12:45 pm. The race was officially over. It was arguably the hottest day of the season. The sun was beating down mercilessly. The water-stations had run dry. Most people had dropped out when the finish vehicle passed by half an hour ago. We were on Marine Drive plodding towards the finish-line. A group of policemen standing by the side of the road, facing each other in two parallel lines. Race over, they were perhaps having a review session. I made to walk around them, but the policeman nearest me indicated with a wave of his hand that he wanted me to walk through the tunnel they had made.
It was a surreal experience- thirty men in uniform clapping in unison as I passed between them. “Race khatam ho gaya par aap chal rahen hain. Hamara salam/ The race is over, and you haven’t given up. We salute you”, they told us.
That spontaneous gesture summed up the marathon for me. It is not about winning or losing. It is not about beating your previous time. It has nothing to do with the other person’s time. It is about having the courage to start, and about having the will to finish.
When I signed up for the race in July, I knew I was just not ready for it physically. But I had six months to get there. When I got back to running after my hysterectomy, I realised I had lost most of the stamina I had carefully built up over the years. Running became a priority for me, and by December, I was as fit as I had ever been- the marathon seemed doable. But I hadn’t counted on that puny little virus that wrecked havoc within my body. When I was having trouble climbing stairs, the full marathon seemed almost impossible.
And yet, there I was at Azad Maidan before sunrise on Sunday morning, with 3,000 people as insane as I am. No matter how many times you do it, the adrenaline surge of those minutes just before and after the start of the race remains just the same. With everyone else, I started running, and kept running for a couple of kilometers, before I started feeling breathless. Eventually, I settled on a run-walk routine that I knew could see me through to the finish in just below the stipulated six hours.
By Chowpathy, we started seeing the first of the half-marathoners in the last leg of their race. On the Peddar Road flyover, I saw two half-marathoners keeping a steady pace. Something seemed different, and when I looked closely, I noticed that one of the runners was visually impaired and the other was guiding him with what looked like a leash.
Running itself can be full of pitfalls for the visually impaired, and this runner was among the top twenty in his race. “Nothing is Impossible. Impossible is Nothing” finally took on a meaning no amount of advertising could convey.
The elite athletes overtook us at the start of the Worli Seaface – in thirty minutes, they had covered a distance I was struggling to complete in three times that time. The runners from Kenya and Ethopia are poetry in motion, and this time, I was not only sharing a track with them, I was running the same race. Humbling thought that!
I was doing good time, and reached the 14 kilometer mark almost 15 minutes before my target time. but then the heat started getting to me. By the 18 kilometer mark, I knew I was in trouble, and by the time I reached the 21 kilometer mark, I realised that if I wanted to finish the race, I would have to adopt a very different strategy. Stopped running, and concentrated on setting a brisk pace walking. I was tempted to stop at the medical station before getting onto the Sealink, but resisted the temptation- I was not in any serious difficulty, and saw no point in making a halt.
The Sealink proved to be a killer. Five kilometers of the unrelenting sun, without even the hint of a breeze. No water stations. Definitely no stations offering energy
drinks. A policeman gave me a sip of water from his personal stores, but there was no other relief. I had been looking forward to running on the Sealink, but when I think about it, all I remember is the white median line on which I marched for nearly an hour.
With only a third of the race to go, I found myself part of a loosely strung out group of people in various stages of collapse, none of whom had any chance of crossing the finish line before the race got over.
“Keep going”, a voice shouted out to me.
“Is there a choice?”, I asked.
“I’m not sure about me”, he replied. “But I know you are going to finish the race.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant. Once you start something like a marathon, is there any option except to finish? What was the point of coming this far if you were going to drop out? You couldn’t really drop out, could you?
I got my answer a few kilometers later just after the 34 kilometer mark. A event vehicle came, announcing that the roads were going to be opened to
traffic and that if we wanted to finish the race, we should get off the road and onto the footpath. The jeep was followed by two buses crammed with marathoners who had given up. I saw a couple of people sprint to catch the bus, but the thought of abandoning the race never occurred to me. Had I dropped out then, I would still have covered more distance than I have ever done before. The climatic conditions were really bad. My fingers had swelled to twice their size. Nobody would have killed me had I given up. Forget anyone else, even I would not have blamed myself. I could have always come back next year when I was fitter and the weather conditions hopefully more conducive. But I had regressed to a primitive ‘hunter-gatherer’ stage. All I could think of was finishing the race. Nothing else mattered. I was not capable of rational thought.
The last kilometer marker I had passed had indicated 39 kilometers, but that had been a long time ago. “How much left”, someone asked me. “I don’t know”, I replied. Distance had ceased to have meaning.
“You are amazing”, someone else said. “All of us have been taking breaks. But you never stopped, did you?”
“No I didn’t.” How could I explain that I never felt the need for a break.
And before warning, we were at Flora Fountain. The Marathon Flame was burning bright. The flame that rarely leaves its home in Greece, but which had come to Bombay. I bowed my head for a moment- I was one with the ideals of the Flame. I started running. Very slowly at first, barely above than the pace I had set walking, but a little faster when I tapped into some final source of energy I never knew I had. I finished in a sprint. I had done it!
I had completed my first marathon! Nothing will ever be the same again!
And thank you everyone. Your wishes made it possible.