How Zeeshan ran the Boston Marathon

How I Came To Run The Boston Marathon

by Zeeshan Hasan

After my O levels, my parents' lifelong dreams were finally fulfilled by my obtaining admission into Notre Dame College and the hitherto-only-dreamt-of world of Bangla medium education.  Hence began events that would, a dozen years later, lead me to run first five hundred miles, and then twenty-six-point-two.  It just goes to show what those O levels can do to you.

It was in the mid nineteen-eighties that I did my O levels. Twilight years: punctuated as they were by frequent hartals, most of my school days have decomposed into an amorphous mixture of school and holidays.  The University of London, of course, is above such pesky local irregularities; and the O levels actually had to be taken seriously.  As family and teachers reminded me tirelessly, "If you mess them up, you'll become a rikshawala!". The fear of rikshawalahood thus kept us good little geeks (yes, an unavoidable confession: I was a nerd) hitting the books in spite of political disruptions and adolescent daydreams of sowing wild oats.  Which is ironic, since the hartals did nothing but  give our president a day off to sow his own honourable wild oats.

The O levels came and went; I did well.  An unavoidable consequence: getting into Notre Dame, in spite of failing the Bangla entrance exam with flying colours.  Unfortunately the place was unbearable; what really got to me was the absurdly pointless science labs (How To Measure Inches With A
Ruler) which had to be written up in excruciating detail.  And of course The World's Stupidest English Teacher.  Whose first homework assignment, to a class whose schooling had often given them only the basics of English, was "a 2000 word essay on The Panoramic Vistas of Bangladesh".  Of course no one did it.  Nor did he ever ask for it.  After much thought I realized that the only reason he'd assigned it was to show off his knowledge of the word "panoramic".

For half a semester I tried to take whatever Notre Dame threw at me. For the second half, I walked.  My father would drop me off in the morning on the way to the office; I would stand at the gate and watch him drive off. Then began the day's journey.

From Notre Dame I would walk north through housing colonies and across railway tracks to Khilgaon, where a friend lived.  We would hang out at his place for a while, and then hit the road again.  Every day we walked from Khilgaon to New Market.  We had time to kill, since I couldn't be home till 2 pm; so we took the scenic route, with a long detour around Ramna Park.  At New Market, I would either browse around the bookstores or head out to the university to see my cousins - which was risky, because there was always the chance of running into my mother around campus.  New Market was safer, and became our habitual territory.  As the weeks passed we ventured further, walking out to Banani or Indira Road.  But New Market was the center of our roamings; our Rome, in fact: for all roads led there.

Walking was the great outlet for our adolescent energies.  It didn't matter where we were going.  Having overcome the impossibly huge barrier of O levels, we found ourselves in limbo, our lives at a standstill.  The point was just to keep moving.  Remarkably, this is not dissimilar to the attitude which gets people through marathons.  I speculate that Bangladesh could be a tremendous birthing-ground for long distance runners, fertilized as it is by endless reserves of teenage wanderlust.

I recall, at some point during my months at Notre Dame, putting on the white Bata keds that had been part of my school uniform, and going jogging for the first time in my life.  I'm not sure what brought it on.  It was probably just peer pressure, that most ignoble of motivations.  Unlike my old group of friends, who just sat around reading comics and knocking about with carom-boards, people at Notre Dame actually played basketball and football; imagine that!  But nothing much came of those initial jogs.  I remember running the mile or so from my house to Shahbag, being completely exhausted, and having to take a rickshaw home.  After two weeks or so I became tired of it, and gave it up.

Fast-forward to Oberlin, a small college town in the midwestern United States.  It seemed to me a remarkably uneventful place; to pass time, I stared at my nails.  But when not watching cuticles grow, I was watching movies; and one night what should be playing but Out Of Africa.  And in it, an incidental scene; Meryl Streep watching a band of Masai tribesmen as they run from one end of the horizon to the other, the silence only broken by the steady beat of a drum.  Incidental, but memorable.

The last leg of my marathon journey; Boston.  Or, to be precise: Cambridge, where I found myself in grad school; having applied on a whim and received admission and financial aid by a strange roll of the cosmic dice, in spite of being completely unprepared for it.  Where I found myself immersed in the
study of Middle Eastern Religions, which meant several years of staring at old texts written in older languages, inexplicably lacking vowels.

Trapped in the library, oppressed by reading lists and term papers, I fought to keep some degree of control over my life.  I found that the best way to get away from it all was to just say, The hell with this! and take off for a jog.  Having not had any exercise in years, I started off with my old Shahbag mile; now translated to the banks of the Charles River, amidst ducks.  It was arduous in the beginning.  But once I was able to find my own - slow - pace the distance quickly increased to three miles, and became quite pleasant.  I even found a favourite route along the Charles, usually run in the evenings beneath the spreading shade of the elms.  

Slowly a notion formed: the Boston Marathon.  Why not?  Named as it was after an ill-fated messenger's run from Marathon to Athens in the Greece of 490 BC, on completion of which the said messenger gasped one word: Victory! And proceeded to croak up his lungs; the idea of running a marathon appealed to me in its absurdity.  So I bought a book, How To Train For And Run Your Best Marathon, by Gordon Bloch, Health Editor of Women's Day Magazine.

And so, finally, I ran.  A great deal of running.  It took about five hundred miles to train for the marathon.  Over a year in Boston and two more in Dhaka, I intermittently built up distance (never more than ten percent a week, by the book).  Back in Dhaka, there were many laps of Dhanmondi and Suhrawardy Uddan.  Jeers and jokes from street kids, which turned into amused stares as they got used to me; and the occasional volley of unprovoked swearing from carloads of aggressive males, directed at my ponytail, conveniently ignored.  My longest run: from Dhanmondi to Tongi, at which point I first experienced "hitting the wall".  A remarkable phenomenon, occuring when the body becomes completely depleted of carbohydrates; it left me all of a sudden with hardly the energy to lift my feet from the ground.

Dhaka, Oberlin, Boston; in some ways my path to the marathon has been powerfully tied to geography.  But in other ways it is delocalized, especially by means of a characteristic which carried over from my nerdy high school days: a blundering inability in matters relating to women (alas!).  It turns out that, in solitude, the meditative aspects of running are most suitable.

I traveled to Boston, giving myself ten days to get over jet lag. Camping out in the apartment of friends, I reduced my running to let my legs recover from the stresses of training; and enjoyed my vacation in Harvard Square, watching jugglers.

Then came April 20th, 1998; marathon day.  A cold, cloudy spring day in Boston.  After almost missing the last train which could get me out to the starting line in faraway Hopkinton in time for the race (I could just see myself explaining to my friends; Yes, I flew all the way to the US for the marathon, but then I missed the train) I spent an hour stretching.  I was excited, but scared.  During training I'd never run more than eighteen miles.  The book had said that anyone who could run eighteen miles in training could, with rest, run twenty six on race day; but with the whole distance suddenly looming before me, I had no idea where those last eight miles would come from.  Also, the Boston course is particularly renowned for its hills, for which I could not prepare in alluvial, flat Dhaka.

Then was the starting gun, with me way in the back of the crowd of 12,000 runners, waiting my turn along with other folks who weren't officially registered for the race.  And then was the marathon.

It turned out to be the best run I'd ever had.  Thousands and thousands of people lining all twenty six miles of the course, cheering.  In a burst of patriotism, I'd decided to run in the only t-shirt I could find with Bangladesh written on it, with a flag for good measure.  But both were on my back, and it turns out people only look at you as you approach them, not as you draw away; so no one saw it.  What I kept hearing, mile after mile, was "Go Austin Powers!" which quite bewildered me; until I realized that the crowd was cheering not for my country, but for my sideburns (which I suppose might resemble those of a certain cinematic retro-secret-agent in the distance).  But it could be worse, I thought.  They could be shouting Go Elvis.

Around Mile Twenty, just about where many were beginning to "hit the wall" and drop out, came something known as Heartbreak Hill.  It was long, and draining; but eventually I was over it.  And then there were just a few miles left, and for the first time it actually seemed that I would reach the finish.  The only worry was a cramping calf muscle around Mile 22; but I slowed down, and it disappeared.

Then elation set in, and the rest was easy.  In the final stretch, I passed three Boston friends who were bunking office to come to see me, as well as one who'd taken the day off to come up from New York.  And there was the finish line, which I crossed with an unofficial time of 4 hours and 40 minutes.  I was handed a paper-thin but remarkably warm silvery-plastic blanket to wrap around myself as I cooled down and began to shiver in the descending evening; I was still wearing only t-shirt and shorts.  The blanket would be my only material evidence of finishing the marathon, since I was not officially registered and would therefore not get a race certificate.  That didn't bother me; it was a great blanket. Afterwards, my friends took me out for a big dinner.

So that's the meandering tale of how I found myself running the Boston Marathon.  I do not doubt, noble reader, that you may find it self-indulgent of me to put forth such a long-winded explanation.  But if you ever think about it, it's difficult to figure out why a person does anything.  So much experience and so little reason go into each moment and each decision. And the marathon?  That absurdly conceived test of endurance, that ultimate expression of illogic?   I plead my case with wisdom plagiarized from ancient Taoist sages:

The marathon which can be expressed,

is not the true Marathon.