Ok. So, I had no business finishing this run. I should have quit in the first hour itself. Six hours later, when I reached the finish line in an almost empty stadium, it was a tribute to determination and human ingenuity.
The first signs of trouble surfaced the night before when I took out my shoes to fasten the timing chip. I realized I had packed the wrong pair of shoes when I came from Bangalore to Hyderabad for the run. These were shoes that I had used a couple of years ago and they had outlived their running life. The ones that I am currently running in have the same make, design and colour so, apparently, I had picked up the older pair. It was too late to do anything now and even then, I was not unduly worried; after all, the worst I would get would be some more pain/cramps in my legs, what else could go wrong?
August 26, Race day, 4.45 am; 15 minutes before start: I had carried a banana that I had planned to eat before the start. As I took my first bite, I saw that the core of the fruit was rotten – completely black in colour. Fortunately, I had not swallowed the first bite, I spit it out and threw away the rest of the fruit. Even now, was not overly worried about this; most of the runs that I have done have been on an empty stomach.
The run began on time and I settled down in a slow easy pace, wanting to conserve energy for later. As a result of the slow pace, I was pretty much behind all the other runners. So much behind that when I reached the first water point, the water had been finished. This was not good. I had a long distance to run and I wanted to make sure I was well hydrated all through the run. Moreover, I have always trained with having small sips of water right from the beginning.
I planned to compensate for the water at the next water point two kilometres ahead. Next water point, same story. No water. By this time, I was feeling pissed off. Great excuse for me to just quit running and go back home. However, better sense prevailed. I fished out my phone and called up Murali, one of the organizers and a dear friend. I told him that there was no water at the first two water points and slow runners were thirsty. Murali had run a marathon Marathon at Chicago last year and had been severely dehydrated by the end of that run. He, I was sure, would understand my crib.
And he did. By the time I reached the next water point at the 6 km mark, word was already out. A very pissed and a very slow and a very thirsty Brajesh was coming the way; handle with care. In fact, as I tanked up, the volunteer there asked me if I had had my fill or did I want more? Did I sense sarcasm there or did that bloke really not understand that when you run, you cannot simply drink jugloads of water in one go?
I had not lost any time so far but my rhythm had certainly been disturbed. And my attention was now drawn to something else. Each time my right foot hit the ground, I heard a flapping sound. I halted for a moment to check but could not locate the source of the sound. I continued running and the flapping continued. My mind was now racing. The first thought that came to mind was of quitting. But then I thought of how empty the rest of the day would seem for me. Also, what about the loud declarations that I had made in front of my close friends? What would I go and tell them? That I had not even been able to finish 25% of the distance? The pendulum of my mind quickly moved to the other extreme. I will simply ignore the flapping and keep running. All the way to the end. Even if I have to discard my shoe mid-way, I will run. That was in the realm of fantasy.
However, the rational frame of mind was restored pretty soon and I thought that the best way forward would be to check for the reason for the flapping and take appropriate measures to address it. I stopped to give a closer look to my shoe and saw what had happened. The sole of my right shoe had separated from the upper at the heel and hence the flapping. The two components were still one at the toe end of the shoe. However, if no action were to be taken, the sole would separate from the upper in a matter of minutes. I needed something that would hold my shoe. And I needed it quickly. I saw a cigarette kiosk on the side of the road. It was around 6 am and naturally the kiosk was unmanned at that time. The owner had put on display empty packs of cigarettes that were hanging on a plastic twine. I had found my lifebuoy. With one hand I grabbed the twine and yanked it hard. It broke and display came crashing down. I took a sufficient portion of the twine and tied it around my shoe to hold the two divorced components together. With the sole firmly in place, I started running again. Looking back, I realize that I had not lost much time at all. The only halt where I had been completely stationary was once when I looked at the shoe and discovered the problem and second, when I sat down to fix my shoe with the twine.
By now I had reached the third water station. In between gulps of water I told Rishi, the stationed official, about my problem. Rishi, an active member of the Hyderabad Runners had been an inspiration and a friend for long. In fact, he had been one of the pacers in the Half Marathon last year. Rishi understood my problem and radioed ahead immediately. Barely a kilometre ahead, I had the big man Rajesh Vetcha anxiously waiting for me. Rajesh, as everyone who runs, knows, is the founder of Hyderabad Runners and is called Chief by us lesser mortals. I told Rajesh about my water misfortune and my shoe misfortune. He immediately offered to take his shoes off and give them to me. I did not even entertain that thought since wearing alien shoes could actually make it more problematic. But as I stood there talking to Rajesh, I was scanning the ground to see for something useful. I saw a long black piece – for the lack of a better word – rope – that looked exactly like a shoe lace. I quickly wrapped it around my shoe and took Rajesh’s help to firmly tie it around my shoe and almost immediately took off.
By this time, the darkness had completely vanished and we had joined the common route for both Marathon and Half Marathon. I crossed the first flyover and joined the crowd, grabbed a bottle at the next water point and got into my rhythm. Quickly reached the second flyover and before I knew, I had entered the rolling terrain of Road No 2 of Banjara Hills. At KBR Park, roughly 16 km into the run, I caught up with my childhood friend Sriram. Till about a year ago, Sriram had this mental block that he cannot run. After watching me run regularly for the past several years, he took his tentative first steps towards running and did his first event at Mumbai earlier this year with a half marathon. Now a regular runner, he had flown in from Mumbai to take part in the Half Marathon. For the next 15 kilometres or so, we ran together, side by side. The terrain was a continuous landscape of ups and downs, some gradual and some steep. Somewhere, it started raining. It brought a great relief by bringing down the temperature and making the weather more conducive to run. It also helped cool down the body……it was such a weird feeling with the insides still warm but the outside completely soaked. However, none of us were complaining. With the route so tough, the splendid weather and the rain were making the run tolerable.
At around 26 kilometres, my second shoe gave way. The same familiar flapping sound, the same separation from the heel. I did not miss a beat, I was in familiar territory. I started scanning the ground, picked up the first thing that looked like string and tied it around my shoe. It snapped immediately. I looked around some more but could not find anything else that was suitable. My mind went blank for a moment. By this time Sriram had also joined the hunt to find something and was shouting instructions at me. I just remember that he was saying something but not a word registered. Then, automatically, as if it was a routine daily affair, my hands started moving. They unlaced the shoe lace half way and then proceeded to wrap the length around the shoe, ending with a flower knot. I was up on my feet and running again. Time lost, probably one minute.
At the 30 k mark, the route for Marathon and Half Marathon separated. By this time, Sriram was a bit ahead of me and he waved at me as a sign of encouragement as we split. I waved back and then turned left. I was very close to the Pullela Gopichand academy – the highest point on the route. I was completely exhausted and my walk breaks were getting longer. Also, any uphill gradient, no matter how pedestrian, now looked like a climb of Everest. As I was struggling through this terrain, I heard a cheerful hello from a fellow runner who had caught up with me. He was from Shivaji Park Marathon club in Mumbai, wearing their trademark blue and yellow tee shirt. He was probably ten years older but obviously had more juice left in him than me. He started making small talk with me as we negotiated the terrain, walking the uphills and running the downhills. I tried to be as brief and polite as possible, clearly indicating that I did not have any strength left for small talk. And while I was rudely silent he kept pace with me, egging me on when I walked, proving to be a valuable companion in this lonely journey. It had stopped raining and the sun was up. We were still wet but it was hot, humid, tiring and morale breaking. As far as masochism goes, we were pretty close to the top.
The terrain had changed considerably. We were on the back roads; the surface was poor and ups and downs just kept coming. Soon we entered the Hyderabad University Campus, and the green canopy provided much needed relief from the sweltering heat. A couple of resident students decided that it was inspiring to see a salt haired weirdo attempting a full marathon. They started cheering and shouting as if I was the last man standing on this planet. For good measure, they even ran along for about ten minutes, cheering me at every moment. I noticed that my pace had increased even as I had a stupid grin on my face as a gesture of sincere appreciation. By this time I had got separated from my Shivaji Park mate, picking up pace. Very soon, I was on the highway, on the last stretch to the finish line. The last mile was unending. The stadium was nowhere in sight and no matter how long I ran, it refused to make itself appear in front of me. It eventually did and I told my brain that the end was near. We were going to survive. After another unending stretch, I was finally close to the finish. I heard the national anthem in the background and then saw the Governor’s cavalcade pass me by. I had missed the closing ceremony by a few minutes. Anyway, I entered the stadium and kept running towards the finish line. One of the volunteers joined me at the last stretch and some people on the other end of the finish line saw me coming. Very soon, all the people around me started cheering and clapping in a way that is reserved only for the people who bring in the rear, having spent an inordinate amount of time on the route. I got on a smile on my face, my fist in the air, eyes down in humility and crossed the finish line.
Six hours, two very justified opportunities to give up, a flustered start and a completely new meaning of bootstrapping. My second 42@42. The Airtel Hyderabad Marathon, 2012. Not bad. Not bad at all.