Extended version of my column Run&Bee in Hindustan Times on 29th June 2019
Without even thinking all of us tend to have a similar thought process as George Carlin, in this context, in running too.
We can be preaching running or any other life skill to beginners for ages but till we ourselves experience it at that level, we have no clue how difficult it can be, or what does it take to get to the start line and maybe then to the finish line too. I ran-walked Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromso, Norway, with a friend who isn’t the fastest in the world. The time I took to cover the half marathon there was more than I would other wise do both my best half and full marathon in.
His determination to get to the finishline taught me an immense lot. And I made the most basics mistakes on the way. That’s why I like to call myself as the student of running, for life.
I have been helping a lot of beginner runners and fence-sitters with running for over a decade and a half. As much as I had assumed all along that I had seen it all and I knew what all struggles they face, there was yet again a major lesson for me to learn a week ago while pacing Raj, a friend, at Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromso, Norway. I was mentally prepared for my slowest half marathon (21 kms) in flat conditions.
Raj had actually been training for a bit but then as life has a tendency to take turns and twists, he fell sick a month before the race and simply couldn’t train at all. He was determined to yet get to the finish-line but deep inside he was doubtful if he could even get to the start-line. As much as that is a contradictory statement, that’s exactly how he felt. He wasn’t physically prepared, but mentally he wanted it real bad.
When I met him the day before the race, I told him in no unclear terms that he shouldn’t be running, leave alone attempt. He told me that he would turn 45 on the day of the race so it had to be done. That helped with my decision making that very instant. We had a task at hand, and it was my job to get him to the finish. Period.
How hard could it be to get Raj there in three and a half or so hours, slower than my walking pace? He was courteous enough to tell me that I should get on with my race and enjoy myself and that’s what makes him special.
What I experienced with Raj, made me have a lot more respect for people who pick up running against all the odds, when the whole world and even friends and families discourage them at each step of the way. Their fitness levels complement what everyone else is saying around them. They falter and fall repeatedly as if the cosmos is trying to pass on a message that they simply weren’t made to move. They are made fun of and yet they get up after every fall, and get moving.
I had planned for Raj to walk after the first 5-7 min of slow jog, and repeatedly do the same till the end. I had told him to catch his breath each time he walked. He followed my instructions to the tee. But he was struggling already at 11 kms, which we took about 1hr 45min to get to.
In my advice, I totally messed up thinking it was ‘only’ 21 kms, a mere half marathon. I was with Raj each step of the way and saw the effort that had to be put in to get to the finish. It was an ultra marathon for him, something I had never realised over years while advising beginner runners.
To make it worse, the conditions weren’t at all what we had gone for, expecting to run at midnight while the sun was out, but it turned out to be a cold overcast rainy and windy day. When I say cold, it was as cold as Delhi gets in winter months. Our Norwegian hosts were cheering us all along, enjoying and celebrating their summers. They were repeatedly chanting Haiya, Haiya, Haiya!
As for me, as I mentioned above, I made some awful most basic mistakes. The simple rule of running is, never try anything new during a race. I had picked up a sports drink an hour before the race and was sipping on it before and during first 2-3 kms of the race. At 3 kms, I had the urge to use the loo for number two. I just had to answer the nature’s call. Never in my running life of over 34 years had that happened. It has been my favourite line that ‘when you drink or eat something for the first time in the race without ever having tried the same during practice, you could end up running to the loo rather than the finish line’, and here I was making my nightmare come true. Luckily they had porta-cabin toilets.
Another major mistake I made was that I knew how cold it was going to be and yet I didn’t carry gloves with me. By 17 kms, my hands were swollen, the way they do for participants at La Ultra - The High, when they are exposed to minus temperatures while getting to North Pullu.
As much as I love George Carlin, the real learning is almost always outside your comfort zone, not only while going faster, but as a matter of fact, even when going a lot slower than you possibly can. It reminds me again of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and my column last week which I yet need to blog about. I soon will.
As it turned out, I was the last one to cross the finish line in 4 hours 5 min. Out of respect for Raj, I didn’t want to finish before him, after all he had helped me rediscover myself by digging deep in when physically it simply wasn’t possible. We all have a tendency to give up way too soon. Thank you Raj.
Below is the print edition of the column.