A Comrade from Coimbatore


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.


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:


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/

Running for Cause

On January 29, 2017, I take up my next big challenge in long distance running – Running 70K in the Queen of the Hills, Ooty as a part of The Nilgiris Ultra, and this time, it is with a difference. I would like to use this opportunity to raise funds for Thulir – A Centre for Learning, with whom I have been associated for over 7 years now in different capacities.

You give but little when you give of your possessions.It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. – Kahlil Gibran, Prophet

There are many reasons for one to take up running and running for a cause surely transcends all. Once you choose to run for a cause, it is no more about your personal glory or timing or competition, it is the cause that motivates you to see the finish. My good friend and Team Asha Runner, Ashwin Prabhu writes in The Hindu during the run up to 2014 Chennai Marathon,

Research has shown that when a person is willing to challenge his own boundaries and push himself over and beyond a perceived physical capability threshold, all for a cause he believes in, society at large opens both its wallet and heart. Every one of us can find a way to run and support a worthy cause. Crossing the finish line knowing that you have done something to benefit someone in need, while at the same time achieving a personal milestone, makes distance running a uniquely gratifying experience.

My own initiation into running for a cause started with my acquaintance with ASHA for Education in 2008. It brought me closer to friends who were deeply involved in running as well as education for underprivileged. One such lasting relationship was with Thulir at Sittlingi Village.

Thulir – A Centre for Learning at Sittlingi Village

Thulir was started in 2004 as an Education Resource Center for children and young adults at Sittilingi, a tribal village in Dharmapuri District, Tamil Nadu. Over the years, it has offered multiple programs for ever changing educational needs of the people living in the village. It was initially established as a centre for alternative education for school drop-outs and after-school program for regular school going children. In the last 12  years Thulir has catered to the educational needs of around 500 adivasi children and around 75 adolescents.
Over the years, the need of the community has moved towards a formal school set-up, in line with the prevailing education systems elsewhere. Given Thulir’s good track record and the lack of other good quality education systems in the valley, the community had requested Thulir to help start a school. Presently, there are about 35 children in the age group of 3-6 studying in Thulir. To be established as a formal school, it needs a full fledged building which is presently being constructed.

To know more about Thulir, do visit their website, http://www.thulir.org/wp/ or find their regular updates through their blog – http://www.thulir.org/wp/blog/

ASHA and Thulir

ASHA is a completely volunteer driven group where individuals put in time (without compensation) to support initiatives that help the underprivileged, with primary  focus on education, though are not limited to it. Asha ensures that 100% of donations go to support projects. It is a completely decentralised organisation and major decisions are taken at the chapter lever, with guidelines framed at central level. I have been associated with the Bangalore Chapter for over 7 years now. Currently, we support 6 Projects in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Running marathons and fund-raising through marathon have been a routine feature among our volunteers, in USA as well as India.

Apart from raising and disbursing funds, we also monitor the activities funded by us. Each of the projects have a ‘Steward,’ who voluntarily spends time with the projects and reports regularly on the activities of the Project. I am currently holding the Stewardship for Thulir and take the responsibility for the disbursal and utilisation of funds. My interaction (as well as the previous stewards) with the project, the annual disbursement of grants and the utilisation reports can be found here – http://new.ashanet.org/project/?pid=967

Current Requirement

Thulir is currently in the process of transforming itself into a full fledged regular school. A new campus is being developed in accordance with the regulations laid down by the Tamil Nadu Government. The first phase of the project needs to be completed before June 2017 to help the school obtain recognition from the Government. For more details, please check the report here.

How to donate?

Outside India:

If you are living and earning outside India, I would recommend using our online payment gateway for donation using an International Credit Card –

These donations are tax-deductable in the US under 501(c). You will receive an e-receipt of your donation immediately after the transaction. A printout of the e-receipt is sufficient for tax purposes.
While donating through the portal, please ensure that you select ‘Thulir School’  for “Use my donation for:’ and ‘Bangalore’ under ‘My donation is for.’ Also mention under comment “Runner – Balaji”


Within India:
If you are living and earning in India, you can donate either through NEFT or send in your cheques. These donations are tax-deductible in India under Sec. 80(g) of the Income Tax Act.

Donations through NEFT:
Please fill out this form to receive instructions for the same – https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeiQvp9mQrxCDjRUYq_9JGrmp1KjI-RC3DtOtSmKm4zhlEp_Q/viewform

Donations through Cheque:

Make your personal cheque payable to Asha and send it my address.

S. Balaji,
2D, Madhura Manor,
Perks Arch Road,
Rajiv Gandhi Nagar,
Coimbatore – 641015
Tamil Nadu

Do visit the project page for regular updates on the project.

New Year… and New Beginnings, occassionally

And when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.

– Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

Starting a New Year is more a symbolic gesture than of any substance other than the new calendars, diaries and the routine mistakes while entering the dates manually. The only “new” thing that I remember doing for a New Year has been starting a diary of activities back in 2005 (technically in end-2004 but I choose to ignore it to ensure a better narrative). I decided to maintain a simple spreadsheet where I would enter a one word description of the physical activity that I engaged during the day. My activities were then classified into four categories – running (any distance), cycling, walking (only early morning walks considered) or sports (I used to play football on some mornings; later replaced by others).

As the number of data points increased, so was my ability to make statistical analysis, prepare colourful charts, make spectacular pointless inferences (fallout of my job as quantitative analyst) and at times, use it to motivate myself. A small sample is provided below:


I had repeatedly resisted myself from any other quantitative obsessions for a long, be it distance (except cycling), running speed, Personal Best timings, heart rate, cadence and what not! As it is said, nothing is permanent except change. I have finally chosen to get myself a Garmin 902XT and a Heart Rate Monitor and step into the world of quantitative analysis of my running and cycling.

What more, I have chosen to get into the world of Strava – https://www.strava.com/athletes/balaji and track my activities in-depth.

As far as the new year goes, I hope to be more regular with my running with or without these gadgets and statistics. My personal target for the year is fairly simple – achieve either or all of the three objectives below (in the same order):

  1. 200 days of running
  2. 300 days of active morning life – cycling, walk, yoga or run!
  3. 2,000 Kilometers of running

As far as participation in running/cycling events goes, I always feel it is best to take it as it comes in my way. The first event for the year is the The Windchasers Ooty Ultra on January 29.

Hopefully, I will be updating my blog regularly!

Wish everyone a Happy New Year!



In the Long Run, we are re-born

How long is a long run? The International Amateur Athletic Federation classifies distance above 5000m as long distance running events. The recognised events in Olympics and other events are the 5000m, 10,000m and the Marathon (42.195 Km) but the most popular, in terms of public participation, is the Half-Marathon (21.1 Km). Events above the marathon distance are called ultra-marathon events and most participants in these events (outside of major events) are largely recreational runners.

The two most challenging distances for recreational runners are the distance between their bed and shoe-rack, and their first 5 Km run. Anyone who can accomplish these two targets can set their sights on running longer and there is no limit for the maximum distance one can run. While short and medium distances are often the test of one’s physical endurance, long distance running is more a test of mental resilience over strength.

Training oneself to run long distances is often a journey that is a reward by itself. There are no short-cut techniques or a quick fix formulae or a miracle drug to become a long distance runner. It is a slow, patient process over years and a journey of discovering one’s physical and mental limits. As Rabindranath Tagore writes,

“NOT hammer strokes, but dance of the water sings the pebbles into perfection.”

Conditioning oneself to run long distances is like getting pebbles into perfection.

Some steps to help us get started:

First, plan your weekly mileage of running and do not increase it more than 10% of the previous week’s mileage. Increase the distance gradually.

Second, learn to run slower. The easiest way to run longer is to run slower as it teaches the patience to run longer. The ideal pace for running longer is to run at ‘conversational pace’ – a pace at which you can comfortably engage in a conversation with a fellow runner (not on the same lines as News hour discussions!)

Third, Learn to walk between runs – It might sound blasphemous to suggest walking to a runner. Nevertheless, taking walk breaks between runs help in recovery of muscles between the runs and gain energy to run further.

Fourth, Set yourself time-based targets like a run for 1 hour, 2 hours etc.,; distance will improve automatically.

Fifth, Hydrate well. Hydration is the key for running longer. Take frequent sips of water between the runs to keep yourself hydrated. Always carry your own bottle of water during the runs and get it re-filled at intervals.

Sixth, One of the major challenges physically in running longer is the loss of salt (Sodium) in the body causing dehydration, muscle fatigue which leads to muscle cramps. Most sports drinks, electrolytes help you to replenish the salt content during the run. You may choose natural alternatives like salted lemon juice or orange juices.

Seven, eat small portions of solids on the run. It goes without saying that the energy lost on the run must be replenished. Eating small portions of solid food, be it peanut butter sandwich or bananas or energy bars, will help in getting energised for longer runs. Professional runners normally resort to energy gels containing concentrated carbohydrates. Some of the readily available foods like peanut candy, dry fruits, chocolates and biscuits will come handy!

Last but not the least, learn to compete with yourself! In long distance running, there is nothing more to achieve than what you have achieved the previous day. You are no less inferior or superior to other long distance runners. Each runner is unique and works according to his/her strengths and weakness. Comparing with others is not only deplorable but also potentially dangerous. One may never know the years of training/conditioning that the other runner has undertaken before running the distance.

Running long distances are often a metaphor for any activity in life – career or relationships or any other passions. It is an education by itself as it helps to understand and push the physical and mental limits. At physical level, it helps you to understand your body better and the relative strengths and weakness. Personally, long distance running has helped me to understand and get rid of medication for asthma.

Shortcomings in flexibility and physical strength can be easily detected and worked upon. Mentally, it is a meditative experience there is no doubt that over the long run, you are re-born into a better person.

An edited version of this piece can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/Let%E2%80%99s-go-for-a-long-run/article16895753.ece

Copyright ©2016 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

The article was originally written for Chennai Runners who publish an article every fortnight under the series “Road Runner” in The Hindu – Metro Plus.

A long-distance relationship

It’s been a while since I blogged and the same must apply to my running too. A quiet year of running was finally broken by my participation (for the 5th time) in the Hyderabad Marathon in August. Participating in the fifth time was as memorable as the first time and offered some interesting experiences and learnings.

Meanwhile the onerous task of writing about my running was undertaken by Pankaja Srinivasan of The Hindu – Coimbatore edition.


Generous in her words, she at times made me feel that I miss a part of myself if I do not run regularly. As an avid reader of The Hindu from my childhood, it certainly means a lot to open The Hindu and find an article about me on the front page of Metroplus, Coimbatore edition.

Thank you Pankaja for the article and many others who are directly and indirectly responsible for the contents.