running for my life
It has been a year of discoveries. I have let go of dependencies and have discovered indulgences. I have discovered that there is no one right way of living, and that every soul needs a different kind of nurturing.
Now that I’m done with all the profoundness I’m capable of, I shall get down to the one thing that has sustained me through a year of insane driving, crazy teachers, therapists and builders. Running.
What started as a desperate attempt to lose weight rapidly, has turned into an activity (I wouldn’t call it a sport) that has made me look at myself differently. And not just in the mirror.
I started running in March 2010 to train for a 10k run, with a group called Runner’s High. All I did was wake up and show up, like the coach Santhosh Padmanabhan said. And it paid off. I surprised myself by running my 10k in 68 minutes (yes, it was great timing for someone who hadn’t run more than 200m before the training).
Spurred on by the success, I started training for a half marathon at Kaveri Trail Marathon 2010. Again, all I did was follow the schedule charted out by Santhosh. So even if I travelled, I stuck to the schedule. And I ended up training in the heat and humidity of Chennai, Tirupur etc. And also because of my crazy lifestyle, I ended up running after dropping my son at school at 10 in the morning. I would wear my running clothes to school, park my car right outside his school and start running. I’d do my stretches near the car, drive to a friend’s house nearby and shower, because I lived too far away. In Chennai, I would run very early in the morning to beat the heat, or in the night if I couldn’t wake up early enough, and if both didn’t work, I’d run in the afternoon. Basically, I ran at any time I could get, and anywhere I could run. So despite a hamstring injury during my training, I ended up clocking 2.07 for my first half marathon race, coming fourth. Like everyone, I too was shocked at this. And was aware for the first time, what training could do to any body. And I do mean any body.
Then came the Bangalore Ultra, in which I was running 25km. By now I was aware of my improvement and uncomfortably aware of my fellow runners’ expectations of me. Thankfully, there were no pros at that race and I ended up coming first even though my time was 2.40.
There was nowhere to go now but the marathon. Auroville Marathon 2011. Part of me wanted to do it to test my endurance, but the part of me that’s yellow, wanted assurance of every kind and needed to be goaded into it. It’s probably this part of me that ended up injured on the very auspicious New Year’s day of 2011. It was supposed to be a 27km run and I could run only 17km due to my injured ITB (Ilio tibial band). As I walked back demotivated, I never had any idea that this could seriously hinder my prospects of running the marathon.
As the weeks went by, I only got worse. The pain started earlier and earlier on in the run, until a point where I couldn’t run even 100m. ITB veterans know this to be true and I was asked to give the ITB respect. The good thing I did was to respect the physiotherapist instead. I followed everything she said, did a couple of soft tissue treatments, strength trained, cycled, did hot and cold therapy for over an hour and a half every night after my son went to bed. Sometimes as late as 12 in the night. To make the ordeal easier, I watched a movie everyday while doing the therapy. So I can’t complain. And i have a very pretty honeycomb pattern burnt on to one side of my leg. If it were a little prettier, i would've put a picture up.
Now, there is something to be said about this physiotherapist. Preeti Ashok (that’s her name) is also a coach with Runner’s High and has run ultra (read crazy) distances. She ran 75km at the Bangalore Ultra 2010 after having run only 42km prior to that. And I totally believe her when she says she wasn’t even sore the next day. So, she’s basically a crazy endurance runner, which makes her a great sports physiotherapist. But what I discovered about her was she was also a psychotherapist. Isn’t running a mental game after all? Braving the fact that she might actually read this, I’m going to say that she’s the single biggest reason that I even attempted the marathon. The other big reason was that I’d made a deal with my husband. That if I finished the marathon, injury and all, then he would start running. He was mean enough to take the wind out of my sail, by agreeing to run even without my having to kill myself.
I had not trained as much as the other runners. I’d run a very horrible 30km at Strides of Hope, and ended it thinking that anything more would actually physically handicap me. I’d not been training properly for about a month and a half before the race, and did absolutely NO running the last three weeks (also because I could not run), AND I had pain in my knee ALL the time, not just while running, which according to me was not a very bright sign of healing. Despite all this and my added neuroticism, which I had no qualms in sharing with her, Preeti was confident that I could finish the marathon. I found it so hard to believe that for one infinitesimal second, I even wondered if she knew what she was talking about. But I had to believe the only person who had any hopes for me.
To give myself credit, I did follow everything she asked me to. Except for the last crucial week. I completely stopped strength training, took on a very tight-deadline freelance job, fixed up a few high-stress appointments that also included lots of driving, and my son’s annual day fell on the day before the marathon. This also meant I had to leave later during the day to Pondicherry and would reach later that evening. Thankfully, I arranged to ride with friends of mine, Sushant, Rohini and their dad. The journey, while enjoyable was not very kind to my injury. We picked up ice at a restaurant on the way and I did the treatment in the car. One would’ve thought that that would help. It helped in soiling the floor mat.
We’d got accommodation at Ginger one day before because another runner had cancelled his rooms (yes, we hadn’t thought this through). And luckily enough, I’d carried a hot water bottle, which we filled with the help of the kettle in the room. After hunting for a hair band (A good practice, cuz at Bangalore Ultra, I'd borrowed a hair band from Anjana) and finding 2, courtesy Sindhu and Nayana, I retired to bed with my hot water bottle. I woke up four hours later, feeling like I’d slept too much. And when I got to the gate, I found that I’d missed the bus. Another came along before I made an unearthly call to our driver, and I set off for the race venue. Picked up my bib and chatted around neurotically with fellow runners and friends, taking comfort that we were all in this madness together. Now that I was already there, I knew that there was nowhere else to go but to the start line.
As I started, I felt the tightness I’d been feeling all those weeks in the knee, but not the pain that makes me stop running. And so I waited for it to come. I hoped it would come after 6km, or if I was lucky 9km, so I could at least run continuously for that much of the distance. I was pleasantly surprised when I crossed 9km and it didn’t come. I attributed it to the fact that it was because I’d been running at a very slow pace all along. I decided to stick to that pace. The only time I wished I’d run a little faster was when I saw a mongoose cross the trail. I thought if I’d gotten there earlier, I might’ve seen the snake. I ran with various people in small stretches. I ran alongside Chandra for a while, a couple of runners from Bangalore and Hyderabad gave me company for a while, and it was good to see fellow marathoners. I was very happy to have company during what i thought would be a long, lonely run. I’d also been running with my left foot very close to the ground at all times. Lifting my knee up was what brought the pain on, I knew from experience. In any case, I waited for the pain to come. I listened to some fantastic music that did a great job of distracting me and ran on. I just about managed to get music onto my phone before leaving home, downloading the driver late into the night. I'm so glad i persevered. I don’t know if it was the music or my father-in-law’s prayers (he’d been praying for me from 4.30 to 9.30 that morning), but I felt like it was the best run of my life.
Of course, I was still waiting for that pain to hit me. I ran on for 14km and then 16km and then 19km, and then when I reached 24km, I realized that I’d forgotten about my ITB completely. I could start feeling the rest of my leg muscles fatigue, and I realized at that point that the excruciating pain that would make me stop running, would not be paying a visit during that run. And so I waited expectantly for my dear friend Sushant to arrive on his bicycle. He had brought it along in the car so he could pace me after he finished his first half marathon. He called me at 23km and told me he’d join me in 10 minutes. I’d actually been waiting for him to overtake me during the first loop itself. The half marathoners started an hour later, but Sushant is a very fast runner and I was expecting to be more of a walker that day. I felt sorry that he didn’t overtake me. Anyway, once I knew he’d finished his half (in 1.52), I decided that I wanted to cover as much distance as possible before he joined me. I wanted him to be proud of me. And by the time he joined me, I’d finished 30km. No, I didn’t run 7km in 10 minutes. He got lost on the trail (it didn’t surprise me). I think i hit a mental wall at around 30km, the high leaving me suddenly. But at least i had a rock for support. My angel on a bicycle.
I ran on while he cycled next to me. I made for a lousy conversationalist and bit his head off more than once. In my defense, he was joking about looking for me in the ambulance on his way. He bore my ill-temper patiently, along with the Gatorade he’d brought for me. Finally at around 35km, I felt the need to take a walk break. Not because of the injury, but because my legs were sore. Thankfully for me, Sushant made me start running again. I took two more walk breaks after that, with the last one being the worst. All my life, I’d prided myself on being a great walker, but that day I realized that I was really lousy at it. All the pain in my legs came rushing to me with such force, that I knew it was a mistake to be walking. It was very difficult to start running again at that point. It was heartening to see Hiral and Vivek in their car then. They’d apparently been looking for me. And i was happy to find that Hiral had finished her first half marathon with all her various injuries. I’d reached the 40km mark then. I told Sushant to not let me walk again. He immediately said that I should not resent him for it later. I could’ve hugged him then if I’d had the energy.
I started running again and the pain slowly subsided. Soon my brother Khushi called to check on me. He and his wife Barbara had both finished their first 10km races that day. They were both happy and surprised to know i had less than 2km left. Both my knees had been hurting for a while now, but thankfully, not significant enough for me to stop running. And I ran all the way to the finish line. And finished in 5 hours and 36 minutes.
One single word rang in my mind during the last stretch. Miracle. It was no dream come true, because I’d never had ambitious dreams. But I’d always been a believer in miracles. And in my mind, what happened to me that day was nothing short of a miracle. I’m sure there might be a rationale and logic behind why I didn’t have pain, about what adrenaline does to you, about wearing my old shoes (I confounded Preeti with a theory that my injury was because of my new asics, and made her check my shoes one day before we left to the race. She gave in and let me run with my worn-out nikes, after making me promise to throw them away right after.) But no one theory can explain the connection I felt with a supreme source during that last stretch. I’ve never felt that during any run or race prior to this. A million things happened right that day. The weather was perfect. In fact, I didn’t notice the weather at all. I was surprised when people complained of heat and humidity. A learning from this is, that if you concentrate on a bigger problem, the smaller ones seem to disappear. I took my salt pills on time, stopped at every aid station, ate adequately, smiled at every volunteer, and really enjoyed the music. In fact, there were a couple of instances when I almost cried because of the memories the music brought. Then I decided I would cry after the marathon instead. It just seemed more appropriate. Which also didn’t go according to plan, by the way.
During the ride to Pondicherry, Sushant’s dad asked me why no one from my family was coming to see me run my first marathon. When I finished, so many people from Runner’s High greeted me with such pride and love. Ram was waiting at the finish line and I was glad to flop against him for a moment. Srinivas had had a fall and was being fixed by Preeti. Santhosh, Vaishali and Ajay was there with much-needed hugs. Rohini was with me through my stretches, bringing me a chair, holding my things, till I finished eating. She even suggested that I should sit on Sushant’s cycle and that they would push the cycle to the car! (Argh!) There was enough family out there for a marathoner. Besides, the people from the Auroville community exuded hospitality that I haven’t witnessed in any professionally organized race. A woman shoved a bunch of oranges into my hand while i was running. I can't tell you how useful they were. After the race, a woman named Ange called out to me when I was walking away and insisted on giving me a massage looking at my horrible limp. We ended up chatting and discovered we had common friends. The massage lasted all of five minutes, but I doubt I can forget her kind hazel eyes ever.
Yes, there’s no one right way of living, and it’s possible to keep discovering a new way to live every day. And for me, with every run.