Thursday, 24 January 2013

Of Kumbh Mela and the Mumbai Marathon

I had casually compared Mumbai marathon to Kumbh mela and us barefoot runners to Naga sadhus, but, more I think about it more there seems to be in common between the two!
While milling with the other Full marathon participants in the holding area at Azad Maidan in the wee hours before the start of the event, the similarities came out starkly. The various contingents like the Bangalore Pacers, Chennai runners, Pune runners etc. resembled the various akharas waiting to take the plunge. The discussion was the diet and training while the Sadhus at Kumbh, I am sure, must be discussing matters of the spirit. It was like each participant experiments with his self in the interim and comes back each year to compare notes!

My brother a veteran of few marathons, but, still overawed by the atmosphere and the crowd and I were doing stretching and counting time to the start. A middle aged person of nondescript age but bearing a super-veteran bib came over finding out if start time for them is different. Ram avtar as he called himself was said to be 65 years of age and claimed to have done a marathon in 3.30. His prescription, keep your weight in check and be disciplined about training, simple isn’t it! Just then a runner passed us complete with water jacket with a tube for hydration, it takes all kinds.

Just a few days before the event a topic for discussion on the facebook scared us barefoot runners stating that the Worli Sea Link stretch was like a bed of needles and absolutely non-negotiable on barefoot. I had tried out carrying my slippers in my pant pockets for the exigency in my last run on Friday at Hubli before starting for the event. I was now moving around with one slipper each in each of my pockets. I had a tough time smuggling them in through the security man at the entrance. He had a hearty laugh after he heard the story. My mobile was already reconciled to sharing the pocket with my left slipper during the run.

My wife and I had reached the previous day to the city of dreams, but, not without our share of excitement courtesy, my employer Indian Railways. My job makes it difficult to plan leave or reserve in advance; I had to forcefully depend on Emergency Quota to get a berth on train. Surprise, my PA rushed in on the day of journey to say that we have not been allotted a berth. My wife on being told sent tremors through the phone line threatening to withdraw from the honorary post of my trainer, cheerleader and dietician. I called the Chief Commercial Manager and requested for putting us on the train. He ensured one berth in AC 3 Tier and promised more to come. My wife reluctantly agreed to accompany me to Mumbai. We got upgraded to AC 2Tier before bedtime. Rest of the journey was an unending orgy of gorging me with food; we runners have a technical term for this, Carb-loading.

The other act of drama for us railway men, uncertainty of accommodation in Railway rest-house, was spared this time as my friend and colleague got me a confirmed allotment at VT station (sorry! CST). Anticipating delay in settling in railway accommodation, I had taken Bala’s (popularly known in running circles as Bib-Bala) offer of picking up my running kit for me. The room was comfortable, but, not roomy enough to take in my brother and Bala in addition to us. The Geyser was working but the outlet tap was jammed and did not yield any hot water. We tried all our tricks with the caretaker to get him to set the tap right. He offered to get us hot water in a bucket. Result, wife and self finished our bath with half a bucket each, maybe; this is Indian Railways contribution to water and energy conservation.

Having got ready before 8 AM and bib distribution slated to start at 11 AM, we decided to pay a visit to Mahalakshmi temple. I was informed by Active darshan network earlier that my favourite, Siddivinayak, had taken a few days off for Sindoor lepan (maintenance vacation). Bib-Bala had an interesting take on this, he said Siddivinayak needed to repair and recuperate after Sunny Leone’s appointment! I told my brother and Bala that we shall meet at Expo at 11AM.
We took Local train to Mahalakshmi station and walked to the temple. The two storey houses of one room houses with a metal staircase dotted the sidewalk. Some of the ground floor apartments had businesses running like a hair cutting saloon. Jairam Ramesh will be hurt to see that there were no toilets! After a 2-3KM walk, we reached the temple. I was elated to see that Mahalakshmi had Shakti and Sarawsati for company (my favourites!). In an expansive mood I offered my wife that we could go back to Mahalakshmi station by shared Taxi. The driver waiting outside the temple told me that for Rs. 25/- (shared taxi would have cost us 20) we could have a private taxi. It also saved us half a KM of walk. We reached Churchgate by Local and took a bus to World Trade Centre. We beat Bala to the Expo by a handsome 15 minutes.

Met Bobby and Suresh of the Bangalore Pacemakers. The bib-distribution was very professionally managed. Bala was wholesome in his praise of how well they have arranged the kits that they did not take any time to locate one’s kit. I was advised to get my timing chip activated/checked at a separate counter. This done, I went down to collect my Goodie bag. The crowd was slowly building up, but, the beauty was that every person felt he has been lucky as the later person faced bigger queue. Roshni Rai of Comrade fame trooped in with her charge of runners from Darjeeling. It was nice meeting them after a long time; they were fabulous in their hospitality when I went there for the Pedong run. We wished each other well for the marathon on Sunday. Meanwhile my brother and Bala came and collected their kits.

We all decided to retire to Matunga for an unlimited South Indian meal. We were treated to non-stop banter from Bala enroute. He has wonderful ideas for supporting poor runners on a sustainable basis. It was close to 2PM when we trudged into Mani mama’s Mess. Poor man was not aware of rampaging Vishy’s exploits in Chetana restaurant the previous year after the Marathon. He sedately handed out four lunch coupons. We were offered a table on the first floor. The table was too small to accommodate four plantain leaves, we managed. We gorged on a full three course meal. My brother of Army officer training, despite Bala’s reservations, had no hesitation in digging in with his bare hand to do full justice to the meal. It was worth all of the Rs. 110/- per meal. When came down after the meal, my stomach seemed to have a mind of its own and was moving independent of rest of my body. My wife and I took a train to VT and Bala took upon himself to put my brother on to a train to Churchgate while going to Andheri. My brother was to pick up his luggage and join us at the rest-house in the evening. It was very tough to keep awake while all the blood had deserted my head to service the overload in the stomach. I reached the rest house in a trance and managed to change before crashing into a sleep.

My brother joined us in the evening with his bag and baggage. My wife meanwhile had managed to terrorise the caretaker to produce the plumber to set right the hot water tap. We all took the customary pre-race stroll on the Marine drive. It turned out to be a long walk and we returned back by 9 PM. After a quick dinner of Brown bread, Jam and Milk we retired to sleep with Alarm at 2 AM. I had a fitful sleep and I woke up at 1AM. I had an extended session of spinning and green tea. I woke up my brother at 3 AM. We had a breakfast (looked like Sehri during Ramzan) of Dates, Brown bread and Jam. My brother dared to take a bath and announced that the geyser does not work. To him coming from North of Vindhyas it would have been all in a day’s work. I a lesser mortal from South India chose discretion and changed into my running clothes. The fancy press buttons (a first time and a brilliant idea!) supplied with the racing bib did not go with my thick Khadi, and I had to settle for the conventional safety pins. Quickly tucking spent green tea leaves in my cheeks I followed my brother to Gate No. 5 for participants’ entry.

The runners were busy interacting with each other and the usual question of expected time was doing the rounds. I repeated the few stretching exercises I know between visits to the Portable Loo to empty my tank. The organizers had thoughtfully kept the loos closer to the start point this time. I cannot take the Marine drive for the way I use the NH-218 in Hubli for relieving myself unabashedly. The scene was reminiscent of that outside a delivery room where expectant fathers are shown pacing. The organizers were in no mood to start and a sleepy announcer asking Mumbaikars to Run Mumbai Run gave me hope of the event starting. There seemed to be no time for segregating runners into enclosures depending on pedigree (my wife has not excused me for being careless and missing the elite ‘A’ enclosure by 2 minutes). Before we know we were inching towards the clock which was already past the 5.40AM mark. Even the countdown did not happen and the race started from outside VT station.

The feel of the familiar Mumbai road on the bare feet and the sea breeze on the face set the adrenaline pumping. In the initial part of the run, I had a lot of people to negotiate in the initial part of the run. I let out a loud war cry after every KM fell much to the amusement of other runners. The road was well lit and I was able to negotiate the pebbles and rough stretches easily. By and by the runners thinned out and we had good elbow room to propel ourselves. We turned into the Marine drive and the cool sea breeze welcomed me. I was feeling good and I pressed on, it was like having my foot on the gas pedals of a Ferrari, I had no discomfort in speeding up. No sweat meant my Salman Khan act postponed to KM6. In the confusion of the start, I had not started my stop watch at the right time and the start time was also not 5.40 exactly. Ignorance was real bliss! I was running a blinder without looking at my watch. I was trusting my legs and instinct and hoping that I have enough to last the distance. At KM6 I took a strip-break to remove my top, and invited a few cat calls, I was not among the cognoscenti!

My strategy was simple this time beat my sworn enemy, the Sun, to the Seal Link and try to catch the next person ahead of me. I planned to spend sometime with each person I crossed. Some took lot of effort in beating. I was variously cheered and jeered for my unusual attire, barefoot. I am made of stronger stuff and was reveling in it.

Suddenly the majestic sea link structure loomed before me, before I could exult, the fear of the treacherous trail scared me. To add to my fears, the initial stretch had round pebbles of big size stuck together for grip. My soles were not comfortable. Before I could surrender to the comfort of the sippers, the road eased and I was saved the ignominy of having to give up on the barefoot run. I crossed Ram Avtar on the Sea link. The Sun was nowhere in sight, either he was in Sunday mood, or, I was fast.
I now started taking water breaks, I settled for the energy drink in the paper cartons. The volunteers were so insistent in serving you that it looked rude to refuse. Everybody had a kind word for the barefoot baba. Slowly Mumbai had woken up and the crowds lining the roads started nullifying the Sun’s effect of tiring you. The crowd cheer is the best drug, if only Lance knew! There were stretches of scuffed up road but nothing worse than what the under construction road in Hubli had not prepared me for.

Now we were running through buildings and apartments and it was getting even more difficult to refuse the insistent kids hospitality. I took a break and downed one energy drink and a glass of water. Maybe, I needed the break more than the liquids. I met Bobby and Neera, they were about 1-2 KM ahead of me at the INS Treta bend. They were going strong. This is where my brother crossed on the other side and we exchanged cheers. Today seemed to be my day and I could it seemed push the pedal at will and the old machine responded. The fear of the cramp, however, kept lurking deep down.

I had a good few 100 meters with Suresh Seshadri before he cheered me on to go on. Wherever I saw a camera I posed with a V sign and my smile widened. But, my antics were much less this year. Presently, I reached the climb of Peddar Road, even the dreaded flyovers of Hyderabad cannot prepare you for this steady and steep climb at this point of the run. I did it running even if my breathing got laboured. All along I kept overtaking runners. I started to believe that if the race lasted long enough, I could outrun anybody. God had been very kind to me today.

I now started harbouring a thought that if I pushed on, I could beat the elite runners to the finish line (what does it matter that they start one hour and forty minutes after you). This is where I saw Pani Sir running in an affected manner, I drew alongside him and exchanged pleasantries. It seems one of his legs was playing up, but, he was manfully soldiering on.  I kept looking for my wife on the Marine drive, have I been too fast for her. Now was the home stretch and I gave my legs and lungs all I had and turned the Ambassador hotel bend. The dream runners were coming in the opposite direction and I could not resist a few antics and responding to cat calls. This year the organizers had separated the walkers from the runners and it was very thoughtful of them. Now the familiar signs of 1000m, 500m and 200m appeared and contrary to other runs where you feel relieved to finish a run, I was actually feeling sad. I did a Usain Bolt at 200m metre mark much to the delight of the Dream run contingent and finished strongly. My wife was wildly gesturing for me at 1000m mark. I ran into a happy Bangalore runners group of Bobby, Neera, Brijesh, Brojen et al.

I relaxed with other finishers and waited for my brother to come in so that we could go together and claim refreshments and medal. This is where an Asian Age reporter cornered me and I boasted about myself and he faithfully reproduced it in the TOI the next day. Presently my wife wife rang up and said that my brother has crossed her point and that she is reaching the rest house. Around 10 AM by my watch my brother steamed in really pleased with his PB of 4.09. My wife messaged me that I had finished in 3.36.19. Her mobile number was registered when I registered for SCMM earlier and PROCAM had sent a message to that number. I felt good and it was the second swallow after the 3.38 at Chennai, Maybe, its Summer after all!
We reached the rest house and after a hot water bath (it required an Electrical Engineer, your’s truly’s tinkering to figure it out) proceeded for the customary after marathon lunch at Chetana restaurant. Bala meanwhile was not responding to my calls. Readers will recall that after a particularly heavy lunch, I had suggested to the proprietor of Chetana restaurant that he has the option of either increasing the rates or removing the option of unlimited Thali from his menu. We found that he had decided to increase the rates, what costed me Rs. 270 last year was a royal Rs. 330 (Rs. 15/- weekend surcharge to boot) now. I bit the bullet and did justice to the meal to the best of my ability. My brother took the Taxi to airport and I dropped into a well deserved sleep.

The run was very satisfying and the charm of this marathon even after three outings does not diminish, Mumbai I will come again next year!