Abbas Shaikh (Photo: by arrangement)

Abbas Sheikh (Photo: by arrangement)

Mumbai’s Marine Drive is the city’s best known image on a postcard.

In bygone days (and to a lesser extent today), when skyscrapers implicitly meant modernity, this giant arc of reclaimed land bordering the sea and backed by stacks of Mumbai high rises was the city’s signature view. At night, lit by the city’s electric lights and the headlights of passing traffic, it became ` Queen’s Necklace,’ the other name by which Marine Drive is famous. Mumbai’s romance with skyscrapers continues. But like in humanity’s romance with the automobile, a tall building is no more indisputable modernity. The idea of modernity has become more textured.

The road along Marine Drive is approximately three kilometres long. Cars and bikes zip on it. Between the road and the Arabian Sea is a paved area spanning almost the entire length of the arc. Over the years, it has become the postcard view of Mumbai-running. Early morning and evening, the paved area fetches walkers and runners. During weekends, their numbers rise, some of them running to Marine Drive from distant suburbs. Best known of these rituals is probably the monthly Bandra-NCPA run, happening the first Sunday of every month.

A late evening in 2009, a young man from Shikarpur in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district, stood on Marine Drive. He was born into a poor family. He studied only till the sixth standard. His father worked as a farm labourer and his earnings were too little for family of six – parents; two sons, two daughters. Although his elder brother managed to become a post graduate, our young man had to stop studies by the sixth standard to free up money to educate his sisters. The compulsion to find work struck early.

Many from Shikarpur ended up as gold workers in India’s jewellery business. The young man moved so, first to Sidhpur in north Gujarat where he worked for two years on a monthly salary of Rs 2000-2500. Then he shifted to Mumbai, joining a unit where he learnt to polish gold jewellery.

Days were tough. Working hours were long. As a youngster learning the ropes, he often ended up fetching water and cooking for 12-15 people. That late evening in 2009, Abbas Sheikh was out on a stroll with friends after yet another long day polishing gold. Going to Marine Drive after work had become a regular practice and it was on one such visit that Abbas noticed Mumbai’s runners on Queen’s Necklace.

His daily life was classic Mumbai (minus perhaps extensive commute for he stayed with other gold workers in town). It was clock-work, in tune with the timings and hours of the industry he worked for. It was a routine. From all over India, people reach Mumbai for such industrial routine. They find one and cling to it, till the human being’s natural restlessness rebels and seeks expression. Often, you don’t know you are restless within, you don’t know what you want till a hint of something different from the regular, passes you by. Abbas watched the runners pass by. Why not run like them? – He thought. “ Mujhe kuch bhi pata nahi tha running ke bare me (I didn’t know anything about running),’’ Abbas said recalling that Marine Drive-moment. Back then, inspired to run, he spent some money from his frugal earnings to buy track pants and a pair of ordinary sports shoes. “ I was too embarrassed to run in shorts,’’ Abbas said laughing.

That was the beginning.

Abbas Sheikh is now among Mumbai’s best known ultra marathon runners.

The family back in Shikarpur; parents AnsarAli Khan and Moina Bibi with Abbas' sisters Monjila Shaikh and Tanjila Malik (Photo: by arrangement)

The family back home in Shikarpur; parents Ansar Ali Khan and Moina Bibi with Abbas’ sisters Monjila Sheikh and Tanjila Malik (Photo: by arrangement)

Shivaji Park in Dadar is one of the city’s active lifestyle zones. People play, exercise, walk, run – it is also venue for an ultra marathon, a 12 hour endurance-run that Abbas had participated in. We met Abbas near his work place in Sewri. The local Udipi restaurant was crowded, not to mention – you don’t get to sit for long in such busy eateries. And as it happens sometimes, both journalists went blank in the head when it came to recalling an alternative suitable joint nearby. The search for a place to sit and chat over coffee brought us all the way to Shivaji Park. We took a taxi; then walked. Unlike journalist shaped to slouch by typing, Abbas walked confidently. He has a light frame, emphasized further by the spring in his runner’s legs. Marine Drive and thoughts about how to get into running – that was long ago. Abbas now wore Mizuno shoes. We sat down at a cafe to hear his story.

Not long after that Marine Drive-evening, in his initial phase of running in Mumbai, the daily runs were avenue to discover both running and runners. Abbas was intrigued by the urban idea of running for running sake. He does not recall anything by way of running in Shikarpur. In his narrative, the village came across as nothing more than home; the starting point of his life transforming from nondescript to engaging with the advent of running. People running for the love of it, was for him, a totally Mumbai phenomenon. There was one thing in this craziness that he couldn’t comprehend – the distances people ran. They seemed to run and vanish. Over time, he had come to recognize the regular runners on Marine Drive. But unlike him confined to the length of Queen’s Necklace, their running didn’t seem to have an end. They rarely returned the same way. Once he chased after a couple of runners and tracked their progress, realizing in the process the existence of a concept called distance running. Emulating them, Abbas also increased his daily mileage. He began running long distances but had no idea of how to assess the distance. He thought he was doing 6-7 kilometres, when in reality he was running three to four times as much, sometimes more. Slowly he too was recognized as a regular and included into their fold by a group of runners. According to him, it was runners Dev Raman and Purvi Sheth who introduced him to the well known coach, Savio D’Souza. The improvement in his performance since has been remarkable. At the 2013 Bangalore Ultra, he won the 75 kilometre-run. In 2014, Abbas ended up winner in the 100 kilometre-run at the same event. He has also won the Mumbai Road Runners Runner of the Year (Male) award for the year 2013 and 2014.

The journey was not without its ups and downs.

“ In the early days, I used to get frequently injured,’’ Abbas said. It was the typical learning curve of the self taught and self made. But his biggest injury had nothing to do with running. It happened ahead of what would have been his first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), the 2011 edition. One day he slipped and fell at the place he resided with fellow workers. “ I was in a very bad shape,’’ Abbas said. The first hospital he went to, the X-ray machine wasn’t working. So his friends took him to St George hospital near Mumbai’s CST railway terminus. There, X-ray done, the injury revealed itself as a broken femur. The doctors said he required surgery; a rod had to be inserted to hold the broken section together. Fearing the cost of hospitalization in Mumbai, Abbas and a relative took the next train to Bardhaman. He endured the journey. The required operation was done in West Bengal. He was advised six months of absolute rest and recuperation. Abbas was back in Mumbai after three months. Slowly, he resumed his running, inching his way back to form by himself. The rod and screws are still there in his leg.

Abbas Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Abbas Sheikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In December 2011 he ran the full marathon at the Pune International Marathon. It was his first time at a running event and he was completely new to the experience. “ I ran without any strategy. Whenever I heard loud music, which was played here and there on the course, I ran fast and slowed down later. I thought music meant you should run faster. Then, halfway through, I felt very tired. I happened to see a guava fruit seller. I bought a guava from him and sat on the sidewalk to eat it. I resumed running when I saw some fast-paced runners go by,’’ he said. By the end of the Pune Marathon, Abbas had learnt an important lesson about long distance running – you don’t run at a blistering pace; you have to plan your run and train in a systematic manner, hydrate well. Soon thereafter, he became a regular at many major running events. Among them – SCMM, Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon, Hyderabad Marathon, Goa River Marathon, Satara Hill Marathon and the Bangalore Ultra.

Abbas Sheikh / race timings:

Run                                                                       Distance                                         Timing

Bangalore Ultra 2012                                          50k                                                   4:47:29

SCMM 2013                                                           42k                                                   3:31:13

Airtel Hyderabad Marathon 2013                     42k                                                   3:27:26

Goa River Marathon 2013                                  21.1k                                                 1:29:56

Bangalore Ultra 2013                                           75k                                                   7:23

SCMM 2014                                                            42k                                                   3:25:40

Bangalore Ultra 2014                                          100k                                                  10:32

Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon                             42k                                                   3:10:15

SCMM 2015                                                             42k                                                   3:20:31

Source: Timing Technologies India

Currently, every morning at 5AM, Abbas leaves his quarters and heads to Marine Drive. Most days, he runs 10-15 kilometres, some days, he puts in 30 kilometres. On an average he does 80-90 kilometres per week. “ He is good. He has good endurance,’’ Savio said. According to him, the rod and screws don’t interfere with Abbas’ running. Being with Savio’s group – Savio Stars – has helped Abbas address some of his needs in running gear. He also helps Savio with his coaching work.

Although he has run other distances, Abbas said, his preferred discipline is the ultra marathon. He plans to try the 24 hour-run at the 2015 Bangalore Ultra. His participation in events is limited by availability of resources; he doesn’t have much money to spare. For instance, he said, he would like to try the long distance running events in Ladakh. But Ladakh is a high altitude destination and anything at altitude entails considerable expense given the lengthy stay for acclimatization that is required. There is however a faint possibility that one of these years, he may get to participate in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the world’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. “ I hope so,’’ said the man from Shikarpur, who now calls Mumbai home because it is in this city that he gets to run.

“ I love running,’’ Abbas said in Bengali accented Hindi.

Abbas Sheikh on the podium after winning the stadium run in Bengaluru, August 2015.

Abbas Sheikh on the podium after winning the stadium-run in Bengaluru, August 2015.

UPDATE: Abbas Sheikh was the winner at the 12 hour-stadium run at Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore, early August 2015.

According to him, he did 266 loops of 400 meters each covering a distance of 106.5 kilometres in the assigned time.

“ It was quite a difficult run because we had to run in a loop of 400 meters. Loop running can be very tough. At one point I wanted to quit,’’ he said.

Abbas had a fall right at the start of the run. For the last three and a half hours he chose to go barefoot. “ The ground had become hot. At the end of the day I can say I learnt to endure loop running although I prefer linear running any day,’’ he said.

In November 2015, at the Performax Bangalore Ultra, Abbas finished second in the open category for men, covering 151 km in 24 hours.

(The authors Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Where photo credit says ` by arrangement,’ the picture concerned has been sourced from Abbas.)

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