Friday, August 12, 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This one goes out to everyone I've ever run with.

It wasn't until early one chill New Hampshire morning when my nipples started gently bleeding into my nice new white "wick" enable running T-shirt on my third leg of the 200 mile Reach The Beach relay race that it began to dawn on me that things may have gotten out of hand. It seemed like a very hurried and surreal path from sitting on a couch and doing finger exercises with the remote control that spring, to sharing a smelly van with 6 other sweaty, unwashed runners over 2 days, with this crazy idea of running 200 miles so that we could eat everything we wanted at a free barbeque on the beach, and be massaged by rookie masseurs and masseuses (also free).

I'd secretly fancied myself to be a runner for a while. Mainly caused by repeated viewings of Chariots of Fire. That title sequence never failed to evoke ambitions of running endlessly on a beach (with a band playing Vangelis in the vicinity). Of course, I'd done fat (literally) lot about this all my life. Moving to Cambridge and having a real job (read: enough money to eat many many things) meant that there was no time and place (so I thought) to get any exercise. In passing, and since I didn't know too many people in Boston, I started desultorily going to the Asha-MIT/Boston chapter meetings.

Soon, this became a regular feature, and there came a time in 2003 when this guy named Parthiv Shah suddenly sprang out of the woodwork. He was a grad student at MIT, and showed up at one of the meetings and proposed that the chapter could raise several thousands of dollars, if only they found half a dozen dimwits who would sign up to run 26.2 miles and con their family and friends into parting with their pay cheques. He claimed that he could coordinate the whole thing, and even run with the sacrificial flock. All this, when he was limping with a bandage around his ankle that he claimed he twisted while playing football somewhere.

Now Parthiv is a born and bred American, but his ancestors are Gujarati. The last sportsperson from that part of the world to have achieved any sort of distinction was one fellow called Narendra Hirwani, mainly by appearing in a Doordarshan video on national integration [1:52 - 2:00] and singing a ditty. That too in Sindhi, not even Gujju. So I took this whole thing with a kilogram of salt.

Strangely enough, everyone in the chapter (who was not running) seemed to love the idea. As Melli put it, "They come, they run, they raise money. We don't have to do anything!". Too good to be true. Parthiv rustled up a coach from somewhere, and one morning Coach Jonathan Wyner and and oddball bunch of very unfit desis showed up on the Charles wearing just about ever inappropriate piece of gear possible. To paraphrase Churchill, "Never in the field of human fundraising has so much been expected, by so many, from such a small group of tending-to-spherical people."

Anyway, off we went. The first challenge was to come up to a point where we could manage 30 minutes at "conversation pace". We nailed that, even if the conversation was of the "Hmph." "Ugh." "Grrr." "Urk." monosyllabic Australopithecus variety. Then one week we found a spreadsheet in our inboxes. Coach had neatly planned all the weeks from April to October. Strange numbers floated in the last, long run column. 16 miles. 18 miles. Surely we were going to rent cars and drive?

As New England's sticky summer rolled along, somehow we kept at it. Parthiv would chalk out new routes to prevent us from dying from boredom. Mostly we ran along the Charles, or on the Minuteman trail. Nice, predictable paths with known milestones and pitfalls. Jonathan (who qualifies for and runs the Boston Marathon year after year) ran with us often, but you got the sense that he felt like a Federer forced to play 5 sets with a sloth. In the time that we ran 5 miles, he'd have gone up and down the ragged line 5 times without breaking a sweat.

He introduced us to a couple of his running buddies (these were the Yodas to his Obi-Wan). I vividly remember one of them, supposed to be extraordinarily good. Jonathan asked him what advice he had for our fledgling flock, and we expected something one the lines of brand of shoe, choice of diet, importance of cross training. Instead all he said was, "Take it easy." Very Yoda like. Also the very best piece of running advice I have ever received.

Once in a while, coach (whose day job was to be the Grammy winning Chief Engineer at his own recording and re-mastering studio) would get these funny ideas where he'd send us off into random neighbouring towns such as Arlington and Medford, along state highways that had never seen brown people in shoes at 7:00 in the morning.

We got lost a few times, to which he'd have this gentle I-am-the-master-at-Shaolin-Temple-patience-grasshopper response, "Getting lost is one of the best ways of increasing your weekly mileage." Confucious say. Coach's house was on the trail, and we'd be guaranteed Gatorade and goodies on our way back from the long run.

We had all kinds of characters in the group. There was Mithu. Super enthu. She ran practice long runs the day before the actual long runs, just so she'd be prepared. Deepak never ran on weekdays, he more or less lived in airplanes, airport lounges and hotels. But on Sunday morning he'd be there, with a fuel belt around him, knees pounded to jelly, and a "So, how much are we doing again today?" look. Biju was my wingman, we both ran at the same pace, and exchanged various important thoughts on the state of the universe. He was old enough to be my father (not), but somehow I never managed to be much faster than him. Mo Sikka - showed up only at Poisson intervals and ran his guts out. There was Kripa. This guy was too much, he designed computer chips or something like that for a living. He didn't even run with us. In the manner of Ekalavya, he used to train all alone in some far flung suburb on the Canadian border. On one occasion when he actually made it to Boston, he offered this stellar piece of advice to conquer running boredom: "Take a large number. Compute its square root." Vivek was the good guy, most disciplined, diligently followed all advice that was handed out. Ran like a metronome, same pace, every day, week in and week out. He finished the marathon at the same pace, and was the fastest in our gang. Father of 2, Sloan MBA. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Through June and July we persevered, and Parthiv and Jonathan perserved even more. They conducted speed trials, intervals, and fartleks (hee hee), and shoe clinics, and stretching clinics, and fundraising strategy sessions and what not. At some point when there was a glimmer of hope that the thing could actually be done, and we started emailing our friends for the money. The ones that didn't immediately die of a heart attack (last words being, "You? You? You're doing what??" Thud.) were very generous, promising us multiple $ for every mile. Life started to be consumed by running. What you ate, when you went to bed, ablutions, movie nights, work, alcohol, everything had to fit into THE SCHEDULE. My roommates bought ear plugs because they couldn't stand us jabbering about running any more.

September, when we should've all been in peak shape was that special month called Injury Month. Body parts that had been stretched beyond redemption said WTF and began to fail. In one case, one of the guys (who will be known as Loquacious Knee, "Indian" fashion) literally came to us and said, "Dude, I was running along fine and at mile 18, my knee said 'Fuck you.'"!

My particular problem was that around mile 16 my foot and then gradually my leg would start to go numb till I couldn't pretty much feel my leg by the end. This started happening sooner and sooner. Too cheap (and too afraid) to have it looked at by a proper sports medicine person, I called up a friend's sister who was a physio. She said I probably had something called compartment syndrome and that I should probably not run at all. By this time I had successfully conned nearly $2,000 from various folk and forgotten who had given how much, and there was no way I could even return the money.

A small company called Google had come up with a new-ish search engine that we all liked, and the first few links on "compartment syndrome" contained the words "serious", "trauma" and "amputation" in close succession. I didn't touch a computer for a few days after that. My solution was to stop running Cold Turkey and hope that the exoskeleton would hold up on race day.

That finally rolled along in late October. On the flight to DC, all of us were of good spirit, even though we must've been inwardly terrified that we weren't good enough. I was, anyway. Roommates and family accompanied us. We checked into our hotel in Washington, drank a lot of fluids, ate a lot of pasta, and in general tried to pretend that were old hands. The evening before the race, I went for a short jog around the hotel. Not much of a point at that stage, beyond reassuring myself that my legs still knew how to put one foot in front of the other.

The morning of the Marine Corps Marathon, we took the subway to the starting point, and I got separated from the rest of them. We were penned into a hold on a section of freeway, and I saw a sight that cheered me up greatly and have never seen since. Hordes of Americans sidling off to the edge of the road to pee, because the port-a-potty lines were too long.

The starter gun went boom, and I started at a snail's pace. The legs held up fine. At mile 10 I still felt fresh, at mile 15 the monuments around the Capitol showed up and I thought Lincoln winked at me as I went past him. We'd written our names on our shirts, and thanks to the kindness of random strangers, we were cheered all the way to the end.

The route loops its way around the Capitol and then past more majestic edifices (the Smithsonian?), but whoever designed it seemed to have suddenly found out at the last minute that if we took the straight and narrow route back to the finish, we'd never be able to make up the mileage. So they sent us off into this horrible limbo called the Tidal Basin, where it seemed like we were running in endless circles for a while, before spitting us out onto the last hurdle before the finish line, the 14th Street Bridge.

I was nearly wiped out now, the leg thing had kicked in, and I had to stop ever so often to give it a rest. But when I started walking I'd cramp up and had to start jogging again, until the leg... Catch-22 continued for a bit, and when I got on the bridge, it was hot, sweaty, shade-less and just misery. Luckily, some cheer was at hand.

All along the route, the soldiers from the US Marine Corps had cheered us along, handed out drinks and snacks, and generally made us feel special. This bridge though, had no one on it. No water point, no volunteers. There was just one towering hulk of a Marine. He had a boombox at his feet on the sticky-ish asphalt, which was belting out Queen's We Will Rock You. And he was bellowing, "THIS BRIDGE IS YOURS! YOU OWN THIS BRIDGE!! TAKE THIS BRIDGE!!!". I think he must've been on Omaha Beach in a previous life.

To regain some self respect, I ran the last couple of miles full tilt. I don't remember the finish very clearly, no exultation, at least not immediately. I was just thankful to get a banana and a drink. Also medal. We'd decided to meet under some balloon, and as everyone trickled we went crazy with joy. We'd done it. No one had died. Parthiv told us that coach had taken down our bib numbers and had been tracking us from Cambridge, with his heart in his mouth. That evening at the hotel, we sat in the revolving restaurant at the top of the world and savoured every moment. Even the bleeding nipples seemed worthwhile then.

We'd made grandiose plans on the plane back, about how we would all run together next weekend, how we'd run another marathon together next year, how we were a band of brothers (and sister). Within a week, it had all come to naught. Fall came, and winter. Everyone's lives sucked them back, and the months of weekend family deprivation and alcohol deprivation had taken its toll. I don't remember if we ever ran together as a group again. I sacked out through winter, using the weather and the leg as an excuse, and grew fat. When spring came around, a mountain of work, applying for a Ph. D., and thoughts of moving back to India all jostled for attention and running took a back seat.

That summer, I moved back to India, and have not stepped outside the territorial borders ever since. I took up running again, but don't really have the stomach for a full marathon now. I huff and puff a couple of half marathons every year, and call it a winter well spent. I made excellent, excellent new running buddies. In Hyderabad, and Bangalore, in Bombay and Madras. It's always great to run with them, even if it's not exactly the Minuteman Trail that we're on.

I ran a half marathon at home, on the beach, which was fantastic and something I'd always dreamed I'd do some day.



I moved to Madras and bless her soul, so did Kenny. She's old enough to be my mom (not) and runs the pants off me every time, but at least she has nice legs and keeps talking and will make coffee afterwards and give me a ride in her car even though she really wants to run or bike, and is very very generous with beer, and is OK with my general reluctance to wake up before 5:30 and many other things besides.

And there's Kid, who is my new new wing man. He keeps it simple, takes it easy, insists on filter coffee after 3 loops of Boat Club. Life is good.

But the mind wanders back to that summer of 2003. When we were young. I am told that many batches of Asha-MIT/Boston runners have since raised a mountain of money, and gone on to even more incredible feats of endurace such as triathlons and ultras. There's a small glow of satisfaction, because even though we were probably the slowest, smallest, and least-likely-to-finish group to finish a marathon, we did it first, and showed it could be done. That is enough.

I use Jonathan's spreadsheet to this day, it remains my running plan template. Most of the plan never gets executed, but there's rarely a better moment in the mornings than when I fill in x k.m. in the "Achieved" column when there is y k.m. in the "Planned" column, and x > y. Yes, switched to metric after moving to India, the distances look a lot better.

Having opened with "Chariots of Fire", I must close with it. To paraphrase the funeral oration for Harold Abraham [0:00-0:12], "Now there are just a few of us - who can close our eyes and remember those few friends with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels."

11 comments:

Siddhartha Banerjee said...

Damn we never did that run :(
Very nice article sir!

Saad Bhamla said...

Lol. Awesome!
We should run when I come to Chennai :)

kbpm said...

anytime ludwig. anytime. i sense that we are on to something now. with your newfound weight loss and all we are ready for more. on indian soils no less. and imagine!

Ludwig said...

[Bofi] Yeah, man. Really bad. We need to make amends. But as they say, long life, small world, will happen.

[Saad] You mean, you will run and I will sort trail like a snail. But yes, even that has its merits :P You're on.

[Kenny] One hopes. Semper fidelis. Let's do it.

Space Bar said...

My qs is: why do you not have a 'nipples' tag?

I hate Vangelis. That Chariots of Fire theme made me sleepless for six years running (um) in school, before every sports day.

Ashok Devata said...

For an impatient bloke who skips any email or article more than the length of my phone screen I read through your blog in one stretch as if I was water gliding. It certainly reminded me of how I first got into the marathon program a few years after you and team proved that brown can run on minuteman. Cheers mate.

Ashok Devata said...

For an impatient bloke who skips any email or article more than the length of my phone screen I read through your blog in one stretch as if I was water gliding. It certainly reminded me of how I first got into the marathon program a few years after you and team proved that brown can run on minuteman. Cheers mate.

Ludwig said...

[Space Bar] It's not that kind of post, y'know? I can't believe you don't like the Chariots of Fire theme. Katteef.

[Ashok] Hey man, long time. High praise indeed, thanks for the kind words. Hope running and everything else is in full swing.

kbpm said...

hey ludwig i am incidentally only 4 years older than you. no? hopefully, i look older than that, which would be kinda cool :-)

indisch said...

Impressed and enthralled! :-) The part about Gujju industriousness and the over zealous marine were super! Btw, I don't think you had ever grown fat. That seems to be the only exaggeration. :-P

Space Bar said...

It's not that I *hate* it; it gives me the heebies. Which is to say, I get adrenaline-rushed when I'm trying to sleep, and imagine ribbons bursting in slow motion and audiences screming with joy but I can't hear them because I've got my head down and my hands on my knees and I realise I might have won but can't be sure until I take the number 1 on the stands.

Or something.