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 !


  1. Tears well up as i read this again and again....both you and Neepa truly embrace the spirit of running, companionship and Comrades....INSPIRED!!...both of you in my world are hero/ine and really proud and happy knowing you...keep up the good work and continue to encourage more and more runners daily...keep the posts coming Amit, look forward to more.

  2. Dear Amit,
    1] There is an Eckman in each one of us.
    2] How can one determine that running a relay of successful comrades is your ultimate goal it could well be milestones along the path while the ultimate goal is still beyond our vision and will materialize at the appropriate time.
    3] Although I can't philosophize in as a good manner as you do I have experienced HIS touch at at least one occasion.
    4] Approximately 50 days ago I happened to read both your editions of Dare to Run, I even wanted to do the same. For the first 30 days I could go to the beach religiously, but than suddenly I stopped, today when I received your mail I felt it was HIS idea that I should continue with my quest otherwise why this contact after 50 days ? [ Incidentally I am diabetic for the last 20 years have a history of a duodenal ulcer and underwent a CABG 2years ago, even if I make it to a half marathon it will be a surprise ... but than everything is not yet over, who knows ? or does SOMEBODY ? ... with regards ... deepak

  3. Amit,

    I admire you for the amount of passion and determination you have towards running but I admire you even more for the love you share with your wife.

    All the best and god bless.


  4. God !! My hair stood on ends. I got goose bumps reading this article. A true runner never gives up. Am so glad for Neepa. Have heard or known very little about you, but gives me great strength to push myself. Thanks for this post Amit. You and Neepa are true winners. God bless.

  5. Well-written story. Neepa's running the last 7 km in 49 minutes is laudable. One thing that was not clear to me how a wife did not know about her husband going to the toilet 10 times between Saturday and Sunday, while she was running the same marathon and most likely stayed in the same hotel room.

    1. People keep drinking water And going to the loo. Happens to me. Might not be happening to you.