Vapors for a dream

Friday, April 1, 2016
Vapors for a dream

Life is a quest for happiness that each man defines in his own way.

So recently as I was flying to Chennai to tick off another item from my bucket list, that of being an ironman, I was as they say in my pursuit of happiness.  

The ironman race is considered as one of the toughest one day endurance races in the world. It consists of a 3.9 kms swimming followed by 180 kms of cycling and eventually a 42.2 kms of running, back to back and with a cut off time. Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), the organizers of the only Full ironman race here in India had liberally set the cut-off time as 20 hours. So when I say “one” of the toughest races in the world, I am only understating.

CTC had provided accommodation for the athletes. I reached the venue by Friday afternoon wherein I met a group of 4 athletes from Mumbai in their late 30s and we cycled together to the swim venue to have a look.

Nestled among huge rocks, the natural green water appeared serenely beautiful. We dived in to do a short lap. The water was, as my fellow athlete from Mumbai also a swim coach put it, very light. Satisfied we set off for an early dinner and sleep.

Next day I woke to the alarm at 4, had a large pre race breakfast and rode to the swim venue. It was now alive with athletes of all shapes, sizes, age and ambitions pouring in for categories ranging from Olympic to half Iron to full iron. An athlete easily above 65 or possibly 70 had come to compete in the full iron category as myself. I greeted him warmly and desperately hoped that he finish the race.

The quarry for swim was now lined with ropes, tires and manned by volunteers on rafts. 

The sun was just peeping out as the full iron category athletes warmed up for a gruelling 13 laps.

I however felt extremely calm despite the excitement all around. With the flag going down, we dived into the water. And so it began.

I swam to the end point of the quarry where the majestic rock signalled a U-turn. Floating still at its foot, I scaled the peak with my sight and felt utterly eclipsed. White birds flew off from nearby trees owing to the sudden disturbance. It appeared a place for the poets and dreamers rudely interrupted by us athletes.

The atmosphere remained a cheerful one with bright clothed volunteers in equally bright rafts sailing by.


The possibility of mishaps during swim is always high and the rafters were fully alert and on their toes.

While some were on their heads – 

Things were however soon set to change with new batches of swimmers pouring in as per their categories. The quarry was now littered with hands and legs and limbs fighting and splashing water all over to float past.


That was when a kick from an uncontrolled leg landed on my face. Its owner, a bulky man apologized and swam on. I was irritated and wanted to overtake him but good sense prevailed. I pulled away to check if my nose was bleeding. Things were fine but it did not stop me from being contemptuous of his futile efforts to swim with a poor technique and still poorer fitness. I also noticed the already tired swimmers clinging to the centre rope and tires like frogs clinging to surfaces.

Aware that the kick had triggered negative thoughts, I immediately gathered myself. I decided to swim away from the rope where most of the traffic was. This meant swimming some extra meters but swimming them in peace.

Maintaining a steady and relaxed pace, I was out of the water in 2 hours 41 mins having swum a 3.9 kms amidst huge applause. The timekeeper told me that I was the 5th one out. I smiled and headed towards the transition area reminding myself that I was only racing the ticking clock.

In about 10 minutes I had changed and was ready for the next venture. 180 kms of cycling track now lay ahead of me clearly lit by the extra strong sun of Chennai.

The track passed through desolate highways and occasional busy intersections. Aid stations were set up every 20 kms loaded with energy drinks, electrolytes, fruits, snickers, sandwiches and the ever helpful volunteers. I was averaging 20 kms an hour without much effort including the 5 mins pit stops.

The sun had by now crawled overhead to its most effective position. The long dry stretches of dry lefts and dry rights in the dry highways were thankfully something I was accustomed to. I just needed to maintain the momentum and keep the nutrition right for everything else to fall into place. 

Later on my way to the halfway mark, a cyclist from Pune tagged along. He was as strong as I was and so we decided to ride along. He told me of the 3 flat tires that he had to change so far. I too had my share of punctures in an earlier race, I recalled. At the half way mark we took a longer break of about 12 mins.

There were already athletes from Olympic and half iron distances who had finished and were celebrating.

 The athletes from Mumbai with Peter the founding member of CTC in the centre.

Peter, Vivek and his amazing 20 years old iron road bike.

This bike previously belonged to an athlete who did not use it anymore. He had passed it on to Vivek with instructions that the cycle be always handed over to a deserving athlete and never be sold.

Congratulating the happy party, me and my fellow cyclist headed to settle our unfinished affair. We had by now travelled about 60 kms together when at 40 kms to the cycle finish a foreigner rocketed past us in his fancy cycle.

My travelling companion decided to go for the kill too. I resisted the urge and we separated. It was every man for himself. I had to ration each ounce of energy for the 42 kms run ahead.

Eventually I completed the 180 kms of cycling in a healthy 8 hours 09 mins.

The transition area was filled with more success stories. Each had their own strong reasons. 

Some were inspired by their parents.

Some were an inspiring parent.

While some just inspired everyone.

Some did it for the pride and glory.

While others were humbled by victory

Some did it to break conventions

And some did it simply because they could.

Having witnessed these stories and more forming every minute, I changed to my running shorts, fuelled myself and broke into a run. I had to complete my story by bridging a 42 km run gap to the finish.

On my way out, Peter a former Belgium national who had settled down and started the CTC here in India, wished me luck. His jovial and down to Earth personality had already impressed me as did some of his photographs here.

Concentrating now on the run, I was aware of it being my first ever full marathon. However, self-belief and the almost 8 and half hours that I still had to the cut off time reassured me. Even if I walked the entire stretch I calculated, I would easily make it; and I was definitely stronger than to just walk. But one must expect a twist in every story. In my case, the dusty, desolate run stretch and the impending dark played their parts to dampen my spirits to an extent.

The running loop passed through a village where the people it appeared had made peace with sights of runners passing by now and then. This however did not stop a certain little boy to ask a certain question to me. “Uncle, how are you?” he enquired with a smile and a wave. After a 4 kms swim followed by 180 kms of cycling in the generous Chennai sun and now into a 5kms run with another 37 kms to go, that question suddenly took on a very sinister double meaning. I scrutinized that little face for any signs of mischief but found only innocence. Not wanting to bother him with a detailed answer, I just said “fine” and moved on.

Things were however far from being fine. My tongue refused to let in any of the food that I was having so far. I had to rely only on liquids and gels and yet be very careful with that. As it got dark and I showed up in one of the aid stations, Synthal a volunteer, decided to accompany me on his cycle. There could be looming safety issues from people, dogs or exhaustion at worse and he was to see me through those while I was to see myself through the never ending kilometres.

I put on my earphones and we moved at my pace. With the sun long gone it was now completely dark. I switched on my torch and ran avoiding the batches of potholes. Occasional trucks would pass by pushing me to the edge of the road and bathing me with dust.

The stray dogs now looked me in the eye. Without words being spoken, I was clearly communicated to. Their time to king over the deserted roads had come and intruders, least of all the running kind, were not welcome.
Up in the sky, it was a moonless night. I was somehow thankful for I had always associated the moon with artistic contemplation and did not want it to see me in the not-so-comfortable state that I was in now. Shops were beginning to close down and people were heading homes. Cows sat here and there with eyes closed and munching endlessly as if on chewing gums. For once, I was thankful for having a company in that world of unknown darkness.

At the next aid station, Vipul an ultra runner took over to accompany me. He had recently won an ultra marathon wherein he ran 80 kms in 8 hours. It is really amazing what people can do, I thought.

With him lighting up the way for me, I felt stronger and tried to keep up with a comfortable and constant pace that I had asked him to keep.

At a certain point when I stopped to pee, although I stood steady, I could not feel my legs. It was as if I was floating from my waist up. But instead of being worried I ended up congratulating myself. Numbness in the legs also meant numbness to any pain in them, I argued. Having thus convincingly tricked myself, I started the jog again. The words of Robert Frost looped endlessly in my head, “Miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.”

As we crossed aid stations and got closer to the finish, I wondered about the volunteers. They were up all night braving mosquitoes, sitting on a dark stretch of a desolate road under a CFL bulb, waiting for runners to show up maybe one in a 30 min span. With their table full of supplies they would help refuel the runners, give them ice, pain relief sprays and cheer and encourage them. Everyone has a reason. What was theirs, I wondered. Not able to find one, I perceived them as the ironmen with selfless motives to assist us athletes in our selfish motive to be an ironman. 

At about midnight with Vipul ahead of me and a volunteer behind me on his motorcycle lighting up my way, I crossed over the finish line amidst much cheers. I had completed my first ever full marathon in 6 hours 8 minutes and consequently the feared ironman race with a total time of 17 hours and 23 minutes as against the cut-off time of 20 hours. I was congratulated and clapped for by each and every one present with Peter giving me a bear hug. Strangely however, I was blank. I did not feel any happiness or pride; In fact I did not feel anything. I smiled for the camera with the vacuum inside perplexing me.

Next morning I took an auto to the airport which passed through the same route I had previously cycled in. I looked at the road which now mercilessly hid all traces of the dreams that hundreds of athletes had chased here just yesterday. It was now flocked by regular people going on their regular lives.

But then again, I wondered, do regular people not have dreams? Or are their dreams not worth it? And most importantly how exactly would one define the term “regular”? 

I watched the people. There were mothers with vegetable bags in one hand and their little ones in the other. Could I look at life from their perspective? Here they were, balancing a family, maintaining a household and sometimes their work lives too. And yet when as a kid you complained at the dining table about the dal not being quite right, she would lovingly fix it up not bothering you of the intricacies involved. Only years later when you lived alone and learnt to cook your food would you realize what it took to “fix” that dal. And then you would be too ashamed to even apologize.

Was she, I dared to think, any less of an ironman?

I looked at the old rickshaw puller who had to do trips in the sun for sustenance when others in his age group were expected to retire. He did not seem to have any aid stations he could stop by or CTC volunteers he could go to for energy drinks and gels. He would probably call it a happy day if he managed three square meals.

Was he, I dared to think, any less of an ironman?

I thought of the not-so-thin swimmer who had accidentally kicked me. Granted he was bulky, but does not the fact that he was competing talk high of his determination? You could strengthen your body in a year or two but it takes much longer, sometimes forever to strengthen your mind. He had it already.

And what about those frogs on the tires, I thought. Clearly they were not good swimmers. But despite that, they were there in that deep quarry for reasons stronger than their fears. Incidentally, I was not born into this world having pre-learnt to swim, I recalled. Would I have the heart to do what they had done when my swimming skills were only developing? If not, what gave me the right to compare them to clingy frogs?

I even thought myself naive at one point for having worried about the 65-70 year old athlete. He did not have to cover 226 kms on human power to be a certified ironman. The fact that he had the heart to show up for a race of this magnitude when others of his age group had retired proved beyond anything that he was already an ironman.

Although it was good to know later that his body was still as strong as his mind was.

In fact anyone with a goal in life that they followed up with passion and determination appeared to fit the expansive definition of an ironman to me.

Like a middle aged couple where the husband had raced a dream on behalf of them both.

Or an athlete recovering from injury and yet winning the race because of the support of his iron mother.

It is really amazing what people can do, I thought.

Later in the airplane, the evening sun had peeped in through the circular window with a ray of ochre yellow. I sat pondering on my own sense of inner vacuum. Here I was, having followed a strict diet and exercise routine everyday for a year, an ironman. I had lost 13 kgs including muscles and was now at the fittest best of my life and yet somehow, that ecstatic happiness or the narcissistic pride that I had expected to follow me on being an ironman, eluded me. It was as if nothing had happened.

There could be many or perhaps no explanation at all. The journey was perhaps rightfully more beautiful than the destination was. Perhaps life is after all an unending quest for happiness and finally you got what you thought would make you happy, life casually asks you to move on. Maybe that is how evolution shaped us up so we would always be on the move and keep dreaming and chasing them. Maybe it is about the chase itself and not the dream. Maybe that is what stops us from stagnating. Maybe that is what makes us all a potential ironman.

Contemplating on these revelations, I looked out at the clouds and their shapes; each different from the other and yet each curiously the same. Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you” played through the airplane speakers. A heavy medal and a new perspective to life was my take away on being an ironman. But otherwise I remained optimistically blank, for a new dream and a subsequent chase to take shape.

Sandeep Sengupta

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