Side note: As you all have no doubt noticed, posts here have been rather infrequent recently. I have a good reason for that. It is because a lot of my free, do-anything-you-want time is being spent on my latest passion, running. A few months ago, I decided to train for and run the Dallas marathon, with a mission to raise money for my favorite charity. There is much more about that (and what you could do to support that effort) here. Rest assured that if you wanted to pick an excellent charity to contribute to, this would be one of them.
I’m a newbie runner, and started running only about six months ago. But these six months have been a fantastic learning experience (thanks largely to some friends I run with, and the Dallas running club). Before I started training, my idea of distance and endurance running (and endurance athletics in general) was quite like the idea many, many people in India still have today. So this post is a little bit about running, my own running efforts, and some thoughts on attitudes towards running in India.
Running is not much of a sport in India. The last time someone from India won an Olympic running event was way back when India was a British colony, in 1900, by a British-Indian gentleman by the name of Norman Pritchard. Even that was in a sprint, and he wasn’t even brown. Indians don’t run. They become computer engineers or doctors or run motels. And on an athletic field I was what can only be described as average. Recognizing that, I never bothered to understand the finer nuances of endurance running. Running marathons was something my crazy white friends and colleagues here did. But then white people also liked getting burnt in the sun. They’re crazy. A marathon is 26.2 miles. In my book that’s called a road-trip. I had done some jogging on a treadmill before, and 3 miles was about my limit. So for a number of years I had decided that it was just one of those things white people did to make us brown people look bad. (Ok…just ignore all those Moroccans and Algerians and whatnot winning bagfuls of Olympic running medals. They live in the Sahara desert, so they don’t count). That feeling was reinforced by none other than Tom Hanks. Someone yelled “Run Forest, run”, and he set out to run all across the United States of America. And he was on crutches, goddamit. On the other hand, if you saw some random Indian on crutches and yelled “run Raju, run”, he’d probably turn to you and ask why he should run, was there a fire/communal riot/flood in the area, would his child get admission in college if he ran, and if not, would he get free electricity if he ran. It wouldn’t work.
And then I discovered that brown people ran as well, but were mostly closet-runners. In fact, a bunch of my Indian friends turned out to be closet-runners (particularly back in Seattle). Oh the shame! To top things, they ran marathons for charity, and were doing more to do good on earth than I was by just using grocery bags for shopping, avoiding plastic and feeling smug. There almost seemed to be some underground movement of Indians actually running. Finally, apparently one didn’t have to be born with running ability. Running is an art and a science, and just about anyone can do it. So, six months ago, I started running. I’m still surprised at how quickly I have transformed into one of those Gatorade sipping, technical T-shirt wearing runners who will never run in street shoes again. This brings me to running in India.
Recently, the fine Indian city of Chennai hosted a half-marathon. Apparently, it was a huge success, and lots of celebrities and politicians showed up for photo-ops. Their intentions were excellent, with the proceeds going to some charity. And in all that excitement, people forgot about the running part of it. In almost true Indian style, amidst the inevitable chaos thanks to the crowd (all Indian events, even sporting ones, have crowds associated with them), one of the runners died of exhaustion.
It is a terrible shame. What is also a shame is that most people in India think about marathons the same way I used to a couple of years ago. Comments from various people varied from "What better way to get fit and run for a cause (assuming that one just woke up one day, ran a marathon and miraculously became fit) to “Many believe it underscores the need for participants to check their levels of fitness before taking up such strenuous exercises.” If you are missing the irony here, let me explain. You can go to a doctor and check your fitness level and be declared perfectly fit. A fit person might be able to climb a flight of stairs. Or even ten flights of stairs. But he or she is unlikely to be in shape for a marathon. Nor is it as simple as running every day, and increasing your distance constantly. You might finally make it through a marathon that way, but it won’t be easy, and it might end up hurting your body permanently.
Distance running requires a combination of many things: speed, endurance and strength (both physical and mental). Miss any of these, and you are in trouble. So, in order to build speed, you train using track workouts (running distances of say 800 meters, in sets) and interval running (where you run in fast bursts during sections of a run). To build endurance, you train on long distance runs regularly. And for strength, you combine running on hills with active cross training and strengthening exercises in the gym. As your strength and endurance increase, so does your mental strength. Finally, during and before the run, a runner needs to think of hydration and salt balance (which is why runners drink Gatorade. And I thought it was just an American aversion to water), and eating a sensible diet (particularly the night before a run) rich in carbs (with some protein thrown in), without too much fat or sugar. During the process of training, your body metabolism itself changes (becomes more efficient, and burns more calories, even while resting). Now throw in proper running form (running with your head held up, hands unclenched, without crouching your shoulders and with your back straight, leaning slightly forward) and good running footwear (no, regular sneakers don’t do the job), and finally you’ll be on your way towards becoming a runner.
There was a time, long ago when I was still in high school, when I did a little bit of running. During our annual sports day, the school would also organize a 5k “road-race”. It used to be great fun, and a bunch of us would show up and run. Here’s how it went. We’d all show up, wearing the stipulated stiff white cotton shorts and white vest, and white canvas shoes (terrible for running). The whistle would blow and we’d be off, tearing down the route. In about two kilometers, a bunch of us would be out of steam, while others would soldier on. The few really fit students (mostly boarders who spent their time playing soccer, hockey and basketball) would then soldier on and win the race. There was some potential there, with many of them (particularly those students from the North Eastern states, or Nepal, or the Himalayan states, used to higher altitudes) being natural runners. Most of that potential was wasted. Imagine the possibilities if the physical education instructor had even the slightest idea about distance running (instead of just yelling “run up, run up”), or if the kids had used proper running shoes instead of the thin soled canvas shoes (which always left your feet in pain after hard exercise). All these kids were from affluent families, and could easily afford good running gear. Most of them though would never even think of becoming runners.
For the few who actually discover running in a scientific way, it is usually too late. They are by then in their late teens or much older, and far too old to take up athletics seriously. And of course, competitive running is one thing. But running for fun (which can be a fantastic way of being fit) itself will take a long while to catch on in India. I cringe when I see people heading out for a fast walk/jog in the mornings, with the best intentions of getting fit, wearing sandals and thick cotton clothing. Or heavy sneakers that might look nice, but do nothing to support the feet (or the heavy impact on the body that running brings with it). But there’s potential there, and I’m dreaming of the day when the Mumbai (and other) marathons become a serious event with thousands of Indians running it, because they are passionate about running.