Big Birthday Bash 2023 – Chapter 2 The Origin

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Every year on my birthday, I run for as many hours as my age. However, that’s now it has always been. On July 27, 2007, when I turned 19, I wanted to do something stupid on that day. I asked myself, can I run a half marathon all by myself? How doable will that be? I had started started running a few months ago, so it felt like craziest thing to do. To make matters worse, July is extremely hot and humid in Delhi, and it’s the middle of the monsoon. Delhi Half Marathon, the only race I had participated in my life that took me 3 hours and 14 minutes to finish, has an aid station every 2 km. I had not run beyond 7 km without support in my life. So, it was worth a shot. To celebrate 19 years of my life, I ran 19 km. Next year, I ran 20 km and then half marathon a year later. But what next? I could easily run half marathons in touch above 2 hours and that was too short of a time for celebration. Thus, in 2010, I decided to go for slightly longer for the first time and logged 22 miles in the middle of the night when rest of the city slept in the comforts.

When I turned 23, I decided to go for 23 hours. However, I knew I couldn’t do it. It was too long to stay on feet. So, I bargained and decided to run for 23 hours in 2.3 days, i.e., 56 hours. In that process, I ran my life’s first 100 km, making a total of 143 km in those 2.3 days. Now I knew, I could go on for as many hours as my age. In 2012, when I turned 24, I wanted to run for 24 hours. 100 miles was a good target to chase. But, thanks to my friend, Vishwas Bhamburkar, he pushed me into an uncharted territory, and we aimed for 250 km, with no training. As expected, I had to stop at 150. A year later, I again attempted that distance with Vishwas, and bailed out at 200 odd. Learning from the failures, in 2014, I toned down and ran for 26 hours near Pune in Central India and finished at the magical Varandha Ghat, a valley I had been eyeing for two years.


BIG BIRTHDAY BASH by Gaurav Madan

In 2015, I ran for 27 hours circumnavigating Pune. In 2016, I was in the city of Haridwar with a friend. I abandoned him, boarded a bus with no planning where I was going, got off at a random place near Rishikesh, turned on GPS tracking on my phone and ran for 28 hours in the Himalayas. In process, I covered a distance of 140 km in total and finished at the origin of river Ganga in Dev Prayag. In 2017, I ran 375 km in May instead, to celebrate both mine and Montreal’s birthday. In 2018, I moved to Newfoundland and circumnavigated the North of Avalon Peninsula on East Coast Trail in 30 hours and ran the remaining Southern part in 31 hours in 2019. Then pandemic happened, I got a few injuries and that was the end of the streak.

Big Birthday Bash at the time of its origin marked the beginning of a remarkable tradition – one that I have carried with myself wherever I have lived. Every year, as the birthday approached, I would embark on a journey to the beaches, ice-capped mountains, deserts, lush green forests, raging river valleys, dead plains, plateaus, some hidden villages, wetlands, extreme rugged landscapes, frozen landscapes, coastal trails and prairies. The number of hours I ran would mirror my age, becoming a symbol of both physical prowess and ever-growing connection with nature. In a way, it became a symbol of resilience, determination, and the power of pursuing one’s passions wholeheartedly for me, a physical embodiment of the passage of time and personal growth. But, I had lost it. I was not running anymore. I got better at choosing my excuses for not doing the things I thought I earlier wanted to do, in order to hide my guilt of not doing it. It was not that I had lost interest in running, it was just that I didn’t feel like doing it. 

In my head, I’d curse myself and scream at self that I must go and run, meet friends and explore new places, but I would not. I would sleep most of the time, would feel exhausted all day and had accepted the manufactured fact that I was a failure, worthless with no future in life. This would beautifully compliment the guilt of not running anymore and the deep groove of sadness would engulf me for the rest of the remaining time.

Whenever I would feel sad, I would eat. Most of the times, cookies, which means a lot of sugar. I would eat a lot, at regular intervals, would feel incredibly guilty about it, won’t exercise and then eat more again. I started to gain weight rapidly and before I could realize, it became a major health concern. One day, I got new bathroom scale and weighed myself for the first time in eight months. I weighed 182 lbs. I stood there, naked, and hated the person I saw in the mirror. While I was gazing in my own eyes, in shame, I recalled how I got there. Following the failures of 2019 with ankle injuries, isolation due to pandemic, surgery and another ankle injury had mentally broken me. I was stressed, eating four servings of each meal and all that would be followed by ice cream. I was finishing a 3L ice cream tub and over a pound of chips all by myself in less than a week.

Now, when I was looking at myself, I was disgusted. I stepped out, wore some clothes, logged on to the computer and spent hours searching for fat burning supplements to find a quick fix solution. When tired of looking at those fancy capsule posters with shredded models posing next to them with a fake review, I stood up, wore my shoes, went out for a run, couldn’t go even half a mile and brought another pound of chips and finished it overnight. It was as if I had accepted myself the way I was with no change possible in sight. After struggling for what felt like a lifetime, I reached out to my Physician and opened up about my mental health while seeking help. I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression back in 2017 and started seeing a clinical psychologist, although briefly, immediately after I made a failed attempt to kill myself. However, he soon passed away following illness, and I never had courage to reach out to seek help again until missing third Big Birthday Bash in a row in 2022.
 
It’s August last year, I’m sitting in the office of my therapist on a Monday afternoon, and my therapist asks, “When we talk of your behavioral changes, you said it started to get worse about 4-5 years ago. Can you tell, how has your ability to deal with triggers changed along this time?” 
 
While answering to this question, as I explained how I have lost the mental resilience to deal with the spiral of negative meta-beliefs, and I would soon be lost in my head without even trying, I was shocked when I heard myself say it! Later, in my office, with a heavy heart, I picked a marker and drew a chart of triggers and my escape mechanisms. Parallel to that, I drew a timeline of intensity. And next to that, I started listing my race DNFs. In all the seven ultras, I was mentally lost while standing at the Start line. On all seven occasions, question was not if I will quit, question was “when”? Now when I look back, I wanted to quit each of those races before I even started.
 
In April this year, after struggling with another bout of the eating disorder, I chose to pull myself back up and started with a daily step goal of at least 8000 steps before I can have dinner. No step goal, no food. Gradually I improved my relationship with food and moved to 18,000 steps a day. On one of those days, it was already late evening, I was in downtown, it was raining heavily, and I was worried about missing my step goal. So, I went for a walk in the south of Oslo, instead of Nordmarka, my regular path. While walking there, I saw a road sign that read “E6, Gothenburg,” and I laughed to myself, “how cool would it be, if I could run from Gothenburg to Oslo one day.” Gothenburg as a city has a special place in my life.
 
Last year, when I was struggling with long COVID, barely had any friends around Oslo, and was deep in the oceans of my anxiety and depression, I picked up a camera and started pursuing macrophotography. I had all the time I needed, as I couldn’t run anymore. So, every day in the evenings, I’d go out at a lake next to my home, and look for spiders and flies, and try to photograph them. I got better at it quickly. And then, I got the opportunity to photograph humans. At Oslo Drag Festival. My first ever introduction to drag events was when I met the Festival Manager for a Storytelling Festival, they were an exceptional actor, performer and acrobatic drag artist that I absolutely loved! However, I never attended any of their shows. Now when I look back, I think I didn’t, maybe, because it was too radical of a space for my patriarchal-conservative-misogynist brain and this cognitive dissonance between who I thought I was and who I subconsciously actually was without realizing, was too much to handle. Maybe!
 
However, when I saw the advertisement for Oslo Drag Festival, I thought, I should fight this dissonance, trust myself, and give myself an honest chance. One of those days, I randomly reached to their instagram account to ask if it was appropriate to take photos when I was sitting in the audience. I thought it was always good to ask for permission beforehand than feeling sorry later, if I unknowingly crossed a line. Before I could even realise what was going on, I was one among the official photographers for the festival, filling in for someone who got an ankle injury. There was no way going back now. I was in Gothenburg when all of this happened. I took the bus a day early, than schedule, reached Oslo, and was shooting the next day, up close, with the artists, directors, producers, fans, fellow photographers. And, I couldn’t have been happier for that chance I took. The depth in the community, the longings, the expression, the liberation, the space where we can be whatever we want to be.
 
Then, in April this year, I got the opportunity to be the Photography Team Leader for the communications group at Oslo Pride. This year’s festival ended with the participation of more than 90,000 people, a year after the terrorist attack of last year. For the first time in my life, I was a part of something bigger than me. And then keeping track of eleven photographers, charting out a task for them, while still fighting my discomfort with large crowds and anxiety of all that could go wrong—it was a roller coaster. It was an extreme learning curve and a rewarding experience, working with some wonderful photographers, artists and show producers. From anxiously hiding myself in a corner on my first shoot to leading a team within 10 months, I never imagined I’d do this one day. And all began in Gothenburg. So, running from Gothenburg, a place where I was metaphorically reborn, to Oslo made sense to pay my tribute.
 
The year 2023 also happened to be tenth year since I failed to finish a Big Birthday Bash run. Every time I would stand on a start line, I would remember quitting that run, getting inside a car at the top of Tamhini Ghat near Pune, merely 50 km away from the finish. It had haunted me for a decade. So I thought, the only way to fight would be 350 km at 35. Gothenburg, was 350 km away from Oslo, 358 km from University of Gothenburg to University of Oslo. It had all the ingredients for a perfect calling at the perfect time. And since then, I could not keep that thought out of my head. But I was failing to run even a mile then. I was under treatment for my lower back pain for over a year with no success. On top of it, I had undiagnosed Piriformis Syndrome. My hip flexors were a mess, my body balance around hip was totally destroyed and had a history of Plantar Fasciitis. Weighing over 182 lbs, I was in my life’s worst shape. By June, I built up my endurance enough to start planning a 10 km run. But, goal was still far away. And then one night, I pulled the plug! If it’s not now, it’ll never be. “If I can’t run, I WILL HIKE!”
 
When I plotted the route on Garmin Basecamp, I was sure, I was going to quit. Question was once again, not If. But, when? I needed more accountability. And to ensure that, I reached out to RaceTracker AS and got them onboard to track my progress and made the link public. Now, there were people who were watching me, live. Maybe no one was interested in reality, but in my head, I was naked. Bare. My every step was on a public platform. And quitting was no longer an option. However, while lying there outside the Shell Gas Station, with my blood-red eyes wide open next to a puddle flooded in my vomit, I want to quit. Having slept for only three hours in three nights, I am deep in my hallucinations, I have no sense of what’s real and what not, I can’t differentiate between real and imaginary humans, and there are voices in my head that are not shutting up. If I move even a step more, I am putting myself in danger. It’s best, I lie there for seven more hours, board the 9.20 bus to the next town, Vestby and call it quits.
 
To be continued …

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