We all love an underdog story. I figured that from all the love I got for my post about Comrades 2012. Comrades 2013 happened on June 2nd from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and I… spoiler alert (!!!!)…finished in exactly the same time as last year: 11:56:36 – talk about consistency! Except that it didn’t feel consistent at all. May be because of the unusually high temperatures, strong head winds and that, unlike last year, most of this race was a tough uphill climb of 87 kms! The Comrades Association has gone on record to say that it was one of the toughest races ever, with only 10K of the 14K runners finishing (another 6K didn’t start the race) and more than 900 runners had to be treated in medical tents.
Before I write more about the race, I have to explain why this post comes more than a month late. Well, a lot of people have told me over the last 12 months that the underdog post was an inspiration for them to start running and that they’ve been inspired enough to participate in half marathons and other races after reading it. My eyes well up every time I hear something like that because I know that my running makes life tough for everyone close to me. So, the slightest difference made to anyone’s life really helps my Karma. But, the truth is that Comrades 2012 was a good story because my real odds of completing the race had been sub-10%. This year was different. I had trained more, my timings had been much better for all the training runs and well, for the most part on race day, I’d stayed well ahead of the 12-hour pacers. Hence, I decided that there should not be a post about Comrades 2013 (how convenient!)
But, alas! Husbands are EVIL beings. Well, mine’s also a Gemini! After trying to persuade me for a month to write a post, he decided to play dirty! I was locked in the house on a Saturday night with a bottle of Sula Brut Rosé (well played, Kaushik!) and told that I wouldn’t be allowed to sleep till there was a post! So, here I am at 2:30 AM on a Saturday night wondering where to start…
All over again
My Comrades training started with the Mumbai Marathon in January. It was the day after Vellvette’s first offline event and 30 hours after Ravi and Alpa’s wedding. So, even though I’d hoped I would be better off without the pressure of having to finish the race under 5 hours (whenever you complete the Comrades, you automatically qualify for the next year’s race – recipe for addiction!), I did a miserable 5:01.
A few weeks of on and off training later, I realized the total mileage was looking grim like last year – less than 20 kms a week. And, as if magically, I came across a Facebook post on the Comrades group about a Lonavala run with most of the Mumbai/ Pune Comrades runners (which, surprisingly, is 90% of Team India). I messaged Pratik, who had put the post up and didn’t receive a reply for several days. The practice run came and went. I justified it to myself that these were guys who were on the 1200K total mileage plan for Comrades and could do a sub 4-hour marathon. I was much slower and was on a 400K plan, so what was I thinking?! They were the “Special Batch” equivalent from my days at FIITJEE while I was studying for IIT. I had hated not making it to the “Special Batch” and that had been a great push for me to actually do well when I took the IIT exam. So, I thought this was déjà vu…
Except that it wasn’t! Turns out Pratik hadn’t seen the message at all and the whole gang was actually quite accommodating. I missed a couple of runs because of my travel, but few weeks before Comrades, finally ran for the first time in Lonavala. When I reached Bushi Dam at 2 AM on a Saturday night, I was shocked to see 15 uber-fit guys stretching together. Looking at them I wanted to turn the car around and run home. Had I not messaged Satish and Pratik that I’d reached, I wouldn’t have had the guts to come out of the car! But, I can’t be happier that I did. Running up and down between Amby and Bushi on a Saturday night is a big upgrade from the 1.2K circuit at Hiranandani that I had been looping for years! I had a chance to run with some amazing people – Neepa, who was running her 4th Comrades, and Ashok, who cycles down from Pune for all the Lonavala runs just so that he can give Neepa company, and Sham, who stopped at 40K just so that he can let the Wine Marathon at France in September be his first 42K run, and of course, Kaushik, who decided to run the last 7 kms with me because it was burning at 9 AM and I was refusing to complete my 60K target!
Post Lonavala, I got hooked to this group running thing and over the next 4 Sundays I actually woke up at 4AM and went to run with Sham, Pratik, Ramdas, Moiz, Ajay, Swapnil and the rest of the gang at BKC. I was regular (at least for the Sunday runs) and faster, because every time I slowed, Sham would scream “Come on, Great Indian Lady!” Embarrassing as it sounds, it was super-effective! And the group stretching that followed the runs – I think that was one of the biggest reasons I didn’t have to see my physiotherapist even once this year!
So, when I met my parents at the Dubai Airport on 30th May and 3 of us boarded the flight to Durban, I felt much stronger than last year. Kaushik wasn’t able to make it because he was “running” the company, but I got my “Cindrella Man” style booster from him before I left, and one from Navya and Shereen and Vellvettines and Hip Hip Hurrahs and of course, the family – every word of which I was sure I’d be repeating in my head during the last 30K.
After 2 days of sleeping, eating, expo-visiting and route-seeing, it was the morning of 2nd June. I had decided to go to the Start Line with 6 other Indian Runners, but by the time I reached the meeting point at the given time, they’d already left. I couldn’t believe my day was starting so bad. Thankfully, the misadventure was short-lived. We found a cab and made it to the start line before time. I joined the other back-of-the-pack runners and waited for our turn to reach the start line. That’s when I met Ramdas, who told me that he was planning to run with me. I was alarmed, as I was pretty sure I wasn’t his best bet. Besides, we’re quite the opposites. Ramdas is quite philosophical and insists that one must not let the pressure of performance take away from the joy of running. I, in spite of all my Bhagvad Gita readings, NEED the medal at the end of a race and no matter how less I’ve trained, I am quite cranky after bad races. So, as we started running together, he was incredibly amused by my Garmin and the spider tape I had on my legs to prevent my glutes from getting worse (well I had another on my knees, but in my defense, that was a free sample they’d given me!) and the band on my wrist to tell me the cut off points.
The gun went off at 5:30 AM and we started running together up and down the Durban flyovers till we had safely exited the city and we started climbing the first of the 5 Big Bad Hills. Ramdas was in great form and he was pushing me to run-walk the up-slopes to keep the momentum going. I was feeling good too, but I was slower – and was slowing him down. He refused to shoot ahead in spite of all my persuasion, so I decided to respect his choice and stopped pleading. I told him about how I really wanted to take home the Back to Back medal (which you receive for running your 1st and 2nd Comrades back to back) and he told me about how he was already happy that he was running this, so the outcome wouldn’t matter.
We were doing good time and when the 11 hour pacers just came up from behind us, I realized just how fast we were actually going, so we let them run ahead. We reached Pinetown, the first point where mum and dad were supposed to meet me. They’d been warned about the traffic at these spectator points, but you know how parents are – they were determined to see me at least thrice during the course. When I passed the last point where I could imagine seeing them, I figured that since I was going slightly ahead of schedule, they may not have made it yet. Nevermind, I was going to see them at the half way mark anyways. So off we went towards Drummond, enjoying the weather and the crowd support. I had worn the Team India T-shirt, which turned out to be a good and a bad thing. Good because it had an India flag on it, so I got cheered significantly more than last year – not only by spectators screaming “Come on, India!”, but also by other runners. Bad because it was a cotton tee – a big no-no for long distance runs. We reached the half-way mark (43kms) in 5hrs 37mins and that was good because we had more than 6 hours to run the second half and only 2 bad hills remaining – Inchanga and Polly Shorts. I saw my parents and I was on such a high that I actually told them I was finishing it for sure. I told them how Ramdas and I had been pacing each other, so they should expect both of us to finish together at around 5 PM.
Of course I said it all too soon! From thereon it all started crumbling like a pack of cards. Firstly, Ramdas started cramping. He was intermittently stopping and rubbing his legs vigorously. I got him some ice and he applied it on the cramp. He needed salt, but we couldn’t find any. He kept telling me to go ahead. For a couple of kms, I’d move ahead and wait or keep walking backwards looking for him. When I’d spot him somewhere, I’d run ahead a bit to maintain our momentum. But, I knew he was in a lot of pain and running was becoming really tough for him. I also saw that time was ticking and hundreds of runners were passing us by. Over and above that, it was getting hotter, the sun was shining right into our eyes and there was a strong wind resisting our uphill movement. It started hitting me that I was again heading for a close finish. I saw the disappointment on the faces of my parents and Kaushik and my friends who were tracking the race online, for not making it after getting this far. I started imagining what the pain of not finishing would do to me during the long flight back to India, in all my conversations about the race, on all those nights when I’ll lay awake thinking about what I’d do if I could do it again. And in my mind I decided the right thing to do was go all out and finish the race – and that is what I did! I know that Ramdas held no grudges and in his mind too, it was the right thing for me to do. But I also know that he would have stayed back…
I got to know at the end of the race that he did walk till 82K with that cramp before missing the final cut off. Every time I think of my decision, I know that if I were to go back to it, I wouldn’t do it any differently because on that day, at that time – I was there with the single goal of finishing that race. But, it’s something I do think about often. I saw a lot of Comrades runners go through the same dilemma and I saw choices being made both ways. In their own contexts, I know they all did the right thing. But, you can't help but bow down to those who took the tougher call to stay back - in some cases at the cost of their own race. They really went one level beyond "sportsman's spirit".
The Real Fight
The remaining part of the race was a tough battle against time and against the damn hills that just wouldn’t stop showing up. There were some weird moments, like again having to “go” behind a bush, running briefly with a South African who insisted on referring to my dad as “father in law”, multiple runners seeing the flag and asking me if I was sponsored by the “Guptas” (some major business family in SA). There were funny moments like me asking a 10 times Comrades runner if a small slope was the infamous Polly Shorts. He held my hand and said, “Sweetie, you will KNOW when it’s Polly”. And then there was this man who saw me struggling against the wind and asked me, “Aren’t you too frail to run the Comrades?” I was so happy with my response – “I might not have a runner’s body, but I have a runner’s mind!” It’s not an original, but it did the job!
By 70K my mind was so tired of all the calculations that I wanted to shut it and just focus on running - running flat out. So, I was only relying on external signals – like the morale of those running close by. I noticed how the conversations around me had dived from “You think we have a shot at a sub-11?” to “This is going to be such a close finish – we have to run the upslopes now”. There was an increase in the number of runners lying by the side of the road, a few vomiting and several running with the “can’t do this anymore” expression. There was one such girl running ahead of me at the 79K mark. Suddenly her coach (who wasn’t in the race, but was supporting her for some distance) pleaded aloud, “Honey, just look at me! Believe me - there is this hill and then there is Polly and I PROMISE you after that it is all downhill. Just 8K – I know you can do it!” I felt like she was talking to me too and that did keep me going - although I were to soon realize that it was not ALL downhill - even after Polly.
I wanted to throw up, but I tried to hold it till the finish. I promised myself, “just do these last 5K in time and then you can vomit away all you like at the finish”. So, I stopped intake on anything but water. The 12 hour pacers crossed me – I knew I still had a shot – just had to keep moving. Besides, the other pacers were still behind me.
Soon it was 1K to go, 10 minutes at hand and I sprinted – so much so that I just about overtook the pacers who had crossed me a while back. Ran into the stadium for the last 100m and that was all lights, crowds and very, very loud cheering! There I could see my parents anxiously waiting. They noticed me and what I then saw made it ALL worth it – the pain, the dilemma, the uncertainty and of course the Saturday nights spent on the road. What I saw on my dad’s face was a look of unbound pride (if your dad’s a scientist, you’ll know this one’s hard to come by). Mum was, of course, crying. We hugged and I cried – I guess it was due since last year, so this Comrades I really, really cried. I was told that Kaushik had tracked me on the app for the last 8 hours and he already knew, so we just had a brief chat, consisting of no words and tons of shrieks. Oh, by the way, sometime before all of this, I did cross the finish at 11:56:36, got my Vic Clapman Medal and the Back to Back medal.
It was time to go home. We headed on our long drive back to Durban. As promised, I let my head hang out of the car as I threw up through that journey and then a few times at the hotel. My feet had big balloon shaped blisters and everything hurt. But, that didn’t matter. My Comrades dream had come true!
More than just a race
Comrades Marathon is always a lot more than just a race. For every single runner. When I look back at this one, I think one of my biggest takeaways has been the rediscovery of the “bonus” joy of having running buddies. When I’d trained for my first marathon at IIM Ahmedabad 7 years back, we used to run in a group in the middle of the night and for every bunk, you had to treat the others. It worked – most of us finished the race, but we all finished alone. It was then that it first hit me that to finish a marathon, one has to be prepared to run for long, painful stretches alone.
And, over the next 7 years, it became an “individual” sport for me as I mostly trained alone and always raced alone. I started enjoying the “me” time, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that it was taking its toll. Firstly, on my own, I could never enforce the discipline to follow a training schedule half as rigorously as I’d done before my first marathon. Secondly, given Bombay’s weather, I could only do long runs at night and safety was a real issue. Believe me – it takes one traumatic incident to annihilate all the notions that “Bombay is safe for a woman to run alone at 2 AM”! This meant more torture for Kaushik, who slept 2 nights in the car for “surveillance”; actually, let’s just say there was 1 night of sleeping and another of being on a live call for 2 hours till sunrise.
So, after all these years of running alone, when I finally experienced the kick of running as a team – at least on a few days. It feels like running has come a full circle in my life – from being a team sport to solo to again team…
What next for me? Well, definitely no Comrades 2014 – have promised mum, dad and Kaushik. But, I’ve added a few important things to my bucket list:
- There is a 100 Marathons Club – I am pretty sure I will be eligible for it some day.
- I want to run at least 1 marathon/ ultra from start to finish with someone – I am sure it will require a new level of strength, but it should be a beautiful experience.
- I want to run at least 1 race for someone else – totally, wholly completely - not worry about my timing or the finish line – just run with the only intention of making someone else’s dream come true.