Confessions of a Serial Marathon Runner

(Akshay Jaitly is a runner who supports his family by practicing Law)

It's just before 7:00 am in the "A" pen in the starting area of the 2014 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). The elites have started their race a few minutes ago and we will be the next lot to be flagged off, just past the hour mark.  Runners look worriedly around, sizing each other up. Others try to zone out and collect their last-minute thoughts, perhaps pondering race strategy or visualizing themselves running strongly out on the course.

I'm cracking nervous jokes with my running mates Himmat, Dave and Sher, and my childhood friend Nish. I introduce myself to Dave's friend Eve, a petite English girl, who is warding off the cold in a soon-to-be-discarded spa bathrobe, looking surreally like a blond geisha in the early morning mist. Pritam, who I met online recently on Strava, the social media app for runners and cyclists, comes across with a broad grin to say hello, looking magnificent in his peaked cap and twin gold earrings.

Most people around look lean and fit, the result of weeks and probably years of training.

So what on earth is a 47-year-old lawyer and father of four doing up at the crack of dawn on a cold Sunday morning at the start line of a 21.1-kilometre race? Why am I not curled up in bed having a lie-in, hoping that my daughters don't come rushing in to drag me out of my slumber?

Almost exactly four years to the day, my friend Ritin, in the 2010 version of ADHM, arrived in good nick at the 19-kilometre mark where I was waiting to cheer him and other friends on. As he turned on to Lodhi Road and came past, I couldn't contain myself. Jumping over the barrier, I proceeded to run along with him for a bit and as I did so, the following question popped into my mind - "Why on earth am I not running in this race myself?"

Now before you rush to conclusions, this was not the manifestation of an existential interlude or a mid-life crisis of the sort that has (happily) seen tens of thousands of members of the millennial Indian upper middle classes take to running, cycling, adventure sports and lots else to deal with their expanding midsections and similarly bulging bank balances.

I'm dealing with (or ignoring) my own mid-life crisis in other ways, but that's the subject of another piece.

Nah, I am one of those slightly rarer species for whom running has always been a sport, like tennis or cricket. I ran at university and continued running through my mid-20s and into my mid-30s. After deciding to get healthier in 2002, including kicking a bit of a smoking habit, I got back into proper running and training and ran my first marathon in London in 2003. Further marathons in Paris in 2004 and Berlin in 2005 followed.

Then, gloriously and utterly disruptively, twin daughters arrived in late 2005. Running, as did various other things in life, took a thorough beating as my wife and I tried to handle these two little creatures that so completely took over our worlds. Good things come to good people they say and, I kid you not, another set of twin daughters descended upon us in 2008.  Life, as you might imagine, ceased to exist in any previously recognizable form.

The next couple of years passed in a blur of nappies, feed bottles and baby upchuck on the one hand, and birthday parties, school runs and bedtime stories on the other. And some work too, somewhere in between.

Until that November day in 2010, when I tempted fate by going to see Ritin and another friend, Hari, run that race. The bug that had remained latent for five years reared its ugly head and within a few weeks, I'd started running again. After a bit of fitness returned, I found myself a training schedule online and in the autumn of 2012, perhaps making up for lost time, I ran the Amsterdam Marathon, followed by Rotterdam in 2013 and Boston and Frankfurt earlier this year. The disease was well and truly back.

As we are let out of the starting pen and towards the start line with the digital clock above, a gentle jog breaks out and there we are, at the actual start line. 3 minutes to go and people check their GPS running watches, making sure they have a satellite signal. I retie my laces for the third time and try and focus.

People who run long-distance do so for a variety of reasons. Some have shrugged off years of unhealthy living and have taken to running to get fit. Others might use running to deal with hardship - drugs, depression or the death of a loved one. Yet others are collecting money for charity - big races such as ADHM and its Mumbai cousin, the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, are amongst the biggest fundraising events in India. Then they might join a running group or start running with friends. Someone then mentions entering a race and what could be better than a world-class half-marathon at your doorstep?

Things are slightly different for me and a small but growing band of more competitive runners. We run because it's our sport, we love to do it and we enjoy challenging ourselves. We are serious amateurs, whose objective is neither to complete our first race or run in the Olympics, but to train for, target and do our best in two or three races in a year.

We train hard, alone or in groups and clubs, usually between three and six days a week. We do easy runs, long runs, fartleks, intervals and tempo runs. We wake up early to run, we run at lunchtime, sometimes even taking to the dreaded treadmill. Our training imposes on the time of our friends and families; we get snappy with terrible nerves before important races and eat huge amounts of carbohydrates in the 2-3 days before a longer race.

The gun goes off and the race begins. The "DLF Corporate Champions", people running the race in corporate teams, some for charity, start just ahead of us and (sorry!) I gently elbow a few slower runners out of the way as we negotiate a tight curve just after the start. Himmat, who is pacing me, is at my side and we set a strong pace - 4:05 per kilometre - for the first couple.

The cool weather and flat course are helping me maintain an average pace of around 4:07 over the first half of the race. Himmat drops back after 12k as planned and then I'm on my own.  Kilometres 14-18 are a battle and I've slowed a tiny bit, but am just about managing to keep a decent pace. I know that a large group of family and friends are at the 19 -kilometre mark at the exact same spot where I illegally jumped on the course 4 years ago and I tell myself that I must look as good as I can, particularly for my daughters.

As we hit Lodhi Road, the support group appears. My daughters are waving banners I can barely read and I'm past them in the blink of an eye. Seeing them gives me just the boost that I need, and I pick up the pace a tiny bit as I go up a little slope. One left turn and we are into the last kilometre. As I run down towards Nehru Stadium, a fully grown man shouts out, utterly unhelpfully "Come on uncle, you can do it!" Resisting the urge to stop and give him a good talking to, I push through the pain, summon the last bit of power in my legs, take the final left turn into the Nehru Stadium complex and finish in 1:27:20, my best time in a half-marathon for 21 years.

Later, as we dissect the race over beer and kebabs, the mood is euphoric. Lots of endorphins whizzing about and most of my friends have got personal bests so it is a very satisfying end to a tough 4-month training cycle. No more early mornings, aching limbs and schedule juggling to fit in a run - at least until training for the Boston Marathon begins in a few weeks' time...

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