Imagine, jumping in a car and driving to the next town, 75KM away. The traffic, the jams, the frustration – it’s slow going, time stretches out, you are annoyed, there are times you feel like giving up and going back home, but you crank up the aircon and keep at it and find the shortcuts, squeeze through a few gaps and get there eventually. You know that feeling of achievement and euphoria when you get to your destination. Now imagine someone asks you to run that entire distance. Imagine the demands of your body and mind when you set off on that journey. Imagine the pain and anguish as that destination seems to get further away with every step. And imagine that feeling when you actually manage to run past the finish line and how much more significant that feeling can be compared to anything else you have felt before. I couldn’t imagine what that would feel like – until last week when I did not have to imagine it anymore.
Have you ever heard someone say – “you just need passion – then you can pretty much achieve anything you desire” or “if you push yourself, any challenge is achievable” and thought “my God – please stop with the clichés. Real life is different”. I know I have. But then clichés must have some ring of truth to them and I found that out to my amazement last week. It’s very rare to find true passion around us in everyday life, but I found it in the efforts of Ameet Sinha in getting people involved with running. I started running roughly 18 months ago and enjoyed the challenge of constantly improving on my time and distance and the adrenalin rush of each achievement. However, it’s after meeting Ameet that I truly started understanding the discipline and little details that go into making a good running a great runner. And not to mention, enjoying the mental highs of long distance running. As a seasoned runner, his efforts to get more people passionate about long distance running resulted in the voluntary 76km Ahmedabad ultra-run – now a successful annual event that has been going on for 3 years.
An entirely voluntary effort, the Ahmedabad SPRR (Sardar Patel Ring Road) ultra-run brings together runners from all over Ahmedabad and nearby states. But don’t let the voluntary nature of it make it seem like a casual effort. The run involved the full gamut of food and hydration and various stages and vehicles with aid and support all along the route. The volunteers are drawn from friends and family of the runners past and present brought together a committed group that makes this event possible each year. It was much more than just running.
So – what on earth made me think I should participate in the ultra-run having never even run a full marathon before? Ameet – who has been helping me become a better runner – convinced me to give the event a go, and I was the first one to register and I registered for full distance despite 30KM, 50 KM, 60KM options were available too and the fact that I had never done more than 35KM before this – as they say, think BIG J. A lot of it is mental I was told. I wasn’t quite convinced that I would be able to go the distance, but he gradually won me over by arguing how it all comes down to overcoming mental blocks. The body can take a bigger beating than people give it credit for – we see this all the time when people are put into difficult situations. But the mind has to convince it to make that extra push. Or so the logic went. And I signed up feeling like I could take on 76km– even though I haven’t run more than 35 km in one go. As I started the run, I told myself that the trick is to break down the effort into little mini-goals – something most long distance runners would tell you. After the initial effort, it was onto the mini-targets – that next roundabout on the route, the next landmark building that I can start to see from a distance. And that worked wonderfully for the first third of the race. And that’s when the physical effort started to discourage the body from going further.
AT 30 KM mark, I even briefly lost track of what was going on around me. I considered stopping there – it would have been a reasonable effort and achievement already. But the temptation to at least finish my first marathon rose up and silenced the voice that kept telling me I had done enough. And so, I carried on driven by that temptation to grab the next achievement in front of me rather than reveling in the one that has just been bested. And I got past the 42km mark – and it’s surprising how the adrenalin rush of getting to that goal that seemed so distant just a while back makes you want to push further – just get to 50Km it told me – imagine that – 50KM – me, who had just managed half that distance in the past. Ignore the pains, I kept telling myself and managed to find a second wind that finally got me past that well-rounded 50k mark that I so craved.
People say a truly long distance run is like a neat metaphor for life itself. You can see why – there are many similarities in the cycle. You start off with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, the body is more willing than the mind and then you hit your mid-life crisis and then the mind takes over and you find a second wind to carry on. But in an ultra-run, another aspect hits home – where at some point you need your friends and fellow runners to help you on your journey. At 50k, I was ready to call it a day and pack it in. The body had been bruised and the mind felt like it had used by its reserves. On my own, I would have climbed into the nearest car and gone home feeling like I have achieved something special – but with a small part of me disappointed that I hadn’t gone the whole distance. But Ameet was there to help me take a breather and let the mind refresh its resolve while the body was also given a bit of rejuvenation with some stretches, “do some stretching, and then we decide” he said. Vipul Sharma (who was volunteering in this event for a change, otherwise a great runner) came over to me adding those little ideas into the brain that gives a boost to that tiny part of it that would be disappointed that I did not finish the whole hog. “Go on – you won’t get another chance for a year – go for the 60k mark and then we will see”, he said. I knew if I get to 60k, no way on earth I would miss the full distance. A good coach knows when to push people without breaking them and Ameet and Vipul were the coaches I needed then to make that next push.
I carried on – tuning out the outside world and also trying to tune out the signals the body was sent for me to stop. A minute at a time, a few yards at a time – the next 10km felt long and arduous. But it is quite incredible what the body can be convinced to do and how ambition can sometimes be the strongest feeling in your mind. And it got me to the 60k mark. And here came the wondrous dilemma in my head – I was now just 15k from completing my ultra-run. 15K – compared to the 60K that I had already completed did not seem like a number that was worth giving up for. As I ran further, the weight of the distance left to go kept dropping – 15 vs 60 – can’t I do that? That was the brain playing its tricks. But by now it felt like both mind and body had given up on me. But my friends had not.
The group (Ameet Sinha, Amit Bhattacharjee, Ritesh Dave) joined us at the 70k mark – cheering us on, offering every bit of encouragement and a friendly shoulder on which to stretch my dying muscles. And the heart stepped up where the brain and body had given in. In the company of some of the most enthusiastic running fraternity, I kept pushing ahead, knowing that crossing that finishing line would now mean more for that whole group and the family of volunteers who was egging us on. And as I crossed that line, the ambition and desire that drove me on were curiously shaded by the feeling of celebration with this enthusiastic group of fellow runners.
If an ultra-run mimics the life cycle, completing one truly did feel like a re-birth. And that’s not the post-finish adrenalin talking. As I sit here recapping what my mind and body went through on that run, I realize that I have learned so much more about myself at the completion of that run. It’s true what they say – it’s all in the mind. But until now, I did not know what that meant – I now am more aware of the barriers coming up and how passion and practice are the tools you need to break those down and get yourself to that next level that you thought was impossible just a little while back.