Of course, the organisers had given a fair degree of warning as to what’s in store for me by sending those route maps and the related information. This was apart from giving the nomenclature, ‘BNP Endurance 25’ to the run on last Saturday (July 16, 2016) at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Being a ‘veteran’ of more than two years’ of long-distance running experience in my bibs, I had dismissed all such warning signs with the cockiness of any right thinking old man of such ‘vast’ experience would have! And I had done and dusted, to use the cliché, some difficult trail runs as well. Needless to say that I was quite sure of covering myself with glory (and raindrops) when I set out for the run. Oh, let me clarify that when I talk about glory, I did not have any illusion of a podium finish, let alone more ambitious targets like a national record or Rio (Olympic) qualification though I was pretty confident about achieving a good personal best (PB) timing!
Despite such haughty thoughts, at the beginning of the run, when Chitu Shetty enquired what my target was, I very humbly (mind you, only outwardly for inside I was quite smug) announced that my target was only to finish the run and had not thought about the targets! He appreciated that thought and explained to me how much he struggled last year to avoid a DNF (did not finish) tag during this run. To that I made some agreeable noises such as like in Olympics, participation was more important than winning such races.
Well, humility was for public consumption. Since I had done a few half marathons in close to two hours (though I have never achieved my long cherished dream of sub 2), I knew I could complete an additional 4 kilometers in another 25 + minutes to complete the 25 kilometers in two and half hours. Unfortunately, the shelf-life of such ‘supreme knowledge/confidence’ is very short! As I moved towards starting line-up and saw many young and athletic runners who were raring to go, converging towards 2.30 bus, I got a nagging feeling that there was something amiss. Nevertheless, I did not give up and as the run started, I trundled along slowly but surely. Soon, runners following the 2.45 hour flag bearers went past me. And in quick succession, 3 hour, 3.15 hour and even 3.30 buses trudged past with disdain (reading of a thoroughly hurt ego) unmindful of this ambitious runner. I thought such minor incidents should not upset me for I knew, from my ‘long’ years of experience, that it was the slow and steady who had always won the races. After all, yours truly, a ‘veteran’ of many a run, had seen the exuberance of quite a few green horns who would sprint like a hare at the beginning, only to be seen huffing and puffing and struggling to drag their uninterested body n ‘sole’ soon after. There was no doubt that I should not take such foolish (quick) steps. I decided to steadfastly stick to my very ‘professional style’!
Soon, to my relief, the route showed a downward tilt and I knew that my moment had arrived. I shrugged off my ‘negative split’ thoughts and started running as fast as I could and noted with satisfaction that I left Chitu Shetty, among others, behind. And in the process, I could overtake the 3.30 hour runners and could even spot the 3.15 hour flag only slightly ahead though 3 hour bus had gone far ahead. But all good things come to an end and so too this downward course. First it plateaued and then the road start climbing up in its bid to reach upto the famous Kanheri caves. I didn’t want to make a big issue about such minor things and hence decided to negotiate the steep upward journey at a very slow pace. One by one, all those whom I overtook, went past me but I wasn’t deterred. As the route once again sloped downward and as I measured that rather longish descend, swiftly, I managed to get closer to even those runners pursuing the target of three hour to finish the race. But even that was short lived and the road continued to wind upward unmindful of the travails of the runners. I was quite irritated by this uncaring attitude of the route but then I knew I need to be calm. As I assessed the task ahead, I realised it was time for me to think on my feet like a true professional (what else could I do- after all, one cannot sit and think while participating in a running race!). Only ‘professionals’ know that a mission of this import require continuous monitoring and revision of strategies. It became clear that mid-course correction was the need of the hour. As I could not revise the course of the run, the only course correction I could do was to forget my thoughts of finishing the run in three hours (I had abandoned the thought of finishing any time before that long ago). The revised estimates indicated that three and half hours would be a more realistic target.
Once the target was revised downward (when the running course always seemed to be going upward, this was the only possible balancing act!), life, nay, run became so easy. From now onwards, I started enjoying the hospitality of very friendly volunteers who were waiting for me (may be for others too) at almost every one kilometer, calling out the runners by name and offering water and enerzal, chikkies and bananas (cut to half helping runners to gobble down fast without losing much time). Then when I saw the quick runners including Girish Bindra on the return course of the first loop crossing me in a flash when I still required to cover another 2 kilometers to reach the U turn , it did not dishearten me! Soon Chitu Shetty, whom I was commiserating with for the struggle he had last year in finishing this run, also waved at me on his return leg of the first loop! Saw Vaijayanti Ingawale also striding back effortlessly, on her return leg, with a smile on her face as if she was in rushing to embrace her grandson who was keen to join them in the morning. She was also secure in the belief that even if she missed any of those lovely scenes of the national park, Deepak Ingawale who was behind her would capture all those moments in his camera before completing the run, so that later in the afternoon they both could share that all with their grandson. The happiness on her face was quite a contrast to the struggle on the faces of many other runners (at least, the smirk on my face had turned into an almost melancholic look). Then I spotted runners like Amalesh Karle who was celebrating the run with all the joy of a school boy.
There was a steady stream of runners overtaking me or were already returning after the U turn but who cares now! But it may not be factually accurate to say that I did not care about all those runners who were overtaking me or were already running far ahead of me. The sexist inside me was revolted by the thought that so many girls could overtake me! I had made some vain attempts to catch up with and possibly overtake some of them during the initial part of the journey but soon realised that they were all too young and strong for me to reach anywhere near them and that I should respect my ageing limps. And then when the likes of Dr.Vijayanti Ingwale and Pervin Batliwala ran past, I reasoned that after all they were all elite runners and it would not be proper for me to think of competing with them!
I also climbed up the hill, completing a quarter of the total distance, drank enough water and soaked in some as well, thanks to the water spray by the volunteers as rains played truant and humidity levels rose to unbearable levels. Then I started bumbling down and made some weak attempts to run fast when gradient was friendly. I was thinking that I was making satisfactory progress, often catching up with the 3 hour bus for brief periods, till I reached the 11 kilometer mark or so. There, we were diverted to right from the straight road going towards the entrance to the park. Oh boy, how would I know that what was in store for me was a killer climb which I found that even regulars in the park were finding it tough to scale. Well, I was not the one to give up. During this conquest of Gandhi Hill (Gandhi tekdi), though I often debated about the strategy of crawling on all four instead of leaning awkwardly to walk, decided against it thinking that it might be an unfair practice, giving me an edge over others. While the ascend was cruelly going on and on, suddenly Himanshu Vinchhi appeared from nowhere and screamed that I was supposed to run and not crawl when participating in running races. I protested that I was not crawling but he would take none of it. With a vicious smile (so I thought) he made me run up (or a run like motion of hands more than legs) that most excruciating 200 meters or so and deposited me at the summit and ran back to get some other ‘hapless victims’! At the top, I tried to smile at the camera which Chetan Gusani was focusing on the runners but was too tired to even look at the lense. By now I had a sense of achievement as I had completed half the distance of the run. So gulped down water and enerzal copiously and ran back with gusto.
The second leg was much more comfortable as there were no more nasty surprises on the way. I knew where exactly the inclines were and how long they were. This helped me to slow down happily without any feeling of guilt and where the route was runner friendly, could put up semblance of a run. Everything was fine till I saw at a distance, a fellow runner lying on the middle of the road and none of the runners caring for him. I’m sure you would understand me when I say that I was appalled by the extremely callous, inhuman attitude of those heartless runners. I moved further and I realised that the poor fellow who was lying down there (though I saw many posts on this run, strangely none had reported about this) was a runner friend. Only when I reached him, I realised that Gaurav Bhardwaj was just lying down there with his camera to get a better angle for capturing the running feet – I think only a professional cameraman could attempt such stunts and as I went past him, he assured me that he had captured me as well! Then I ran into Amit Prabhu who always run miles ahead of me and had seen him running way ahead of me during the first leg that day, walking down the road slowly, admiring the trees and birds around and searching for that elusive tiger. He got a bad injury after completing the first loop, which prevented him from moving faster.
The final part of the run was getting over much more comfortably than I had anticipated and to my utter surprise I realised that I took only about 2.40 hours to complete 22 kilometers. Suddenly, I woke up to the possibility of completing the full 25 kilometers in 3 hours which gave a new spring to my steps. Soon, the volunteers, with sadistic pleasure, once again diverted me to the Gandhi tekdi…oh no…I had completely forgotten that I had to conquer this punishing summit once again before I reached my hall of fame. All my new found enthusiasm vanished into the thin air and I once again resigned to my fate and moved slowly and clumsily up the hill. But then that dreaded war cry was heard…’chodunga nahi’. I didn’t know from where that ever enthusiastic, Himanshu Vinchhi appeared. I wished he didn’t. But it was impossible to say no to his pleasant persuasions. So once again I yielded and pretended that I was running which was essentially a slow walk in the style of running. Fortunately for me, he soon spotted another runner who was even slower than me and moved towards him and in my bid to escape the attention of Himanshu, I actually ran for a while and got away. I, still, am not sure from where he was getting that energy to constantly run up and down that steep climb and helping almost every struggling runner. Himanshu, have you passed the doping test?!
As I reached the top I heard Smile Singh, K Haridasan Nair and all were saying that there were still a few minutes left to complete the run in 3 hours. Since it was a very helpful downward slope from then onwards, I decided to give it a try. Mustering all my strength (whatever was remaining), attempted a sprint down. And as I crossed the finishing line, my watch assured me that I completed the 25K within 3 hours but that joy was quite short lived. The organisers were so efficient that within 2-3 minutes, I got the text message that I completed the run in 3:01:45 hours. Was I disappointed? Yes but then still I had a glimmer of hope when I read that it was just a provisional timing. Well, fortunately by the time the official certificate came confirming the provisional time, I had already reconciled to the thought that even that timing was not that bad! And since I was running beyond a half marathon distance for the first time, it indeed, is my personal best (PB) as well!