Runners! On your Mark!
Bang! The gunshot reverbed through the stadium as all the boys ran, like their lives depended on it. Among them, was 14-year-old me. My lungs felt as if they’d burst and with each step, my windpipes seemed to be filling up with water. As I ran two-thirds of the 400 m race, someone passed me. And then, another. And another. As I crossed the finish line, I lifted my head. I’d come 4th. Missed out on the podium finish…
If only I’d known that would be my last stint with competitive sprinting, I’d probably have done better. I’d probably have mustered more energy and had a bit more spring in my step. Probably. But alas, that was not to be!
It was the District Level Competition, almost a decade ago back home in South Africa. Qualifying for it and representing my school was a huge honor and I was over the moon when I did! I enjoyed sprinting occasionally and my district, Fezile Dabi is one of the best places to run during the summers. South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, is a beautiful country from the King Protea flower that blooms in the Table Mountain found at the Western Cape, to God’s Window in the Mpumalanga province. And for all the adventure and wildlife nuts, Krugar National Park is the place to be!
On the day of the competitions, we took off singing and dancing on the chartered bus. A few stretches and warm-up sessions later, we were ready and roaring to go! The thing about inter-school competitions is, they take you out of your comfort zone, pit you against some of the best athletes from all over, people you have no idea about, and push you to your absolute limit. And at the end of the day, you are all smiles and are left with more friends than ever! Running is a mixture of all emotions! The athletes run, the crowd cheers, everyone feels a certain degree of everything. Pain and pleasure, victories and shortcomings, peals of laughter, and tears of sorrow. Your hearts racing much before your legs start and sweat pouring out of your body as you attempt to win it all!
We rode back home, in the same bus celebrating those who made it into the Free State Provincial Level Competitions with even greater fervor than before!
The days passed, and winter dawned. Winters in South Africa, especially in the Free State are chilly, and I fell sick soon enough. It was just the common cold, I thought. I was wrong though. My chest was taut, and I had difficulty breathing causing great concern for my family. It worsened before it got better and, in a few days, I was so weak and couldn’t even talk without my chest writhing in pain. Turns out, I was asthmatic…
This was quite a blow because it meant I had to avoid strenuous activities like sports. Life went on, and my interests moved into public speaking, writing, music, and community development. I spent more time doing the good work at church and my relationship with God took me through life with a breeze! It was a difficult time too, I had been left a sickly child and every winter, I would have a very bad attack and would be hospitalized. The care I received and the spirit that was instilled in me by my work for the society probably took me down my career path later, when I decided to pursue Nursing at Manipal! Everything, as they say, happens for a reason!
As I grew older, my immunity strengthened, and it’s been 5 years since my last attack! By 2016, I was back to the occasional stints with volleyball and swimming, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I picked up running again!
Running was done with me. Or so, I thought…
South Africa is home to the extremely grueling Comrade Marathon. Something that every runner dreams of running someday. Spanning 90 kilometers, attracting participants in the thousands from all over the world. It is the ultimate test of endurance and spirit.
My first step towards that dream was in a wee little town bustling with energy in South India. One we all know and love!
On a fair evening, as we made our way back to the dorms from the Food Court, a couple of volunteers came up to us and asked us if we were interested in taking part in the 2018 edition of the Manipal Marathon. I was more than happy to hear about the run, not the least bit because of any hopes of winning; but because I was told there would be free breakfast and lots of photographers clicking our pictures! Why would I pass up the opportunity to become famous and have my photo put up in University pages?
My friends and I got to talking. Now, it wasn’t a question of if we should run. It was which category we should attempt! Uthembekile Mhlotshana (aka The Thembinator) and William Monyatsi, two big blokes, and Football Players picked the 10 km race. And in a choice undoubtedly picked by the devil, I registered for the Half Marathon!
Mind you, it was years since I’d done anything athletic and I had no training whatsoever! My friends laughed at first and then noticing my seriousness, they advised me to do a little bit of training. A couple of 5ks atleast.
Naturally, I didn’t.
“Make sure you keep some cash with you. You can take an auto midway!”
“Keep your phone on. Call us if you faint and need us to send an ambulance!”
“See you at the Hospital, Thato!”
Comments were passed left, right, and centre when everyone in my circle learned that I was attempting the 21-kilometer run.
To be honest, I don’t blame them. These are blokes who play football at endpoint every day, are in peak athlete condition, fit as a fiddle, and me on the other hand… Ahh, well… Let’s just say, not so much!
But that was not the end of my worries! To make matters worse, a day before the Marathon, MCOPS had its Annual Day Celebration. And I tagged along to cheer my friend Gretta (G-Twin) on! After the event, we headed off to Barbeque Nation and ate like there’s no tomorrow!
G-Twin was worried. “Are you sure you’ll run tomorrow?”
I had registered. Everyone knew about it. It wasn’t if I had any choice… There was no turning back now! I was quite looking forward to it, to be honest!
I took a short nap, woke up early next morning, and jogged to Greens, ready to race!
It was time to burn my sole with the heat of my flaming soul. This was my very first half Marathon! This is where it would all begin! My dreams and aspirations were lofty and my spirit hot!
The first few kilometers were a breeze. It got harder after that, and how! After the 10-kilometer mark, I felt like giving up. My legs stopped listening to me. They felt like lead, each weighing a ton. Music stopped helping and before long, I could hear my muscles taut and sinew ringing with pain.
“What the hell did I sign up for,” I cursed myself as I trudged on!
I tried thinking happy thoughts. Sang songs in my head. Even started reciting biblical psalms. My pastor should have seen me then, he would have been proud! God, see me through the finish line. “Let this just get over! If miracles really can happen, I need one now,” I thought as I started on the Udupi-Manipal ascending slope!
Your boy right here is focused, let me tell you! One of my main motivations for participating in the Half Marathon was to be included in the University Page Photographs, trust me, I smiled and posed for every camera that was on the way. Even the traffic cams! I see a camera I glow up and run with a smile. Instead of running from kilometer to kilometer, I ran from camera to camera. Walking at blindspots and picking up speed when I saw a camera!
Combing the roads were volunteers. On bikes. On the side of the roads, holding up motivational signboards, giving water, and fruits. They cheered everyone on and I felt envigored every time I saw a face cheering me on. A little less when they had nothing and a little more when they had fruits and electrolytes. I’m a foodie… I can’t help it! The Barbeque Nation food was all gone in the last 15 or so kilometers! I wanted to finish the marathon with just enough space left in my tummy for breakfast. Nothing less!
At some point, a guy said, “Come on, bro! You can do it! Just 5km left!”
My knees locked my legs out. I couldn’t take another step. I felt like the old wooden chair in my grandparents’ house. Ready to break into pieces and die on the side of the road. I just couldn’t anymore! The last stretch, I thought will be the death of me, but I couldn’t give up. Not now…
Just because you haven’t done it, does not mean you can’t. Just because no one has done it, does not mean it’s impossible. Just because you don’t know how to do it, does not mean there is no way to! This became my mantra and kept telling myself that I could.
I continued past KFC and finally made it to Syndicate Circle. I walked a bit and then alternated here and there. Volunteers cheered me and I was too tired to smile and wave back. I took the turn at TC! I was almost there!
I counted my steps.
One… Two… Three…
Forty-five, forty-six…. Done!
I finished strong!
Bless the Physio for catching me in the nick of time. I was spent! Totally!
He gave me a bottle of water to drink and helped me sit. I took off my shoes. My whole body was aching. Searing pains went up my spine and through my limbs… I had blisters and friction burns just about everywhere! Even with a broken body, I was glad I finished. The medal that the volunteers put on my neck stayed for the whole day. And the next. Till I was forced to stop wearing it! Hey, when you’ve done something crazy, everyone had to see it! Right!?
That was only the beginning. My running journey had just started, and I am happy that it started out so strong. I ran multiple 5 kilometers after that. The Atharva Run, the Drug Awareness Run, the subsequent Manipal Marathon Promo Runs, and just a short 5k or 10k whenever I feel like it. The next year, I was better prepared for the Half Marathon and completed it with much better timing and feeling much better than the previous time!
For anyone deciding to run or start-out, I’d definitely advise you against the attempting the stupidity I did. Practice well before trying out long distances otherwise, you’ll just be hurting yourselves! But do run. It’s the most amazing thing!
My proudest and so far, the best run is undoubtedly the most recent, 2020 Manipal Marathon. Bigger and brighter than ever, it included the welcome suggestion of having different coloured TShirts for different categories! I’d been telling Navaneethcrshna (or Mr Manipal if you will) every year that different coloured Tshirts were necessary! I wanted to wear the fact that I ran 21 kilometers with pride, instead of wearing the same shirt as those who ran 3! It was great to see that suggestion was followed up on, and I ran my entire Full Marathon (my first) with an even bigger smile on my face. It was 2018 all over again, with my bones creaking every step, but completing it was a joy like no other!
For a kid coming from South Africa, Manipal re-gifted the art and the joy of running! I look forward to running more with other MRCians once the lockdown is lifted and better focus on training and conditioning. I made a lot of friends here and discovered myself in ways never thought possible. The world is on lockdown now, and there’s a lot of gloom around. Sometimes, we do feel homesick and the thought of home hits us hard. Especially now, June is celebrated back home as the Youth Month in remembrance of the young South Africans who took a stand in 1976 to end the apartheid!
With all that I’ve learnt and grown, in some small but important way, Manipal too feels like home!
What an amazing story, Thato! Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Congratulations, you’ve set the standard and pace. You will improve your performance next time!
I am very proud of you bro. Couldn’t stop smiling. O monna wa sebele
Oh wow, this is such a cool upcoming story and testimony, and it motivated me so much!!!