Running on a Whim

The onset of November means that it’s running season of the marathon kind. The cool crisp air, moderate temperatures – the city has shed itself off all the heat and humidity and is in its accommodating phase of cordiality before the frigid winter takes over.

It welcomes the debutants with their mild morning practice, the motivated yet unfit lot who are on a spirited endeavour to complete 10 kms, the serious amateurs who are looking to beat their previous time in the half marathons and the seasoned lot that already have a few marathons under their belt. For the steely professionals, weather conditions matter little.    

With a couple of half-marathons under my belt, I form a part of the serious amateurs – or so I’d like to think. I’ve grudgingly half-followed the internet plans of early mornings, strict diets, progressive running strategies – an utterly disciplined lifestyle required to complete 21 full kilometres of road-running. That was for my first half-marathon and it was an amazing experience – a sentiment that will be echoed by other debutants. But it wasn’t a patch on the second one where I ran all of those 21 kilometres without training for a single day.

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In fact, it was quite the opposite of training. During my lethargic stint as a Mumbai journalist, I was living the unhealthiest of all lifestyles. On a diet of cheap beer, rum and oily junk food and with no inclination to run whatsoever, I completed 21 kilometres in 2 hours and 53 minutes. That was rebellious, intense and hardcore.

It all started with this beautiful Bawi girl that I was in love with. She was incredibly sweet, smart and had this cute little British-Indian Parsi accent when she spoke. And I would melt every time I was in front of her. That particular time, she slayed me at the NGO that she worked for when she convinced me to buy a Marathon bib for a little more than half my monthly salary. I agreed with no hesitation or care in the world – nodding away to everything she said. I agreed to run for her smile, and for the children of course.

My boss was quite happy when I told her this. Not happy enough to reimburse me for my foolishly vulnerable innocence, but happy that I’d now be able to run the first five kilometres of the marathon to get a feel of the atmosphere and add a whole new dimension to my article about the potential Olympian – Ram Singh Yadav – provided he made the qualification time. Experiential writing she called it. Boy, was she in for an experience.

Yes, as the junior-most, I had to sacrifice my Sunday morning sleep and report on the Mumbai Marathon. As far as running five kilometres was concerned, I was sure that I would be reeling at the end of 2.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen 5 am on a Sunday morning sober. All I knew was that I was depressed waking up to darkness and sure as hell wasn’t looking forward to running pre sun-up. But I put on my marathon gear – my lucky tight red bikini briefs (my ‘Marathong’ I call it), Nike skins – which protruded pregnantly at the stomach, my short shorts and running shoes and set out to the Bandra side of the sea link – the starting line.

I couldn’t reach the sea-link, however, because of the thousand odd people that had turned up. Within minutes, there were a couple of hundred people gathered behind me and the feeling was not unlike being inside a weekday morning local. I went where the crowd took me and awaited the flagging off 500 yards behind the starting line. Wiser from experience, I stood at the side and watched while the foolhardy beginners sprinted like they were competing in a 100 meter race. I jogged slowly, then paused before I saw the huge expanse of the sea link in front of me. The Marathon gives you the privilege of running on roads most people don’t get the chance to walk on and then to stop and stare at some breath-taking views of the city of Mumbai. I took my chance to enjoy the scene. And then I saw the early sprinters peeing off the bridge. Each one has their own pleasures I guess. Some were getting pictures clicked; others were on the phone with their loved ones attempting to describe the magnitude of the moment. I was alone. I carried on.

 The legs that were stiff and high-strung on that torturous morning were slowly warming up as I reached the half-way point on the sea-link. I was able to enjoy the energy of a thousand people. Two kilometres down and I was surprisingly sprightly yet circumspect with my strides. I decided to walk half of the third kilometre just to ensure I would make it to five and avoid embarrassment and humiliation of my friends and colleagues. I increased the pace slowly after and joined the crowd in speeding through the open toll gates. Nothing was going to stop us then. The Gujaratis, Marwadis, old or young, male or female, all were of a free spirit that day. Maybe the sprinters weren’t foolhardy after all. Maybe they were just propelled by the release of all their inhibitions. I, however, was still running on a whim. I continued at jogging pace through the fourth kilometre. I was giving it a little extra as it was time to wind down at 5, like I had planned, like my boss had told me too.

I reached the end of the sea-link, the end of my little stint and I began to come to a slow halt. Except that I didn’t really want to stop. I saw this sweet little girl running with a big smile on her face. An old fit man was jog-walking bare feet. I might not have had the energy but I certainly hadn’t run out adrenalin. And I estimated it to be another couple of kilometres before I would run out of steam completely. I’d still be able to catch up with Ramsingh after quitting at 7 km, I thought. So I began running again.

The next two km were a bit of a drag. We were to take a left at Worli, run all the way up to INS Trata circle, take a u-ey, and come all the way back to the end of the sea-link. I wasn’t satisfied with that so I continued running. Just up until Atria mall, I thought. Then I would call it quits for sure. I would have to, no?

No. I alternated between swift walks and slow jogs as the notorious Bombay sun slowly started to make its presence felt. I managed to trudge up to Worli dairy with Atria mall in sight when I heard my name being shouted out loud. I looked swiftly to the right and saw an open top bus full of my fellow journalists covering the event. I was cheered on by them. Another shot of adrenalin. I ran past Atria and on to the bridge towards Haji Ali.

The sun was now taking prime position to drain. And I was slowly falling victim. The Adrenalin tank was running on empty again and reality hit me with its brute force. I started cramping in my stomach. I slowed down and walked slowly. My thighs started to pull a little. I came to a halt. I had completed 14 kilometres and was contemplating quitting. There was also the matter of Ramsingh – potentially only the second Indian to qualify for the Olympics – tomorrow’s front page news.

Then I saw the old man again, jog-walking away at his consistent pace with single-minded focus and I said F**k it! I’m running.

At that point in time, I didn’t want to be caged by responsibilities, I had no intention of being the diligent hard-worker I always had been, the teacher’s pet. I felt like doing something outrageously crazy. Carelessly rebellious. I lost the plot completely. It was the most amazing feeling. I decided to complete the 21 kilometers.

I had absolutely no energy but I was propelled by my own release. I smiled at the old man. He didn’t bother responding. I jogged passed Haji Ali to the right and then stopped to walk again.

The stretch between 15-17 kilometres is the toughest. It’s the loneliest stretch of the race. You have no water to quench your thirst. You’re stomach growls intensely – crying for some food. You have nothing but the clothes on your back. The sun is now prime position to take away your reserve of energy. You’re looking for some solace in the smallest of things. I was. And I found it on Peddar Road – where my 8-year-old nephew spotted me, shouted “Kabir Mama!!”and ran towards me. I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life. I was cheered on by his parents as well. They stayed right on Peddar Road but they woke up that Sunday morning and participated. They were part of that Mumbai spirit that is such a vital fuel for long-distance running.

I waved goodbye and walked up the slope. I grabbed 14 Parle-G biscuits from the other enthusiastic little kids on the sidelines and devoured them all at one go. That biscuit had never tasted as good as it did then. The salivating juices in my mouth dissolved the biscuits into a succulent gooey mush. I had a mouth-orgasm. With Parle-G.

When I turned right into Marine Drive, the sun was at its scorching worst. The legs were weary and heavy as concrete blocks. My back was stiff. I could barely move my hands. I felt like I was just a stride or two away from dehydration. But my mind was somewhere else. At 18 kilometres, you involuntarily let your guard down and become a little crazy. I felt intoxicated with exhaustion. Then I was distracted by some screams on sea-facing side of the road. I saw two beautiful figures with mikes in hand addressing the crowd on a stage.

Then I found myself stopping and shouting “MONICA! NANDITA! I LOVE YOU!” – exclaiming my feelings for Dogra and Das all at once.

Some laughed at me. Other fellow half marathoners were dancing to the music playing in the background. There was an old bald fat man who stopped and started singing “Tum Hi Ho” and doing a little Hritik Roshan dance. Everyone had gone mad. Everyone was happy.

I turned left at the Oberoi and passed my work place. I had just run all the way to work. That was quite cool. Now the journey to the finish line – the last lap of the race that inevitably is the longest. I had nothing to distract me. I couldn’t help but focus on the pain. My legs were red and now screaming with pain. I could barely lift them. My stomach was cramping up. I sucked it up and continued towards the finish line that refused to arrive. My thigh pulled up again and I just began to walk slowly, not allowing the twister of a cramp to take over. I finally reached CST and the finish line came in sight. I was elated. And then it hit me. I hadn’t covered the marathon. I didn’t have my phone with me. The office would be expecting news right about now. I was hoping against hope that Ram Singh didn’t qualify. But a journalist friend I met at the finish line informed me that he did.

I took an empty train home. I rushed to my cell phone and found 39 missed calls – 28 from my boss and 11 from my two colleagues. I had to change immediately and make my second trip that morning to Express Towers, Nariman Point. Needless to say, my boss blew her top. My colleagues were venting their transference of anger from her. Life was hell on steroids for that day and the next two week – because of my act of defiance.

But I honestly didn’t care. I was still high on running on a whim. I felt undefeatable. If I had to, I would do it all over again. I’ve made it a habit to do something spontaneously combustible every now and then. And I believe that everyone must do something radically crazy at least once a year to keep themselves sane.

This one’s dedicated to the Bawi girl, who just announced her engagement last week.

 Here’s wishing you all the best as you set out on a marathon of your own. 

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