I am still not sure about the real reason why I started running. What makes a twelve year old get up at 5 am in the morning and run for an hour every day for the next twenty years of his life. Perhaps the credit goes to Faisal Shafiq, even Sama my younger sister. These two would routinely do a clean sweep of medals at the annual school athletics competition, year after year. Leaving the rest of us breathing the dust left behind by their strides at Parsi gymkhana.
Teenage envy or sibling rivalry. I am not sure, you take your pick.
I ran competitively for only two years for my college but those two years define who I am today. Training for the 800m and the mile put me up against demons that I had never met before as a teenager. Your first realization of not being good enough is heart breaking. Even more difficult is your first loss in the season. But the biggest challenge is convincing your legs to go on for another ten meters or another ten minutes at the pace you have been carrying for the last hour. There is a reason why interval training is lovingly called suicides.
Throughout our lives the one singular message drummed into us is
“If you work hard enough, you will win and do well”.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work on the track. There is no assurance that if you work hard enough you will win. Because there is always someone who is more talented and who is willing to work harder and longer. It takes a very different kind of spirit to survive the daily humiliation of training with athletes who are in a different class by themselves. Friends, colleagues and peers who are better, faster, leaner and more gifted than you are. Who will leave you behind in the final stretch as you struggle with your very human weaknesses while they call on divine reserves of strength to kick up an inhuman sprint to victory.
There is only one word to describe what happens on the track every day. Heartbreak. You don’t suffer it only on the day of the seasonal athletic meet. You face it every evening on the field. And you do it alone, by yourself with no one by your side.
Facing all that misery as a teenager did have one interesting effect. It made me acutely aware of what I couldn’t do, of what I was capable of.
Thirty years ago my family asked me to be a realist. “You have no talent, you don’t have what it takes, why do you want to punish yourself so much? We are only bystanders in your life but even we can’t stand seeing you go through the misery you go through every day.”
Today, the primary reason why I am self aware is because I refused to become a realist as a teenager. Despite my parent’s advice and requests, I stayed with track. I trained harder, longer and faster. Perhaps because I wanted to prove the world wrong but I think more because I had changed fundamentally as a person. I was hungry. I dreamt impossible dreams. I wanted more.
I had found myself running at an oval field sandwiched between my city’s largest private hospital and the national cricket stadium. It was my version of heartbreak hotel.
Unfortunately there are no happy endings that involve a regional meet or even the Asian games at the end of this story. I never found the secret reserve my colleagues called up to sprint through the final stretch with grace. My only claim to fame was running the 800 in 2 minutes 7 seconds as an 18 year old. I ran the mile in 4:40. Sebastian Coe, my role model and inspiration as a middle distance runner, now a peer of the realm, ran the same events in 1:44 and 3:38. My timing were only good enough for a silver and a bronze at the Karachi Inter District Athletics championship in December 1989. It was better than going home empty handed after two years of what loved ones called insanity.
I think a daily dose of heartbreak, a fling with madness and facing your own human weaknesses as a teenager is a very small price to pay if it leaves you with the gift of self awareness and hunger. Competing against the clock, facing your limitations and then going back to the starting line to push yourself just a bit more harder this time, repeating it again every day like a driven, demonic machine is the right training if you want to aim for greatness. It is not easy, its not for everyone. If it doesn’t kill you…
Not being able to beat the clock to the finish line at the National Coaching Center 25 years ago changed me as a person. I realized that there are some things in life that will always be out of my reach no matter how hard I work. There are just not meant to be. But in the final stretch it really doesn’t matter what place you finish. What matters is the spirit with which you run the race. With your heart flying at 230 beats per second, lungs screaming at you to stop, look around and you will find yourself racing against the one person you never expected to see on the stretch. Yourself.
I stopped being a child when I ran the 800 at my personal best and lost. It didn’t matter to me or the coaches I worked with because I had found something infinitely more valuable than a medal. Myself.
I want nothing less for my children. Or yours.