On March 30, 2014, the Jains and Marwaris of Pondicherry organised a 7Km run to promote running amongst their community members.The theme of the run was centred around the basic tenets of Jainism. The run was aptly named as the Ahimsa Run, the key principle of those following the religion. They had two categories of the run – a 7 Km run for adults above 14 years and a 4 Km for children under 14 years. The route was fairly simple – started and finished at Vel. Chokkanatha Kalayana Mandapam at Vallalar Salai and the run was on the boulevard around the Pondy town.
The genesis of the run was in the participation of some of its members in the Seventh Auroville Marathon in February 2014. Many of them were running their first half marathon. They formed a group called ‘Marathon Runners’ and trained for the event. Following their experience of training for a marathon and the joy of running one, they wished to offer a similar experience for their entire community. The participants were largely from their community which helped the organisers to ease their concerns about organising a running event. They also invited students from Sathya Special School, Pondicherry.
The Organising team has toiled for more than a month to put together an event that would be memorable for the participants and encourage them to take up a more active life. They also had a good representation from the women members and children of their community. Many of them have undergone rigorous practice for over a month leading to the run. In total, over 500 runners participated in the event. Even if restricted from their community, the diversity in the age group of the participants made it a spectacle to watch.
The event concluded with a sumptuous breakfast for all participants and a felicitation ceremony for the winners as well all those who worked for the event. Kudos to the Marathon Runners for their efforts in adopting Running event as an occasion to get their community folks together. I am sure that this experience will encourage them to organise similar events involving the entire town of Pondicherry.
In the middle of the night, Aravind wakes up and yells, ‘Praveen…. It’s 3:30 and no one has got up.’ Checked my phone and the time read 11:59. Praveen jumps out of his bed to confirm the same. Aravind quickly realises that it is the second time of the dual time on his phone screen. Those were the scenes ahead of the inaugural Yercaud Ultra, later renamed as Shevaroy hills ultra before finalising the name as ‘Servarayan Hills Ultra’ (SHU) in sync with the original name of the hills.
Aravind has signed up to run the Comrades Marathon on June 1, 2014 and it was natural for him to be anxious about every run until his Comrades. He was not the lone Comrades participant in the trip; Shahid, Ram and Kannan were also gearing up for their Comrades experience. The SHU has been intricately connected with Comrades marathon in many ways. Back in 2012, a month after (miraculously) finishing my first, (only as well as last) Comrades marathon, I joined the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC) Weekend Ride in Yercaud. The ride captain was Vaz a.k.a. Vasanth who seems to know the roads in Yercaud in and out. He introduced me to the beautiful ~34K loop road starting from and finishing at Yercaud.
As we rode on the loop road, the frequent recurrence of peaks and troughs reminded me of the early stages of Comrades route with similar terrain. At the end of the ride, I was really eager to run the route sometime in the future. Few months back, Shahid and Paul were discussing about Shahid’s plan for Comrades training and was keen on running in Ooty. I discouraged him as neither the route profile nor the altitude suits a perfect training. A year back, few of us ran all the way up to Kothagiri from Mettupalayam and the route was inclined upwards from the start till the finish. It did look like a challenging uphill run but not the right kind of run for practicing hill running.
Training for Comrades is a challenge by itself and poses many hurdles. I had tried to summarise some of my thoughts in my earlier blog on Training for Comrades. The loop in Yercaud presented us with an ideal terrain for hill training. It had ample peaks and troughs with the elevation no more than 100m at a stretch. I shared the maps (courtesy: Vaz) with Paul and Shahid suggesting the loop and in addition, a downhill towards Kuppanur would resemble Comrades route. The ~26K downhill run features a steep climb of ~4K sandwiched between downhill run of ~11K each. At first, it felt like the challenge of running the Botha Hill in Comrades but later turned out to be a bad idea because of the steep inclinations and declines.
Apart from the Comrades participants, the idea was thrown open to a small group of select runners (chosen based on the familiarity. Given the risks involved, it was decided not to open to a wider group). Among the takers includes Manivannan, Praveen, Bala, Ramani, Paul and by default, myself! It was a no-frills run and very minimal effort was taken to organise the run. It was self-organised and self-directed by each of the participants. I reached out to Vaz for assistance in Yercaud and he took the risk of introducing me to Yeshwin. Yeshwin, originally from Chennai, has relocated to Yercaud and dabbles in many activities, notably, cycling. On explaining my requirements, he suggested me a nice house for all of us to stay. The food was to be taken care by his wife, Kavitha, who runs The Pear Tree Café at Yercaud. Thanks to their assistance, we managed to have a pleasant stay and wonderful food for those two days.
Our plan was to start the run at 4:00 AM and had a cut-off of 10 hours to cover the total distance with an intermediate cut-off of 6 hours for the loop (later reversed to 5 hours and it still didn’t matter). Our route reconnaissance (recce in common language) on the previous day didn’t give us a good preview of what was in store, the following day. Moreover, with 7 of us cramped on a single car (and me getting the ‘business class’ front row by the virtue of having tall legs), it was difficult to feel the elevations and troughs on the route. We retired to bed early after a delicious dinner of sandwich, curd rice and chocolate truffle. It could possibly be the only event where all runners had the same dinner and stayed together. Guess, IAAF can take some lessons from us to avoid pre-race doping!
We got ready for the run in time at 3:45 AM. The two car drivers – Pervez and Abdul – reported in time at 3:30 AM. Their assistance on the run was immense. It was also decided to run in groups until the day-break for safety reasons. Running in the dark is a challenge and also a memorable experience. The challenge is of two fold – not to get lost on the route and not to trip down. The first challenge did not exist in this run. The route directions was just simple – Keep left always! The second challenge – well, only the medicines for bruises were available.
It seems to be an unwritten law that tripping in an integral part of Ultra-marathons. Every year, I am sure there are at least 100 runners who trip themselves over the cats-eye in Comrades. Although I was lucky to escape it in my comrades run, I suffered it at Coimbatore, two months after the Comrades! The honours on this run went to Shahid who had a nasty fall suffering bruises on his elbow. It looked distressful on the first sight but Shahid was not the one to be let down by it. He quickly recovered to continue with the run.
The beauty of running in the dark is realised when the day breaks. The joy of watching the day break is unsurpassable. For those living in the cities, their day break is often spoiled by the street lights or the lights from vehicles. One can never watch a true break until they get themselves in a totally dark place. The first two hours of the run was a very pleasant experience except for the presence the street dogs. There were more ferocious ones inside many fenced residences but the ones on the street troubled us by pacing us on the run. Living in a street where there are more dogs than humans, I found it easier to tackle them.
I had chosen to play the sweeper role on the run and the drivers were instructed that I will be the last runner. The loop looked like a dream route for every runner – very little traffic, no confusion about the routes, perfect blend of elevation and declines and a pleasant weather. Our original plan was to have a cut-off time of 6 hours for the loop which looked very easy to achieve. In hindsight, I thought a four and half hours cut-off (corresponds to 8:30 AM) with an added of incentive of getting a cup of coffee for 10 bucks at Sree Saravana Bhavan, Yercaud could have been a better challenge (The price of coffee goes up to Rs. 25 after 8:30 AM).
All the runners completed the loop with ease. Bala was keeping unwell and has to opt out before the end of the loop. It was a steep climb from the end of the loop (which was at the lake) to the start of the road leading to Kuppanur. While I was enjoying the running uphill, it was getting really tough running downhill. After running about 10Kms on the steep downhill road towards Kuppanur, I have to call my run off. This was the route I enjoyed riding a lot during the Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010. Little did I realise that it would such a bad route for runners. The steep declines were absolute killers and I neither had he physical strength to run down nor the mental strength to pull trough with the run. I was also scared that most of the other runners would curse me for such a horrible route. It gets worse in the last 10 Kms which was no more than a barren hill. Strangely, all those who finished took it up as a challenge and accomplished with ease.
I was happy for the Comrades participants – Ram, Aravind, Shahid for finishing the entire stretch. This was definitely a confidence booster ahead of the Comrades. The downhill run in Comrades is lot more easier than this run even if the route has another 28Kms to cover. Also glad for Kannan for finishing the difficult stretch of the route, even if he didn’t run the last few Kilometers.
RK Narayan once said that if he wanted to look out for a story, he would just need to peep out of his window. It was through his eight window bedroom and of course, during his long walks that he found most of the characters for his short stories and novels.
It is for this reason that we find most of the protagonists of RKN’s stories are someone whom we can usually identify with, either in ourselves or in someone near and dear; unlike the characters portrayed in a Gautam Menon’s movie. His stories were never short of colourful characters depicting the richness and uniqueness of people living in those times. Then, there is one character that his stories missed out – a runner or let’s call him (not a symbol of chauvinism but just to make it a gender more familiar to RKN as well as me), a Malgudi runner.
RKN was known to be a prolific walker. In his memoirs for The Frontline, T.S. Satyan wrote,
Narayan was an indefatigable walker. He saved all his time for walking and writing, keeping away from literary functions, seminars and controversies. “Walking is my favourite pastime,” he used to tell me. One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. “If you have the language, you can write about them,” he once told me.
Walking was very much integral to RKN as much as his writing. He could never get tired of his walks. In his essay ‘On Walking,’ he writes
I walked because I enjoyed it and had the leisure. While walking, my mind became active and helped my writing.
He even wrote an unwritten ‘Testament of a Walker’ – An essay that deals with his lack of ‘automobile sensibility’ and pain of owning an automobile than about walking. He writes in it,
‘The most ambitious piece of work I have been planning for years is to be called ‘Testament of a walker.’ The title has been ready for decade although the book may never be written, considering its boundless scope and ramifications.
After writing and celebrating walking extensively, it still ponders me as to why he ignored running. Wasn’t it a fad then? or didn’t he find any interesting characters in runners to weave a story around them? There were of course runners in those times but sadly, they never impressed him. In the essay ‘On Walking,’ he takes a dig on the runners,
“The men who walk for athletic reasons, not a few, seem to be training for the Olympics. Jogging, running, with upraised arms or swinging them in windmill fashion, stopping in their tracks to bend down, stretch or kick imaginary balls, jumping high and low, with not a care for others in their path. For me these Human Windmills are a terror.’
So, it must be the ‘seriousness’ of runners and their terrorising actions that has kept him away from writing about them. Or they must have been too fast for him to observe them and draw conclusions in his slow paced life. I still feel that he missed a lot in runners. Imagine a runner in Swami to vent his frustrations against Rajam in Swami and Friends; Chandran getting over his love failure through running in Bachelor of Arts before getting married to Sushila; The World of Nagaraj disturbed by an early morning disturbance in Tim, the runner rather than the late night Tim, the drunkard. Or the evergreen Raju from Guide taking up running instead of fasting, which would have made a more interesting story than Forrest Gump.
The picturesque location of Malgudi would have provided an exotic running route which would be termed ‘romantic’ by the city slickers. Starting his runs from the town centre, running towards the Kabir street, a few loops in the Lawley extension, on the banks of Sarayu river, running past Albert Mission College, Palace Talkies and others; Weekend runs may stretch into the Mempi forest accompanied by tough trails on the hills. Add those talkative men in the morning walking crowd in the park next to Sarayu river for some flavour. The grand finale for such a run must be a post-run breakfast comprising of a delicious pongal, vadai and an aromatic filter kaapi at The Boardless.
The Malgudi Runner is not likely to be a very competitive runner; or if he was, he would be a serial loser. He would find his daily lessons and philosophical understanding of life in his running; sometimes he would find solutions for issues affecting the society too. An extremely self-righteous man, he would think that Malgudi would be better inspired with his statue than that of Mr. Lawley and the under-appreciation for his efforts clearly demonstrates the backwardness of this Nation. He believes that running alone would free his fellow citizens from the four hundred years of colonial bondage. He does not feel like he is running for himself… He runs for humanity. Whatever or whoever he was, he was sure not to be a dull person!