“Ee kai hidkoli” (hold this hand)
She asked me to hold her right hand instead of the left one and gave a slight push. I moved from her left to right and held her hand. She held my palm this time and, yes, the hand grip was firm. A grip that indicated she trusted me now. I looked at the clock in front of me – it read 4:15:50
The Bangalore Marathon 42.2 k race had started and we were about 20 meters from the start point at that time. All the regular runners were already out and I was just about to start my run with Mala.
It was one more chilly morning for me. This day was not going to be my usual weekend long run day. I was a bit nervous as I was going be a guide runner for a full marathon. I started at around 3.15 am and was dropped to the stadium by a friend. It was 3.45 am when I entered the holding area for visually impaired runners at Kanteerava stadium. It was cold and quite dark.
As soon as I entered, I met Bhumika Patel, who is instrumental in training and mentoring the visually impaired for run. She introduced me to this girl, Mala. I just looked at the girl who was hardly 5 feet tall, a bit weaker, but had the determination to run the marathon.
It was a festive environment with all the guide runners and visually impaired runners sitting and chatting with each other happily. I had been involved in the running training for the visually impaired for more than 2.5 years. I had, however, been inactive the last few months and had not trained with this girl Mala. My experience with them says that they open up once they start trusting you, so I had a lot of work to do before I could start my run with her which was scheduled to start at 4.15 am.
I started talking to her casually. I took a small walk with her, made her do some warm-ups before the run and moved along with her to the start point which was 200 meters away, as the time came closer to 4.15am. I had done distances up to 10 kms earlier with visually impaired whom I had trained but this was my first marathon as a guide with an unknown runner.
As we were walking to the start point, I told her that we are doing the 42.2 k marathon and we will stop only when we are done. She said yes, she would do the full marathon. I was happy with her answer but somehow I felt she was not yet comfortable with me. I knew that it was a question of time before she would start trusting me. And that happened in the next few minutes.
I started my run, holding her right hand. I spotted Mr. Sushil Bhasin who was running a little ahead of me. I told Mala about Mr. Bhasin, a 68-year-old who ran 200 miles from Bangalore to Chennai a few weeks ago. She was surprised to hear that. I told her that I had also run the same distance along with him. She looked like she was happy to hear that. I was ensuring that we were running very slowly, we were doing a mix of running and walking.
I spotted the 6 hour bus (A lead runs with a flag mentioning the finish time. Amateur runners or runners with specific finish time targets can run along with such leads) led by Manikandan Seran. I told her that there is a man ahead of us, Mani anna, who had run for 36 hours nonstop at the stadium two months back. Now she told me, “Naavu heege methage hogtha idre, naanu full race mugisthini, jotege iri saaku”. (If we go slowly like this, I will also finish the full race, just be with me).
As we were going in the dark and I was struggling to move in the darkness, a thought went through me just reminding me that darkness doesn’t mean much to this girl, but it was not time to get emotional. At this point we had just come out of Cubbon Park and were running behind Manikandan, crossing Vidhana Soudha to our left. There were other guide runners and visually impaired runners from the group running along. She was under the impression that I would ensure her race finish, but I knew that it was she who was going to drive the pace and finish.
We were just following the 6 hour bus and slowly the distance between us and the 6 hour bus group was increasing. I knew now that the two of us alone have to manage the entire stretch of almost 37 kms. I was explaining to her what was around us as we were passing by – Cubbon Park, Vishveshwaraiah Museum, Chinnaswamy Stadium. I ensured that at every hydration point she took some drink and ate either chikki or jaggery. We were on Cubbon Road now and going down the slope was not a challenge, but coming up was a bit tough. We had planned to have two volunteers from the team to be stationed at 10 km point and I met them too. I ensured she took a salt tablet at this point of time.
We were meeting all runner friends who were cheering us. I was talking to her about each and every runner I knew and explaining how they were doing. She seemed to be getting more and more comfortable, though the pace had eventually slowed down. Every time we covered 1 km, I would tell her how much we had covered and she used to feel good.
Now we were on MG road. I told her about the MG road metro and how it had reduced the traffic congestion in Bangalore. My purpose was to keep her attention away from the effort of the run. Incidentally, on the MG road stretch, she ran very well almost nonstop for the entire stretch. We walked back through MG road, and with a bit of jogging in between, we entered Cubbon Park amidst loud cheers from onlookers. We were back on Vidhana Soudha road, but by now it was crowded with oncoming 21k runners. It was a bit tough for me to manage, with no place to run. A few more minutes and we were heading back to the stadium. Mala was tired by then, she wanted to sit for a few minutes. I told her we will cover 21.1 km first and then, at the next possible stop we would rest for 2 minutes.
Our second loop was simple. There were no issues. Our journey continued but this time we had started walking completely. We would run for 20 to 30 meters once in a while, whenever there was a downward slope. I ensured she ate a banana at 22 kms mark. All fast 21k runners were on their way back. This time they were spread out.
Soon we were out of there too. At around 28 kms, we met my ultra runner friend Babu George. He joined us and ran with us for the next 8 kms. We were walking slowly with short breaks, covering 5 kms per hour only. I called up the volunteers and told them that we will finish after 11.30 only. It was bit difficult in the second round because traffic had already started and we were walking on the pavement. Mala was getting tired. It was getting hotter. Mala was not wearing any cap. I offered my cap to her. Eventually we entered Cubbon Park again and were back in front of Vidhana Soudha.
I had carried water with me. In between I had forced Mala to eat biscuits too. Mala was getting a bit worried about us getting late and she didn’t want to take any breaks. We were slow but moving. As we were nearing the stadium, I called Suma, one of our volunteers to come near Konark Hotel. Suma was waiting for us as we entered Kanteerava. I told Mala that we have only around 100 meters to finish and asked her to finish the run with a sprint. She obliged and we crossed the finish line running. I could see a smile in her face as she crossed the finish line. She looked quite happy but very calm and relaxed. There was no celebration, noise, just one happy smile. One more humbling experience for me.
My favorite quote once again. “I dont know how my story will end, but nowhere in my text ,will it ever read, I gave up”. I am not sure if Mala had read it earlier, but it fits her story. It was not her alone, it was the story of three more girls and two visually impaired boys who went on to run their first Marathon.
I went back home with a smile ?
Note: This article was published in Praveen Shetty’s blog originally, and republished here with permission.