The Race That Never Was : By Brijesh Gajera

| Thursday, May 28, 2015 | |



It was the day in summer I wait for every year. This was going to be my 8th consecutive participation in the Bangalore 10K, starting from its inception. In 2008, I got into running when this event was held first time in the Garden City and I have never missed this race since then.

The rain wreaked havoc the previous day and I expected the Kanteerva Stadium and campus to be slushy. To my happy surprise, it was quite clean and dry when I turned up at the stadium early morning at 5. The organizers seemed to have worked overnight to ensure proper conditions to handle the thousands of runners. I had registered for the Corporate Challenge 10K run and my race start time was 8:20 AM but most of my training mates from PaceMakers group were running in the Open category, which was supposed to start at 6. I joined them for their warm-up routine. I wished them luck for their race but I knew that was not needed as all of them have trained hard and I was sure they would give their best to achieve their Personal Bests.

Once the runners entered the holding area inside the main stadium, I stationed myself near the exit to wait for the start. The buzz was steadily growing inside the stadium and I could feel it even outside it. Richa, wife of my friend Nitin Gupta, and Harini, sister of my friend Poornima, were only known faces in the small cheering party we managed to gather.

At the stroke of 6, the race started and we saw the lead vehicle exiting out of the stadium. Nanjundappa -one of the fastest amateur long distance runners in the country- followed closely. That was not at all surprising.  Then came the faster PaceMakers – Bobby, Coach Pani sir, Karthik, Gautham, Avinesh etc. So many familiar faces passed us in that first couple of minutes. I shouted out for everyone I knew.

The initial trickle turned into a constant stream of runners now. We started clapping to encourage them. It was impossible to recognize any particular face in that growing mass. I was looking for orange or pink t-shirts, the colors of our official PaceMakers t-shirts. I spotted a few while many went unnoticed.

I saw Rahul Bose -former Indian Rugby captain, an actor and a social activist- in the crowd. Just a few days back, he was in my office giving a talk on leadership. Someone in the audience asked him why he runs marathons. I still remember his answer. He said he loves city races in particular because they are the largest non-religious congregations in the world where people of all creeds gather to celebrate humanity. What more, there is no attempt to proselytize anyone. They come on their own. I could relate to his answer at that moment. Colorful attires, happy faces, beaming smiles were all part of this ever-growing sea of humanity.

Once the A, B and C section of runners (the sections are decided based on the qualification timings during the registration) passed by, I realized I was at a loss to recognize most of the D, E and F section runners baring a few PaceMakers. Not because there were too many of them, which they were, but because after I improved my speed and became a faster runner, I don’t get to talk to this relatively slower bunch of runners, what Chris Anderson would call the Long Tail. In my early days of less running and more walking, I had the liberty to converse with fellow runners on the run as timing was never much of a goal. But now with ever stretching goal of attaining a particular timing, I never get a chance to interact with the Long Tail which I once very much was part of.

I noticed Rohit, my cycling partner, in the F section runners. He gave a creepy and funny look when I shouted for him. His face resembled that of a child who was forced to go to school and though he was resigned to the fact that he could not get away, the resentment was still visible all over the face.

The clapping went on for more than fifteen minutes given the thousands of participants, so much so that my palms became blood red. Before they could acquire their usual hue, Nanjundappa crossed the finish line on the other end! And to think that he was not even first! The action shifted to the finish line as runners kept on coming. The joy of finishing their race and giving their best was visibly evident on their faces. For once I was glad for participating in the different category – I would have missed the exhilaration and ecstasy on their faces had I started the run with them.

Note to myself – Stop chasing PBs. Once in a while, just sit back, relax and applaud the fellow runners for their grit and unadulterated joy of running.
  
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I have improved my timing in this race every time in last seven years. Frankly I did not think I was in a good shape to achieve a personal best as the training this year did not go according to the plan. I bunked a few training sessions and could not achieve the intended pace in those I managed to finish. But as Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption would like you to believe, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. I was quietly confident that race day excitement and euphoria would carry me across the finish line with some, however miniscule, improvement over my current best of 39:57.

Finding the Corporate Challenge tent was itself a task. The volunteers themselves were not too sure about its location so I struggled to reach there. Shilpa and I did a short warm-up routine at around 7:45. Some friends from other companies were also participating so the 300 odd field of runners felt friendly.

I was planning to carry my small water bottle to avoid using the plastic bottles on the way but to my dismay I realized that there was no water refill point anywhere in the Corporate Challenge tent or near the start area. I had to dump my bottle right there unwillingly. I consumed the gel Shilpa brought for me, switched on my iPod and ready I was for the start.

RJ Pallavi started the countdown from the stage put up on the side of the starting line and off we went at 8:20 sharp. Unlike my previous Bangalore 10K races where I had to negotiate my way out of the stadium thru shoulder-to-shoulder traffic of enthusiastic runners, I easily exited the stadium without brushing shoulders with anyone. Good start. Shukran Allah, echoed my iPod, as if on the clue. I was happy and thankful for the start – my legs were moving light and fast, heart was beating rhythmically, the mind was in sync with the body. Too early in the race, I know, but it indeed was a good sign.

The first real shock of the day came the moment we reached at the entrance gate of the Kanteerva campus, some 300m from the start. The published race route indicated a right turn here on the Kasturba Road towards Chinnaswamy Stadium, but that way was fully barricaded! There were a few runners in front of me and they turned left, so I blindly followed them thinking that there was last-minute change of route. As we neared the Hudson Circle Gate of Cubbon Park, my GPS watch showed that I was running at close to 3:40 pace for a km. Gouri was standing there cheering the runners. I gave her thumbs up and continued. Just then I saw the lead runners turning back! They said that route was blocked and there was no way we could go further! When I inquired about lead vehicle, they said there was no such thing! Both the actual route and modified route were blocked! Surprises galore! I snapped myself to wake up from the nightmare but I was already awake.

Obviously this turn of events annoyed the runners a great deal. We started back towards the start line. There were no volunteers, race marshals or anyone from the organizers present along that stretch to guide us or take the stock of the situation. A few angry runners spontaneously started protesting in front of the TV crew stationed there to cover the event while about a dozen or so jumped the barricades and started running on the right route. As we reached the entrance, we saw that the race for Champions with Disability was already on the way. In one of the defining images for me for the day, all the angry runners stopped protesting and clapped for the Champions with Disability participants. They patiently waited for all of them to pass. I would be forever proud of my fellow runners for that gesture.

We entered the main stadium. Nobody in his right mind would have thought we would enter there again on the day. The finish for the elite female runners was awaited so we were led to one side. Someone who looked like part of the core organizing committee assured us that corrective steps would be taken within 5 minutes. We also asked him to bring those runners back who jumped the barricades. He left us there waiting. As we stood there, we spotted the race director Hugh Jones waiting for the elite female runners to finish. We tried to call him but he completely avoided us. That was probably understandable, as he wanted the elite female race to be over first. But even after the race was over, he continued to ignore us. Just once he came close to where we standing to talk, but without giving us much attention he abruptly left the place.

The runners were furious now. More than 15 minutes passed and organizers, including the race director, seemed to have no care for we corporate challenge runners. That was when runners again started shouting and protesting to draw the attention. It certainly brought the expected result as at least couple of people with “All Access” badges (I would think that was kind of a status symbol for someone high in the ladder) did come to talk to us. We demanded that they should first announce about the goof up on public announcement system and gather all the runners. The obliged.

They offered to restart the race at 8:55, 5 minutes before the start of the Majja Run event. We asked them what would they do about those dozen of runners who jumped the barricades and continued. They said that they would take their timings whenever they finish and restart the clock for us. To me, and many other runners, this did not feel right. It was not fair to those who were already running (remember, they would put extra distance due to wrong turn). It was not also fair to us, as conditions were different now – the clouds were gone and the sun was out heating up the things. How could it be called a real race when participants start at different time and run different distance? Remember that there was huge prize money for the top 5 corporate teams. If the race happened like that, there would be more disputes later for the winning positions.

We suggested two options. One was to call off the race. Second was to give an option to runners either to run the distance as Open 10K runners or opt out and get their registration fee refunded. The organizers did not pay heed to these suggestions as they were hell bent on restarting the race in the haphazard manner. They continued to persuade us to restart and just run, but we remained firm on our demands. While that commotion was on, they actually restarted the race with a few runners who thought race was rescheduled.

We continued to protest again at this ill-thought restart of the race. Then came the final blow of the day. The police was called and asked to push these protesting runners out of the stadium. Around 30 policemen started pushing us out. Couple of runners actually broke down and started crying. I was completely appalled at this high-handedness. When we were being chased out of the stadium, I could not help but remember Ghalib’s words:

Nikalna khuld se aadam ka sunte aaye hain lekin
Bahot be-aabaru hokar tere kooche se hum nikle

(We have heard about the dismissal of Adam from Heaven,
With a more humiliation, I am leaving the street on which you live.)

To me it was quite clear that the organizers did not respect the runners enough. They were quite arrogant to ignore couple of hundred of protesting runners in their efforts to pretend if all was well. I could have forgiven them for mismanaging the event, but not for mistreating the runners. I have no regrets for not running and I feel great respect and pride for those runner friends who stood there together trying to get their voice heard however deaf the other side was.

A few people had asked me post this series of events why we did not run in the restart. Believe me we all wanted to run. So many of us had spent hours of training for this race. A runner is happiest when he is running. We think running is solution to all our problems. That’s what we normally do when things go wrong. We run. We run away from problems, we run away from taking a stand, we run away from demanding accountability. We brush the issues under our comfortable cushioned   shoes and move on. The things would have been quite smooth had we run. But smooth is not always right. This time it certainly was not.

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