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!!