Part 2 – The Ultra Runners

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

Ultra marathon runners – “Fat people who just can’t run very fast; but have a high tolerance for boredom.” My personal experience of meeting Ultra marathon runners tells me that they aren’t ‘fat’ but they definitely have a high tolerance for boredom (not just in their conversation with me)! I would like to make a special mention of couple of such runners.

With Santhosh and Jacob
With Santhosh and Jacob

My first meeting with an Ultra runner was Jacob Boopalan, on the eve of Auroville Marathon 2008. I was attempting a half-marathon the following morning and was quite nervous about it. Jacob, on the other hand, was running a full marathon and was totally relaxed. He makes ultra running look so simple in the way he talks about it. It was then, I learned that marathons are just another Sunday morning runs. When I asked him what keeps him going on an ultra, he casually replied, “The food! You get a chance to eat a lot.” The following day, Jacob came first in the marathon event and looked less tired than most of the half-marathon finishers, including me. Jacob completed the Comrades marathon 2011. In 2014, he ran all the way from Chennai to Auroville to participate in the Auroville marathon.

Jacob Completing Comrades 2011 (From his Facebook page)

The next ultra runner that I was introduced was Santhosh Padmanabhan, a techie then, at Bangalore. It was a week before the Bangalore Ultra 2008 in which he was attempting a 24-hour run, a ‘crazy stuff’ indeed. On the same day, I was scheduled to do my final practice run of 35K for Singapore marathon, which did look really small after I heard about his attempt to do a 24-hour run. In October 2009, I had my first opportunity to crew and run with him. Santhosh was now in his new avatar as Guruji – He has become a full fledged running coach with Runners High. I was also part of the Crazy crew for Bangalore Ultra 2009. Accompanied him on the run for 2 laps and on cycle for another 2 laps all through the night from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM clocking a distance of 50K. For someone, who was dead against the night shift culture, it was an experience of its kind doing those nocturnal runs. Sadly, Santhosh had to abort his attempt much earlier than the 24 hour target due to the contrasting weather conditions between the night and the day. However, he returned in 2010 to complete the 24-hour run at Bangalore Ultra.

Another intersting outing with Santhosh was the Strides of Hope in 2010. An innovative 48-hour effort organised with a combined effort of the running communities of Bangalore, it was aimed to promote the cause of running and physical exercise for better health and raise funds for Asha Bangalore chapter. Staying with him over the night, feasting on the tamarind rice and curd rice prepared by his mom and the jocular company of various others, is an experience by itself and sure, can fill another blog.
Santhosh may not have run the Comrades marathon but a true Comrade at heart and in his life. His approach to running (which his extends to his life) is simple, egalitarian and helps people to think about running more than just an act of physical exercise. He introduced me to the Asha Bangalore team and field of alternative education in which running finds itself an active place. Currently, he volunteers actively at Sita School, Ananya School, and the Spastics Society in Bangalore and has brought a remarkable change in the outlook of many students. The students of Ananya school and Thulir, an educational resource centre based out of Sittling, Dharmapuri District, Tamil Nadu, actively take part in various running events and some of them even finish in the top 10 in the half-marathon category in such events. Running is often used as an instrument of punishment in most schools. Santhosh uses running as an instrument of fun, bonding and learning experience in these schools. It also enabled me to find some place in getting associated with these institutions. More about those activities in his less frequently updated blog here – He is not just a long distance runner but also a versatile writer of ‘long e-mails’! While only a few are privileged to receive his mails, others can check his blog – Not updated in the recent past but the old posts still make it a great blog to read.

Santhosh was also my virtual coach in my attempt at Comrades. Early May, I wasn’t sure of taking a shot at the comrades. His single piece of advice, “Don’t worry about anything else now – just stay positive and visualize yourself getting there every day.” Took extra effort to visualise myself finishing in the Kingsmead stadium wearing the green shirt of Team ASHA/Runners High every day during training and all through the Comrades run, until I really accomplished it. However, the atmosphere at the finish line was way too intimidating than I ever imagined! He continues to inspire many, not just to take up running, but also to become a running coach themselves and inspire others.

Part 1 – Comrades – An Introduction

Either you have work or you have not.

When you have to say, “Let us do something,” then begins mischief

My earliest introduction to the word ‘Comrade’ was when I attended a Bank Trade Union meeting with my father. It was certainly not my introduction to ‘communism’ in any manner. I could barely follow the proceedings in the meeting and was there only for the dinner that followed it. Few minutes later, I realised that I wasn’t alone. Apart from the name of the chief guest, whom I learnt later was an icon among public sector bank employees, I recollect two things from that meeting – some talk about BCCI (a bank in middle east that failed around the same time) and the word ‘Comrade.’

The Comrades Marathon was introduced to me (as well as most Chennai Runners) by Shahid in late 2009 when he registered for the 2010 edition of the event. While the rules of the game sounded weired, it was interesting to learn that it has existed for almost a century. I joined Shahid during his training runs on couple of occasions, and witnessed some of the hardships in training – from starting to run at insane morning hours to changing socks and shirts on the run, and getting a cooling shower from one of the gardeners of the palatial minister bungalows on Greenways road. It was around this time, I got acquainted with Amit Sheth – through Shahid – who was the Ambassador of Comrades Marathon in India.

It goes without saying that a majority of the Comrades runners in India (which is actually a minority) were inspired/made aware of the Comrades marathon through Amit’s book Dare to Run. My objective opinion on the book would be disputed for it contains some undeserved praise for me in one of the chapters. It is a simple, beautiful book with wonderful anecdotes from a ‘daily life of a runner.’ Just like his book, Amit’s blog Dare to Run has always been a wonderful read. One must definitely read about his 2012 Comrades experience which I was lucky to witness in person.

It was in the same year that Tanvir Kazmi, author of the famous blog Running without limits, also ran his first Comrades. Tanvir’s blog on the Comrades was a wonderful account of a first timer’s experience at the Comrades marathon. Tanvir has subsequently been active every year on the Comrades day tracking the progress of every Indian runner. It was a fabulous to see him to track the runners so earnestly in 2011 and followed it up in 2012 too.

Thou hast made me endless…

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.  This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

A week after running my first (and almost definitely, the last)! Comrades Marathon, I am still left with one unfinished agenda – writing my comrades experience. My writing however has been limited to only e-mails (annoying ones for the most part)!, some comments on others’ writings, Facebook©®™ status updates and tweets. I had taken up blogging in the past with mixed results and many unkept promises. Just like running, I keep trying again and again, take a fall, lick the wounds, and rise again, with my ego yet to be deflated. Over the past week, some of my friends expressed their interest in reading about my experience of running Comrades Marathon. Living in a world, where the virtual world is larger than the physical one, the ‘some friends’ gets automatically multiplied to many friends leading to a deluded presumption that there are many out there to read what I write.
Running 89.2K is not something that I have attempted even in one week, let alone on a single day. It was not just the run but the journey to the comrades has also been a long one. Just like one of the Saas-Bahu soaps, it is difficult to decide where to start and where to end. I make the start today and would work on getting the story over the next few weeks or months or years. The road ahead for the blog looks as bleak and uncertain as I was during the start of Comrades. Hope to have an enjoyable journey and if the journey is enjoyable, the destination is only a bonus. The journey shall continue till it attracts sizeable ‘likes’ on the Facebook©®™ – possibly, a Gold Standard for online attraction.
Running 89.2K is definitely not a one man effort, even if it is the individual who accomplishes the feat and bags the prestigious medal. Over the long journey, there has been many people who have encouraged, kept me on track, and directly helped me in getting past the finish line with 2 minutes and 2 seconds to spare. Over the next few weeks, I would do my best to credit each one of them and yet, it would be still incomplete.