SIX AND OUT

She ran her first race at 6, when she persuaded (her father) to let her enter a local 5K. Alana kept referring to the events as “carnivals,” because she was enthralled by the atmosphere: the fun and games and food vendors at the finish.

The New York Times profiling Alana Hadley, a 16 year old who is currently the top teenaged long distance runner in the United States

I am not exactly up there with this kid’s superserious standards (100 miles a week is her running schedule. To which I say ‘Mother of God!’) but whenever I have run the World 10K here in Bangalore, I have also always been blown away and enthralled by the carnival like atmosphere of the race. In fact, year after year that has been what has kept me coming back. Again. And Again.

Image

Thanks for the memories 🙂

For Six consecutive times. Intrepid Bangaloreans would come out, participants and spectators alike, and enthusiastically and tirelessly cheer each other on in a massive show of what Bangalore is all about.

I wanted my sixth edition this year to be a good race. A lot of it was in my own hands. I could train better, prepare smarter and give the race my best shot. But I let my destiny slip out of my own hands because once again, I had patchy training and almost non-existent preparation. But who needs training when the race, its participants and the absolutely amazing folks of this city are at hand to give you the requisite adrenalin?

Let me put it this way: 2013 was easily the grandest World 10K yet. Bangalore, you outdid yourself again!

* * *

With the prospect of my sixth running of the World 10K being my last (I am most likely moving out of the country this Fall), there was a certain feeling of a circle closing. Sachin Tendulkar has played six World Cups. George Lucas stopped after six episodes in the Star Wars saga. And if you go by the Biblical accounts, even God Himself rested after six days of creation.

My mind was cast back to 2008 when I was contemplating participating in the race for the first time. I was naturally apprehensive at such a long distance (for an entirely novice runner) and asked my mom about it. She promptly told me a story of how in my tiny hometown they had organized an open long distance race once;  the winner crossed the finish line and no sooner he had put his hands up in the air to celebrate than he collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. And then she helpfully added, ‘Well that was a 20k race though; you should do fine in a 10k’.

I was conflicted about whether to classify that as encouragement or aspersion casting , but then, as the saying goes – Mother knows best.

BORN TO RUN

“If you don’t think you were born to run you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”*

That race in 2008 changed everything and gave me a cherished pastime, an activity that impacts me at a fundamental level no matter how casually and intermittently I indulge in it – running. It’s the in thing, so in vogue nowadays that apparently the fitness company FITiST holds its meetings literally ‘on the run’. (Its co founder Caroline Limpert explained to the magazine ‘Fast Company’: “When you’re running, your endorphins are up, you’re out of a traditional office–out of your element. You’re able to talk about things more openly and candidly.”)

But running goes much deeper than that. Just how deep is something you’d appreciate if you read Chirstopher McDougall’s 2009 book ‘Born To Run’, where he details his experiences with a running tribe in Mexico, the Tarahumara and their astonishing ability to just run, mostly barefoot and often for days! For now, I hope this quote suffices: “There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.” (*Perceptive readers must have already noticed that the section opening quotes throughout the post are all taken from McDougall’s book.)

So it was ritual as usual for me as I woke up at 5 on a humid Bangalore Sunday morning, my alarm tone specially set as the ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme music. (Yep, I am filmy like that.) By 6:15, I was at the Kanteerva Stadium where this time there was a crucial change – this time, the Open 10k race would begin at 7:22, barely 15 minutes after the Elite women’s race (usual start time previously was 8:10 am, after the end of the Elite women’s race).

The early start meant we’d probably be able to avoid the sun for the most part. As it turned out, the 8000 odd of us running the Open 10k needn’t have worried, the cloud cover was thick enough for the sun to not show up even past 10am and these turned out to be the most humid conditions I had ever run a 10k in. As a fellow runner later commented ‘I almost thought I’d melt into a puddle.’ The gates opened at 7:20 and the rush toward the start line began.

* * * 

“You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.”

With the organizers deciding to classify us according to times taken to finish a 10K race, this time the early traffic was a wee bit better and there was no massive congestion at the start line. But as we hit the first bend out of the gate and towards the right on to Kasturba Road, the elbows started flying. Racing etiquette seemed to have been jettisoned by some of the fellow runners who could well have been enrolled for a Masters program in the Virat Kohli Institute of Subtleness and Sensitivity in Sport.

They came from all directions overtaking indiscriminately and generally disrupting rhythm without even being remotely apologetic. Granted, no one exactly takes formal running etiquette lessons to participate in the race but even common sense dictates that you do not almost punch your fellow runners in the face as you jostle for an early position. Thankfully by the first kilometer marker, like usual, the early enthusiastic crowd had stopped at the water station like a road tripper stops at a dhaba when hungry.

I was concentrating on getting into my running rhythm and as my iPhone belted out Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, the muscle memory instantly responded and I was back on familiar turf, physically and psychologically. Springsteen’s song is about greater existential angst and struggle than a mere 10k race, but somehow the urgency in his voice when he sings “…tramps like us, baby we were born to run” always eggs me on.

From my very first race I have learnt one critical lesson – the pace can wobble around in a race but you cannot let the rhythm falter. I used the idea to fashion my personal running style – relatively short steps (I do not have the calf muscles or the hamstring to take high and long strides) and an even breathing rhythm (I believe the technical term for this – I swear I found this out just today – is called breathing ‘below your aerobic threshold’). It uses up less oxygen and thus your muscles don’t tire as quickly. It has served me well everytime but this time I tried a little dare.

In Formula One parlance, this is what you would call a multi pit strategy , where you take more number of pit stops than usual but run the car harder in between the stops – burn the fuel and the tires faster – so as to achieve a greater pace. I had decided to run hard as and when I could and take quick cool down breaks before doing that again. It worked perfectly as I realized I had reached the three kilometer marker without much fuss and that too at a pace close to 11 km/hour!

* * *

“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”

Once I passed the 3k mark I picked up an Enerzal packet and the glucose brought the spring in the step back. But the mind had started playing its tricks. Anyone, especially first timers, (a one time colleague Madhu, ran the 10k purely inspired – that’s what she said! – by me!) who comes to me for running advice (Yes, I will never know why anyone would consider me worthy of dispensing advice on running!) I always tell them one simple thing – your muscles are perfectly fine with a 10k run, it is your brain that needs convincing.

The problem with our brain is that it can’t stop thinking about the elephant with the red hat precisely when you told it not to think about an elephant in a red hat. In a famous experiment about discipline, researchers gave children (aged about 4-6 years) a marshmallow and locked them in a room with the promise that if they don’t eat the marshmallow in the next twenty minutes, they will give them another marshmallow as a reward. Naturally, most kids couldn’t resist and ate the marshmallow. But some showed great self control. A follow up study apparently showed these kids went to become better achievers in life.

So, clearly discipline and Zen like mind control were important, but how did the kids manage to not eat the marshmallow? The researchers studied the video footage and found the kids were able to divert their focus on to other things and away from the marshmallow. Runners have to constantly grapple with the same thing. Thus, they will resort to a lot of things to focus attention away from paining legs and shallow breathing. For example – strumming some air guitar to their favourite AC/DC track; admiring the gait of the elite women athletes returning for their race’s home stretch on the other side of the road; looking at the antics of fellow runners, returning the smiles of the kind strangers applauding on the sidelines; maybe even a little bit of Gangnam style. (Yep, you guessed it. Yours truly is guilty as charged on all counts.)

As the race began to take its toll (the early pace was becoming difficult to sustain; it’s like having Chris Gayle blast early in the innings and then suddenly his wicket falling) by the halfway mark, I was still doing good time and I tried everything to keep the mind focused. Meanwhile there were runners overtaking me from all sides. Either I had gotten slower over the last year, or Bangalore had become faster somehow. I would soon find the answer.

* * *

“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other,… but to be with each other.”

The sixth kilometer marker which is usually near the Army Canteen opposite the Manekshaw Parade Ground brings back my fondest memory of the race over the years. In the first year as I sagged along looking as graceful as a malnourished gorilla trying to waltz, an army physical instructor was watching the race from the sidelines in his vest and shorts. He took a look at me as I was about to stop and shouted ‘Ruk kyun gaye jawan…daud daud!’ (‘Why have you stopped, young man? Run! Run!’). Maybe because he sounded a bit like my PE teacher or maybe some other complex chemical reaction his words had shaken me out of my laziness and gave my race a second wind.

This time around, while the PE teacher was not there, his words still echoed in my head as I almost stopped and a torrent of happy memories came back telling me to carry on. I saw a lady run past in a burkha. And she wasn’t being held back by her hijab, in fact she was running as superbly as any other runner I had seen in the race so far. Meanwhile another unusual runner sped past. I noticed he was running barefeet.

A critical thesis in McDougall’s book and an important debate in the world of running is whether running barefoot is better than running with shoes. As Dr. Mercer Rang, a legendary orthopedic surgeon had put it (thus setting the barefoot cat amongst the multinational running shoe industry pigeons) “Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain.” McDougall himself says on his blog “I began drilling into running-shoe research, and the further I went, the less I found. There’s nothing there. Nothing. No evidence whatsoever that running shoes do anything.”  

But while the debate rages, I wondered about our friend who had just overtaken me. Where does he have his timing chip then? Initially I couldn’t see it and assumed what any normal human being who watches a lot of Hollywood sci fi trash would assume – it had been implanted inside his foot!  The answer turned out to be different but fascinating – he was holding on to the timing chip between his big toe and the adjacent toe! The burkha lady and the barefoot runner’s presence reminded me of the race’s all inclusive spirit.

And it also reminded me that it was time to make a push for the final frontier. I hit the tar running as the iPhone playlist cued ‘Burning Heart’ from the Rocky IV soundtrack. ‘In the warrior’s code, there is no surrender…’ went the classic 80s tune. I was still doing great on time but I suddenly remembered my own motto – it was never about the time. It was about the will and commitment to finish the race, come what may.

* * *

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked.”

Things seemed to be heading swimmingly as I went past the seventh km marker (the real race begins now, is what I always say), the place where I had found myself horribly behind schedule in the last race. I pushed on till the next half a kilometer or so but the feet seemed to be giving away. In fact as we approached the Vidhan Soudha, everyone seemed to be having the same reaction that lawmaking seems to have when it reaches the Assembly – everyone was slowing down.

It is always the most brutal stretch of the 10k race, like that purgatory that Dante had to cross to get through Hell and ascend into Paradise. I hobbled and made it to the 8k mark. A lady and her 3 year old daughter waved and applauded. I returned a tired smile and picked myself up with more pace. Let’s bring this race home. Just then, sort of like how Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing was damaged in the second Grand Prix of the year, the sole of my right shoe came clean off. There was no time to waste in sole-searching. I yanked it off the shoe and deposited it into the nearest dustbin. It looked like I had to finish the race without the right sole but amazingly I hardly felt any different. Like Raikkonen’s expert manouvre of driving the car till the next pit stop with a broken wing, I had also decided to go on.

The 9k marker went past. I saw someone on the sidewalk being attended to by medical staff for cramps. I felt a pang of immense sadness; his dream of finishing the race cruelly cut short less than a kilometer from the finish. But nothing prepared me for what I saw 200 meters ahead. On my left was a runner (mid thirties perhaps) lying flat on his back being tended to by the meds treating him for what appeared like a heat stroke and just ahead on my right was another runner (mid forties I suppose) being administered CPR. My heart almost stopped.

But there was really nothing I could do. I worked hard to block the sights out of my mind and slowed myself down. The last 300 meters. I knew now that I will finish this easily within the one hour barrier. But I had set my sights on my best time ever at the World 10K. As my breath came back I sprinted with the long strides, the high knees, the Jamaican flair – the whole shebang. A minute later I was at the finish waving to the photographers. I did a Ronaldo. I did a Messi. And about another three dozen sports celebrations.

Because I had just finished the race in my fastest timing ever (official records would put it at 56:46). This is that moment when the pain and every other hurdle seems worth it. The iPhone almost presciently had started playing Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’. And that’s exactly what the Runners High is.

I would later find that my best time wasn’t good enough to give me a rank better than the previous year thus confirming my suspicion that Bangalore had indeed gotten faster. Everyone ran an absolutely amazing race and at times like this the ranking does not truly matter. You just feel privileged that you could give the last race your best shot and ran with folks who were so competitive yet encouraging at every step.

I will, of course, continue running. Just that the Bangalore 10K might not be on my list due to limitations of geography. But the race will always remain special. Because it was in this race that a novice and naïve runner learned whatever ropes he knows about running. Because this is where I have seen and met some of the most amazing and inspirational people, all bound together by their sheer love of running; people who embody the idea “We were born to run; we were born because we run.” And no amount of thanks to those anonymous folks and the volunteers who make this magic possible will suffice,

Because, for me, this is where it all began. 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “SIX AND OUT

  1. Vikash

    Superb Blog Sir!

  2. Simply amazing blog sirji ….!!!!

  3. Had a gr8 time in the race too, similar experience especially in the first 3 kms, at one point i literally ran into a group of ppl who were ‘walking’ mind you in a line, and i just went nuts running at the end when i saw the finishing marker. You Blog above is excellent and transported me back to Sunday, well captured !

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