“It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.” From A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
I was the eldest of three boys. It was a tough place to be, always trying to keep one step ahead. I remember clearly the day in the learner pool, when I was five years old, that my younger sibling, Jiva, who was only three, began to swim. In a blur of confused emotions, within five minutes, I too had learned to swim.
The most humiliating moment in my sporting life was the day a few years later when the swimming club promoted my two younger brothers to the next level group ahead of me. I quit swimming that day. And took up running.
Training runs always turn into savage battles
I was better at running. Luckily for me, over the years, our sibling rivalry has tended to focus around running. We’ve completed countless fiercely contested races together. Even training runs almost always turn into savage battles by the end. We always say, before we start, that there will be no racing. But at some point, you just know, someone is going to make a move. I’m not talking about picking up the pace because he feels good, but making a move, trying to “win”. Jiva is especially known for his “moves”, sometimes made right at the very start of the run in an effort to catch us on the hop.
My two brothers, Jiva and the youngest, Govinda, are both competent runners. Jiva ran at county level as a schoolboy and Govinda has a marathon best of 3 hrs 12 mins. But I’ve always had the edge over them. Well, almost. The occasions they’ve beaten me have gone down in sibling folklore. There was that time around 1997 when we ran the perimeter of Pitsford reservoir near our home in Northampton. First Jiva passed me, and I couldn’t respond. Then Govinda passed us both. Sure, it was only a friendly Sunday morning run, but it was the first time Govinda had ever outrun us both, and the first time I’d ever been beaten by either sibling. Almost 20 years later, it still comes up regularly. No one has forgotten.
One family holiday in Scotland about five years ago, we decided to level the playing field a little by racing each other over a triathlon. We didn’t bother entering an actual race. Instead we swam across a loch, raced each other on clapped out mountain bikes and ran around the lanes near the house we were staying in. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself so hard, especially on the bike. I remember peddling like a madman through the isolated hills in Dumfries and Galloway, my only thought: “Come on, come on, come on.” I’m not sure I’ve ever been more focussed in a race. In the end I won it, just, on the run. My almost 100% streak continued.
So when Govinda threw down the latest gauntlet a few months ago, I wasn’t too worried. He suggested we run the Great Wilderness Challenge, a 25-mile trail race in the Scottish Highlands. It had the word “challenge” in the title. None of us could resist.
My main concern was that my usual territory was the roads – and the odd foray onto the sands (see above). I’d beaten them both many times over half marathon and marathon distance, but that was all on the hard, sure smoothness of the roads. Govinda, however, lived in Scotland, and had started running up mountains for fun. This race – hilly trail running – was moving into his territory.
Unfortunately my training didn’t go well. I tried a few long, hilly runs in my nearest national park, Dartmoor, and each time I ended up struggling after about 10 miles, barely able to move beyond walking pace.
Jiva, who lived in London, was faring even worse. Moving house was his excuse. But London life, and his job, was not giving him time to train. And the more we read up about the race, the less it seemed to be one you could muddle through. Jiva once ran the Edinburgh marathon with barely any training. He ended up walking (although still finished in a fairly impressive four hours). But hitting the wall along the seafront in Edinburgh was one thing, it was another to falter out in the highlands. The race required runners to carry waterproofs, a map and a compass in case of emergency. This was not for the barely trained.
And so, despite continually telling us he was going to sling some decent training together at some point, in the end he realised he was too unprepared and he pulled out. This left it a straight fight, mano-a-mano, sibling vs sibling, between me and mountain man Govinda.
Into the wilds of Scotland – the race was on
We drove up from Edinburgh the night before, arriving in Poolewe in driving rain, the huge mountains hulking in the darkness on both sides. The closer we got, the more the wind howled. We looked out nervously, not saying anything.
The next morning, the rain was still falling, and when we arrived at the start there was bad news. The weather was so wet that the organisers were changing the route to avoid the most treacherous sections. Instead of a 25-mile run across a section of wilderness, it was now a 19-mile out-and-back race, running what race veterans were glumly calling the most boring section of the course. Nobody was happy about the change. Nobody except me, that is. Secretly, I was thrilled. A flat-ish 19 miles was much better for me. Govinda’s strength was the mountains, running uphill and running downhill, but it looked like we would be now avoiding the biggest of them. He gave me a rueful look – he knew what I was thinking. And he knew I was right.
The Great Wilderness Challenge is a small, local race, and so we lined up with only around 70 other runners. I was feeling sprightly as we stood at the start, and looking around I even began to fancy my chances in the overall race. The field didn’t look that intimidating. Perhaps I could nab the over-40s prize. Or maybe even more. Govinda was trying to find a quiet moment, taking deep breaths. “He’s stressing too much,” I thought, calmly. I had the feeling this was already in the bag.
The beginning of the race was along a narrow trail where it was, we were told, hard to overtake, so we both got out fast. The first mile or so felt frantic, too quick, but Govinda was ahead of me, so I decided to keep it up. I couldn’t let him get away. Other people kept streaking passed me, despite my efforts. The path was wet and rocky, twisty and up and down. It was impossible to get any rhythm. I was glad of my TrailTalon 275 running shoes, which gripped superbly on the hard, wet trails and felt super-comfortable throughout.
After about two miles, Govinda made a mistake and ran wide, following the wrong path. I pounced, racing by. He was soon back on my heels. I didn’t need to look behind, I could hear him splash, splashing along. His presence, so close behind, forced me on. I felt good, so I pushed hard up the hills, through the woods. His splashes began to drop further and further behind. And each time I dared to glance back – I didn’t want to give him too much encouragement – he was further back.
By about five miles I was flying. Racing through the brooding landscape. “Boring”, it turned out, was a relative term. The scenery was wild and beautiful. I began to relax. I recalled a conversation the three of us had had a few nights before. “Who do you think will win?” Govinda had asked Jiva. “Adharanand,” he said without hesitation. “He has the calibre.”
He was talking about all my previous victories, about how much more running I’d done over the years, but knowing how I’d struggled on my hilly runs in Dartmoor, the answer had made me nervous. Now, however, I was nodding along to myself. Yes, I have the calibre. In some ways, I thought, it was a shame Govinda hadn’t put up more of a fight. I was glad he hadn’t, of course, but it was almost too easy. We were reaching the halfway point already. This was a breeze.
Down the steep section to the turn a few people caught me up. I wasn’t aware who they were, but I could tell they were itching to get passed. Rather than hold them up, I ran up on the grass to let them by. One, two, three, they went by. “Go on, Dhar,” said the last one. Huh? It was Govinda.
The final push for sibling bragging rights
They turned to head back and he ran passed without looking at me. As I turned and we began to clamber back up the way we had come, my legs suddenly felt heavy. I didn’t even dig in to try to stay with him. I could only watch as he started to pull away, looking strong, like a man making his move. But I was done. I had nothing. The wind had been well and truly blown from my sails.
I struggled on gamely. I had vague hopes he would blow up and come back to me, although I knew it was unlikely. And also, in my charitable moments, I thought it would be a shame if he did. I resigned myself to running my own race, but it was a long nine miles back to the finish.
By the time I got there, Govinda was already changed, cheering me over the line. He had done it. He said afterwards that he kept thinking I was going to come back passed him, so he kept pushing hard. In the end he beat me by over 15 minutes. It was an annihilation. He really was the mountain man. And the worst part of it was I had agreed to write the whole thing up for the inov-8 blog, so the whole world was going to find out about it. My first sibling defeat, in glorious technicolour.
So all I can say now is well done Govinda. And respect. Until next time.