What we talk about when we talk about running

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Annual marathons have turned long-distance running into a way of life. Nishita Jha tries to keep up with urban Indians who are meditating on the run

Running monks Members of Verghese’s Running and Living forum
Running monks Members of Verghese’s Running and Living forum
Photo Courtesy: Rahul Verghese

RUNNERS HAVE no sense of propriety when it comes to early mornings. Rahul Verghese, 50, is distinctly gleeful about inviting you to run with him at 5 am on a Sunday. He does not notice that you are silently dying at the words “forest trail near Gurgaon at the crack of dawn”. Attempts to emphasise the words “official interview” only make him laugh harder. “The whole idea of long-distance running is that you should never be so tired that you can’t converse with your fellow traveller. So, how far will you run with me? Three kilometres? Four?”

Most runners you meet will tell you how they were awful at sports, how they never won any medals in their lives and how you couldn’t pry their pre-runner avatars off the couch with a crowbar if you tried. All this while you are panting to keep up with them. What changed? The answer is exasperatingly simple. They switched on the idiot box. With half and full marathons sponsored by corporates becoming a rage in cities and an increasing number of celebrities putting on their running shoes, the revolution was now on television.

“As I watched my brother-in-law run the half-marathon on television, I realised I had no reason not to put my running shoes on. There were CEOs and housewives with less free time than me. There were disabled people who didn’t even have all the limbs that I was scared of injuring. What excuse could I possibly have not to run? Of course, I had watched it while drinking beer so I took a nap after the race and promptly forgot all about it,” chortles Amit Sheth, 44, author of Dare to Run, a collection of essays on his experience with marathons. Sheth is also one of the few Indians to have completed the world’s most difficult marathon, that spans over 90 km in South Africa, beginning in Durban and ending at Pietermaritzburg.

Like most enthusiasts, Sheth registered for the marathon on a whim and began miniscule attempts at ‘running practice’ so as not to make a total fool of himself. “The first time I ran, I collapsed after 200 metres. At that point, there was no way to convince my body to get up again. I thought I would die right there on Versova beach,” he sighs.

To overcome the initial false starts of running for a few metres and then flopping to the ground, runners like Sheth found the support they needed online. Post the popular Hutch and Airtel halfmarathons in Delhi and Mumbai, groups of runners had begun networking on forums like Running and Living, forming their own running groups in cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Chandigarh and Puducherry. The idea was to exchange stories with other runners, discuss different terrains and techniques of running. “The Internet was how we plugged into a community of runners, so it stopped being the ‘lonely life of a longdistance runner,” says Venkat Krishnan, 33, a banker with Barclays in Pune. Thanks to all the networking, groups like Run Forrest Run (Delhi), Kovai Runners (Coimbatore) and Ulsoor Lake Runners (Karnataka) were formed. The last Mumbai marathon registered close to 40,000 people and the Airtel Delhi half marathon (2010) saw nearly 29,000 participants from all over the world.

While some look forward to socialising with the wide array of people that show up at appointed trails, others prefer running because of the introspection it offers. “The first time I showed up for a run, I really didn’t expect the crowd. There were grandparents, children, professors and even a watch-seller from Ansal Plaza in Delhi. I guess the initial impetus is always physical fitness,” says Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, 25, a researcher with the National Maritime Foundation. But along with the awareness of one’s body as it tires comes the concomitant battle with one’s mind, often the greater high for a lot of runners. “For the first few kilometres, there are just random thoughts running through your head. Gradually, your body wants to slow down but your mind keeps you going. It’s a stream of consciousness that is the soundtrack to your moving body.”

Radhakrishnan, who runs thrice a week with a group at Delhi’s Jahanpanah forest, took to running because of his neighbours from Kerala, a couple who met each other while training for a marathon. “Running in a group is helpful because the veterans will give you tips or make conversation if you’re lagging behind. They’re not even necessarily the ones you expect with fancy equipment and cool clothes. I’ve seen peons who train investment bankers on the trails,” says Swaminathan Subramaniam, a 49- year-old entrepreneur and part of Navi Mumbai’s small but highly enthusiastic runners group.

Day trippers The Navi Mumbai runners group at their weekly run on Kharghar Hill

Photo: MS Gopal

THE MINIMAL requirements are what — according to Verghese, the Chief Believer of the forum Running and Living — make running the fastest growing sport in the world. His happy slogan, “All you need to run is a pair of shoes” is belied further by people like Krishnan, who prefer to run barefoot. Krishnan, called the ‘caveman’ of the group, used to run with shoes like everyone else. “It’s such a big part of the way we think, if you throw money at something, you can automatically do it better. Buy a better racquet, get better at tennis. Buy better shoes and run faster. I used to be a sucker for whatever the shoe companies told us,” says the banker. But in spite of running with designer shoes that boasted of all the requisite support and cushioning, he would come back from his runs moaning and creaking. When his brother gave him a copy of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, Krishnan realised running barefoot was an actual option. “You get scratched up a bit, but you’re more alert barefoot, not to mention that you make an actual connection with the earth as you run.” Since he started running without shoes, Krishnan hasn’t suffered a single runner’s injury. On occasions like the Auroville River Run when the Puducherry government plans a run through a forest floor, Krishnan will wear a thin rubber sole tied to his feet like a Roman sandal “in case I hurt a snake by mistake”.

‘The group I run with has grandparents, children, professors and even a watch-seller from Ansal Plaza in Delhi,’ says Radhakrishnan

If Krishnan ever ran all the way to Japan, he would find venerable company in the Kaihigyo monks for whom the extreme physical endurance of running barefoot is a way to attain enlightenment. At the highest point of their training, they must run up to 84 km every day for 100 days.

On the other end of the spending spectrum are those like Sheth, who admits to having spent lakhs on his passion for running in the past six years. Sheth and wife Neepa were the first Indian couple to complete Comrades — the ultra-marathon in South Africa, which is often a daunting task even for professional runners. “I spent so much money on physiotherapy that I think I sponsored an entire wing in that hospital,” he laughs. While he agrees that it is possible to run without the expensive Dri-Fit clothes, the ultrasonic dog-chaser (for the friendly mutts on Mumbai’s streets), energy gels and fancy pedometer, Sheth and his wife also love running in different parts of the world, often while doing things like sipping wine through the course (in Bordeaux, France) or running in fancy costumes (in the Netherlands). “Initially, Neepa started running because she wanted to know what was I up to when I vanished early every morning and came home happy and tired,” he grins, “but she took to running like a duck takes to water.”

While running is hardly a sport monopolised by men globally, in India at least a lot of the long-distance running groups see far less women than men. “A lot of women I know think I’m being selfish spending time doing something I like. It’s seen as time I should spend looking after my family. The idea is that if you’re enjoying it too much, you must be up to something bad,” smiles Kripa Sagar, a 43-year-old housewife in Navi Mumbai. Kripa started running with her sister Deepta simply because she liked the idea of doing something so dramatic (I could see myself with the wind in my hair, she says), but eventually stuck to it because she felt it made her a better-adjusted person. “I wake up at 4.45 am, run for two hours, come home to cook and clean. I feel like Superman. What other incentive could I need,” she asks. Now that Kripa is training for the next Delhi half-marathon and plans to complete it in record time, her husband has finally come around to the fact that his morning cup of tea might come a bit late.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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