“ Mumbai made me a runner,’’ Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler said.
Around us, at a cafe in the city’s business district called Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), the end of yet another working day brought more executives and financial types to coffee. Outside, the traffic had picked up. Not far from BKC, to one side, lay the edge of an urban congestion that is so typically Mumbai. To another side, lay the busy Western Express Highway, gathering evening’s peak hour traffic. Between population, congestion and rising traffic, you often wonder: how do Mumbai’s inhabitants manage to run? Somehow they do.
Over the last few years, Andrea has emerged one of the familiar faces on Mumbai’s running circuit. She is a powerful runner. Yet the fact is – Andrea, a teacher by profession, didn’t consider herself a runner as much as she considered herself a triathlete.
Andrea, 40, grew up in Quito, Ecuador. As a youngster, she was into all types of sports, from basketball and volleyball to even fencing. “ Any sport – I would go for it,’’ she said. Except two – she didn’t like golf, she didn’t like running. Things changed a bit, when she moved to Switzerland. There she did a lot of cycling, swimming and playing games like squash. Then somebody suggested that she try running as a way to prepare for the triathlon. It was trifle daunting. “ I just thought running was boring. I found it monotonous. Unless you are on a beautiful trail, it’s mentally challenging. I guess, so is swimming. But gliding through water is a much better feeling than pounding cement,’’ she said.
The challenge of a triathlon was however an engaging idea. She liked the triathlon format for the variation in activity it offered, including variation in training. Her first triathlon was in a small town in Switzerland. “ Running is the weakest component in my performance at triathlons,’’ Andrea said.
From Switzerland, she shifted to Dubai where she continued participating in triathlons. “ Then I did the 2004 Dubai Marathon. It was painful. The last 30 minutes was a torture. I couldn’t walk properly for a week after that. I didn’t want to run a marathon again,’’ Andrea said. She was certain that one of the expectations she had from any physical activity is that she be able to return to a normal life after indulging in it. “ The Dubai marathon episode was also when I decided that if I am to do something, I should train for it; I should be prepared for it. Not just finish but finish well, injury-free and be able to continue with my work and family,’’ she said.
All this was in 2004.
While running irritated Andrea, the triathlon continued to engage. She had a podium finish in the Half Iron Man (1.5km swimming, 90km cycling, 21km running). “ I used to tell people, I run only to finish the triathlon,’’ she said.
From Dubai, Andrea moved to Minnesota in the US, where she continued to participate in triathlons. In the US, she found herself a trainer and trained under him for two years. She placed fifth in a Half Iron Man. Following that, the trainer pointed her towards the Minnesota marathon, which was just a month away. Recalling old experiences, she was reluctant. But the trainer gave her a plan. She finished that event in 3:48 hours, injury-free with no aches or pains. “ After that race, my mom, husband at the time and daughter took a nap. I was wide awake, ready to do something else with my day,’’ Andrea said.
In 2008, she left the US for Mumbai, India, where she secured work as a teacher at the American School. Andrea said she had the habit of searching much on the Internet for a profile of whichever place she was moving to, especially in terms of prospects for the physically active life. When it came to Mumbai, there was a lot of slip between the cup and the lip. The physically active lifestyle was definitely around but the overall congested environment in which it resided was something the Internet hadn’t prepared her for. For the first time, she was also staring at an activity calendar very weak in triathlons and strong in running.
Andrea realized she would have to change.
Initially she was staying in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, running regularly on Carter Road. One day, she met Giles Drego, a well known trainer. “ He was my first contact here in running,’’ Andrea said. Giles encouraged Andrea to sign up for races. She ran her first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), India’s flagship event in running. She participated in the smaller events too. The first time one of the authors of this piece saw Andrea was in fact at a 10km-hill run in Thane. “ Anything that was open for participation, I would go for it,’’ she said. Once she got into the groove of things, she began liking the Mumbai world of running.
“ I look forward to races here because of the people,’’ Andrea said.
She put that observation in perspective:
Running in Mumbai is hard for most expatriates. The infrastructure is not quite what they are used to. Andrea felt that way many times. What compensated was the human connect. The help she got from other Mumbai runners had her come out to run even in the extreme heat and humidity of the city. According to her, at first it was the knowledge that Giles would be out either training or walking his dog and would wave and say hello that kept her going. Then she met a runner, Anil by name, who daily ran 15km. He would wave and say hello. Little by little she met Mumbai’s runners and they included her in their runs. Once as part of training, she needed to do a 30km-run before work. She messaged runner Purnendu Nath about it. Within an hour he had a route figured out with people meeting her at different stations to run alongside and bring food and water, all the way to her school. “ I was amazed by the willingness of everyone to come out and help,’’ she said.
Similarly, what struck her most about the Bandra-NCPA run are the people who volunteer their Sunday morning to wait for runners at different points with water and refreshments. “ They have big smiles and are full of encouragement. The community here is just so giving, more so than in other countries I have lived in. It might be things you do naturally in your culture but it is these gestures that made me want to continue going out in Mumbai,’’ Andrea said.
Not long after she reached Mumbai, Andrea had to go through a divorce, a painful phase for anyone. Around this time she trained intensely, prepared well and successfully completed a 100km-run in Ladakh called Zen Challenge. “ The 100km-run was something that came at the right time in my life. I wanted a challenge. I love challenges. This was one. Training was hard as I had to find time to fit in all the hours of training I did. At that time, it seemed doable. I won’t do it again,’’ Andrea said. Although she trained hard, she didn’t resort to any special training for running at altitude. She just made sure that she reached Ladakh ten days before the event to acclimatize well. The Ladakh experience left her very happy. “ I saw myself as a triathlete. Mumbai made me a runner. I wouldn’t have otherwise done 100km anywhere,’’ she said.
For the observer though, there is an interesting side to Andrea’s run in Ladakh. Much of this district tucked in the mountains of Karakoram and Himalaya is above 9800ft elevation. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where Andrea grew up, is the highest located capital city in the world at an elevation of 9350ft. Although she took up running seriously only after leaving Ecuador, in some ways, Andrea would seem a child of altitude. (For an article on an ultra marathon in Ladakh please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/an-ultra-marathon-from-the-sidelines/)
Reema Agarwal is a runner, yoga instructor and nutritionist. Her initiation into running happened in 2010, in the US. In 2012, she moved to Mumbai. She met Andrea during an open house session at the American School where her son studies. Their conversation drifted to the topic of running. “ I think Andrea is one of the best woman runners here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to train with her because her pace is much faster than mine,” Reema said. According to her, Andrea is not only a good runner but also a very helpful, knowledgeable and humble person. “ She comes from a different country and a different culture. Yet you will never hear her complain about anything,” Reema said.
When she came to meet us, Andrea had a large bag along. That – she said – was how she went to work every day, lugging along what she needed for her training sessions. She had to be creative about her training schedules and plans being a working, single mother with two daughters. “ I train myself without having a race in mind. I can run a 21km-half marathon anytime. That is how my body is prepared now,’’ she said.
Her emphasis on training and her focus evokes the image of a person with a structured approach to life. “ This structured approach has been developing; I guess more so when I was studying in Switzerland. I can’t pinpoint when it started. It has transferred to my work. Part of it is because I enjoy it,’’ Andrea said. Her appetite for the active lifestyle also saw her visiting the climbing crags at Belapur in Navi Mumbai and the small bouldering wall at Mumbai’s Podar College.
June 2015, on completing her stint as teacher in Mumbai, Andrea Reinsmoen Stadler moves back to Ecuador.
She looks forward to continue pursuing her interests with a new one added to the list – mountain climbing. During Christmas holidays in 2013, she had been to Cotopaxi (5897m), Ecuador’s second highest peak.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The dates of events and timings mentioned herein are as provided by the interviewee. Where photo credits say `by arrangement,’ the photos have been sourced from Andrea.)