It’s not fun. That’s for sure. Well, not all the time. Your heart is pounding, your legs hurt and every injury you’ve ever had eagerly raises its head. In the end, you’re left with sweaty clothes, aching muscles and a powerful, unnerving adrenalin rush.
And yet, we run. Again, and again. By ‘we’, of course, I’m speaking metaphorically. As I stumble over the finish line after my first official run, a proud friend asks me if I’ll do it again. Pulling off my shoes with what I hope is resounding finality, I pant, “Never. Ever. Ever.” Twenty-four hours later, as the high points of the Wipro Chennai Marathon come rushing back, I’m not so sure.
They say every runner has a story. Mine starts incongruously enough when I write a piece on how, with training, anyone can run a 10K (10 kilometre race) in three months. Krishna Kumar, head of Chennai Runners (organisers of the Wipro Chennai Marathon), suggests I test the thesis and I rashly agree.
Of course, despite all my good intentions, life gets in the way. Despite printing out multiple copies of the ‘Couch to 10K’ programme, I don’t do a single run by myself. So much for self-discipline. Fortunately, I have back up. The Chennai Runners meet regularly in different parts of the city through the week and I join the Alwarpet beginners’ run on most Saturdays. I maintain my regular workouts at the Quad bootcamp, building endurance, strength and mobility. And, as we get closer to the deadline, I dedicate at least 15 minutes everyday to squealing, “Why, oh, why?” and shaking my fist dramatically at my (considerably faster) runner friends.
By the last week of November, I’m practically delirious with tension about my first official run. My coach suggests I aim at completing it in an hour and 15 minutes. After my standard, “Why, oh, why?” wail, I agree. Then proceed to spend the next three days shovelling down cake to ease the tension. (Not recommended.)
On the morning of December 1, it’s pouring. Nevertheless, I forlornly pin on my runners’ bib, embedded with the timing chip, and head out. There’s no backing out now. Expecting the venue to be grim with palpable tension, I’m startled by the cheery atmosphere. This is the city’s biggest marathon. Last year, they had 6000 runners, this year the numbers swelled to 10,000, around 6500 of whom are doing the 10K. While the event is still male-dominated, the number of women runners has increased substantially with around 1500 women participants on Sunday. Interestingly almost 500 people over 60 years of age participated, of which more than 100 were women.
We walk a kilometre on the Old Mahabalipuram Road up to the starting point, next to the Roja Muthiah Research Library, along with thousands of people in bright orange tee-shirts. Suddenly a group begins to clap, and the crowd picks up the rhythm as last year’s winner, Ismail Ssenyange, from Uganda, runs past with the grace of a gazelle, ringed by a convoy of cyclists and running volunteers. The full and half marathons started earlier in the morning. Ssenyange’s the first to finish the marathon (42.2 km), winning with an impressive timing of 2 hours and 32 minutes.
Five minutes to 10K race time. The music begins. As speakers thump Europe’s ‘Final Countdown,’ the crowd begins to slowly start moving. Terrified of being trampled by faster runners, I stay behind, then end up spending the next 20 minutes weaving my way through the more relaxed participants. Ten minutes in, I hear another cheer and see inimitable Vishwanathan Jayaraman, a fifty plus runner from Hubli, finishing his marathon barefoot, wearing nothing but a pair of simple khakhi shorts and a big smile.
Honestly, with group runs, it’s team spirit that keeps you going. Two kilometres later, the roads are still crowded with runners, but I’m finding it easier to keep up a pace of about 8 to 9 kmph. By the third kilometre, my feet begin to blister and my knee hurts. Then, I see a participant in a wheelchair going past. I keep going. By the fourth km, it’s drizzling and I’m miserable. An old man stops his morning walk to clap, wave and yell, “Keep going.” We run past Malar Hospital, turn at the Andhra Mahila Sabha signal. Five km more to go. The runners part to make way for a blade runner sprinting though. We clap. And keep going.
The last two kilometres are a blur. I see a gorilla hi-fiving passing runners and am convinced I’m delirious till the man in the gorilla suit waves at me. As we get closer to the finish line, volunteers on either side of the road yell, “800 mts more. 700 mts more…” I don’t hear or see anyone for the last five hundred metres, my only focus is getting over the finish line. Then, suddenly, it’s done. Ten km in one hour and nineteen minutes.
So, why do we run? What prompts 10,000 people to get up on a dark, rainy morning, when they could stay cosy in bed? To stay fit? After spending time with hard-core runners, I’ve come to realise they’re not lacing up their shoes to lose weight. That’s just a by-product.
Christopher McDougall in his influential book Born to Run talks of how human beings evolved through ‘persistence hunting,’ chasing animals down, till the animals gave up. He argues that as human beings, we’re built to run. Perhaps that’s why the motion feels so familiar. So primal. It’s a human instinct. The same reason we climb mountains, dive off cliffs and swim in the sea.
When you run, you aren’t the workaholic, the party girl or the geek. None of these personas count: it’s just you, your legs and your willpower getting you across that finish line. Your only identity at that point is — a runner. Multiply that by 10,000 people, factor in the famed ‘runner’s high,’ add competitiveness, and you’ll begin to understand why a marathon, half marathon or 10K can be exhilarating. And why, despite all my defiant promises to retire my shoes, I’ll probably be signing up again.