Thursday 12 April 2012

The Three Cranes Challenge

The Three Cranes Challenge:
A 3 day run (32k/42k/32k) in the Howick Forest in South  Africa

The first time I heard about “The Three Cranes”, I was in England, the year was 1989 and I happened to be reading Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. (Note to readers: I left the book in England)

In this fictional tale, Rushdie writes that there was a time when Jahilia (Mecca) was prosperous as a stop on the Caravan route through the desert.  Later when sea routes became safer to transport men and materials, the importance of Jahilia declined.  Consequently the people in power at Jahilia imported lots of Gods and idols into the city so as to promote it as a religious centre and maintain its financial viability. 

Rushdie writes that when Prophet Muhammad first began preaching the concept of ‘One God’, the people of Jahilia were not receptive to him and made life difficult for him and his very limited followers.  Abu Simbel was a crafty businessman/leader in the city.  He used to earn massive amounts of income from the 3 temples in the city which were dedicated to the 3 Goddesses: Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat.  Abu Simbel foresaw that the concept of ‘One God’ could threaten his financial well being and so he made a deal with the Prophet.  He tempted Muhammad to accept just the three Goddesses as “worthy of worship”. 

The Prophet consulted Gibreel and returned, citing a set of verses declaring that, “Lat, Uzza and Manat – are the exalted birds...the three Cranes...whose intercession is approved”.

Rushdie writes that the people were delighted and greatly pleased that Muhammad had spoken about their Gods in splendid fashion. 
However later, Muhammad re-consulted Gibreel and retracted the Verses and disavowed the three Cranes.  The Prophet said that his earlier verses were a product not of God but of Satan. (Hence the verses were called...the Satanic Verses).

This fictional Story of the Three Cranes: Lat, Uzza and Manat got Salman Rushdie massive criticism, because to a Muslim, Islam is not just a religion which provides hope and consolation but also a way of life, a body of law, and an all-embracing cultural framework and that for an author to satirize it (if Satan was able to put some of his words into the Holy Koran this one time then perhaps there could be more such verses which somehow slipped in) was intolerable to some. 

In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie.  The Three Cranes had got Rushdie into very serious trouble.

Anyway, that was the first time that I heard the phrase, “The Three Cranes”. 

The second time I heard about them was from my friend in Africa, Rory Stein. Rory asked me to come and run a race called the three cranes challenge. 
My first instinctive thought on hearing the name, ‘The three cranes’, was that it spelled trouble!  However fools rush where angels fear to tread. And I decided to run the 3 cranes Challenge. Rory explained that this was a race dedicated to conserving the 3 species of cranes in South Africa which are close to extinction.
Race Days: February 24, 25, 26 (2012)
the start and finish line
A race village was set up in the middle of the Howick forest and each runner was given an individual tent to sleep in.   The runner had to go out each day and run a different route through pristine forest trails and grasslands.

I arrived at the base camp on Thursday 23rd evening with my South African friend Naresh Nana and was overwhelmed at the natural beauty of the surrounding forest.  We chose our tents and I particularly wanted a tent very close to the woods and as far away from the loos as possible, since I thought that a tent closer to the loo would cause constant disturbance at night.  It was a decision which had some unintended consequences.

my tent at the edge of the forest
A massive tent was set up where they were to brief us each night about the next day’s run and also where breakfast, lunch and dinner was to be served.  During dinner that night I noticed that the 200 odd runners assembled were a unique lot.  I had trained very hard for this race for about 3 months. I had run once a week on the beach dragging a heavy tire behind me. I had trained myself for this multi-day race by running high mileage on Saturdays and Sundays. But I had never run on a real trail as there are no real trails near Mumbai. This group of 200 odd trail runners however seemed very very fit.  At most races, I see as mixture of body types, there are some thin runners and there are some heavy runners but it was different here.  Almost every male runner here looked to me like Tarzan and every woman runner was built like Jane. Everybody looked incredibly fit and strong and I started wondering what kind of event I was in for?

Dinner was served and unfortunately that first night, for no apparent reason, I could not enjoy the meal served there. I ate sparingly. 

Day 1, Friday, 32k:

start line, day 1
At 6 am we were all assembled and ready to start the event.  Everybody was wearing camelbaks because it was compulsory to carry 2-3 litres of water.  I also noticed that many runners were carrying walking sticks but I did not take mine thinking that it was only necessary for the 2nd day.  I also did not carry my sunglasses as I had been advised that it was not a good idea to wear them inside the forest as it caused problems with depth perception.  Within the first few km I realized that not taking the stick was a serious mistake.  Over the next three days there were so many up-hills which were so steep that all you had to do in certain sections was to extend your hand outward and your fingers could touch the ground in front of you.  For a runner of my limited ability, a walking stick was indispensible.  Besides, every up-hill is normally followed by a down-hill which was sometimes worse and needed a walking stick even more.

On day 1, I ran large parts of the trail with my new friends Francis and Petra and we exchanged lots of running stories.  As the day progressed, it became hotter and hotter. The temperatures kept climbing and the sun shone brightly in the cloudless African sky.  The sunlight at clearings on the top of the hills was so bright that my eyes started to hurt.  One of the consequences of having Lasik surgery done to my eyes has been that they have become very sensitive to bright light.  And so, slowly over the next 6 hours, I started developing an intense headache.  Many of the runners were wearing glasses with photo-chromatic lenses so that they adjusted automatically to the intense sunlight. 
with petra and francis

But no matter how I felt, I enjoyed the immense beauty of the forest and the hills.  The forest was so pristine that I felt that humans had not visited here for thousands of years.  Running through grasslands was an incredible experience.  Each footstep would cause a small number of insects to jump out of the grass and initially I was totally scared of running on a path where I could not see the floor of the forest.  I was worried about snakes, insects, stones, holes and uneven footfalls in the trail but over the three days I simply learned to run on the faith that the road below my foot will hold.
some wet area
some rocky areas

We finished the run at 12:00 pm which was incidentally the daily lunch time.  By then my headache had increased so much that I could not eat anything.  In fact, over the next 6 hours I puked 3 times and consequently also missed a fabulous dinner.  I went to sleep on an empty stomach.

I woke up at night suddenly at 12 am and my headache was gone.  I was hungry but then it was 12am.  I stepped out of my little tent to pee.  I was so tired and the loo seemed incredibly far. So, I walked towards the edge of the forest which was very close to my tent.  I turned on my headlamp as I unzipped my trousers.  I looked around the tent site.  It was pitch dark.  Everyone was fast asleep inside their tents.  However when I looked at the floor of the forest away from the camp-site, I saw a million small shiny insect eyes looking at me.  They looked shades of blue and red in the reflected light of my headlamp.

This forest was full of insects! Duh!! I panicked. I half finished my business and ran back inside the relative safety of my tent.  I rued my decision to have chosen a tent so far from the loo.  I knew that there was no way I was going to step out of that tent again during that night or any other night.  (Over the next two nights my constant companion was an empty two litre coke bottle which was generously filled during the night and emptied early in the morning)
Day 2, Saturday, 42k:

The first 10km on day 2 were straight up a mountainside almost impossible for someone like me to run.  At 2km, I already felt as tired as I normally feel at the end of a marathon.  Normally we carbo-load for 3 to 4 days before a marathon, but here I was, having run a 6 hours 32 k the day before and having had no proper meal since Thursday night. 

So I simply used my walking stick and trekked on. At the top of the hill, I met Francis and we started running together.  We ran really well until about the 23k mark when I ran out of steam and told her to carry on. The heat that day was unbearable and I remembered the heat on the Mumbai Marathon Sea link a few years ago.  This was 5 times worse.  I started getting dehydrated.  I swallowed an energy gel and it tasted funny.  A thought crossed my mind that perhaps it had got spoiled as it sat roasting inside the tent the previous day. 
By 35k I was suffering...dehydrated and with the stomach totally gone FUBAR (An army term which means: Fxxxxd Beyond All Recognition).  Although I knew that I was dehydrating fast and heating up on an incredibly hot cloudless day, I could not drink any water because of my stomach.
Yet for long hours on that day, as I ran alone, I enjoyed the pleasures of solitude. There was no civilization in sight. This was nature at its best. The hills, valleys, forests and grasslands offered sights which I shall forever fondly recollect. 
With 8k to go I reached the last aid station which was situated on top of a treeless hill.  Paul from the medical team was there and one look at me and he knew that I was suffering.  I told him that I was feeling very hot and dehydrated.  I told him that I knew I need to drink but that I couldn’t.  Paul calculated the amount of water he had left at the aid station. There were very few runners behind me, so he took two large buckets of ice cold water and poured them on my head.  It brought my core temperature down.  He then told me that the forest cover was only 2 km away and that the temperature would drop once I was inside the forest cover.  I reached the forest and then it was only 6 km to go.  Two new friends and fellow runners, Zelda and Tinus decided from that point to stay with me and help get me into the finish.
We had been told that last 6 km of day 2 had a ‘sting in the tale’.  This was an understatement.  The last 6 km of day 2 were put into the route to get some sort of sadistic pleasure from a runner’s suffering.  In-fact I remember thinking that these last 6 km were ideal for someone training to go climb Mt Everest.  There were 3 climbs of 1km each followed by 3 descents. In-between these were stream crossings.   The inclines were so steep that I had to use one hand to hold onto tree branches or roots while using the walking stick in the other hand to balance myself and yet I slipped several times while I went up and then down.  When I reached the streams, I had no leg-eye coordination left to delicately walk over the stones protruding out of the water and so I simply waded through the streams. 
With 2 km to go, Paul from the medical team (using his mountain bike and a back road) once again showed up on the trail and asked me how I felt.  I told him that I felt terrible, that I was hot and dehydrated and my stomach was “fubar”. But I added that since it was just 2km to go that I would finish.  He asked me if I was certain and I said, “Yes”. 
But as I climbed the last one km hill of the day, I thought about what I was doing on that hill on that particular day.  I thought of a poem by Ghalib that I had once read,
“This heart of mine
Wayward and wild
Enemy of peace
Condemning me
To endless wandering”

I went on the think, “What is wrong with me? Why am I here? Must I run every race I hear or read about? Why am I not sitting peacefully back home in India?”

The experts say that we must race not more than 2 races per year. But for the experts there is a difference between running and racing.  They can run marathons every few weeks because they have more than one gear in their system. So they run many marathons but race only one or two marathons in a year. When they run a race, they keep some strength held in balance in their system.

But for me on the other hand, there is no difference between running and racing.  I reach the empty point in my tank to simply finish the race and hence I realized that I should not be running so many marathons.

However, I kept struggling along and went on to finish the last two Km.  The last 6 km took me 3:20 hours. And the 42 km for day 2, had taken me a total of 9 hours and 20 minutes. (I normally comfortably pace the sub 5 bus in Mumbai)
running into finish with Tinus and Zelda

Lunch time was over when I reached the finish line at 3:30 pm.  I headed straight to the Medical tent and was delighted that they started me on IV.  Paul from medical team came to meet me and told me that with two km to go, I had answered his questions correctly and coherently for if I had not done so, he would have pulled me off the course and started an IV right there in the forest. 
As they started the first IV drip, I thought of a short story, ‘A Perfect day for Bananafish’, written by J.D. Salinger.   
It tells the story of a WWII soldier, Seymour, who has just returned from the war and is in a depressive and suicidal state of mind.  He is at a beach in Florida and sunning himself.  A little girl, Sybil comes to play with him and Seymour tells her that today is a perfect day to see Bananafish.  So he gets her onto a float and wades out into the sea.  He explains to her that there are Bananafish in the sea who are very greedy.  He tells her that on the bottom of the sea are small caves which are filled with bananas.  The bananafish love to eat bananas and so they enter the caves and start eating them.  The problem is that they don’t simply eat one banana and come out of the small cave but end up eating all the bananas.  Consequently they become so fat that they get banana fever and get stuck inside the small cave and die.
As the second IV drip started, I wondered whether I had become such a banana fish.  I had become so greedy that I simply wanted to run every single marathon in the world.  Not only was that not enough, I now wanted to run multiday events.  What was wrong with me?
By the time I finished the 2nd bottle of IV, it was now already close to 6 pm.  I had missed lunch and the 32k run on day 3 was to start at 4:00am. I had now not eaten the Thursday night dinner, the Friday lunch and the Friday dinner and now the Saturday lunch. 
But the two IV bottles had done their job, I was a new man.  My nausea had disappeared, I peed crystal clear water, my body temperature had dropped to normal and I was famished. 
At dinner that evening, I ate like a man possessed.  By the time I went to bed, with my companion, the 2 litre empty coke bottle, it was 9:30 pm and Day 3 was to start at 4:00am.  The only thought on my mind was that I needed to wake up early and eat. However there was not going to be a proper hot breakfast on day 3, just some muffins, tea and sandwiches.  
2:30 am , day 3

Day 3, Sunday, 32 km
The first 10k were again straight up a mountainside, but thankfully the darkness of 4 am kept the ascent hidden.  At the top of the mountain I saw a wonderful sight: An Aid station where they were serving fresh hot omelettes in a bun.  I don’t remember any other time since birth that I so enjoyed a breakfast.

spot the runners about to enter the forest

The day’s run went brilliantly! I enjoyed the hills, the valleys, the forests and the grasslands.  I was so happy to be there. I ran as if I had just started day 1.  I felt strong and fresh and free.  Once again, I enjoyed every moment of the run in solitude and said a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to have enjoyed these memorable days, the wonderful race management and the making of new friends.

With 2k to go into the finish, I dug out the Indian Flag which I had packed into my camelbak.  I then tied it onto the walking stick I was carrying and ran into the finish carrying the flag high on my shoulder.  The runner’s who had already finished the days run, (almost all) came out of the large tent where they were having breakfast and clapped for me. 

As I ran into the finish, I knew that I would be back in 2013 to run this fantastic race again.  I also wondered if I too was a bananafish who did not know when to stop.  Am I running too much? For now, on April 22, I plan to run a 50k race in the Nevada desert and then on May 6th a 42 km in Pittsburg and then on the 3rd of June the 89km Comrades Marathon. 
Will I, like the bananafish die of an overdose?
I have given it some thought since that day and have come to a conclusion.  And my conclusion is this: No matter what we do, sooner or later, we all die.  Like the bananafish, I choose to die with a satiated satisfied stomach as opposed to a stomach starved of food. Running is the food which sustains me. I would much rather overdose on running than die having wished I had run more. 
I am a Bananafish! Bring it on!

a little bit of India