Tuesday 24 June 2014

Life, Death & Comrades 2014

On the morning of Sunday 1st June 2014, I was on the road between PMB and Durban running the Comrades Marathon. One week later, on the morning of Sunday 8th June, I was on the road again. I was walking towards the crematorium carrying my father’s body.

People often cry at Comrades, some because they finish the race, others because they don’t finish.  I have celebrated both occasions with lots of tears, happy ones and sad ones.   This time however, when I finished Comrades, I cried and cried because I knew what awaited me on my arrival back home in Mumbai. I cried because even as I walked around with a medal around my neck, I knew that my dad was back home unconscious and running out of breaths.

Barry Holland has written that a Comrades runner does not follow the Christian Calendar.  He counts his year, Comrades to Comrades.  I’ve had a unique year starting with Comrades 2013 and finishing with Comrades 2014. It has been a year with just about as much stress as I can handle.   It all started with a DNF at Comrades 2013. I only managed to reach 85k when time ran out.  Comrades 2013 with its heat, wind, dust and my lack of ability was just the start of a long nightmare.  The minute I came back from Africa my Dad’s health spiralled downwards towards an abyss from which he would never recover.

Two operations in July took away his ability to talk and eat.  I wonder if he would have undertaken those operations if he knew about the quality of life which awaited him for the next 11 months.

With all the stress and cares at home with his health, I couldn’t run much from June 2013 until January 2014 and then a forgettable Mumbai marathon in January 2014 made me realize that Comrades 2014 was shaping up to be another disaster.

But then something unique happened.  I met Celi Mokhoba towards the end of January 2014. 
Celi happens not only to be the Technical Director of the Comrades Marathon and a Board Member and an elite coach but also a 6:50 Comrades runner himself.  Celi was visiting India to be part of the Mumbai Marathon Expo and as the Indian Ambassador for Comrades I spent time with him.  Being with him for a few days changed my perspective towards training. 
I requested Celi to help me with a training program and promised him that I would follow whatever plans that he was willing to set for me.  

After understanding my training routine, Celi simply upped my training volume.  I used to run about 900 to 1000 km between Jan and May for Comrades, Celi upped it to 1600km.   The thought of injury did cross my mind but I decided that I would rather injure myself and not go to Comrades than go to Comrades based on my old routine and get another DNF.

Celi promised me that if I followed his routine, I would not dramatically improve on time but that he would promise me a comfortable finish. 

A comfortable finish sounded to me like manna from heaven.

And so I embarked on 90km weeks from the 1st week of February. 
But as the days went by and the kms increased, my Dad’s health kept deteriorating.  He could not speak but he continuously wrote me notes explaining his discomfort and I ran around trying to find symptomatic treatments to deal with his ailments.  The underlying cancer was beyond treatment and the only goal was now to keep him comfortable. 

I would come home after half a day at the office and although I could not solve anything I would just sit at home and provide moral support. 

Every morning before I left home for my runs, either at 4:00 am or 5:00 am I would stand for a while outside his door to hear the sounds coming out of his room to check if he was sleeping or coughing or needed something.  I started carrying a phone on all my runs to ensure that my Mom could quickly get in touch with me.    I wanted to go out and finish my run and come home before he woke up from his meds induced sleep.
The helplessness one feels when seeing one’s loved ones suffer is a tragedy no one should experience.

And so day after day and hour after hour I battled to keep him comfortable and I failed every time.  Every new doctor would offer some meds to deal with a particular symptom and the med would create a new symptom which was equally bad.  And then all that could be done was to lock myself up in the bathroom and cry.
At the same time, I kept running and the kms kept increasing along with the heat and humidity of Mumbai but the hours spent in the morning on the road were the hours which kept me grounded on the job at hand.  The hours provided me with space to think and to keep myself from falling apart.  They provided me with an outlet for my stress. They provided me a private space to cry.
The days kept going past, the kms kept increasing, my dad’s health kept getting worse and I kept losing weight...83kgs fell to 82 to 81 to 80 to 79 to 78 to 77 and on and on until I would find myself in May at 72.5 kgs. 
By early May my Dad could not get out of bed and by mid-may he was unconscious.  The doctors advised that the end was near. 

I had to decide if I wanted to take the chance of flying out to South Africa to run Comrades.  At no point did I doubt my intention.  I wanted to run Comrades.  My only concern was the additional pressure my not being home would put to my mother.  But when she suggested that I go run, I knew I would go.

I ran Comrades with a heavy heart, often times on the road I thought of my Dad back home, unconscious and in a mental and physical state I knew nothing about.  I had left him without telling him that I was going to Africa.  He was no longer conscious but the ability to hear is the last sense which leaves a person and I didn’t want him to know that I was not at hand as I had been for the last 14 years to react to his call.  I had left him alone in his last days. 

I had the easiest Comrades run that any athlete can have.  Celi was right. It was a comfortable finish. 

I returned to India on the 3rd and my Dad passed away on the night of the 7th.  As condolences poured in on his demise, the overwhelming sentiment amongst my runner friends was that I must have dedicated this Comrades run for my Dad.  They suggested that he would have been so proud that I finished Comrades. They opined that he waited for me to finish Comrades and come back home before leaving on his final journey.  That he must have been proud to see my medal. 

An overwhelming number suggested that I must have run “this one was for my Dad”.

I kept quiet as I heard this again and again because these were words spoken with a good heart and with good wishes.  But I felt it was unfair to my Dad if I kept quiet.

The truth is that I didn’t run Comrades for my Dad.  I ran it for myself.

My relationship with my dad was not based on any responsibility.  It was based on love and love meant freedom.  For 14 years I did everything I could do to help him fight the disease.  I can say with certainty that no one could have done more to help and I can also say that I did all that I could, not out of any responsibility towards him but because I loved him.

My Dad had no real choice in the matter. I would have gone to the ends of the world for him, simply because I loved him.  My love for him arose out of freedom of action and thought. 

If I had stayed home and not gone to Africa it would have been out of a responsibility towards him and I felt that I was not responsible towards him.

My action towards him were always guided by free will and by my love for him.  I am responsible only towards my own conscience and towards my inner being.  My heart had told me to go and run Comrades because I love the race. 

Running is my happy thought.  It is the foundation which brings stability to me.  Running helped me love my dad to my full ability.  It gave me strength to walk into hundreds of consultations over 14 years with doctors to help cure him.  It gave me strength physically and mentally to keep up a brave face even as we were losing the war to save him. 

But I didn’t run Comrades for my Dad, I ran it for myself.  I ran Comrades because running Comrades makes me a better person and I aspire to greatness.

I believe that my Dad didn’t know that I went to run Comrades because I didn’t tell him.  I don’t believe that he knew that I completed Comrades because I didn’t tell him.  He was unconscious when I left and also when I returned and I doubt that he had a sense of time and space in those last 20 days.
I also know that my Dad didn’t care much about my running. He never expressed either a positive or a negative sentiment about my running but I know that he came from an old school of thought that “time at work” was the only time well spent. 

But I also know that my relationship with my father was not based on my running.  It was based on love and freedom.  He allowed me to chart my own course. 

It would therefore be an insult to him to say that I ran Comrades for him and that he would have been proud of my Comrades medal.  He was always proud of me because he loved me.  A Comrades finish or medal had nothing to do with love. 

A few hours before he passed away he opened his eyes.  I was standing close to him, I held his hand and told him, "Papa don't worry, I will look after everybody".

On the morning of Sunday 8th June, I was on the road, I was walking towards the crematorium carrying my father’s body. A week later on the morning of Sunday 15th June, I was swimming in the pool with my son Aryan.

I was missing my Father just as I have missed him every moment from the time he left me. There is this hole in my heart which will never be filled. 

As Aryan showed me his diving skills I pondered on the idea that I had once heard.  Someone said that you realize that your time is limited once your own father dies.  It’s then that you realize, for the first time, that you will be next.  I have often thought about my death and how I will face it.

But I wondered what really happens after death.  Was my father’s consciousness in a good place? Was his consciousness happy?
Aryan realized that I was distracted and asked me to play properly. It brought to mind a dialogue described by Osho about a meeting between Confucius and Lao Tzu. 
“Confucius asked, “What happens after death?” And Lao Tzu became aflame, like a flair, and he said, “Again! Are you going to drop your stupidity or not? You are alive - can you say what life is? You don’t know life while you are alive and you are bothering about death! You will have enough time in your grave. At that time you can meditate on what death is. Right now live! And don’t live lukewarm.”

Osho goes on to say that, “Many people go on living on dimmer switches. They go on dimming and dimming. They don’t die, they simply fade out.  Death happens to only a very few people, to those who have really lived and lived hot.  They know the difference between life and death because they have tasted life, and that experience of life makes them capable of death too. And because they know life, they can know death.  If living, you miss life, dying you will miss death.”

And so for now the thoughts of Death can wait!
Celi promised me that if I follow his program I can do a sub 11 Comrades in a few years time.

I am alive and I am never more alive than when I run Comrades.   I refuse to fade out.  I am not on a dimmer. I will taste life to its fullest.  I intend to live Hot.  

Comrades 2015, awaits!!