Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Scuffed shoes and an unending road…

One of the questions buzzing in my head the day before the Marathon was – could a city with a hugely strained infrastructure pull off an International Marathon, which entailed cordoning off a whole section of roads for over 7 hours? Granted that it was a Sunday morning, but hey, this IS the city that never sleeps! So were the city officials up to the task?

I found out in the wee hours of Sunday, 15th February, when our cab hit the first blockade near Metro Cinema. Elaborate security was in place. Police vans were patrolling the limits. Our baffled cabbie asked, “Kya ho raha hai?”

I knowledgably rattled off, ‘Aaj daud hai, Azad Maidan se Worli tak’. He turned around, gave me a sneering, ‘subah-subah-koi-mila-nahin’ look and drove off.

At Azad Maidan

Despite the early hour and the soporific pipe music that was playing on the PA system, the atmosphere at Azad Maidan was electric. Runners were warming up, others were chilling out. Some looked superbly fit; others, a little soft around the middle. The dichotomy was most visible in the gear. Nike, Adidas and Reebok logos flashed prominently on some physiques, whereas others sported simple vests and unbelievably, canvas shoes!

But the most respectful looks were reserved for those with yellow running bibs – the Full Marathon runners.

P, M, my brother and I – running buddies since the last month – were relieved when at 7 o’ clock, runners were asked to assemble at the starting point. “If we start on time, we’ll be able to finish before the sun gets unbearable”, was M’s logic.

The air was taut with tension. With over 3,500 excitable runners together, the shoving and jostling increased with every passing minute. It was impossible to see what was going on ahead. But the moment the blue and green helium balloons soared up into the sky, and the helicopter whirred overhead, we knew it was THE moment!

… and GO!

The throngs set off like it was a 100-metre dash! Only our reminders to each other to ‘start slow’ prevented us from getting sucked into that pace. 10 minutes into the run, at Flora Fountain, the crowds had thinned considerably, giving us ample room to run at our own pace.

Incredible sights and sounds

The excited bellows of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ were soon drowned out by galloping footsteps. At Fountain, a brass band in full regalia, struck up an invigorating tune. Just the right note on which to begin a marathon! And for the encore, two more brass bands livened up the long stretch on Marine Drive. Seriously, whoever thought of this deserved a medal.

No star athletes were in sight, but nevertheless, there were interesting people around. A middle aged runner assumed the role of cheerleader, and started clapping enthusiastically, attempting to get the somnolent gawkers to follow suit.

I was a bit startled to find myself next to a leering Osama. It turned out to be mask worn backwards by a runner, with comical effect. And if Osama was there, could his nemesis be far behind? One pony tailed runner had a poster tacked to his back which had Bush’s mugshot with ‘World’s No. 1 terrorist’ emblazoned on it.

‘Bankers do it… with interest’, read one T-shirt. Some sported corporate logos, some promoted a cause. The sponsors made their presence felt on every possible surface. But the simplest yet most practical message came from The Clean Mumbai Foundation. ‘Mind the banana peel’ – runners were cautioned!

And speaking of peels, exactly WHERE was all the litter which made Mumbai famous? Where were the hawkers, the jaywalkers, the polluting traffic? Any WHY OH WHY couldn’t they be locked there everyday?!

Up the hill

The turnoff towards Babulnath signalled the end of good times. Two ominous slopes lay ahead. This was where runners were separated from the also-ran. A loud cheer went up. Was it for us, I wondered hopefully. But no, it was for the marathoners who’d completed ¾ the distance in the time we took to cover 1/4! Just a glimpse at their sinewy limbs and powerful strides was both humbling and inspiring.

Since M, P and I had run on this slope before, we’d planned to go easy on the uphill and then zip down the incline. But a minor cramp in my right side meant I couldn’t charge downhill. A fierce ache was also issuing from my right ankle. It was difficult to drink water on the run and stopping wasn’t an option. So I turned my focus on the Worli flyover – the halfway mark. Just get there, and the worst will be over, I encouraged myself.

Only 11 kms to go!

Turned out I was wrong about the worst. Two treacherous slopes awaited us on our return too. I gasped and wheezed up Peddar Road, past many a runner who thought it saner to walk. This is what you’ve trained for, I reminded myself.

Exhaustion was setting in and I was running out of morale-boosting strategies. That’s where the wonderful people of Mumbai chipped in. A group of women stood singing, ‘Hum honge kamyaab’. A guy butted in, singing, ‘Hum hai kamyaab’. And I suddenly felt incredibly recharged. Another person was holding aloft a yellow poster which read, ‘Don’t worry that you may loose (sic) because you have already won our admiration.’ People called out, ‘Good going 3546! Keep running!’ Then of course, there was the promised positive energy from friends all over. That kept the momentum going for a long long while.

The last push

Back onto Marine Drive and the sun was straight in our faces. It was going to be a very long 7 kilometres. Another loud cheer went up. A vehicle with a timer whizzed by, followed closely by a runner. The timer showed 2:00 hours and the runner, I assumed, was leading in the marathon. Even after 35 kilometres, he looked indefatigable.

My legs and lungs had settled into a weary rhythm. Water wouldn’t quench anymore. Most people were walking, some limping and a handful were determinedly running. I was shocked to see some running barefoot. Was there no limit to the amount people would push themselves??

Maybe it was exhaustion or delirium, but I couldn’t spot any familiar landmark which would indicate we were nearing the turnoff to Churchgate. I asked P, ‘Have we reached Marine Drive?’, and he nodded confidently (and I later realised, ignorantly as well.) But that kept me going until we reached the actual turnoff.

Home run

The brass band was whipping up a frenzy, which worked better than steroids could at that moment. Churchgate, Eros and Fountain whizzed by. The roads were almost empty now and far (too far!) in the distance, my eyes finally picked out the FINISH LINE!

500 metres from mecca, and a tidal wave called ‘The Dream Run’ was unleashed. The marathon runners were swept to the fringes while the 15,000+ mob swarmed both sides of the street. Thankfully, we missed the worst, as we sprinted the last 100 metres on our last legs, literally. Relief overshadowed triumph when P & I first stepped onto the electronized mats under the timer. 2:34:02! M had completed it 3 minutes earlier, while my brother clocked an unbelievable 1:57. Better than our estimated time of 2:45, we exulted.


Headed back home, our cabbie grumbled as he had to negotiate through some back lanes of Mumbai. When another cabbie asked him what all the fuss was about, he launched a full invective with, ‘Arre, daud tha. Akkha Mumbai bhag raha tha. Kya maloom kyon?’ My brother and I exchanged grins.

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