Sunday 31 July 2011

Two Blind Mice

Having been appointed as the International Ambassador for the Comrades Ultra Marathon and also an official pacer for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon has brought me a certain amount of recognition amongst my fellow runners.  Writing a motivational book, Dare to Run, also brought on some added notoriety.
The consequence of all this is that friends come up to me and ask for training advice.  Friendly advice is easy to give but can have dangerous consequences especially when given by a runner of my limited ability and knowledge.  Most of the time my sole aim while running is to finish the race without dying in the process.   
I remember that a few years ago after having missed a long training run for Comrades, I was in a state of panic and so decided to seek advice from none other than Bruce Fordyce, the nine-time Champion of the Comrades ultra marathon (I had not even met him at that point but knew him only from our e-mail exchanges). 
Bruce Fordyce is one of the nicest men on earth.  Bruce offered the best advice he could give in view of his total lack of any real personal knowledge of my physical, emotional and socio-economic background.  All he wanted to do was to help and he did that with the best intentions in his heart.  
Later when I read about his training routines in his book, I realized that he lives and trains on a different planet.  His natural ability and capacity to train is so different from mine and his commitment to train hard and win the race is so different that I realized that besides the love for running, we share nothing in common. And I wondered how difficult it must be for a man of his ability to give advice to a man of my ability!  Our frames of reference are so totally different. Of course, a man of his experience has a fantastic amount of wisdom and one has to be simply grateful that he is willing to share it.
Runners love to share and there is lots of advice which is generic in nature which can and should be shared. A lot of the problems which novice runners face are of the generic sort and most of the time other runners have already faced the same problems. Therefore asking your fellow runner is a great, good and easy solution.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are also so many fantastic books written for runners of all abilities and those are also a great way to start and help you along the way.
But again, every runner is different and every runner’s body and ability is different. And that makes asking for and receiving specific advice when faced with specific problems a very tricky business.
When one does go to coach or fellow runner to ask for advice one should be sure that one conveys all the relevant personal and physical details, so that the coach or fellow runner can make an informed decision.
A few days ago, as I was working out in the gym, an old acquaintance walked up and said that he was having problems with his left knee while he ran.  He said that after about 5 km his left knee starts to pain and he does not know what to do. He said he wanted to increase his distance.
Between sets, I advised the following:
1) Consult a sports physiotherapist
2) Check Shoes
3) Warm up before the run
4) Stretch after the run
5) Do some knee strengthening exercises in the gym
6) Take walk breaks before the pain comes
Between sets, he explained that he had been going to the physiotherapist and he stopped because it did not help, he said that he had tried changing shoes and was doing gym exercises.  He said he will now try taking walk breaks.
A week later as he walked up to me, I could see from his smile that he was very happy.  He said that he had started taking walk breaks and could now run for about 12 km without left knee pain.  He said that the tingling sensation however had not gone from the knee.
“What tingling sensation?” I asked.  “Oh, about 5 years ago I had fractured my left knee,” he explained. “The surgeon has installed a metal plate to hold the knee in place and whenever I touch that part of the knee, I get a tingling sensation.”
I almost had a heart attack.  I had given this guy some random advice based on my limited knowledge and that was further compromised by his not having told me about a plate in his knee!  I had spoken to him about leg curls and leg extensions without knowing that he had a plate in his knee.
If I had known he had a plate in his knee, I would have told him to listen to his body and go to the surgeon and/or the Physiotherapist.  I would have then kept my mouth shut.
I felt faint! This advice business is very dangerous.   
Sometimes, it’s like two men trying to help each other find a needle in a the night...without a torch... and without a 1000 acre field full of hay...moreover both men are blind... and complicating that is the fact that the needle is not even there. 
The experience reminded me of a story that I have heard. Once upon a time, two farmers meet on a street. “Hey, Jed,” says one, “I have got a mule, sick with distemper. What did you give yours when it had that?”
“I gave him turpentine,” replies Jed.
A week later, they meet again and the first old farmer shouts, “Hey Jed, I gave my mule some turpentine like you said, it killed him!”
“Funny,” replies Jed, “it killed mine too!”
Both the giver and receiver of advice need to be very mindful!
Caveat emptor, Caveat venditor –Buyer Beware! Seller Beware!

Monday 25 July 2011

Who am I ?

A few days ago, A friend asked me, "How would you best describe yourself?" 
I laughed when he asked such a philosophical question, especially as he asked this of me after a couple of glasses of wine.
“Who am I?” is actually a very profound question.  A question which if felt deep within one-self can actually lead to Self-knowing or ATMAGYAN. At least this is what I have read in theory.
Raman Maharshi made this question the basis of his meditation technique.  He made it a meditation to ask, to inquire, ‘Who am I?’
He suggested that one should sit in meditation and continuously ask of one-self the question, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?”
He suggested that one should not believe any of the answers that the mind supplies.  The mind will come up with all sorts of nonsense answers..I am this, I am that, I am a man, I am a woman, I am rich, I am poor, I am educated, I am uneducated, I am an Indian, I am a Hindu..But he suggested that if you continue with the question and let this arrow of ‘Who am I?’ penetrate deeper and deeper into yourself, a moment will come when no answer will come and the question itself will drop.  This is the right moment.  When no answer comes, you are near the answer because the mind is becoming silent or - you have gone far away from the mind.
The ‘Who’ drops, then the ‘I’ drops and then, when the asking becomes absurd...the question evaporates. That is the moment which is called self-knowing — ATMAGYAN. That is the moment when, without receiving any answer, you simply know, you feel, who you are.

I am now 45 years old and all my answers to this question are based on my biological, sociological and perhaps a few theological concepts. 
As a kid, I described myself as my father’s son.
Later, on completing my education, I started describing myself as an engineer, a business major and a law graduate. 
A few years later I started introducing myself as a businessman.   
After marriage most people started recognizing me as Neepa's husband while I started describing myself as the proud father of two lovely kids.
But I realize that all the questions were of the mind and were answered by the mind. 

And I start to think that all these definitions don't really go to explain that which is my ‘Being’. 
Who is the real me? Who is the real you?

The was once a Zoo in a small town which was so badly hit by a bad economy that the zoo director no longer had the funds to replace the animals that died.
When the zoo mascot, King Louie the orangutan dies, the zoo director gets desperate and hits upon an idea.
He puts a sign outside his office which reads, "strong man wanted, apply inside."
Arnold sees the sign and goes inside.  The director tells him, “Our star attraction, King Louie the Orangutan, has died, and I want you to replace him.  All you have to do is put on the Orangutan suit, go out there and thump your chest and eat peanuts.”
Arnold starts working right away.  Every day he thrills the crowd by jumping and thumping.  But the climax of his act is when he climbs up a tree in his pen and throws peanuts at the Tiger, Sher Khan, next door, who gets really mad, tries to climb the fence and eat Arnold. 
This daily show starts attracting lots of tourists and brings prosperity back to the Zoo. 
Unfortunately, one afternoon, Arnold is up the tree when the branch breaks and he falls into the Tigers den.  Arnold starts screaming and shouting for help, until Sher Khan the tiger runs towards him so as to attack him, growling and snarling, and then says out of the corner of his mouth, “Shut up, Arnold, or we will all lose our jobs!”
I think we are all hiding behind a coat, somebody behind an orangutans, somebody behind Sher Khans and some like me...behind that of a mouse...(henpecked of course).
I meditate on my friend’s question? Who am I?
And I move beyond all the obvious answers defined by sociology and theology. 
And although I am no closer to Atmagyan or self-knowledge, for my mind still has a stranglehold on me, I think I have come to define myself in terms which are symbolic of Me as opposed to my relationships.
Who am I outside of my relationships and my work ? I sit quietly and meditate...Who am I?
I have a smile on my face when the answer appears...I am a Runner.

Friday 22 July 2011

From 0 to 42.2: The Long Road Ahead

I have read somewhere that a runner starts losing endurance if he does not train for 3 days in a row.  I don’t know how far the third day claim is true but I do know that I lose my hard earned endurance quite fast.
It has been over 50 days since Comrades 2011 ended and I have run very little in these last 50 days.  I am nowhere near the shape I was in pre-Comrades.  The ability to run 90km is long gone.
Now as I register for the Mumbai Marathon, the distance of 42.2 km seems staggering.  I cannot imagine running the distance.  Besides, since I will volunteer to run it as a sub-5 pacer, I need to get into 4:30 shape in the next 5 months.  42.2 km in 4:30 seems a bizarre target at this point. It seems impossibly hard and long. I get so tired now at 16k that it seems impossible that I can ever have the ability to run 42.2 k.
I am simply filled with self doubt and anxiety and like every self-made, self-confident, and accomplished man, I turn to my wife for encouragement and advice.
I want her to tell me that I can do it. I want her to tell me that I can easily run 42.2 but like the enlightened master that she is, she won’t give me a straight answer. 
“Do you think you can learn to swim without getting wet,” she says?
“What are you talking about?” I ask. 
“Don’t ask me a question to which you already know the answer,” she says.  My wife never answers my questions. She simply says that I must not search for my answers in books, running forums, or with running coaches but simply look for them within myself. 
She then reminds me of a story of a Sufi Mystic who was on his way to Mecca on Haj. Since he was universally known as an enlightened man, the people of a small town he was about to pass through decided that they must insist that he should address the town folk.  The mystic was a very silent one but the town people insisted that he speak. 
“But I have nothing to say,” He said.  But they persisted.  The master said, “And that which I know cannot be said!” 
But they persisted.  The more he resisted.  The more they became interested in whatever he had to say.
Ultimately, he relented and they went to a mosque.  Everyone waited with great expectation to hear his sermon.  They also knew that he had never given a sermon in any other village ever.  He had travelled thousands of miles but had always been silent.  He had seen the world but had always been silent.  They were delighted – what a privilege!
The master came and faced the vast crowd and said, “Do you know what I am going to say to you?”
They all said, “Of course not, how can we know? We don’t know.”          
The master said, ”Then I cannot speak to such ignorant people who don’t even know what I am going to speak about.”
The people were very puzzled and the master went away.  But their desire to hear him and give them the answers to life’s questions did not diminish. 
They knew that they had to come up with a better answer and so they went back to him and insisted that he come to the mosque again to give his sermon.  They told him that they now knew the answer to his question.
The master went back to the mosque and again asked, “Do you know what I am going to say to you?”
They replied, “Yes! We know what you are going to speak about.”
And the master said, “ Then finished ! If you already know, then what is the need for me to tell you? Such an enlightened town!”
Now the people were really puzzled but they were not going to let him go.  They talked and discussed and came up with their answer.  They went back to him and insisted that he come back to the mosque to give the sermon.
Verily, the master went back and asked the same question, “ Do you know what I am going to say to you?”  And half of the people said, “Yes,” and half of the people said, “No.”  That was the only way. Now the master was trapped.
And the master said, “Good, So those who know should tell those who don’t know. How am I needed? Just tell each other.  I am absolutely unnecessary.” He quickly left.
I guess my wife, or anyone else for that matter, is not going to be really able to tell me how to go from 0 to 42.2km.  The answer really lies within me.
I remember that while training for Comrades, I used to start my 56 km long runs at 1:00 am in the Lonavalla forest. Running during the daytime was impossible because of the summer heat. 
I would be running for the first Four and Half hours in total darkness.  Darkness so intense that one would not be able to see ones hand if held in front of one’s face. 
I would run with a small Petzl headlamp.  I would focus the light beam just a few feet ahead of me onto the road to ensure that I did not step on a snake or into a pothole. The Petzl shined a beam of light only 10 feet ahead and all around that was total darkness.   My family was worried that I was running through total darkness.  They were worried that I could not see the total length of the road.  They wanted me to start when the whole length of the road was visible and clear.  Then I would know how to get where I was going. 
I had no choice but to run in the dark.  But I never wanted the whole length of the road lit.  10 feet was enough because every time I took a step forward, the light went ahead by one more step.  I never needed 56 km of light to start running. I never gave thought to the whole distance. I just ran the 10 feet and the Petzl had by then illuminated the next 10 feet.  I never had to insist on 56 kilometres of light. The road ahead lit itself.
And that is how I will once again reach the 42.2km distance by the 15th of Jan.  All I need to do is train consistently during the week and then lengthen the distance of my long run every Sunday in small measure and soon I will have the endurance to run 42.2.
There is no need to think of whole 42.2km at this early date.  One takes small baby steps towards the target.  Running a little further than usual once a week is enough.     
What is true in life also holds true for running.  Small advances, consistently made, will get you to your destination.
The way lights itself.

Wednesday 20 July 2011



As the Marathon registrations open, I am filled with the desire to improve my running.  I want to get strong and fast and fit and light
My friend Naresh Nana, a 23 Comrades veteran from South Africa, sent me a book, ‘Run the Comrades’ written by Bruce Fordyce, the 9 time Comrades Champion, the King of Comrades.  And I think....If I can replicate his program, perhaps I can do really well not only at Comrades but also at the Mumbai Marathon.
Fordyce writes that he starts training for Comrades from Jan and trains consistently until Comrades which takes place in May.  That’s a 5 month training program.
For the first seven days of January he writes: “Not too serious, just ticking over – no great distance work.  Try not to think of Comrades.”
This sounds very encouraging... the not too serious part...So, I quickly look-up his log-book for January (Which is printed at the end of the book) and the first week of January goes..
1st Jan: 12 km morning, Weights, 7.2 km evening
2nd Jan: 11.2 km lovely evening run
3rd Jan: Morning 8km, very hot, 8km evening easy
4th Jan: 5km morning, Weights, 6.4 km evening
5th Jan: 32 km with friends
6th Jan: Morning 9.6 km, Weights, 5km evening
7th Jan: Morning 8 km, 5 km evening (very very fast)

OoooookkkkkK ! Over 110 km first 7 days of training! So perhaps I need a back-up plan.... Well, I need ANOTHER plan.
I go over to my extensive library of Running books and pull out my old favourites, books which are considered the last word in training ingenuity:
1) Lore of Running by Tim Noakes
2) Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels
3) Brain Training for Runner by Matt Fitzgerald
4) Marathon: The Ultimate Training guide by Hal Higdon
And I am again swamped by all the terminology: Base Training, Pace Training, Threshold Training, Interval Training, Hill Training and Repetition Training... and I also look at all the charts and tables for VDOT and pacing... Even at my fastest speed for 400 meters, my values don’t even appear in these books.  
And I am confused and wondering...What is the key for me or for that matter for any Novice, when he starts Marathon training? (According to me anyone who has not run over at least a dozen challenging marathons is a novice)
What is the KEY to Running? What must a guy like me, a slow back of the pack runner (who has almost zero natural ability, no speed or hill running ability) do in these first few months of training ?
What must I think, ponder, analyze, invent and infer from all these training and running masters?
I am reminded of a Parable once told by Osho:
A wise king wanted to pick the wisest man among his subjects to be his prime minister.  When the search finally narrowed down to three men, he decided to put them to the supreme test.  Accordingly, he placed them in a room in his palace, and installed a lock which was the last word in mechanical ingenuity.  He also gave them, detailed specifications and technical drawings of the lock.  The candidates were informed that whoever was able to open the door first would be appointed to the post of honor.
The three men immediately set themselves to the task.  Two of them at once began to work out the complicated mathematical formulas, the permutations and the combinations, to discover the proper lock combination.  They poured over the specifications and drawings. 
The third man, however, just sat in his chair doing nothing.  Finally, without bothering to put pen to paper, he got up, walked to the door, turned the knob, and the door opened. 
It had been unlocked all the time.
Sometimes, I think that as a Novice runner there is no need to sit and ponder, think, analyze, invent or infer.
The key in the early stages of training, for a novice runner like me is to simply have the discipline to wake up in the morning, wear my clothes and shoes, push something down my throat and then turn the knob, step-out and start simply Running. 

Monday 18 July 2011

The Importance of Knowing Your Running Jargon

Last year when I was searching for pace setters to help me set pace during the Mumbai marathon, I asked a friend if he would lead the 'Sub-5 Bus'.

Now, most people conversant with running jargon know what this means. It means that the pacer will run at a predetermined speed and bring in his Bus (the group of fellow runners running along with the pacer is called a Bus) to the finish in a time just under 5 hours. Hence the term sub-5 bus. Of course, my novice friend had no idea what I meant and asked me whether they will allow a BEST Bus (public transport) on the race route. 

I did not laugh when he said that because just until about 5 years ago as a novice runner I too had no idea what a pacer did or what a 'Bus' was. 

I was however reminded of a story about a recruit in the United States Marines and his unfortunate experience when he mixed up the words 'rifle' and 'gun'. The poor recruit was made to realize how passionately a marine felt about his M1 rifle.   

His story is told in the book, With The Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. (A book the War in the Pacific)

During the first few days at training camp, the drill instructor (DI)  asked one of the recruits a question about his M1 rifle. Now, to a Marine, an M1 Rifle means everything.  It is his most important piece of equipment. They are obsessed with it. A well maintained and well functioning Rifle can be the difference between Life and Death for a Marine.   

In answering, the hapless recruit referred to his rifle as "my gun".  The DI muttered some instructions to him, the recruit blushed.

The recruit then began trotting up and down in front of the camp huts holding his rifle in one hand and his penis in the other, chanting, "This is my rifle," as he held up his M1 rifle, "and this is my gun," as he moved his other arm which held his penis. "This is for Japs," he held aloft his M1; "and this is for fun," he held out his other arm.

Needless to say, none of the other recruits again used the word "gun" unless referring to a shotgun, mortar, artillery piece or naval gun.

Now, although we runners are citizens of the world and love all fellow runners equally we are equally passionate about our sport as the marines, so when I go looking for fellow pacers this year, I will just try and find a word which rhymes with 'Bus' !

Wednesday 13 July 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Comrades Marathon 2011

The Comrades marathon always more than manages to fulfill ones wildest expectations in terms of sheer excitement and joy.  This year was no exception.  Neepa and I had a great race.

I suffered from food poisoning on Saturday and continued to do so on Sunday,the race day morning.  As I stood on the start line, I felt as if I had no strength in my legs and as early as 15k into the race, I was washed out.  I felt as if I had no legs.  I dug deep within myself to find some strength. I came up empty.  As early as 20k into the race, I was wondering whether I ought to stop.  I thought I should ask the Race Marshals whether the bail bus/ambulance would drop me to Durban (start-line) or PMB (finish line). But since, I was intimately aware of the tragedy which befalls the entrant of the bail bus/ambulance from my 2009 experience; I kept running along very slowly. I did not want to see the inside of that bus.  
I could not understand how this could be happening to me.  For the last 7 months Neepa and I had put our heart and soul into training for this day. We had run over 1200 km each since December.  We had done countless runs of 20k and 30k, multiple 42km runs besides 2 runs of 56ks and one of 60k. And yet, here I was on the race day at 20k and I felt as fatigued as I had at the finish of Comrades 2010. I felt a great sadness and disappointment inside me.

Running alongside me, Neepa did not understand what was going on inside my body or my mind, and kept encouraging me to run faster. She did not know the extent of my food poisoning and so could not understand why I was running so slowly.  She did not know that I had been on the potty 10 times between Saturday and Sunday morning. Sometimes in life, Shit Happens, and I had felt that there was no need to spread negative vibes around.  She did not know I was unwell.                         

So, on the road that day, she kept encouraging me to run faster by reminding me that my kids, Namrata and Aryan, were following us at home via the computer and of the fact that we had trained hard for a year, for this very day to dawn. She reminded me that based on our training times and training effort we were capable of finishing the race in 11 hours and 30 minutes.  I had to ask her to speak to me in our native tongue because she was speaking to me in English and all the runners around us could  hear her and I was getting embarrassed at my inability to speed up in-spite of such extraordinary encouragement from my her.  She also kept running ahead to the water-stop and then waiting for me to catch up and give me water. At one point, to lessen the weight on my waist and help me run faster, she took the energy gels and other stuff that I was carrying in a pouch around my waist and asked me to throw away the empty waist pouch. We reached half way at 5 hours and 50 minutes.   
At around the 50 k mark we met our dear friend Vishnu Naidoo waiting for us alongside the road with a soft drink for us.  Vishnu had unfortunately injured his lower back just two days before the race.  He was in superb shape and mentally ready to run the best Comrades of his life and yet a back spasm had now made it virtually impossible for him to even walk.  Yet,on Saturday night, Vishnu had kept his race day clothes ready with the bib pinned on. As he slept Saturday the night before the race, he had prayed to God to do whatever He felt was right.  The back spasm did not go way.  On race day morning, Vishnu decided that in-spite of his back ache, he would spend the glorious day on the road seconding and cheering his club mates and also looking out for Neepa and me.  When he saw me on the road, he immediately realized that I was struggling.  He gave me a hug and shouted out to Neepa, “Neepa, take care of my brother and bring him into the finish”.  Vishnu’s hug and cherry drink took me along for another 5k.
But at 55k, a quick calculation told me what we would not make it to the finish at the current speed.  I told Neepa to go ahead as we were both in the danger of losing Comrades.  I told her that if she stayed with me any longer, we both would not make it, within the 12 hour cut-off.  She knew I was right. So, after giving me another 'motivational talk', she gave me an energy gel and extracted a promise that I won't give up. She told me that she will see me at the finish-line and then she then disappeared ahead.

I kept moving along until 67km. At that point I had 2 hours 20 minutes left and 20k and Polly to go, which in my confused and tired mental state was near impossible. I could not run a straight line along the road. I felt dizzy and nauseated. At one point I felt I might faint.   
I decided to be a live donkey as opposed to a dead lion. I stopped and just slept on the road.  As I lay flat on the road, waiting for a bail bus, looking up at the clear blue African sky above me I thought about Neepa and whether we had misjudged the time and distance at which she should have left me.  But somehow, deep inside me I had absolute faith in her ability.

Neepa meanwhile ran on faster and faster making up the lost time.  At the top of Polly’s (the last major recognized hill ) she had removed her sunglasses and cap, adjusted her hair and had decided that she would now run as fast as she could and finish the race no matter what it took out of her ! Finish the race, for me and the kids! She started running faster than she had ever run.

She remembers seeing in her watch that she had 7km to go and 49 minutes to do it. At that stage of mental and physical exhaustion it was near impossible because a 7km run on the flat Mumbai beach normally takes her 49 minutes.  Now after 80k she had to run 7k in under 49 minutes to finish the race. She had left me at around 55km and perhaps this was a few kilometres too late.             

If someone had told us a week before the race that we would have 7km to go and 49 minutes to finish the race, both Neepa and I would have counted ourselves out as would most runners of our ability.  Most people of our ability run 8-9 Minutes per km in these last few kilometres after having already run 80 km.  The odds were stacked overwhelmingly against Neepa, all because she had lost critical time pacing me. 

I have often felt that sometimes all we will remember at the end of our lives are a few beautiful pure experiences. Sometimes, these experiences last but a few seconds. There are a few seconds from my Comrades 2011 day which will stay with me forever.

This was a Comrades made unforgettable for me by the sight I saw from my bed as I lay in the medical tent. Shivering from cold, dehydration and exhaustion, covered by 3 thick blankets, with an IV tube in my right hand, I kept looking for Neepa on the large TV monitor kept at the far end of the medical tent.  I would look for a few minutes and then would either lose sight of the screen because of the runners and the medical personnel walking around or because I would suddenly fall asleep from exhaustion. 
With only a few minutes to go before the 12 hour cut-off, I cross-checked the time of the day with the nurse, who was checking my pulse. She told me it was 5:25 pm.  5 minutes for the race to end.  She asked me if I had any family waiting for me in the stadium outside. I told her that my wife was about to run into the finish.  She gave me a sad smile and went away. 
With about 4 minutes to go, in the most lucid moment of my day, I looked at the TV screen, the people walking in front of it magically parted and I saw Neepa running in. The Camera focused on her completely for almost 15 seconds.  She looked fresher and happier than I have ever seen her look! She raised her hands as she crossed the finish and smiled.  She looked absolutely gorgeous.  

I told the runner on the bed next to me (who was also disoriented, shivering, on an IV and under multiple blankets) that my wife is my hero. I don't think any of it registered with him. 
My better half had made it to the finish line...I had finished the race.  I happily, fell asleep. All was well. Comrades 2011 was priceless for the sight of my wife running into the finish with her head held high. 
Neepa had run out of her skin and finished the last 7 k in approx 45 minutes.  Not only did she manage to run a personal best time for a 7k after having already run 80k  but she also was the fastest Indian in those last 7 km.  How she managed to do that will remain a wonderful mystery to me!!! .  She says that she just had to finish the race for both of us and she ran through unbearable amount of pain and nausea in those last kilometres.

Later she met me as I staggered out of the medical tent.  She hugged me and started to cry! She said she was so worried for me!  I love this race but not nearly as much as I love her.

I do, however, promise that we will be back next year and that I will keep running Comrades until I run it in my permanent green number.

See you guys next year !

Monday 11 July 2011

Dear God, Why me, Why now ?

 “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.