Wednesday 22 June 2016

A few minutes to cut-off at Comrades

Earlier today I put up a picture of mine, running Comrades 2016 and described the 11 hours 56 minutes and 37 seconds I spent running towards the finish line as "temporary insanity".
I described it so in jest.

A friend on Facebook, Jane Anderson Bluegrace, then asked me the following question : "Tell us more about the feeling and spirit in that group around you as you all pushed to finish before the 12 hr "

I was taken aback by this extremely insightful question because it meant that Jane had given some deep thought to some of the most defining moments of the day for a sub 12.00 hours finisher.

The greatest personal growth that I have experienced for myself has been in that last one hour before the final comrades gun goes off.  

The time from 11:00 hours to 12:00 hours for a just-sub 12:00 finisher is spectacularly unique.

For people who finish the race in any time over 11:50, the last hour is dramatically different than for those who finish it in a time under 11:50.  

The experience of finishing comrades in its dying moments is unique.  

A 10:00 hour or 11:00 hour or 11:45 runner won't understand what happens at this, the every back end of comrades.
The champions cannot even dream of it, in their worst nightmare.

However let me not speak for all but only for myself.   I can only tell what I have felt and seen and noticed and experienced.  ( I also know that the experience of people running with a pacer bus will be completely different from what I have experienced )

So what follows is my personal experience and observation which may be quite different for that of any another runner.

I have finished Comrades 5 times, almost all of them in a time of around 11:55 +\~ a couple of minutes.

Each one of those races have been extremely hard on my body but more so on my mind.

I have in each instance reached the 11:00 hour mark with about 7k to go.   At that time the math is very simple.  If I can hold about 8 mins a km, I know I can finish the race.

This is easier said than done.

After running 80+ km on an extremely hilly terrain, it is extremely hard for a runner of my speed and ability to hold 8min/km.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the last 7kms in neither the down run nor the up run are flat.   There are small nameless hills in both.

With 7km to go I'm surrounded by hundreds of runners.   I can see that all of them are struggling in some way or another.

80km into the race a comrades runners looks a certain way.  An 80km run causes him to have a certain physical look which isn't found in a 21k or a 42.2k runner.

For one, he/she is wet with a combination of sweat and water.    This is mixed with a certain amount of salt on the skin.  But the mixture gives him/her a unique skin tone.

There is also the stench  of fatigue, an overwhelming look of fatigue which is apparent in the way people are moving.  Most heads and shoulders are drooping down.  Many are walking with their hands on their hips.    Some are moving ahead in really awkward postures.   Those capable of running have their strides reduced to a shuffle.

Ever so often I will notice some one cramping or limping or falling down.

But at the same time there is a palpable sense of urgency amongst the runners.    Everyone has been doing the math and they know what they need to do over the next hour.

I keep trying to keep moving.  Every few minutes I look at my watch and see the average pace and the actual pace.  

By now the garmin distance is off by almost 1 km from the official road marker distance.  It causes real heartache to see that the road sign says 7 km to go while the watch says 6 km to go.

Besides, it seems that the next km marker just does not come.  It seems it's taking forever for "7km to go" to turn to "6km to go".

The stress keeps increasing and the desperation is palpable all around me.  I know I need to hold 8mins/km.

The problem is that lots of people around me at that particular moment (with 7 km or 6km to go) will not make it to the finish.

I am extremely tired now  and tired people prefer walking.  And at this point at every little incline there is a tendency and a desire to walk.

The problem is that most people around me feel the same way (or it is entirely possible that I might be only noticing the people who feel that way) and since they are walking I want to walk.

But one cannot walk at 8 mins/km and walking any slower means a DNF.

This then, is the hardest part of Comrades for me.

The ability to push my mind and body to run when every instinct encourages me to simply walk.  The ability to push my mind and body to run when the people around me are walking is very very hard.

To give into walking at this point is the easiest thing in the world to do.   After all, aren't so many people around me walking?  They must know something. They must know that they can walk and make it.  And so i figure I too can walk.  I'm allowed to walk since all are walking !

But I also know this isn't true.  I need to move at 8 mins /km and at every walk my pace falls to beyond 12mins / km.  

The "average pace"  read out is slowly going to 8:00min/km.
At 8:08 mins / km, its a DNF and I know that my distance on the garmin is wrong and so I don't even trust this number anymore.

So I need to simply look at the "time of the day" and the distance on the road marker.

I know I need to run and not walk.

As the km go by, the math becomes more and more easier.   But even with 2km to go I see people who are walking and I know that they might not finish.

Even with 2 km to go I have seen people lie down on the road or cramp and fall.  How will they every finish ?

I have finished Comrades with less than 2 mins to go and I have know that hundreds of people ( or so I think ) just beyond the gate of the stadium won't finish if they are walking.

This then has been the biggest challenge for me in my 8 years of running Comrades.  The ability to keep moving in the last 7km.  The ability to resist the urge to walk when the clock is running out has been my biggest challenge.

Every bone in my body wants to walk because other people are walking but unless I run,  I know can't finish.

It is only in the last 3 years have I been able to overcome this.

My finish-time does not tell the story of my journey.

It is easy for a detached observer to think that I haven't improved at all.   It is an easy observation to make if one keeps my finish time in mind.

What is not easy to see is what has been going on in my mind.

For so many years I was destroyed in the last couple of hours of comrades.  I simply looked at people walking and I walked.  I didn't have the mental and physical ability to run in those last hours.

The math was always done. I always knew that to finish I need to run at least at 8 mins / km but I simply could not.  There was no lack of motivation. There was no lack of desire.
There was a lack of ability.  I would look at people walking and simply walk.

Yes, there are people who encourage you on the route. There are people who cheer you, who support you. There are fellow runners who want to wait for you, who would gladly carry you if they could , but one needs to be able to hang onto them.  One needs to have the ability to keep moving with a fellow runners who is slowing down to take you into the finish.

My problem was that I was unwilling to take their help because I wasn't in a mental or physical state to assimilate the positive energy that they were willing to share.  

I simply used to look at the people who had their hands on their hips and were walking.   I was always one of them.

The emotional trauma of not finishing Comrades has been enormous.  I came back after those DNFs and decided that I never want to be in that position again.

That is easier said than done.

I have struggled over the years but I have trained to the best of my ability.

In 2010 and 2012 my wife,  all but carried me into the finish. Without her I would have just walked.  She coerced me into running those last few km.

The last 3 years have been different  because i made it into the finish on my own strength.

In the last 3 years I haven't felt the fear of those last 7 km. I knew that in those last 7km that I was capable of  moving at 8 mins / km.    I had it in me to run when so many around me were walking.

The finish time does not tell this story of the intangible progress.

Unfortunately, past performance is no indicator of future results and this rule is nowhere more applicable than at comrades.

2017 is an Up run.   Normally ( historically & to the best of my knowledge ) a persons runs a down run slightly faster than an Up-run.  

I finished this 2016 down run in 11:56:37!
3 mins and 23 seconds short of the final gun.
Now, that is hardly a cushion!

Even as I write this, I can feel my blood turn cold at that thought!

So to conclude, "what does it feel like to be a runner in those last moments of Comrades ?"

I know that Comrades runners are a special brotherhood.   The last few kms and the last few minutes and seconds are the most emotionally stirring moments for those who finish and also those who do not finish.

The sights you see in those last few km stay with you forever.   The runner next to you is your brother or sister.  There is a special bond that you share with them.   But some will finish and some will not finish.   Some may help you & you might help some.
But many of your fellow travellers in those last 7km won't make it for sure and there isn't anything you can do about it.  

You can feel their pain as you run past them. You can see it in the way their bodies move and you can see it in the dazed look on their faces.

You run past them and you know they won't make it.  It is terrible.

I know how it feels to not finish.  I have been there.

I have also finished and felt the joy and ecstasy and pride of finishing this unique and awesome race.

I am indeed a lucky man to have experience both.    
A traumatic emotionally draining experience can add value and flavour to life.  It is not necessarily a bad thing to not finish.

But I'd always rather finish.

And come to think of it.  I'd rather not have all this drama in my life.

I'd simply love to finish a half hour earlier.

Friday 17 June 2016

Slow runners @ Comrades

In support of all the slow runners in this world  !

People ask me all the time, "why do you run so slow ?"

It is a valid question.

After all, I've finished 5 comrades marathons and I've taken 11 hours and 50 + + minutes to finish each one of them  

What is often not appreciated is that going slow takes a special skill set.  It's not easy to go slow and yet finish on time.  To use every possible minute of the available time is quite an art.

To gain a better understand of this, One needs a special perspective on this "going slow" business

One needs A paradigm shift.

For real understanding to take place, One needs to think of running as love making.

Now, Love making takes skill.  Passion takes skill .
But Both love making and Passion require patience.
Loving well, requires time.

When one makes love, one needs to pace oneself.

What is the point of rushing?  Why should you be in a hurry to finish ?

It's the most absurd thing to rush through love making.

One needs to enjoy and relish every moment of the experience.

One needs to be slooooowwww.

One needs to make it last as long as possible. It is a skill which one needs to acquire and it is a skill which is hard to execute, Because One needs to take all the time in the world but yet come to the finish in the nick of time. That's a unique skill !!

One Starts with just the looking, then the touching and then the feeling !

One should spend an eternity simply kissing the curves and the hills and the valleys.   Exploring the curves and the valleys and the hills takes time and patience.  One needs to explore them with loving care.  Not a single inch of the landscape should be missed or ignored.

Beauty is something to be enjoyed for as long as possible and forever.

That is the philosophy One can and should apply to running.

Who wants to run Comrades  fast ?

Make it last for 11:56:37  !!
Now, that takes some skill and a whole lot of passion and a huge amount of strength  !!

Of course, spending all that time on the Comrades route leaves neither the time nor the energy for that other thing !

But that can be overcome.

All One needs, is a "tiny" sense of humour.

Sunday 12 June 2016

New year resolutions.

New Year Resolutions. 

It was one of the coldest of nights that I can remember trying to sleep through.  

Aryan , Neepa , Namrata and I shivered through sub zero temperatures in a cold tent,  a few meters away from the Pangong lake, in the Himalayas. 

I spent a restless & sleepless night waiting for the dawn to break.  

Barry Holland has written that a Comrades runner measures his year as per the Comrades Calendar.   My year starts and ends with the Comrades marathon.  

My year had ended on the finish line of Comrades on the 31st of May 2016 and now I was on the cusp to the start of a new year.  

The time before the first run after Comrades 2016 is much like 11:59 pm on the night of 31 December.  It is a moment when one makes ones New year resolutions.  One ponders upon the year gone by but more importantly one decides upon all the things one wants to do in the years to come ahead.  One plans and dreams. ( unless one is already drunk ) 

The year to follow is especially special for me as  I enter the 50th year of my life.  It's a special landmark since I know that more years have gone and less remain.   Time is fleeting and fast. 

I struggled in bed, cold and shivering waiting for light to break.  I was desperate to step out. It had been 10 days since I had run Comrades and I could no longer hold back the urge to step out for an easy run. 

Finally as light broke, I stepped out of the tent, dressed in layers. 5 t-shirts, 2 full-length pants, 2 pairs of socks,  shoes, a woollen cap and a pair of gloves.  The camp site was desolate. No one in their right mind had yet woken up.   But the magnificent sight which greeted me was one which will stay embedded in my memory forever.   

A very faint glow of light bathed the top of the mountains in the very far distance .  The water of the Pangong lake was alive.  It was living and breathing.  

I quickly traversed the short few meters between our tent and the lake shore.   It was drizzling and the air was cold and freezing. I could see my breath as I exhaled and could feel the the cold crisp air as it entered my lungs. 

To my right stood majestic mountains.  The top of some were covered with snow while some were barren and shades of browns, greys, oranges and greens .  

There was some green grass at the waters edge but everything else was completely barren and covered with rocks. There wasn't a blade of grass visible on those mountains.   

The lake ahead of me, extended to the horizon and to territory controlled by the Chinese.  The water was shades of blues, greys, greens and turquoise.   It was the cleanest water in a lake I've ever seen.  

Wave after wave of crystal clear water dashed against the pebbles which lined the lakes edge. 

On the far left bank of the lake , the mountains were again clad in fog and mist.  The browns, greys, blues, oranges and white effortlessness blended into one another. 

The rarefied air at this high altitude made breathing quite an effort but I just wanted to run.   I knew that breath would follow breath. I just wanted to run. 

And so I ran ! 

I also knew I had to follow Neepas strict instructions to be back within an hour. 

The vast expanse of the landscape was overwhelming.  There was not a soul in sight. It was perhaps how our earth was before we showed up.   

The vastness of the lake, the mountains and the sky made me feel the infinitely smallness and brevity of my life.  

I ran some and walked some along the lakes edge.   

A half hour later I came across a large rock on the waters edge on which someone had spray painted the words "Live Pure".   Although this was an act of complete vandalism,  I could understand the vandals emotions.   It would be hard for any human to stand in these pristine surroundings and not ponder upon the meaning of one's life and its brevity.  One cannot stand in the midst of this magnificence and not ponder upon one's mortality.  One cannot but ponder upon the words "Live Pure". 

The local people of Leh and Ladhak have a tradition whereby they stack flat rocks, one on top of another.  One can see such rock sculptures all over Leh. The driver of our tempo traveller, Mr Nuwang, had explained to me that the locals held the belief that if they made such a stack of rocks in a particular location, they would be born in that area in their next life. 

I decided to make a stack of rocks on the river bank.  But I decided to make it as a mark of my love for my family.  I found and put the first large flat rock in memory of my father and then stack rocks on top of that to represent my love for my mom, for my wife Neepa, for my children, Aryan & Namrata, for my extended family and for our dog Lance. 

I stood there on the waters edge, closed my eyes and thanked the universe for the blessings I have been bestowed. 

I believe that I'm the luckiest man alive.  I've been blessed with wonderful parents, with a great education, with a fabulous family,  with great friends and a life filled with opportunities.  I've been blessed with good health. 

I stood there on the waters edge in that sacred environment and asked for some more blessings.  

I hoped that the universe will grant me the ability to use my 'free will' to make the right decisions for the remaining days of my life.  I wish to live my life in such a way that I can give back more than I have received and to live it in such a way that some day my children and family will remember me as a "good man". 

I want all children to have the things and opportunities that I want my children to have.  I want to generate enough resources for children at the Tata Hospital so that no child suffering from cancer remains without treatment. 

But while I was at it, I asked for one more  blessing... I prayed that I can be at the start line of Comrades 2017. 

The Comrades year is such a long year that one never knows how things will pan out.  Real life intervenes. One can never tell what the basket of life holds for each one of us: work and finance and health and study and all the other glorious uncertainties that unfold over the year.   One never knows if one will finally stand on that start-line but one must dream and desire.   I'm old enough to know that the sun does not always shine on each and everyone of our desires.  Sometimes dark clouds pour rain on ones dreams. 

An hour and a half later, as I walked towards my tent, I turned and took one more look at the mountains and the lake.  

The sun had not broken through the clouds but the peaks in the far distance were now bathed in sunlight.  It was still drizzling and windy. It was still brutally cold and overcast. 

But the first rays of sunlight had broken through over the mountains in the distant horizon and I could tell that the promise of light and warmth lay not in the too distant future. 

The cycle of life will always have all its seasons but one can and must always count on the sun's promise to break though in the end.  

I smiled at the thought.   

I too believe in the promise that my future holds.  I believe that I can be all the things I want to be: a good son, a good husband, a good parent, and a good human !  I can be the "good man" that I want to be.   

And as far as that one other personal desire goes,  I believe that I will come through in the days and months of training to follow. 

I believe in the promise that I will stand on the start-line of Comrades 2017.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

A Day of Days : Comrades 2016

A Day of Days 

So on the 29th of May , as I lay in bed at night,  sore and in pain,  I wrote about my Comrades 2016 experience.  I wrote it and went to sleep. Later the next day I posted it on Facebook and sent it to my close friends. 

What I had written about was primarily the post comrades experience where I shivered due to cold IV drip in the medical tent 

Getting nausea, cramps, dehydration, aches and pains are all part of running Comrades. At comrades these aches and pains are taken to an extreme.   

But sometimes to someone who isn't into running this all sound pretty awful.   It seems to them, like it was a traumatic awful experience.   

A non-runner who enters the Comrades medical tent for the first time will get appalled.    He will think that some natural disaster has stuck and something terrible is going on. 

On reading my post, someone from India, asked me, "Was this your first finish and will you come back again because you had such an awful day?"

I'm not sure which part of my post led him to the conclusion that I had an awful day.   

After all, I have in the past failed to finish comrades and not thought of that as having an awful day and here I was at  the end of the day with my 5th comrades medal around my neck.  What part of that looked like awful ? 
It Wasn't an awful day at all.    It was just how Comrades day is.

The winner of last years comrades had cramps and was limping much like me.  She was in pain and at some point staggering on the road.  
I know she will not describe her day as awful. 

Two years ago the indomitable Russian twins crossed the finish line and collapsed on the green.  They landed up taking some IV.  I know they won't describe that day as awful. 

Comrades is hard for me and I guess it is for most people. It is hard for those who win and it is hard for those who don't. 

So it was a day just like a comrades day is supposed to be.  

And yes, for me, it was excruciatingly hard And I had to dig and dig and dig inside me to find strength to keep moving forward.  
I managed.  

I think if I can live my life, pushing ahead, one small step at a time, relentlessly, mine will be a well lived life.  

I was in the field.  I was struggling and fighting the clock. I was so completely alive to the passage of time. 

There were times when I saw the hill rise in front of me and it made my heart sink.  I wondered, "How in the world would I be able to soldier up that hill ? How much time will I lose going up that monster ?"

My legs didn't have the strength to run up those hills so I decided that I won't look in the distance. I lowered my cap and kept my eyes just 5 meters in front of me.  I looked at the legs of people in front and if they were running I ran. If they were walking, I passed them and tried to find feet which were running and followed those instead. 

Did I have an awful day ? 
No !!! On the contrary. 

What more can one ask for in life other than to be part of the worlds greatest gathering of crazy people ?

And come to think of it , one can ask, "Who is crazy and who is normal ? "

I've come to the conclusion that the more times you run Comrades, the more normal you are.  

The more times you fight your limitations in life (whatever they may be ) the more normal you are. 

I cannot imagine life without having had this experience.  

When I'm dying and if I get the time to look back at my life, I will think with great fondness upon these days. 

I will look back and know that I was privileged to be on that road and in the company of my heros and heroines.    

It makes my life, a well lived life .

It wasn't an awful day.  

It was a Day of Days  

Sometimes we don't get soup. Comrades 2016

Comrades 2016 is done.  I finished it with just a few minutes to go,  in around 11:56

I last mentioned that I had this desire of finishing in a good time and going into the international tent and sharing some soup with my fellow Indian runners.   

At the finish, I had two bottles of IV instead. 

After finishing the race, I took my medal and walked towards the medical tent. 

I Threw up and doubled down on the lawn and was quickly transported into the medical tent. 

I've had IV's at comrades before but the next hour and half was one of the most painful I have ever experienced. 

They did some blood work and decided that I needed an iv.   The problem with the IV fluid was that it was slightly cold. 

At that point thousands of people were coming Into the medical tent and it was a complete crazy zone.  In fact, the comrades medical tent has often been described as the largest temporary medical set up In the world outside of a war zone or active disaster area. 

The cold iv went into my blood stream and I started to shiver. 

One may have seen those machines in the gym that people use to loose weight.  One stands on a platform and there is belt put around ones waist.  Then the platform vibrates and the belt also vibrates.  For about an hour and a half as the IV went into my system my upper body shivered with that intensity.  My legs however had gone into an excruciatingly painful spasm and were completely immobile. 

I pondered at the absurdity of my position. The upper half shivering out of control, the lower half completely immobile and in terrible pain. 

They had put one aluminum blanket and 3 woollen blankets on me to stop the shivering but it was completely useless .  

The suffering ended only when both the bottles of IV were done. 

So the dream of having soup got substituted with 2 bottles of IV. 

I lay In the tent for another half hour to recover. 
But Through the 2 hour ordeal, my one hand was clinching my finishers medal.   Bruce Fordyce has often said that at the finish-line, one way to check if the runner is dead is to simply try prying out the medal from his hands....A runner who isn't died won't let go of the medal. 

That little piece of metal is precious beyond words. 

As I lay vibrating at a high frequency and in intense pain,  I thought about my run. 

I had spent the last 4 hours  of the race on the road in intense pain and stress.  Every second is vital when one finishes a 89.205 km race with less than 3 minutes to go.   

For so many years I have been trying to improve my performance on comrades race day.  Every year has been the same. 
I felt bad for the millions of things my wife had done to help me. I felt bad for calling my friend ashok from pune to cycle next to me on my long runs.  I felt bad for all the times I've left my family and gone away to run.   To what end ? To keep finishing with such a slim margin ?? To what end ?  I've changed training strategies but the end result has always been the same. 

I finish the race with just a few minutes to spare.   
Only someone who run comrades and finishes in those closing moments will understand the level of stress one undergoes.  

People around you start walking towards the end and you have to fight the instinct to join them. It is very hard. 

The math is always clear.  One needs to run the Kms at a certain pace or one will get cut off.  But the road varies violently with the ups and the downs and it is hard for one to hold a particular pace. It is hard to plan ones pace. 
I battled with time from 38 km to go.  
Later, I had 10 km to go and 7 km to run.  My calf was continuously sending me signals that it was just waiting to go into spasm and my knees and quad muscles were screaming  for relief after being abused for the better part of 12 hours. 

I think my ability as a runner is hopeless.  

Bruce Fordyce always says that to be a runner one must choose ones parents well. 

I think in my entire family family tree spanning back many many generations, there isn't a single athlete. 

I didn't choose my parents wisely for this particular passion of mine. 

So what can I do ? 

Well for one , I thank my parents for all the other blessings they bestowed on me.  The love for reading and writing comes from my Father.  Courage, I inherit from my mother.

I have so many other blessings that it is ok if I can't run fast. 

Such is life. Nobody has everything.  The yin and the yang are always in balance. 

Such is life. 

Sometimes one has to do without the soup.  One can settle for the IV.