Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Lost Runner

The Lost Runner
I am a greedy chap when it comes to running.  I want a lot.  Yesterday, Neepa and I woke up at 3:15 am and started our Sunday long run at 4:00am.  This was to be our first serious long run after Comrades 2012 and our first preparatory run with Comrades 2013 in mind.

2013 is so full of promise.  There are a lot of races to be run, some prior to Comrades 2013, and some after. 
When it comes to running, I really can’t get enough. I want to run all over the world.   

First I want to run Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon on Jan 20th as a pacer and TV commentator for Star TV, then I want to run the Tokyo Marathon on Feb 24th and run my personal best time, then I want to run the Tel Aviv Marathon on March 15th and later also run through the sacred streets of Jerusalem, then on June 2nd I will run Comrades, and then in August I want to run a 80k trail race in South Africa. And that will bring me half-way into my 2013 goals. 

Let me not even discuss the 2nd half of 2013.
By-the-way, did I mention that I am a greedy guy?

I really do want a lot and I will certainly be heart-broken if I miss some of these races. 
If time and health and family and work would permit, I would simply spend all my time running races around the world. 

But as I ran yesterday, I thought as to what was really important, the simple pleasures of running everyday or the attraction of running exotic races around the world?  Which of the two is a want and which of the two is a need?  I sometimes confuse my wants with my needs and oftentimes I wonder if I am truly grateful for the blessings that I enjoy. 

As I ran in the unfortunate heat and humidity of a December morning in Mumbai, I remembered one of my favourite short stories, The Lost Child, written by Mulk Raj Anand. 
Anand was born in 1905 and ‘The Lost Child’, was probably written in the 1930’s.  It is a story which can be read at different levels and I have come to my own conclusion about its meaning. 

The story is about a small boy, in a small village in India, who goes to the village fair along with his mother and father.  The fair was taking place outside the village gates and as he walks alongside his parents to reach the fair grounds, he runs between his parent’s legs, brimming with life and laughter.

As he walks towards the fair grounds, he is continuously attracted by the toy shops which line the road and continuously pleads, “I want that toy”.  But his patents simply say, “Come, child, come” and continue walking. 

Soon, they leave the village and walk past a mustard field.  The child runs into this beautiful ‘field of melted gold’ to catch dragonflies and bees. His parents continue walking on the road and simply call out to him, “Come, child, come”.

They then come across a grove which is full of flowers and the boy runs into the grove, forgetting his parents. He begins to gather flower petals.  He then spots a dove and runs after it, shouting, “Dove, Dove, I want the Dove”.  “Come, child, come” is all that his parents say as they keep walking. 

As they enter the fair grounds, the child sees the sweetmeat-seller hawking, ‘Gulab-jamun, rasgulla, burfi and jalebi’ and he runs towards the sweetmeat-seller and pleads, “I want that burfi, I want that burfi, I want that burfi”, but his parents say, “Come, child, come” and they move on.

He then sees a flower-seller hawking a garland of gulmohur and is drawn irresistibly to the sweet scent floating in the air. He runs towards the flower-seller and shouts, “I want that garland, I want that garland, I want that garland” but his parents say, “Come, child, come” and they move on. 

The child then spies a man selling balloons and is now possessed by an overwhelming desire to have them all.  He runs towards the balloon man and shouts, “I want some balloons, I want some balloons, I want some balloons”, but his patents simply say, “Come, child, come” and they move on.

He then notices a snake-charmer playing a flute to a snake and rushes to see the show. “I want to watch the show” he says but then knows that his parents won’t stop for him.

Then, he sees a roundabout in full swing.  He notices the other children having fun on the roundabout and cannot control himself. “I want to go on the roundabout, I want to go on the roundabout, I want to go on the roundabout, Please Mother, Please Father, I want to go on the roundabout”

This time, there is no reply.  He turns to look at his parents, but they are not there.  He looks ahead, they are not there, he looks to his right, he looks to his left and he can’t see them. 

A full, deep cry rises in his dry throat, “Mother, Father!” Tears begin to roll down his face and he is gripped with panic. He runs, hither and thither, in all directions, knowing not where to go, ‘Mother, Father, Mother, Father!” 
He begins to run, through people’s legs, sobbing, “Mother, Father”. As the crowd thickens outside the gates of the temple, erected inside the fair grounds, he falls and gets trampled. 

A man lifts him up and tries to soothe him.  “How did you get here, child? Whose baby are you?” the man asked.  The child weeps more bitterly than ever and only cries, “I want my mother, I want my father”

The man tries to soothe him by taking him to the roundabout. “Will you like to sit on it?” he asked.  The child breaks into wild, deep, shrill sobs as he cries, “I want my mother, I want my father.”

The man heads towards the juggler and says, “Look at the cobra and listen to this music”, but the child cries harder, “I want my mother, I want my father.”

The man takes him near the balloons, thinking that the bright colours might distract the child. “Would you like some balloons?” The child turns away and sobs, “I want my mother, I want my father.”

The kind man, still trying to pacify the child, takes him to the flower seller and tries to buy him a garland, but the child turns away and cries, ”I want my mother, I want my father”.

He then takes him to the sweetmeat seller and tries to buy him some barfi.  No, says the child and continues sobbing, “I want my mother, I want my father.”.......

Sometimes, it takes a traumatic event for us to realize the significance and importance of that which we already have. If we are unfortunate, the lesson comes home when it is too late. If we are fortunate, we become aware of our blessings while we are enjoying them.      

Yes, I want to run races all over the world, but is that what I really need to be happy? I think not.

I know that I am a very blessed man to be able to wake up every morning and step out my door for a short run. It is such a privilege to be healthy and to have all my body parts functional, to be able to step out into the hazy morning light and inhale the slightly-polluted Mumbai air into my strong lungs. 

The greatest blessing is to run with Neepa by my side.

That, is all I really need and what I really want!

Great, so after getting a clear perspective on this running business, now let me ponder upon my sex life.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Lakshya (Goal): Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 30/9/2012

On 15th July 1999, he was deployed on the Line of Control (during Operation Vijay/Kargil War) when the Pakistanis started shelling the Indian forward positions.  

He heard the sound of the first mortar shell fly just over his bunker and land further behind. He felt and heard the sound of the 2nd second shell as it came straight towards him.  It exploded 2 meters away from him.  The foot-long, 2-inch diameter shell had a kill zone of 8 meters.  The blast sent thousands of shrapnel pieces in every direction.  

He felt the fiery stings as pieces of red-hot shrapnel entered and shredded the right side of his body, from the torso down to his legs.  Blood gushed out of his body as if from a water fountain. The pain was excruciating; he cried out. Slowly he lost consciousness. He arrived at the hospital so covered in blood and guts that he was initially given up for dead!

On the night of the 18th he heard the words, “Son, I think I need to amputate your right leg.”

Major D.P.Singh looked down at his shredded and gangrene infected right leg and replied, “Doctor, I can see it myself, there is nothing much left below my knee...do what you must”...

He returned to civilian life, after serving the country for another 10 years, but he had lost a few body parts in the war.  He had lost a part of his intestine. He had also lost his right leg through the knee. He had lost large chunks of flesh in his left leg and had permanently damaged the meniscal cartilage in his left knee.  He would never fully recover his hearing ability, which was damaged with the blast. (A few years after the war, while still in the army, he underwent a major operation for a tumor on his urinary bladder)  

What stayed with him from the war however, were 40 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body.  They are lodged all over the place: in his ribs, lungs, liver, elbow and leg. 

Few people commence their journey to the start-line of a marathon with 40 pieces of shrapnel inside their body, a drastically compromised intestine, acoustic trauma, a massively compromised left leg and a compromised urinary bladder. 

The first time Major Singh went for a run wearing his prosthetic leg, the jarring from the vibration, caused a small piece of shrapnel lodged in his rib to dislodge.  It caused him excruciating pain.  The doctor advised that an operation would be necessary to remove it.  At that point, Major Singh had just started motivating a group of fellow ‘challengers’ to run.  He figured that if he was sidelined after the surgery, his comrades would get demotivated and the group would fall apart. He decided that he would not get operated.  He figured that he would continue running and thereby continue jarring the shrapnel piece until it re-lodged itself somewhere else inside his body and stopped paining!

Sometimes in life, the people who inspire us the most are not the winners of the race, but those who strive valiantly and shed their sweat and blood to simply be a part of race day.   

My job on this race day was to run alongside Major Singh and occasionally interview him for the Star Plus Television Channel.  In the process, I had the privilege to receive a life-lesson in courage and tenacity that I shall never forget.

The day had started for me at hotel Le Meridian.  I woke up at 4:15 am and went to the loo.  Only a runner understands the importance of bowel movements on race day.  The fact that a clean GI system is a luxury, can only be understood by a runner who has suffered a tummy problem half way through a marathon. 
I later went for a nice hot shower and changed into my black branded T-shirt (Only a non-runner Marketing Executive would ask a runner to wear a black T-shirt on a hot and sunny day) and shorts. It took me 30 seconds to wear my socks and another 30 seconds to wear my shoes and then I went down to the coffee shop and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast.  By 5:00 am I was seated in the same bus as Kenya’s Edwin Kipyego for a ride to the start line. 

I met the Major inside the production control room.  He was accompanied by his partner Dr. Dimple Bharati.  She told me that she planned to meet us several times on the route to give him his energy drink and later run the last few km with us.  She explained that due to the massive operation on his intestine, the Major dehydrated very soon.  I assured her that I would make sure that we pick-up water from all the water stops. 

We made our way to the start-line and were interviewed for the TV viewing audience.  The open category run started at 6:40 am.  Within a few hundred meters, I noticed that the sun was out and it was already very humid and hot.  I braced for a rough day ahead.  The Major was quiet and focused.  I wanted him to set his own pace and so stayed just a few inches behind him.  I noticed his gait. This was the first time that I was running alongside someone wearing a prosthetic leg.  With each step it looked as if he was landing on a thorn that pierced further inside his right foot. It seemed very painful. It was not a smooth stride also because his left leg was severely damaged. It dawned on me just how hard it was for him to run. 

All around us were runners who were focused on their finish times.  They sped past us.  However, hundreds of runners noticed us and clapped for the Major. Many seemed to know him personally. They shouted, “Go Major”, “Major you are great.” “Major you inspire me”.   

A girl hugged him and said, “Sir, I used to only run the 6k dream run, but YOU inspired me to run the 21k this year”. The Major answered, “I’ll give you another hug, when to move up to the 42k”

A few minutes later, we were joined by Colonel Rana Sinha.  He told me that he looked upon Major Singh as his hero and inspiration and that he intended to run and support us.  I was relieved to have a friend together because I could feel that this was going to be a rough day with the heat rising incessantly.

The heat kept increasing by the minute and so did the humidity.  At about 4 km the Major stopped to adjust his prosthetic.  He held his thigh and shook it violently, as if to make it settle inside the socket of the prosthetic.  I was flabbergasted.  I stood behind him to make sure that nobody ran into him.  It was an action I had never seen before. I was in shock. I could not believe this man was running. I later looked at his face.  All I could see was determination.  This was a look of a man who was simply focused on the finish line.  If there was pain, and I am sure there was, he did not show it. 

As we reached the 7k mark we were approaching India Gate (Indian Army’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).  I have run this race 3 years in succession and each time I reach India Gate the uppermost thought in my mind is: I wish the marathon photographer manages to catch me with India Gate in the background. It would make for a nice picture on my wall.  As we approached India gate, I had pretty much the same thought this time too. 
But then, I saw the Major look up towards India Gate and snap a Salute. 
I had a tear in my eye.  I love my India too, but am I doing enough? I made a resolution to redouble my efforts to help the kids suffering from Cancer and being treated at the Tata Hospital.  

We kept running. We were all sweating profusely.  We kept drinking water.  As we passed the medical tents we noticed more and more people flocking towards them.  This was going to be a long hard day!
To take the Major’s mind off the heat, humidity and pain, I told him about my routine from the time I had woken up at 4:15 am. I asked him how his day had started.

I learnt that Major Singh had a slightly different start to his day. 
Because parts of his intestine were shredded in the blast and later removed in surgery, he has all sorts of issues in clearing his GI system.  It took him a lot of time to clear his stomach in the morning.

Then he had to wear his prosthetic. It had taken me 30 seconds to wear my socks. It was a little different for the Major. 
His right leg was amputated through his knee, but there were still shrapnel embedded in his lower thigh.  The skin which grew over these wounds was soft tissue, which was very sensitive.  He had to prepare each of these areas by first applying some cream and then putting tape over them to protect them from friction. 

Then, there was the question of wearing the prosthetic leg itself. The stub where the knee was amputated was is a highly sensitive area.  It comes into contact with the socket of the prosthetic leg.  The socket is made of hard plastic. Soft skin against a hard material!  So, he had to prepare the bottom of his amputated knee enable it to withstand the friction and pounding it is about to receive.
The prosthetic socket is round, the knee stub is round.  He needed to align the prosthetic exactly right.  When I wear my shoe, the shoe automatically aligns itself with my foot.  But a prosthetic must to be worn exactly at the correct angle with reference to his thigh and the rest of his body. With no real reference point it takes a lot of patience and skill to put on the prosthetic.

Once the leg is worn, he needs to make sure it holds tight around his thigh so that it won’t move as he runs. Even a few mm of play/movement will cause friction and inflame his skin.  He puts more tape and ties a few bandages around the socket to hold it tight against his thigh.

It had taken him close to 3 hours to get ready to leave for the start-line.

I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. We were clearly not running the same race.  I was running an easy 21k; however it seemed to me that this man was climbing Mt Everest. He had a prosthetic in one leg which was incredibly uncomfortable to wear while his other leg had chunks of flesh missing.  Not only was he climbing up Mt Everest but he was doing it blindfolded.  

But I was wrong.  He didn’t seem to think so.  He told me that he hated the idea that people are called, ‘Physically Challenged’. He said that he was a ‘Challenger’ and he wanted the world to know that there was nothing he could not do that anyone else could.  
Life had thrown down a gauntlet at him.  And he had no hesitation in picking it up.

He had started an organization called The Challenging Ones (TCO) with the idea of motivating all challengers to overcome their limitations and partake in sports and adventure activities. He said that he had wanted to partake in the trials for the London Paralympics Games but our country lacked well trained prosthetic technicians to assist him with prosthetic fitment. He said he wanted organizations to come forward to understand the need for better prosthetic technicians in our country.

I ran alongside him in awed silence. On the way back towards the finish he once again saluted the India Gate.

By the time we reached 15k, the heat and humidity were just debilitating; it seemed like heaven was pouring fire down upon us, the heat radiating from the tar road was further aggravating the heat - and then suddenly we went to Live broadcasting.

Samir (TV Moderator): How is it going out there Amit, how is Major doing?

Me: Samir, I am reminded of the song from the movie Lakshya (Goal):
Barse chahe amber se aag,
Lipte chahe pairon se naag.

Even if it pours fire from the skies...
Even if snakes entangle my every stride...
Samir, the skies over Delhi have poured fire on us today, but let me ask Major about the state of his stride.  Major, how are the legs doing?

Major: Yes, the skies have poured fire, and the legs want to stop.  But I also have a mind, and the mind says I won’t stop! I will keep going! I will reach the finish line!

Me: Aaj Lakshya to paana hai (today, I have to reach my goal) Samir, we will not stop, we will not give up. We will reach the finish line.

Major: I am called physically challenged, but I am not so.  I want to say that the ones who are really challenged are those who lack mental willpower. There are lots of people like me in India who are waiting for an opportunity to become physically active.  Wake up India, if I can do it, you can do it.”

And so on and on we ran...the first time the Major slipped and fell on his face was when the cap of a water bottle came under the blade of his prosthetic. The second was when someone from behind banged into him. the third and the fourth time, when he lost his rhythm.  Each time, he picked himself up and simply dusted his palms.  There was no change of expression on his face. No sound escaped his mouth. There was a steely determination in him that I have never seen in another human being.  He looked straight ahead. He never doubted or questioned his own ability.  He ran as only a world champion can. He ran with the strength of his mind and for a passion close to his heart.  He ran for those of us who doubt our own abilities...He ran for me...He ran for you...

With 200 meters to go, the Indian Tricolour materialized in his hands, given to him by his friends waiting alongside the road.  He ran into the finish along with his friends Dr. Bharati and Colonel Rana.  I stayed a few meters behind 

I had witnessed firsthand what a soldier from the Indian Army was capable of doing.      

On the 30th of September 2012, Kenya’s Edwin Kipyego ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon and finished first in a time of 1:00:55.  When Edwin reached the finish line, the Major and I must have barely reached the 8 km marker.

But in my heart I have no doubt who really won the race that day. I know who my champion was.  I had run alongside him all morning.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Wisdom From A Dentist's Chair

“Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string...Insist on yourself; never imitate...Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is unique...Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare.” 
-Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Reliance

I had been searching for ‘The Answer’ since the last 7 years. My search as a runner has been for ‘The Perfect training program’. The best program, which would help me ‘Arrive’.
For 7 years, I have been searching for the best training program which I can follow like one follows religious scripture.  Which is the boat that will take me across to the Promised Land?  
My moment of clarity arrived at the unlikeliest of places.  My search ended at my dentist’s office. 
Let me explain.  My dentist, Dr. Nipa Diwanji, is also a runner.  She is absolutely the best dentist in India.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that about her running ability.  But, Dr. Nipa is a perfectionist at work and this personality trait also compels her to continuously try to improve her running ability. 
Just like me, the good Doctor, is also continuously looking for the best and greatest training program to help her run faster and further.  But it’s still just a work-in-progress. 
As I entered her office last week, to have her look at my nagging toothache, I noticed a book on her desk: “Run Less Run Faster” by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss.  The book claimed to help runners train to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 
I was delighted.  This was the Holy Grail I had been searching for. A panacea for all my problems! This is the boat which will carry me to the Promised Land. I want to run a 4:15 at the Tokyo Marathon in February and this training program would surely help me get there!
The Dentist’s chair always reminds me of a medieval torture device. And as I settled in for an extended torture session on ‘The Rack’, I tried to distract my mind by thinking of my 7 year search for the greatest marathon training program.    
The search has been unending.  I have tried all the programs that are out there. I have tried out programs by Tim Noakes, Jeff Galloway, Joe Henderson, Art Liberman, Bob Williams, Pete Pfitzinger, Jack Daniels, Alberto Salzar and perhaps a dozen others suggested by every possible Running magazine. 
So now, is my search at an end?
But as Dr. Nipa prodded and poked around my mouth with all kinds of sharp knives, I wondered whether the best program for me is out there somewhere or is it already inside me.  To attain my goal of running faster and further, must I search outside or inside of myself?
With the help of an X-ray, the good Doctor soon diagnosed the source of my toothache. She opined that the 3rd Molar needed to be extracted. Oh! How I hate my Dentist.
As she started preparing an anaesthesia injection (which in my opinion was big enough to put an elephant to sleep), I kept thinking about my search for a perfect marathon training program.
As she started her torture session, I remembered a story once told by Osho: 
“There was once a King who was searching for the greatest religion in the world.  He had been searching for it since he had been a young man and had not still found it.  And since he had not found a perfect true religion, the question of living a religious life in accordance with it did not arise for him. 
He called on scholars, saints and philosophers to help him find the greatest religion.  They came and they argued amongst themselves and found fault in every religion out there. Each claimed that his religion was the best and greatest. So the King never found the greatest religion.  But he never gave up his research; it had become his play.  However, as death came closer, he became restless.  Now he became desperate to find the greatest religion, which could lead him to God. 
One day a beggar came to the palace to beg and finding the King worried and depressed, asked the reason.  The King replied, “How can you help me even if I explained? The greatest scholars, saints and philosophers have not been able to help me.”           
The beggar then said, “It is possible that their greatness was in-itself a barrier for them?”
The king looked at the beggar attentively.  The beggar continued to speak, “I can do nothing. In fact, I do not exist. But the one who exists can do a lot.”  
The King spoke up, “I wanted to seek out the highest religion and make my life religious but this has not been possible.  Which is the highest religion?”
The beggar laughed and said, “Oh King! What madness prompted you to seek out the highest religion?  Life does not become religious after you have found religion; religion is found only when life itself becomes religious.  Please come to the other side of the river outside your kingdom.  There, I can point my finger towards religion and God.”
They went together to the riverbank.  The best available boats were brought to them but the beggar would point out one fault after another in each of them. Lots of boats were brought and each one was rejected by the beggar, some as too big, some as too small, some as too plain, and some as too ostentatious.  
Eventually, the king became frustrated.  He said to the beggar, “Oh, great soul! We have only to cross this small river, we can even swim across. Let us forget about these boats. Let us get there by swimming across.  Why waste our time?”
As if the beggar had been waiting for this, he said to the king, “Oh King! I also wanted to say the same thing.  Why are you so concerned with the boats that signify different religious sects? Isn’t it best for us to swim across to God? In fact, there is no religious boat.  The only way is for us to swim.  Truth can be found only through our own efforts.  Nobody else can give it to us.  One has to swim in the sea of truth by oneself. There is no other support.  Those who look for support will drown close to the shore, but those who take courage and swim by themselves will manage to cross, even if they have a little taste of drowning at the beginning.”
As the good Doctor, drilled away inside my mouth, I reflected that over the last 7 years of running, I had collected fabulous amounts of information about running and running programs. I have lots of knowledge.  But knowledge is not wisdom, knowledge is just information.  Wisdom leads to a transformation.  I have collected knowledge on training programs, on shoes, on hydration, on hill running, on speed training and more.  I had filled my mind with lots of information.  Perhaps the time had now come to drop all this information. The time had come to transform myself.  
I felt that it was now time to put faith in my own experiences. 
7 years of running, thousands of kilometres, all over the world, has given me a treasure trove of experiences. It is time to create my own path, I need to be a pilgrim again and seek my own path to salvation.  I don’t need to borrow someone else’s boat; I need to swim for myself.  
I need to drop all the knowledge clogging my mind.  I need to be emptied of all this borrowed knowledge; for when I drop this knowledge, perhaps wisdom may arise.
I shall find my own Wisdom!
I was pulled out of my reverie, by the sound of Dr. Nipa’s voice. “Ok Amit, it’s done!” she said.
“What have you done Doc?” I asked, barely able to speak through my totally anaesthetised mouth. 
“I have extracted the third molar, it was impacted and I had to drill it out” she said.
“Speak to me in English Doc, which tooth is the 3rd molar?” I asked.
“That’s your Wisdom tooth” she answered, “I just extracted the last of your remaining Wisdom teeth”
“OUCH!” is all I could say!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

“The Way of the White Clouds”

“The Way of the White Clouds”

In 1785 Scottish poet Robert Burns in his poem “To a Mouse, on Turning Up in Her Nest with the Plough” wrote the lines:

“The best-laid schemes o’mice an’men
Gang aft agley
An’ lea’e us nothing but grief an’pain
For Promis’d joy!” 

For those of us who use the contemporary form of the English language, these lines can simply be translated as follows: “Shit Happens”

I had made some plans.  I had planned that I would run a 4:19 Marathon in Amsterdam on the 21st of October.  The training plans had been made and put into action. The arrow had left the bow. The game was afoot. 

And Then...shit happened!

On the 16th of August, I went for a haircut.  Half way into the haircut, my barber standing behind me asked, “Amit Sir, which is the strongest antibiotic according to you?”
I cringed. I shrunk into the chair.  I looked at his reflection in the mirror and in a voice filled with panic I asked him, “Why do you ask?”
“Oh Nothing”, he said, “I have contacted this really bad virus which does not seem to leave me.”

I looked at my reflection in the mirror.  Can I jump out of the chair and leave? He had already cut the hair on the right side of my head.  If I left then, I would have looked like half a Mohawk. 

I told him that it was a bad idea to call in clients when he was unwell.  I tried not to breathe for the next 15 minutes as he finished my haircut.

48 hours later, I lay in bed with 103 degree fever.  I cursed my barber. 

Why? Why? Why was this happening? 

As I lay in bed, my friend Raymond in Australia sent me an e-mail that he was injured and it seemed that his planned run at the Delhi Half Marathon seemed to be in jeopardy.  He lamented, “Why did I get injured just when I had started enjoying my runs?”

On the 18th of August, as I lay sick in bed, wallowing in self-pity, I had my ipad next to me and I was fixated on following one of the greatest athletic endeavours about to be undertaken. 

Diana Nyad, a 62 year old athlete was about to swim from Cuba to Florida, a distance equalling 5 English Channels. A 164 km swim in shark and jellyfish infested open waters. She was to swim it without a shark cage.  She had been preparing for this attempt for a lifetime.  This was her 4th attempt. 

What made this attempt incredible was not just that she was 62 years old or that the distance was too long.  What she had to face was also the unforgiving weather, the dangers of hypothermia, and the possibility of being bitten by sharks and venomous jellyfish. 
Diana had tried this swim before.  In 1978, at the age of 28, she had fought against raging sea currents which had pushed her off course, out of reach from land. 

30 years later, in 2011, she made two more attempts, the first attempt failed due to an asthma attack and the second due to jellyfish bites.  But in 2012 she had again collected over $3,00,000/- to put together a team of over 50 people to help her make one more attempt at the crossing.

As I lay in bed, burning with fever and filled with self pity, Diana jumped into the water. Every few hours I opened my eyes to log onto her website where her crew was posting updates. 
An escort boat “Voyager” was next to her. Her team of kayakers was protecting her from sharks.  There were shark experts and jellyfish experts, all working together to get her to the other shore. Diana had trained for thousands of hours to accomplish her goal.  She had undertaken countless swims for countless hours, training for this very day.  The rules were such that she could not touch the boat. She had to be even fed through a tube. 
On and on she swam. 

I prayed and cheered for her as I lay in bed and so did thousands of people around the world. We kept posting comments of encouragement on her Facebook page.  Diana was swimming for every middle-aged person like me.  She was telling me that I can have still have lots of dreams and desires, that I was not too old to push my limits.  She was swimming for all of us. 

Then the first jellyfish struck. A bite on her neck. Then the 2nd, on her lips. A third on her hand, then a 4th on her forehead. And on and on, jellyfish came in by the hundreds and the thousands. It became a minefield. They had to pull jellyfish tentacles out of her fingers.   The bites were debilitating and caused her excruciating pain, chills and asthma. She kept swimming.  

And then the first storm came in and blew her off course.  She swam on.  

After 40 hours of swimming she fought hypothermia and dealt with swollen lips and a swollen tongue. 

And then a second storm came in and simply settled in on her.  She kept swimming.

On August 21st the update on her website simply said:
“7:42am EDT Diana has been pulled from the water.  We’ll have more information when it becomes available.”

Hot with fever, still in my bed, I cried.  I could not believe this.  Why? Why? Why?

After swimming for 52 hours and 5 minutes, on the eve of her 63rd birthday, almost 112km into the swim, Diana had been pulled out of the water because the storm had simply become too dangerous not only for her but also for the crew supporting her.  She had not wanted to stop.  She felt that the dream was within reach. She had the strength. But it was just too dangerous to carry on.  

Why didn’t Diana make it to Florida? Why did Existence conspire against her?
A few days later Diana wrote: "It's not in my nature to admit that no matter how much will you summon, no matter how much courage you express, no matter how much intelligent and complex planning you do, no matter the excruciating long hours of training, no matter the dedicated and expert individuals you choose to help you, sometimes you just don't arrive at your destination,"
Sometimes you just don’t arrive at your destination! The best laid plans of mice and men, Go often awry!
20 days later, my plans to run a 4:19 Amsterdam Marathon lay in ruins.  The virus left a cough in my chest which would just not go (exactly as my barber had complained).  A plethora of drugs had drained all the strength from my body.  To run a marathon as early as October seemed hard, to run a personal best time was out of the question.  I cancelled my race entry. 

Why? Why? Why do such things happen?
Osho says that asking such questions is foundationally absurd.  Why’s, he says, are always unanswerable. 
“The trees are – you cannot ask why
The sky is – you cannot ask why.
Existence exists, rivers flow, clouds float – you cannot ask why.”

Osho suggests that his way of life is that of the White Cloud.  He says that, “A white cloud has nowhere to reach, no destination, no destiny to be fulfilled, no end.  You cannot frustrate a white cloud because wherever it reaches, is its goal. It has no will. 

White clouds are not directed by the wind.  The phenomenon of direction exists only when there is resistance. 
If the white cloud wants to go east and the wind blows to the west, then there is direction – because resistance is there.  But the cloud is not going anywhere, east and west mean the same, there is no resistance. 

If there is no will on the part of the cloud, then the wind cannot direct it.  If the wind says east the cloud is ready, it is already on the move toward the east.  There has not been a single thought of no; there has not been a single denial.   The wind is not directing, direction is needed only when someone is against. 

But people have their wills and projections and desires and ideas.  They fight with the wind.  The more they fight, the more anguish is created.

One who understands existence stops fighting. He is not even trying to swim, he simply goes with the flood. He uses the current as a vehicle; he becomes one with it and moves with it.”

Osho calls this ‘surrender’.  

This acceptance of Existence without questioning is quite hard.  To simply accept what happens without asking ‘Why’ seems difficult. 

Dan Miller once said, “The only problem in your life is your minds resistance to life as it unfolds.”  The key then, to a happy life, is perhaps to simply accept that sometimes, “Shit Happens”

So now, I will try to live the way of the White Cloud. 

I am now a White Cloud. 

I am drifting...drifting towards...Japan...towards Tokyo...I should reach there...24 February 2013...just in time for the Tokyo Marathon.   

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Idiots and the Tyranny of Goals, Log-books and The Comrades Ultra Marathon.

“So let it be written, so let it be done!” 
: From the Film “The Ten Commandments

I am tired of finishing Comrades with just a few seconds to spare.  Earlier this year, I finished the 12 hour race (43,200 seconds) with just 140 seconds to spare.  Not only does that become a stressful day but in addition, I have also to listen to the constant scolding from Neepa who wants me to run faster and keep up with her.  This is indeed, too much stress. 
I start Comrades in the H seeding (5 hour qualifiers).  On an average we lose 8 minutes to reach the start line which in-itself is a major handicap.  To the best of my knowledge, statistics show that 30% of the runners who start in the H seeding won’t make the final cut-off.
The way forward for me is obvious.  One does not need to be a brain surgeon to figure out that the best way to finish Comrades is to run fast...or faster!  I have known this fact for the last 4 years but each year, instead of focusing on speed and endurance training for Comrades, I get seduced into pursuing all sorts of other races around the world whose distance and timing aren’t the best stepping stones for a good Comrades day run.  Consequently I end up messing up my Comrades training. 
No more!!
This year, I have decided that I shall be seduced by only such races that help further my love affair with Comrades. 
The first step is to bring down my Marathon time and consequently improve my start seeding at Comrades.  I have decided to run a sub 4:20 marathon which would put me into the F seeding and drastically improve my chances of finishing the race (provided I do all the other requisite training).
So I have put a plan into motion!
I have decided to run the Amsterdam Marathon on the 21st of October 2012 and run a personal best time of 4:19 (My PB is 4:39). 
As any good businessman or for that matter sportsman knows...the best way to start achieving your goal is to write it down and then monitor one’s progress towards it.  For runners, it means choosing a marathon training program and keeping a log book. So on Sunday evening (22nd July) after having run 20k in the morning and with 13 weeks to go for Amsterdam, I sat and made my program and entered it into my log book.  The program covered all the days from the 23rd of July to the 21st of October 2012.
The first week starting Monday 23rd looked like so:
Monday 22
8k easy + Gym (legs)

Tuesday 23

Wednesday 24
125x8hill sprints

Thursday 25
12k easy + Gym

Friday 26
400x10 speed

Saturday 27

Sunday 28
22k easy

On Monday and Wednesday I managed to run as planned. (The Rest days have never been a problem). But when the alarm rang at 5:00am Thursday morning, I felt tired and fatigued.  I always listen to my body and so I switched off the alarm and slept until 8am. The 3 additional hours of sleep cured me and I woke up refreshed but with terrible guilt for having missed the 12k.  The log-book is a terrible tyrant!
My first work meeting was at 10:00 am and the second was scheduled for 12:00 pm.  As I drove towards the 2nd meeting, I happened to pass the Borivali National Park (a wild life sanctuary in the heart of Mumbai) where I occasionally run on the weekends. 
I could not resist!  I called up my client and requested him to delay my meeting by 3 hours in the light of some urgent personal work which had come up.  He agreed.  I asked Khwaja to drive into the park.  I asked him to stand guard as I changed into my Gym clothes (I have learnt to keep my shoes and a pair of running clothes in my car at all times). 
And I was off...running...in the middle of a work day...in the middle of the week.  I cannot recollect a happier moment in the near past. 
I quickly said a ‘thank-you’ to the Universe which gave me such a wonderful opportunity to Run!
The forest was incredibly beautiful now that the monsoons had arrived. Everything was lush green and there were small ponds everywhere.  It seemed quite different from how it seems to me in the early mornings.  There were fewer people and it seemed quieter.  Quieter, because I had stepped into the forest straight from the madness of mid-day Mumbai traffic. 
There were a few young lovers, sitting around on the benches, hugging and kissing and soon to be joining the ranks of Mumbai’s malaria infected.  I hoped that my constant motion would keep the mosquitoes away. 
As I ran, I realized that it was not my slavish devotion to the log-book plan that made me run in the middle of the work day.  This was more like a “call of the wild” thing.  Having recovered from fatigue with the 3 extra hours of sleep, I simply wanted to have my daily fix! My Time, alone with myself!
I thought about my obsession with my Goal of a 4:19 Marathon! I thought of my obsession with the Comrades Marathon. Is there any other way in life to set one’s target?  And what if I miss? Is the target realistic? Is the target achievable?
Different people have been known to set their targets in different ways.
I love a story once told by Osho about a King who loved archery.  
“Once, a King was passing through a small village.  The King loved archery; and was himself was a master archer.  All around the village he saw that on all the trees someone had drawn a bull’s-eye and had then shot an arrow exactly in the centre.  This archer had shot the bullseye every single time.   The King could not believe that in that small village there lived someone who was certainly a greater archer than himself.  The King himself was pretty good but even he was not always one hundred percent accurate. Once in a while he missed the target.  But here in this small village on the trees he saw circles and exactly in the middle an arrow.  Hundreds of circles on hundreds of trees and every single shot a bullseye.
The King said, “This is fantastic... even the best archer cannot manage this.  It seems so perfect.  I want to meet the man.” So he called the people and asked, “Who is the archer?”
They all laughed. They said, “Forget about him. He is the village idiot.”
The King said, “You don’t understand, You bring this man to me. His archery is perfect.  I have never seen so many arrows shot perfectly in the centre of the target”
The villagers said, “Your Highness, this man is the village idiot.  You don’t understand his archery. First he shoots the arrow and then he makes a circle around it. Naturally, he is perfect, always perfect.  And we have often tried to explain to him, ‘This is not the right way. First you should make the circle on the tree and then shoot.  In that way, one can miss.  This is the simple way, you never miss.”
As I ran through the forest, I thought about my ambitious target of a 4:19 marathon. Was this the best way to chase my target?
When I finished my run, I realized that I had run 14.5k instead of 12k.
And as far as my target was concerned, I knew that my arrow was already shot. 4:19 was a done deal! All I had to do now was to draw the circle around the target. All I had to do was train hard and show-up on the start line.
And I am no Village idiot...perhaps just an International one! 
Amit Sheth
International Ambassador: Comrades Ultra Marathon: The Ultimate Human Race.