The early morning august air was heavy and humid. The sun was yet to come out and darkness still enveloped all around. A gust of chill wind swept through, attenuating the undercurrent of tension among the crowd which had gathered on the wide road. Not everyone was tensed though. There was also a sense of festivity among some of them. Once could see groups of people meeting and greeting each other, talking to each other in animated manner, performing some kind of tribal rituals, having fun, and generally preparing for something that was about to start.
Beside the wide road, there was a pandal over which some people had assembled. Light and music were arranged. The glow of the blue-green lights cast a soothing magical charm over it. The rhythmic beat of the music induced an atmosphere of hypnotic trance. Some people were dancing just below it. There were announcements being made from over the stage. I found myself in midst of what seemed like a celebration of some sorts. But I was lost in a sea of people. There were many happy people, tense people, young people, old people, and people of all types and of all stripes. Among them I was searching for any familiar face to start a conversation with.
This was the day that I had been waiting for. This was the day that I was preparing to meet, over the last six months. And this day, there I was, standing alone, afraid and uncertain if I could make it or not. I would be lying if I tell that I was not tense. In fact I was quite apprehensive. A sliver of fear had stabbed into me. And that was all the more reason that I wanted to talk to someone desperately. I had to dispel that fear. I was attempting to do something which I never had done before. I was there to prove something to myself. I was there to keep a promise that I had made to myself few months back. And I was not willing to let myself down at this last hour.
Unable to spot any familiar face, I embarked upon surveying the lay of the land. There was a park besides the road where several tents and stalls were put up. In the dim light, I could see frenetic activity going on. In front of some of the stalls, there were people lined up in queues waiting for something. Others were huddled in groups doing some drills. Some people were alone talking to themselves under their breath in some kind of a self-talk, probably trying to please the spirits of the other world to help them in their pursuit. Others were sprinting and stopping and then sprinting again. Most of the people being quite busy and self-absorbed, did not notice my presence among them.
"Hi Braja", suddenly someone called out from within the crowd. I was surprised to hear my name and turned back. Kishore was there with a group of his friends. Instantly, I felt a bit relaxed. We exchanged greetings and I joined their group. There were 2 others with him who were there for the same purpose as I was. We discussed our plans. In a few minutes of discussion with them, all my fear and misapprehension disappeared. I regained back my confidence and was raring to go for my dream.
A little more than a year back, I was a fat and lazy couch potato. But, I had resolved to change that and took to running. On 26th of January this year, I ran a 10K successfully. Swamped with the feel-good endorphins after the race, I had decided and promised myself to participate in a half-marathon and finish it with panache. I chalked out a meticulous plan and strived to follow the plan religiously. I was quite successful in being able to stick to my plan till July. In July my confidence levels were high. My fitness was optimum. I was good to go. But over the last one and half months, something unexpected came up. As a result, my training suffered. Though I managed to run a couple of times a week, I could feel that my conditioning was going down. Having invested so much time and effort, I knew I had to start. I could not let all of it go to waste. And also I wanted to finish and finish with panache. But, I seemed to have lost the confidence that I had earlier. An annoying voice in my head was talking incessantly and tormenting me of not being prepared enough. That was the reason I was tensed.
Back with the group, the demon of apprehension receded back to some corner of my mind. I got busy in the light banter and warm-up exercises, exchanging tips from experienced runners, looking with awe at the elite runners and generally commenting on the scene around. We spent the next hour or so warming up for the run while the sky cleared up a bit and the darkness of the pre-dawn was making way for a cloudy morning.
The Airtel Hyderabad half-marathon is a grueling 21 KM route starting at Necklace road, going over the Khairatabad fly over, through the Rajbhawan road, and again taking the Punjagutta flyover to Banjara hills road and then through Jubilee hills to Madhapur from where it went to Gachibowli and culminated in the Balayogi stadium. Anyone familiar with the topography of Hyderabad would know that it is a tough route. Banjara hills and Jubilee hills, two of the most posh localities in the city, are home to undulating wide roads and rolling hills. Couple them with the killer flyovers on the route; it would make this course a really challenging one even for an experienced marathoner. Though mindful of the challenge ahead everyone was still eagerly awaiting for the gun to start the race.
It was announced that the race will start in a few minutes and people started to assemble near the start point. The faster ones took their spot towards the front. Lesser mortals like us stood behind in the crowd so as not to be pushed and shoved by faster runners. There was a countdown and then the race started. People around me were just walking lazily. I realized that unless people in the front move out, it will be difficult for us to start to run. So, I also walked slowly, allowing others to start running so that there will be enough space for everyone to start running. It took me almost 2 minutes just to cross the start line. And I was still walking. I was not in any hurry as were most people who were walking along with me. None of those walking along with me were in for winning the race. It was a race that each was running against his own self. Maybe everyone who was participating in this run also had made a promise to their own self, which they wanted to keep. Otherwise, what mad person would pull him out of bed at an ungodly hour in the early morning, drive for 20 KMs or so from his residence to reach the start point, and then keep running for a punishing 21 or 42k in a lazy Sunday morning?
Slowly the crowd broke into a jog. The ones in the front had dispersed a bit now and there was more leg room for the ones in the behind to jockey around. I also started to fall in the rhythm. The slow jog gradually became a brisk jog and after some time, almost everyone was in a run. In a few minutes, we were at the base of the Khairatabad flyover when someone running beside me remarked to look up at the flyover. When I looked up, I could see a sea of runners sweeping over the flyover. The sight was something to notice. Though the Khairatabad flyover posed the first threat to the runners, everyone was full of energy and could take it pretty easily. The run continued onto the Rajbhawan road. There was a water station and I was not feeling thirsty and did not want to stop for a drink. I kept running. I looked around and saw many people who had come out of their homes. Some were staring at us, unable to fathom what kind of madness had taken over these few thousands running amok. Some of them understood our passion and were cheering at us and encouraging us to forge ahead.
When I was pulling up the Punjagutta flyover, I could feel a mild pain in my left leg. Seemed like a minor muscle cramp. I ignored that and pressed ahead. In Banjara hills I came across the second water station. I stopped for a few seconds, had a sip of an energy drink to quench my thirst, and pushed off. By that time, I had gotten into the groove and started enjoying the run. The sun was still not out. We had covered almost 5k by now. Some runners had started to stop and walk on the way. I could hear another runner running ahead of me who cheering and encouraging others. I got up to him. He was a small built man with thin but strong legs. He was wearing a white runners’ shirt and shorts with running shoes. “Hi”, I said. He acknowledged. Looking at his face I realized he must be a senior person. I asked him, “Sir, how old are you?” He gave me a cold look as if I had insulted him. He did not tell anything. I thought I must re-phrase my question. I asked him again – “Sir, how young are you” – 59 he said. I was amazed. He was 59 and was able to run 5 km in 30 minutes. I congratulated him for his perseverance and he wished me luck. Yes, I needed loads of that!
I was pushing on fine in the race, just near the KBR Park, when I heard a gunshot. And then, like a three dimensional net moving in the sky with a will and purpose of its own, hundreds of pigeons took to the sky in a big swarm and covered the entire morning sky. They all went around several times creating a maze of interesting shape in the sky. It was another sight to behold. With all these scenes, my leg pain had disappeared and I again was on a roll.
I had almost crossed the 10k mark somewhere between Jubilee hills and Madhapur when a light drizzle started. Unmindful of the same, I kept running. So did the other runners. By the time I was on the way to Gachibowli from Hitec City, the rain picked up pace. My sweat drenched body almost took bath in the rain. It was quite a pleasant experience to run in the rain. By the time I crossed the 15 km mark, I was pretty confident that I could easily go on running like this for any distance.
There was a long flyover, the last big challenge at Gachibowli. I could sense tiredness was taking over. My legs were begging me to stop and take a walk. But I had a plan for myself. I had planned that if ever I stop, I will stop at a water or aid station. I will not stop or walk anywhere in between unless I am feeling so bad that I would fall down. Somehow I kept on at it and managed to cross over to the downward slope side of the flyover. I did not know if I was feeling hungry or not, but when I saw one volunteer offering bananas, I grabbed one and ata it while in the run, thinking that it will give some energy to me. Someone told me 19k is done. The rain had stopped. I was talking to myself that it is only 2k more and that I would be able to do it easily. But my pace had come down and my running was more like a jog than a run. Every minute, a part of me was thinking of stopping and walking, while another part urged me not to. I heeded the second advice.
It was almost over when I trudged into the stadium gate. I knew I had almost reached home, but not yet. The run around the stadium itself, though hardly about 1 km, seemed endless. I felt as if I did not have any energy left and have to walk in the last mile. There were only a few people ahead of me. I looked at them and saw them running. I decided to continue. Thankfully, I could hear some music wafting and people cheering. I was making way into the red running track in the stadium. I could see the crowd and people at the finish line. All of a sudden, all my fatigue vanished and I picked up fresh steam. I ran with all the force using my hand and driving my legs hard to a stylish finish. And then I could hear an announcement– “A very energetic runner is just coming in”. I finished in 2 hours 22 minutes and few seconds.
Someone put the finisher’s medal on me. I was feeling jubilant. But at the same time, I was also thoughtless. My mind was empty. I kept running for some more time. Then I remembered that old voice. I tried to find the demon in my mind that was tormenting me in the early morning. I could not find that. Somewhere along the way, probably, it jumped out of my mind and took shelter in a lone tree hollow along the road. While doing my stretches and cool down, I put the soul of the demon to rest.
Post run, I was famished. Brunch was good. I waited for others to finish. One by one, I could see known faces tumbling out of the crowd. Some had finished earlier. Some finished later. There was no competition with anyone. Everyone was happy that they had finished. They had been able to keep their own promise. So was I.