For a first time runner, running a 10K race might feel like a knockout, an impossibility to even contemplate, let alone complete on a physical course. I know this because I have been there, back in 2008, when the Bangalore World 10K began. I never thought I’d be able to complete it, having never run a single long distance race in my life, but here I am, not only having completed the one in 2008, but also having been through the very same course another 13 times, almost addicted to it like a video game that I cannot quit. Only, this game is IRL. A 10K race is very much like a video game in the sense there are many times you will feel your health bar is dropping, and you are close to quitting, and every time you will find an unexpected new boost, a surprising new power, or the kindness of a stranger that will put your quest right back on track. And like all good video games, the journey here is very much the destination

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What I found most amazing, and inspiring, from the very first race onwards, are the runners. Running is a lonely pursuit, but in a strength-of-the-wolf-is-the-pack sense, it’s a team sport. Thousands of ordinary folk are there at the World 10K running, to borrow from Florence And The Machine, “fast for (their) mother, run(ning) fast for (their) father
Run(ning) for (their) children, for (their) sisters and brothers” and just looking over your shoulder right and left is enough to give your legs the spirit to keep going, the moment they first begin to flag about 800-900m from the start line because it is unfamiliar territory. Match their strides, in a silent display of solidarity, and you have first rejuvenation, or respawn as they say in video games, for the race.

However, past the first couple of kilometres (or about the one mile mark, if you prefer the Imperial), an unspoken social bond can only carry you so far. On a humid day, your body now demands replenishment and more importantly, hydration. You catch sight of the hundreds of volunteers who are lined along the way, some with water bottles in hand, some with energy bars, others with slices of oranges, or a glass of an energy drink. I am always in awe of their enthusiasm (15 years and I have never had a volunteer not egg me on for the race when I reached out for a serving of water). That bit of water, or that bite of chocolate sugar that goes right to your brain is the second life. Congratulations, you just discovered you have another gear you can hit for the race. Personally, around the 3km mark is where my pace begins to get faster and I always credit my mind and these volunteers way more than my body for it. In video game terms, it’s time to level up.

As I get into the middle part of the race, and I sense the fatigue setting in, because my body is desperately reallocating all the stored glucose to my SOS-ing muscles, leaving less around for my brain, my thoughts often turn to what an elite sportsperson would do here. While I do not have their physical conditioning, my glucose deprived brain pivots to the irrational track – rituals and superstitions. Just like Sachin putting on his left pad on first every time he went out to bat, I have created some rituals of my own for this race – I always make sure I high five at least one volunteer at the 5km mark, I always cross the timing mats on the right hand side, and I always have the same breakfast before the race, a single banana and a glass of water. It’s not scientific stuff, but the certainty of it grounds me to stick to the process in the middle, and difficult, part of the race reminding me of two critical words – don’t stop. Life #3.

Being an amateur 10K runner, I often find the 6th kilometre stretch very difficult, particularly because your mind is getting really hazy at this point, but what I draw on at this time is the stretch of the course that lies ahead. I love the Bangalore World 10K course, lovingly called the “Boomerang” because it is shaped like one. It has been virtually unchanged since the first race, and ahead of the 6km marker lies the majestic stretch past the imposing and grand Vidhan Soudha, and into the lungs of the city – Cubbon Park – and then past the State Central library. Fourteen times and counting, and I still get giddy at the prospect of running past all these landmarks, adding a skyline to my own little parade. Exactly midway (5km) lies the stretch that takes us past the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Just as well, because it’s a useful reminder to not do what RCB (the IPL team that plays here) usually do in the middle overs when batting – slow down. Charting this course in my mind and in the race – I get overly enthusiastic everytime someone asks of the route for the race over-explaining every corner, every turn and every landmark – gives me life. A fourth one.

That route, it gets curiouser and curiouser the more you traverse it, and you find that you need new powers, the equivalent of those mushrooms in Mario, and I usually have two secrets, my fifth and sixth lives – the support of the community of runners that I have received unconditionally from day 1 (despite me being an absolute novice and a nobody) and my running playlist. The playlist has evolved from me listening to FM radio on my Nokia phone in 2008 to Spotify now but without the soundtrack there is no race, whether it is the peppy beat of a pop song giving you a dopamine boost just when you think your brain has run out of it, to the rousing theme from the Rocky training montage making you randomly punch the air and instantly believing 100% more in yourself.

It’s literally the last mile now and you are searching more than ever for the kindly old lady who stands inside Cubbon Park and claps for every runner individually saying “you can do it”, or cast your mind back to every “all the best” text you received the previous night, or even the drill seargent who once screamed “Ruk kyon gaye jawan! DAUD!” at me back in 2008 as we ran past the army quarters, or looking for the sweet kid who is holding up the handwritten “The pain is temporary” sign. The cheerers, they come in all types but they are the bearers of arguably the best life force of this race.

And speaking of pain, it hurts like hell when you run a 10K as an amateur runner with no real training, but as all runners know it is what the path to the runners high is paved with. I always check my race readiness by checking on pain. Is it familiar? Is it the same progression I had last time where all the muscles I had not stretched properly pre race hurting like they had been listening to Johnny Cash cover Nine Inch Nails? If yes, then I know it’s all good, and that it is time to conquer a familiar foe.

And as the finish line appears in sight the moment you round Corporation Circle, everything – the music, the cheer, the route, the rituals, all of it dims, and the focus is just you, dear amateur runner, and the tremendous bravery and effort that you have shown to make it past the 10K. I figured out after the first couple of runs that ultimately this is your show and you are the star. You want the Indiana Jones theme to play as you imagine yourself gliding past Vidhan Soudha and into Cubbon Park in search of an adventure? Nothing’s stopping you. You want to treat the day like Christmas and be an absolute child in enjoying every moment of the lead up, and the race, and even take a bow as you receive the medal? Go right ahead. Nothing makes you feel more alive than yourself. The life of all lives.

Jane McGonigal wrote in her book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World: “A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.” I don’t play a lot of video games, but I treat this race as one.

I have run the same course so many times, and I look forward to doing so many more times, just how a gamer may look at playing their favourite game over and over, because in those ten kilometres each year, I find nine lives, that affirm for me the one life we are often guilty of not celebrating enough – our own.

Tareque Laskar is a research scholar and a former features writer at a national newsweekly. He currently heads the research practice at ITW – a leading sports consulting firm. The article was originally published on his blog here and has been reproduced on Scroll with permission.