Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Warrior on the run:The armed forces half marathon experience

They might call me crazy. I don’t blame them. Who else would travel 92 km in the wee hours of the morning in a foreign land, with just 5 hours of sleep? A runner of course. Yet this was no ordinary run. It was the armed forces half marathon, organized by the US armed forces inside the naval weapons station which was otherwise off-limits for civilians. Who would pass up such a golden opportunity to run inside an area that served as an ammunitions depot for several wars fought in the past? Not me for sure.

Concord is a city which is situated north east of San Francisco. It took about an hour and 20 minutes from Stanford during the day in peak traffic hours. Driving through the reserves, foothills and wildflowers, I reached Todos Santos Plaza, situated in downtown of concord. Registered runners had to pick up their running bibs and T shirt here. It was a beautiful area, surrounded with a lot of restaurants and shops. The park was picturesque with green lawns, rose bushes and a pretty fountain in the middle. People sat in the benches, munching a sandwich or sipping their coffee from the Starbucks joint in the neighborhood. I spotted the bib collection area and collected my packet. “The run starts at 6:30 am sharp. You might want to come at 6:00 am.” The organizers said. I nodded.

Usually runners face insomnia the day before an event. Mostly due to the fear that they may sleep through the alarm. I tossed and turned that night, dreading what may happen if I slept through it. With barely 5 hours of sleep, I left my place at 4:45 am and reached Concord by 6:00 am. The area was bustling with runners wearing colors of the American flag. Incidentally I wore a red t shirt that day so I managed to blend in with the crowd dressed in reds, blues and stripes. Some were doing their stretches and warm ups before their run while others were engaged in a friendly banter with their groups. I stood there and surveyed the crowd. The young and old were assembled there. I was surprised to see a good number of Indians as well and from their chatter I gathered it was their first run. 

A loud voice boomed across the park asking runners to assemble near the start line. The national anthem was sung and the announcer thanked runners for showing up at an event dedicated purely for the armed forces. I felt goosebumps just being there, despite the fact I was from another country. I had great respect for the armed forces. Their ability to lay down their lives for the nation never ceased to intrigue and amaze me. 

We started off the run sharp at 6:30. The weather was quite pleasant in the morning and it was nice to run the first 5 km inside the city. I slowly got into a rhythm and comfortable pace. However, the lack of sleep began to catch up with me and my eyelids began to feel heavy. Stopping at the aid station serving water and energy drinks, I splashed some water on my face and took a sip of the energy drink. Feeling much better, I entered the naval weapons station. 

What a place! I gazed around the chain of small hills, surrounded with tufts of dried grass. If I didn’t know about this place being a weapons station, I could have easily mistaken it for a meadow. Spread in bountiful acres, the entire area took my breath away as I ran along the road. Some runners stopped to click pictures on their mobiles and I did the same. So, this was the place where ammunitions were stored. It made me wonder what this place would have looked like during wars. Just thinking about the secret codes and strategies devised here made me shiver. Feeling goosebumps prickling my tender skin, I was awestruck by the majestic splendor of this place. The sudden excitement dispelled my sleep and by now I was wide awake. My body refused to recognize any sign of fatigue just thinking about those selfless souls who had served their country with pride. How many sleepless nights would have been spent in fighting for their nation, I thought. 

I saw a big hill approaching at the 11thkm. My stomach clenched into a nervous knot just looking at the intimidating slope. However, the view from the top made the arduous climb really worthwhile. 

I stared in awe at the sight of small green shrubs towered by dried grass and the illuminating sheet of grey clouds hovering above like a protective parent. It was one of those moments when I wished everything would just come to a standstill so that I could bask in this surreal moment forever. The quick footsteps of runners climbing up the hill brought me back to reality. The clock was ticking seconds away with every heartbeat of mine that was pulsating through my veins. It was a downhill for another mile and there was music being played just at the point when the slope descended downwards. The beats pepped the runners to help them recover from a vigorous climb and reach the finish line in a strong manner. It was just a few more miles before we were handed the finishers medal. 

It was another incentive to run strong as this time finishers would be rewarded with the commemorative armed forces medal. Despite tiredness catching up with my legs, I continued going in a strong manner, aided by energy drink and gel. I reached a point which was just 2 km away from the finish line. A couple of men were running along with their dog. “Here boy here,” they beckoned to him when the dog came towards me. I smiled and waved saying “A good running partner.” The men grinned. My legs were almost giving up-a result of a stressful week and sleepless nights coupled with all the triathlon training. I kept going and soon heard the announcer’s voice. The finish line was just around the corner. Gathering all my reserves and clenching my fists tightly, I ran and ran until I crossed the finish line and was garlanded that precious medal.

I gazed at it in awe. Round and huge, the US flag along with the army bunker was carved on it. Humbled and exhilarated at the same time, I held it proudly while the official photographers clicked my picture. 

My body was now invaded by the famous runner’s high-a feeling of having completed a good run. I couldn’t wait to get back and share my experience with my family. It was an hour and 30 minutes before I would reach home. As I called for the uber, I realized that travelling 90 plus km back and forth was worth it. It isn’t every day that I get an opportunity to run in one of the most privileged area that has held a great deal of significance for the country. What made it special was the fact this run was just couple of days before the Memorial Day on May 28th!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Under the Sea: Scuba diving in the great barrier reef

 The great barrier reef is an enchanting world by itself. I could see it through my saucer shaped snorkel masks which looked more like a window rather than a pair of goggles. In a way, it was a window to a whole new world that wasn't visible to the naked eye so easily. I had to put on a suit that made me look like an astronaut, carry a cylinder on my back-they call it the oxygen tank and wear those elongated pair of flip-flops that was commonly referred to as fins. On top of that I had to enter deep waters to witness this scintillating world of corals and shoal of fish present in different shapes, sizes and colors. 

Since the time I had read Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, I was fascinated by the mystical underwater world. My childhood was spent on the sandy beaches watching the waves lash against the shore, sometimes in a friendly manner and sometimes angrily. I secretly hoped to see a mermaid on the shores but I was scoffed for this futile fantasy of mine. “Mermaids don’t exist”, I was told much to my disappointment. Yet I never gave up with a hope that one day, I would actually explore the world beneath these tumultuous waves. The day had arrived.

Surrounded by limitless contours of blue, with an occasional ray of sunlight penetrating through the waves, shades of white, pink and yellow hairy follicles swayed in a rhythmic manner.It almost appeared like human hair bobbing in the murmur of the gentle flow and I longed to touch them with my delicate fingers. I watched the sturdy creamy brown rocks hold forte on the ocean floor as I swam near them. A shoal of fish came out instantly swimming deftly, their fins moving in a synchronized manner. Their bodies were a tinge of green tossed with shades of pink and their scales were so apparent that it resembled a stroke of an artist’s brush. The mother fish led her off springs to some of those corals and nibbled on them hungrily. It was their lunch time, I was signaled by my tour guide as he demonstrated it by a sign, in other words the underwater language since we couldn’t communicate verbally. 

So this was what Ariel's world was like, I thought excitedly, referring to the little mermaid and my thoughts drifted away to the sequence of the story and the characters. 

A few creatures shaped like a bat headed towards us. I recognized them as the manta rays which had large mouths and horn shaped fins. They were searching for food and brushed past us rather haughtily as though we were obstructing their way to a fine spread of delicacies. The corals below were shaped like a big cottage which housed several kinds of fish. Behind this cottage existed a moss green carpet on the floor with some long elongated black things that resembled grubs. My trainer picked one of them and stroked it gently. The sea cucumbers as I remembered them seemed to enjoy being patted and stroked. A small purple spot was clearly visible on its silky smooth black skin. A tiny crab had perched on the sea cucumber enjoying the warmth of the furry skin. 

Spotting some seaweeds, I swam towards it quite forgetting my trainer’s instructions about not to venture too far. A couple of clown fish were dancing and making merry. 

They chased one another playfully and swam from one point to another with such speed that my eyeballs were fatigued just trying to watch them. The coral city boasted of some exotic species including a green turtle which swam past me. With his hard shell, spots on his face and neck and his flaps, he made a handsome picture despite his droopy eyes which appeared as though he was down by a few pegs of single malt. Unlike other creatures, he appeared to be alone and I followed him eager to know where he was headed. 

He entered another area a little further from the coral city. Varied shades of green showcased the aquatic garden as he nibbled on some of the plants. After one nibble he would look up, chew before he took another mouthful. He seemed to enjoy eating alone unlike humans who always preferred company during their meals. Speaking of company, I looked around to see I was alone and had ventured far from my guide and group. 

I began to panic. All I could see was blue ripples and bubbles. I tried to scream but my regulator from my breathing apparatus was firmly inserted in my mouth. Besides who would hear me in a world that was dominated by the gentle yet enormous waves. They would clamp your mouth shut if you dared to misbehave in their abode. I felt a burning sensation as though my body was on fire as I looked around frantically, hoping to spot a familiar figure of a human body wrapped in a wetsuit with fins and mask. 

 I swam through the ripples of blue, trying to find my way to the coral city. Finally, I finally spotted that couple of clown fish and swam towards them and soon entered the familiar world of pinks and whites. I noticed a pair of purple fins ahead and recognized them as my guide’s. My guide circled his thumb and index finger into an ‘o’ while the rest of the 3 fingers pointed upwards. A sign to ask if I was ok. I signaled the same thing and he gave me a thumbs up sign. 

The parrot fish had finished their lunch and swimming in circles to burn their calories just like humans went for their walks after dinner. It was time to leave the coral city as we made our way up to the surface where our boat was docked. I glanced one last time at the resplendent follicles waving goodbye and they glistened in the pristine blue ripples, growing smaller and smaller as I went up further. It appeared like a distant dream. 

However, I realized it wasn’t one when I woke up the next morning to read the headlines that the great barrier reef was under the threat of the dreaded global warming. Coral city was in danger..