Thursday 5 September 2013

Running and Oblomovism

I think I have become Oblamov. Yes! It must be so... I am Oblomov.

My eyes open at 5:25 am, 5 minutes before the customary 5:30 am alarm which has been waking me up almost every day since the last 9 years.  But things are a bit different now that I have become Oblomov.

Instead of looking forward to the morning run, I sink into my bed as if a magnet is attracting me downwards into an abyss. I feel that a vortex is sucking me into a black hole.  I am paralyzed by a feeling of sadness, helplessness and fear to face the day ahead.

I know that I have not run for almost 3 months. I know that if I am to run the Mumbai Marathon in Jan 2014, I have to get up and I know that if I am to run Comrades in 2014, I have to get up and I know that I must run to keep strong and healthy but the thoughts which ensnare me are unhappy thoughts and they paralyze me.  

My thoughts take me, at random, to any one of the awful days which my family has lived through recently and they suck away all my strength.  I simply want to shut my eyes and go back into what I hope will be a nightmare free sleep. 

I am sad and unhappy.  How can I go out to run?
Yes, I am Oblomov.

My Dad has lived through a nightmare, these past few weeks and months.  He is 85 years old and in July he underwent two major surgical operations within 48 hours of each another.

Before the surgery I had to decide on the hospital and the surgeons.  One obvious choice was the Tata Hospital. The Tata hospital is arguably one of the best speciality hospitals in the world with the best Doctors. It is a Government subsidized hospital and therefore the poorest of the poor go there. Consequently, in my opinion, it is sometimes overwhelmed with the sheer number of patients that come there. Often times, I have felt that it has the feel of an Indian train station at peak hours.    

My Dad refused to get operated there since during his pre-surgery consultations, he had seen thousands of patients lining up the halls of the hospital and it was a sight that had greatly distressed him. The suffering of patients becomes apparent there and sometimes I think the environment becomes a challenge to face.  So I had understood my Dad’s desire to go to another hospital and I had supported his choice.  

So we chose one that is considered one of the best private hospitals in the country to operate at and we chose two of the best known surgeons in the county to perform the operations.   

On the 8th of July the first surgery took place and the 2nd surgery on the 9th.
The 1st surgery did not go well.  There were some complications and the agony which followed for my Dad is beyond description and comprehension.

After the operations, my Dads health started steady deteriorating and he was kept in the ICU. The surgeon who performed the 1st surgery seemed no longer interested in treating my Dad. First, he simply said that he was busy with other patients at his consulting room and later he messaged that he was out of town.  The Hospital itself had no real back up. 

After a few days in the ICU, I started to think of shifting my Dad to the Tata hospital. 

By the 12th of July, I knew that I had no option but to transfer him to Tata since the surgeon was simply washing his hands off my Dad and I felt that I would lose my Dad if we stayed put at the same hospital. The surgeon who had performed the 2nd surgery also supported our decision to move as he was helpless in dealing with the complications caused by the 1st surgery.   

After paying the Hospital bills, as the ICU nurses disconnected the lines to the many monitors that were attached to my Dad, they said.  “Please remove the hospital gown that he is wearing.  That belongs to the hospital”
This hospital is without doubt one of the most expensive hospitals in India. I thought their attitude was callous.  But I was not in a position to argue so I went to meet the medical superintendent and explained to her that my Dad is 85 years old.  He is critically ill, he has a half dozen tubes/cathaters/IV lines etc attached to his body, he is in a semi-conscious state and the ICU staff is insisting that he wear his home clothes or they won’t let us transfer to the other hospital.
She said, “It’s Ok, I will call them and allow you to leave, just bring the gown back later”
“Wow, she wants the gown back!” I thought. I assured her that I would get it back personally the next day (which I did) and left her room.

Unfortunately Mumbai was experiencing unrelenting rains that day and we were getting reports of flooding all over town.  I was hesitant to leave one hospital and then get stuck in an ambulance on the road.  So I waited a bit.  The rain did not relent.  As I sat outside the hospital looking at the sky, the same hospital superintendent passed me. 
She asked, “Oh you are still here? Haven’t you left?”
“I am afraid of this rain”, I answered, “it is a long drive to Tata hospital and I am afraid that the ambulance could get stuck in the flooding which is sure to happen close to Parel where Tata is located”.
“Doc”, I continued, “If I decide that I can’t chance this move today, I hope you will allow my Dad to stay in the ICU”. 
Of course, she said with a triumphant smile, “As long as you pay the new Bill!!”
I sat there wondering whether anything in my behaviour with her, had led her to believe that I was a guy on the look-out for a free nights stay in her ICU.  Wasn’t it self-evident that I would pay the new bill? This place was no longer a hospital, I thought. 

I shifted my Dad to Tata Hospital by evening that day and for the next 5 days he was kept in an isolation area in the ICU, as he fought for his life. 

I have never told my Dad how much I love him. He has never told me either and now he was unable to speak because of his surgery. 
Every time I could get an opportunity, I went into the ICU to see him. As I would walk into the isolation room, I would simply start to cry.  The man, who I had grown up thinking of as my Superman, was now looking fatigued and frail. He seemed half his size in weight and height.  There were dried tear drop marks around his eyes, his chin was shaking uncontrollably. He was at the end of his strength.  There were all sorts of tubes running into and out of him and he looked frail beyond imagination.  During moments of clarity, he had asked the nurse for a pen and paper to convey his pain and suffering. He would then fall asleep.  There were pages and pages of his scribbled notes, filled with issues which he was trying to convey but there were a few words which kept being repeated over and over again: “Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit..Call Amit”

As I stood next to him, massaging his legs and chocking with tears, I called out not knowing whether he could hear me, “Papa I am here, I know what is happening, I am sorting it out. I am here Papa, I am sorting things out”.  On hearing my voice, he would move his head without opening his eyes and move his hands in a way to convey his extreme uneasiness. 

My tears drenched the mask that I was wearing to cover my nose and mouth.  The nurse, who stood on duty, also wearing a mask, would simply put her hand on mine and say, “Don’t cry, Don’t cry”.  The same thing took place dozens and dozens of times as I kept visiting him in the ICU but through all those occasions, I never managed to see the nurses face as it was always covered, but I will never forget her kindness.

We camped for those 5 days outside the ICU. We kept up a vigil, day and night. 

My Dad lived through a nightmare but slowly recovered under the care of the Tata Doctors.  We shifted him to the private ward after a week and then finally after another week the doctors told us that they had done all that could be done for him and now he just needed to rest and recover at home.  Almost all the vital parameters were now normal and it was time to take him home.  So almost a month later we finally came back home.

The first two weeks at home were also tough and although we had hired trained nursing staff to help look after him, Dad wanted us, his family members, to do most of the things for him which we happily did.

With the help of the Tata doctors I had learned many things that I would have never learnt otherwise, right from the art of wearing sterile gloves, to using a catheter to suction, to changing certain tubes. We ended up doing this at any time of the day or night.

So for almost 2 months, for our family, normal life had changed.
Neepa and I had over the last 9 years got used to a regimental life where food, sleep, work and running were planned to the last minute.  Now we had discovered a new fluidity in our schedule. 

We had both stopped running.  Neepa reorganized her life to ensure that everything that was needed for my Dad and for the family was done on time and to perfection.  She held together the fort of our lives.   

Running for both of us had become a distant memory, something that we had done in another life.

Now every time, I felt like running, I wondered how could I go out and have a fun time when my Dad was unwell and couldn’t move out of his room.  Every time, I put food in my mouth I thought of my Dad who couldn’t eat through his mouth. 

I became paralyzed with grief.  Sometimes I wondered whether I was grieving for myself or for my Dad? But whenever I closed my eyes and put myself in my Dads shoes, I felt staggering sorrow.

About 15 days ago, my Mom started telling Neepa and me to resume our normal life.  She said that as Dad’s health was now stable, we must resume doing the things which we used to do.  Dad had started moving about a bit and was looking much better.  Mom told us, “Please Run, watch movies, go out with kids and do all the other things you used to do”.

But, yet I was paralyzed with grief.  The alarm rang each morning and yet I was not able to get up and go for a run as I thought about my dad in his room next to mine.   
I had become Oblomov.

In 1859, Russian writer Ivan Goncharov published a book called “Oblomov”.  The central character of the novel is Oblomov, a 30 something man belonging to the upper middleclass of Russia’s landed gentry.

He is a man who utterly lacks courage to take any action and is eventually ruined by his total lack of will-power.

He is a pathetic tragic little man who simply stays in bed all day long and never accomplishes anything.  He is a procrastinator of heroic proportions.  He is simply overwhelmed by the problems which he faces in life and simply tries to escape reality.

“Oblomov is inertia incarnated. He is pessimistic, indolent, inattentive, incurious, sloppy, pudgy, given to day dreaming and procrastination – indeed, given to any excuse to remain horizontal”.  If fact it takes almost half of the book before he even gets out of bed.

Oblomov has three major problems in life which he needs to address.  The first is the letter he has received from the Overseer of his country estate to tell him about bad harvests, arrears of debt, diminished incomes and so forth.  The second is that his current landlord wants him to vacate his apartment and the third problem is that he has huge amounts of outstanding bills.

The first pages of the book explain his morning routine : “On awakening, he resolved to rise, to perform his ablutions, and his tea consumed, to consider matters, to jot down a few notes and in general, to tackle the affair properly. Yet for another half-hour he lay prone under the torture of this resolve; until eventually he decided that such tackling could best be done after tea, and that, as usual, he would drink that tea in bed – the more so since a recumbent position could not prove a hindrance to thought. 

Therefore he did as he had decided; and when the tea had been consumed he raised himself upon his elbow and arrived within an ace of getting out of bed. In fact, glancing at his slippers, he even began to extend a foot in their direction, but presently withdrew it”.....

Oblomov refuses to get out of bed and face and solve any his issues. He is simply paralyzed by them.

As the Oblomov story develops, a friend introduces Oblomov to a young woman, Olga, and the two fall in love. However, his apathy and fear of moving forward are too great, and she calls off their engagement when it is clear that he will keep delaying their wedding to avoid having to take basic steps like putting his affairs in order.

She leaves him when she realizes that he will regress more and more into his slough and will also ruin her life.  She feels that he will simply keep postponing his life, he will never attend parties or go dancing, all that he will do is wait for each day to end and all the while she will be fading away.  

So Olga leaves Oblomov and moves on in her life.

I lie awake thinking that I have become like Oblomov.  Yes, I go to office and attend to my work but there was a part of me which was failing to act. I was failing my kids, my wife, my Mom and my Dad. I was failing life by becoming paralyzed with grief.

For the first time I realized that running had added to my happiness because I was basically a happy person.  Now that I felt sad and depressed, I didn’t have it in me to go out and run.  Did running bring me happiness or did happiness bring me running?

Can I start a run when I am unhappy? Like Oblomov, I simply lay in bed and pondered these questions.
I felt that I was failing my own body and my body was the greatest piece of real estate that I own.  By failing to go out for a run and refusing a happy hour for myself, I was failing life. 

At the end of the Novel, Oblomov dies. A friend suggests that Oblomov’s death was the result of “Oblomovism” a word which has since entered Russian lexicon to refer to the fatalistic slothfulness that he exhibited.

My dear friends, Sid Reddy, Vishnu Naidoo, Dr. Farhad Kapadia and Bruce Hargreaves called to say that I should resume running and then ultimately Neepa said that it was time!  I understood their arguments intellectually but emotionally I felt that I needed to be happy before I could step out to enjoy myself.

A doctor, on meeting Oblomov had remarked that if he continued lying in bed, he was sure to die soon.
The doctor advised, “You must try to entertain yourself with horseback riding, exercise in fresh air, and pleasant conversation, especially with ladies, so that your heart beats lightly and only from pleasant emotions.” “Take a villa”, the doctor advised, “with windows facing south, and lots of flowers, and have music and women around you.” “Avoid meats and animal foods in general.  You may eat clear bouillon and greens, and you may walk for eight hours a day.”

The alarm rings at 5:30am and my eyes open.  A painful feeling, which I now know all too well, arises in my heart....I can’t run.  But then I think of the Doctors advice to Oblomov....have pleasant conversation with ladies...walk for eight hours a day so that you may live! This, I realize can only happen if I train for Comrades and I can run Comrades only if I run Mumbai.

I gather the courage to switch on the lights.  Neepa is already ready with her running shoes on. “It is time”, she says.

“Is it time to run?” I wonder.  Does everything in my life have to be perfect before I can run?  Must I wait until the hard time passes, and for life to smile again? What if it gets worse and disturbs me more? Must I simply accept grief as a new element of life? But I recognize that I am not really alone in my grief.  Grief is a common ailment for all mankind and so must I not steal small moments of happiness in an otherwise imperfect life?   

I know of a few friends who despite incredible personal tragedies find the courage to get up every day and run.  They tell me that running gets them to a place where they can find solace and courage and sanity.

I say a prayer to the God within me. I am Not going to become Oblomov and I don’t intend to be paralyzed with fear and dread and grief..... It is time to step out.  I have to step out and face the day.  I have to step out and face life and live it well...

And so I say to myself..

“Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more..
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood... 
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips straining upon the start.
The game’s afoot....The game’s afoot”

I am NOT Oblomov, I AM A RUNNER!

Sunday 9 June 2013

Comrades 2013. Into the Abyss..and Out.

As the thousands of runners who were gathered on the starting line sang Shosholoza, two emotions arose in my heart...Fear and Desire. 
One cannot run Comrades and not become intimate with these two emotions. One cannot but Fear the distance, fear the cut-offs, and fear the hills. At the same time one is filled with the desire to succeed, the desire to relish the happiness of finishing the race, the desire to achieve one’s target time.  
2k into the race, I realized that I was feeling hot and my t-shirt was already drenched with sweat.  I told Neepa who was running alongside me that the additional advantage which we had hoped to gain by running in the cool South African weather on Comrades day was not going to materialize.  This was pretty much like running in Mumbai, hot and humid.
But it didn’t seem to matter at that point.  I felt strong, stronger than at any of my other 4 Comrades starts.  This Comrades 2013 had to be in the bag.  The last 12 weeks had been perfect. 300k in March, 300k in April, 150k in May, zero injuries, zero days lost to illness. 
For the first time in my running life, I had 10 proper weeks of regular strength training (3 times a week), the muscles were starting to show.  I had, for the first time in my life, increased my protein intake to almost 1g/kg of my body weight.  I had 12 proper weeks of hill training, 3 very strong long runs between March and April.
I knew I could deal with a little hot weather and so I said goodbye to Neepa.  We had made a deal that I would wait for her at the finish line and that for once she would not have to cajole me along from the start to the finish. 
I was also happy that when I left home, my Dad’s health was stable.  Until a few days before departure, I had been unsure of a Comrades start because of his slightly delicate health condition, but on Tue evening as I went to take his blessings, he said, “Go and have a good race, don’t worry about anything back home”.  When Neepa went to take his blessings, he gave her his customary blessing, “You do well and also look after this fellow”.
At 10k, I was cruising along.  Then the 11 hour bus passed me and it gave me reason to pause. 
My Garmin had stopped working the morning of the race and I was running with a simple watch which was set to the time of the day.  I was therefore not looking at my watch to check my average pace but simply running by feel, and I was feeling great. 
But seeing myself running next to the 11 hour bus gave me cause for concern.  My aim on race day was simply to finish in 11:45.  So, I slowed a little and let them pass but I didn’t see much point in totally slowing down as I was feeling strong so I kept going perhaps 500 meters behind the 11:00 hour bus.
At about 12k, I found myself running next to Cathy Hopkins, my friend from USA.  Now Cathy is a Western States Finisher and under no circumstance was I supposed to be anywhere near her and so I said to her, “Cathy, if you are here, I should not be here, I need to back off” and I did back off a bit.
At 30k, I wondered for the first time, if I could manage a 11:15.  No, I quickly told myself, but 11:30 seemed doable. Of course, I thought all this simply because I was feeling strong.  Since I did not have my Garmin, I wasn’t really sure of my pace and I was certainly not going to try and do the Math by looking at the distance marker, checking the time of the day in my watch and then doing the calculations.  
But what I didn’t know is that life and strength were slowly ebbing out, the heat and the excess early speed were already taking their toll. 
I was still ahead of Neepa and that itself was a mini-miracle but I was slowing down.
I was still about 3k or 4k short of the half-way when I heard on a loud speaker that the champion was about to enter the stadium, I was pleased.  To be “almost” at the half way when the Champion was about to finish seemed a good place to be.  But I also heard the commentator say that heat was destroying the back end of the race.  I thought a bit about it, because I was after all, pretty much at the back end of the race.
I reached half-way at 5:48, my fastest half-way in 4 Comrades but the bigger factor was that I still felt reasonably strong. 
Every time I felt a bit weak, I would think of my Dad, of my promise to Neepa, my better training and better protein diet.  I was going to finish Comrades!! OK ... perhaps in 11:50.
But around me, I had started noticing stuff.  Right from the start, this year, it had been quiet.  Nobody was singing, the runners weren’t talking as much, there were far more shouts for water at the water station and it was getting more and more windy.
I had started noticing the huge Maharaja buses taking away runners who were abandoning the race.  The crowds at the medical stations were larger and for the first time, I started noticing that there was no joy around. 
Then at around 50k, I started feeling sick, and then I puked, once, twice and thrice.  It actually helped a bit and I continued running slowly.
Suddenly, the first of the 12 hour buses was next to me.  I felt a bit disheartened but joined in.  The bus driver had a unique way of running.  He ran perhaps just 5 steps and walked 5.  I could not follow his rhythm and got dropped soon. 
I then realized that my strength was ebbing away very quickly but I had promised myself that I would not let my mind go into a defeatist zone and simply stop as I had done in the past. 
I would not simply cave into apathy.  I had decided that I would not start thinking that I had done my best and that it was OK to quit.  I was different this year.  I was stronger. I had much to run for... and with those thoughts, I kept running.   
At 60k the 2nd of the 12:00 hour buses caught up and I thought to myself.... “Oh no! Not again!!! It’s going to be a long road ahead”...I had wanted the mental satisfaction of knowing that the 2nd 12:00 hour bus was behind me and now that cushion was gone.
This bus was driven by Vlam and as I saw him, I regretted having run ahead at the start. We still had almost 27km to go. 
But I was happy to see Neepa.  She was right alongside Vlam.   I started running next to her and told her that I had puked a few times, I saw the look of surprise on her face because twice within the first 60k, I had a friend (Dr Hassan, who was seconding runners) pass-on a message to Neepa that I was running strong and in good shape, so the news came to her as a total shock.
So now we had approx 3 hours 30 mins left and approx 26 km to go.  It still seemed within our grasp.
Then I puked again, and this time it was right next to a medical van.  As I stood alongside the road and puked, the 12:00 hour bus moved on and away. 
An Aid volunteer gave me some ice to suck on.  That felt very good.
The wind had picked up so much that it was totally parching my mouth.  Every few minutes my mouth was becoming as dry as if I hadn’t had water in days.  The piece of ice in my mouth was perfect and I started to recover and we started running faster and faster.  Soon we were within 500 meters of the 12:00 hour bus.  Neepa kept stopping alongside the road and asking people who were sitting with picnic baskets for ice and we both started eating the ice.  The temp had passed 32C by now and all around us was Carnage.  Runners were falling off like flies and more and more ambulances were passing us.
At some point, as I was biting into the ice, I inadvertently bit my tongue and the inside of my cheek.  I did not feel this because my mouth had been anaesthetized by the cold ice. But after a while blood started pouring out of my mouth.  This unsettled me, I could not feel any injury in my mouth so I started wondering, if the blood was coming from my stomach, after all, I had puked a few times.
We stood on the road as Neepa tried to search for an injury inside my mouth but she did not see the blisters.  But every time I spit out some water, it came out red and every time I spit into my hand I saw frank blood, lots of it. I kept tasting blood in my mouth and it kept played tricks on my mind.
I once again thought about the promise I had made myself, I had promised that I would not let my mind defeat me.  I would not get into a zombie state and stop moving and yet even as I told myself to keep moving, I slowed to a crawl and the minutes went by.
We passed the last cut-off with a few seconds to spare but then it was too late.  Neepa kept encouraging me to run, she told me that in 2010 she was at the same spot at the same time and had yet made it.  But I am not Neepa, I don’t have her physical or mental strength and then at 82k, we had 5k to go and only 20 minutes left.  My PB for a 5k is 25 mins.  This was the end.
I slept on the road but a cop car drove up and the cop gently requested me to sleep on the sidewalk as there were too many cars on the road.  So I got up and lay on the side walk.
I looked up into the clear evening sky, I thought of the promise I had made to myself and now I had come up short...again. 
I thought of my Dad at home and felt that I had failed, I saw Neepa walking up and down the road, making a call to Namrata to ask her to stop tracking us on the Computer at home, I felt that Neepa could have easily finished but she didn’t because she stuck with me and I felt terrible and finally I thought about my protein diet.  In the last 12 weeks, I had started eating chicken to supplement my protein intake and I felt I had to answer to all those chickens which were sacrificed. 
I was looking into the Abyss.
Over the next two days, I learnt that this had been one of the hardest Comrades in recent history due to the heat and the head wind.  833 runners ended up in the medical tent at the finish line, 35 more were treated at Durban’s St Augustine’s Hospital while another 61 were treated at Pietermaritzburg’s St.Anne’s hospital, of these 5 ended up in the ICU.
Comrades had, “possibly the world’s largest temporary medical facility outside of a conflict zone” and it was used to capacity.
Runners consoled each other by saying that race day heat was terrible and that the head-wind compounded the problems. 
But how can I use that an excuse when 10,183 runners managed to finish within the cut-off time ? 
It’s been a week since Comrades and I haven’t even been able to cry.   I am still in shock. So how do I get out of this Abyss? 
On Wed afternoon noon, Neepa and I reached home after a long painful flight home. 
After a shower and some coffee, I walked into my library and picked out a book I should have read and assimilated a long time ago. 
Matt Fitzgerald writes in “Brain training for runners” that the brain shuts down the body even before it runs out of fuel by creating a “wall of fatigue”.  The brain does this to ensure that catastrophic failure does not occur. 
The best way to train the brain to push further is, “to do in training more or less what you want to do in the race”.
Fitzgerald proposes that the key is to adapt the brain (and the body) to work for increasingly longer periods at the exact pace that will be required in the race.
I propose to use the book now to bring down my 21k time down to sub 2:00 and my marathon time down to 4:30, before I start Comrades specific training in January 2014. I will no longer pace the sub 5:00 bus for the Mumbai Marathon. I will push as hard as possible when I run Mumbai in Jan 2014.
I have come to believe that unless I reach the Comrades half way in around 5:30 I will always be struggling.  I also plan to increase the distance of my one longest run to 65k instead of 56k.
In a moment of solitude, I asked myself: "What drives me to keep going back again and again to run Comrades in the face of the unhappy result?"  
Osho says that in the Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam the poet, asks the sages: “Why is it that this life, in which all seem to be unhappy, does not come to a stop? What makes it go on and on, although no one is happy? What is the secret?”
Since no one could answer him, the poet asked the sky, since the sky has always been ever present from the beginning of civilization and has seen everything.  The poet asks the sky, “What is the secret of life? Why does it continue?”
And a voice comes from the sky, “Because of hope!”
Hope?? Well, this does not apply to me for I have far more than Hope going for me!
I am not only a very happy chap when I train for and run the Comrades but I also happen to have the requisite Balls!!
To strive, to seek, to find, and never to yield!!
2014, Here I come!!

Thursday 18 April 2013

Boston Marathon 2013

At 8:00 am, Sunday 14th April 2013 (Indian Standard Time) as we were having breakfast at the Hyatt Hotel in Goa, on our annual holiday, Aryan my 11 year old son, spoke up and said to me, “Papa, the people having breakfast at the table behind us are runners”.  “Why do you say so?” I asked him without looking back. “Because they look like runners and the man has a water bottle in which he has filled some juice instead of water and only a runner would do that, besides they just look like runners” he answered.
A few minutes later, the gentleman passed me and sure enough, he was wearing a T-shirt which said, “ING New York City Marathon”.  I caught his eye and asked him, “Did you run New York?”
It seems he had run New York…a few times… 26 times to be precise and Boston and the Western States 100 miler too.  In fact, he had run a total of 226 marathons in all. His wife Doreen was also an accomplished runner.  Victor and Doreen were Americans visiting Goa on vacation.
Over the next two days Victor and Doreen became part of our family. We shared the breakfast table and laughed and spoke and shared stories of races run all over the world.  Victor invited us to run the Texas marathon and stay over at his home, we invited them to run the Mumbai marathon and stay over at our home.  We had just added new members to our family.
On Tuesday 16th, at 5:00 am (ISD), as I sat in bed and watched CNN, I didn’t know what to do.  I was supposed to go for a run but I was distraught with grief and could not believe what I saw unfold at the Boston Marathon.
How could I go out and run on a beautiful beach in Goa while my extended runner family in Boston was suffering.
In those early hours after the marathon bombing, I had seen the pictures of Jeff Bowman Jr. being pushed in a wheel chair and I had seen what had been left of his legs.  My heart went out to him and I wanted to be there alongside him and share my good health with him.  I wanted him to have his legs back.

I sat on the bed disoriented reading early reports of an 8 year old child having been killed.  I now know that not only did a father lose his 8 year old son Martin Richard that day, but also that his daughter lost a limb and that his wife suffered brain injuries.  I wanted to be with that family, to hug them and share all my life’s blessings with them.

Both Jeff and Martin were simply spectators waiting for their loved ones to finish the race.
I have had my wife and son and daughter and sisters and parents and the rest of my family stand on so many finish lines for me.  They have stood there laughing, supporting and celebrating my run.  These families were no different than mine.  How could this be happening to them?

I don’t know how to express my grief. I don’t know how to grieve for these runners whom I love and regard as my own.  How can I tell them that I feel and share their pain? How can I take away their sorrow?  I have never met them personally but I know them intimately. As fellow runners, we have shared and experienced extremely strong emotions and passions which bond us together for life.

I sat on bed wondering if I should go for a run on a tragic day like this. How do I grieve? How do I mourn the loss of their lives? How do I mourn for the loss of their legs? I spend an inordinate time of the day worrying about mine...and now so many have had theirs amputated.

I decided to go for a run so that I could cry and weep and mourn in solitude.  And as I ran, I cried and wept and mourned not only for the lives and limbs lost but also because I felt helpless with my inability to help them. I am truly at a loss of what I can do to help. I can attend prayers, send flowers, donate money for hospital costs, attend candlelight vigils, resolve to run the Boston Marathon… yes, but that is not enough.  What I want is for them to have their lives and limbs back to normal.  I feel helpless as far as that is concerned. 

I find it hard to simply move on in my life because my fellow runners and their loved ones have lost their lives and limbs because of a senseless and barbaric terrorist act. 
Death comes to all of us but this was senseless violence. People say that the terrorists win if they make us change our way of life.  They say that we must move forward, that we must show resilience.  It is easy to say these things when the people affected are not your own immediate family.  My continuing to run helps me but does not help either Martin or Jeff.

I don’t have an answer but I do know that I have to make the transition from mourning to simply feeling sad. Because if I continue to mourn, then I will simply continue to be bitter, to complain and I will lose the gratitude for this gift of life which was given to them and which has been given to me.
I do not know why each person is born and why death comes to him at a particular time.  We have never had a choice about being born.  We simply show up.  Life is a gift.  The fact that one exists is itself a miracle because the world could have gone on very well without me and without you.

At some point of the run on Tuesday, I stopped crying and simply felt sad. Sadness perhaps is better than crying because sadness sometimes gives us some time and space to reflect. 

As I ran, I felt that I must seize the time that is left in my life.  Death often comes suddenly and in any form and I must prepare for it and I think the best way to prepare is to live each day well. 
A prayer says, "God, give us our daily bread” and perhaps the operative word in the prayer is:  “daily”.  The prayer probably means that we must focus on each day of our lives and not worry about tomorrow.  Perhaps if I live each day to its fullest and to its true potential I will be prepared for my death when it comes. And so until that day comes the best thing to do is focus on all the things I enjoy, to be grateful for my wonderful life, to love my family, to help as many fellow humans as I can, to share the joy of running, to do my bit to help increase the flock of runners, to love my extended family of runners and tell them that I love them and keep on running.

On Tuesday evening, we saw off Victor and Doreen at the airport as they left on a connecting flight to Texas.  We hugged each other and I felt sad to be leaving them but happy for having met them. 
As we left the terminal building, Aryan asked me, “So Papa, you think we will meet them again?” “Aryan buddy, have no doubt”, I answered, “They are a part of our family and we will meet them again 100%. We will be running a race together in some city somewhere in the world sooner than you think.”

Monday 11 February 2013

The Tokyo Marathon & The Misery of Uncertainty

"If You Take The "LIFE-LIE" Away From An Average Man
You Take Away His Happiness As Well"
                       The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen.

On the 24th of February 2013, I plan to run the 42.2 km Tokyo Marathon and I know that I will suffer a reasonable amount of pain and misery. 
Misery: that awesome feeling which envelops us when our strength runs out and we are many km away from the finish line!  I have come to embrace that feeling, I am certain of its eventuality. 
Virginia Satir once said, "The Certainty of Misery is better than the Misery of Uncertainty".  I am certain of this Misery and therefore don't mind it. 

However, what gnaws at my heart and mind, what causes me greater Misery is the Uncertainty of my potential finishing time.  For the first time in my short running life, I have decided to actually aim for a 'Personal Best' and I have realized that this Misery of not knowing my ability, this Uncertainty of achieving my goal, is worse that the Certainty of Misery.

For the last 3 years, I have been the pace setter for the sub 5:00 bus in the Mumbai Marathon.  Each year, I have done a decent job of it.  I finish the race in around 4:58.  Each year I have trained hard so that when I pace my bus, I can sing and shout and entertain my fellow runners and make the journey an enjoyable one.  I have always felt that I am in great shape but the problem is that I never know how good a shape I am in because I run slower than my true potential. 

I happily allow myself to believe that I am in 4:30 shape when I pace the sub 5:00 bus, but I am never sure! I have never tested myself; I have never run a 4:30.
When I talk to my fellow runners who aim for their personal best of 3:00 or 4:00 or 4:30, I feel a sense of regret that I too am not aiming for my own personal best.  However, I console myself with the belief that I am actually capable of a far better time than the 4:57/4:58 that I have been running. 

I console myself in the belief that I am a faster runner than my finishing time testifies.  Perhaps this is a "Life-Lie".  It is a Life- Lie which keeps me happy for if I actually test myself and come up short, it could lead to a certain amount of unhappiness.  It could lead to a measure of disappointment and so I continue to live in a dream world.

But now, I wonder: Is it better to run a comfortable 4:57/4:58 Tokyo marathon with the firm self-belief that I could potentially run a 4:30 marathon, or should I rather aim for a 4:30 and live with the mental and physical consequences even if I come up short?   
Should I pursue the truth or is it better to live in a make-believe world? Should I lay it all on the line? 
Facing the truth about oneself can be hard.

In 1884, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called the "The Wild Duck".  In it, Gregers, an  idealistic person, makes it his mission to free his  friend Hjalmar Ekdal from the lies on which his happy home life is based.

"The Ekdal home was an apparently happy home and they had achieved this happiness by ignoring the skeletons in each family member's life.  Each member was allowed to live in a dreamworld of his own- Hjalmar Ekdal ,  believed himself to be a great inventor, his father, Old Ekdal, believed that he was a mighty sportsman and so hunted in the attic, and Hjalmar's 14 year old daughter Hedvig, centered her emotional life around the attic where a wounded wild duck lead a crippled existence in a make-believe forest."

But Gregers insisted on pursuing the Absolute Truth.  To him, it seemed that the whole Ekdal family was leading a life, "based on a lie".  For Gregers, the only way to live life was "to face facts, to speak frankly, to let in the light".

However, in this play the revelation of the truth is not a happy event because it rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family. When the skeletons are brought out of the closet, the whole dream-world collapses; Hjalmar thinks it is his duty to leave his wife because she might have been unfaithful to him, Hedvig, the daughter, after trying to sacrifice her precious duck, to prove her love for her father, shoots herself.

Sometimes, in life, it is best to leave the truth undiscovered because as doctor Relling, a character in the play, says:  "Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.”

So should I test my real ability in Tokyo and aim for a 4:30 or should I simply run my safe 4:58 and live happily in my belief that I am "capable" of a 4:30?  I am scared and anxious and excited!

Verginia Satir in her book, "Your Many Faces" writes:    "There is a secure feeling about staying with what we already know, and a scariness about venturing out into areas unfamiliar to us.  To go where we have not been, either literally or figuratively, usually has two parts - excitement and scariness- both of which involve the adrenal glands and come from the same root".

I think I have constructed quite a few life-lies in my life, lies which make me rationalise and live with my many failings. 
But I think that all "Life-lies" are not equal and although lifting the veil may be destructive in some cases, the awareness of "absolute truth" in some cases may be quite productive. 
4 years ago when I went to run the Comrades Marathon, I had taken a risk, a leap of faith.  I had ventured into an area unfamiliar to me.  I had moved outside my zone of comfort.  I was ready to explore my body and spirit.  Since then I have become a complacent conformist.  I have become secure in my own space.  I have become comfortable with the Certainty of Misery while I run Comrades.
I have also told myself that I run Only because I love to run and for the 'space' running gives me.  I lie to myself that I am capable of running much faster but that I run slowly Only because I am a pacer.   

The Truth perhaps is that running fast, running long, enjoying your run and finding your "space" are not mutually exclusive concepts.  So now I have to decide if am I willing to move once more "into the unfamiliar, the unacquainted and the uncharted ?" 
Am I ready to cast away my Life-Lie and venture to experiment with the possibility of failure ? 

A safe 4:58 or an uncertain 4:30? 

I am ready to choose the Misery of Uncertainty ! 

As I stand on the start line of the Tokyo Marathon, I will aim for a personal best time of 4:30.  I will open the closet and see what skeletons lie therein . 

I am scared and anxious and excited!

Virginia Satir  quotes Fritz Perls as saying, " In scariness or anxiety, breathe a little and you feel the excitement.  Hold your breath and you'll get scared again."

So as I stand on the start-line of the Tokyo Marathon on the 24th of February, all that I must do is to remind myself: BREATHE!!!

And then, RUN as if my life depends on it!

Sunday 3 February 2013




It was 5:40 am on the 20th of January, 2013 as I stood on the start line of my very first half marathon.

I know for a fact that every single person was feeling something different as they stood on that start line.

For some, it was going to be an aggressive competition, it was a race, and they were there to win. While for some, it was going to be about overcoming a personal boundary, something that held them back. They were there to prove to themselves that they had what it takes. And for a few, it was probably just about participation and enjoying the run for as long as they could.

For me, my first half marathon was a blend of a perfect beginning and hopefully, a perfect end.

An end, because it would be the outcome of all those months of training, and a beginning, not only because this was the first of the many, many races that I hoped to run in the future, but also because this was the first of the two challenges I planned to experience in the coming few weeks.

The Bombay Times Fresh Face Clean&Clear- All India finals were coming up. I was representing Mumbai. I had won the last round where I became the face of Mumbai but this one was bigger. This was going to determine who would be the face of India for 2013.

I stood on the start line thinking about the action-packed weeks I was going to have ahead. But when the race started, my thoughts disappeared into thin air and I was transported into my own zone. I felt focused, ready and excited to be a part of such a wonderful event. The atmosphere was just fabulous. Every runner was lost in his or her own space, but there was still some invisible connection between every person on that road.

The marathon was a rejuvenating experience from start to finish. My training had definitely paid off. As I saw the spectators standing on the side of the road encouraging and cheering the runners, I realized that  for all these years, I had been witnessing this spectacular day from the sidelines and I had no idea what I was missing. But to finally be a part of it felt absolutely fantastic, to say the least.

It wasn’t all easy. But then, life isn’t easy. There are always rough patches.

But as long distance runners, we’re trained to look past the hard part; because we know that what’s waiting on the other side is so much better. We keep going, no matter what. It can be called a lot of things- Endurance, stamina, guts, or maybe even stubbornness. Well, whatever it is, we just don’t know how to give it up.

As a runner, I’m never short of inspiration because when I’m in pain, I know that somewhere out there, someone is running a much tougher race than I am.

 I kept going. Feeling stronger as each kilometre went by, and I felt a new level of energy as I saw the 1000m to go sign. I zoomed past the finish line like I was wearing roller skates. I had finished my first half marathon in 2 hours and 22 minutes. This was better than I had ever expected! I now understood what my father meant when he said running a marathon was addictive. The rush I felt as I crossed the finish line had left me feeling numb. All the pain was gone and I started visualizing myself at the start line of every marathon my parents had run.

 So the first challenge had been overcome and after a few days spent recovering from the aching feet, I felt back on track. I was ready for The Bombay Times Fresh Face finals.

 What had started out as just another excuse to miss a lecture had lead me this far.

I had surprised myself at every stage of this competition and it excited me to see how far I could go.

 On the 23rd  of January, all the contestants from the 10 cities all over India were to come to Mumbai for the finals which were to be held on the 26th of the month.

On the 24th and the 25th of January we were called to Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi to audition for the Clean&Clear face wash advertisement.

It was an interesting experience. We all got to dress up in fun colourful outfits, get our hair and makeup done and pose for photographs and read out the scripts from the advertisement.

 Also, meeting all the other contestants was fun. Even though it was a competition and everyone had left home and travelled so far to win this, we all got along quite well after spending two whole days together.

To get us to feel comfortable in front of the camera, we went through some acting workshops by a group of wonderful acting coaches. It was a privilege to be one of the lucky few who got to experience this and learn from these people.

 So after two extremely long and hectic days of acting workshops, auditioning, photo shoots and screen tests, the day finally arrived.

 I found myself once again at the beautiful Bandra fort at 9 am as excited and nervous as I was the first time. It was like déjà vu, feeling those same butterflies in my stomach as we waited to get out sound checks done for our performances. I couldn’t believe I was here, I couldn’t believe how far I had come. I closed my eyes and thought about the first time. The entire experience, how I felt when my name was announced as the fresh face of Mumbai and how I felt when I saw my entire family get up and scream when they saw me on stage receiving my certificate and sash. I thought about how it would feel to relive those moments all over again.

The schedule for the day was the same as the last. After we did our sound checks, Marc Robinson arrived to choreograph our ramp walk. After which we had to proceed to the vanity van for hair and makeup and then get ready in our ramp walk outfits.

I had instantly fallen in love with the dress given to me by the designer, Nishka Lulla. It was a beautiful golden-yellow short draped dress with a sequinned neck. I had paired it with my own black heels and a gold bracelet along with a star shaped ring. Nishka had also given all the girls colourful flowery hair bands. How I wish I could have owned the dress and that hair band. Unfortunately, we were instructed to hand the garments in right after the event was over. Being dressed by such talented designers was definitely my favourite part!

So after the hair styling, make up, dress fittings, choreography, sound checks etc  and after everyone had done their best to make sure every girl looked stunning, it was now up to us.  Al that mattered now what we did on that stage.

I stood backstage with all the contestants. Everyone was nervous. Rehearsing their introductions and going over their performances. I had butterflies in my stomach, but in a way I still felt confident because of all the guidance I was given by our friend, Rukshana Eisa. 

I just stood there, closed my eyes and thanked God for allowing me to be where I was at that moment. I was so grateful to have had this opportunity. Not because it might bring me some fame and a little recognition, but because it gave me a life changing experience.

As I stood backstage awaiting my turn, I suddenly heard: “And the next contestant is Namrata Sheth, from Mumbai!”

I opened my eyes, smiled and walked out on stage. As the crowd cheered and the music was booming. I felt exhilarated.

After the ramp walk was the talent round, where I danced to a mix of two songs from the musical Chicago, choreographed by my instructors at The DanceWorX.  

After the talent round I was short listed along with 4 other girls for the question answer session.

This time the question asked of me was: “What do you look for in a man? Is it his looks, power, status in society, or his bank balance?”

This was a fairly easy question. I replied, “I’d be lying if I said looks didn’t matter because somewhere down the line, we all judge a book by its cover. But first and foremost, I would look for personality, because that says a lot. Respect, because no relationship can function without mutual respect, and lastly, he should just be a good person because that is what matters and that’s what carries everyone forward in a relationship.”

I probably answered the question more like a 20 year old rather than a 16 year old. But nonetheless, I thought was an honest answer.

Following this, we were all given a statement and were asked to speak both for and against it. We had to constantly flip between the two.

This was also one of my favourite parts because I usually switched sides quite easily and have a lot of fun doing it.

My statement was: “Boys can also wear the colour pink.” I was able to speak for and against this proposition without difficulty and got a huge applause from the audience for my answers.

Well that was all. In the next few minutes the winner and runner ups would be announced. Soon it would all be over.

I tried to keep my calm as the first and second runner ups were announced.

Sometimes I wish life had a pause button, so we could just live each special moment a little longer because before I knew it...

“The winner of Times Of India Fresh Face 2013 is- Namrata Sheth!”

I walked on stage and saw my entire family get up and scream and shout with joy. It was really happening, I was really reliving one of the proudest moments of my life. Everything was in slow motion this time. Even though the cameras were flashing and the crowd was cheering, I can still remember the exact expression on my father’s face. It looked like he had just won a marathon!  My mother’s eyes were glowing and I could clearly see the joy in my grandmother’s smile as she looked at me from the audience.

Maybe life does have a pause button. Maybe there’s someone out there who knows exactly when to press it, because those few minutes are now like photographs captured perfectly in my mind.

All good things come to an end, I reminded myself on the way home from an exhausting day at college. It was two days after my win and I was already drowning in assignments and projects. My teachers and my Principal had congratulated me and were extremely proud that I had represented St.Xaviers and won this title. I too felt very proud to have represented my college and felt especially grateful to Professor Radha who had continuously supported me through this process. But well, that was all. Other than exciting memories of winning, I was back to the normal life of a sixteen year old. All good things come to an end; I said to myself once again hoping it would make me feel better.

 When I got home that day from college, my parents said that they had a present for me. I followed them to their room and they handed me a bright yellow bag, tied up with golden-yellow ribbons. I untied the ribbons and took out what was inside: My beautiful golden-yellow short draped dress with a sequenned neck and the colourful flowery hair band!

Maybe all good things do come to an end, but the memories are always meant to stay with us forever.