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.