On the outskirts of Tehran, about an hour’s drive away from the city center is a hotel that once dreamt of hosting Olympic athletes from across the world. Hotel Olympic is part of the Azadi Sport Complex, the largest sports facility in Iran. Overlooking snow covered mountain ranges and downtown Tehran, host to the 1974 Asian games and once a contender for the 1984 Olympics venue (competing one on one with Los Angeles before dropping the bid in 1978 after the revolution). The redeeming feature of the hotel which is actually an upgraded athletic and student hostel are the adjacent football training fields. The rooms are all duplexes, furnished in dark tones but the two full size soccer fields, one field hockey pitch and an enclosed futsal compound are dressed in evergreen colors.
Fate brought me to Hotel Olympic on 27th February 2016. After a ninety minute ride from the airport and an even longer trek from Karachi via Dubai, all I wanted was a few hours of sleep before the early morning departure for an exploratory client meeting in downtown Tehran. There were no rooms available at better and closer hotels in the city.
My pre-sunrise morning walk the next day brought me to the fields. I was actually trying to shoot the sunset with my phone and searching for the right spot with the right light when I stumbled upon the entrance of the football complex.
Morning winter chill, snow covered peaks, a grassy football field, rust orange sunrise; you couldn’t blame it when my feet just itched to see how it would feel to run a few hundred yards on the grass after 27 years. That is how it started. A transit visitor and a hotel that had both seen better days gets bitten by the desire to run at first dawn. The Running man meets Hotel Tehran. Sounds like the script for a B grade horror film with a bad beginning.
The morning of 28th February 2016 is when I first managed to shuffle and realized three things.
One, on a fitness scale of 1 to 10 I had managed to score below zero. Two, nothing fell or broke off as I pushed my damaged tendons and cartilage through the paces. (I had ditched a wheel chair in September and a walking stick in December after a series of injuries and incidents). Three minutes is all it took for me to run out of steam in Tehran. The short athletic performance watched with amusement by the hotel cook and the security guard of the field cost a herculean effort but fell well short of Olympic standards.
I had so much fun when the evening came that day, I skipped a client dinner and stayed back to see if I could do the same thing again.
The adventure begins
By the time I landed in Karachi, my plan was set. I was no fool. I knew my limitations. While fit 42 year old have competed at the Olympic events I was no Jo Pavey or Bernard Lagat. There were to be no Olympics games in my future. And I was 3 years older than the miracle women from UK and the miracle man from Kenya. My goal was simple. Complete a lap around the football field – something I had failed to do at Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
I had already been doing weight training while my kids did their round around the tartan track in Karachi. The cold morning in Tehran had confirmed that three months of conditioning with barbell complexes had worked wonders on the damaged legs. Armed with this new confidence I would now join them on the track. I won’t run at the same pace but as long as I could run one lap with them during their warm up rounds, I would be happy. Not much of a goal but given what I had done, first to my knees and then to my ankles, given where I had been just three months ago, completing that one lap seemed like a moon shot.
It took a month and a half. 5 days a week throughout March. By April I could manage to hang to the outer fringes of the warm up group. It was a big day. As I progressed my pain centers began to shift.
In the beginning, it would be the lungs and my heart that would protest the most – the mildest of discomfort. The first few weeks required extra care. I had dropped six kilos since the August episode but I was still struggling. The slightest hint of trouble and I would slow down to a crawl. By early May the pain and the pace shifted again. This time the din was raised by my shins and calves.
The pace was still slow and the work minimal. On good days I would be able to get in a few repeats of 100 meters on the curve with ample rest in between. On bad days I would be happy with one or two warm up rounds followed by a slightly faster lap around the field. On the days when the shins and the calves refused to cooperate I would go back to barbell complexes. On all days I would go home exhausted, change, eat and crash in zombie mode.
Luckily an extended lull on the work front made it possible to train and sleep through most of March, April, May and June. With active protests going on all across major muscle groups, there wasn’t any hope of allocating real bandwidth to actual, creative, thinking work.
The pain did bring good news with it. I was getting faster and fitter and with speed came a higher threshold for punishment. I had started moving from the back of the crowd in our warm up laps to the front. Even challenge Salwa in her weak moments when she was just about ready to wrap up her training runs after a full day of work.
The first big crack in the wall standing between me and fitness appeared in June. The day before Ramadan started I broke 80 seconds for the 400m sprint – 1 minute 19:95 seconds to to be exact. We were no longer talking about warm up pace. This was race pace for 45 year old has been.
We headed into Ramadan and continued training 3 days a week while fasting. I picked up the biggest boost in speed and the biggest drop in weight. An extended family vacation put all training programs to rest post Eid. While I continued to drop a few hundred grams a day on the weight front, the break led to a significant slippage on the endurance side.
The first few weeks of August were spent in recovery mode. We were back to running the 100 meter repeats on the curve. But this time the repeats (reps) were faster and the rest period shorter. The 100 meter quickly grew to become 150 and then 200 meters. By late September, a full six month since that first shuffle in Tehran the personal bests began to fall. At this point my primary aim was still 400m – that one lap around the football field. My moon shot. The challenge event that Salwa and I were competing in – against each other. If the 400m fell, it would be followed by the 800.
I really wanted to break 75 seconds for the distance. There were bigger longer term goals somewhere in there but for now, it was just that one number in my head that I wanted to pass. It finally fell on 21st September. Helped by Amin, our eldest, as the pace maker, we made two attempts to breach 75 seconds on two consecutive days and finally succeeded on the evening of the 21st.
I wish I could say that we celebrated for days after crossing this major milestone. But we didn’t.
Short distance speed work on the tartan track reintroduced me to muscles in my shins, hamstrings and quadriceps that I didn’t know existed. There were days when I could run and complete my training set but could barely make it to the car because it was just a world of hurt below the diaphragm. Muscle memory and shame made running on the track possible but limping back to the car or hobbling up the staircase in the dark was a different story.
From 400m to 1K
In October I switched to running cross country from the longer runs on the outside track. Softer surface, rougher pace. I dropped the short sprints and added long slow distance work to the mix. This was something I had been avoiding for two decades but after dropping 12 kilos in the last ten months I wanted to see if my knees could take on a bit more mileage per week. The warm up laps now went up a full mile followed by a mix of 200, 300, 400 and 600m. As I added distance we cut away the short sprints.
I didn’t think it would be possible for me to run the 5K but we did it one morning in November. Road running wasn’t an option but we took it on in Taiwan in December after discovering a riverside path. As the formats changed and training intensity reduced the pain dialed itself down to a dull ache. Then winter hit with full intensity and the morning runs were no longer an option.
Both the 400 and 800 meter had been conquered but there was bigger game on the track. While I was at it, I wanted to hit personal best across all the “k’s” leading up to 5K. I had come a long way. From running out of steam in three minutes in Tehran to running a full kilometer in four and a half minutes eleven months later in Karachi. From 1K to running the under 50 cross country in February and finishing third within a group of 40 year olds. Breaking the sub 5 minute barrier for 5K by running it in 24:00 flat in May 2017.
The magic sauce
I wish I knew which specific ingredient made this miracle happen. To graduate from a wheelchair in September to running 5k 18 months later.
Prayers and family. The wheelchair episode brought about a ton of prayers from parents, elders, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and students. Fawzia and Ammi helped ensure that I stayed on the recovery diet. Fawzia took on the brunt of work on days and nights when I sprained a muscle or crashed out in zombie mode. Nobody came out and reminded me that I was too far gone as a 45 year old to dream of a return to training.
My kids helped. Seeing them run every day was the primary inspiration that made me run. If they hadn’t taken up athletics I don’t think I would have recovered from my August disaster. Training and running with them and shaming them into running faster than their out of shape dad is still my primary motivation for training.
Diet played a big role. I went off red meat, cheese, eggs, nuts and chocolates for over a year. All good things. That combined with the heavy training led to a drop of 15% of my total body weight. I dropped down to 86 kgs from just over 100 kgs.
The training routine brought everything together. The mix of long slow work, short sprints, race pace interval training and barbell complexes gave my legs the strength to do work that I didn’t think was possible. When I traveled for work I added long swims and more leg work than usual.
The coaches at the kids club asked me to take it real slow and made sure that I did a proper warm up and proper cool down. Over the year I could feel the knots I had accumulated slowly fade away. Their step by step, wait for it, don’t rush into it approach kept me injury free for 18 months.
Buying shoes for kids in the club taught me a great deal about cushioning and the difference it makes. We went from Rebook to Nike to Sketchers to Adidas to New Balance and then hung on to the tech boost technology from the German shoe manufacturer.
Taking six months off to focus on health was the key. I know everyone can’t do it. It sounds crazy to give up everything just so that you can train. But for me, it was a lot more personal than just training.
I would rather retain the ability to run and be up and about than go back to the wheelchair. So I structure my day around training. I work reduced hours, take on limited work and decline engagements and meeting that would keep me away from the track.
Money will always be tight doesn’t matter what you do. But reduced hours lead to better selection when it comes to picking up clients and occasionally better work. All of that doesn’t compare with the amount of time you now get to spend with your kids.
Everything else, the faster time, the milestones, the speed, the renewed energy is just an added bonus.
If you are interested in the training routine that made it happen please drop me a line or leave a comment. Would be happy to post it here. Would love to hear your reactions to the story.