Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lost & Found: The Joy of Running

As I sat reminiscing about what had brought me so close to quitting running; what was it that had changed, why did running – something that used to give me such unbridled joy – suddenly become so repulsive that I almost quit?

As I pondered, I looked at every aspect, even reading my own blog posts – past ones till the last one – to try and read between the lines, to try and see if there was some hidden meaning. I peeled away layer after layer to reach the core of the problem, so that the process of rectification and subsequent complete healing could begin from there. Things suddenly started to get clear. And as they got clear, they appeared more and more stark; and as they got starker, they hurt the eye and the soul more and more.

I realized my repulsion to running came from issues not related to running. Back in 2007-8, before I started running, I was your typical ‘young MBA with a career on the fast track’ type of a yuppie. Someone who took great pride in always being busy, not having a social life and generally trying to prove to the world and more importantly, to one’s peers and contemporaries, that I was ‘arriving’. I used to smoke. And it was vulgar smoking. I used to smoke because I enjoyed it. But I used to smoke Marlboro Lights because of the brand. And of course, one did need those pegs in the evening to round off the day.

I was living it up, life was good and I was truly running (pun unintended) the rat race. A not so pleasant side-effect of it was my waistline grew to 42” and the weight reached 97kgs and looked all set to cross a 100kgs. It was during this time that a friend was diagnosed with diabetes, high BP, cholesterol, heart trouble, the works. And I got scared, more by the restrictions it put on him.

The next day saw me at the gym. After the weight and measurements were taken, a workout schedule sent to be prepared, lecture on healthy eating and all that blah was done, the action began. I got close to the machines and was going to do that manly stuff like pumping iron et al. But me trying to do a benchpress (with the lowest weight possible with the svelte, sexy, PYT observing the oodles of fat rolling over and dangling off the edges of the bench did not for a pretty picture make. Sorry, understatement. It was downright obnoxious and nauseating. I saw the look on the PYT’s face so I know. For sure.

Thereafter, going to the gym was out. So what was the next best thing I could do? Swimming was out; I knew I’d look like a beached whale. Cycling was out too, and more out of pity for the poor cycle. After contemplating various other impossibilities like martial arts, gymnastics, etc. running was what it was. Fat people are seen on the road, so that was a comfort factor. No one had seen me walking/running before, so people wouldn’t recognize me. That was a comforting thought. I could run in an area where no one knew me, so that was good too. Actually in more ways than one, I did not start running for the right reasons. I started running because I had no other choice.

But as I ran, I began to slowly accept it. As 200 meters every two days increased to a 2k everyday and more, the compulsion became a choice, a choice I consciously made till it turned to love, till it became a passion.

Running offered me all that I wanted and all that I could want. It became my time alone with myself. Devoid of thoughts when the mind began to go blank around the 8k mark, I learnt to live with myself. I learnt how to, as a friend aptly put it during an email exchange, make partial sense of a nonsensical world. Running would be the answer to all my problems. It gave me all the time I wanted to think, it gave me an opportunity to unclutter my thoughts and more often than not, running would help me arrive at solutions related to non-running issues.

Running encouraged me to be free, to break away from the shackles of the regular, to break away from the bondages of habit. I was not restrained by space. I could run anywhere I wanted, whichever part of the city or out of it. I was not restricted by time. No one stopped me if I ran late in the mornings, early in the afternoons, late in the evenings or even in the dead of the night. I need not have had a fixed route. I could turn anywhere I wanted, run on a different route everyday or I could just pace up and down a particularly small stretch till I was done. Some days I would run slow, some days I would run fast. Some days I would run long and some days I would run far. Some days I would not run at all, I would just walk. And on some days I would run-walk. I could run on a beach, I could run up and down mountains and hills, I could run in the desert and if I ever gathered the guts to overcome the cold, I could run on snow too. I did not need to run only on the days I was working in town, I could run when I was on tour, I could run when I was on a holiday and I could run for all of the above reasons and circumstances as well as none of them.

Running offered me all the freedom that I chose to take. And the most important thing was that I was running for myself; I was not running for anyone or anything else.

So then, what happened that pushed me to the brink of quitting running? Exactly the same issues that had pushed me into running had begun to take root here and that was pushing me out of it. It was… no, it is getting all too technical and no one but no one seems to be running for themselves anymore. Everyone runs for just one inanimate, abstract concept – time. Pick up any account of running from the past year or so and chances are it’ll talk of just two things – distance and time and the various permutations and combinations thereof. One hears of all kinds of suffering that they have endured while running. There’s talk of dehydration, nausea, hitting the wall, ITBS, cramps, etc. etc. etc. or tough route, trails, tarmac, hills, sand, heat, humidity etc. Rarely, if ever, do I hear of anyone recounting what fun they had chasing their own shadows, no one talks of running faster than the plane flying overhead. No one speaks of the scenery that becomes visible as the sun rises. As the sun rises, all one hears are statements like, “Oh! Sun is up already, unless we cross kmX in the next 10 minutes, we’ll have to deal with hydration issues later.”

And no sooner does one cross the finish line than he gets to hear, “Shucks!! Missed a sub 4:30 by just 28 seconds!” “Cramps at the 26k mark screwed my chances of a sub 4:00.” “Man! I cannot believe I just did a sub 5:00.” No one but no one talks of how the run was. No one talks of what they saw. Because no one saw anything. Everyone was simply running for that inanimate, abstract concept called time. I can bet that almost no one who ran SCMM this year looked up at the building on the right (on the left when coming to the finish line) at Flora Fountain to see the heads looking down at us marathoners who were running not for themselves, but for time.

There are some amongst us who run to qualify, Boston or Comrades or what have you. But apart from those few, all of us essentially remain also-ran runners. And for a certain A to feel that G’s timing of 5:53:22 against T’s timing of  5:53:39 makes G a superior runner reminds me of an incident from my hostel days while in college. We would take a bath once a month because that was very convenient to us. A hostelmate used to consider himself more hygienic than us because his body used to get so itchy in 27 days that he had to have a bath.

I have been fortunate to also have done a 100-miler last year. And when I think of it, or when we who ran that run talk about it amongst ourselves, all we can think of is how we lay down bang in the middle of the trail for a nap at night, the sleepwalking, the lakes which looked beautiful with the rising sun, the dense green forests of the Aravalis, etc. Time just doesn’t figure, because we were running for ourselves, not for time.

And thus, it is a conscious decision to not run races anymore in a competitive spirit and try to be one-up among the last of the also-rans. I am not going to race. I am not going to be bothered about my timings. I am not going to keep a count of how many kilometers I ran. I am not going to have a set route to practice everyday, these, hills, those flyovers, those underpasses and that bridge. I am not going to look at training charts and do fartleks, hills, interval training and all that blah which makes running technical and takes the fun of running out of it. I am not going to run to be a part of yet another rat race. I got into running and was able to successfully get out of one rat race; I do not want to find myself trapped and running another.

I am going to run to enjoy myself. I am going to run because I want to run. I am going to run where I want, unshackled by space or locations. Regardless of whether or not I need to, I will not run to prove anything to anybody. As this friend of mine said yesterday during our email exchanges, “I love to run and I know I will not stop till I cannot go on any longer.”

As said earlier, it is a conscious decision to not run races anymore. Yes, I’ll be there for a few marathons – but those will mostly be to meet up with friends from all over that I have made while running. And maybe I’ll take another friend’s advice and start a ‘last minute bus’ at these races. Though I have serious doubts as to whether I will officially be allowed to be a ‘last minute bus’.


  1. Loved your blog post, Vishwas. Except the fact that I haven't done the kind of ultra runs that you have, you could have been putting my thoughts into words. No, I didn't look up to see the faces at Flora Fountain- that was one stretch when I was really giving it my all because I wanted to give it my all- but I do know that on the Sealink, I was so mesmerized by the rising sun reflecting in Mahim creek, I stopped and pulled out my phone to take a picture. And guess what a random bystander told me, "Aunty, time waste mat karo. Photo kabhi bhi khinch sakte hain, aaj race ka din hai." And that from a person who has probably never run the distance I had already covered. Bloody competitive world. Why can't we be allowed to do what we want to do at the pace at which we want to do it- and, no, I am not talking only about running.

    And all those people lining the streets wanting to high-five you. How many runners were willing to high-five them back? Would slowing down for a nano-second have killed them? But that one moment of touch might have stayed with a kid and made a runner out of him/ her ten years later. When people are willing to spend their time (on a festival day) to cheer you, the least you can do is smile back.

    After SCMM, I decided never to race again, because while I love to run and want to be able to go for a run even on my last day on this planet, it is running I like, not the numbers that come with it. But two weeks down, I've realised that I like the atmosphere of races- I will register for races too, but maybe I can run around the timing mats?

  2. Loved your blog and your passion for running. I am too armature runner...!!

  3. Hi,

    I agree with you .. but it comes naturally to people.. i guess everybody wants to prove himself and running gives them this opportunity .. most people (includes me) are too materialistic to just to something for fun.. hence we attach happiness to time ..

    I am also keen to know how have u followed up on this blog ..specially since u r running for br135 which is a race which needs to be completed within a stipulated time !!