In a scene from the movie World’s Fastest Indian, there was a conversation between Tom and the protagonist, Burt Monroe, played by Anthony Hopkins,
Tom: Aren’t you scared you’ll kill yourself if you crash?
Burt Munro: No… You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people live in a lifetime
In an age of secured job, assured monthly salary, stable relationships, and settled lives, it is not unusual to give and receive words of caution when trying to step outside comfort zones. Running, or cycling, is certainly one such activity which can attract a plethora of advisories. I neither ignore these words nor doubt the sincerity of those conveying it. From mundane generic caution to knowledgeable suggestions, there is a whole gamut of literature available for everyone. These words of caution gets amplified each time an incident of tragedy happens.
In the last 2 weeks or so, we read about a Deputy Superintendent of Police killed while cycling and a lady from Mumbai run over by a speeding vehicle during her morning run. Then, there are the news of celebrities dying young due to cardiac arrests, despite looking ‘fit.’ In the days following the death of a noted actor from Bengaluru, there was a sudden increase in the number of people visiting cardiac clinics in Bengaluru for a check-up.
Apart from the major incidents, there are other incidents that make us rethink about running or cycling. Personally, the two accidents that I met with while riding, in 2017 and 2019 respectively, left me with a trauma that affects me even now. There are days when I get ready for a ride only to return back because I didn’t ‘feel well.’ It is then I start contemplating on why I do these? Is it even worth the effort, given the risk involved? Importantly, am I doing these because of a false sense of bravado? Motivational statements like ‘pain is temporary; quitting forever’ or ‘Winner never quits and quitters never win’ are anyway, a total humbug and I don’t attach importance to them. I am happy to quit just when I don’t feel like doing it, without offering further explanations.
Running or cycling, at whatever intensity it is pursued, is rarely reckless. While some appear to push themselves beyond their limits, most of them are well aware of consequences. The medical issues in most running events or cycling events, although widely amplified, is relatively less compared to activities of similar nature. A peer reviewed study of medical data from ParkRuns in the United Kingdom over a period of 6 years involving nearly 30 million participants showed the incidence of life threatening events and fatalities in the event much lesser than the population. The study concluded,
Serious life-threatening and fatal medical encounters associated with parkrun participation are extremely rare. In the context of a global public health crisis due to inactivity, this finding underscores the safety and corollary public health value of community running/walking events as a strategy to promote physical activity.
Most recreational cyclists also drive or ride motorised forms of transport. Anecdotally, I find that cycling has helped them to be a little more sensitive to other vehicles while driving or riding. While news of cycling accidents are worrisome, the chances of such incidents aren’t any different from those of motorised or battery operated two-wheeler.
Basic safety measures are generally adhered widely among runners or cyclists. Personally, I wear a helmet (strapped well) at all times (including commute rides) while cycling; I run facing the traffic, never engage in running or cycling if I did not get adequate sleep, avoid heavy exercise on days following blood donation, always carry a bottle of water on hot days, quit when I need to, and few other practices that I consider as safety measures. However, none of these guarantee safety from reckless actions of others with whom I share the road. The two cycling accidents that I referred to earlier happened due to an over-speeding motor cycle knocking me from behind.
It is difficult to say whether it is worth pursuing these activities despite these external risks. For instance, many advising me about risks of riding bicycle also ride motor cycles where the probabilities of accidents as well as deaths are much higher in India. In the all time classic, ‘Reminiscences of Stock Operator’, the protagonist Jesse Livermore would say,
I wouldn’t take a callous view that risks are inherent in life regardless of safety measures, and hence to be ignored. There is a need for prudence to be exercised here. A better approach would be to accept the warnings, understand the risks, and examine if we are well equipped to handle the risks. My orientation to speed in cycling as well as running is built around this premise. I do take extra caution while riding in hills or undertaking long runs and rides.
Over the years, the need for running or cycling has gone beyond just physical fitness. It also shaped my thought process on the World I would like to see. Would I like to see a World where everyone actively engage in outdoor activities or a World where children and adults confine themselves within four walls engaged in their digital world? Would I like to a see roads where people respect each other’s right of way or engage in a competitive battle for spaces and stamp their supremacy because of the vehicle they own? I am certainly not going to change the world; but I can certainly change myself to find a better world.
If everyone tries to withdraw, of what purpose would be the death of many runners and cyclists all over the world who were killed during running or cycling? It still does not address the root cause of the problem – unruly drivers, lack of road sense, respect for everyone on roads irrespective of the vehicle they use, and overall consideration for one’s and other’s safety. We need safe roads and pathways for running and cycling. But, we cannot wait till we have one.