Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ole Ole Aroville!

No, it did not start when I first time decided to start long distance running two years back when I registered for the inaugural Bangalore Sunfeast 10K Run. It started long time back - some 2500 years back – when the Greek soldier Pheidippides, a messenger, ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens. The soldier did not know then, obviously, that he was unintentionally setting the roots for what would become the ultimate test of endurance and determination for generations of human beings – a marathon running of 42.195 KM. Like Pheidippides, I also did not know that 10 KM run would sow the seeds of the dream to run a full marathon (the term full marathon is a misnomer – a marathon itself signifies 42.195 KM. All other distances are just there to attract greater participation.). There comes the Auroville, the place where I would try my first marathon.

It was 5:00 in the morning, the starting time of the race. More than 150 runners gathered at Certitude, the starting point. At the word Go, the runners started running like horses let loose from a stable. My mind had already started running much before that. It was dark and all the runners were given torches to find their way. In the dark, the different colors of light the torches threw made nice colorful moving images of yellow, green, white, blue, and purple. At 5:30, I was sweating, which was a bad sign. The day was going to be hot and humid, the kind of weather a runner loathes. Apart from the chirping of the birds, the only sound I could hear was that of the stamping of the shoes on the road. The cracking of the fallen leaves beneath the feet was no less than the music. Occasionally a dog would bark somewhere to break the silence. I like to run watching the trees, the road and anything around. But in the dark, it was impossible, so I observed the light beams coming out of the torches. I could make out which runner was struggling by observing how violently the light beam moved. After crossing the Visitor’s Centre, the tarred road gave way to the mud road. It was mainly flat, but sometimes uneven and stones-studded. A couple of runners fell down, but their courage did not give in. All they were hoping for was the daylight. After about 15 KM, near the Surrender community, I saw the sun coming out from the trees; the road was visible now, the torch was not needed and the surroundings looked at their beautiful best – the way you always imagine the Auroville.

The path between Surrender and New Creation is one of the most scenic routes one would see in the whole Auroville Marathon. It almost felt like I was running through some forest – so narrow at times that only one person could pass and one would require to make his way between the plants. Plants bearing small flowers were plenty on both the sides. A fortunate person could spot some beautiful birds there. One of the most pleasant things about the event was the cooperation of the people and the support of the volunteers. Right from the cyclists who showed us way initially in dark to the enthusiastic lot of school children who manned the aid-station near New Creation, everyone made us feel special. The most of the inhabitants in Auroville are foreigners, but the best thing was that, looking at them, you could not know their nationality. No putting them in different categories based on their country, cast, creed etc. They were just good human beings, ready to help you any time. As simple as that.

I finished the half of the marathon by completing the first round at Certitude at 7:10. Two hours and Five minutes was not a bad time for 21 KM run. I was happy and feeling well. I hoped before the start that I would take less than four hours and thirty minutes for the run, and I was right on the mark till then. Then it hit me, somewhere after Siddhartha Farm. I felt sudden pain in my right knee. I was at 24 KM mark and still there were 18 KM left. My first reaction was to ignore it since it happens a lot many times to a runner – the body, wanting to give up, throws some pain here and there. Soon the hip conspired with the knee to aggravate the pain. I started walking. When I tried to run, I made sure I put more weight on the left leg than the right to avoid the trouble. That did not help – the left knee also started hurting.

I was in a new territory – that was the first time I felt such an intense pain while running. I tried to trick my mind by watching the buildings and trees which I could not see during the first round. I even unsuccessfully tried to compose a song! The body wanted to give up and it had reasons. At such times, one needs to listen to the body. I was not running now; I was barely able to walk by supporting the right hip with my hand. I wanted to stop there; the excuses were many - there will be more opportunities in the future to run marathon, I can be better prepared next time, there can be something seriously damaging the knee, you can hurt your knee beyond repair. They rang loud in the ears. But the heart did not want to stop, as if it was saying with every beat – there is something more important than the pain. I listened to it and continued.

The volunteers and photographers encouraged the runners. Irrespective of how one ran, they kept repeating, “You are running very well”. That helped, but not for long. Like a dog, the pain is a loyal companion. At around 32 KM, I was walking alone when I found a fellow runner sitting on the road massaging his knee. I instantly understood what he was going through. I asked if he was well. He replied positively. He inquired if I wished to walk with him. I needed a company, a feeling of fraternity to carry on. He proposed to run for four minutes and walk for a minute and repeat the same till the end. I obliged. Running and talking with him diverted my mind from the pain. I suppose he also felt the same. He was running his tenth marathon and was supposed to participate in a grueling 90 KM run in some mountains in South Africa. That was inspirational to know. Together as a team, we found a way around our troubles. Like my Runner Hood t-shirt quote says – We are a team in a solo sport.

We diligently followed the run-and-walk strategy. After the last aid-station, we increased our speed a bit. The road after the second to last turn was long and bare – not many trees, playing grounds on each side and the sun directly firing at you. I focused on the last turn and kept on running. When I took the last turn, I saw many people on both the sides of the road, cheering and greeting me. Some of the half-marathon runners were walking or stretching there. The finish line was visible now and I called on the last reserves of energy and will to fire on all the cylinders. My strides got longer and swifter. Gopal and Satheesha paced me up for last 100 meters. In a flash, I was on the other side of the finish line.

Nenik├ękamen (‘We have won.'), uttered Pheidippides before collapsing and dying after his marathon run. There was another me on the other side of the finish line. I said the same words to him. Winning over the devils of within. It took me 4:57:42 hours to finish my first full marathon. Coincidentally, meaningful or otherwise, I was ranked 42nd in my first 42.195 KM run. But long distance running is not about victory, or the timing. For I thought it was eternity before I could finish it. A runner’s pride is in finishing; finishing when everybody else has finished, when you are the lone runner, when you think you cannot do it. It is about the pain, patience and perseverance. What you eventually get is pleasure which is beyond description. Gopal said that all that is good comes with a little wait. I want to add to that – All that is good comes with a little wait…and some pain.

I thought about last two years of my running. Everything came in front of the eyes like action replay: getting up early in the morning when the whole world sleeps in their cozy beds, running half-naked in the cold winter morning, each bone sweating in hot summer morning, protecting myself from a barking dog or a speeding vehicle. All these sum up to this one moment. 42.195 KM – it’s not mere a distance – it’s a manifestation of a dream, a realization that with determination we are capable of much more than we think.

While returning back to the hotel, I looked at the finisher’s medal. I kissed it again and again. Insane it was! A simple hand made piece of paper became my object of affection. As I am writing this, I think about why I did not stop when my body almost gave up. It is sheer madness. A certain madness which comes from love. Love for running. So much love that it hurts! But today what I remember most is finish line and the joy of crossing it. The pain goes away, the memory of it also follows, but the joy remains. Running is a kind of intoxication which gives you a happy hangover. That hangover stays till your next run. Yes, I am addicted to it!

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