TEDx Talk

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Sometime in June 2018, Suriya asked me if I am interested in giving a TED talk at a TEDx conference to be held in his college (JSB) in October 2018. I was not only overwhelmed by his approach but equally panicked. I am no Haruki Murakami to write a book on “What I talk about running when I talk about running” or Christopher McDoughall to conduct elaborate research and give an informative talk about running. I went back to Suriya with a list of other names whom I belived can do a much better job. He insisted that I do it and there is enough time for it.

It was a challenge to figure out what to talk about running. My interactions about running have been laregely limited to an audience who run regularly and appreciate the travails and satisfaction that we derive from the activity. To them, any topic related to running will easily interest them, be it my experiences of organising events or running in various other events. As in running, so in activities related to running, I was lucky to look up to Ram Viswanathan for guidance. He shared some of his experience in talking to a non-running crowd and what appeals to them the most.

I tried to look at my own experiences what running has meant to be over the past decade and a- half that I have been pursuing it. It has shaped every aspect of life during this time period and this talk is a reflection of the key aspects related to running. The talk by itself was an education for me – to start with, it taught me how to prepare for a talk. It was certainly a memorable experience and I am happy to share with you all.

Running for 100 days

Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.

– widely attributed to Anton Chekov

Sports persons are often unfairly judged on what they do for few minutes on the event day, ignoring the hours of drudgery of their routine training that consumes most of their lives. In long distance running, while achievements like running a marathon or a half is widely celebrated, the simple act of getting up every morning and stepping out is rarely appreciated. It is for no reason that runners consider the distance between their bed and shoe rack as the most difficult distance to accomplish!
Tanvir Kazmi, a  renowned recreational long distance runner who has inspired many runners through his blog as well as being one of the finishers of the Comrades Marathon in 2010, found that many of the his fellow runners disappear soon after an event or two, especially during the summer months. Further, when they return back they are down with some injury or other. In 2014, he came up with a simple proposition – run a minimum of two Kms everyday for 100 days.

“It was a new experience for me too. There were tired days at work, travel, vacations and reasons aplenty to excuse oneself. This was a test of will power and I wanted to first try it on myself.”

says Tanvir, whose idea has now spread across India.

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TANVIR KAZMI Photo: Special arrangement

Started formally in 2015, the 100 Days of Running has attracted people from places all over India. The idea is simple – run everyday, minimum of 2K and no pressure on timing or pace.The number of participants have gone up from 48 in 2015 to over 10,000 this year with at least 25% of them running all the 100 days. Coimbatore has its own champions – 15 of them went on to finish all the 100 days and we hear from some of them about their experiences.

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ARUNAN Photo by Arun


Arunan Thlagavathi, 29
Arunan made his first attempt to run 100 days in 2017. However, it has to do be discontinued due to personal exigencies. This year, he was even more determined to finish and challenges at his work did not deter him from completing the 100 days. On asked about the most difficult days among the 100, he said, “One of the days, I had to report to work very early and could return back only at 11:00 PM. I realised that it is impossible to go home, change and go for a run. I asked my friend to drop me 2 Kms before home and I ran to home in formal clothes to ensure that I complete the distance for that day.”

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VENKATESAN R. Photo: ‘Lion’ Selvaraj

Venkatesan R., 70
Venkatesan started running with the Porur Racers, a running group based out of Chennai. He extensively credits the group for getting him to challenge himself through running. He found running to be the perfect way to keep himself active as well as healthy post his retirement. “In Coimbatore, running with the Sai Baba Colony runners helped me to complete this challenge with ease. I was also moved by their nice gesture to honour me on the final day.” says Venkatesan. On asked about the most difficult days, he humbly commented, “Luckily, I am retired and don’t have any work pressures. The only commitment that I have is attending weddings and on those days, I have to be up early and finish my runs before honouring them.”

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MANJU V. Photo by Palani


Manju Viswananthan, 39
For Manju, the 100 days challenge presented a transition from a walker to a runner. She started doing morning walks for keeping good health and found this challenge intriguing. It was her group U2 which brought her into this challenge. “Initially there were a lot of apprehensions on what it means for someone who has never been into sports to take up running. Once started, there was no looking back.” says Manju who found plenty of encouragement from the fellow runners in Sai Baba Colony. “There were days when I stepped out at 9:00 PM to go for a run and wondered what people would think of me. Once, you get over that fear, no distance, be it in running or life, is difficult to conquer,” says Manju, who has since gone on to finish a few 10K races during the 100 days.

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SURIYA C. Photo by special arrangement

Prof. Suriyaprakash C, 50
Suriya has been a regular runner for a while but his travel commitments often presented him with a challenge to keep up with his running schedules. He found the 100 Days of Running as the best way to force himself into discipling himself towards regular running. Despite his travel schedule, ranging from monsoon drenched Mumbai to hot climes of Pondicherry, he ensured that he kept up his running schedule. The biggest challenge was left to the higher altitudes. “I had already planned for a trip to Kailas-Mansarovar during this time period and it was a real challenge to run in the higher altitudes beyond 4000 metres. The serene atmosphere helped me though,” says Suriya who believes that running should be integral part of everyone’s life.

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SENTHIL KUMAR Photo by Arun

Senthil Kumar, 48
Senthil started running about two years back for fitness and had simple targets initially. He was always of the misconception that running will hurt his knees and never ran beyond 100 Kms per month. Joining the Coimbatore Runners at CODISSA was a turning point as they constantly encouraged him towards new goals. “The 100 run target was daunting initially but I thought it’s the best way to clock up miles in the process,” says Senthil who has run an incredible 1350 Kms in the process, highest among other finishers in Coimbatore. He is now raring to get more runners to take up this challenge next year.

Gayathri Babu, 42
A couch potato till 2016 – medical ailments forced her to quit her job and she started focusing her efforts in getting active. The first 500m of walk was herculean, to say the least. Her journey from counting tubes of pain relieving ointments ointments to counting miles is an inspiring story by itself. She was determined in her efforts and transitioned her walks to run in January 2018. Support from her family, doctors and fellow runners have been indispensable. “We are always evaluated by comparing oneself with others. Running helped me to focus on myself and get better every day. The icing on the cake was getting my first ever medal, that too at an age of 42, is certainly something that I would cherish.” says Gayathri, who is gearing up for a long run!

These are stories of few and there are many more who have gone on to make running a way of life.

 

 

Copyright ©2018 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, Metro Plus, August 11, 2018 – https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/coimbatores-runners-who-met-the-100-days-of-running-challenge/article24655640.ece)

A Comrade from Coimbatore

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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)

 

 

Part 5 – The Humble Lessons

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart

Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner and thirty times finisher of Comrades Marathon, wrote a brilliant piece on the “Arrogance in The Comrades Marathon.” In that article, he quoted Bill Rodgers, 4 time winner of Boston Marathon. After dropping out of 1977 Boston marathon, Bill said

The marathon can always humble you.

Every runner experiences them in some form or other. Normally, in such ‘humbling experiences,’ one always end up looking for excuses and reasons. Sometimes, they are major like lack of adequate water in aid stations, soaring temperatures; and many times, the trivial ones like the bad taste of the energy drink at the aid stations. If there was a humbling experience combined with the lack of excuses, it must be the experience of running the Colombo Marathon on October 2, 2011. It was the first marathon since I registered for Comrades and was quite keen on finishing it with better timings. On finding that the event was certified by AIMS, I thought that it might serve as a qualifier for Comrades.

The idea of running the Colombo marathon was originally proposed by Tiger a.k.a Ramesh, and backed by a host of runners. Eventually, it was left to me, Ram and Neville to battle the full marathon and Andy Gana running the half-marathon. The trip would be fondly remembered for all events other than the actual marathon. With no Visa formalities then, Sri Lanka was obviously the best foreign country that any Indian passport holder could have traveled.

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Photo by Ram

Along with the runners, Ram’s wife Sita also travelled with us and an appropriate headline to announce it would have been ‘Rama and Sita together travel to Lanka for the first time!‘ The marathon starts at Colombo and ends at Negombo, a beautiful coastal town north of Colombo and the route runs along the sea coast.

We reached Colombo on September 30, and stayed at Negombo. The first day was largely spent locating a decent vegetarian restaurant leading to some hilarious consequences. Staying in a beautiful beach resort, we planned to do a relaxed run along the beach, the following morning. Neville and Andy chose to go easy with an extended sleep while Ram and I chose to step out to do a bare-feet run on the patch between the sand and the sea. Unlike the beaches of Chennai, this beach was only a beach and served no other purpose in the morning hours. While I was reluctant to get into the water, Ram (falsely) assured me of his swimming skills and encouraged me to take a plunge. We further tested our photography skills.  One of the pictures that I clicked of Ram later found its way to couple of news paper articles on him, thus making me a photojournalist!

Ram
Photo by Balaji! All rights unreserved!

Later that day, we went around Colombo, collected our bibs, treated ourselves in ‘authentic’ vegetarian restaurant, some ‘tea’ shopping – all thanks to a wonderful support from the driver, Thilan, assigned to us by the tour operators. His presence proved to be a boon both on that day as well as the next day. The bib collection process was a tedious one as it involved a medical examination. The organisers, also the tour operators, were kind enough to waive the entry fee and also ensure a quick and easy medical examination. It goes without saying that I looked less like an athlete amidst all the athletes who were participating the following day. The doctor couldn’t believe that I am the one who will be participating and need to check on me twice.

bib collection
With our Bibs. Photo by Sita

The race was set to begin at 6:00 AM on October 2. We left our hotel as early as 4:00 AM as the roads gets congested during the morning hours.

At start
Andy, Ram and Neville! We had to wait almost 2 hours for start.

We were amongst the few ‘international’ runners in that event. Although the event has seen many editions before (including one edition cancelled due to a bomb blast), it still lacked some of the basic ingredients of a ‘quality’ running event. All the runners were grouped together irrespective of the distance they are likely to run; The start was delayed by 20 minutes to ensure that photographers get good pictures of the starting line-up; Aid-stations carried nothing other than water and were non-existent beyond certain distance; the route was not cordoned from traffic, atleast within Colombo and many such complaints. The weather made the conditions even worse. At the 24th KM, I almost chose to quit the event and give up. Neville had made some extra preparations for the event. He planned a mobile aid-station in the car that we meant to drop us. He further prepared a few bottles of isotonic which came handy during the event.

Bunk Shop
Neville’s model bunk shop for runners

With this support, I managed to keep myself going and finished the event in 5 hours 45 minutes.

It was at the finish line, where I came to know about the misfortune that Neville faced during the event. At the 29KM, one of the runners was hit by a speeding motor-cyclist who did not stop to help her. Neville went to her rescue and was hit by another motor-cyclist, who incidentally came forward to help the victim. Despite getting hit badly, Neville asked the motor-cyclist to go to the nearest aid-station and call for an ambulance for the victim. He waited there until the ambulance arrived and ensured that the victim was taken care of. Ignoring his injury, Neville proceeded to finish his run in about 5 hours. Ram had finished his run a few minutes before Neville. On spotting Neville at the finish, he quickly rushed him to hospital to get him treated. Neville came back before the presentation ceremonly with a sling holding his arm. He had suffered severe bruises to his shoulder bone and also on his legs (thankfully wasn’t a fracture), yet managed to hold on to complete the marathon.

Ram with medal
Ram with medal and certificate
Neville with Medal
Neville getting his medal!

Returning to the hotel, Neville calmly remarked, “This is the type of event you need to participate if you are keen on doing the Comrades.” What looked like an inconvenience looked like a challenge for Neville. He had no complaints about the inadequate support during the event, no complaints about the lack of medical service or even about the motor-cyclist who hit him. He just saw them as a challenge and faced them head-on. As the eldest in the group, Ram did have some ‘elderly’ words of advice for him not to attempt something similar in the future.

A marathon is a challenge that one is expected to face by themselves. The support and facilities are only enablers in achieving the target. To expect any facility in a marathon is by itself defeating the challenge. That was the last time I thought about complaining about weather or lack of support/facilities in an event.

Neville continues to inspire me through his ‘Dawn to Dusk’ attempts every year. To know more, do visit his site here – http://www.nevilleendeavours.com/

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.