The mellifluous voice of Ustad Rashid Khan provided the perfect background score to the welter of emotions flitting through my mind while driving down to Hesserghatta with a new-found runner friend. Ever since I had heard about the Bangalore Ultra, I had wanted to run it “some day”, never thinking that day would come as early as it actually had. I was excited about the first race I had trained specifically for, and I was apprehensive too since I had gloriously tanked both races I had run earlier this year........I wanted most desperately to break that streak of bad races.
The excitement at the race venue was almost contagious. Peppy music. People exchanging high-fives and hugs. Finally coming face to face with people you knew well through Facebook. Photo-ops and group stretches. I shivered- though whether from cold or nervousness, I could never tell. Before I knew it, it was time for the flag off.
“Mamma, if you don’t do it in 5 hours, I will call you a loser”, my son had told me, only half-jocularly. I pushed that conversation to the back of mind as the mat beeped with my step across it. We were off. Down the driveway, through the buses parked beside the trail. Our pace was dictated by the mass of people in front. By the first kilometre mark, the throng started thinning out as people fell back or shot forward. I settled into my target pace - the pace dictated by my race plan.
We crossed the people attempting the 100k and 75k- there were the people I train with, the people I know only through Facebook, the people I do not know at all. I cheered them all, because each one of them was a hero for having the courage to start something few people even dream of.
Through twists and turns I ran. The temptation was high to run at a speed that gave you a greater sense of accomplishment; to run with people just that bit faster than you; to indulge in the pleasure of overtaking the people in front of you. But my Coach's words resonated in my mind- “Run your race, Natasha. Don’t allow anyone else to dictate your pace.”
“Are you gunning for a PB?”, joked a friend when I passed him at the aid-station towards the end of the loop. “But of course”, I shot back. “This is the first time I am doing this distance. Anything I do will be a PB.” I am glad I had that exchange with him, because a few short hours later, it was that thought that kept me smiling.
The crowd had thinned by the time I started on the second loop. With the red dust kicking a storm around my feet, the green kissing me from either side of the trail, and the bright blue sky creating a canopy over me, I had all the time to reflect. To think about the miracle that got a sedentary, middle-aged woman like me to discover running. To think about how running has almost become a meditation for me - of how I celebrate through running, of how I grieve through running, and how running helps me sort out my thoughts. I thought about some of the wonderful people who have come into my life because of running, and who have enriched it in ways I could not have imagined. Like one of my runner friends often says, “You normally make all the friends you are likely to make in school and college. How many people, except us runners, have the opportunity to meet like-minded people at this age?”
As I neared the half-way mark, the inevitable happened. My foot caught on a root projecting on the trail, and I took a tumble. Luckily nothing was injured except my ego. If you thought that experience made me wiser, you are mistaken. Within minutes, I tripped over yet another root, and nearly wrenched my ankle. Either accident could have been much worse, but one of the advantages of being congenitally accident prone is that you learn to fall in a way that minimises the damage!
Towards the end of the loop, I started overtaking people who had started falling prey to the heat, the trail and their own initial enthusiasm. How often has that happened to me in the past! I can’t think of a single race where I have not worn myself out in the first third, and battled stomach cramps and muscle aches to finish the race. I knew that despite all my training, I would have let it happen to me yet again, had it not been for my Coach repeatedly cautioning me against letting myself get carried away by the adrenaline rush that the start of a race always brings.
I was smiling so broadly when I ran over the mats at the end of the loop that a guy moved towards me holding a medal to slip over my head. “Not yet”, I smiled as I turned around and started on the last lap. “I will have earned that only after another loop.”
Though I still had another 12.5k to go, I had every reason to be pleased with myself. I had run a good race so far, and wasn’t showing any apparent signs of distress. The sun was beating down, but one of the perks of training in Bombay is the fact that heat and humidity doesn’t affect you as much as it would a person who runs in more clement conditions.
But just when I was feeling pleased with myself, hubris struck. Surprisingly, it was neither my quadriceps nor my calves that gave way. It was my upper back and shoulders. Nothing debilitating, but a dull ache that forced me to slow down considerably. The pain didn’t subside. “When in trouble, always do a run-walk to give your body time to recover”, my Coach often told me on our training runs. I never took his advice because for me choosing to run-walk was tantamount to admitting defeat. But with 10k to go, I realized that if I wanted to finish without killing myself, I would have to heed his advice. I was covering ground, but the pain showed no sign of abating.
At the aid-station near the final turn-around point, I did something I hadn’t done for over three years- I reached for the Relispray bottle and sprayed it liberally over my shoulders and upper back. But even with the pain numbed, all I could manage was the run-walk routine I had settled into. The kilometres seemed to expand.
With 5 kilometers to go, my Ego which had been struggling to make itself heard finally managed to do so. “Stop torturing yourself and walk to the finish”, it told me.
“Don’t listen to your Ego”, my Id warned me. “You are a mother. You went through 40 hours of labour before giving birth to your child. Can’t you run for another forty minutes?”
But a few moments later, my Id corrected itself. “But you know, killing yourself to finish the race on your terms may not be such a good idea. Your day doesn’t end after you cross the finish mat. You need to travel back to Bombay with the kids, and send them off to school tomorrow. Maybe you should slow down.
For the next few kilometres, I ran - walked at a ratio that felt just right for me. The sun was beating down, and for the first time in the day I questioned if I ever wanted to return to run a longer distance. But even in that fatigued state, I was acutely conscious of the beauty of the red dust being thrown up by my feet. I knew I would be back, if only to experience the joy of a trail again.
The last kilometre marker came into view. Four years back, when I was running my second race, I’d promised myself that the last kilometre would always be “my kilometre”. The kilometre to which I would give my all, to redeem myself in my own eyes for any lack of effort in the rest of the race. Run straight, turn right, turn left, run straight, turn left again, then right, left, right and left. I barely noticed the people who were standing by the trail cheering me on. I was on the home stretch. Over the mat, pause the stopwatch, slow down, bend down to finally allow the medal to be slipped around my neck.
4:52:19, was the time on my stopwatch. I had done it in less than 5 hours. My son wouldn’t have to disown me after all!
Fifteen minutes later, I was still on a high. The high that comes with giving something your best, and knowing that the best was good enough. The high of running a race the way it was intended to be run- with dignity and courage. The high of having spent nearly five hours doing something that you love.
I’d done it. Done it for myself. For my kids who’ve now learnt to never throw in the towel. For my husband who’s not yet understood the madness that has possessed his wife, but who doesn’t complain as much as he could. For my mother who is proud of her only child for pushing the limits of her endurance. For my coach who’s not just the most wonderful mentor anyone could hope to have, but also a friend who’s always there for you. For two wonderful women who have been there for me when I needed them most- neither of them knows exactly how much they mean to me. I did it too for all Runner Girls who are just beginning their journey- may running always give you the joy it gave me during the Bangalore Ultra.
Even in the worst moments of the race, the smile had never left my heart, and it was still playing on my face when I heard my name called. It took me awhile to realize that I had come in third, and that I was being called on stage to receive my certificate. A lifelong non-athlete, I had never even in my wildest dreams thought of a podium finish. And yet, strangely, that was not the high-point of the day. The high-point of the day, for me, continues to be those 4 hours, 52 minutes and 19 seconds when I slugged it out on a dusty trail with a smile in my heart and a bounce in my stride.
Hesserghatta, I will be back again.