MAD MAXES: THE FURY ROAD RUNNERS

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Valar Gelyni. Which, translated from it original High Valyrian means “All (wo)men must finish.” Ok, I just made that up. But to participate in and conquer a road race like Bangaloreans do with aplomb each year at the World 10K does require you to have the a training scheme to rival the planning acumen of Littlefinger, a contempt for laziness rivalling Cersei Lannister, a determination to overcome every weakness a la Tyrion Lannister, the adaptability to the conditions of a Jamie Lannister and the gumption and ambition of Arya Stark. And still, despite your best laid plains vetted by Lord Varys himself, the moment your shoe sole hits the tarmac, the course seems to scream back at you – ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow!’

Whether you are a seasoned runner who has been training in the punishing heat in Delhi, or a regular at Cubbon Park who decided that for a change this Sunday, let’s put on a bib with a number on it and run with 25,000 others or the casual runner who is testing waters or the hipster who was just told ‘You know what is cooler than a hipster beard? Running with a hipster beard!’ all of us have our reasons to run. I have been a part of this race since its inception in 2008 and have seen it grow tremendously. Yet, everytime I walk into the holding area before the race I get a distinct vibe that everyone is just as agog as they were during their first time. It gets me everytime, like some familiar movie trope that always makes you smile or brings a twinkle to your eye.

Last year, at the starting line Carl Lewis, the race ambassador (this year’s was Marie Jose Perec) flagged us off and waved at every Open 10K participant as we crossed the start marker. If someone had told me back in 1988 when one afternoon I strained to listen to the radio in my grandparents’ courtyard, trying to follow the Seoul Olympics 100 meters race, that I would be flagged off by Carl Lewis in a road race about a quarter of a century later I certainly would not have believed them. I had never considered running seriously until I gave it a go at this World 10K and its infectious enthusiasm brought to the course by its tireless and genial participants keeps bringing me back each year.

Raceday dawns each year with a mixture of dread and anticipation, both not great things if you like your stomach area mostly knot free. This year, given as it was Steven Gerrard’s last game at Anfield, I had stayed up past midnight to watch the match (a poor Liverpool defeat). The race was to start at 6am and we had to report at 5:30. The result was barely four hours of sleep, not the best of preparation for a task requiring physical and mental fortitude next morning. But then I remembered that even Sachin Tendulkar had not slept too well the night before the game against Pakistan at the World Cup in 2003.

I was at the venue by 5 and decided to do a limbering up walk around the stadium. And by limbering walk around the stadium I mean ‘had to walk around the stadium twice like an idiot because I reached my designated gate too early, then took a detour and entered a restricted zone and missed the location of the gate on my second approach’. Nonetheless without much further incident I had reached my designated holding area just in time for the official warm up that the Nike Run Club people were making everyone go through. It was like being back in physical education in school, the only difference was that at school we usually started at 4:30 am.

I had spent a good part of the last year and a half in the United States as a Graduate student. That meant I was mostly sedentary and had absolutely zero preparation or practice for this race. But as the warm up went on I felt better about myself by the second. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing and it was my only hope to clocking a respectable time in this race. But before I talk about timings, I would like to draw your attention back to the opening fake Valyrian phase I cooked up. A race’s beauty lies in the fact that you are essentially competing against yourself and the course, much like golf. And unlike golf there is no par score to be reached. Before you set any goals for any race, the simplest one you set is to finish the race. Regardless of your timing, the feeling that comes over you as you cross over the finish line, to the applause and encouragement of strangers around who are totally emotionally invested in seeing you leap over the line, is incredible. I would run a 100 miles for that one moment. Today, we only had to run 6.3.

The race started at exactly the designated time of 6am and as I trudged out sandwiched between other runners in a crowded corner with the DJ’s music blaring I remembered that I would be without my most important motivator this year – my playlist. I had lost my iPod and had no music on my phone; it was as if they had decided to have no water stations at the race this year, that’s how much my playlist was a part of my races. Nonetheless I labored on and in the early part was delighted with the pace I was setting, keeping right up with the pace setter who was carrying the 55 minute marker and flag. Overnight rains had meant the weather was the most pleasant I remember in all 8 races since ’08 and that meant everyone was running at a great pace. As spirits began to flag a little around the 2km mark, motivation was easy to find in the form of the tireless and selfless spectators egging us on. Or if that wasn’t enough you only had to look around at fellow runners. One had a ‘Runner for Life’ tattoo on his right calf, another was wearing the national flag across his chest where the bib usually is (his bib was pinned to the back of his t shirt). And there were tons of motivating messages – “Leave your devils behind, outrun them”, “Run like you stole it”, “Only runners have real balls, others just play with them”, “Hanes. Tag free comfort.” Ok, that last one may not have been a motivation message.

By the 4km mark I was feeling rather good as to how my feet were settling in a rhythm and I was on track to finish with a good time. I took a gulp of water and as I turned around to throw the bottle away, I saw someone diminutive with a fair complexion just whizz past me. I must have seen the guy in a movie or six. And he plays rugby too. I could barely believe it. I was keeping pace with Rahul friggin Bose! But the feeling of that high did not last long as the star of such classics like ‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ ‘Mr & Mrs Iyer’ left me way behind in the next half a kilometer as I began to slow down a bit in that dead zone of a 10k race just past the halfway mark. I was still going steady, but steadily slower. Around the 7km mark is when tiredness really sets in for a non regular runner like me and the temptation is greatest to just give up. (I call it the Seven Kilometer itch) But then I look around at fellow runners who are always there with a kind word and encouragement if they see you losing steam. (If we always behaved like we do during this race, the world would instantly approach utopia.) And I remember Steven Gerrard and how commentators in his Anfield farewell game pointed out that if he is to be remembered by one quality it is that he never gave up. I soldier on and receive a boost from the riffs a live band at the 7km marker is playing. I applaud them and move on crossing the 8km marker soon.

Last time there was a puddle of water just past that point and there was no way around it. We all had to run into the water like we were on commando training. Thankfully this time, it is way smoother as I round the bend that takes me into the final kilometer. The pace is just a tad behind my target of an hour thanks to my slowdown between 6 and 7 km but it’s still good. I search for a pacemaker to match my strides with and find myself side by side with a tall and hefty middle aged Australian. (Not Tom Moody.) He & I amble almost synchronized across the finish line and that high comes over again. The one that tells you that you could have given up but you didn’t. The one that tells you that in a race you should always remember Aristotle’s line ‘Don’t be afraid of going slow; be afraid of sanding still.’

At the recovery zone another Australian Shaun tells the TV interviewer this is his personal best. Then he adds with a laugh ‘Of course it’s easy to get your personal best when it’s your first race.’ You will never see grumpy faces past the finish line, everyone seemed to be smiling. That is what attracts me back to this race every time. I exchange times with another friend who is running. Both of us realize the official timing is about a couple of minutes higher than what we times ourselves at. But at this point it doesn’t really matter. As I go towards the counters to collect the refreshments and the finishers medal I help a few people capture their moment of glory as they pose for photos as finishers. The calf muscles ache and feel tight but I feel lightheaded, almost floating. As I bite into the apple in the refreshments bag I remember one banner I saw along the route. It said “In it for the banana.” In a Minion (of Despicable Me fame) sense I would completely agree. The Minions are at their productive best and happiest when they have a purpose (unfortunately their purpose involves serving an evil master). The same way running helps you focus reminding you that we are all in it for our own versions of the banana. And we are all in it together to gee each other across the finish line. And that spirit makes this Bangalore World 10K so very special.

Once again this year that spirit was on show; Bangalore ran as it always has at this race. Unbent. Unbowed. Unbroken.

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