I woke up with a start. I’ve always had bad dreams about being late for an important exam / event. I glanced at my phone. It said 3:40 am. Thank God!
I hadn’t slept too well. Rather I had slept too little for someone who has a full marathon to run. I walked to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. The puny little figure that stared back at me looked anything but a marathon runner. My thoughts went back to the day when I first told Rutvi that I wanted to run the full marathon.
“Are you freaking insane?” she had blurted out. I had expected that reaction. It was one thing to finish my first half marathon in Jan 2014 and a totally different thing to want to run a full marathon in Jan 2015.
“I haven’t always done the sanest of things Ruts”. She had smiled unconvincingly. My sister knew me too well to know that there was no point arguing with me on this one.
And here I was on the morning of the D-day. I got my running gear on. Armband. Check. Cell phone. Check. Earphones. Check. Cash. Check. Running bib. Check. I arranged my hair for the one last time in the mirror. “Nikita Dresswala, you are awesome. You’ve worked really hard for this. Go get it now” I reiterated to myself. Self motivation can work wonders.
It took us almost an hour to reach Azad Maidan (start point). Thanks to Pratik, my seasoned runner friend, I did not have to spend the hour pondering about the race alone. But I knew he wasn’t going to be around for too long. His target finish time was much before mine. Rather, I did not have a target finish time. I just had a target finish distance of 42.198 kms.
So after our routine selfies and stretches, we decided to go our own ways at the start point itself. I settled at the back of the pack. It was 5:40 am already. My heartbeat accelerated. I knew people at the front section had already started their race. In a few seconds, runners at my section would start moving. I did the last few stretches and then it all began.
I comfortably jogged past the start line with “Counting Stars” playing on my phone and in my head. A lot of runners tell me that they do a lot of their life thinking during their run. I always wonder how they manage to do that. Because when I am running, all I can think about is my run, the calculations surrounding it and everything related to running. Even the lyrics of the song playing on my phone don’t matter unless they motivate me to run better. And this is amongst the best things that I like about running. That single minded focus and nothing else. Even if I try to get something outside that’s bothering me, it doesn’t stay there too long. All those thoughts get back to my run.
I comfortably cross the 5k mark. I was running under my best timing. I ran with a natural tilt toward the seaside. Though born under a fire sun sign, I have an unnatural liking towards water.
But that comfort did not last too long. My left knee started troubling me somewhere around 15k. I did not want to slow down. The plan was to keep pacing till the sun was up completely and then slow down. But my plans never seemed to work out, especially when it came to running. I was already slowing down considerably.
Another few kilometers and I was clearly worried because I could no longer keep up any pace. I was on Bandra Worli sea link which is the best stretch to run and yet I could not run more than 500 meters continuously. I crossed the halfway mark with a painful knee. For the first time in the race, I was worried about finishing it.
I needed some motivation. I began to think about all the months that led to the race day.
There were the two Aarey half marathons which felt like running in some obscure village with the kuchha roads.
The messed up Navi Mumbai half marathon.
The Hiranandani estate half marathon + an extra 7k before the start of that race.
The Powai 30k practice run on that killer slope.
The Bandra 15k by the sea, the women’s 10k at BKC, the shivaji park and the marine drive run.
Then there were my lonely BKC runs and the dog that followed me for an entire lap on one of those runs. He is the only dog I have ever loved.
There were the treadmill runs and how much I loved them. It had taken me some effort to get off the treadmill and start practicing on the road.
There was the Powai running routine with my office gang with me as the running team captain. I wondered at what point they had reached in their half marathon and wondered what they would say if I did not finish mine.
I was off the sea link by now and much closer to home than I was at Azad Maidan. I tried hard not to think of home. I kept reciting Robert Frost in my head “Miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep”. For the first time I started noticing the runners around me. In a full marathon, after you cross a certain distance, the set of people around you are more or less the same. They either drop out or you finish alongside them. There was this young chap who never seemed to get enough of his camera, taking pictures every 10 mins. Then there was a 50 something sardarji from Chandigarh who wore “Chandigarh runners” Tshirt. He was the most entertaining guy around because he literally danced while he ran. He would do his bhangda style running every now and then. And then there were 2 handsome looking guys who used to wait up for each other if one got a little ahead. Sadly, they never waited up for me so I did lose track of them eventually. There were a few others but the most important of them was this 30 something guy in blue Tshirt. The blue Tshirt is all that I remember about him and I call him important because I followed the blue color till the end. I made sure I never lost sight of that blue.
I began walking after the 23k mark. The exhaustion was setting in and the scorching heat made it worse. I tried to walk with my eyes closed for 10 secs and when I did open them, everything appeared blurred for a few seconds. I sipped a couple of sachets of energy drink and decided not to shut my eyes for the rest of the race. I continued walking with short jogs every now and then. I could see a lot of runners around me giving up, sitting on the sides. Some of them even puking. I tried not to think of them. I could just see the blue color ahead of me. Follow him Nikita. Focus. Just 12k.
My head got heavier. The city traffic had been opened to public which was a demotivation because it meant I was slower than most other runners who were now closer to finishing their race. The water points were closing their stalls except those few angelic volunteers who made sure slow runners like me got their share.
The other voice inside me was now louder than ever. It asked me to let go. That it was not the end of the world if I didn’t finish the race. That I was still better than all those sitting on the couch and watching TV on a Sunday morning. That it was okay to go home now. I wanted to be home. Tears swelled up my eyes. I wanted to talk to mom. I dialed home. But when dad picked up, all I asked him was to pick me up at the finish line. I couldn’t let him down. He had more confidence in me than I myself had. I did not want to give up. My heart was no longer in sync with my head. I was losing sight of the runner in blue. Damn!
It was somewhere around the 33km that I had my magic moment. The first of the rescue buses drove past me. Rescue buses are for those runners who are exhausted enough not to finish the race and wish to be dropped to the finish line. I saw 5 full buses driving along. The last one stopped next to me. The driver popped his head out of the window and said “Madamji, thak gaye ho aap. Baith Jao.” And in an instant even without giving it a second thought, I said a firm “No”. This time he said it louder “Madamji, last bus hai. Chalo”. I screamed at him “Nahi jaana bataaya na”. He still seemed to be looking at me unsure of what to do. And at that moment, I gathered all the energy I had left in me and ran. I forgot all about the pain in my left knee and my blistered right foot and ran. I ran for almost a kilometer and stopped when I was sure that the bus had taken a turn at the last signal. Looking back, it seemed like a stupid thing to do. I knew he could not force me into the bus but I still felt the urge to run. Because I knew I wasn’t running away from the bus but I was running away from the other voice inside my head. And I had overpowered it.
The rest of the race after that point was manageable. I found the guy in blue and kept following him. He too seemed to have taken notice of me and made sure I was around. The dancing Chandigarh sardarji also seemed to have mellowed down his tactics and kept asking me how much longer it was.
I sprinted in the last 300 meters which I later realized was nothing more than a slow jog. I saw my Mom at the 100 meters point. There were tears in my eyes. I ran past her to avoid her eyes. And there I was. The finish line.
Hands down, that finish line was the toughest finish line of my life. No words or emotions can ever describe how I felt. I remember reading Paulo Coelho books and him talking about how pain could give pleasure and never could quite as much relate to it. But for the first time, I could feel pain in every point of my body and yet the glory of the finish overshadowed all of it. I thought of all the early morning runs. The painful runs. The hill runs. The Nike running app runs. The skipping of junk food days (I cheated once in a while). The hours spent in the gym. And the days I felt too anemic to run. The mandatory pre run physiotherapist consultation (thanks to mom and masi). Worried family, friends and neighbors.
A friend texted me “How was it?”. I replied “Its all worth it in the end”. It all is.
There are a few people I need to give my thank you’s to. Thank you Killu mama, Pratik, Devashish and Nikhil; you’ll have been my running inspiration always. Thank you Bones, Vikas, Arjun, Ameya, Sanika, Neetu, Noble, Pritesh, Suraj, Aditi, Urvi, Prarthi, Raj, Shradha and all my running buddies for always being a motivation. Thank you Dad and Ruts for trusting my decision and capabilities more than I do. And thank you mom for everything; no words will ever do justice to what you’ve been to me. I know how much my running makes life difficult for you; both physically and emotionally. So thank you for putting up with me. I love you!