How To: not finish a marathon

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Ladakh Marathon, 2017, Leh.

Wilson Kipsang dropped out of Berlin Marathon today.  He fell out of leading pack’s pace and at 30th km he stopped, as reported. Kipsang’s reasons are best known to him. One can only guess what might have been going on in this ace runner’s mind as he saw himself falling out of the pack. While that is the world of elite runners, the dispiriting effect of not finishing is identifiable. Reading about him makes me revisit my state of mind two Sundays back from today. Failure was write large on my face as I hobbled back to room.

At Ladakh Marathon 2017, I did not finish the course. At 34th kilometer the deepest of reserves within me felt depleted beyond measure.  In the two kilometers from 32nd to 34th, I was stripped of all the physical and mental drive to take on the last 8 kilometers to finish line. Even as I try to recollect, I do not know what gave up first -mind or body. It felt impossible to gather myself at 34th.

Perhaps, the little changes before and during this run took it away from me. I am trying to list down all that shouldn’t have been done. First, I was trying out new shoes, which I thought I have broken-in into, with one week in Nepal and three weeks on the cycle ride to Leh. May be that wasn’t enough. Right shoe of the pair pressed hard on the toe nail and by the 30th right toe swelled up. A month old pair of shoes to run a marathon – big mistake!

I was confident of finishing the run (in my mind, finishing was never a concern) and perhaps with a decent time as I walked up to the start line. September morning in Leh seemed less cold to have a good run in just shorts and t-shirt. Things went well until the 20th kilometer. I tend to not drink or eat anything in the first half of a marathon. I stuck to it. May be, I should have eaten something, considering my nutrition was completely off-tune in the previous week when I cycled up to Leh from Manali.

Second mistake: knowing my physical limits. My legs were fatigued from the ride, which was felt only when I got into the thick of the marathon and pushed harder. Thighs cramped unusually. In all these years of running, I have never had this situation. Past 22nd kilometer I started slowing down. However, it still felt good to go.

The next 10 rolled by, in my intent to make it a sub-4 hour finish. Here comes the third mistake – trying to push hard recklessly, all for a finish time. This pursuit from the vantage of my desk tonight looks foolish. I exhausted myself in the next 8 kilometers to 30. I can see it clearly. This exhaustion led to injuring my foot on the other side of 30. At 32nd, I was hanging down from the shoulders, earth bound. The state was unlike any I have ever experienced during a run. Dejection, disorientation and a body shorn of its vigour and vitality. Fourth mistake came soon enough in the form of an ‘energy drink’. While I do not recall the brand, it sure was not meant for me. I shouldn’t have tried it. I could feel it inside me all along and carried an extremely disagreeable feel.

Lastly, a messed up state of mind. The previous two mornings had been very grim due to personal reasons. That flowed on to the marathon morning. All is not lost when a person is physically drained. It is when the mind checks out. I firmly believe it now. Years back, I was probably in a more painful situation in Auroville marathon, physically. Yet, I was mentally strong and willed hard to see the finish line. Leh’s morning was different. My spirit, as I see now, was too low. And this was invisible, unfelt and lurking, only to get me when I needed it to fill my sails up and carry me along. It hasn’t helped me any bit to run a marathon with personal troubles raging hard in life.

I do not know how to process my failure to complete this marathon. To be honest, it got me. I hailed a support vehicle at 34th and go to the other side of finish line. I saw people smiling and cheering runners. There were friends cheering each other, congratulating each other, shaking hands, hugging and taking photos, feeling happy with their effort and finish. I steered through all of that indifferently, to find a cab back to room. Time turned into a tunnel from the time I got on to the support vehicle and until I stood under the shower. I felt miserable and defeated. This was for another, perhaps harder realization – that I lacked the ability to take a failure well! I realize now that even the most terrible of failures in school, college or in career wouldn’t have taught me to take a failure well, which running has.

Rest of the day went in silence. Other mates at the guesthouse asked me to join them in playing cards. I learnt playing a new card game – ‘carbo’ that evening. Later, we had dinner together, seven of us. In the silence of Leh’s night, I readied my cycle again and packed the bags for a very early start to the bus station and three days of drive down to Delhi.

Ladakh marathon has sent me back with a tempered confidence. The predictability and comfortable surety of runs (that I always participated in) has been torn apart. As though, it is sending me away to know myself better and if willing to take unpredictability of life well, then to return again.

 

 

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Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’