Biscuit was apprehensive having sensed preparations for departure; this is the most heart wrenching period for any pet-owner, this is when you most acutely miss the ability to be able to communicate with them. What could I not give to be able to tell him that I would be back in two days and that he is not being abandoned. Anyway, the excitement of reaching his friend Chikku’s place got the better of him and he went into Mathew’s house without even caring to look back at me. Loaded with enough ration to feed an army and as if Mumbai is having famine, we set off for Aamchi Mumbai.
The train journey was uneventful, the company not yielding any material for the story. The train was on time the next day and we reached bright and early at 05:30 AM. The city famed to never go to sleep was at least taking it relatively easy in deference to the approaching festival and the weekend. We were able to get into a first class coach of the suburban train which deposited us at the Victoria Terminus (sorry, Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus), The terminus now made notorious for the senseless killing frenzy doesn’t fail to awe me every time I set foot there for the sheer grandeur and the sea of humanity passing through its portals unmindful of the majesty. After grabbing a copy of the newspaper and having obtained directions for the Construction rest house, we set out to find it.
I am sure J K Rowling would have got the inspiration for the famed platform 11 and ¾ from the Rest-House which we were about to locate on the terminus. We went past the lift twice before we were able to see it; maybe, I didn’t say the right password. The much touted rest-house was a huge disappointment to say the least, the room we were allotted was under lock (the previous occupant having vanished with the keys for the weekend) and we were given a substitute room. Even the Spartan Gandhian like me was taken aback at the severe looking room which greeted us. I was dreading the thought of having to disturb my wife during my pre-race rituals at an ungodly hour of 2 AM next day morning (no ante room). My wife was horrified and called my standing of 20 odd years as a Railway officer to question. I don’t know about my colleagues, every time I apply for a rest-house or emergency quota for accommodation on train, I find myself on test. I think the knights of yore who had to get the tigress’s milk or an unicorn’s horn had it easy compared to our continous tests. I fell back on my good friend who had got me this room to intervene and see if we could be shifted to an appropriate room. The atmosphere was electric to say the least. We got fresh, breakfasted on idlis and set off for our first item of the itinerary, Lord Siddivinayak.
The city of Mumbai appeals to me for one reason, no person from the beggar to the one selling knick-knacks on the train evokes pity or sympathy in you, they all are as if working with the detachment of a karma-yogi awaiting their turn to take their rightful station in life. We had good darshan, the lord was in his finery and majesty and looked like he was taunting me on my humble abode, I sought hurdle free run the next day and like, Kuchela (or Sudama to some), when in the presence of Lord Krishna, could not bring myself to ask for a better room. I know it would have been child’s play for my friend Ganesha.
I don’t know whether because of Ganesha’s intervention or my friend’s efforts, we were shifted to a better room. The kit arrived courtesy the same friend and we spent the day lazing and catching up on sleep. I was able to locate a book shop near fort where I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy of Murakami’s novel about ‘running’. I plunged into the book with the vigour of a devout Muslim digging into his meal after breaking a roza. I was impressed with the commonalities between me and the famed runner. We rounded off the evening with a walk down the Marine drive; the ride on the red double-decker bus was a bonus. It always excites me to sit on the first seat on the top bus and imagine I am driving the bus. We retired early so that I could get my six hours of beauty sleep before the tryst at the Mecca of Marathon the next day.
Each venue has its associated specialty, the knowledgeable cricket crowds of Chepauk stadium; the majesty of Eden gardens. The Mumbai marathon may not match its cousin New York one in number of participants but, to me it’s the crowd’s enthusiasm and policemen’s involvement which defines Mumbai marathon experience. The families coming out in full strength with even the youngest members of the family, even at the early start of 05:40 AM on a Sunday morning cannot be replicated at any other venue. The policemen offer drinks, smiles and biscuits to the runner’s, truly, it happens only in Mumbai. That’s why it’s the Mecca of Marathon for me.
After a relaxed session of spinning with slow intake of green tea and bananas, I left for the venue at 04:45 AM. I stuffed my mouth with green tea leaves and gooseberry shavings. My wife pinned on the runner’s bib, 217 much like the Rajput queens of yore helping their husbands in putting on the body-armour before going for the battle. I had asked her not to come out in the cold to cheer as she would have no company during her wait of near 5 hours. The crowd of runners in the holding area sets your adrenaline pumping and unnerves you; I tried locating my Daily Mile friends to calm my nerves. After, emptying my tank at a portable loo, I moved towards the start point, on the way I located Sundara Purush and Srinivasan of Chennai runners. They enquired me about my target time, I said I have no set target and I have come to enjoy the process, to buttress my line of thought, I quoted Murakami (rightly or wrongly I don’t know) to a good measure. I have a battle going within me, whether Bhagwatd Gita’s message of non-attachment with results means non-setting of goal? I must dig into Chinmayananda’s Gita further and find out. The Bangalore Ultra 100K runner top got me some introductions, I was also pleased as plum to find runners coming up to me and asking me to keep blogging. Have I made it Large?
I was ordained by the organizers to take the ‘A’ hold area at the start, maybe, in recognition of my 3:52 finish in the previous edition. The countdown of the last ten seconds and the shuffling feet much like horses at the race course set my heart racing. You could sense the energy and power in that small space. The combined mileage of all the athletes around me made me feel humble. I started my stop watch and synchronized the time on my watch and the juggernaut rolled to a loud cheer. I always find me crying myself hoarse at such times, maybe, it’s a release mechanism. It was as if a giant snake was making its way to the sounds of music and drums. I am always impressed at the start of every such event at the crowd at the start and how within a few kilometers each runner finds his space, much like in life when there is so little to distinguish among newborns or kids in a nursery and how they differentiate within a few years to be a hand crafted masterpiece of the maker rather than the machine produced batch that we appear at the start of the race.
I tried to strike conversation with the runners on my side, but they looked too intent on their run. I let out a loud cheer at KM 1 mark, ‘one gone 41 to go’, my fellow runners looked affronted as if I had whistled in a classical music concert at the end of an intricate composition. I decided to be myself and do the run on my own terms. The fellow runners caught on with my idea of count down after a few more kilometers, when fatigue desires some diversion. The thought of you catching up with a slow runner ahead of you or a faster runner coming from behind to pass you gives you a feeling of being thrown in fellow passengers on a train journey when your co-passenger shares the space with you for a short period of your life. In those shared moments in the run, I try to connect with the person in the runner, because I have found that each runner has a story behind his reaching this stage in the running career. Sharing the dreams and heart breaks of each such fellow runner really takes away the mind from the senseless kilometer hogging. My first victim was a youngster attempting his first full marathon and was hell bent on cracking the holy grail of sub 3:30 finish. I told him to enjoy the run and not to over exert in the first half as the second half is really tough. I told him that what would remain of the first marathon is rarely the time, it’s much more the sight, sounds, and the people connected with. After telling him to keep his upper part the shoulders and arms free and not get tensed, I moved to catch my next prey.
I tried avoiding taking water from the enthusiastic volunteers mindful of the problem of stopping for excreting the output. The weather was mercifully cloudy and the Sun was nowhere to threaten the peace and chill. My first target was to beat the Sun to the beautiful but dreaded Worli Sea Link (WSL). After getting the Marine drive out of the way, I braced for the minor matter of the Pedder road climb; I did not stop to walk as planned earlier, maybe, inspiration from Murakami that he never walked. Thinking about what my byline would be if I ran long and far enough; I want it to be ‘he enjoyed his runs’. I would like to live up to my fellow runner and friend’s sobriquet for me of a ‘smiling assassin’, even that smile becomes a wry grimace after a long run! The crowd was lining the street all along and the enthusiasm was infectious, I was running a bit faster than my plan for the first half, I as averaging 5:30 minutes to a kilometer compared to the 6 minutes planned. I was dreading the killer stretch of the race after the 36+. I slowed down and stopped to talk to a few kids on the sidelines, you must be heartless to refuse water offered by the entreating kids, I took a few offers and gave a few hand-shakes and got to ruffle their hair. Refreshed, I got back to the business of nibbling at the kilometers. I crossed KM 11 in one hour and 3 minutes, faster than what I had planned, but, my legs were okay and breathing regular. You could find young girls, with thalis containing biscuits, offering it to runners, much like puja thalis for their prayers to the lord shiva for finding good husbands in most parts of our country. You feel divine. We have heard of the tag line of ‘ with you, for you, always’ of the Delhi police, but the enthusiastic smiles, giving water and biscuits by the guardians of law here has no parallel at least in the venues I have run till now. My take is runners keep coming back for this and not for the mundane task of improving their timing.
After I crossed KM 14, recognizing that one-third of the run was over and 1/3rd used to be pass marks during our times, before inflation has increased it to ½ now, I hear, I did a grotesque version of the girl’s jig of the earlier Cadbury Ad and piped ‘Pappu Pass Ho Gaya’ from the same products later Ad; I was approaching KM 15 and took the advice of my good friend to think of my sunflowers back home to encourage myself, I needed it with the WSL approaching. Having heard so much of it, the sight of the sea link when you enter it, is majestic. It is as if team mates of a retiring batsman after a successful career make a canopy of bats to bid you farewell. The long stretch ahead daunts you. Thankfully, the roar of the crowd of runners on the opposite side from the Half marathoners made my day. I cheered them and asked them to smile. I told them that there was a TV crew waiting down the road and there was a prize for the runner with the biggest smile. Even after I had flogged this tagline to hilt, it never failed to bring smiles to the runners and the dreaded WSL was crossed before I realized it. There was this minor thing of my having to sully the bridge with a pee-break. The organizers must put up some portable toilets on the way; surely they cannot be expecting all the fluids they so lovingly give us to evaporate as sweat on a cool morning like this. Cheering volunteers at the end of the WSL makes you feel as you are being feted for having reached the summit of Mt. Everest.
The business got serious now, you could see runners now limping and falling away, faces in grimace; this is where men get separated from boys, as the saying goes. Thanks to the cheering of the crowds and the even surface of the road, you could resign to the rhythm of footfall after footfall and watch the kilometers wither away. The worst stretch was from KM 28 to 30, but, here we got to see some of our faster colleagues and similarly slower runners behind us. I saw Pani Sir going strongly towards he was clearly about a kilometer and a half ahead at this stage. I waved at him and called out, hope he recognized me. Anyway, from KM 27, I started the reverse count of my run from my sunflower patch to my home. I played the game of reliving the corresponding visuals of my home turf of the corresponding kilometer. I was now regularly looking at my watch to anticipate when the elite runners would cross us. I could visualize ourselves as slow passenger trains resigned to be overtaken by the Rajdhani express from behind. I was determined to delay the inevitable as long as I could.
What was a minor matter of the Pedder Road climb on the outward journey truly appeared like the Mt. Everest now. I could hear Murakami singing Julie Andrews song of Sound of Music of ‘Climb every mountain’ to goad me on to keep running. Deciding discretion to be better part of valour and in deference to the old bones, I decided to walk the climb. The next highlight was a kid with proper cowboy hat and ladies literally forcing you to have oranges. I could imagine how the Indian Army soldiers would have felt walking down the streets of Bangladesh after the liberation of that country; I felt I was returning to a hero’s welcome and the finish point still about 10K away!
I find this 10K psychologically very manageable, maybe, the 10 fingers for countdown. It’s as they say in one day matches, in any chase coming to within 100 runs of the opponents score is the threshold. My cheers at every passing kilometer now were finding more resonance from fellow runners. The crowd was thick, more walkers than runners; It was getting difficult to weave through walkers, some walking as couples on Marine drive, hand in hand. I could sense the elite runners pressing from behind.
While water was available at each station, other refreshments were outsourced to the goodwill of the Mumbai residents. This time there were very few aid stations with energy drinks. Here I must introduce Ashwin, a youngster who literally begged me to have a glass of energy drink from him. I obliged (Neki aur Pooch-Pooch). The solid stuff at the bottom was not fully dissolved, I asked for more water and he replenished, eager to help. The third time around he ran out of water and asked me to wait till he got a bottle from his friend. I thanked him but declined seeing the minutes tick by and more importantly the legs getting used to rest and refusing to start again. While he did the act of slaking my thirst I asked whether he knew about Ashwini Nachappa the famous athlete and his namesake, he did not know. He however, seemed to know all about his namesake cricketer, R Ashwin. Athletes have a long way to go in this country where Cricket is a religion, hope, the thrashing in Australia coming as it does immediately after the English horror does something to restore the balance.
AT KM 38, I could see spectator’s interest waning in us lesser mortals, as they looked beyond and behind us for the approaching elite athletes. I pressed on trying to delay the inevitable. One more event here worthy of reporting: A lady of regal bearing was calling out with a tray laden with glasses containing water, she was punctuating each call with a ‘bless you’. The scene with the ragged runners and the lady of divine appearance offering water and blessings looked straight out of ‘Ben-Hur’, where a lady offers a glass of water to Jesus when he falls under the weight of the cross. I stopped and took blessings and a glass of water; I remember to have told her that I needed the former more than the latter. God bless the dear lady!.
The inevitable happened just before KM 40, I had just exclaimed the railway man’s version of ‘if winter is here can spring be far behind. (If Charni Road station is here, can Churchgate station be far behind), two bike riders appearing officious cleared one part of the road for the kings of the course, the elite runners. We were pushed into the general track to rough it out with the stragglers. However much you envy these elite runners, once they cross you cannot admire the sheer grace and economy of movement of their running style. You feel like standing up and applauding. I felt good at having delayed the inevitable till this far.
Next two kilometers went in a tizzy, I still played to the gallery and tried to engage the theme troupes of dream runners on the other side of the road, all this was going to cost me in my final timing, but, who cares! I crossed the 400m to finish mark exclaiming, see me do a Carl Lewis, and the 100m mark saying, see me doing a Usain Bolt. I crossed the finish arch and ran into the arms of Sundar Purush to a warm hug. I congratulated him on his good strong finish and then looked at my stop watch showing 04:02:49, I must say, I started secretly hoping that, after adjusting for mat to mat timing, I would have a sub 4 finish.
The crowd for collecting the medal and refreshments resembled the General darshan queue at Tirupati. We painfully inched forward to reach the sanctum sanctorum and collect our finishers medal and refreshments (one Parle G packet, one Kinoo fruit and an apple, did I hear you say much ado about nothing). Ask any marathon finisher, preferably a first timer, the feeling is priceless! I trudged back to the rest-house to show my medal to my wife promising to come again. IT WAS WORTH IT!
As it turned out my timing was 4 hours 2 minutes and 9 seconds, would I do anything differently next time? AN EMPHATIC AND LOUD NO!!!