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When finishing fourth became a game changer

April 1991

After years of asthma suffering, things seem to be turning around. I was still living in a city with cold winters but.. I had started making an effort. Picked up that beautiful sport called squash. Had little natural talent but boy did I run around wheezing trying to chase that little ball. That first winter in Jamshedpur was probably my first where I didn’t have an ‘attack’ that needed serious intervention. My lungs were feeling so good, I even started celebrating by smoking with the boys. As always, I digress.

I was a Systems Trainee at Tata Steel, a company so uniquely employee-friendly and so uniquely invested in employee development, they even had a 3-4 week Adventure Course baked into their training curriculum. The adventure course was a company-sponsored trip to the Himalayas – 3 days of rock climbing training followed by 2.5 weeks of trekking, a final day of dashing up a mountain with no rucksack, and capped with a day of whitewater rafting and a 5k race.

Those weeks were the 3 best weeks of my single life.

Our seniors had injected a healthy dose of fear about those 3 weeks.  They weren’t going to be easy.. especially for couch potatoes or folks who were playing extreme sports with the chambers of their lungs.

Fear can make you do stuff.

A scratchy game or two of squash (while enjoyable) wasn’t going to help me, I concluded. So I started running.

Slowly I built up some mileage. Pace was hard to find as wheezing was always around the corner. But the mental confidence was growing.

The mileage and confidence grew to the point that I stopped being terrified every time Adventure Course was mentioned.

*******

I carried an inhaler with me on that trip but I never had to use it. That sums up one part of that trip for me. As we got into the business end of the trekking, I found myself bounding up the hills with the leaders… every now and then racing against squash jocks and holding my own. Boy! Was the mountain air great or what?

The 5k race

Considering the dream run I was having last few weeks, I shouldn’t have been surprised with my performance at the 5k race once we reached Rishikesh.

We were a group of 35 (5 were girls). I’m not even sure if the distance was 5k. Not that it mattered.

After 3 weeks of trekking with a non-trivial weight on your shoulders, running was so liberating.

We took off and pretty much everybody was  eating up the k’s at a comfortable pace. It’s only when we got onto the last main road (before that final left turn towards our hostel and the end point) that I realized that I was doing pretty darn well. There was Vochak in the lead (unsurprisingly), behind him was Mishra, and then there was me. That’s when it hit me!

What? Me in third place and just under 300 meters to go? It was unfrikkin’ believable.

Not that the rest of the guys were waaaaay behind me. I could *hear* them behind me. 10 seconds after I ‘discovered’ I was in 3rd position, Rupak Verma passed me and I finally finished 4th. There was a bit of controversy because Mishra had decided that this was a different kind of race… fastest path to the end would win. So he calculated (rightly) that if he took the earlier diagonal’ish left turn, he could finish in front of Vochak. What rules, eh?

As expected, a Vochak/Mishra kerfuffle ensued..  the race director awarded the win to Vochak and, instead of outright disqualification, Mishra was awarded second spot.

Oblivious to all the commotion, every fiber of my being was exulting with “I came fourth.. I came fourth.. I came fourth!”

Someday I’ll return to Uttarakashi and try to set a new 5k PB.

P.S. An absolute must-read is this related 2017 How to beat asthma Atlantic article – apparently mountain air does wonders to asthmatics – go figure!

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