26 miles and 385 yards

I hate running. And yet, earlier this year I voluntarily ran my first two marathons in a span of three weeks. If you think that the two sentences don’t add up, I must admit that it’s a fair assessment. I’d have probably felt the same way had I not authored them myself. However, I insist that both are true, and if you continue reading perhaps it’ll make sense.

This post is about my journey to becoming a marathoner. The story isn’t really remarkable and the only reason I’m writing this is because it was a personal project of a magnitude I had never undertaken (and accomplished) before. Way tougher than running my first distance run. It ought to be documented, for a future me, if not for anyone else.

The marathon is Mt. Everest to a lot of people, but it’s Mt. Everest in their backyards.

Jeff Galloway

I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t want to be on top of the Everest. But the thought of scaling the peak is so scary, and the chances of making it appears so slim, that our appeal for the feat never translates into an attempt. A marathon is quite similar. Everyone would love to have a marathon under their belt. But it’s kind of a fairy tale — just short of impossible. My fascination for marathons was no different than any other ordinary person.

I’m still trying to pin-point what exactly made me participate in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) three years ago. There was no prior running experience — in fact, I managed to skip every running trials in school and college. There was no aspiration to run — I didn’t see myself gaining anything out of it. There was no inspiration to run — none of my friends or family members participated in any running events. No one even suggested that I should participate in the event. And worst of all, running hurt every part of my body and I hated it. The only good part about running is the part where it ends. After much introspection, the best reason I’ve been able to narrow down to is ego. I couldn’t accept that thousands of ordinary people (some much older than my grandparents) were running a long distance which I felt I was physically incapable of achieving in the permitted time frame.

The days following ADHM 2012 was a mixed bag of experiences. There was pain, fatigue and complains on one hand, and at the same time excitement, bragging, satisfaction on the other. As the adrenaline settled down, it struck me that I had experienced merely a half marathon. It was a little unsettling to imagine how might one feel after completing a marathon. In the same flow of thoughts I went on to look for marathon events in India and it didn’t take me too long to stumble upon the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) — undoubtedly the most popular marathon race in India. As I looked through their website, I discovered that there was no open participation under the mens category. To participate a runner must have previously completed at least a half marathon under a specified cut-off time. My ADHM timing, in spite of my herculean effort, wasn’t good enough. I let that sink in and went on with my life. However, it continued to haunt me every time I recalled my ADHM experience.

Fast forward to summer 2013. The registration for ADHM 2013 was about to open, and I hadn’t run at all since the last ADHM. I wanted to participate again, primarily for two reasons — to re-live the high at the finish line, and maybe, just maybe, meet the SCMM qualification. A running gear upgrade creates an added pressure (and motivation) to run, so I ended up buying myself my first running tee, a pair of shorts, and a pricey pair of sports earphones that came with an armband. And then I resumed training — all over again — building up from a 5k walk.

In September 2013, I was scheduled to travel to Bangalore. While planning my travel I accidentally stumbled upon the Kaveri Trail Marathon. The pictures and the event description was super tempting. I had a strong urge to be there. I pondered for a while and soon fell for the offer. It turned out to be a terrific decision. The beautiful location, the sunrise, the enthusiastic participants cheering one another, and the unexpected sights and sounds throughout the half marathon course — till today it remains one of my most memorable running experience. I was so ecstatic that I handpicked and storified some of the official photos.

Back in Delhi I continued training for ADHM. A few weeks before the race I attended the ADHM runners meet where Tanvir Kazmi explained the science behind training plans. At the same event I asked Tanvir if there’s any ideal run-walk ratio for beginners. He pointed me to Galloway’s run walk run technique which I adopted for my runs. On 15th December 2014, I found myself at the ADHM start line once again. I needed to complete the run in under 2:45 to qualify for SCMM 2014. This time the event was far better organised than the previous year, and each of my complaints from last edition was addressed in some manner. I continued run-walking until 17-18th km. In the last 3 kms I sensed that I might be able to finish in under 2:45. I pushed myself one final time and completed the run in 2:43 — thanks to the dedicated lane for the half marathoners in the final two kilometres where the route merges with the Great Delhi Run. Although my timing was within the SCMM 2014 cut, the feat was merely notional as the registrations had closed by then. I had to wait a full year and hope that the SCMM 2015 cut-off doesn’t get more stringent. After ADHM, with no races in sight, I once again stopped running. This time I experienced what they call the post-race blues — quite similar to how one feels after returning back to normal routine from an extended vacation.

A month later (early 2014), I stumbled upon two really interesting runs — one at the Rann of Kutchh and another at the Buddh International Circuit — both in their very first edition. Once again, just like the Kaveri Trail Marathon, I felt like being there at both these places.

In February 2014, one of history’s most ancient cities will be on every serious trail runner’s map. Only 300, though, will embark on a gruelling trail run through vast salt marshes and unforgiving cacti. They will be circling the arcane ruins of Dholavira, one of the largest, grandest, most advanced metropolises of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Set against the silver-white landscape of one of Earth’s most scenic salt deserts which is frequented by a plethora of migratory birds, the Great Rann of Kutch, the event kicks off on a gorgeous full moon night. It’s everything India’s most rugged footrace should be.

Run The Rann, 2014

Until this moment I wasn’t quite certain about why I was running (though I can totally relate with the reasons shared on The Oatmeal). However, this was the first time when I had some clarity on why I should continue participating — to explore new places by foot. Runs provide a great opportunity to not only travel to a new place, but also to explore them — be it a city like Delhi, a trail like the Kaveri Trail, a desert like the Run of Kutchh or a property like an F1 Circuit. I don’t think there can be a better way of soaking in the charm of a place than going around on foot.

When you run through 26.2 miles of this city you can see how magnificent it is.

Lee Flaherty, Founder of Chicago Marathon, in the documentary Spirit of the Marathon.

It took me about a year and a half to arrive at clear reason (and a purpose) behind running. The further I can run, jog, walk, crawl or move, the more I can explore and experience places.

I couldn’t participate in Run The Rann as the dates clashed with a conference in Bangalore. This was slightly disappointing, and all I could do was promise myself to go there the following year. In Bangalore however, I ended up running with the conference organisers at Cubbon Park. It is at this run that I was introduced to post-run stretches by Kiran. I was surprised by how fast those simple stretches relaxed my aching muscles. From that day onwards it became a ritual after each run. My race calendar for 2014 finally kicked off in March at the Buddh International Circuit where I sported a new pair of high-end running shoes. Running on a race track designed for the world’s fastest cars felt part surreal and part thrilling — shouldn’t be a surprise that I shaved a couple of minutes off my ADHM timing.

I’m slightly asthmatic, and the condition aggravates during the months leading up to summers. But despite my breathing woes, and against unanimous suggestion by friends and well wishers, I went on to run in Corbett, the Manger trail through the Aravallis (south of Gurgaon) and Mukteshwar. I didn’t want to surrender to my medical condition and let these opportunities go by. After all, I’m expected to live with it all my life.

In July 2014, the registrations for SCMM 2015 opened. I was overjoyed to find out that the criteria hadn’t changed from 2014, and that I had made the cut by a slim margin. Even though I was keen to participate at the event, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take the dive. I asked myself a few times “Can I do this? Am I sure?”. I didn’t have an answer. But at least that was better than 2011 when I was sure about not being able to complete a half marathon (and ended up not registering for ADHM). Here was a chance that I might not fail, and that was enough for me to add my name to the list.

You should run your first marathon for the right reasons, because you’ll never be the same person again. You must want to do it, not do it because your boss did it or your spouse did it.

Bill Wenmark

Registration was done. Cheap air tickets were booked. I was going to run my first marathon. Everything was in place except that I wasn’t trained. The race was 5 months away. I had a long time at hand. But the distance was simply intimidating. Most marathon training plans demanded about 5 months of zen-like discipline. I started cursing myself for registering without researching about the training involved. After much hunt, once again Galloway came to my rescue. His website had a plan that made things appear easier. I did not really follow the plan religiously, but instead used it as a reference to keep a check on my progress (Tanvir’s explanation helped greatly in this regard). As an alternative, I registered myself in as many public races I possibly could, and went for long runs every other weekend. Running up to ADHM 2014, I had run half marathons in Gurgaon, Guwahati, Dwarka (Delhi) and one from Qutub Minar to Chandni Chowk. Alongside the races, I continued training and had to come up with long routes that would not be monotonous. I hate running in loops, and I figured that a good way to run long distance would be to go from point to point and end with meeting people or having breakfast with friends (great motivator!). Some of the routes I took were Connaught Place / Hauz Khas to American Diner for their All You Can Eat breakfast, Dwarka to Chandni Chowk to attend an Old Delhi walk by friends at Delhi Dallying, or Indiranagar to MTR to meet a friend and gorge on those idlis and vadas. By this time I bought myself a hydration backpack to carry enough water for runs exceeding 15-16 kms, and a pair of knee support as soon as I felt a niggle to prevent injury.

This is the week when you taper physically but peak mentally.

Rahul Verghese, briefing first time runners exactly a week before ADHM 2014.

For me running has always been a personal activity. I jog-walk at my own pace and I can’t get myself to run in a group. I’m too skeptical about pushing hard or slowing down depending on the others’ speed, and expecting others to do the same for me feels unfair. In spite of living in a neighbourhood with one of the most active running group in town, I never ended up joining their group runs. But for the first time, I joined the folks at Running and Living at their pre-ADHM group run along the race course — exactly a week before ADHM. The group ran together for the first 10 kms or so and then slowly spread over a large distance. I wasn’t completely comfortable, but it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined either. This was the first time I ran without music, and chatted with fellow runners throughout the 19 kms.

A week later I scored another personal best at ADHM 2014, shaving nearly 21 minutes off last year’s timing.

You can slough off and still get through a 10K or a 5K. The marathon commands your attention.

Jeff Galloway

Once ADHM had passed, I had about a month and a half to get marathon ready. Shit was getting real, and doubling the ADHM distance felt tough. I needed to get a few 30+km runs during this time. As I entered into December I dragged myself through a 31 km night run and realised how hard it was to push beyond 26-27 kms (and also keeping my mind engaged in a night run). A week later I ran another half marathon in Gurgaon and a couple of weeks later a 25k in Kolkata. As the distance increased, I started experiencing things that I had only encountered on the web before— blisters, cramps, deformed black toenails, chafing etc. Mid-December onwards Delhi mornings had become so cold that even stepping out to run felt daunting. I often woke up with an aching head (due to the cold) and had to talk myself into stepping out for a run.

Running is 90 percent mental, and the rest is all in your head.

I was terrified about the marathon distance — can’t be more candid about it. There’s no way my body could endure the stress over 42 kms. At some point the body will give in, and then it’s a battle between the mind and the body. The only way to make it to finish is by having an unbreakable resolve.

Stories built my grit — mostly through first hand narrations by runners around me. Tanvir Kazmi talked about his Comrades experience at the ADHM runner’s meet in 2013. Rahul Verghese, who organises the Running and Living races, ran his 50th marathon at the Everest Base Camp and blogged about it. Shshank Pundir narrated his 100 km Zen Endurance Ultra experience in Leh at the end of a race in Gurgaon. Anupriya Kapur who can be easily spotted in the runs around Delhi has not only shared her her first full marathon experience but also touches upon many other aspects of running on her blog. I also watched Spirit of the Marathon during the peak of my training. There were moments in that documentary that I related so closely with that it nearly watered my eyes, and in turn made me stronger.

Determination to complete is one part, but keeping the mind in charge through the training period (and into the race) is another. After all, it’s not easy to ignore the weather (extreme cold or heat), ignore the pain, turn down social plans, negotiate unexpected challenges (like my breathing ailment), pace oneself, and complete the committed distance (walk it out, but don’t quit) — especially when one’s forcing himself to do something that he inherently loathes. Mental preparation was kind of like counselling my own brain, and every now and then I’d be talking to myself — sometimes in the bus, sometimes during the runs, sometimes in front of the mirror and sometimes in my dreams. The battle wasn’t only internal, but extended to defending myself from the society’s opinion. They expressed their concerns. They advised me to take rest. They called me insane. They poked fun. But they also admired, and sometimes tried to instil confidence by saying that it’s going to be all good. None of that mattered however, and I didn’t listen to them. What mattered was what I said to myself, and sometimes they were simply quotes.

By winters a few friends in South Delhi had started running regularly. Running together to a breakfast joint became popular among the group. Each of us ran at our own pace along a pre-determined route with a check point or two where we would wait for the slower ones and continue from there. I started planning more of those, generally starting from Hauz Khas (most friends were located nearby) to Café Lota, American Diner or Biker’s Café. But unlike a couple of months back, instead of taking a bus to Hauz Khas, I started running from home (Dwarka) to Hauz Khas and then a further 8-12 kms with friends. By the time I joined my friends I had already run about 18 kms, and then trailed behind them with wobbly knees to achieve my target miles. At this point I must thank Sumit, Nigel, Bhavya and Apoorv because had it not been for those runs (and their cooperation), I can’t imagine having pulled off 26-32km practice runs. I clearly remember a day when I ran from Dwarka to Green Park slower that I had anticipated, and Nigel patiently waited for me nearly half an hour out in the cold.

By December 2014 I had participated in over a dozen running events in that year, and also managed to feature in a couple of news stories.

I flew to Bombay a couple of days before SCMM 2015. It gave me a sense of the weather, which was warm and quite unlike Delhi during that time. A day before the race I collected by race bib, consumed a lot of carbs (mostly pasta), booked a cab for the morning and went off to bed early. My alarm was set for 3:15 am.

The next day the cab dropped me at CST during the wee hours. I was a little early but so were a hundred others. We waited for the gates to open, walked through the slow and understandably stringent security, dropped our bags at the baggage counter and headed to the holding area. The race started at 5:40 am. It was still dark. We started moving slowly, and crossed the start line in front of the beautifully lit CST station. Unlike ADHM, I couldn’t spot celebrities flagging off the race. Perhaps they were at the Half Marathon start line at the other end of the course (scheduled to start about 20 mins after us) or maybe they’d come in when the elite runners start their run (about 100 mins after us). There was very little energy at the start and hardly any noise. The city was still sleeping. The sponsors were still setting up their stalls. At the second corner, I was surprised to find a couple of cops on duty clap and cheer us. I ran through Marine Drive, where the sea was making a serene sound. About 45 mins into the run, the sun had just risen and the city was slowly waking up. By the time I reached Peddar Road, the darkness was gone, and Mumbaikars had taken over the street sides. That’s when I experienced the terrific crowds of the city — smiling, clapping, cheering at the top of their lungs, handing out water, fruits, refreshments and helping out runners in need. The run turned even more lively near Haji Ali, where bulk of the half marathoners crossed me on the other side. A little later I was on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, with a magnificent view of the Bombay skyline. Just before the half way mark the elite runners ran past me like a herd of gazelles lead by timing cars and media buses. I kept going strong until about the 27th km, more or less keeping to Tanvir’s pacing strategy. But the weather kept getting warmer — something I couldn’t really train for in Delhi — and soon after I started losing steam. Till about the 30th km I was hopeful of finishing within 5 hours and 30 mins, but somewhere around the 32-34th km the Peddar Road incline wore me down. I simply couldn’t push anymore and realised that I wouldn’t make it in 5:30. The moment that realisation set in my pace started dropping. I speed-walked much of the last 7 kms, stopping a few times for sprays and ice-packs and jogged the final 500m to the finish line — 20 mins slower than what I had hoped for. It was a re-realisation of how much of a role mind plays in pushing the body.

The marathon can humble you.

Bill Rodgers

I missed my target, but I was extremely happy about completing the distance. It was inexplicably special. Later that night I quietly celebrated a personal victory with a friend from college over my first mug of beer.

Three weeks later in early February I participated in Run The Rann, again under the full marathon category. It was mostly a self-supported run with very few aid stations along the course. The terrain varied from salt flats, to cemented track, to steep climbs on rocky thorny hills, to loose sand. Pretty much throughout the race the sun scorched on us mercilessly. It was exactly how I had always imagined a military field exercise to be like. It was unarguably the toughest run I’ve done till now which I finished in a little under 10 hours — scratched and bruised all over, with a huge blister under my foot. The experience was profound in many ways, and I haven’t yet managed to completely put it in words. Very few would have experienced the island of Khadir Bet the way I had, and I proudly describe it as the most expensive torture I’ve bought myself.

At Run The Rann, while camped at the desert island, the participants had ample opportunity to interact with each other — sharing experiences and stories. Stories that can fill its audience with awe, inspiration, and might even leave them dumbstruck. In fact, such stories were not just were being told, they were happening right at the event e.g. the gear-less Dan Lawson running 161k of the desert in 24 hours non-stop. One of the runners who I met at the base camp was Bhaskar Desai — a 62 year old who also ran the full marathon course. I read his story after I got back to Delhi. The grit only gets grittier.

Even today I continue to hate running. And I have 3 months to train for my next marathon. If the two sentences didn’t add up… you’ve got to read this post again.