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A Dream Realised

I can now cross off one of the few items I have on my wish-list or ‘things-I-must-do-before-I-die’ – that is, take part in a real marathon. Yes, I took part in the Tokyo Marathon 2010 last Sunday. Not the full marathon – that is too much at my age. I’ve not yet put it on my wish-list. But, who knows 😉

It was only the 10km part of the Tokyo Marathon, which I completed in just over an hour. Maybe nothing much to boast of for the pros and the sportsman-types, but for me it was a culmination of a dream – something I’ve strived for and worked hard at during the past seven years or so.

All those early morning (and some late evening) jogs finally paying off and culminating in that precise moment when I crossed the finishing line was something I will not forget. Though there were no TV cameras, or for that matter any type of camera, recording the precise, ecstatic, moment I crossed the line, I can recall and savor the exact moment even now. And I know it will remain one of the highlights of my blessed God-given life.

I knew from the moment I awoke at 6 in the morning that all the predictions of bad weather and rain had come true. I lay awake for some time just taking in the fact that the Big Day had finally come and listened to the rain lashing against our bedroom window. I felt like a small kid on Christmas morning thinking of the presents Santa would have left around the Christmas tree the night before as I finally got up to dress for my first ‘marathon’ and have a leisurely breakfast before leaving for Shinjuku where the race would start at 9:10. I peeked through the window and saw the steady drizzle and overcast sky in the early morning light and thought of the first time I started seriously jogging all those years ago.

I think it was the winter of 2002 when I first seriously thought of taking up jogging. We were then in Maputo, Mozambique where the seasons are opposite what we are normally used to because it is in the southern hemisphere and winter there falls during our summer season in the northern hemisphere. So it was sometime in March-April 2002 that I decided to try jogging. A beautiful park overlooking the Indian Ocean just below our apartment which was usually full of early morning joggers was a big factor in my decision. Plus the sight of all those fit and beautiful joggers who seemed to go on and on without ever getting tired.

Anyone who has ever known me will testify to the fact that I have never ever been the sportsman-type. As a child growing up in Sielmat, where everyone played football, I was always the last person anyone would pick for their side. Though I love football and tried my best, I could never master the dribble or any of the moves that could have made a ‘captain’ pick me for his side. On the few occasions some friend took pity and picked me, I was so pathetic at the game that I would soon be substituted. So I remained a spectator at most of the games. This has continued throughout my life – the only place you will be sure to find me during any sport or games is in front of the idiot box or in the spectator stands. The only sport I have a little skill at and which I played regularly was badminton and, to a small extent, volleyball. But, looking back, I sometimes have the feeling that the only reason I got to regularly play badminton with my friends back then was simply the fact that the rackets belonged to us.

And so, except for the occasional game of badminton and volleyball during my school and college days, I never really played any real sports. Even the occasional games came to a complete halt once I left home for my job, got married and our kids came along. Having been born with an excellent appetite and marrying the girl of my dreams who is also an excellent cook did wonders for my weight which started to slowly balloon till at one stage I tipped the scales at almost a hundred kilos just after my son was born in Morocco. But after getting back into the daily office commute and grind in Delhi, I settled back into my ‘slightly’-overweight-for-my-height/age status which I have more or less since maintained.

When I first attempted jogging, I used to get so out of breath even within the first 100m or so that I simply had to stop to catch my breath. With my irregular schedule, it took me more than a year to comfortably jog for up to a kilometer. Though I must have made a pathetic and embarrassing sight, I kept at it till the day finally came when I found myself jogging without running out of breath even as I passed the old, gnarled tree which marked the spot where I usually stopped to catch my breath. I still clearly remember the incredible feeling of well-being and excitement as I realized that even though I had already crossed my usual landmark and was still running, I was breathing normally and my legs were moving in a steady rhythm pounding the dirt tract. At some stage I even felt like I was out of my own body and watching this handsome, strong jogger out on his regular morning jog, casually passing lesser mortals with a slight sneer on his lips 🙂 It really felt like an epiphany of some sort, a kind of spiritual feeling which I had never experienced before. And I have been hooked ever since.

Though I knew it would take me less than 30 minutes to reach Shinjuku, I left home at 7:30 to ensure that I reached well in time. It was around 5 degrees, chilly, with an overcast sky and drizzling as I stepped outside and practically hit the ground running as I jogged down to our Metro station to catch the Toei Oeda line for Shinjuku. The metro was full of other runners, all decked out in their best running suits, excitedly chatting. As we filed out of Tocho-mae station, we came upon thousands of other excited runners checking for directions to their own allotted blocks. I joined the throng and, after making sure I was on the right track, decided to take off the extra sweatshirt which I had worn for warmth and keep it in my allotted ‘baggage bag’ which I had to deposit with Luggage Truck No. 4 that would take it to the finish line to be collected after the race.

As I came out of the station, I saw that it was still drizzling. I adjusted my cap and put up the hood of my wind-cheater below which I wore the official Tokyo Marathon tee-shirt. I looked at my watch which showed exactly 8:05am. I followed the sign for the Luggage Trucks to first deposit my ‘baggage’ and then find some shade from the rain near my starting block. Having deposited my ‘baggage’, I started looking for ‘K’ block which was my allotted starting block and finally found it, the last of the starting blocks, at least 200-300m from the start-line.

I only found out later, long after I submitted my application for the Marathon in July last year, that the starting blocks were allotted from ‘A’ for the elite runners and so on to ‘K’ for amateurs, first-timers and those who were not exactly expected to break records, according to the ‘estimated time expected to finish the race’ which every applicant had to fill in. Seeing that the maximum time given to complete the 10K race was 100 minutes, I filled in 90 minutes as it was my first race and I had never even run 10K at a stretch in my life. I was, accordingly, allotted the last starting block, ‘K’.

Though it continued to drizzle and I could feel the rain water starting to seep into my sneakers and I was starting to shiver in my tee-shirt and wind-cheater, the excitement was palpable as I made my way towards K block which was a small grass-less park now turning muddy with puddles all round. I looked at my watch which told me I still had about 45 minutes till starting time. I looked around for some shade, a tree maybe, or some structure, and found none. So I made my way towards the front of the excited pack and stood in the rain and mud like the rest. It was probably the coldest 45 minutes I have spent in Japan with the steady drizzle and more rain water seeping into my shoes every passing minute. But the excitement of being in my first marathon (ok, 10K race) and being in the midst of 35,000 excited participants more than compensated for the cold and soon enough the announcement came that the race had started and a couple of crackers exploded overhead. It seemed like ages as we slowly shuffled along with the crowd towards the starting line. Being in the last block, I made it to the start-line at exactly 9:31 and I was finally off.

With the ever-present knowledge that I was attempting to run a distance I had never done before, I started tentatively but running amidst thousands of excited runners and crowds lined up on both sides despite the steady drizzle seemed to pump in extra adrenalin into my body and I found myself picking up pace as we crossed the first kilometer. Concentrating on my run, I was surprised when I saw looming just ahead the 5km mark, which was the maximum distance I had ever run. Before the race, one of the recurring thoughts that came back again and again was of me trying to keep my pace while runners continuously passed me by. But I surprisingly found that I was able to keep my steady pace and, in fact, was passing more runners than the other way round. As I passed the 5km mark, my watch showed 10:02 and the big electronic clock showed exactly 00:52:49 which meant just over 52 minutes had passed from the official start of the race at 9:10am. A quick mental calculation told me I had done 5km in 31 minutes! At last (like a true sportsman), I now have a ‘personal best’ time of sort, I thought.

And so, just as I had passed that old, gnarled tree which served as my landmark when I first started jogging all those years ago in Maputo, I passed the 5km mark without stopping and continued on. Except for a slight pause to get some drinks at the drinks table which came up just after the 5km mark, I pushed on almost as fresh as when I started. The tiredness in my legs started to creep in as we passed Iidabashi and approached the 8km mark on a slight climb, approaching the Imperial Palace. By the time I was running past the Imperial Palace with the Finish Line in Hibya Park just round another bend in the road, I started to feel the full effect of what I was doing as I felt my leg muscles starting to protest. I realized I had reached the stage where I simply had to put one foot after another and tell my poor, faithful, tiring legs that it was just a matter of a few more minutes to the finish line.

For the last few hundred metres I hardly noticed the waving crowd as I concentrated on reaching the finish line – and making a last sprint as I crossed the finish line. Which I did, and was rewarded by some clapping from the crowd. My watch showed 10:37 and the big electronic clock showed the time from the race start as exactly 01:28:11 when I crossed the finish line. Which meant I had finished the race in 67 minutes, or more precisely, 67 minutes 11 seconds or 1 hour 7 minutes 11 seconds, counting from the moment I crossed the start line at 9:31.

Another recurring thought I had before the race was of me collapsing during the race or even as I crossed the finish line. But, happily, nothing of the sort happened and, except for my tired legs, I felt as fresh as ever as I walked towards the race officials waiting to guide me to the ‘reception’ area. As I walked to one of the race volunteers to have my computer chip (which had my details and recorded my exact race time) taken off, my happiness was quite obvious in my smile. As she gave me my chip and pointed me towards where I could exchange it for my medal, she gave me the sweetest smile and congratulated me. I gave her my best Japanese-style bow and simply said, ‘Arigato’ but she was already congratulating the next finisher, little realizing that had she looked my way she would have seen the happiest person in Tokyo at that moment.

Though there was no formal medal ceremony or opportunity for me to climb the medal podium, I did have a real proper medal hung around my neck by a bonafide race official when I went to the next table to cash in my chip. As I went to retrieve my ‘baggage’, my medal proudly hung around my neck, I passed by happy, fellow runners and more smiling race officials who handed me a towel emblazoned ‘Finisher Tokyo Marathon 2010’ along with a bag containing a chocolate bar, some fruits and a bottle of water.

It was still drizzling with specks of snow starting to mingle with the raindrops as I walked towards the exit of Hibya Park to go home. I started to tuck in my medal into my wind-cheater but then thought, ‘Why not?’ and with it dangling on my neck and the brightly colored ‘Finisher’ towel draped over my shoulder, I walked towards Sakuradamon station for home. I proudly wore the medal all the way home on the metro. After all, I had done it. I had realized a dream.

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