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