Running 32 Km on my Birthday – Pooja Gawas

‘The stuff that dreams are made of’

“It’s the stuff that dreams are made of
It’s the slow and steady fire
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of
It’s your heart and soul’s desire
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of”

I believe birthdays should always be special. However, for my birthday this year, I was not thinking gifts, flowers, cakes, parties this time. It had to be special and something I would remember for a lifetime – something I have only dreamed of doing so far. So here is how my birthday in 2016 became memorable!

To give you a background, I was always a chubby child, who chose books over any physical training, preferred writing punishments as 100 lines of ‘I will not forget my sports kit’ assigned by my school coach, to avoid playing sport in PT class!

As I decided to be mindful about my well-being a few years ago, I started working hard in the gym. I began running much later (November 2014) and joined Pune Running in July 2015. So many memories from the time with this family of runners, from running my first 12 km to 21 km in the span of 4 months! Pune Running’s home event PRBM 2016 saw my first half marathon debut, and then came the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, 21 km again. What next? I asked myself. I did not want to rush into jumping distances, as I believe in being an injury free runner.

Coming back to my wish of making my birthday special, at the end of February 2016 – I asked one of our Pune Running Founders and the most patient coach anyone ever – Sudhindra Haribhat (Sudhi), for advice. With the upcoming birthday, the crazy idea of doing a 32 km birthday run was being fostered in my mind. For many of the elite runners, 32 km is a regular long run distance. However, for me it was still crazy because (a) I had never done a distance beyond 21 km and had lost practice after January 2016 (my last half marathon at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon) (b) My birthday is in April – peak summer, sweltering heat which is unsuitable for long distances, especially first time distance attempts (c) I had just recovered from a bout of illness and low levels of vitals causing major weakness due to overexertion and lack of sleep – post a 3 day halt in the hospital while I was put on saline drip.

Correctly so, Sudhi advised otherwise and consoled me that we can plan a shorter run for April 19. I obviously agreed, given Sudhi’s experience and my belief in him as a fabulous coach.

Days went by and I started training with Pune Running again, it felt good to finally be back!! A few days later, I ran with Priti Arwade, another pillar of Pune Running, who had recently finished her 40 km bike ride followed by 40 km run in two days. Her feat had once again inspired me to toy with my 32 km idea and casually discussed this with a few of my fellow lady runners, I still had a few weeks to go before my birthday.

On April 10, 2016, we ran the Infosys Run. An easy 10 km to begin with again, but my performance baffled me. I took 8 min more than my regular time of 62 minutes and struggled to finish, let alone finish strong. My confidence was shaken and I doubted my ability to even target a shorter distance like Sudhi had suggested.

While doing the post run stretches with gang, at the risk of sounding completely irrational, I mentioned to Sudhi and Aparna Prabhudesai, the iron lady of Pune Running that I still wished to do the 32 km on/before April 19. That one question from Sudhi – “Do you really want to do this?” and the words from Aparna, “Distance is just a number”, thus began the planning for my birthday run. With only 9 days to go for my birthday, the two amongst many stalwarts from Pune Running – Sudhi and Vikas Kumar had already begun ideating on how this will be planned. We had to start earlier than normal to evade the heat post 7 am, and I was asked just to do two things – one, prepare my mind, and two, show up.

April 17, Sunday was decided as D-day. We had only a few days to go and somewhere in my mind I was starting to get apprehensive of the idea now, thus I had requested Sudhi not to announce my run to the group till I felt fully confident to do so. Mid-week, I read a message from him to ask if I had mustered up the courage yet – mentally, I was ready. However, my recent health history stopped me from letting this be announced to all my running buddies in advance.

April 16, a day prior – 7 pm, I received a call from Sudhi to reconfirm the plan. “You bet!” was my exclaimed answer. I had so many questions – what route, who will run along, water management, time to start and finish, phew! The always calm and composed Sudhi replied – “You just run. We will take care of the rest”. Anxiety did not let me sleep as planned at 8:30 pm however I managed to tuck myself in by 9:45 pm the night before. I even work up thrice at hourly intervals since 12 midnight, worried that I would miss the alarm for our early morning start at 4 am.

Finally, my alarm for 3:15 am rang and I was up. I started my day with a small prayer, and a smile when I was reading the multiple good luck messages from my running buddies – it was showtime!

Aparna, Sudhi and the ultra marathoners gang flagged my run off, what a privilege to run with these experienced folks! The ultra runners moved on at their pace, leaving the three of us, with Vikas who managed supplies brilliantly and Kamal who joined in as well. Running alongside them made me so comfortable that I forgot about the number 32! We were already finishing our loop of 16 km to return to flag off point for some other running buddies to join for the next 16. “Half done!” I looked at Aparna and Maithili, who had joined us a little while ago.

The next moment was so special and memorable, with a hoard (from my estimate, atleast 40!) of running buddies at the main building of University of Pune, waiting to cheer for me, wish me luck and to celebrate my birthday! With a quick cake cutting session, it was time for super marathoner Nikhil Shah to take over the reins from Sudhi. “Come on Pooja, we have 16 more to go”, Nikhil egged me on. The ever smiling Prasad Patil’s company and contagious energy did not let us even feel the next few kilometres!!

17, 18, 22 km…my running app declared and I had finally crossed my longest distance ever run at a stretch. My running buddies Maithili, Aparna Chhajed, Priyanka, Krutika and another seasoned half marathoner Hari, kept us, Kamal and me motivated. Kamal, who had earlier planned to do only 21 km, still continued to give me company beyond this distance.

The sun had started to shine bright and I confessed to Kamal that my pace would be affected. Kamal, with complete optimism, advised me that I should think of the sun’s rays as an energy source for me and not as something that drains me out. This completely changed my experience of the next 10 odd kms. The distance clocked 25 km and we had done our half ultra. Hitendra, one of the fast and most experienced runners we have, very kindly managed the much needed energy drinks and water for us during this time. Pace had slowed down by 28 kms, but the determination remained as strong as a rock.

The ultra team was back by now, and Priti, Aparna, Sudhi, Nikhil were waiting for us to finish the last less than 10% of my target. Bhagwan ji, another passionate runner and ‘known to push’ pacer joined in, with Amit Kumar and the super runners’ gang. My legs felt like lead, but I was still smiling, due to the sheer support that I saw these people give me. At this moment, with 2 kms to go, Sudhi and Bhagwan looked at me and said, “You HAVE to finish with a sprint “. Here I was, confident just enough to say that I will finish the next 2 kms at this slow a pace, however a sprint was an unimaginable task to accomplish at this stage!

“Mind over matter, mind over matter!” my runner’s soul (yes, it was back just when I needed it the most!) chanted, and I put in all the energy that was left in me, the energy that the Sun God was giving me, the energy that I derived out of seeing my fellow runners do this selflessly to help me achieve my target….and off I went! At the end of the imaginary finish line, was the most amazing sight – my parents, applauding my strong finish. I bowed down to my mother and father, whole heartedly thanked God and the running gang who made it possible, what a feeling it was!

A week ago, this was just a dream. The only people who made it possible, and so many of them that I could not mention everyone’s names here, were ALL my fellow runners. This day, is when I learned what ‘passion’ meant. That is what drove these amazing people, each one of them, to support me in every way way they could. Hats off and a big thank you from the bottom of my heart to you wonderful people for making my birthday dream come true!

My birthday cake this year definitely tasted sweeter J This one is dedicated to you guys!

Pune Running : The stuff (read: people) that dreams are made of!

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