The Sittilingi Run

In October 2008, I moved to Bangalore to take up a new job. Around the same time, I was training for the Singapore Marathon to be held in December 2008. Shumit Vatsal, a Chennai Runner then living Bangalore, introduced me to Anita, Sanjeev, and Santhosh, who were part of the Bangalore Chapter of Asha for Education. I joined them for a Sunday Run which turned out to be the last practice run for Santhosh before his 24-hours at the Bangalore Ultra. Running for 24-hour was something unheard back then. I was curious as to what drives him to do that. Over the run, Santhosh spoke to me about his recent visit to a place called Sittilingi and the project - Thulir Learning Centre. Asha Bangalore has started supporting Thulir from that year. It was my introduction to Asha for Education, and their work in the field of education for underprivileged. The funds were raised by volunteers training and running marathons. The job did not last two months and my stay in Bangalore, not very long after that; But, it started a long journey with Asha Bangalore and Thulir, something that shaped me over the next decade and half and more.

The Sittilingi Run 2023 was organised on February 5, 2023 by Thulir along with Tribal Health Initiative (THI), Sittilingi Organic Farmers Association (SOFA), Porgai, and supported by the village Panchayat. The run was organised to bring the people from different villages together and promote awareness about keeping good health. All the teachers and students of Thulir were involved in the event, either as an organiser or volunteer, or participants. The event was open for everyone from the valley to take part in one of the 3 categories – 2K event for children, 5K run, and 10K run. Registrations were handled by the staff in THI, SOFA, and Porgai. The health workers actively campaigned for the event in various villages to bring in representation from all sections. Since paying for a running event was unheard of, it was decided to keep the event free for all.

In March 2009, Santhosh introduced me to Ananya school on the outskirts of Bangalore. A month before, he brought some of the children from this school as well as from Thulir to participate in the Auroville Marathon. Santhosh had trained these children for participating in the 10K event, and the elder boys from Thulir, like Senthil, ran the full marathon. Later that year, Santhosh became a full-time running coach and started Runners’ High to train runners from all walks of life. Along with his new venture, he continued training children from underprivileged backgrounds for various running events. He further expanded this program to various other schools.

The event was well received and widely appreciated by the residents of the village. The enthusiasm and energetic participation was so heartwarming. Over 428 runners took part in the event supported by 20 volunteers at different places on the route. The event started with a lively warm-up session handled by young doctors from THI, Dr. Christy and Dr. Raja Durai. It was a pleasure for everyone to run in the misty morning weather with clean air – a rarity in most cities. I had stationed myself in one corner of the route with proximity to a food joint run by a former staff of Thulir guaranteeing a hot cup of tea after finishing my duties. The morning breakfast of hot pongal with home grown rice flooded with spicy sambar was served to all the participants of the event. It was refreshing to see the many children and adults come from all across the valley and enjoy taking part in the event.

My first visit to Thulir was in June 2009. Thulir had just started the Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. Santhosh wanted to integrate running as a part of the course.  In August 2009, some of them trained for the Kaveri Trail Marathon and then for the Bangalore Ultra during that year. I had the chance to run and accompany them for various events. The program found its course as the years passed by and grew in strength and numbers. Many students and staff from Thulir participated in running events during the last decade. These events gave them an opportunity to interact with people from different parts of the country and also a platform to express themselves.

The support from the community was so heartening. On the day before the run, I was checking the route with some of the teachers. I suggested a water station at a certain place. Ram suggested keeping it 100m ahead in front of a person’s house. When requested, the resident agreed for it immediately, and also offered to give lemons for the juice to be served to runners. On the day of the run, when I requested one of the buses to go slow on the road, he stopped it for few minutes to let all runners pass by; and no passenger objected to it.

In 2014, Santhosh and his team in Runners High started organising Ananda Yana - meaning journey of joy. The event was an initiative to bring people from diverse sections of running community together and run for the pure joy of running. In the process, the event also acted as a fund raiser for the various initiatives of Runners High in supporting children from 5 different schools. While two editions of the event was suspended due to COVID-19, it was back in 2022. This lovely video shot by children of Ananya, who were once participants, describes what the event is all about.

After attending Ananda Yana in June 2022, students and staff of Thulir were keen to host an event of their own. Before the pandemic, there were couple of editions of Sittilingi Runs. The zeal for this year’s event came when Santhosh, Mani, and Krishan ran from Bangalore to Sittilingi over 4 days between October 29 and November 2nd 2022. After running for 4 days, the ran along with the students, staff, and other residents on Day-5. This triggered the thought process for The Sittilingi Run 2023. In early January, when I was on a routine site visit on behalf of Asha for Education, the idea was gaining strength and was finally, a reality in February 5, 2023. The organising team spent much of their time outside their regular work towards the event. Suresh, one of the teachers in Thulir, spent his mornings in training runners from his village for the event – purely out of his own initiative.

The journey of Thulir over the last two decades is an inspiration for many of us. Santhosh wrote in his note of appreciation,

There is so much to learn from each one of you. You all are an inspiration and I am fortunate to have made such great friends!! Our heartfelt thanks from Runner’s High for always awakening the soul of our community through your wonderful work in the valley Thulir was the inspiration to start Runner’s High and it still is our inspiration to face any challenge and keep growing with love

Over the last decade, my association with Thulir, largely as a project steward for Asha for Education, has been a great learning experience for me. The changes in the region during this time, and how Thulir has adapted to the changing educational needs is an excellent case study in itself. The Sittilingi Run was a great opportunity for me to integrate my interests in running and Thulir. Although I have been disillusioned with running events of late, Sittilingi Run gave me a hope for a better ways of organising events. Reconnecting with Ananya was yet another moment to cherish. Time flies - Students have now become teachers, the children whom I ran with, now have children, and thankfully, I still remain Uncle! Ananya Children still remain unique - Always open to chirpy conversations and their ability to mix with anyone assertively.

The preparation for Sittilingi Run started much earlier. An ad hoc organising team comprising of representatives from various organisations was constituted. Apart from the residents, it was decided to invite few other organisations like Marudam School in Thiruvannamalai, Ananya School in Bangalore, and other friends of THI and Porgai were invited. It was clear from the very outset that they did not want to bring in the commercialised version of a running event which has largely lost its purpose. They decided that there will be no prize money or even prizes. There was adequate emphasis on caring for the environment at the planning stage which were visible while executing. The running bibs were hand-painted by the teachers at Thulir. The bibs were collected back after the event for future use. Ram a.k.a Ram Anna, one of the teachers at Thulir summed up the event beautifully,

ஊர் கூடி தேர் இழுத்தது போல்.. என ஒரு வழக்கு உண்டு. இதுபோல ஊர் கூடும் நிகழ்வுகள் அருகி வரும் இக்காலத்தில் அர்த்தமுள்ள ஒரு நிகழ்வில் பங்கெடுத்த திருப்தி, உங்கள் அனைவரின் வார்த்தைகளிலும் மிளிர்கிறது. புதிதாக நான் என்ன சொல்லிவிட முடியும் எனத் தோன்றுகிறது. குழந்தைகள் காட்டிய உற்சாகம், அதன் மூலம் பெரியவர்களின் கண்ணோட்டத்தில் (சற்றே எனினும்) ஏற்பட்ட மாற்றம் நம்பிக்கை அளிக்கிறது. ஏதேனும் ஒரு திரைப்பட பாடலுக்கு, ஒரு சில குழந்தைகள் அல்லது பெரியவர்கள் ஆட, பெரும் கூட்டம் இயக்கமின்றி கண்டு களிக்கும் ‘கலை!’ நிகழ்ச்சிகளை விட இது போன்ற நிகழ்வுகள் அனைவரின் பங்கேற்பை கோரும் பாங்கு மற்றும் அதன் மூலம் சமூகத்தில் விளையும் நன்மை இவற்றை அருகிருந்து கண்டது உவப்பான அனுபவம்.

(Translation awaited! I will update once Ram sends it. I don’t want to spoil the beauty of the verse with my translation!)

For me, the event was a part of a long personal journey that keeps evolving reaching new destinations and immediately heading for another adventure. I am sure the Sittilingi Run will continue to evolve and find its course.