At the sound of the starting gun, the crowd surges ahead, in a blur of t-shirts and limbs. The air is charged with excitement and energy. Anything seems possible.
You find yourself going faster than usual, not because your lungs allow it, but because you feel the need to. You want to be amidst the leading pack that draws raucous cheers. Elite runners appear to brazenly scoff at the 42.2 kilometers ahead of them and devour this distance in long, effortless strides. It is amazing to watch. There is a certain intensity and grace they possess that the rest of us mortals can only gawk at. You want to belong to this elite club who are kings of the cordoned-off roads. You feel a sort of kinship with them as you run over the ground they have glided over.
Somewhere midway, you are forced to slow down and listen to your own body, its limitations, strengths, and unique quirks. It tells you “Not that fast!” or“Take it easy…we can push harder at the end. We always do” Sometimes it says “Why don’t you just give up?” You brush this last thought aside and admonish yourself for allowing this “weakness” that you vowed never existed in your psyche. You aren’t satisfied. “Why can’t I go faster? Am I not good enough?” You complain that others have been dealt better cards and better genes. There are probably runners at the finish line, while you are more than 20 kilometers away, lungs burning, muscles screaming. Your legs feel like lead and your gait is unflattering. You want to “just finish”, but even that seems doubtful as you shuffle along.
You command your flagging will to submit. It does not. It writhes and twists like a freshly caught catfish, looking for a moment of weakness, so it can slip away from your grasp forever.
You have long forgotten about heroically beating runners to the finish in majestic strides, with applause ringing in your ears. Those daydreams seem to sneer at you now. An older runner over-takes you. “Where is your pride?” You lost it several kilometres ago.
The sun is unforgiving. You are alone with only your thudding heartbeat and footfalls for company. You distract yourself by counting the number of steps you take. Searing pain makes you wince with every step and yet for some ridiculous, unearthly reason, you keep going. Images of passersby and aid stations dissolve around you, like wisps of smoke in the morning sky.
Suddenly, it dawns on you! “You have actually beaten quite a few people and have not stopped running all this time. Isn’t that something?” You’ve realise that you have covered 35 kilometres without giving up. Just 7 kilometres more! This realisation makes you feel better. Memories come flooding back. The first time you picked up running shoes, your first ten kilometer run, the feeling of exhilaration in your new found strength, the 3 a.m. alarm, the barking dogs, that horrible knee injury, the people who called you crazy… A wry smile creases your face. “You have come a long way haven’t you?”
Feet keep pounding. It isn’t as excruciating now. You are at peace with yourself. You look back at the winding road, you have passed. Hundreds of runners run behind you, each absorbed in his or her own battle. A runner beside you collapses in exhaustion. A cold shiver runs down your spine at the thought of giving up. You keep pushing yourself, muttering words of encouragement between rasps of laboured breaths. “Almost there… 2 more kilometres to go…Don’t give up…Not now.”
Soon the finish line is in sight. The Kenyan athlete, who won the race, is probably checking in at the airport or is probably at Nairobi already. It doesn’t matter. You respect the journey YOU have made. People helped you, encouraged you and cheered you on, but at the finish line, the emotions are personal and you hardly hear the applause.
As you collect your medal and come back to your senses, unbridled joy and relief course through your body along with a dull, surprisingly comforting pain. You are reminded of how amazing the gift of life is and what the human spirit is capable of achieving.
You have conquered more than just a distance.
Joshua Karunakaran is a freelance writer based in Chennai