On a balmy sun-drenched spring morning in Calgary, Canada, when the cricket-crazy world was getting ready for the 2016 World T20 final between West Indies and England at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, India, I, an avid fan of the game, was preparing for my own game at the University of Calgary (UC) gym. I had to. 18 weeks earlier, I had set a goal of running a marathon in Vancouver on 1 May, 2016. On Sunday, it was to be my longest training run of 32km; about 10 km shy of the full marathon distance of 42.2km. A cardiac patient in a Calgary hospital only a year ago, I was not sanguine of how it would go, though.
The night before, I was reading other runners' experiences in Vancouver. I took comfort that I also had run my debut marathon there in 2000. But the course has changed. The start had been moved away from downtown to a park named after Queen Elizabeth, who is adored by English Canada, so much so that some highways, schools, and parks in every province, except French Quebec, have to be named after her. A hill had been added at around 10 km, increasing the course's degree of difficulty. The Pacific seawall had been included to add variety and a viewing pleasure. The changes have elevated the Vancouver Marathon to the enviable list of top-ten destination marathons in the world by Forbes magazine.
That night, by happenstance, I came across an intriguing article in Runner's World, espousing the potency of incorporating psychological training into physical training for marathon performance enhancement. An eye-opening aspect of the hybrid training is visualization --- preparing the mind for difficult situations expected during the race.
On that spring day, when the weather was pleasant outside, I opted for running inside. I wanted to be among humans, in case I needed to be hospitalized. I wanted to simulate the elevation profile of the Vancouver course by adjusting, at specific distances, the inclines of a treadmill. I also wanted to be near my nourishments: water, sports drink, salt tablets, and carbohydrate gels, all of which I will be ingesting during the real event. Sunday's was a 'run and ingestion rehearsal' for the May 1st marathon.
At 8:20 am, the state-of-the-art treadmill belt started rolling to reach the set speed, leaving no other options for my still lethargic legs but to roll. In no time, the treadmill turned into my 'pace bunny' --- a designated runner, dressed like a bunny, running at a constant pace to pace other runners for a target finish time.
The treadmill provided choices of four courses from New Zealand and USA. It was also displaying my heart rate. A ceiling-to-floor mirror was providing feedbacks on my gait and gaiety. I raised my right shoulder a bit to align it with the left. My gait looked good, and I was feeling alright.
The first video was a run through Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand. The eye-catching scenery on the screen made me dissociate from the arduous task of running. Dissociation and association are two skills sports psychologists recommend to runners. Dissociation, thinking of something other than running, is recommended when a runner is in distress. Association, concentrating on the task of running, is recommended when the runner needs to stay alert to achieve a time target.
At around 10 km, I introduced Vancouver's Camosun Hill at an incline of 4.5%. Feeling out of sorts on the hill at one point, I checked the heart-rate display. It was past the upper limit of where I should be. I reduced the treadmill speed to rein it in. Always donning a grumpy face, I smiled for a change.. The image from the wall mirror smiled back. The smile made me feel relaxed and stronger. I stored the idea of smiling in my memory for the May 1st run.
While on the 1.5 km long Camosun Hill, I thought about the hills in the Mount Everest Marathon I ran on 29 May, 2013. One hill there was so precipitous and so oxygen-lean that I could barely keep standing on my glycogen-depleted legs. With head spinning, heart pounding, and with a history of fainting since childhood, I was once forced to cling onto a Himalayan tree trunk on the trail-side so as not to suffer a face-down fall on a rock-strewn trail. Compared to that, the Camosun Hill felt less daunting and less taxing, at least on the treadmill at the UC gym. I also stored that comparison and feeling in my memory bank to be tapped into on May 1st.
Mind aviated to Kolkata's Eden Gardens. I could feel the excitement in the stadium and the surrounding areas, with which I am familiar from my staying in India in 1971 for nine months as a refugee, and many subsequent visits. Kolkata, after all, is my 'city-in-law', one of whose daughters married me in May 1979.
Running on the treadmill, I thought of an upcoming treadmill stress test at the Talisman Centre in Calgary. Talisman in Bengali means kabach. When at Matlab High School, I had a bunch of them dangling from my left upper arm. Mother made me wear them for protection against jinx and sickness. One day, while taking a bare-chested bath in a pond by the school, I noticed a boy eyeing my torso with a mischievous smile. I felt uncomfortable letting him into my secrets. In a class room later that day, a boy, sitting next to me, took an unusual interest in my upper body. He started groping my upper arms. He then declared that my top-of-the-class position was not because of talent or studying hard, but because of what he had just felt. That he thought was not fair. Another boy could not resist reaching for the 'sacred thread' --- a string of seven threads a Brahmin wears --- beneath my shirt. He made an imaginative but hilarious (I still chuckle writing about it) comment as to its real purpose, after figuring out how far it had reached. I took those as actions and expressions of child-like curiosity and innocence, with no intent to harm or harass. They also did not go too far for too long aware that the then Matlab High School headmaster --- the late Waliullah Patwari, a disciplinarian of repute and a result-focussed educator with an oft-expressed fondness for his top-of-the-class students --- would not tolerate intolerance.
At Matlab High, I practiced visualizing (without knowing the term then) and praying for good results. Before each test, I used to follow the same ritual that mother had taught. As the invigilator was handing out question papers to others around me, I used to close my eyes and utter: 'I pray to you mother Swarasati (the Goddess of Learning) for the questions, the answers to all of which I know.' My prayers were answered more 'often' than 'not'. ('Often' when I studied hard; 'not' when I could not study due to my sickness or father's death.)
Visualizing and praying can be a potent combination. The former puts one's mind in a positive frame and the latter strengthens belief in a positive outcome through divine blessing or intervention. Words-of-mouth data suggest prayers by patients or their family members or close friends may help some heal sooner in hospitals, but a scientific study questioned the healing power of prayer by strangers (31 March, 2006, NY Times). The discrepancy could be due to absence of proper visualization in strangers' prayers.r
(The concluding part will appear tomorrow)
Tapan Chakrabarty-a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from the University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor, an innovator, and a columnist-writes from Calgary, Canada