I remember February, 11th, one year back at Auroville, a talk by Barefoot Ted and Anand Anantharaman on barefoot running accelerated my resolve to go barefoot. Even though I had run all the major events this year barefoot, coming home to Auroville where my romance with barefoot running began overwhelmed me. The trail and the stones and exposed roots kept recurring in my dreams and I was skeptical about my decision to go barefoot on this trail.
The journey was the usual but for the ‘Garib rath’ modern version of cattle train of Hitler which transported 78 people in AC comfort albeit a few hours late. The interiors were very plush ,but, my wife had a tough time getting into the middle side berth. A Railway Mechanical engineer’s dream design whose only punishment I can think off is a long journey in his own creation in the side middle berth! My Quarter Master General and motive force (read my wife) and self reached Pondy on Saturday morning. After a longish wait for the retiring room allotment when I met Haang Rai and Rahul on the platform, we moved into a freshly whitewashed, but, completely bare and severe looking retiring room. It would have given complex to the cellular jail room of Port Blair and the Roben Island prison cell of Nelson Mandela. All this was for a princely sum of Rs. 600. My booking in the guest had a check in time of 2 PM and this was a stop gap arrangement. Wannabe Gandhi had to go commercial this time with Railway higher ups deciding to land up on duty to Pondy on the days of the marathon there.
We refereshed quickly and went to the church opposite the station. I have very fond memories of this church where I attended prayers last year when I came. My wife accompanied me this time. We met Santosh Padmanabhan (a great runner, who guided me through my impending cramps im my failed first Bangalore Ultra 100K attempt in 2010), he was there with his group of kids who would be participating in the 10K at Auroville. The kids and their escorts showed lot of interest in my Khadi wear and we parted promising to cheer each other in the run the next day.
Bib-Bala meanwhile reached Auroville and sent me his vehicle to reach there for bib collection. Got to meet Bala and Balaji who accommodated me in the event after I failed to register in time because of the uncertainty surrounding my late father-in-law’s health. Balaji’s (Bala must have had a hand in it too!) idea of humour was to put my name as ‘Hubli Express’ on my bib (Bala and I keep ribbing each other on whether I am Hubli Passenger or Express). Wife and self visited Matru-mandir, which we had failed to see last time, but, visit inside it seems requires advance booking. Maybe, next time, As if we need an excuse to go back to Auroville. This gave time to Bala to continue to socialize with his runner friends. I am really amazed at his memory for names, he seems to know all runners by first name and could tell you all about them. He was kind enough to tear himself from bib distribution and we started back to Pondy for an early lunch (compared to 3PM of last year). Bala instructed his wife and friend Selva to reach Hotel Surguru so as to cut delay. Little did we realize that Pndy has four Hotel Surgurus. We ate at a different place than Bala’s family. We met lot of Chennai runners who were having lunch there.
We decided to reach the Guest house and claim our room and shift our luggage after the afternoon nap. Evening was the customary visit to the Ashram followed by an early dinner of Idlis. My wife was starving herself trying to puge herself of the lunch of Surguru. Had interesting company of Bala’s kids and his brother’s kids. We met Ram Viswanathan at the restaurant. I declined Bala’s invitation to go for bib distribution to Santosh’s gang as I had to keep company with my wife who was not looking good. It also gave me an opportunity to go to bed early. We parted promising to meet opposite Romain Rolland library at 2:45 AM next day morning. I could not get sleep for a few hours, very uncharacteristic for me, as I sleep off the moment my head hits the pillow, probably two days of abstinence from running and the dormant fear of the trail! I got up to the mobile alarm at 12:30 AM. Had an extended green-tea and spinning ceremony by the bathroom light. I left at 2:30 AM after waking up my wife to photograph me in my running gear with Annai for the backdrop. I waited at the foot of Bhartiar statue opposite Romain Rolland library after wearing off a few enthusiastic stray dogs by not getting dragged into a fight or flee with them. Bala and Selva came a few minutes later and the bus came and stopped near us, it was a few minutes before time. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my headgear and used green tea leaves (for chewing on the run). I told the driver to wait while I get back from my room. I did a sprint with the strays now interested, the guard now having gone back to sleep, my wife had to hand me my headgear and green tea leaves through the grill like visitors do to under-trials across prison grills.
I ran back, with the strays now having got used to my nocturnal sojourns, in time and got a window seat in the second row from the last. I started saying my Gayatris to pass time while enjoying the breeze and the scenery outside. The bus stopped at many places and picked up people like a BPO call taxi. Finally we entered the Auroville campus and reached the start point. We made a beeline for the urinals. Thankfully for me, the urinal had a low tap on the ground outside the urinal, so thoughtful for the barefoot runners! I made friends with a few stray dogs who were being fed biscuits by a runner lady. I walked on the cool grass trying not to miss Biscuit (now going on 5 years Labrador dog of mine) trying to recreate my morning walk in the Golf course before my morning run. I met up lot of runners and had interesting discussions about barefoot running and diet (if you can call a one way monologue by me as discussion!). Soon the appointed hour came and after gulping a glass of water I joined the group doing stretching to some rousing music. I had my ego inflated when few guys came up and asked me to get photographed with them. People came up and recognized me by my funny khadi gear and head dress and asked me if I plan to do ma strip tease here too. I told them weather willing it shall be done!
I arranged myself behind the 12kmph mark for runners and set off to the countdown of 3-2-1 at 5 AM. The first aid point was said to be 2.8K away and looked a good place to shed the top. The torch looked very bright and I had asked before taking it if it would last till sunrise. Proving my misgivings right my torch gave after a few kilometers after the strip tease act at KM 2.8. I tried following a guy with a headlight, but, it seemed very dangerous. Luckily for me a lady at a volunteer desk spared me her torch in return for my dud one. This torch was very good and only thing it didn't come with an off switch (I realized when I tried switching it off while crossing under the occasional street lights). The first loop in Auroville is good weather .but, you have to run blind. I did have a few tripping episodes, thankfully I did not have a fall and could balance myself. I was praying for the Sun, God give me light! Funny thing about the Sun, it comes with an in-built heater and I could feel my skin tingling and sweat breaking out announcing the arrival of the villain of the many running battles with me, the SUN! A few stretches were really harsh on my sole, but, as I told somebody next to me, what I couldn't see, couldn't hurt me. I am thankful for the darkness but for it I would not have had the courage to take on the trail barefoot.
The second loop was the best with the best of breeze and light and Sun not too harsh. I kept up the banter with people who crossed or whom I crossed. The best part of the run was when we ran with half-marathoners and the 10K runners. The energy and the chatter seemed to energise one. There was much mirth and ribbing when I sought to cross runners with my catch phrase ‘Make way for the Hubli Passenger!’ I did not stop at aid stations and there was much joy for the volunteers on my funny gear and refrain that Hubli Passenger does not stop there! A thoughtful inmate had got a bucket of cold water and offered to douse my head in a mug of cold water. He called my head a radiator and I corrected him that it was the CPU. His name was most appropriately, Shankar. I called back to him that he was true to lord Shiva’s other name, Gangadhar (the bearer of river Ganges!).
In my third loop, the Sun really started taking its toll. All through my run, Jagdish Sir and I kept going neck and neck and he was great company though we barely exchanged a word. Two foreigners (I am sorry, I did not get their name) one lady and a gent ran strongly and crossed me in the third loop. Shreys ran along for a little distance and did not want to overtake me, I am glad he ran ahead giving me the challenge to follow him strongly. I met Ram Viswanathan’s mother twice and she was run/walking at a steady pace. I must now digress to introduce the new sobriquet I earned in this run. In my many runs earlier I have been variously called Gandhi, Baba Ramdev, Joker etc. I was surprised when one lady called out Swami Cool when I crossed their group. I found it cool and started repeating it whenever somebody called out Swami to me thereafter. One other interesting episode was a young boy riding his small bicycle who rang the cycle bell to cheer me when I crossed him and asked him to do so, much to the joy of his mother. I stopped again for the head-bath and Shankar was happy to oblige. My soles were quite tender by the time I negotiated the pebbly patch in the third loop. It was only an old man’s stubbornness that kept me from removing my slippers from the pocket and cheating on the barefoot run. Thank god I had the perseverance to complete the run barefoot.
The finish point was very different this time, we ran into a separate lane for each category with a large LED clock announcing the timing and rousing accolades from the announcer and clap of hands from the crowd. I got a volunteer give me a bag and medal before the finish point and I stopped after that. The announcer reminded me to go on to the finish point which I did strongly. I had finished in 3 hours and 51 minutes! I had shaved off a good 37 minutes from my last year finish timing of 4.28. The only difference I could see was the barefoot! I cannot discount the one year of training on my very own NH 218.
After a good breakfast of Pongal, Vadai and Sambar, The young girl at the breakfast counter who was wiping and giving the plate could have been a girl at the reception of a south Indian wedding standing with rose water sprinkler. Why do I always get this feeling of having attended a cousin’s wedding averytime I come to Auroville for a run. If only the Pasta dinner could have an option for Curd rice! I asked my wife not to come if she had not started as I planned to return by first bus so as to be able to take a good bath and pack for vacating the room at 12 Noon (I surely could not afford another day at the royal fare of Rs. 1050/- per night). We had interesting conversations on the bus back to Pondy and said warm farewells to departing runners with promise to meet again next year!
Till we meet again at Auroville in February 2014!