The city of Mumbai always seems different. The country within a country. The paradoxes, which are so much part of every day Indian life, are accentuated to grander proportions like the ever-rising skyline in the city. The city where the most of the autowalas are young and the most of the taxiwalas are old. The rich and poor walk the streets of this unending city side by side. It boasts of the country’s richest citizens as well the largest slum in Asia. The dazzling Bollywood keeps churning over-the-top, larger-than-life masala movies while the dark underbelly of the city holds its own with its unspeakable and unimaginable enterprises. One comes to the city dreaming of sleeping in a king-size bed and ends up sleeping on a roadside pavement. One spends his full life dreaming of a palace in a one bedroom flat. Dreams -born…battered…shattered…crashed like the wavelets crashed into the stones lining the Marine drive and reduced to tiny pieces…born again. When I got down at the CST(erstwhile Victoria Terminus), my eyes were sparkling with one such dream – the dream of finishing my first Mumbai Marathon in my target time of 4 hours and 30 mins. Though I am not a complete novice in the marathon circuits, this was going to be my first globally recognized marathon, an IAAF(International Association of Athletics Federation) Gold event. To run in a city which never falls short of producing exciting encounters was a long time desire. Speaking of dreams, while taking a walk towards Marine drive in the evening before the marathon, Gopal put his wisdom hat –he does that often- and came up with a gem of a quote, We do everything twice: once when we dream about it and second time when we actually see its manifestation in reality. It was time to do it again!
The soft early-morning breeze caresses me as I walk towards the start line. The voices are beaming in an expectant air. Azad Maidan is getting filled with runners from all over the country and world. We click a customary pre-race picture. It also happens to be our first 12m12m marathon and everyone is hoping for the impressive start. Just before the flag off, Prakhar wishes everyone Personal Best. Only with the benefit of retrospection will we come to know and appreciate how genuine and hearty it was! As we start from the CST towards Flora Fountain, I see some enthusiastic runners sprinting their ways to the front, shouldering fellow runners aside and causing some discomfort. The dawn has not broken yet, so the halogen street lamps show us the way. As I near Marine Drive, the smell of the sea lights my heart. We take left towards the Trident hotel. From Trident, we take –turn towards Girgaon Chowpatty. Regulars are taking stroll along the Marine Drive, otherwise there is not much activity except the marathon. The city never sleeps, but the citizens are still nestling in the comforts of their beds. A group of children is performing Marathi dance to cheer the runners on the way. Another group is singing melodious Bollywood songs. Going little further, a Punjabi group is performing Bhangra dance. All the while, the speakers set up by the Radio Mirchi, one of the partners of the marathon, are playing the marathon anthem. From Girgaon Chowpatty, we head towards the Peddar Road. I overhear a shop owner telling to his bemused friend who cannot figure out why we are running that this is an annual affair and runners will come back on the same road in an hour! Not so soon, my friend! Not before at least another two hours. I complete my 10K in around 50 mins, and feel positive of achieving my target. The sun slowly lights up the sea as we move towards the Haji Ali Dargah. I hear chirping and notice the presence of the birds which I thought never existed in Mumbai before. A group of birds take dip into water for early morning hunt, before others join in, same like the people do here. I remember another gem uttered by Gopal: If you cannot beat it, join it.
As I reach near the INS Trata circle, we are joined by the half marathon runners, who have started their pursuit from Bandra. The road is almost blocked. I slow down, unwillingly, to find my way out of the crowd. After about a couple of kilometers, the crowd withers out and the road is all again mine. Running in a road race in a city of 20 millions make you feel like an emperor for the day. People clap for you, support you on the way, there are security cops all around and you just keep marching towards your finish line. The spectators are increasing in the numbers on the way as they wake up to the news of the marathon. The street is getting narrower, and the rush of spectators only make it look more so. I observe an aged person watching me from the window of his first floor house, staring directly into my eyes. Those eyes speak of hope and delight.
I finish the half distance just then, as the two hour mark is approaching. After the Bandra Fire Brigade Station, my garmin announces two hours mark, and the distance I covered is 23 KM. Suddenly there is temptation to do it in less than 4 hours as there is only 19 KM left to cover. My legs start moving faster, but the moment I enter the Bandra Worli Sealink, The reality hits hard. The gradual climb is not helping, as well as the fact that we all are exposed to the sun directly. There is no shade, no tree-cover. I try to gather my spirits and strength, but remain wanting. I stop running and start walking after 24 KM. The sealink is about 7 KM long, and I slow down considerably there. The 4 hour temptation still looms large, and I try to run with vigor but give up almost instantly. On a side note, the marathon is a blend of ancient and modern, as it covers some of the colonial monuments as well as the modern veins of lifeline of the city. The end of the sealink takes near eternity to reach, but once it’s crossed, there is new lease of life in the legs. I speed up for a while, and again return to walk-and-run after a KM. The route from here is same as we took in the morning, in opposite direction. The Peddar Road is now a sea of humanity as people from all ages and walks of life reach out to runners. Children, dressed in colors and nature of help, line up with chocolates and biscuits and bananas and oranges and smile. I take a glass of water from a kid and he just runs away to bring the next glass. A cute 5-year old girl is so happy when I take chocolate from her that she cannot stop talking to his parents about it. They also try to clean the road off litter if a runner happens to throw some on the way. I understand now why it is so easy to fall in love with this city. Those who come here becomes part of it, and the city part of them, and if they ever leave, unwillingly so, they leave their inseparable part here. The famous spirit of Mumbai is at its exaggerated best.
When I re-enter Marine Drive, after some 38 KM of run and walk, the festive mood is all over it. The Dream Run is going on and some 20000 people have thronged to participate. The seaside is occupied by different bands, most notably the Indian Navy band, and dance groups and everyone is singing and dancing and cheering. There is sea of runners on the road and the spectators on the side as if to challenge the Arabian Sea. For a while I forget that my legs refuse to move because of the surrounding extravaganza. Mohan greets me there – he has already finished his half marathon in less than 2 hours – and prod me to go for sub-4 hour finish. By then my garmin shows 3 hours and 54 mins and there is still 3 more KM to go. I give up of finishing in less than 4 hours, but still is on course for less than 4:30. I keep waving at the Dream Run runners, many of them running for the charity purpose. After crossing Flora Fountain, I dash off for the finish line. As it comes near, the muscles pull stronger, albeit with pain. The voice of the spectators rise with every step I take and that gives me extra fuel to do more. In a flash, the finish line is crossed, with an impressive timing of 4:10:31, my personal best. I have lived a dream. The body takes rest on the wall of a nearby building, but the mind celebrates gleefully. And another seed of dream is sown in that most fertile land…