When it comes to exercise, you might call me unambitious. My workout routine for the last few years has been 30-minute runs in Lodi Gardens (that’s roughly two rounds of the entire garden), three times a week. Never more, sometimes less.
This year everything changed when I decided to train for the half-marathon. My friend Adarsh, a veteran of three half-marathons, gave me a training sheet and I made myself tell enough people so I’d be too embarrassed to back out. Then I spent an afternoon buying the coolest running gear I could find (pink!) and I was all revved up to start.
The training follows a simple principle – do about three to four runs a week, and on the last day, do a long run and increase that every week. I had been so happy doing my two rounds. Why, I’d even found it a little hard. Could I break my lakshman rekha and do three rounds? I did. Then the next week I did four, the week after, five. Suddenly two seemed laughable.
But the longer the runs got, the more painful they became. I’m not talking about stamina, that’s easy to build up if you stick to it. But sticking to it is the problem. When you go round and round the Lodi, your mind wanders before it stills. And you have to do this at least three times a week. A trainer smiled at my enthusiasm and said ominously, wait and see. Her words haunted me. Luckily the body went on, carried by its own momentum. And the harder it got, the more satisfied I felt. All physical exercise needs pain to be satisfying, I think.
Soon my training took over my life. There were invitations I refused when the training got longer. As I got towards the end, I began to sleep early, and hardest of all, I went off drink. But it’s difficult to be good. There were mornings I didn’t wake up, a holiday I extended, and I also carelessly pulled a muscle and had to go for physiotherapy.
So on the day of the marathon, I didn’t feel completely prepared. I got up at 5.30, slightly nervous but it all changed when I got to Nehru Park with Adarsh. The place was like a carnival. There were countless people – young professionals wearing their company T-shirts, painting the tricolour on their faces, waving their flags. Many were much older; some were foreigners and there were more men than women. I even spotted some runners in jeans, shirts and loafers, looking more ready for the office than for a run.
Then it began and I was swept away by the rush of it all. There were people cheering, bhangra bands, a helicopter whizzing over our heads. The route was beautiful. The air of festivity remained as friends joked with each other, waved at the crowds, talked on their mobile phones.
I was in control in the early part. I made sure I didn’t run too fast, a common mistake among runners, and found myself enjoying the morning, running down the empty wide roads of Lutyens’ Delhi. But by the time I hit 14 km, I was tired – I had trained on dirt tracks and running on the hard tarmac took it out of me. The festive spirit had also dissolved and an air of quiet intent had taken over. By 16-17 km, runners were beginning to flail.
A girl started walking ahead of me. Around me, runners were urging other runners to continue. I nearly caved in at about 18 km and started to walk. My legs were tight, my lower back ached and my mind screamed at me to give up. A middle-aged gentleman admonished me. Keep running, he said. Don’t stop. His words gave me wings and I finished, taking about 2:25 to complete the run (21 km).
I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. So were the runners beside me. We walked back to the holding area to collect our finishers’ medals and refreshments, slowly, each step costing us a little. As we stretched and ate our apples, we exchanged notes and congratulated one another. I may have run an hour and a half behind the winners but I felt like a hero. So did everyone around me.
Adarsh had completed his run much before me and had left already. We talked on the phone later that day. Next time, he said, let’s do the Mumbai half-marathon, okay? I said yes.
— The author is chief editor at Random House