At the inaugural Hyderabad Marathon on Sunday, 28th August, 2011, at about 9:30am, roughly 3 hours 10 minutes into the race, I tanked at 32.1k. Out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning, my right calf was caught in such a severe cramp that it made me lose my balance and I started to fall forwards on my face. As I stepped back on my left leg to control myself from not falling, my left hamstring cramped so suddenly and ever so severely that I fell backwards, flat on the road. Writhing in pain, I somehow managed to find a position which did not cause more cramps and I was just lying there helpless. After what seemed like ages, one runner came by and tried to help me up. More cramps. And now different parts of my body were cramping. I had not experienced anything like this before in any of the marathons that I have run, and I’ve run quite a few of them, even if I say so myself. I was in such pain that I do not remember even the face of the person who helped me. Seeing that nothing was happening that would improve the situation, I asked the runner to go along and just ask the aid station to arrange an ambulance for me. The ambulance came; a spray of volini and I tried to be off again. 25mts later, I was back in the ambulance, calves, hamstrings, lower back and shoulders being massaged to ease the cramps. I vaguely remember writhing in pain, sound of the siren of the ambulance, my calves, soles of my feet, shoulders, back cramping, being massaged, me shivering; all of this happening maybe many times over, or maybe it was just one unending sequence of events. Then I remember being helped out of the ambulance (or maybe it was a different vehicle for all I know) and led up some stairs into what seemed to be a makeshift hospital. I was shivering and after two blankets were put on me, it started to take effect. The warmth I think stopped the cramps from coming and after about 45 minutes, I decided to be brave and attempt walking out of the room and into the stadium. It was when I saw everyone in the stadium with a medal around their necks that realization struck me.
I had not completed the race. This was my first DNF.
Friday afternoon onwards, I had pestered Rajesh Vetcha into arranging for me to travel along the entire length of the course so that I could have in place, my pacing plans. Early Saturday morning saw me doing that. After checking out the course I had my strategy planned. I had to do a fast first half and a little more so that the hills could be tackled and then let the flow and inertia somehow let me roll slowly to the finish line. The course visit had shown me what it was going to be like. Definitely tough, but nothing that would have caused what happened. Fact remains, I did not finish.
I was doing about 3 to 4 half marathons a week, I was doing a marathon at the minimum every Sunday. Against this backdrop, this was bad. What was worse, I pacing the 4:30 bus; my first attempt at pacing and I not only failed to make it to the finish line on time, I simply failed to reach the finish line!! If this was not humiliating enough, my regular running buddy, Piyush trotted to the finish in 4:30, in the process claiming the Second Prize in the Veterans Category. And I DID NOT EVEN FINISH!!!
I spent Sunday in pain, and a lot of Monday as well. I was in pain when I boarded the train from Hyderabad to come back to Ahmedabad. I have always made it a point to travel back by train after a long run. For one, I tend to suffer from post-event trauma and sitting (or lying down) on the train with my legs stretched and nothing else to do helps me deal with that. Secondly, the forced confinement during the course of the journey provides rest which, knowing myself, I would not do in the normal course of things. Thirdly, this time helps clear my brain helps me analyze what went wrong, where and what needs to be done so as to ensure that the problems faced do not reappear and more importantly, other problems do not take their place. All of this leads to dealing effectively with post-event trauma.
Given all of the above, I should have had a lot of baggage with me when I boarded the train at Secunderabad Railway Station.
(i) The weight of a DNF.
(ii) The heaviness of having a DNF as a pacer of the 4:30 bus.
(iii) The sadness of having had to drop off just 10k away from the finish line, when more than ¾ of the run was over and done with.
(iv) The heaviness in my heart.
(v) The dullness in the brain.
(vi) Last but not the least the actual pain in my legs, and other parts of my body.
Somehow, except for the last point, the other points were surprisingly missing. Lying on the road, I vaguely remember telling a runner that my 4:30 bus was now an impossibility. And that was about it. The weight of a DNF did not weigh on me at all. The heaviness of having a DNF as a pacer of the 4:30 bus was not there on my shoulders. The sadness of having had to drop off just 10k away from the finish line, when more than ¾ of the run was over and done with was also not there; it did not matter. The heaviness in my heart, if it was there, weighed lightly. The dullness in the brain that is there after every marathon, and which I expected to be exponentially magnified, was missing.
What I was looking for as I boarded the train was to settle down, look out of the window for some time and then contemplate. Knowing the miles I have been putting in as part of my regular practice, I knew there had to be a series of factors which would have had to come together for something like this to play out; it was not possible for one single factor to cause a DNF. I was thus curious to get to all the reasons that contributed to the DNF.
As I sat down to ferret out the happenings over the past few days a few things emerged.
Ever since I decided to accept the invitation to participate in Brazil 135, I have been studiously avoiding everything I reveled in during my pre-running days. So there have been no parties, no drinking binges, no late nights, no nothing. I have become used to living a hermit’s life. But when I came to Hyderabad, I stayed with friends who have known me since birth. I was meeting them after more than a decade. In that excitement, I kind of let go, and my schedule went for a toss. Chatting away late into the night, then dinner at 10:30-11:00, (the usual schedule is dinner at 7:30pm, and lights go out at 9:30pm) then some more catching up before finally going to bed at midnight, messed up my cycle.
At the Expo on Saturday, as I continued to meet up with other running buddies, and also getting introduced to and making new friends, the event which was scheduled for the next day took a back seat. I had originally planed to enter the expo, collect my running number bib and goodie bag and leave. That did not happen. Instead, as I kept meeting one friend after another, I spent about 6-7 hours in totality at the expo and with friends. And all of those 6-7 hours was without any hydration. I have seen another friend of mine, Roshni Rai, who refuses to let go of the water bottle on the day prior to the event and who is also very particular about eating – call it carbo-loading if you may – as per the time table that she has fixed for herself. And this is non negotiable. Regardless of how much she gets teased about it. I really admire this trait in her and have sworn to myself to follow this regimen; yet on Saturday, I goofed up on this big time.
Ditto for food. I went without food/nutrition/carbo-loading for 6-7 hours on Saturday for the reasons explained in the earlier point.
Piyush sought me out at the Expo and told me that he had run about 12-15k on Friday and Saturday. He also said that his reading of the course was ‘Tough. Needs getting used to.’ I ignored all three of these warnings. One, that Piyush had run, and I hadn’t. Two, that he had run 12-15k. Three, that he felt the course needed getting used to. And I paid the price for it. And how!!
For quite some time now friends have been giving me grief about how I overtrain. How I never taper. How running 12-15k at the bare minimum even during the week of the event ensures all my efforts get wasted. How every running great has talked of getting into an event on fresh legs, how theoretically it is this, how from experience, it is that and so on and so forth. In all of this, two things were specifically drummed into me. One, that I overtrain and I need to loosen up quite a bit. Second, that I need to taper, maybe even do something as drastic as not running at least 3 days prior to the event.
As an example, I was always reminded of my running history for last year. For those who don’t know, last year was a major screw-up year. Every event was a showcase of how things should not be. I was constantly doing a 5:15+ for every marathon I did – practice and at events, when my average time was a sub-4:45. Most long runs above 45k were disasters, to say the least. Even a 65k that I did at Pedong (on the Siliguri-Darjeeling route) took me about 9 hours. I was also subtly reminded of how I wasn’t able to go for Comrades and Sundown. And even though this was in no way related to anything to do with running, it was definitely insinuated that had I not overtrained, had I tapered and basically, had I listened to every theory in existence, I might have been able to make the trips and returned successful.
At the Hyderabad Marathon, I decided to do what was recommended – not run for a week prior to the event. (I couldn’t do that and managed to sneak out for a 21k run on Tuesday, but nothing beyond that.) In the weeks prior to that, I had reduced my running a wee bit, so that I could also claim to not have overtrained. I also hoped this could be passed off as having tapered. Well, my run at Hyderabad shows what all of it amounted to.
As I sat in the train stretching my legs and analyzing, I realized I was doing exactly what I should not have done. I did not listen to my body; I listened to what others might want to do with their bodies. In the process, I was playing with my mind as well.
My body is mine. It knows what to do and when it needs to slow down, or stop altogether, it lets me know in no uncertain terms. I like to run. And run all the time, say about 5 days a week. Any change in that and my body doesn’t really approve. My body doesn’t understand taper, nor does it feel the need for it. If I don’t run, I am irritable, grumpy and kind of depressed and this reflects on race day. Yes, I need to cross-train, I need to meditate, but those are different from running. We’re talking just running here.
If we were to look at the theories concerning distance running, we’re again talking of someone else deciding for us, what is right for us. And this is without that person having even an idea of our existence, forget knowing, understanding and then designing a program for us! From the bouquets of programs that are available, we try different ones, and choose a program which is closest to what agrees with us. And then we try and mould our bodies to get as much in line with the program as possible. And we will continue to go out and at the first given opportunity, lecture whoever cares to listen about how we must always listen to our bodies. And that is what we have not done.
At this point, I’ll request everyone to recall your first marathon or the first ultra that you attempted at an event. In the practice sessions leading to the event, all of us have chosen some program or the other. And we’ve never been able to follow it right through. On some days, possibly due to health issues, we’ve missed the program by a small margin, on other days, maybe because of the effects on the brain caused by phases of the moon or whatever else, we’ve deviated from the program by a wide margin. Ask my friend, Amit Sheth of whether he adhered, or was able to adhere, to the training program he had chosen for his first marathon. Then ask another friend of mine (and my crew member for Brazil 135), of how woefully short he was on distance, practice and every other parameter before he went for Comrades in 2010. Yet he completed. Now think of all the training programs that have been religiously followed by you and/or your buddies and check the results. In most cases, listening to your body (as it happens more often than not with novices) gets you much better results than a training program does.
All of us, inspite of not having been ideal students, want to inflict our views on others and we’re quick to dismiss anyone who does not conform to our ideas of a ideal training program as someone who is most unlikely to succeed. Even as we continue to wax eloquent on the benefits of listening to our bodies, we do exactly what we have been told might be theoretically good for our bodies. And we propagate these views as well. And therein, I believe, our performances begin to suffer.
My funda, now onwards is going to be to follow myself. Take advice from friends only if I need it and only if I ask for it. Unsolicited advice is not needed and not welcome as well.
As I train for Brazil-135 and beyond, I am going to follow one simple rule. ‘If it hurts, stop doing it. If it doesn’t inspire you, forget about it and do something else. And if it itches, scratch. Wherever it itches, and wherever you are.’
I think Asha Arora got it absolutely right when she asked me, “Vishwas, how many of these friends have run ultra marathons of the distance that you are contemplating? How many of them are themselves aiming for participating in BR-135 or Badwater, for that matter? Why then are you listening to them instead of yourself? Don’t you think if at all, the flow of information should be the other way around? That you should be advising them on how to run, how to prepare, et al?” Yes, what was missing, was the confidence in myself. That I could understand my body’s needs, that I know best.
And ironically, it was a DNF at the Hyderabad Marathon that taught me this.