Come out to Cheer….

On the eve of my attempt to run the 89 Km Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, I met an elderly gentleman, who had completed the event more than twenty times. Our discussion was largely centred on the event and he was helping me to ease my anxieties. He gave me one important piece of advise “All that you need to run is till the start of Durban town. The crowd will ensure that you finish the remaining 9 km before the cut-off time.” It was so true the following day as it appeared that the people of Durban have conspired to ensure that I finish and get my medal. Such was the ability of the people to change the destiny.

When it comes to sports, history is rarely made in empty arenas. The greatest of the sporting actions invariably owe their greatness to the support of the audience. They have made winning teams lose and losing teams win. Even in the age of television coverage of sports from every nook and corner of the globe, watching a sports action live has its own charm. For many, it provides them with a life-time worth experience. Nick Hornby writes in his memoir Fever Pitch, which was inspired by witnessing the title winning match between Arsenal football club and Liverpool football club in 1989,

So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.

While it is easy to understand the rationale behind people spending exorbitant money to watch a game of cricket or football, it is often difficult to comprehend someone going to watch a marathon entirely free of cost. Sometime back, I asked a friend of mine to come out and watch a running event that I was involved in organising. He cynically replied that he finds more meaning in watching paint dry than seeing folks put one foot after another for 42 long kilometres. A marathon runner certainly lacks the artistic appeal of Zinedine Zidane or the controlled aggression of Malcom Marshall. Looked unitary, a runner many not provide you with an excitement or enthusiasm, unless you know them in person. But, there is more to marathon.

A marathon is a spectacle by itself. One gets to see a diverse set of crowd, separated by age, gender, caste, creed, race, nationality or even the shape of their body; yet united by a single pursuit to see through the distance.  Other than the lead pack of runners who compete for prize money, the rest of runners run their own race. For them, the race day is the crowning moment of all their training efforts over many days and weeks. Every runner has a story and the marathon weaves their stories together. Watching the entire city move in one direction, towards one goal, instils the belief that anything is possible if we collectively move together. Kathrine Switzer, often credited to be first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Marathons have their share of fanatic crowds too. The “Wellesley Tunnel” created by students of Wellesley College in Boston by standing on either side of the Boston marathon route has become an integral part of the event. London marathon once surprised the participants by having celebrity sportspersons handle their water station. The Comrades marathon in South Africa is often a symbol of unity in a country torn apart by years of racial discrimination. Cheryl Winn, who won the race in 1982, says

“It showed the country what it could and should be.”

Closer home, the Mumbai Marathon brings the best of the spirit of Mumbai. In 2009, I participated in the Mumbai Marathon, which happened to be the first major event after the city was jolted by terrorist attacks in November 2008. For the city, it was moment to stand as one and move forward.

This Sunday, Coimbatore will be hosting its own Marathon. With over 13,000 participants, it promises to be biggest sporting event in Tamil Nadu outside Chennai. The marathon, started in 2013, is organised in aid of the Coimbatore Cancer Foundation and has been growing every year in terms of the participants. It is also an opportunity for residents of Coimbatore to come out and experience what marathons are all about. These runners are none other than friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – ordinary people – collectively trying to do an extraordinary feat of completing the distance. Sportspersons rarely acknowledge or remember the audience by their first name. In marathons, runners will remember each one of their friends who came out to support them, however trivial it may look. For the crowd, it would be an experience that would be best left to witness than describe.

To close the loop on the friend I mentioned earlier, he did come out to watch a marathon in subsequent years and complimented, “Yes, there is something special in watching a marathon.”

An edited version of the blog above was published by The Hindu in the Metroplus edition of Coimbatore on September 29, 2017. The online version can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/come-out-and-cheer-the-runners-of-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19768671.ece

 

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Age is just a Number…

Any conversation about old people and their passions in life will invariably lead us to the movie “World’s Fastest Indian,” a biographical picture based on the life of legendary Kiwi motorcyclist Burt Monroe, who set world records for under 1000 cc motorcycle at the age of sixty-eight. In one of the scenes, Anthony Hopkins, playing the role of Burt Monroe, frustrated by youngsters not allowing him to ride his motor cycle would say,

“I am half the age as some of those scared out there. Everyone wants us old men to curl up in some quite corner; and die. Well, Burt Monroe is not ready to finish up…”

Inspirational old men pursuing their passions aren’t uncommon in long distance running. In the early-2000s, the Internet was filled with stories of Fauja Singh and his exploits in running marathons (42.195 Km), after he turned ninety years of age. This in turn inspired many others to take up long distance running immaterial of their age. Over the next decade, when running events were on rise in India, we started seeing more examples closer home. Eighty-five year old B.R. Janardhan, from Bangalore, was regularly grabbing one of the top three spots in the annual 10K event held at Bangalore in the above-70 category until a few years back. Despite improving his timings, he is now unable to get ranked in the top-3 as there are more competitors above 70 years of age!

In 2013, L. Dhanapal, then fifty-eight years of age, saw the advertisement for Coimbatore Marathon. A regular walker then, he fancied attempting the 21.1K run and planned to walk the entire distance. Over the run, the encouragement from the volunteers prompted him to run for some time during the course, before finishing it in 3:40:00. He later heard about the Coimbatore Runners and after much apprehension, joined them for a morning run.

“Initially, I thought I don’t belong to them as they all looked professional in their fancy outfits; more so, they run and I walk”!

The initial conversation with Ramesh Ponnuswamy, co-founder of the group, made him lose his inhibitions instantaneously. During the first run with the group, he was surprised that the group members stayed together till the last runner finishes.

“Ramesh kept running back and forth to ensure that I too finish along with the group. This encouraged me to run regularly with the group.”

He became a regular runner with the Codissia chapter of the group and went on to finish the next two editions of Coimbatore Marathon with a best timing of 2:20:00. He has also run two marathons and is now confident that he can run half-marathon on any given weekend!

For seventy-year old Ratan Asawa, long distance running helps him to connect with the youth and feel younger than his age would suggest. In his younger days, he was a regular walker and played basket-ball, volley-ball and shuttle-badminton. A chance conversation with his nephew, who lives in Amsterdam and a regular marathon runner, got him hooked to the idea of taking up long distance running. It was around that time, the first Coimbatore marathon was announced. He was of the impression that the ‘longest’ in long distance running would be anywhere between 10 to 15 kilometres. Unaware that the distance for half-marathon was 21.1 km, he set out to run the distance and surprised himself by completing it in 3:04:00. Over the next three years, he completed the event twice with a best timing of 2:24:00.

“Running with Coimbatore Runners helped me to enjoy running even more. The runners helped me in finding the right apparel and made me feel comfortable by running slower. After seeing some of them wear hydration bags, I too got one and now find it useful to run and cover longer distances above thirty kms!”

says Ratan, who can be found doing his long runs in Thadagam road during weekends. He is looking forward to do a Marathon very soon and training for it regularly.

For P. Chandramohan (65), running helped him to redefine his life post-retirement. In 2010, as he was heading towards the sunset of his stellar career with Larsen & Toubro, he was evaluating multiple opportunities to keep him engaged post retirement. He was an active sportsman during his school and college days and represented his college, Coimbatore Institute of Technology, in Hockey, Cricket & Table Tennis. During his work life, he kept himself active by playing Badminton and regular walks up to a distance of 5 Km. He learned about Chennai Runners and was motivated by the various conversations on running in their public forums. In 2012, he attempted his first half marathon and impressed with a timing of 2:06:00.

After retiring in 2013, he moved to Kovaipudur and started the Kovaipudur Walkers and Runners club to encourage the residents to take up active life. He led by example and completed his first marathon in 2013. He has since completed the distance seventeen times with a personal best of 4:47:00! In the recently organised Hyderabad Marathon, he finished third in the marathon (above 65 years category).  To encourage more people into running, he also volunteers in organising running events and an active member of the organising team of Coimbatore Marathon. In 2016, he was instrumental in organising the all-woman running event in Kovaipudur which attracted participation of over 350 ladies.

“Age is just a number and not to be used as an excuse for a laid back life style. I have never felt bored all the 4 years since my retirement and I am able to face any adverse situation with confidence. A run in the morning keeps my spirits very positive throughout the day. Running with the enthusiastic Coimbatore Runners have always made me feel young”

Sivabalan Pandian, 58, may not be as old when compared to the other three runners above; nor has he retired from his professional life as a consultant to textile industries. He took up to running at the age of 52 to counter a host of medical ailments that he accumulated over his lifetime. Very soon, he discovered his passion for running and started taking part in half-marathons. Never obsessed with the timing of his runs, he soon started focusing on longer and ran his first marathon in January 2013. While he may be slow on his runs, he is a man in a hurry when it comes to running more marathons. He set himself a target of completing 100 marathons and achieved it by running the Dubai marathon in January this year. Since then, he completed a further 42 marathons to date, including running 10 marathons in 10 days in Italy in August.

He has travelled extensively across the world to participate in marathons  and has run in all Continents except Antarctica, where he plans to run soon.

“In spite of being diabetic, there is no need for me to take insulin shots. Running has helped me to become fit and feel more energetic at work, despite getting old. It is a great opportunity to meet and befriend runners from all over the world. I would confidently say that running has helped me to think positively and become more altruistic”

At an age when most would expect him to wind down from his regular work, running has helped him to set his sights higher and in new avenues. He hopes to start an old age home for needy people as well as a running academy in India very soon.

Coimbatore is increasingly becoming a favourite destination for many retirees and there is ample evidence that regular exercise keeps them physically and mentally fit. There are many inhibitions, unsolicited advices and fears among the elderly that can be overcome only through regular interaction with runners from different age groups.  As Anthony Hopkins says in the movie quoted above,

If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find you’re gone.

Note: An edited version of this article was published in The Hindu – Metroplus on September 4th, 2017 – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/senior-citizens-on-how-they-began-running-and-what-its-done-for-them/article19619296.ece

The Independence Day Ride

In 2007, after finishing fourth in the prologue of Tour De France, Sir* Bradley Wiggins took a dig on the most popular television show in UK around that time, “It is nice to be recognised for actually achieving something in life as opposed to spending seven weeks in a house on TV with a load of other muppets.” Around the time when the modified version of that show is making news, Coimbatore Cycling, supported by Cycology, organised the 100 Kms Independence Day Ride for cyclists to help them to have an experience of their lifetime. “Riding the first 100 Km is an aspiration for every amateur cyclist. When organising the ride on an Independence Day, we make sure that amateur cyclists remember the day by achieving something special,” says Chakkravarthy Birur, one of the organisers.

Although this wasn’t my first 100K cycling ride, my lack of preparation was certain to provide me with an experience of a first time rider. I had originally planned to do a “mini” version of the ride covering about 50 Kms but my ride partner, Satish Kini encouraged me to go for the 100 Kms. A group of 25 riders started out at 6 AM in the morning of August 15th from Coimbatore Cycling group at Ramanathapuram area to challenge the 100 Kms. The group comprised of some of the best cyclists in Coimbatore who ease past the 100 Kms under 3 hours to first time riders who look forward for their first taste of long distance ride without any time constraint. The bicycles, and of course the participants, came in all shapes and sizes. There were the top-end carbon-frame bikes designed to cruise at 35-40 kmph to the simple ones whose speed is largely dictated by the energy levels of the riders.

I started out with my fellow riders, Satish Kini, H. Manju, V. Suresh and P. Karthi – all of them being fellow runners too.  The lovely morning weather was certainly a nature’s gift and something to be cherished; what more, it made our ride easier. The route for the day was fairly simple – a long ride on the Avinashi Road towards Salem up to 50 kms and return back. The early pace was set by Satish Kini, nicknamed the German for his no-nonsense approach to cycling, running and possibly every aspect of life. Reluctantly, we followed him, for we knew that he has his plans in place and will help us to finish the ride.

We skipped our routine tea break on long rides as the weather was conducive for a fast paced ride. The onward journey was largely downhill and the tail wind was assisting our smooth progress. The volunteer presence en-route made our ride comfortable with hydration and nutrition support. The roads looked pristine and were cleaned by the overnight rains. The return journey was a different game altogether and offered some challenges for the riders. It was a ride up towards Coimbatore with headwinds acting against our efforts. I had to let go my fellow riders one after other and wage some lone battles towards the finish. The first time I attempted to ride past 100 Km was way back in 2008 and since then, there were many occasions, I completed that distance, and even more. Nevertheless, each ride proves to be a challenge of its own and as memorable as the very first ride.

All the finishers were treated with a lovely badge celebrating their achievement and sumptuous food.  “We believe every finisher is a winner and there is nothing like coming first or last. Each rider rides to a best of his/her ability and deserves to be recognised equally,” says Sulaiman Bhimani, a former national-level cyclist and currently one of the key organisers in Coimbatore Cycling. There was also a 50 Km ride on the very same day to encourage beginners to take up long distance cycling.

Cycling can easily related to the concept of Independence – at personal as well as collective level. To begin with, regular cycling helps people to keep themselves physically fit. Second, the satisfaction of completing the distance (longer than walking or running) solely by one’s own effort instils a great level of self-confidence. At a social level, there are many examples of social change that has been achieved by promoting cycling in underprivileged communities. A 2014 study** of the Bihar Government’s initiative of providing free cycles to girl students found that the scheme has increased girls’ age-appropriate enrolment in secondary school by 32%.

As Ivan Illich would write in his seminal work Energy and Equity, in 1974, “A true choice among practical policies and of desirable social relations is possible only where speed is restrained. Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.” There is plenty of merit in promoting cycling for a better human being and society as a whole.

Our celebration of the 71st Independence Day was certainly made memorable thanks to the efforts of the Coimbatore Cycling and fellow riders. As it is likely to be a routine affair henceforth, we hope to see more and more riders join the bandwagon and experience the joy of cycling. If you still have doubts, remember the day when you first attempted to learn how to ride a cycle – it’s as much fun now as it was then.

*He was knighted in 2012, after winning Tour De France 2012

** Muralidharan, Karthik, and Prakash Nishith, 2014, “ Cycling to School: Increasing Secondary School Enrollment for Girls in India

 

An edited version of this blog was published by The Hindu on August 19, 2017 in the Metro Plus – Coimbatore Edition. You can read it online here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/coimbatore-cyclists-covered-50-and-100-kilometers-on-a-trip-along-avanashi-road/article19517496.ece

 

Training for Coimbatore Marathon

Legendry Boxer, Late Muhammed Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” Training to run a marathon, which largely comprise of drudged long runs, hardly excites anyone and contrary to the experiences of the running at the event. There is no one to cheer you on the run, the roads aren’t closed for traffic, no water points to hydrate and finally, no one awaits you with a medal, pongal and vada!

Coimbatore Runners, an informal group of recreational runners, brings something different when it comes to the training runs for the upcoming Coimbatore marathon to be held on October 1, 2017. Starting from the very first edition of the event in 2013, training runs have been integral part of the various initiatives taken by Coimbatore Runners towards the excellent organisation of the event. These training runs aren’t led by a professional coach who demands you to put in your best performance; but by runners who run for the joy of running and voluntarily help you to enjoy towards achieving your best.

While there is abundant literature about running available on the Internet and through various media sources, there is nothing even remotely closer to listening to a personal experience of fellow runners. One may read about a 95-year old man running a Marathon or an 85-year old woman participating in a triathlon; but they are just words as you never get to witness it in person. “When you run with Coimbatore runners, you see the runners, speak to them, run with them and experience the changes that running brings in them” says Manjunath, who was part of the training initiatives during the first edition on behalf of Coimbatore Runners. A quick profile of some of the trainers would tell us more about the training program.

Shanmugaraj, or Shan as he is affectionately called, used to be a Ball-badminton player during his school and college days playing for tournaments at district level. He got into running after hearing about it from his colleagues in 2013. He found an ocean of difference in the approach towards training for a marathon. “When training for Ball-Badminton, we were always obsessed about how our opponents would play and train to better them; in running, you always train for yourself as you aspire to better yourself.” He currently volunteers as the lead trainer on behalf of Coimbatore runners and supported by his friends during daily runs. He believes that injury-free running must be goal for every runner and helps them in achieving it.

Veeshal took up to running in 2014 after reading an article about Coimbatore Runners in The Hindu. It was actually the picture of the runners that attracted him to the group. He spotted one of his friends, whom he knew for sure wasn’t an “athlete” and wondered about the newly found celebrity status. His friend responded that he too would be a celebrity if he can wake up at 5:30 AM and report three times a week for morning runs. “The warmth and the camaraderie of the group on the very first day made me easily feel a part of the group. I felt confident to call myself a runner very soon.” He ran the 2014 edition and was eager to give back to the group which led him to be one of the trainers for the last two years. “Fitness is not just about physical fitness but also mental fitness. I enjoy running with back of the pack runners, casual chat about many issues, listen to different perspectives and make friends for life.”

Valliappan was a regular morning walker for most of his life and participated in the 10K event in 2013. His initial apprehension about running with Coimbatore runners were mostly about the “astronomical” distances covered during their morning runs. In 2014, he decided to join the training program for 10K event only to realise that he can actually run more and ended up running the half-marathon. He realised soon that it was just a mental block that was preventing him from going extra distance and, most runners weren’t any different from him. “Trainees who come with a very open mind about running soon realise that they can actually aspire to go farther distances. The key however is to enjoy the runs and stay injury-free.”

Saravana Kumar is possibly one of the coaches who can get closer to description of a professional coach. A state level athlete during his school and college days, he had adequate knowledge about sports and prior experience in training. However, He still believes that he is only a learner when it comes to long distance running. “Running is easier and simpler for anyone to get started. Once started, runners can choose to have their own goals and paths.” He feels that runners need not invest in expensive gadgets and accessories from the very first day. “Use basic and comfortable clothing and footwear to get started. Once you are with the group, you will get excellent advice on what to buy and what not to buy from diverse people.” The only thing that is expected from runners is the commitment to get started and continue.

The training program is currently held at Race Course road where the group meets four times a week. The details about the program and the contact person are available on the website http://coimbatoremarathon.com/site/trainrun. Inspired by the success of the training program in Race Course road, training runs are now organised at Codissia, Saravanampatti, Sai Baba Colony and Perks Arch road.

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu, August 14th 2017. You can read it online here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/training-for-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19480184.ece)

 

A Comrade from Coimbatore

Ajay2

Shosholoza, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa, Wen’ uyabaleka, Kulezo ntaba, Stimela siphume South Africa

 (Translation: Go forward Go forward, from those mountains; on this train from South Africa; Go forward, Go forward; You are running away; You are running away; from those mountains; on this train from South Africa) Source – Wikipedia

On June 4, 2017, when Ajay stood among the 17,031 participants of the Comrades marathon listening to the above song, it was an end as well as a beginning – the end of a rigorous physical and mental training for months together and the beginning of a 12-hour, 86.7 Km journey from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. This certainly was not on his mind when Ajay started running in 2014.

He registered for the 10K event at the Vodafone Coimbatore Marathon 2014. Unaware of how to train for a running event, he resorted to a 5K run, the previous evening, much like the last minute preparation for a high school examination! While the finish may not be impressive, it certainly got him interested in running. Joining the Coimbatore Runners, a group of recreational runners, he started training more regularly in 2015; and followed it with participating in many more events including the Coimbatore Marathon 2015.

In 2016, he set himself a target of ascending Mt. Elburus in southern Russia, the highest mountain in Russia and Europe with a height of 5642m. The high altitude trek made him believe that he can challenge himself towards higher goals. The Comrades Marathon is one of the most popular and oldest amongst ultra marathons (distances above 42.195 Km). Started in 1921 by Vic Clapham, a veteran of World War -1, the race is annually held between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, with the start and end points alternating between the two cities. During the World War -1, Vic underwent strenuous tests of endurance and he believed that this race must be a tribute to those soldiers and, “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Since then, it has grown in stature to become a hallmark of endurance and toughness for anyone and everyone who pursues long distance running.

When Ajay heard it for the first time, he knew that this was the right challenge to take up. He attempted his first marathon (42.195 Km) in October 2016 at Bangalore and followed it up with marathons at Cochin and Dubai. His timing at Dubai Marathon helped him to qualify for the Comrades marathon (A runner must have run a marathon under 5 hours to qualify for Comrades marathon). Running beyond a marathon is not just about running and more about persistence and determination. Training for an ultra marathon requires both physical and mental toughness. It was here Kannan, a double Comrades finisher and a certified fitness coach, offered to train him. “Although I couldn’t follow Kannan’s training plan entirely due to professional and personal commitments, the guidance from him was immense” recollects Ajay.

One of the important challenges of running comrades marathon is tackling the hills. Often called the valley of thousand hills, the route is all about running up and down – all the way from Durban at sea level to Pietermaritzburg at 596m with multiple elevations and depths in between. His training runs at Yercaud and Kolli Hills helped him to get a flavour of the hills and he strengthened his confidence by running up to Kothagiri and back to Mettupalayam.

Training for Comrades is not just about the few hours of running every week by those attempting it. It takes a significant toll on the time normally allocated to our friends and family. Being a frequent traveller as he heads the business for HDFC in South Tamil Nadu, the limited time to spend with his family, which includes his wife Manju, and sons, Aadithya and Aaarush was soon becoming extinct. Their support and motivation was backbone to all the efforts of Ajay. He feels grateful to the sacrifices made by his wife, whether it was getting up at 3:30 AM to preparing his pre-run meal or boiling potatoes for nutrition during the run. Before the event, his sons presented him a hand-written greeting card which gave him the much wanted boost ahead of the run. “I kept looking at it multiple times and recollected it every time my energy levels were down during the run”.

Standing at the start line of the Comrades marathon is an experience by itself. In a country that is torn apart by lingual and racial conflicts, Comrades Marathon, for many, is a symbol of what the future holds. The collective rendition of the National Anthem and ‘Sho-Sho-loza’ is certain to raise the spirits of the participants and boost their hopes of finishing the run. “There is only to a certain extent that we can prepare for the run. In my case, it was 60 Km. Beyond that, one has to rely on mental strength and support from elsewhere to pull you through to the finish.” The first 14-16 Kms are usually spent with the crowd with little room to set your own pace or rhythm. Ajay felt comfortable as he reached the half-way mark within the cut-off  time (Comrades Race has strict cut-off times and runners who don’t finish a certain distance within the pre-determined time limits will be asked to quit). As expected, his preparation helped him to cross the 60 km mark with ease. It was then, he needed to dig deeper to find the extra strength.

The spectators alongside the route take additional efforts to ensure that every runner finishes the event. They call out every runner by his/her name (written on the bib) to make them feel comfortable and homely. Most of them are knowledgeable about the race and give advice on the route ahead and time available– to slow down or to speed up. One of the spectator told Ajay that if he were to follow the runner ahead of him, he is bound to finish the race. Ajay went ahead and met Tshepo Joseph Shibambo, who assured him, “Be with me; I will take you to the finish line.” From that point to the finish line, with cramps challenging him in between, Ajay blindly followed him and managed to finish the race in 11:53:54!

The finish was an icing on the cake that had taken over 6 months to be prepared. The following day, Ajay was thrilled to experience the respect that people in Durban, from those selling burgers to cab drivers, offered him for his monumental effort. From that moment till he boarded the flight in Durban, watching many finishers and the sense of accomplishment in each one of them is a spectacle by itself. Most of them are just ordinary people of all sizes and ages who have challenged themselves to fight against adversity.

Where does it take him next? “Doing the down run next year ranks top on my list of priorities; then, there is family, work and other commitments before that” says Ajay. As the theme of this year’s run would suggest, “Zinikele – It takes all of you,” It did take all of Ajay and leaves him with memories for one life time.

Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

(And edited version of the Article appeared in The Hindu, July 1, 2017 – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/ajay-varma-on-completing-the-comrades-marathon-in-south-africa-in-june-2017/article19186741.ece)

 

 

Nilgirs Ultra – Part 2: Hot Air Chasers!

In December 2008, I, along with few Chennai Runners, participated in the Singapore Marathon. On returning back from the trip, there was a burning desire in some of us to organise running events of that standard and magnitude. It was this desire that got us into organising long distance running events a.k.a marathons. It would be no exaggeration to say that running events in India have grown in leaps and bounds in terms of organising standards over the past decade and we certainly had our role to play. Today, most running events organised by runners/running clubs have exceptional standards from those of the SDAT or Athletic Federations. With more and more runners participating in events abroad, the bar is raised each year and it has been a constant endeavour for most runner-organisers to improve consistently.

Personally, I prefer to participate only in events where runners take the lead and have complete control over the organisation of the event. I choose to run the Nilgiris Ultra for two reasons – the race organiser was a two-time Boston marathon finisher and that the run was recommended by a runner from Hyderabad who has participated in running events in all continents. I believed that the event would have a certain standard of organisation on par with events of similar stature. Considering that the event was priced at Rs. 5,000, the very basic expectations were a well-stocked aid station and post run refreshments. It would be an understatement to say that the quality of organisation left me shell-shocked!

Most aid stations had nothing more than water, cheap electrolytes and marie biscuits. We were promised with sandwiches in aid stations but was rationed so badly that it was absent in most stations. The aid station brought me memories of SDAT Half-marathon in February 2008 in terms of quality. Post-run, we were given cheap medals and no refreshments except water. My fellow runners from Coimbatore was surprised by lack of basic facilities. Even the simplest of the running events in Coimbatore offer fresh breakfast at the finish and here, they were left high and dry without any refreshments at the finish. When asked about the methodology to measure the route, I was shocked to hear that it was measured using the GPS in mobile phone. The pre-race briefing, held in a plush hotel, was largely concentrated on creating  false panic over protests surrounding Jallikattu, which was long over by then.

To top it all, it was the arrogance of the organisers, who were hardly sympathetic, when I raised these issues (including the merit in advertising it as a training run for Comrades marathon!) that left me completely disgusted. I would like to publish an excerpt from his response to me:

In conclusion I have to make this statement loud and clear. Take my advice from a seasoned runner! You are NOT a runner or a walker.
First and foremost:  Runners have to have a positive & humble attitude even before they take up the sport of running! You don’t have BOTH.
Above all, you have taken around 12 hours to finish the 70K and we wouldn’t have even let you participate.
Do you know that we were going to have a qualifier for the 70K as 10 hours?  This year was your lucky year and a chance  that we let people participate without a qualifier. Next year, even if you want to and have a changed heart you CANNOT participate in this race because we will have a qualifier for the 70K as 10 hours.
WE WANT REAL RUNNERS to RUN OUR RACE. So YES ‘Comrades is not as challenging as Nilgiris.’  That is a TRUE statement! Just because it is organized in another country and a bunch of western runners say that it is tough you take it for granted? What a bunch of crock that is?  Bunch of Indian runners and seasoned runners are telling you Balaji, Nilgiris Ultra is much tougher and you question that? Get your stats right.
BTW you can’t even get in from next year onwards. You will see a different rating for our race.

The irony of the response was that there were only 4 runners running the 70K and none of them finished under 11 hours. So much for the haughtiness! As far as not allowing me to run, he seems to have to missed the point that I can run the route zillion times for the same cost as it is very much my backyard! After his lessons on humility, the mocking comments on an event as prestigious as Comrades Marathon was certainly unwarranted.

The sad truth is that these organisers will have their way out irrespective of their poor organising skills and arrogance. They know well that Indians are ‘cheap’ and can be easily fooled again and again! During the briefing, a lot was spoken how they are a ‘social enterprise’ albeit with limited social skills, which was nothing more than a anticipatory bail. In short, they are just chasing hot air!

The Nilgiris Ultra

Disclaimer: None of the medications suggested below is conclusive or scientific. Please do not try them in your daily life or before long distance runs.

Saturday, January 28, 2017 – The night before the run, I was still unsure of whether to run or not the following day. It has been a quite painful three days preceding the event. After my final training run (followed by a heavy breakfast) on Thursday, January 26, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with my troubles starting from a throat infection. One led to another, and I was down with running nose, common cold and fever which sapped all the energy out of my body for the next two days. The sight of strips of paracetamol tablets, squeezed lemons and empty samahaan sachets was depressing, to say the least. Frequent gargling of warm water with salt helped in easing my throat pain but not my anxiety of missing the event.

Of course, there was the positive events leading to the run that kept me cheered about. The first one was visiting my good old friend, Birendra Nepal at Wellington after almost 14 years! Biru, as we used to call him (and possibly, I still can call him that way!), was one of the earliest persons to encourage me to take up sports in spite of all my short comings. A pleasant conversation that took us back years as if the last 14 years were non-existent! The second of it was the presence of the Hyderabad Runners who has turned out in big numbers to celebrate the unique achievement of Mr. Hariharan in participating in 100 running events! The pre-race dinner with the Hyderabad Runners helped me to cool some of my nerves and made me feel confident about the next day.

As I went to the bed at 10:00 PM on Saturday, I was still in two minds to do or not to do. I wasn’t keen on hurting myself any further but the race meant a lot to me. Over the previous two months, I had done plenty of training focused towards the run. Adding to it was my fund raising initiative which was well supported by my near and dear. It looked like I was a different man altogether when  I got up the next morning at 5:00 AM. A cup of coffee followed by some stretches and morning ablutions, I was confident and raring to go! The start and finish point for the race was barely 200m from my place of stay. Thanks to Anu for permitting me to stay at her home, I could leave home at 5:53 AM and be in time for the start of the race at 6:00 AM. As John Bingham would say,

” The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

To write about the run can be as long as the run itself and for the reader, it would be as boring as watching me run. There were some great moments like spotting a Gaur in the early morning, watching the day break in the hills, nice drizzle that always kept me fresh, stunning landscapes of potato fields, carrot processing units, tea estates and breathtaking valleys. More than the physical endurance, it was all about retaining the focus on moving forward without getting distracted by the discomforts and the intermittent challenges.

Run with your Heart

This time around, I chose to focus on my heart rate to avoid distraction from other areas. The strategy was simple and clear – Not to get my heart rate over 160 (beats per minute) at any point of time. I set myself an upper limit of 150 and lower limit of 140. Every time, I cross 150 while running, I would switch over to walking till I bring my heart rate below 140 and start again to run. I was reasonably confident that the distance would be accomplished as long as I have been feet on the ground and keep moving. The heart rate of 140-150 turned out to be my comfort zone where I could accomplish distances with minimal effort.

heart-rate_elevation

It was more of walking the uphills and running the downhills. The bigger challenge for the run was getting appropriate aid station support (about which I will write in detail in the next blog).

The distance was accomplished in 11:27 minutes and a detailed statistical report can be found here:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1548049409

A big thanks to all my friends and special thanks to all those who came forward to support my fund raising initiative towards ASHA for education. More about it here – https://runningunlimited.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/running-for-cause/