Running is mostly a solitary exercise, yet you are never actually alone during running because with you are your thoughts. One of my research colleagues says he thinks about his research ideas and refines them while jogging. I have not been able to do that, and that is probably because I run instead of jog. Technically, they say jogging becomes running when you are moving at a pace faster than 9 minutes a mile, but to me the difference is more psychological than being about speed. In last year’s IU-Mini Marathon, my pace was slower than 9 minutes a mile, yet I would consider myself to have run and not jogged in the race because it was my goal to do the best I could. Without digressing any further from my topic, I would like to say that thoughts, productive or not, give you company during running. I personally have liked this companionship so much that I don’t even prefer listening to music while running despite music being an important part of my life.
Like always, my thoughts didn’t leave me alone yesterday while I was running the IU-Mini Marathon 2007. Initially, I had another companion – a colleague who too had done the Mini last year and had in fact finished faster than me by 3 minutes, but for the major part I ran only with thoughts as my companion. Thoughts get stronger once you get challenged. I remember getting doubts of being able to finish within 1 hour 45 minutes, the target I had set for myself. The doubts intensified when men and women much older than me overtook me with ease. But since my last 5K, I had learned to attenuate these doubts by focusing only on myself and not comparing myself with others. When you compare, you tend to push yourself too hard, not realizing that it is not sustainable over long races. That is the reason I didn’t get psyched up even when one of my older professors overtook me at about the second mile. Running long distance races is about knowing your strengths and limitations. “Never run faster than the speed you had trained at,” is my motto for the first half of the race. Even then I doubted I’ll be able to sustain that pace. Between the 11th and 12th mile, I was so tired I felt it will be great if I can just finish the race without walking. I dragged myself. A short petite old woman who had been running beside me during the previous two miles was still running. So, I said to myself, “If she can, why can’t I?” “I’m sure she must be in as much pain as I am, yet she is still running and not giving up.” Such a thought is comparison with others’ abilities and performances, yet I encouraged it because it helped me moving forward. At about half a mile from the finish line, it felt like I couldn’t run anymore, and so I started walking. But just after a few steps I felt so guilty, that I had to get on my feet. I remember then thinking about the poor fighting spirit which many Indian sportsmen had been accused of. I felt ashamed I was giving up. So I ran. Another racer – a tall white young man with a silver colored T-shirt is all I remember of him – had just overtook me. I determined myself to overtake him. The fellow wouldn’t give up and we both sprinted towards the finish line. About 100 meters before the finish line I got cramps on both my calf muscles, but I still ran like a mad man. There was no way I could give up now even if it meant dropping on the ground. There must have been a lot of cheering at the finishing line (people are very kind; they have been cheering the racers all throughout the race), but I don’t remember hearing any as we approached the finish line. We crossed the finish line together with my competitor probably crossing it a 100th of a second faster than me. I probably had lost the sprint to my fellow racer, but I was not unhappy. Neither did it bother me that I had not been able to finish within my target time. At 1 hour 52 minutes, I had overshot it by 7 minutes but I had still bettered my time from last year by 8 minutes. As I limped to collect my finisher’s medal and drink some water, I remember thinking “This will be my last race,” the same thought that had pervaded me after finishing the tough IU-mini course last year. But unlike last time, there was no feeling of exhilaration that accompanied it, probably because completing a half-marathon was not a first time anymore. I limped around for a while looking for the guy who had given me tough competition during the last leg of the race. I wanted to thank him for having challenged me but I couldn’t find him in the sea of white Americans everywhere. I went home after a while, and called my dad (He is a runner, who started running a few years ago and has won medals at many city and state level 5Ks in India) to let him know about the results. He was so proud, it overwhelmed me. All the pain, all the effort was now all worth it. I was mentally ready to do such races again, and rekindled my dream of doing a full marathon.
Later in the day, when they posted the official results on the website I learnt that I had beat my professor by 12 minutes and my colleague, who had finished faster than me last time, by 25 minutes. He probably was out of shape this time, but I still had got a small private victory. The biggest victory though was to not giving up and racing till the end. In the larger perspective of things, that’s all that matters. I have wondered before “What do people achieve running marathons and ultra-marathons, stretching their bodies beyond limits of endurance?” After all stretching your body beyond a point causes more harm to the body than benefits. Now I think I know the answer. The body pain fades after few days of a race, but the mental strength one gains by challenging oneself stays forever. To some people this matters a lot.