I've learned the most when I've been pushed to the edge, cornered.
I was reminded of this the other day when Arathi (@miffalicious) said on Twitter: "Your true strength is identified when you soldier through immense difficulties despite how vulnerable you feel."
So I learned how to run. I learned to blot out pain. I strengthened my shins. I sought the advice of experts. I visited and started a relationship of utter trust and dependence with Jane, my physiotherapist. And then I started to run long distances. At first, I didn't care about distances. I would run songs. I’d run one song, then two, then three, then four. Soon, I was running 10 songs. I needed to fill my iPod shuffle with more and more songs. The songs had to all be between 80 and 85 beats per minute. I could not run to any other beat. The rhythm was more important than the melody. The songs were as much a drug as the endorphins produced in long distance runners that gave me the 'runner's high'.
A few years later, I was able to run 25 songs and I completed several half marathons.
But that wasn't enough. I wanted to run 50 songs. I wanted to run the Melbourne Marathon. I signed up for it, and devised a training program for myself. I got a colleague, a veteran marathoner, to look at the program I had devised. I commenced my training only after he gave it the seal of approval. I had all my gear ready right at the start: the shoes I’d train in; the shoes I’d ‘wear in’ a few weeks before race day; a new heart-rate monitor; a new watch; 'skins' for recovery; energy gels; magnesium tablets; and more. I was prepared. I then embarked on a substantially rigorous 16-week training program.
I was meticulous in my training and did everything possible to ensure that I was in the best shape I could be to attempt this goal. I don’t remember missing even a day’s training due to lack of motivation or lethargy. If I missed a day’s training it was only because I was unwell. Even when I traveled inter-state for work in those 16 weeks, I would carry out the training that was scheduled for the day.
It was grueling, but fun. I always undertook my long runs on Sundays with my running buddies. I remember some incredibly tough and unpleasant long runs that I undertook and some of the more pleasant ones too. A week before the race, when we were meant to complete a 38 kilometre run – my longest ever run up until then – we encountered terrible weather. It was windy, gusty and presently it started to rain as well. We were two kilometers into the start of our training when we stood at a traffic light, hopping from one leg to the other in order to keep ourselves warm. We waited to cross the road on to Beach Road in Melbourne. That day, were to run along the Esplanade and then along Beach Road for 12 kilometers before turning back. A cyclist had stopped by our side and asked, “Long way to go?” We had just started our long run for the day. I said, “Yeah, 38 today, 36 left,” to which he asked, “Minutes?” I replied: “No kilometers!” The expression on his face is one I will never forget. He mumbled, “In this weather? You guys are mad,” and cycled off at great speed. But we completed our training that day and tapered off for the rest of the week before the big day.
On race day, I was completely focused and felt I was really well prepared. As we walked up to the start point just outside the MCG and as we were flagged off, I was confident this would be a good day for me. As we ran along Lakeside Drive, where the Melbourne Formula 1 race is conducted every year, I was humming; perhaps even 'motoring' along quite nicely! I remained confident and collected for much of that part of the run. I remembered the simple tips I had picked up in the preceding months: ‘Do not go out too fast’, ‘Hydrate regularly’, 'Expel bad air from the lungs regularly'. I was doing just fine. At the half-marathon mark, I had achieved my personal best time for a half-marathon. At that point, I even had dreams of a sub-four-hour full marathon finish time, which would have been just great.
And then the weather turned nasty as we ran back up Beach Road, after the half way point. The previous weeks’ training run along this road was a walk in the park in comparison. On the day, it was hot, windy and dusty. At one point, I had dust in my mouth and occasionally, a leaf would slap me in the face with a force that simultaneously stung and woke me up.
‘But all that training that I had put in will come good,’ I said to myself as I maintained my pace as we headed along the lovely Beach Road. I had the choppy blue ocean on my left and the lovely, expensive $1m houses of Beach Road lining the road on my right. But I had eyes only for the road ahead. The scenery could wait. The rich folk who stood on their glass-edged balconies and waved the runners along as they sipped their morning coffees could also wait.
Around the 34k mark, just as I had run up Fitzroy Street, I turned left onto St Kilda Road. I remember telling myself ‘All I need to do now is plod along this lovely tree-lined street for a few kilometers, head off right down Birrarung Marr and into the grounds of the MCG before completing the marathon with a lap inside the MCG.’
You see, the Melbourne Marathon concludes inside the MCG. It concludes with a lap of The ‘G’. For a cricket tragic like me, there can be no better joy than the completion of a long and exhausting run inside what must rank as the finest sporting Colosseum in the world. The grass had played host to the shoes and the soles of heroes of mine from the cricketing world like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Mark Taylor, Sunil Gavaskar, Alan Border, Steve Waugh, David Gower, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Saurav Ganguly, The West Indies Team from the 1970s and more. I would have an opportunity to run on that turf too.
In a bit. In a bit.
But that wasn’t on my mind as I trudged up the nasty Fitzroy Street incline, and reached the 34k mark in the race. Mind you, the incline is not really 'nasty'. But after having run nearly 33km in hot, dusty and terribly windy conditions, even a gradual and kind 10-meter gain over the one kilometre that Fitzroy Street represents can be quite an experience.
As I turned right from Beach Road the coffee and breakfast smells of the cafes the lined Fitzroy Street hit me. The chairs that decorated the pavement were filled with people who applauded the marathoners that ran, or walked, or trudged or labored up the gentle incline. Some of the morning breakfast-goers clapped. Some of them offered a word of encouragement. All of them sipped coffee or bit into their wholemeal fruit bread toast on this Sunday morning.
I was hurting. I could barely feel my feet. My thighs were burning. I think I had a rash of sorts under my left armpit. My back hurt. My calf muscles twitched. I was in pain and was digging deep to try and blot it all out.
And that is when I told myself for the first time, “Why am I doing this really?”
For me, that was immediately a sign of trouble. All through my training, I had never questioned the goal. I just accepted it, embraced it and did everything I needed to do in order to ensure success. And here I was, laboring up Fitzroy Street, questioning why I was putting myself through what I was doing. It is then that I knew I had to dig deep. The months of training would have to pay off. I had to find that inner strength that would enable me to "soldier through immense difficulties despite how vulnerable" I felt.
At the top of Fitzroy Street, I remember fondly that I was passed by ‘Digger’. Now, Bruce ‘Digger’ Hargreaves is one of the Spartan Legends of the Melbourne Marathon; an exclusive club of marathoners who have completed over 10 Melbourne Marathons. Digger is also a part of the '100 Marathon Club', a collection of runners who have clocked more than 100 marathons around the world. On that day Digger crossed me as part of the 4 hr 30 min ‘pacing bus’. In fact, he was the pacing bus.
Clearly, my pace had slipped considerably. I was now being crossed by the 4:30 pacing bus. From entertaining thoughts, however briefly, of a sub-four-hour completion, I was now looking at a completion time of at least 4 hours and 30 mins, if not more. I looked up at the sign that Digger carried on his back (to indicate his pacing bus) in a somewhat forlorn manner. I felt myself disintegrating at that point. Perhaps Digger sensed this too, for as he turned into St Kilda Road, he looked back at me and said, “Keep going, mate. I have run several marathons. And these are the very worst conditions I have encountered. You complete it today, all right?” I nodded and touched his extended hand. It was a hand of encouragement; a hand that talked to kindness and empathy. And I had touched and felt a running legend.
I told myself as I looked at the looming 34k marker that I would make it to the finish line. I convinced myself that my questioning of the ‘goal’ was a momentary lapse of reason. I was determined to finish. I convinced myself that I would complete that lap around the MCG. I had to take my shoes off at the finish line and feel the grass that Tendulkar, Dravid, Taylor, Border, Waugh, Gower, Dev, Khan, Viv, Hadlee, Ganguly and others had walked on. I had to savor the feel of that grass under my feet, however bruised they were.
And then I then blanked out.
I remember nothing much of the race along the lovely, tree-lined St Kilda Road. The trees that used to once offer shelter from sun and rain to passers-by, now shed leaves, unable to withstand the force of the winds that morning. The breeze swirled around. Leaves dislodged from branches and flew around. There was much dust in the air. It was a horrible day for walking; but a whole lot of us were running towards the MCG.
Apparently, Girija was there although I do not remember seeing her as I ran. She said later she was concerned at the pain I was going through; pain that marked my face. My face was already white with streaks of dried sweat salt. She told me later that she would see me, jog along with me for a few meters, hop on a tram to the next stop along St Kilda Road and wait for me to catch up. She said she did this till I reached Birrarung Marr, where I was told I was met by a few of my friends who were there to encourage me on to the finish line. Apparently one of them ran along with me from the top of Birrarung Marr to the ‘G’.
I came to my own as I entered The ‘G’ and came to my senses again. I did not know how I got there. Then again, when Girija told me, later, that she was there on St Kilda Road from the 35k mark onwards, I was able to recall it. When my friends told me, later, that they had waited for me at the corner of Birrarung Marr, which marked the 40k mark in the race, I seemed to remember it. Although I have no recollection of nearly 8 kilometres of the run, I was able to piece it all together later on.
Maybe I had hit the ‘wall’ at the 34k mark. And maybe from that point on, in the remaining seven kilometres, I was able to cut out many other thoughts from my mind. The ‘wall’ is something many long-distance runners experience. Dick Beardsley, one of USA’s best marathoners, said this of the ‘wall’ he encountered in the second marathon he ever ran: "It felt like an elephant had jumped out of a tree onto my shoulders and was making me carry it the rest of the way in.” He overcame that, learned from it and went on to run several more marathons. He made history by finishing two seconds behind Alberto Salazar in the 1982 Boston Marathon.
When I hit my own ‘wall’, I was focused merely on my own processes. Left leg. Right leg. Left. Right. It was as though I had blotted everything out of my mind and wanted to train all my mental thought processes just on completing the race.
In that sense, I had always compared my long distance running with a research scholar going through a PhD degree. It is a thoroughly lonely process. You sometimes do ask yourself, “Why am I doing this really?" You need to train really hard and ensure that your background, preparation and methodology are just right. But, your training, background and ability can only take you that far. In the end, when we hit a ‘wall’ (or a dead-end in your work), what one needs is intense focus, will-power and determination. Focus is as much cutting out needless things as it is training your mind on the very thing(s) that needs to be accomplished.
And so I focused hard and completed the race that day. And as I ran through the welcoming corridor and into the 'G', I saw myself on the big screen. I waved. The big screen waved back at me. I was on it for a full eight seconds! And then I ran a lap inside the ‘G’. It was my own lap of honor. After completing the run, and as my legs gave way, I slumped to the turf. I felt and kissed the grass that many of my cricketing heroes had played in.
Today, whenever I hit a difficult phase in my own life I say to myself that as long as the preparation has been good, and as long as the processes in the lead-up have been honest and sound, this is nothing but the 34k mark in a tough race...
-- Mohan (@mohank)