What I learned from the forced running in 1964, at age 14, is now explained by scientific research.
Running releases endorphins that are similar to the pain killer, morphine. It also releases cannabis-like molecules that some use to get 'high' or for medicinal benefits. These also activate dopamine neurotransmitters that are conducive to learning and memorizing, and getting a sense of pleasure by doing something, thereby motivating one to repeat an action, such as running, inventing, singing, or writing-the dopamine drive.
But running alone could not correct what was happening to me. I needed nourishment that was lacking. I was suffering from stresses that was debilitating.
Fatherless at age 11, I was raised by a widow mother who squandered whatever little father had left for us in cash by feeding people and relatives I did not know existed when father was alive, and observing all the festivals father could afford, but she could only after selling properties, which a very few in the village had the money or desire to buy. Pleasing others by cooking and gifting, and receiving their praises were her dopamine drive.
Random running was no panacea of the psychosomatic illnesses I was suffering.
Mother took me to village quacks who gave me talismans-cylindrical or cuboid silver capsules stuffed with a tightly folded thin paper with Sanskrit mantras written on it, and the open end sealed with melted candle wax. I had three or four of those-hoping the latest one would work-tied to a black chord and wrapped around my thin upper left arm. The fit was not good, as the weight was too much for the loosely held chord. My classmates became curious, noticed the bunch, fondled them, and started teasing me for using performance-enhancing talismans. Some thought I came in first in the class because of the talismans, and not of talent and studying hard.
Headmaster got concerned that his top student of a class was missing classes and falling behind. He tried on me what he might have tried in similar situations on other students. Not an openly practicing religious person himself, he uttered a few Arabic words over a glass of water and asked me to drink the blessed liquid in his presence in the school veranda.
Not being confident of his own 'placebo' prescription, he then went to neighbouring villages and small towns to lure away their top students to have some insurance in case the sickly prospect he already had could not come through. To a devoted headmaster, someone from the school placing among the top in the board exam was priority one.
But I fought back to keep my balance and class position. Sports (playing soccer and volleyball) were a part of that survival protocol. Running was limited to short distances, on and off, and whatever was needed for chasing soccer balls (real or anything soft and round) with other kids.
I competed well with my previous and freshly-recruited competitors in the class room, still maintaining, with minimum reading, the top position in the class, which continued to earn me a lot of praise and respect from teachers, students in upper and lower classes, relatives, and villagers.
That was my dopamine drive to continue doing well.
The word got around and some kids of our acquaintances from other villages came to our house to watch me study. Headmaster was cautiously relieved. He once praised my tenacity of purpose-a trait in its nascent stage then, but I would rely on more and more while running marathons later.
But my health issues persisted before and during the SSC exam. I felt stress-induced discomfort in many parts of my body: throat, brain, spine, groin, and abdomen. What helped during those moments of deep despair was repeating a few words of self-encouragements. When running marathons later, starting at age 50, I learnt that what I had done at a young age was what sports psychologists were recommending to marathon runners to ride out the "I can't do this anymore" moments, so as to drown out the negative thoughts with reinforcing positive words.
I remembered writing my SSC exams in Chandpur town, chewing ginger roots frequently to clear a very annoying and threatening lump or tightness in my throat. The invigilator from a competing school from Chandpur, who knew who I was-the top of the class from Matlab High-was keeping an eye on me, not to help, but to deter. He once refused to supply me extra sheets to write on saying there was no time, when there was at least five minutes left. In one exam, watching from a distance, he came rushing to me with excitement, as if he found what he had been waiting for, and asked me to show what I was hiding in my left hand. His disappointment could not be hidden when he discovered those were ginger roots, not cheating papers with answers he was hoping for.
In Sydney while running, I recalled a meeting with the headmaster in which both of us were standing on the backside of the school building, with his eyes fixed on my face, perhaps thinking of the sufferings he knew I went through, but still succeeding, and making his school and him proud. I also sensed disappointment and sadness in his voice when disclosing what the top board officials had done to a fatherless minority child (headmaster's own words) by lowering his board ranking. He thought aloud for filing a complaint, but decided against it for fear of repercussion to his school. He then consoled me, encouraged me to work harder.
If headmaster were at the finish line in Sydney that afternoon among the BUET alumni, he would have said: "That's the Tapan I know from Matlab. A tenacious son of my Pundit!" referring to my father, his school's Sanskrit teacher.
Tapan Chakrabarty, first Bangladeshi to complete marathons in all continents, writes from Calgary, Canada. The next instalment will appear tomorrow