Talking to some of Mumbai’s senior runners; how they got into running, what it means to be senior and running, their concerns, their approach.
A story in three parts:
Kutty Krishnan Nambiar remembers searching for something to stay active in when he shifted from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai.
He had just retired from employment.
“ I was in a situation where I had to do something,’’ he said.
Nambiar studied in Kozhikode, Kerala. He used to participate in athletics in school. Following his education, he worked initially with Air India in Mumbai and later with Air France in Abu Dhabi. There in his forties, the bug got him – he started running. It was no more than two to three kilometres a day. In 2003, grappling with the retired life in Mumbai and looking for something to stay engaged in, Nambiar picked running. Soon he was running four or five days a week, totting up four to five kilometres a day. At start, he was a bit nervous about running on the road. The worry faded when he found that running kept him physically fit and mentally happy.
While running in a park not far from his apartment complex in Andheri, Nambiar met Mumtaz Qureishi. The younger Qureishi talked the older man into seriously pursuing running. From a weekly mileage of 20-25 kilometres, Nambiar slowly hiked up his running to 40-50 kilometres. Alongside, his training became more systematic. Sample this – the 73 year-old regularly runs from Andheri to the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in South Mumbai, a distance in excess of 25 kilometres. On the way, he meets other runners, young and old. Nambiar described the predicament of being senior citizen in sport dominated by young people, light heartedly. “ I am like the old steam engine. The young run much faster. But they also wait for me,’’ he said of how he catches up with those doing the run from Bandra in the western suburbs to NCPA, the first Sunday of every month. Andheri, from where Nambiar commences his run, is further north of Bandra.
In the first phase of his post retirement interest in running, Nambiar ran many of the lesser known races in Mumbai. The city, widely considered India’s running capital thanks to the well known Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) which happens annually, has a plethora of smaller running events spread throughout the year. It was on these events that Nambiar cut his teeth as a senior citizen into running. In 2012 he ran his first SCMM in the half marathon category. Among other events, he ran the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon organized in the said region on the outskirts of Mumbai and much appreciated by the running community for the residents’ cheering.
In January 2015, Nambiar ran his first SCMM-full marathon. Running slowly but determinedly, he finished it. He was very happy for himself. He just wished the race atmosphere had stayed so till the last runners crossed the finish line. By the time the slow runners got home, the finish line was devoid of cheering and anyone welcoming. “ Even the traffic resumed when I was still on the road,’’ Nambiar, said. Although he didn’t say it as such, it was apparent that this part of the SCMM experience had left him trifle sad for with the finish line into wrap up-mode by the time he reached, his timing wasn’t officially recorded. “ That’s okay, I am running for my satisfaction,’’ Nambiar said.
Running changed Kutty Krishnan Nambiar. There was the improved physical fitness and sense of well being. Bad habits vanished – in Nambiar’s case, his chain smoking. “ Had I not got into running, I would have been another old retired person. Running has given me a lot of confidence,’’ he said, February 2015 at his apartment in Andheri. His family never objected to his running at an advanced age. He was also lucky that his family physician approved of his decision to stay active and keep running. “ If I were to give credit to anyone for my running, I guess it would have to be the family doctor and Mumtaz Qureishi,’’ Nambiar said. Overall he has enjoyed the journey. Hailing from an age devoid of social media, he found himself doing well in running, an activity with considerable presence on social media. “ Somebody put me on Facebook. I didn’t know any of that before. Now I actually like it. People encourage you, congratulate you,’’ he said.
When running, Nambiar adopts a mix of running and walking. “ I am not running to race. I am there to finish what I am doing, eventually reach the goal. I wish to improve my timing. But I don’t want to struggle for it,’’ he said. His pace is slow and steady, mostly like fast walking. “ Once I cross the first five to six kilometres, I feel nice. I feel so nice after 10 kilometres. Sometimes I feel I am flying,’’ he said. Nambiar’s preferred nature of route was a linear one he can settle into and strike a sustainable rhythm.
For the 2016 SCMM, Nambiar wished to do the full marathon again. But before that, he wanted to try an ultra marathon.
He was toying with an idea Qureishi had set loose among his friends – run from Mumbai to Goa.
Nambiar felt he could try portions of it.
These days, early morning-Mumbai is incomplete without runners on the road.
SCMM changed Mumbai.
It is the flagship event in the city’s running calendar.
Over 2010-2015, the number of participants for its full marathon grew by 39.38 per cent, from 3103 runners to 4325. In the half marathon category, the increase was by 30.19 per cent, from 11,000 runners to 14,321. This annual race encouraged many people to embrace running in Mumbai.
ENROLLMENT AT SCMM FOR THE FULL AND HALF MARATHON:
SCMM 2010 SCMM 2011 SCMM 2012 SCMM 2013 SCMM 2014 SCMM 2015
Full Marathon 3103 2800 2728 4127 3600 4325
Half Marathon 11000 11213 13945 12808 14200 14321
Neeta Ramakrishnan was tackling the blues of having left a hectic working life when the advertisement for the first SCMM appeared in late 2003.
She had been working at R&S Electronics, a company co-founded by her husband and well known as suppliers of quality audio visual equipment. When she left that job, the sudden onset of inactivity had been unnerving.
Despite having no formal background in sports, she was a generally fit person. She registered for the SCMM-half marathon. She didn’t know what it entailed. Running wasn’t as popular as it is now. In 2003, there weren’t many running groups; in fact there weren’t many runners on the road. Neeta trained by herself following a schedule that Procam, the organizers of SCMM, recommended. Four months later, in February 2004 (the first SCMM was in February), she completed the run in under three hours. “ After that I can say for sure I was back to being myself. Running gave me back my life,’’ she said.
Neeta is one of those SCMM veterans in the true sense, who have run most editions of the event (barring one or two owing to personal illness / inconvenience) and seen it change from a curiosity in the city to crowded running. She admitted that sometimes she felt she shouldn’t run it any more. But every time she finished it, she yearned for the next. In 2012, she ran her first SCMM-full marathon finishing third in her age category. Training with Giles Drego helped her graduate from the half to full marathon distance in two months, she said. In 2014, she finished third in her age category for the half marathon. She has also run at places other than Mumbai – in Hyderabad, Goa, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Satara. As podium finisher, she once collected a cheque for Rs 10,000. “ Trophies and cheques – it is a beautiful feeling. At school or any other juncture in life, I never went on stage to collect a prize,’’ she said reflecting on the moments running had gifted her in her senior years.
Neeta mentioned a few goals. She wanted to stay injury free as far as possible. “ My age does scare me. If anything happens it takes longer to get back to normal,’’ she said. She wanted to run a half marathon every two months; she was also open to trying an ultra marathon. “ An ultra will discipline me more. My mind will have to be more focused. That is a challenge. That is the attraction,’’ she said, adding, “ at the end of a run I am very happy with myself.’’ When we met her, Neeta Ramakrishnan was an energetic 61 year-old, talking about her life in running in a lovely, brightly painted old apartment with much music and films around.
Neeta’s emphasis on avoiding injury merits highlight.
Most of the senior runners we spoke to cited the need to listen to one’s body and push limits judiciously.
Besides change to the individual, aging always included the dimension of changing environment.
Arguably, that dimension is a bit extreme nowadays.
India is now an overwhelmingly young country.
According to the website of the National Commission on Population, by 2016, while the numbers of those below 15 years age of is projected to dip from 35 per cent to 28 per cent, the share of people in the age group of 15-59 years will rise to nearly 64 per cent by 2016. By then, the numbers of those over 60 years of age is projected to rise from seven per cent to nine per cent. That is nine per cent in an ocean of the remaining age groups. Even if you took 50 years as separating line, the 50-plus group will still be dwarfed by the young.
Needless to say, the demographic transition the country is going through influences public and social life. The sheer size of youth makes sport inevitable in India. The market knows it. The sheer size of youth also makes sport partial to the characteristics of youth. Much before being enjoyable activity, sport is performance and spectacle of achieving. The market loves it so. Except, sport – as anyone who has been long enough in sport will tell you – is not only about raw performance or trading the old for the young. Sport embarks you on a journey; it speaks its own language, breathes its own life. You feel it as participant in activity. At its best, sport is an avenue to self discovery and self awareness. It is a valuable dimension to human existence. Senior runners likely find themselves on this quieter, lonelier more profound track quicker than others, for they are past distraction by market and society.
Well before his foray into distance running Shyam Sunder, now 69 years old, was competing and winning prizes in walking.
He took to running short distances participating in SCMM’s Dream Run and Senior Citizen Run. Now living with his son at Vashi in Navi Mumbai, Shyam Sunder is out at 6AM every day of the week either going for a brisk walk or a run. He kept to small distances but things changed when Swaminathan Subramanian, a long distance runner, spotted him and urged him to attempt a half marathon. Encouraging words from Swaminathan and M.K. Srivatsan, another long distance runner from Navi Mumbai prompted Shyam Sunder to attempt the half marathon in 2009. “ I was 65 years old when I attempted my first half marathon,” he said. He did it in 2:25 hours. The following year, he improved his timing to 2:16 hours. His timing kept getting better and in 2013 in a Chennai racing event he got his personal best of 1:57 hours.
Shyam Sunder has been a podium finisher in his age category in most of the events that he participated in. He is not into scientific training as is the trend among younger runners. “ I enjoy my run and I never push myself beyond my limits. That’s why I have been able to keep injuries at bay,” he said. He has devised his own method of training and often works backward from a running event. He also believes that opting for minimalist footwear helped him keep injuries at bay. “ I do my practice runs with regular shoes but switch to minimalist shoes during events,” he said.
During his younger, working years, Shyam Sunder played cricket. A student of IIT Chennai and VJTI Mumbai, he worked at IBM. “ In my thirties I did no activity. Later I took up walking,” he said. Shyam Sunder’s diligent approach to running, his love for recreational sport and his performance in events has prompted not only his son and daughter but also many of his neighbours and morning walk-friends to take up running. “ My son and daughter are convinced that running is what is keeping me happy and healthy,” he said.
He travels out of Mumbai to participate in running events but mostly to cities where he has family and relatives. He has thus run in Bangalore, Mysore, Chennai and Pune. He also participated in a three-mile run in Portland, Oregon when he was visiting his daughter who was then living in the U.S. Having run several half marathons, Shyam Sunder was contemplating running the full marathon in the 2016 edition of SCMM.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. They would like to thank all the runners who spoke to them as well as Procam, organizers of SCMM, for the data shared. Please note: timings and podium finishes are as mentioned by the interviewee.)