘don’t give up’ and clapping in his direction. He waved me on as if to say ‘You carry on’. I sped ahead, but niggling at the back of my mind was the thought as to how on earth had I set the slowest pace for 7km in this race since my first run in 2008.
15 minutes earlier, the 5th Kilometer marker
I squeezed in between two fellow runners picking up Gatorade at the drinks station and picked up a bottle and grabbed a bottle of water. The volunteer took some Gatorade powder and poured it in, half of it landing on my fist. This pretty much summed up how tight things had been thus far. Everything seemed to be going on in slow motion. We had been running for almost half an hour and for some reason this year the route appeared narrower than the previous times. Blame it on the poor roads or the metro constructions, but the truth was that the largest ever running contingent to have turned out for the Open 10K was squeezed into alleyways that were barely half a roadlength wide. This had dramatically altered the dynamics of the race. Usually by the halfway mark, you expect the field to seriously thin out opening up a lot of space that you can use to accelerate. This time there were hardly any such avenues visible. As we reached 5km, I checked the time and did a double take. 32 minutes! I was being unusually slow. On my iPod, as usual, the shuffled playlist had decided to uncannily mix and match the songs in a prescient order and now played ‘The Final Countdown’. Joey Tempest’s voice sang ‘With so many light years to go, and things to be found…it’s the final countdown’ I wondered if it was a plea to me to start the final countdown of speeding up in this ho hum race thus far. Joey was right on both counts – we still technically had 0.00000000000053 Light Years to go and things to be found, like realizing at the 7km mark that I was running alarmingly late.
35 minutes earlier, the starting gate
The elite women athletes had just been flagged off for their race and then the gates of the holding areas for the Open 10K runners were thrown open. A mad dash followed towards the starting gate and those of us in the ‘C’ holding area (the area had been separated into A, B and C based on previous year’s timings with A holding the fastest runners and having the privilege of getting on to the track first) were left way behind as 8,000 odd runners jostled for position. An enthusiastic gentleman shouted ‘All the Best’ in the general direction of the runners as I remarked to my fellow runner moving at snail’s pace towards the gate ‘I hope we make it to the start before tomorrow’. By the time we reached the start line it was eight minutes past eight. Now, I don’t spell my name as ‘TTaareque Laskr’ or have Sanjay Jumani on my speed dial list, but even then I couldn’t help but be amused by my start time 08:08:08! The 10K race was underway! Well, the 10K walk was underway, anyway. The initial stretch was packed worse than the last BMTC bus from Majestic on a Sunday night during an auto strike and there was no question of thinking about setting pace or hitting a rhythm. The madness continued till the 1km marker, where, thanks in part to the water station, there was finally a possibility of breathing fresh air. I decided to skip the first water station (I always do) and concentrated on finding my ‘racing stride’ – otherwise defined as short, even paced strides to be maintained throughout the race without breaking the rhythm. This is critical when you need to change pace later in the race and this time I was focused on making sure that I don’t ruin the rhythm and had gas left in the tank for the acceleration in the later stages. In earlier races, I had always found that once runners hit the 3rd km stretch a lot of them tire and start falling behind. This year with the sun blazing down as we ran on to M G Road and then turned into FM Cariappa road, there was no sign of that. Every runner seemed to be full of energy and bounced around like a kid on a hyper sugar rush. While I felt proud that Bangalore was running such a spirited race, I also knew this meant bad news – no chance to break out anytime soon. It was like being part of a pack in a stage of the Tour De France; short of a disruption, there was no way you could break away. While it may have been a bit too packed for my comfort and the turns and corners seemed to be getting even more packed as we went on, I was still feeling pretty good about the race. I had maintained a smooth pace almost coming up halfway to the race and in any of my earlier races, hadn’t felt this comfortable. Disappointingly, my stopwatch at the 5km marker gave me the real reason why I was feeling so snug – I was going too slow!
8:56 AM, In front of Vidhan Soudha, The 8th Kilometer marker
The congested start, the lack of space to speed up, and general lethargy had left me precariously poised as I turned the 7km marker with 45 minutes gone on my clock. I seriously doubted my ability to finish this race within the targeted time. But luckily, my slow start had meant that I had some gas left in the tank and as a Nike banner I saw at the 3rd kilometer had said ‘The only fuel you need is you’. I stepped on the gas. My shuffled playlist swung into action too, hitting up AC/DC’s ‘It’s a long way to the top’ on the iPod. I overtook a few runners zigging and zagging through the now relatively thinned out field. I decided to skip the water stations for the sake of time and as I surged ahead I saw that on the right, there was a Swiss family – the mom and two lovely kids – who cheered me on with, of all things, a cow bell! I clapped and cheered in their direction and felt a fresh surge of energy as the 9th kilometer marker came in sight. The iPod had pretty much read my mind and cued up Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. ‘Just a man and his will to survive…’ ‘…out in the heat Hangin’ tough, stayin’ hungry’ – the lines fit the mood perfectly. Another fellow runner, Sanket, said he’d been preparing for the run watching ‘Rocky’. Somehow, the song and the film had an unknown force that was instantly inspiring. As I crossed 9km, I wanted a strong finish and the sight of an elderly couple excitedly cheering everyone on gave me the impetus to call on my last reserves of energy on a hot and sapping day to dash to the finish line. A young girl held out a sign – ‘to us, you’re all Kenyans’. I felt flattered, clapped out in her direction and kept running as we approached the corporation circle. 500 meters to go.
The last half a kilometer can easily feel the longest of the race with your legs giving away, your breathing becoming shallow and mental fatigue setting in. But I had been here enough number of times to know how to keep going. Two volunteers came running out and ran either side of our group of 5 odd runners to the finish line. Their selfless act and pace was the last bit of inspiration that propelled me over the finish line. I looked up at the giant timer clock – 9:08 AM. Exactly an hour! And incredibly, the last 3 kms covered in an astonishing 14 minutes! I exulted as if I was Dale Steyn who’d just shattered Chris Gayle’s stumps (RCB fans, please don’t kill me – that was just the first though that entered my head!). The feeling I was experiencing is known in running circles as the ‘runner’s high’ – the sheer excitement of finishing a race. The adrenalin rush is unparalleled and pride and happiness ran through my veins, not just for having completed the race but for being part of city that showed so much support to this terrific event, whether as the spectators or the competitors. Every intrepid runner, every indefatigable spectator and every relentless volunteer deserves the credit for putting the Gold in this Gold Label race. Like another Nike banner said somewhere in the middle of the race – ‘Pains are the wages for running. But the hours are good.’ And ‘Pain earned is pain enjoyed.’
EPILOGUE: You’re The Inspiration
Often people have asked me – why do you do these runs? I mostly have given them the Edmund Hillary like ‘Because it’s there’ answer. But I have realized over the years that such runs and their completion gives me a great memorized reservoir of positive energy that I can call on in difficult times. I cherish every experience because it makes you feel special for yourself and cultivates respect for your fellow runners and those that cheer you on even if they don’t know you. Every single such moment is an instant fill of inspiration I have on tap any time.
And that’s when I realize that things like timings and positions do not really matter. The running conditions, the congestion, the chaos doesn’t matter. The spirit does! And all of that comes from before the starting line. At the starting line I met a gentleman, 70 years old young and he’d written on his bib – ‘Strength doesn’t come from physical ability…it comes from indomitable will. I will never be an old man. Old age is always 15 years later than I am!’ That is what keeps me coming back for more. And that’s why my first thought at crossing the finish line was – It takes much more than blood, sweat and tears to finish a race. It needs the encouragement all of you, my dear friends, readers, well –wishers, TCSWorld10K’s official twitter account (following and retweeting you), and the strangers who so selflessly lend their cheering hand at every point in the race. And I always feel obliged to repay by running a happy and successful race that in some tiny measure I hope becomes an inspiration. Because, why should I only have the access to this reservoir of positive energy finishing each race creates. I want you to be able to dip in too. And that is why these blog entries. The entries are not meant to brag, only to share the spirit and excitement that I feel you deserve a part of. Thank you for being my fuel. I inspired a colleague, Sudip, to run the race (well, at least he says I was the inspiration J) this year and he finished in 65 minutes. I cannot even begin to describe how pumped he was! And those are the kind of moments you live for. Well, running away isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be after all! And for all of you reading this and thinking of giving this a shot, I quote a Nike banner again – Never try. Never know.
As I left the arena after collecting the medal and refreshments and helping a few people capture photographs with their pals (one guy Santhosh, returned me the favour and took the photo featured in this blog and mailed it to me from his iPhone!), I reflected on how wonderful it has been running 5 straight races at this World 10K. And I know I will be back for more.
I’ll let Nike (no, I am not endorsing them but they did have some kickass banners all through the race that gave me a new kind of inspiration this time) have the last word – Runs end. Running doesn’t.