TEDx Talk


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.

The transcript with the relevant links:

Hello Friends! I am Balaji, I am a long distance runner; and also a speaker. But, I speak only during my long runs. In fact, I don’t mind calling myself a motivational speaker; because everyone who runs with me, runs away from me when I speak during the runs.

Having said that, this is a new challenge for me – I am asked to stand still and talk to an audience who are firmly harnessed to their seats. I have to admit that suddenly, running a marathon looks a lot easier.

Okay… Here, I am asked to talk about running. I wondered whom to look up to. I looked up to one of my inspirations in running – Well, not, Nelson Mandela, he is definitely an inspiration in various other aspects. This is a gentleman by name Bruce Fordyce. He is a legend in South Africa, having run the Comrades Marathon over 45 times and winning 8 times. He was once asked to give a talk on running, and this is what he has to say about running ,

All that you need to run is good heart, lungs, legs, and no brain cells. 

This should come as a surprise to many. You know, we all associate learning with something to do our intellect, our intelligence. And here is a seasoned runner who tells us that it has nothing to do with any of them. You just need to have no brain cells. So, which effectively means that we all need to be like a Jelly fish – of course, it doesn’t have heart and lungs, which I learned later.

So, is there anything possible, any learning possible without using your brain cells. Actually, I have a confession to make – it is true that running doesn’t require any brain cells. It is a very simple act of putting one foot over another – some do it for a longer time, some do it faster; ultimately everyone does it very very simple, just one foot after another. So, what’s a big deal about running?

You take up sports – there’s lot to learn from it. There’s the skill, there’s hand to eye contact, wonderful body movements, and sometimes even beyond that. Billie Jean King, more than a sportswoman, she is known to this generation as someone who stood up for women tennis, stood up for LGBT rights, and she was everything that she learned about her value system through sports. She owes her personal development through sports. But, Running? Is it even a sport? You don’t need to use any skill set. Everybody is a runner, in my opinion.

Well, to play any sport, running is critical – whether you are a cricket player, whether you are a footballer, or a tennis player, you need to run. You need to run for something, which brings me to what I want to share with you. Running is not about what to learn but it’s more about how to learn. Just like how being a good runner helps you to be a sportsman, it is the same values and the culture that you learn from running that get applied to different aspects of life.

I want to dwell about a few of those that I learned over the last 15-16 years of running. So, the first aspect that I would like to discuss – it is setting an aspiration. We all come from a society where most of our aspirations, goals at a younger are set by our social norms – you have to go to the school, followed by the college, followed by the work and in the work, the progress is measure by what the work dictates us. We have never been taught how to set an aspiration for ourselves. Let me admit – I did not take up to running because I really wanted to be a runner. I wanted to be a sportsman – I wanted to play cricket, I was complete rubbish in that. I wanted to play football. I was put as a goal keeper and I learned dance more than actual goal keeping. I took up to running because, I didn’t find myself fit to play any sport. That’s how I started running. Once I started running, I started setting aspirations for myself. Initially, it was just an activity to help me to improve my breathing and thus control asthma. Later, it became a way to discipline myself. After I learned that I can cover some distance, I moved to marathons, Ultra-marathons, and so on. This simple aspect, you know, how to set aspiration for yourself is one of the very significant learning that I could pick up from running.

Dennis Bergkamp, a legend in football had this beautiful thing to say. We all aim for perfection and that’s one thing that I always liked in running.

You climb a mountain, you see the next mountain.

You run a marathon today, you just don’t stop. The next day, the thought is – Ok, what is next? What is the next place I want to go and run? Sometimes, the very next mountain is going to be the very next day of running. That’s how the aspirations are set in running.

The next aspect I want to talk about is Persistence and Determination. These two qualities can never be taught in any text book or it cannot be taught by any coach – although, it can be facilitated by some of the coaches. Ultimately, persistence and determination is something that we pick up from ourselves. I want to share this one life incident that brought me this wonderful wisdom. 

It was in 2006. I wanted to run the Mumbai Marathon. Honestly, at that time, I couldn’t really call myself a runner. I used to run 5 Kms, 10 Kms, but a marathon is way out of my reach those days. I still went ahead, registered myself. Those were the days when Mumbai Marathon started at 8:00 AM in the morning under the scorching heat of Mumbai. Somewhere around the 13th or 14th Km, I realised that I cannot run anymore. It was at this stage that I realised that, ‘Ok, let’s throw the towel and go back home – you know, we are not fit for running anymore.’ 

I asked myself, ‘Did I come all this way to quit at this stage? Ok if I walk all the way, I will still be a laughing stock. Doesn’t matter. I have come to complete the distance of 42.195 Kms and let me do it. Walked through the streets of Mumbai in the hot sun. The vehicle movements had already started; there was dust, there was pollution, there was no waters station. I had to buy water here and there. But, I persisted with it. I managed to go  all the way to the finish line. Luckily, there was one volunteer who was packing all the medals. He unpacked the box and picked a medal and gave me. I was so grateful for him for that medal.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell, the protagonist, would be asked where does he see the strength to finish. He had this one line to say

You find your strength only from within.

Persistence and determination to do anything, in any activity ultimately relies on the individual – whether it is your professional work, whether it is your personal assignment, you need to find the persistence and determination only from within. And I am grateful to running for teaching me that quality.

Having failed miserably in 2006 in running the Mumbai Marathon, in 2009, I managed to run the entire marathon finishing under 5 hours in 4 hours 53 minutes. So, what happened between 2006 and 2009? That brings me to the third aspect – The Group. Support from the group has been very very critical for me in improving my own running. 

Sometimes, it is not just about running, it goes beyond running – the kind of guidance, support, or as you would see in the picture – I started running with full pants and it was the group who taught me by saying that ‘Hey, you don’t need to worry about yourselves. Start running in shorts’. It could be a trivial one but it helped significantly. The group has always been a major source of strength for me – both in running and in the subsequent activities that I have undertaken in running – be it organising events, training people for running events, various social work that I have undertaken around running, the group has always been a real pillar of strength. And I am very happy to say that even today, when I am giving a talk here, I have my friends from my group sitting in the audience, who are the major source of strength for me. Has Helen Keller, beautifully says, ‘together we can do so much’. One of the output that most of you in Coimbatore would have seen is the Coimbatore Marathon, which I am proud to be associated with a group of friends. They have been always a source of strength, and the kind of activities that we could achieve has been unparalleled. Each one of them are highly self-motivated and they keep the motivation levels very high of the group.

So, you have an aspiration, you persist with it, you have a group to support, which is a perfect ingredient of success. But, you miss one aspect of it – Humility. No matter what you do, no matter however high you go, you got to keep yourself grounded. Running has certainly taught me how to stay grounded. Early this year, I went ahead and ran the famous Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa. It was a 56 Km run which we have to finish under 7 hours. This is something that I thought I can take it for granted. Here, was I who finished, I ran the ‘occasionally called as the big brother of the Two oceans,  the Comrades Marathon – I have finished the race under 12 hours. So, I thought this would be a cake walk for me. Somewhere in the sixth hour, I started cramping and I could not move any further. It was a humbling moment and I realised that there is something that we still cannot do it. It was a different story that I managed to scrape past the time limit to spare. It was truly a humbling moment – whether it was a five Kms or fifty Km or even a five hundred km, you have to respect the distance, the terrain. We need to learn that the external factors that support us or often challenge us and stay humble. 

So, that brings me to close about the four major aspects that I feel the I have learnt from running. It helps me to set aspirations, it helped me to persist with my aspirations and be determined to achieve them. I have wonderful bunch of friends to support me in these aspirations; and running always keep me grounded and humble and to look for more. Well, Is that all enough?

Today morning, when I was hearing the talk by Sonal, I realise that running is not just a task I undertake. It is also a privilege I have. The fact that I am able to run, run comfortably is a privilege that I have. The name, the fame, the financial success, of course I didn’t have much through running, whatever it may be that you achieve through running or any activity in life, it all counts for nothing unless you build a single most ingredient – your character. Reputation comes and goes, character is something that stays with you. 

I often credit running to help me to build my character. This is not something that I can say that I have learned but something I still continue to learn and I will continue to learn. This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the iconic moment in the world of sports. It was the 1968 Olympics – Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, John Carlos finished in the top-3 positions of the 200m race. Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided to use the opportunity to convey something different. They did not want to cherish the success; they did not want to enjoy the celebration; get a multi million contract, endorsements.. No. They used the opportunity to demonstrate the prevailing injustice among their racial sections of US. They come from the underprivileged Blacks and it was that time when United States were undergoing a lot of discrimination, and there was lot of violence against the blacks. They decided to use the opportunity to protest against all these injustices. They were banned from international sports, they lost the credibility of United States athletic association, which means they could never participate in any race again. They were condemned; they were banned from any sporting activity in any other part of the world. Including Peter Norman, Who stood alongside with them, although he didn’t protest directly. Australian Athletics federation decided to ban him for standing along with these two guys. But, somewhere in them, they really made the statement. They stood up for what they believe in despite what they could have achieved. Incidentally, it’s a very emotional moment when you realise in 2006, when Peter Norman expired, Tommy Smith and John Carlos travelled all the way from United State, to carry the coffin all the way to the grave. In a recent interview, John Carlos said it beautifully what it means to protest. I would like read it out for you,

In life, there is the beginning, and the end. The beginning don’t matter and the end don’t matter. All that matters is what you do in between. Whether you are prepared to do what it makes to change. There has to be physical and material sacrifice. When all the dust settles, the greatest reward is to know that you did your job when you you were here on the planet.

Running has given me so much. Many times, I am proud to say, it has often taught me what I can be and what I ought to be. Having said that, all of them counts for nothing if ultimately, I don’t build my character. If there is a single most lesson that I would like to learn from running, and constantly learn from running is how I can build my character on the run and transform it off the run. 

Having said that, I would like to end my speech by saying that I would like to see each one of you on the run, sooner or later.