“I sat on the kerb and cried my eyes out because I was so exhausted, so gutted, so angry and so helpless. Part of me hated myself and my body for being so weak and for giving up; part of me accepted this was the end of the road, I could go no further. None of me wanted to accept the situation I was in.”
- Paula Radcliffe, world record holder, on stopping at 37km (approx) mark in the Marathon at the Athens Olympic Games.
At the 67 km mark of the Comrades 2011 Ultra Marathon, I slept on the road side and waited for the bail bus. 24 hours before the race, a combination of anti-inflammatory drugs and a stomach bug had wiped out all my strength. All the vital nutrients from my body were flushed down the toilet in a matter of a few hours and as a wise man once said, “If there’s no petrol in the tank, the car ain’t going anywhere”. My tank was empty at 67 km and no amount of mental strength, motivation or philosophy could have got me through the balance 20 km in less than 2 hours and 20 minutes.
I had spent the last 12 months dreaming about this day and the 7 of those months training religiously to run this race. I had come to South Africa fairly confident of a safe finish under 12 hours. And here I was, lying on the road and all the training, work, planning, sacrifices and thoughts of glory had come to naught. And so I thought to myself, why did I have to get the stomach bug just 24 hours before the race. It would have been fine to get it anytime in the last 7 months. I wondered: Dear God, Why me? Why now?
My friend Vishnu Naidoo was in the best shape of his life and had run his fastest Comrades in 2010 to earn a bronze medal. I knew he was capable of a new personal best in 2011 and yet just 48 hours before the race he came down with a back spasm which made it virtually impossible for him to stand or walk. I know that Vishnu asked the same question. Dear God, Why me and why now? In-fact, the night before the race, he pinned his race number onto his t-shirt and went to sleep praying that the spasm will disappear during the night.
My friend Elvis Monene, was 500 meters away from the finish line and had 5 minutes to finish Comrades and yet he suffered from such excruciating pain in his knees that he decided to sit on the side of the road and abandon his quest, just 500 meters from the finish. As he saw other runners run past him into the finish, I am sure Elvis must have asked, Dear God, Why me? Why now?
My friend from India, Vishwas had trained harder than any of the other 21 Indians who had registered for Comrades 2011. On the 23rd of May, he woke up and realized that he had lost 3-D vision in one eye. An injury he had suffered when he was 10 years old came back to haunt him, just 7 days before Comrades. Vishwas went into surgery but held onto his plane ticket until the day before Comrades, hoping against hope that he would be able to fly and get to the start-line. Finally on Saturday, the day before the race, he messaged me and told me that he won’t make it. I know for sure that Vishwas asked himself the same question. In-fact, he put it on as his blackberry status message: Why now?
Another friend, Hiroko Mullins from Australia, was trying to complete her first Comrades, having tried and failed at her first attempt in 2010. This was her second attempt. She had trained harder and better and yet at the 20km mark when her knee gave way. She cried all the way until she reached 45 km before she had to stop. I think she kept singing her favourite song by Myley Cyrus which her 10 year old daughter had brought to her notice:
“But I gotta keep trying
Gotta keep my head held high
There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb
The struggles I'm facing
The chances I'm taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I'm not breaking
I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I'm gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going
And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on.......”
Hiroko later told me that she was grateful that she was wearing large sunglasses on that day or else all the runners around her and spectators would have seen her crying from 20km to 45 km. I am sure Hiroko also wondered: Dear God, Why me? Why now?
Of course, it has been argued that there is no God. And certainly not one who has the time to worry about Comrades runners not finishing especially when the world is full of far greater misery and problems of death, diseases, poverty, wars and genocide.
Stephen Hawking in his book, The Grand Design says that there is no God. He says that there is no need to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. There are no gods and no demons. He asserts that Philosophy is dead because it has not kept up with modern developments in science.
I know that my stomach bug can be scientifically explained and so can Vishnu’s muscle spasm and all the other injuries. But without a little bit of philosophy, I would be afraid of facing the seeming randomness of nature and that of my life.
We humans are a unique species. We keep asking questions and don’t necessarily seek scientific explanations to all aspects of our lives. And this world which is by turn a kind and cruel place gives us plenty of occasions to seek such explanations. Of course I never ask God, why now, why me, when things go right. I often take the good for granted, it’s only the bad stuff that He has to account for.
Very often, when I cannot find answers which explain what I see as the fundamental randomness of nature, I search the heavens for answers. Unfortunately there are no answers to be found in the heavens. It’s been often said that the ancients believed that the world is ruled by the gods of the Sun, the Sky and the Oceans, who watch us from the heavens and decide our fate based on our conduct and whether we have prayed enough and to the right gods. The ancients concluded that God’s and demon’s intervene in the running of our lives. I don’t think this is true. There is certainly no God who has time for Comrades runners. There is too much other more important stuff going on in the world.
But I did wonder if there was a Karmic reason to my not finishing as opposed to a purely scientific one. I wonder whether it is the law of Karma which is operating here and whether the triumphs are brought on by my goodness and the punishments are brought on by my crimes.
I have wondered whether the ‘judge’ is not without but within me. Did I do something to deserve a Did-Not-Finish?
It has been a month since Comrades 2011 and I have not run much yet. The DNF still troubles my heart and my mind. Running is something I want to do well. Running has been, besides my wife and kids, a major source of my ‘happy thoughts’.
I know that when I was a kid, it seemed to me that my life’s possibilities were endless. I felt that I could do whatever it is that I wanted to do. The sky was the limit. But middle-age changed all that. Now, what once seemed boundless is constricted with burdens of worldly knowledge. Age brings cynicism.
But I think that the sport of running once again expanded my horizons about what was possible and running Comrades is my celebration of that spirit of freedom.
But to celebrate this freedom, it sometimes seems important to reach the finish line. I have now lined up on the start line 3 times and reached the finish only once. 1 out of 3 is pretty bad.
I have often felt that reading about other people’s lives often brings a perspective to one’s own. There are heroes out there who have faced insurmountable odds against death, disease, poverty and war. Sometimes reading about these heroes makes me realize what is real heroism and motivates me to do more with my life and keep my problems in perspective.
To clear my head and heart, I re-read my favourite true story of Charlie Eckman, a machine gunner in WWII. Charlie was stationed in Bastogne during what became famous as the Battle of the Bulge. “What the soldiers faced there was not only enemy fire but also a cruel killer....bitter cold. Soldiers were crowded down in foxholes which had to be lined with tree boughs. As the body temperature melted the frozen pine braches, water penetrated their clothing. Sleeping was impossible and the bitter cold began to take its toll. Frostbite and trench foot became common place. Yet no one faked a wound. Men with physical wounds took pride in refusing morphine, giving it to someone worse off because medical supplies were scarce. Often it took more than one wound before a man went to the facsimile of a hospital, a basement in the ruins of Bastogne where soldiers lay in rows on the stone floor. The unofficial record for multiple wounds belonged to Charlie Eckman.
At 5 feet 4 inches, he was a small target however he was hit by enemy fire 17 times in 6 months. That was a rigorous count because several small fragments from one grenade counted as only one wound, though two bullet holes from a single burst were both counted. His 17th wound was from a nine-millimetre slug in the ankle that drove a boot eyelet into his leg. This meant that the boot had to be removed – it hadn’t been for two weeks – something Eckman dreaded, and he heard from the medic, “ My, God, trooper, your leg’s gotta come off ! The foot’s completely frozen!”
He went to the rear in a stretcher, the only time in 17 he hadn’t made it to an aid station on his own power. The surgeon was in the midst of amputations and had a less-than-perfect bedside manner. “You’re next” was all he said to Eckman.
“No, I’m not, Doc!” he cried, and bolted out of the aid station. Medical aides tried to stop him. “Let him go,” the surgeon grumbled. “He’s going to die anyway.”
Eckman was too weak to get back to his unit so he turned himself in at a tent hospital. He couldn’t talk because of diphtheria in his throat, so he couldn’t argue with a second opinion that gangrene had set in and that both his legs had to come off. Eckman shook his head and whispered that all he needed was to warm up. The surgeon tried to convince him. “You don’t understand, son.” He ran a needle along the soles of Eckman’s feet. “See? No feeling.”
“Give me a chance.”
“What do you want to do, die?” Then the surgeon was called away for another emergency. He was gone 20 minutes. Left alone, Eckman did push-ups, squat jumps, and rubbed his legs so hard that the skin came off. He plunged back into bed when he heard the surgeon returning.
“Check my circulation now, Doc.” Indeed it was noticeably improved. “Gimme a couple of more days. If I’m not better then, you can have my legs.”
“You’re battle-rattled, trooper. In a couple of days you’ll be dead. But that’s up to you. I’ve got plenty to do with guys who want to live.”
Whenever no medical staff was around, Eckman resumed stationary but strenuous exercise, much of it all night. TO do so he had to disconnect intravenous tubes, then stick them back in when doctors made their morning rounds. They were wide-eyed over his improvement:
“Eckman, this is almost a miracle. We were going to amputate your left leg above the knee and the right one below. Now we can cut off the left at the knee and the right at the ankle.”
“Gimme another day, Doc.” After another night of anaerobic calisthenics, the new prognosis was even better. “ It must be because you’re dammed young! (Eckman was 19.) Great circulation. Never seen anything like it. You’re going to get out of this war with just 4 toes off your left foot and 3 on the right.”
“Sir, can we talk about that tomorrow?”
But the next day, Eckman was gone, AWOL from the hospital and had hitchhiked back to Bastogne, back to the frontlines.” (Behind Hitler’s lines, Thomas Taylor)
I think, I had been asking the wrong question of myself. The question to be asked is not, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why now?’ To ask the why and the how assumes that everything in this world has a why and a how.
The only question that one should ask is ‘What now?’
Stephen Hawking writes that there is no God.
S. Radhakrishnan writes that a search for a God outside ourselves is futile. A deer thinks that the fragrance comes from outside and hunts for it restlessly all the while not knowing that the musk is inside him. God is in us. Perhaps even if, as some believe, we cannot escape from the principles of Karma, there is hope because man can make himself what he will. Man is not doomed because of his past, he can build his future as he wishes.
The Upanishads declare, “You are what your deepest desire is. As is your desire, so is your intention. As is your intention, so is your will. As is your will, so is your deed. As is your deed, so is your destiny.”
I have moped enough. The question to be dealt with is simply: ‘What now?’
What now? That’s for me to decide. I have free will. My future is in my hands.
What now? Well, I think it’s time to thank and put Eckman back on the bookshelf, put on my dry-fit clothes, wear my Nike Free shoes, strap on my Garmin and head-out the door. It’s time to again celebrate the freedom and pleasure of running and get ready for Comrades 2012.