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Tathagata Chowdhury speaks about marathon races

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional

Tathagata Chowdhury | Published 17.02.23, 05:10 PM
Artist Anukta Ghosh, who is a ‘bus’ or pacer, and Prema Rajaram at the Kolkata Full Marathon 2023

Artist Anukta Ghosh, who is a ‘bus’ or pacer, and Prema Rajaram at the Kolkata Full Marathon 2023

The Telegraph

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore’. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.” I’ve just quoted Haruki Murakami, who is also an ultramarathoner. He wishes his tombstone to read ‘At least he never walked’.

My fifth 42km finisher medal, at the Kolkata Full Marathon held on February 5, 2023, made me reflect on marathon running with a new perspective as I search for the answer to a question that is often asked by associates and acquaintances. They question the logic and reason why a sane person would run 42.195km on a winter Sunday morning when the moon is still shining bright and street dogs that guard their territories at night snarl at you.


Six hours 29 minutes and 14 seconds is not a time to boast of, but this is my improved time and that’s the first lesson. I compete with myself. As the body grows older, it needn’t grow weaker or slow down. It’s in the mind. Marathon running is not just physical but also a cerebral preparation. Painter Anukta Ghosh, in her forties and in her third year of long-distance running, says: “I run to keep myself mentally and physically fit.”

The runner who was the ‘bus’ for runners who completed 10km in 1 hour 10 minutes credits running with being the “simple solution to the everyday chaos of life.” Like Murakami, she too maps running with the benefits to her passion and profession. She says, “Being a professional artist, I need to keep myself constantly motivated. In that, running aligns with my striving towards personal excellence in art as I do not run to compete with others, but to better my last performance and for the sheer joy of it.”

In my role as a film studies facilitator, I often cite The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. Last Sunday, while running the marathon, when the body and the mind were in constant communication, and I the mere spectator ‘enduring’ the drama between the two, could connect the hero’s journey with the challenging 42km stretch. My strategy was to feel the story unfold at each 7km milestone.

(L-R)A bunch of runners show off their medals, Tathagata Chowdhury, founder, Theatrecian, (left) with Jaidev Raja at the marathon

(L-R)A bunch of runners show off their medals, Tathagata Chowdhury, founder, Theatrecian, (left) with Jaidev Raja at the marathon


This is the stage when the body and the mind are raring to go. In most long-distance races, there are professionals — mentors — who guide the runners with appropriate exercises and warmups. Ideally, in the first hour, an average marathon runner is equipped to clock 8km. A pacer or a ‘bus’ is the mentor runner who has a flag which reads a given time. Racers try to reach the finish line within a specific time. Journalist and health enthusiast Prema Rajaram has been running since 2015. She says: “What keeps me motivated is when I know I am my own competition and each time it is about challenging my mind and body. When the body is giving up, the mind takes over, and I realise then the importance of mental strength.” It’s obvious that along with strength training, the mental health of a marathoner keeps getting sharpened. She adds: “I love motivating other runners along the way even when I am not a pacer. Doing that gives me the motivation to keep going and have fun too.”


In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami talks about his learnings from long-distance running. “No matter how mundane some actions might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.” By the second 7km, which means by the start of the eighth kilometre, the body, which had initially found adventure, perhaps because of the newness of the challenge, will acclimatise. The pain becomes part of existence. The body is now familiar with probable fatigue and, most importantly, there’s a certain development of ‘will’ that will evolve into willpower. In the Rocky cult classics, we hear Rocky Balboa say “it’s not how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” That tests character and the second 7km is about building that, it is the phase that gives clarity about what it will take to reach the finishing line.


In the Joseph Campbell graph of The Hero’s Journey, this space occupies maximum screen time. During a full marathon, this is the time when we are starting the 15th kilometre and it’ll extend till the 21st. In a half marathon, the racer would finish the race at this stage. The rest is a distraction. There may be a tendency to slow down. This is the stage where drama is introduced. There’s no drama without conflict. Rest against moving on is the drama that is created at this stage. Author Gena Showalter writes: “Never give up. If you are breathing, there’s hope.” First-time marathoners recognise this as the moment of giving up. Muscle injuries usually develop from this phase of the marathon. One is tempted to rest and some are satisfied to look back. There are others who feel the fatigue, but stay focused on finishing the race.


This is the phase of revelation. There comes a certain admiration for the self that isn’t narcissism but genuine appreciation. We are now in the 22nd to the 28th kilometre of the 42km race. Enough determination is developed to crush any remote self-doubt, or so one believes. The body has succumbed to the will and the mind knows there’s no stopping. A new identity of the self is revealed. This is also the stage of ‘the myth’. The body is defeated by fatigue and it now knows no better but to reach the destination. Sense and sensibility also tend to relax. This is the time when a rank amateur runner might substitute running with walking, which is not what a wise man will advise. One basks in the liberty of believing that a bit of rest and a lot of water consumption and painrelieving spray will help, but the point of no return or the belly’s whale is lurking around the corner.


In most potboilers, the audience is convinced that the hero will face the inevitable doom. During the 28th to the 35th kilometre in a marathon, the body has almost given up. The previous phase of the marathon was perhaps just a myth. The ‘ordinary’ about our existence is exposed. Confidence abandons the runner and the temptation to give up is never more seductive. George Sheehan, cardiologist and former medical editor of Runner’s World magazine, says: “Of all the races, there’s no better stage for heroism than a marathon.” This is when a certain misery strikes which non-runners will never know. Martine Costello, a journalist and content strategist adds: “There’s no way you are not crossing the finish line.”


The transformed hero returns, with the elixir. A ‘finisher’ medal validates a marathon runner’s worth. Most runners preserve their bib plates as well. The bib number helps track a runner. This is the moment that seems to make complete sense of the madness. A marathoner feels it’s difficult to train for a marathon. It’s more difficult to not be able to train for a marathon. It’s truly neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride.

Calcutta has much to thank Jaidev Raja, a seasoned ultramarathoner, for. It’s his vision and initiative that Calcutta has a 42km race to boast of. The annual event, which is usually held on the first Sunday of February, is an important day for the few who ignore the morning chill and run a marathon!

Last updated on 17.02.23, 05:10 PM

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