Monday, November 26, 2012

Legs Never Tire

Back in school days, during my 9th class summer holidays, I joined the school swimming pool to learn how to swim. I started off in the children’s play pool and as soon as I got a hang of the basic limb movements I moved to the full-size pool. Each time I completed one length of this bigger pool I took a fairly long rest before turning back again. My dad, who used to accompany me to the pool nearly every day, had obviously noticed this pattern. After a few days he asked what made me spend so much time resting while in the pool. When I complained about my tired legs he said, “Legs never tire”.

My legs had rarely been subjected to rigorous activities during school days. I usually opted out of the sports day races citing my asthmatic tendencies. Hopping from one shop to another for a few hours was perhaps the harshest my legs had to endure when I accompanied mom on her biannual visit to Sarojini Nagar. Things however changed when I moved to Chandigarh where most days I had to walk to college — about 2.5 kms from my hostel in Sec 14. Cycle rickshaws are a popular mode of transport within the city but I usually avoided them to save money and, more importantly, because I find the idea of being transported by someone else’s muscle power to be somewhat inhuman. I found Chandigarh to be a friendly city for walkers having low traffic, better air quality and a peaceful, slow-paced life. I never owned a vehicle there and often covered reasonably large distances by foot. One of the earliest instance was the day I went out for my first movie with hostel friends. After watching the night show at Piccadilly Cinema (Sec 34) one of them suggested walking back. Somehow we all accepted, even though we were still unfamiliar with the city. None of us realised that we were signing up for a 5+ km stroll. There were very few people in the streets that late at night and we had to mostly trust our guts with the directions. We walked more than an hour and by the time we reached our hostel most of my friends were infuriated. I, on the other hand, was one of the few ones who had enjoyed the walk. A few months later, on my birthday, I found myself walking back to hostel from Tehel Singh Dhaba (Sec 22) after treating my friends. Needless to say, most of them had opted out the moment I had proposed it. Over time walking turned into my preferred mode of commute whenever I was not pressed by time. One of the many memorable walks was a two hour one from my hostel to Sukhna lake (pretty much across the city) along with two friends. Often when the weather was merciful I went out alone exploring the undiscovered parts of the city and listening to music on my iPod. I could simply keep walking.

Near the end of my final year few friends and I went on a short unplanned trip to McLeod Ganj. I experienced my first trek on that trip. Totally unaware of the demands of a 9 km walk up a mountain trail we decided to carry our belongings (pretty heavy backpacks) on our trek to Triund. Three (out of four) of us were grossly over-weight, to say the least, and the walk turned out to be an arduous one. So bad that had I been aware of the trail beforehand, given my fitness levels at the time, I would have probably never attempted it or, at the very least, never carried our belongings with us. In spite of the fatigue not only did I keep walking throughout the trail but at times even encouraged my heavy-weight partners in crime. Dad’s words were perhaps the only thing playing on my mind at that time.

***

I had mostly remained away from Delhi since passing out of school. When I returned to Delhi last year I realised that the onset of winters was the best time to be in the city with innumerable festivals, carnivals, events and performances happening all around. I had a great time visiting a bunch of such performances, food exhibitions and other events. Also, around the same time, I had noticed few ads of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon — unarguably the most pronounced running event in Delhi. I have never been a fan of running, but the word ‘marathon’ has always fascinated me — not just the meaning but also the sound. So much so that I didn’t want to let go of my first opportunity to experience it. I asked a couple of friends if they wished to participate but they didn’t show much interest. Even then I was willing to participate and pulled out the details from their website. However, my confidence soon shattered when I came across the following request, “Please do not apply for Half Marathon race category if you cannot complete the run in 3 hours 15 min”. I gave up my hopes of participating that year and instead decided to train rigorously and try the following year. I shared this with many friends but no one took me seriously. After all, there was nothing in my past that would even remotely connect me to marathons. All I got were playful remarks — “Do you know it’s going to take you all day?”, “Chal behenchod rehne de”, “Agar tune kar diya main usi din Dilli aake tere gale milunga”, or a sarcastic “Oh yes of course” — which I quite enjoyed myself. I guess I was as amused (and surprised) at my own decision as my friends.

The thought of 21+ kms in about 3 hours was scary. I was not sure if even a full year of training would suffice. However, the lazy one in me immediately stepping in with a long list of reasons to procrastinate training. At the top of the list were “My iPod’s broken” and “I don’t have a device to measure my runs”. At that time I was carrying an old Nokia phone that was falling into pieces. Getting the then-rumoured iPhone 5 (which later came out as iPhone 4S) was on the cards. Since an iPhone would double up both as a music player and a measuring device I decided to start training only after procuring one. It took me nearly 6 months to get hold of one and soon after I was travelling out of Delhi. When I returned, the list was still going strong, “The weather is too hot”, “Need a good shoe.”, “Armband!”… Apart from these petty reasons one of the lingering question in my mind was “How to train?” All training plans on the internet looked like a strict military training regime. They expected people to start training with an easy 4 mile run. Wait a sec, ain’t “easy run” an oxymoron? A 4 mile walk is not a problem but no run is easy. So I did a feasibility check by searching if people have walked it in under/around 3 hours. The answer was yes.

By the last week of May I got myself a new pair of shoes, ditched my desire to buy an armband and a new pair of earphones, and started training. Given that Delhi Half Marathons usually took place in the month of November, I had a little over 5 months to train. With no concrete training plan at hand I started with casual 5 km strolls. I picked a new route around Dwarka every time and measured my walks using RunKeeper. To beat the heat I started at around 5:30 in the morning and was pretty regular in the first month or so. Beyond that things started to get monotonous as there was no significant progress in either speed or distance. Further I could manage only 4 days of training in July and August due to work and the rains. Somewhere around this time Sumit informed me that this year the race would take place on 30th Sep. At that time I was training at barely half the target distance and with the training period cut down by 2 months the task got even harder. The thoughts of giving up for another year had passed my mind a few times but deep inside I was scared that if I couldn’t do it while still 25, it would perhaps never happen. I baselessly backed myself and registered on 30th July.

One of the best activities in August was a trip to Binsar with Rungta. It was nearly a perfect trip for an inherently stingy backpacker like me — mostly travelling on foot and appreciating the beautiful nature. The first day we walked 10k uphill with our bags, followed by 4k of relatively flat terrain and finally 3k downhill to a village called Ganaup where we put up the night. By the time we were going downhill my knees had nearly given way. Similarly the next day was also spent on foot covering more than 10 kms. Up until the end of August during my usual training I had covered a maximum of 13 kms at a go. September was the last month and I was still below two third the target distance. This was the toughest month of training. I went out once a week covering about 15 kms in over 2 hours each time. This phase was important as challenges like blisters, dehydration, protein indigestion (proteins take longer to digest than other foods), and whatnot surfaced when my runs started exceeding 15 kms. The importance of hydrating, wearing good socks, having a low protein dinner, etc. were learned only in the last month. Not to mention, the interesting pieces of conversations I had with Sumit who, among all my peers, was clearly most enthusiastic about running.

I ended my training about 4-5 days before the race to give myself adequate rest. Pre-race day preparation included creating a new running (actually walking) playlist, pinning my running bib to my t-shirt, attaching my timing chip to the shoe, purchasing some Gatorade and orange juice, and an easy 3km walk.

I woke up early on race day and meticulously followed a printed sheet of advice that was handed while collecting our running bibs. I kept hydrating myself right from the time I woke up, had some orange juice and a Snickers bar for breakfast and reached Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium well before time. The moment I entered the stadium premises I noticed an atmosphere full of exuberance; bustling with thousands of runner of all shapes and sizes (not kidding you) — stretching, praying, queued up outside loos or busy in casual chats. Minutes before the start I walked into an over-crowded holding area where the runners had to assemble and wait for the race to commence. A little past 6:30 a loud roar rippled through the crowd and we all moved towards the start line. Just as I approached the start line everyone around started running. Somehow even I got soaked into the energy and started running with others. It was only after about 200 meters that I realised that I had a long race ahead and slowed down to my training pace. The start was full of enthusiasm — people cheering from the sides, bands playing some loud rock music and plenty of runners running alongside. Thanks to all my hydration efforts I was compelled to take a leak minutes after starting (in spite of emptying my bladder twice at the stadium). There onwards began a journey full of highs and lows — the gratefulness on being cheered by people (including a little boy on a wheelchair), the astonishment of seeing the race leaders returning on the other side, the excitement of grabbing bottles of water / gatorade from the volunteers, the kick of overtaking a Gold’s Gym trainer, the joy of walking past the India Gate / Rajpath, the anxiety of seeing an ambulance pass by, the agony of sweating out in the September heat, the frustration of passing by empty cool sponge & energy stations, the fun of cheering at the cameras and many more emotions than what could possibly be listed down.

By the 17th km the race had visibly slowed down. Hardly anyone was running and since the energy stations had run out of stock most were deprived of energy drinks. Yet I managed to maintain my pace and by this time was overtaking my fellow exhausted runners. I had planned to pick my pace in the last couple of kilometres but to my dismay our route merged with the Great Delhi Run at the end of 19th km. I entered a sea of people most of who were walking casually. It was painful to constantly maneuver through the crowd and look for gaps to slip through while running on my tired legs.

I finished in just over 3 hours. I was exhausted but coming to a halt felt even more awkward and the physical distress overpowered all emotions. After a while, as the fatigue started wearing off, I tried to gather all my feelings. Just like many other impulsive wishes, participating in a marathon was a pointless one. But it is at this point, when you look back from the other side of the finish line, that pointless things lose their pointlessness.

Oh, and yes, “legs never tire”.