Ramachandra Rao’s initiation into running happened way back in 1978 when he was living in the U.S.
Returning to Mumbai, he found that he could not keep up the activity.
“ Those days it was very odd to run on the streets. I ran for a couple of days and then gave it up,” said Rao, now 67 years old. India’s financial capital also left him with no time after his daily work at Ciba Geigy, a pharmaceutical company. Atop that he had his family responsibilities.
His second foray into running happened in 2010. By then he had moved to Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. He took to accompanying his wife on walks, covering distances of 5-6 km so. He found he could not resist running. Consequently there were those occasional days when he would run briefly for a few meters. He discovered that he enjoyed running and gradually, over time, increased the distance.
His first event was the Pune Half Marathon in November 2011. He completed it with a timing of 2:06 hours. Encouraged by this performance Rao decided to plunge headlong into more such events. But he could not run the half marathon at the 2012 edition of SCMM as registration for the same had already closed. He opted for the 4.3 km-Senior Citizen Run. In 2014, he finished the half marathon segment of the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon in less than two hours (1:55:38).
Having commenced his journey into distance running, Rao prefers the lone road to self improvement when it comes to training. He runs 4-5 days a week. He trains on his own doing the long runs on the weekends while interspersing the week day runs with interval training and time trials. His training regimen, often drawn up by himself, typically commences three months ahead of a running event. Most of his training was confined to Kharghar but M.K. Srivatsan periodically reached out to him to facilitate moving out of Kharghar for a run. “ He knew of my inability to go out of Kharghar for a run as I do not own a car,” Rao said.
A reserved person, Rao has nevertheless managed to inspire people to take up running and participate in running events. “Commander Om Prakash Sindhu approached me to inquire about running. We used to see each other during our walks but had never greeted one another,” Rao said, adding that he lent him tips on how to commence running and scale up to half marathon distance. “ He has since started running the half marathon at SCMM,” Rao said.
Both Rao and Shyam Sunder feature in the list of those with podium finishes in their respective age groups, at the 2015 SCMM.
Rao aimed to keep running.
He felt that racing was progressively taking the fun away from the activity.
A recent resident of Vashi in Navi Mumbai, Francis Xavier Fernandes, used to manage Bombay Book House, a book store started by his father way back in 1932. He joined the store in 1964 and ran it until 1999 when he took a decision to close down the business. He then took up a two-year part time course in interior designing and also acquainted himself with 3D Max and AutoCad.
Now 68, Francis has seriously taken to distance running. He has participated in the half marathon at SCMM and other running events. Francis used to be a heavy smoker. He kicked the habit in 1988. His entry into running was in 2010 when he enrolled for the 4.3 km-Senior Citizen Run at SCMM.
“ Initially I could not even run 15 metres without panting,” he said. He realised that it would be some time before the damage caused by years of smoking would diminish. He did not give up. He kept the momentum going taking his mileage to 30-35 km every week. Sometime in 2011, Francis’ sister alerted him about a free training program run by Nike Run Club (NRC) at one of the grounds near Mumbai’s iconic Marine Drive. Francis was then staying in Andheri. His coaches at NRC referred him to the Hal Higdon Training Program besides recommending core workout. His best timing in the half marathon so far is 2:28 hours.
Running has transformed Francis.
It has made him a very happy person, said his wife Estee.
Francis, like Shyam Sunder, was contemplating moving to the full marathon.
“ When people talk of senior citizens, the first concerns are typically doctor and hospital. Why should it be so?’’ Ganesh Krishnan asked.
Years ago, Mohana and Ganesh Krishnan used to be support team for Ganesh’s Bengaluru based-sister, Chandra Gopalan, whenever she ran at SCMM. From that, progressing to running at SCMM was not just natural, it was probably preordained for both had a background in sport lost somewhere in the typical patterns of settled life. Ganesh, born and brought up in Mumbai played football and hockey in college. Mohana, growing up in Kolkata, did her courses in Basic and Advanced Mountaineering and was once even short listed for an expedition to Mt Kamet. They began their journey to running, by walking – they walked from Sion to CST (one of the city’s main railway termini) to make sure distance won’t be a problem and the body is willing. In 2009, the couple started running seriously. That year they also enrolled with the Nike Run Club (NRC), a link they have preserved since. In 2010, they ran their first SCMM-half marathon. “ It has since been the half marathon all through,’’ Ganesh, 63, said. As of now, he and Mohana, 57, have run more than twenty formally conducted half marathons in various places.
Looking back to his younger days in football and hockey, Ganesh felt that running is more of a mental game. Your initiation these days may be through a group. But the activity itself, when taken seriously, tends to draw you out into a personal space. Further, from the perspective of a senior citizen, groups can be too competitive for the older individual wanting to sustain the activity longer, injury-free. “ Age teaches you not to be rash,’’ Ganesh said. He enjoyed his visits to NRC and various events where one met fellow runners. Over time you gravitate towards company that works for you based on one’s own personal matrix of what works and what doesn’t. “ For instance, before a race, many people ask – what is your target? I sometimes find that disappointing,’’ he said.
For now committed to the half marathon, Mohana and Ganesh nevertheless outlined an engaging route to potentially running the full marathon. It helped put in perspective the fancy for the ultra marathon we found in some of the senior runners we spoke to. Ganesh, a biochemist by profession, described the approach. “ The half marathon and full marathon are mainly aerobic activities. Short sprints, in comparison, are mainly anaerobic. One has to develop one’s aerobic capacity in order to run distance races better. When the aerobic capacity is not well developed, a person tends to use the anaerobic capacity which is not sustainable especially in elderly runners. Aerobic capacity is developed by running slowly over longer distances. With time the same distance can be run faster aerobically. Ultras are run slowly and its distances exceed the distance of a marathon. Running ultra marathons help develop the aerobic capacity, which may then help in running a marathon better,’’ he said.
The couple may therefore try running an ultra marathon.
“ You have to have a lot of patience,’’ Ganesh said.
At the time of writing this article M.K. Srivatsan, 43, was in Kolkata.
We sought his observations on senior runners.
“ I have noticed that senior citizen runners have a very even-handed way of dealing with success and failure in their running. They don’t gloat too much when they do well; they don’t sulk too much when they have had a bad race. They are willing to be patient for results to come and they understand their body much better than the younger lot. As a result, they are less likely to develop major injuries as compared to the younger lot. They tend to encourage other runners a lot more and are usually modest about their own achievements. They are usually not too keen on experimenting with newer developments in the science of running. Emphasis is more on the fun element of running than on the competitive aspects. If they are competitive, it is with respect to their own previous best than with other fellow runners,’’ he replied by email.
RUNNERS ABOVE 50 YEARS OF AGE AT SCMM FULL AND HALF MARATHON:
SCMM 2010 SCMM 2011 SCMM 2012 SCMM 2013 SCMM 2014 SCMM 2015
Full Marathon 198 168 228 348 347 400
Half Marathon 546 805 996 1033 1283 1375
At SCMM, the number of runners aged 50 and above participating in the full marathon rose by 102 per cent from 198 in 2010 to 400 in 2015. The same for the half marathon rose by 151.8 per cent from 546 in 2010 to 1375 in 2015. This rate of growth exceeds the growth rate in overall enrollment seen for the full and half marathon over the same years, which were 39.38 per cent and 30.19 per cent respectively. As percentage of overall enrolment in the full marathon, the 50 and above-age group constituted 6.38 per cent in 2010, rising to 9.24 per cent in 2015. In the half marathon category, it increased from 4.96 per cent in 2010 to 9.60 per cent in 2015.
In other words, roughly 10 per cent of all those running competitively in the full and half marathon categories at SCMM 2015 were aged 50 and above. The actual number of Mumbai’s flying seniors would be more for it should rightfully include those who run casually and those who run seriously but eschew competition. As the devout may say, competing is an option, the active lifestyle isn’t.
(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.)