Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jai Ranchhod, Maakhanchor!

Haathi, Ghoda, Palkhi, Jai Kanhaiya Lal Ki!
Radhe Krishna, Gopal Krishna. Gopal Krishna, Radhe Krishna!
Govind Bolo Hari Gopal Bolo.
Jai Ranchhod!

Four chants that were playing in my mind all through Saturday evening right up to Sunday morning.

No, I haven’t turned religious all of a sudden. God hasn’t suddenly found a place in either my heart or my life. I am as much of an agnostic as I used to be. I continue to try and be an unapologetic atheist. But in spite of all this, these chants reverberated through the night and through my mind as Vishwasnathan Jayaraman (Vishy), Piyush Shah and I ran through the night from Ahmedabad to Dakor.

Let me start at the beginning. Around mid-February, Piyush had called and spoken of doing a 100k run. I had at that time refused as both of us belong to different running genres. He believes in running fast. For him, the time in which he completes a marathon is what matters. I am the polar opposite. I run to enjoy my runs. Timing simply does not matter to me. Okay, the only exceptions would be completing racess within their cut-off time. And going by the cut-off times for the various races, especially ultras that I have planned through the year, doing a 100k in about 12-15 hours is quite okay. That is the pace I keep. Piyush, on the other hand, goes for speed. His aim would be to do a 100k in less than 9 hours. And so, I chose to opt out of running the 100k with him. But he told me that he had no issues with running at my pace and that is how the 100k was finalized.

I recalled that people walked upto Dakor and logically extrapolated that since I had not heard/read about theDakor pilgrimage for the past quite a few months, it would be due sometime in the future, sooner rather than later. Asking a few friends, I got to know that the Dakor pilgrimage was undertaken to coincide with Holi. 7th March, Holi. 3rd March, just 4 days earlier, Saurday. Seemed perfect. Tents would have been set up by volunteers which would offer water, tea, buttermilk, snacks, full-meals…the works, so the dependence on someone else to provide us support would not be needed. After speaking to Piyush, who, having a religious bent of mind, whole-heartedly supported the idea of running to Dakor from Ahmedabad, the route too was more or less finalized. A quick check on confirmed the route and the distance too stood at 104 kilometers. (This distance would go up by another 8kms since we would start from Sabarmati Ashram, run to Vastrapur, the original starting point, and run beyond.)

As both, Piyush and I put it up on Facebook, Vishy called to ask if we were indeed serious about running the route and the distance. Of course we were, and the same was reiterated to him. Vishy asked how much time I expected it to take. 12-14 hours, I told him, which, on hindsight, was my first mistake. I should have said 18-20 hours – that would have seen us running and enjoying the run instead of running against time, which I absolutely abhor. Vishy confirmed and was in Ahmedabad on Saturday morning.

Vishy is a Gandhian and so a visit to Sabarmati Ashram was definitely on the agenda. When he went there, he got to know of the all-religion prayer that was held in the evening till 6:30pm and so he suggested we start the run to Dakor thereafter. So 6:30pm was going to be the start time.

Piyush and I reached Sabarmati Ashram at about 6:20pm. The all-religion prayer was over. Before we started the run, we thought a few photographs at Sabarmati Ashram were called for. As we took pictures and were chatting along, Vishy mentioned the plan to run from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, or the other way around, follow the route of the historic Dandi March and reach the destination (either Dandi or Ahmedabad) on 2nd October to coincide with the Mahatma’s birth anniversary. He said he had been discussing this with Jagdish Damania. I told Vishy that while I was part of the discussions with Jagdish, I had made it clear that I was like a horse with blinders on till July-August, 2013. Till then, my only aim was BR-135 and Badwater and beyond. (The ‘beyond’ is a card I hold very close to my chest; to be revealed later as things fall into place.) And therefore, I told Vishy, if I had to be part of the planned Dandi run, the plan would have to be for 2013. Vishy retorted that even if tough, Badwater was mindless running whereas running in the footsteps of the Mahatma was much more purposeful.

To each his own, I guess. For me, BR-135 and Badwater are and will be dreams that I hold very dear, even if they get dismissed as mindless dreams by the world.

As we started out, Vishy said that I should pace. My idea was to get to Dakor, finish the run with a smile and get back to Ahmedabad in time for Vishy to catch his train to Hubli. Yes, my plan had enough of a buffer to include a visit to the temple. And for Vishy to take a shower before he boarded his train.

About an hour and a half after we started, Piyush’s GPS showed us having done about 13k. Vishy’s calculation concluded that we were too slow and wouldn’t make it in 14 hours. Piyush told Vishy I was capable of running faster. My saying that we were on track did not cut any ice. Nor did my saying that I had a 200k run planned for the next weekend and going too fast during a 100k and burning my muscles wouldn’t be a good idea for me. From Vasna to Vishala to Narol Circle, there was a constant mental tug-of war. Piyush and Vishy were trying to go fast, trying to set the pace for a sub 12:00:00 100k, and I was pulling them back. Vishy was deciding a pacing plan of running 7k and walking 100 meters or so. Even as I doubted its sustainability, I for sure was not going to be a part of such a plan. If I did, I would have to wish my 200k goodbye.

During this time, I was feeling thirsty after every few minutes. This was probably the result of my not having hydrated very well through the days leading up to the 100k. But it wasn’t a problem yet. Hydrating myself (over-hydrating myself, actually) while on the run would do the trick nice and proper. I started to take a sip after every few steps and gulped down water whenever we stopped. A little after Narol Circle, we passed a restaurant which had chances of cold water.

I told Vishy and Piyush that I was stopping for cold water. They chose to run on. Four glasses of chilled water, a loud burp and a broad smile (at everyone in the restaurant) later, I was back on the Ahmedabad-Baroda Highway, running a little faster to catch up with Piyush and Vishy.

As I ran, I saw something just about 15 feet ahead of me, headed directly in my direction. Not having the time to think, analyze and then react, I darted to the left. The thing that was coming towards me seemed to jerk, tilted to my left and continued coming towards me. In the split second before there was contact with my body, I realized it was a bike which had skid and was out of control. I needed to get out of its way. I tried going further to the left but by then the front wheel went between my legs. Then I saw stars. The moon. A million suns. And billions of blistering blue barnacles. When I cam around, I was clutching my stomach and my family jewels had taken a direct hit. The pain cancelled out any plans that might have otherwise formed to teach the rider of the bike a lesson. Then the stench of country liquor hit me. Both the guys on the bike that had dashed against me were dead drunk and probably hadn’t even realized that an accident had taken place and that they were now lying horizontal on the road.

I limped away, doubling over with pain at every step. This was the end of my 100k. No way I could make it to Dakor, some 80 kilometers away. I stopped and slowly straightened up. Felt better, even though the pain was excruciating. A few steps and I threw up. Violently. Feeling weak, but with the pain having reduced substantially, I walked, hoping Piyush and Vishy had stopped for me. I needed to tell them that I was quitting. They were nowhere to be seen. As I walked, I started to feel better. They say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. As I felt the pain subsiding, I started to run towards S.P. Ring Road, where I was hopeful of Piyush and Vishy waiting for me. My run lasted 100 meters. I tottered off the road, bent over and puked again. Then I walked. All the way to S.P. Ring Road. A couple of hundred meters before it, Piyush’s wife came in the car searching for me and told me that Piyush and Vishy were waiting for me at the circle.

As I met with my fellow runners, I recounted what had happened. Vishy remarked that I had a shocked look on my face. I was told that the car would now onwards tail me. I would be lying if I said I was unaffected but yes, I was hurt that in spite of I having met with an accident, there wasn’t even the cursory offer of abandoning the run, or anything even remotely to that effect. Not then, not later. In fact, even when mentioning about the run, the reference to the accident was fleeting. Be that as it were, the accident happened around the 20-25k mark; it is best to leave it there and move ahead.

I declared that I would complete the run even if it took me another 20 hours. We started running. A little further down on S. P. Ring Road, we came across a tent for the pilgrims walking to Dakor. The volunteers left the tent and came up on the road to welcome us to the camp. As we went in, we had water. Then we were offered ‘laddoos’. My stomach having emptied itself not too long ago, I had one, then another. The volunteers made tea for us. Some tea, goodbyes and off we were to cries of ‘Jai Ranchhod!’

We ran for the next 5k; running interspersed with walking whenever the pain made running unbearable. A right turn at Hathijan and we were on State Highway 3, headed towards Khatraj Chowkdi. At the first camp, we stopped again. Cold water, halwa and tea were served so lovingly by the volunteers. Having had our bit of carbo-loading, we set off again – to the next camp.

As we ran, there were people dancing to music blaring from loudspeakers. As we approached them, I broke into a dance. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the volunteers of that camp and after dancing with them, they took me to their camp and insisted that I could not leave without having some refreshments. Over tea and snacks, the volunteers asked if we planned to run all the way to Dakor. I replied in the affirmative and smiled – a smile to indicate that no more questions were welcome. I was told that it was indeed rare to find such faith in the Lord. Discretion being the better part of valour, I chose to keep quiet. I am sure my real intentions would not have gone down very well with the volunteers. I did not tell them that I was agnostic, that I was trying to be an unapologetic atheist. I did not tell them that my only intent behind running this distance was to prepare for the 135 mile race at Brazil and thereafter, in the USA. I did not clarify that Ranchhodraiji, Dwarkesh, Krishna, Kanhaiya etc. did not mean anything at all to me; that I couldn’t care less if I was running from Jharsuguda to Tikkerpada. I definitely did not want to risk telling the volunteers anything of this.

I asked what the distance to Dakor from that point was. I got six different answers starting from 55kms to 85-90kms. The correct answer was, “I do not know.”

Piyush had gone ahead. Since he did not dance, the volunteers perhaps had not shown an interest in him, allowing him to run on. Vishy and I started running after the customary ‘Jai Ranchhod!’ we passed a group singing ‘Govind Bolo Hari Gopal Bolo’. Since I was walking-running, the group would catch up, I would sing a bit along with them, then run forward, wait for them to catch up and repeat. Somewhere Piyush slowed down and we caught up with him.

A little distance ahead, some volunteers were offering buttermilk. That sounded yummy. Buttermilk with copious amounts of salt (our insurance against cramps further up in the run) was exactly what we wanted. Piyush tried to warn us against having buttermilk after sunset but his explanations fell on deaf ears. By then, Vishy and I had had three glasses each.

All recharged and ready, Vishy got impatient. He wanted to finish the 100k in 12-13 hours, visit the temple and reach back to Amedabad. I for one, wasn’t in a position to run at Vishy’s desired pace. Running a little distance would cause the pain from the accident to flare up, reducing my run to a walk. Two, even if I was able to keep pace wit Vishy, I doubt if I would have since a 200k was being planned for the next weekend and I would not have wanted my legs to be burnt out before that. Vishy couldn’t go ahead since he did not know the route. And the deadlock continued.

Somewhere during this time, Piyush’s wife and brother-in-law, Gopal, were joined by other family friends, paving the way for the 100k run to be converted into a 100k picnic. The two vehicles would go ahead, stop at some well illuminated camp and as we reached there, photographs would get clicked followed by tea, homemade snacks and sweetmeats, biscuits, wafers, etc. before we set off again to cheers of ‘Jai Ranchhod’ and ‘Jai Shri Krishna’.

As we continued ahead, we overtook a group chanting, ‘Radhe Krishna, Gopal Krishna. Gopal Krishna, Radhe Krishna’. Vishy took up the chant, I gave him company. It set the rhythm for the run and even if temporarily, took my mind off the pain. By and by, we reached Khatraj Chowkdi. Dakor was 41kms away, said the signboard. Less than a marathon. The temple, our end-point, was just 38k away. From Khatraj Chowkdi we walked-ran till Mahudha Chowkdi. Dakor was just 26kms away, said the milestone.

We halted for a tea break once again. Tea of course, and snacks too followed. From there on, I walked. Any attempt at running caused the injured part of my body to start hurting. The pain, spreading to the innards of my stomach caused a groundswell of nausea which threatened to envelope me completely. Determined as I was to complete the 100k, the only option before me was to walk. Walk slowly when the pain became overwhelming and increase the pace whenever possible.

With 19k to go, Piyush said he would go ahead and wait at the turn for Dakor. Vishy and I continued walking. Somewhere near the milestone which said Dakor was 16k away, Vishy and I both felt having something to eat, biscuits maybe, would be a good idea; it would give a solid energy boost. The support vehicles were not there; they had gone to Dakor for the morning ‘Darshan’; to have a glimpse the Lord as soon as the temple opened its doors. But our wishes did not go unanswered. Right ahead by the side of the road stood two persons, offering pilgrims tea and biscuits. I took a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits. Vishy took just a packet of biscuits. Out of sheer habit, he then put his hand into his pocket, fished out cash and asked, “How much?” One look from both of them had Vishy profusely apologizing for his blasphemy.

We walked on. I decided to quit as I completed 100k. The pain was increasing and there was no point in being brave and doing an additional 10-12k. As that was decided, Vishy too decide to run the last 8k. A little ahead, the person walking a couple of hundred feet ahead of us limped to the other side of the road and sat down o the wall of a bridge over a culvert. As we passed by, he told us, “As we keep getting closer, it seems to keep going further away.” We smiled at him. This is exactly how the last few kilometers feel at every event.

As we continued ahead, Piyush’s family friends drove up. They were done with their prayers at the temple and were on their way back to Ahmedabad. They offered us some more snacks, then a ‘laddoo’ each and after assuring us that not too much of a distance was now left, they drove off.

Near Alina crossroads, about 10k from Dakor and 2k away from my finish point, we reached a young man struggling to take his foot out of his shoe. As the foot came out, Vishy and I both got severe goosebumps. The poor guy’s foot was completely covered in blisters. Blisters o blisters. Blisters below blisters. Blood blisters. You name it and it was there. We asked him if he needed help. He looked at me, and said in a voice full of determination that only 10k was left and that he’d do it.

We continued ahead. Vishy asked if he could take off and run to the finish. I answered in the affirmative. Vishy said he would ask the car to wait for me at the milestone which said 8k to Dakor and I could finish my run there. After what seemed like a never ending walk, I saw the milestone and the car. I got in, my 100k done and over with.

We drove to Radha Talav where Piyush and Vishy joined us, finishing their run. After washing the salts off our bodies, it was time to head to the Ranchhodraiji Temple. I wasn’t going to go in. I said so, but the look on Piyush’s and his brother-in-law’s face made me change my mind.

The temple was closed when we went in. Some tradition where they keep closing the temple to the public and open it for a little while only to close it again. As we waited there, Vishy was feeling giddy. He stood at the side taking the support of the wall. The door of the temple opened. The crowd surged forward. Vishy and I got pushed in; got pushed out of the other door. That was that. I did not even get to see the idol.

Piyush Schumacher took over thereafter. And since I felt scared to be inside a car that was being driven like it would put F1 out of business, I closed my eyes and fell asleep. When I woke up, we were in Ahmedabad. That was the 100k run from Ahmedabad to Dakor. Jai Ranchhod!

  • I will do this run again next year. I might take 16 hours compared to the 15 this year. But I will stop at every tent, dance with the volunteers, take in the atmosphere and have a much better time.
  • The run is not about speed. In fact, it is not about running at all. It is about enjoying the atmosphere. Imagine going to the Carnival in Rio and then commenting on the quality of the material that the dresses of the dancers is made of… or going to the La Tomatina in Spain and evaluating the quality of the tomatoes that are used… if you evaluate the run, you’ll be missing the woods for the trees. This run is about enjoying the atmosphere.
  • Lastly, when I got hit in the nuts, I made a bolt for Dakor. Does it make me an engineer?