I turned 45 last month. August 2015 I was in a wheel chair sitting on the tarmac at Nairobi airport.
While I had a history of trouble with my knees, an allergic reaction to a third generation antibiotic crippled my ankles. I had taken the antibiotic on my birthday to make a client meeting in Kenya that couldn’t be rescheduled.
There are no shortcuts to curing a bad flu that doesn’t want to be cured, health or client meetings. Hence two weeks, 4,368 kilometers and 9 hours later it was me, wheelchair, Nairobi airport and tarmac.
It took four more months before I could walk independently. The wheel chair was ditched end September. The walking stick dispatched in December.
This summer in June I promised myself that I will run the 400m sprint in less than 60 seconds. Not even close to the mark required to qualify for a city or county event, but still a big leap of faith for someone who could barely walk, let alone run, a year ago.
It started off as a dare with my two athletic children who train and compete with a local track and field club.
In February, just a few months after regaining the license to walk, I decided to go for a short stroll next to a football field in Tehran (yup, I used to get around quite a bit, wheel chair or not). The early morning stroll turned into an impromptu shuffle to see if my ankles and knees had recovered. I could barely cover half a length before running out of breath.
But that first stroll/jog/roll/shuffle was the turning point. I ran out of battery and steam but my knees and ankles held. The next big step was to see if I could train myself to complete a full lap around the field. Ideally with my kids as they warmed up for their daily training session with their team mates.
That goal took four weeks.
It was funny. When you have been out of shape for as long as I had been, you only want to run in the dark or at first light. You don’t want anyone to see you run at the risk of embarrassing yourself. When you start you are not sure if you are going to last 50 meters or 500. You also don’t know that within the old clunker you call your body, what will give first. The battery, the tires, the suspension, the engine or all of them together. Still, by April I had graduated to a point where I met my original goal. I ran a warm up lap with my kids at their pace. It was a big day; wasn’t a surprise because I had been practicing and I knew I was up for it, but still a big day for all of us.
It’s been seven months since that fateful early morning encounter with the football field in Tehran. I now consistently beat my 13 year old daughter Salwa across her selection of middle distances but I am still too slow for my 17 year old son.
To be fair I still can’t keep pace with her in training or take her on when she is completely fresh. I have to pick my battles with her and time them so that she is sufficiently drained out for me to win. If I can do 70% of her work with her on her pace, it is a great day for me. I think I have another 6–8 weeks before she too will also speed away like my son and leave me behind in the dust.
I can no longer work a full day because my day needs to shut down around noon if I want to make it to the 5 pm training session on the track. Noon because I have learned that the best training runs are done on an empty stomach. Power down at noon, followed by food, followed by the school run, followed by power nap, followed by a liter of water, followed by the drive to the track.
Social life is a dead zone because the entire family now works around the tartan track. From designing breakfast meals to figuring out what we are having for dinner, we are all consumed by the impact it will have on our performance on track the next day.
The three consistent themes in my life now are pain, sleep and hunger. On the days that I run from 6 pm till the next morning my legs are on fire. It doesn’t hurt in a continuum. It hurts in specific locations based on the work I did the day before. Shin splints and lower knees on the days we sprint. Thighs and knees on the days we do squats. Calves and hamstrings post distance work. Ankles most mornings. Everything together when I put in the effort to beat Salwa, my daughter.
I have to take a pre-training afternoon nap otherwise the energy is missing in the 5 pm session. If I am not careful there are days when I nod off in the mornings at work also. If I make the mistake of doing a training session on Sunday morning, I spend the rest of the day in snooze mode. On the fitness front I have lost about 15% of my body weight but as I scale up training I now feel hungry all the time. There are nights when I wake up at odd hours feeling as if I haven’t had been fed for days. But I can’t eat like my kids do without throwing my blood chemistry in turmoil.
I have to admit, I have gotten greedier with age and practice.
In February all I wanted was to complete just one warm up lap. Then I wanted to do it with my kids at their pace without dying off a heart attack or a stroke. End of April, the goal had changed again to running a 400m sprint at a pace that would not embarrass my kids. July I felt that I had a shot at breaking 60 seconds this year. Come September and I think I want and can do more.
There is no limit to what you would want once you start running again. We all chase the rush that comes from pushing beyond our personal limits. From opening doors in our minds and walking through walls to conquering summits we felt were unreachable. Even more fun if you could do it every day with your kids in attendance.
My personal Kilimanjaro is to break 50 seconds in the quarter mile before I turn 50. I call it my 50 before 50 dream. My moon shot. My personal best this year is 78.17 seconds. The last time I broke 60 was 27 years ago. So it will be a long and slow road but that is how moon shots are.
My assessment is that I have a chance but I would have to quit work completely and start training full time for the next four years if I really really want to hit that goal.
If I hit that goal, I would be one of the fastest quarter milers in my city and province but I still won’t be good enough for the national team. As long as my two kids are faster than me and pick up that slot, I would be just as happy.
In one way, it is a common bond that all three of us share. We are all chasing 50 seconds. We share the dream, the aspiration and the pain.
Amin, my sprinter son, will probably be the first to break it. Between high school, writing and computer science he schedules like mad to find time for training because he certainly doesn’t want me to beat him to it. Salwa will possibly be next. If she does it in the next four years, she will make it to the final heats in Tokyo in 2020 in both 400m and 800m sprint. It’s a really long shot. No Pakistani athlete has been able to do that in the last 70 years. But she still has better odds than her father doing it before he turns 50.
From running a single sub 90 second 400m a week in May, my endurance has now grown to a point where I can consistently run 3–4 of them in a single training session. I just need sufficient rest in between. My kids do repeats within ten minutes of each other. I need three times as much for recovery. Mentally and physically I am ready to break the next barrier of a sub 70 second sprint. But I have not been able to. There is a door in my mind that I need to open and walk through. I will do it as soon as I can find the keys.
I train 5 to 6 days a week. My wife and kids reminds me every day that I am no longer 16 and because of that I work off my own pace. Which is really really slow. I add mileage and speed at a glacial pace. The surprising part is how quickly all that glacial movement adds up.
I picked the 400m sprint because my daily mileage is under 3K per session per day and I can manage that without bits of my anatomy either fading or falling off. I also do strength work which has played a big role in improving my time and kept my legs going. That benefit dies off as you increase the distance.
The big benefit of being 45 is that I have a fair idea of my limits and my body comes to a full stop when I hit them — in auto mode without any conscious effort. No exploration or thinking is required. It’s what my coach said the other day — you are in the age group where there won’t be any warning signs or pain. If you push yourself beyond the barrier, you will just drop dead on the track.
I don’t believe that I will ever make it to any national event or even the provincial team. I am not even sure of the odds of breaking 50 seconds. But I am very clear about my motivation. I run and train essentially to embarrass my kids into running faster.
They can afford to come behind a fellow sprinter on the track but they cannot be beaten by their out of shape, over weight, 45 year old father with two torn cartilages who couldn’t run to save his life for over twenty year. There can be no greater shame.
I asked an old friend once about another impossible dream.
80 year old John Whitney, the retired turnaround specialist was legally blind, had two knees replacement surgeries behind him and flew every Tuesday from Florida to NYC to teach us at Columbia, Wednesday to Friday. To this day his one line answer still resonates with me.
“There is only one way to find out….”
Athletics changed my life and made me who I am. It wasn’t that I went mad in Tehran, I have always been a sucker for impossible dreams. Running track in high school made it worse.
I see the impact it has on a daily basis on my kids and other children I work with. They are hungrier, more disciplined, more accepting of failure and personal limitations. They also refuse to take no for an answer, are more likely to take a stand and question the status quo. These are all great gifts that I could never give them, but running the 400 and 800 meter sprints did.
Twenty seven years after I stopped running, the gift is still giving.