Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The veranda lights faded roughly twenty feet from the farm house.

Beyond it was darkness.

Gaytri walks around the property at night, from sunset to early morning, opening and closing the farm’s drip irrigation system.

I have my headlamp, shoes on my feet.

She carries a small torch, rubber slippers or none on her feet.

The torch cast an ellipse of light.

At its centre was a black scorpion.

I came to Vrindavan Farm in Onde to write about a runner.

Gaytri Bhatia was born the middle child of three daughters. As she put it, thanks to her elder sister, her mother had worked out the method to bring up a child by the time she arrived. She was allowed to explore as she wished. Gaytri grew up, rather independent in the head. The family stayed in South Mumbai; there was the farm in Onde as well. Her debut in sports around Grade I was at the back of the field, skipping along while the rest of her classmates raced to the finish. From that she swung in due course to being the sports captain of her school. All three sisters were good swimmers; they were regular visitors to the United Services club in Mumbai, which had facilities for swimming in the sea. To this date, Gaytri remains a strong sea-swimmer. During junior college at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s she did well in a 1300m-running race. In her narration, this appeared her first serious rendezvous with running. Around this time, she also cranked up her physical routine many notches. She would go for a morning run, walk to college and back, visit the gym, swim and practise kung fu. Her main love was swimming.

On the academic front, a friend of hers was taking a test to qualify for studies in the US. On a whim Gaytri too gave the exam. She not only secured a decent score, she also got admission to a college in the US with scholarship to boot. She moved to Mt Holyoke College, a liberal arts college for women, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The subject she chose to study was photography. Since the college lacked a formal program in photography, she elected instead to attend photography classes and major in environmental studies. For her thesis, she worked on a project in Canada that entailed monitoring carbon dioxide emissions from a bog. While at college, she also did one semester of study at the Biosphere Project, an Earth systems science research facility, originally begun by Space Biosphere Ventures. During her semester of study, Gaytri recalls the place was owned by the West Campus of Columbia University. According to Wikipedia, the University of Arizona took over the facility for research in 2007 and assumed full ownership in 2011. The project was constructed between 1987 and 1991 and “ explored the web of interactions within life systems in a structure with five areas based on biomes, and an agricultural area and human living and working space to study the interactions between humans, farming, and technology with the rest of nature. It also explored the use of closed biospheres in space colonization and allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth’s.’’

Mango at Vrindavan Farm. For an article on the green mango please visit: (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mango at Vrindavan Farm. For an article on the green mango please visit: (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Morning at the farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Morning at the farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One of her memories of Arizona is that she liked running there. “ Running had become the way I would experience any new place. The shoes were the first to be packed. I would run everywhere,’’ she said. Amid this, the issue of what running to do – was also slowly coming to the fore. At Mt Holyoke she had been part of the college’s track and field team running the 400m and 800m. But she disliked both disciplines. The 400m was too fast; the 800m, as experience, was just better than the 400. “ I knew I wasn’t meant for either,’’ she said. Eventually she left the track and field team, opting instead to go running by herself, at her pace, covering distances she liked.

After securing her honours degree in environmental studies, Gaytri went to work for a company in Boston that was a consultant to the US Environmental Protection Agency. That company was influential in shaping her life. Its office had an informal, outdoorsy ambience. There was a swimming pool on the premises. Her colleagues led an active lifestyle; there were runners, bikers, swimmers. She used to run to her office. The famous Walden Pond (Henry David Thoreau wrote his book `Walden’ in a log cabin near this lake) was roughly 13 miles from her office and 18 miles from where she stayed. She mixed running, cycling and swimming for active lifestyle. Another favourite water hole in this evolving map of physical activity was Crystal Lake. It was eight miles from her home and seven miles from her place of work. “ The unsaid rule was swim and when the cops come get out of the water,’’ she said. Everyone, including the law “ pretended for this small joy.’’ For her, this approach was precursor to being bandit.

Boston is home to the world’s oldest annual marathon, one that is also among the best known road racing events. Gaytri’s debut at the Boston Marathon was as a `bandit.’ The bandits are unregistered runners. According to information on the Internet, the event did not officially permit unregistered participants but turned a blind eye towards them running. Gaytri said that the bandits in turn made sure they never obstructed any of the officially registered runners. They start running after the main “ numbered folks’’ begin their race and typically run by the side of the road, leaving the road’s main part free for registered runners. An April 2014 report in The Boston Globe said that bandits were being banned from that year onward. One reason for this was the 2013 bombings. But the matter divided the running community. Some alleged that the real reason for discouraging bandits was money’s need to make sure the experience is best for those who pay and run. Refreshment stalls en route for example, don’t distinguish between registered and unregistered runners. They cater equally to those who pay and those who don’t. The purists in running saw the calls for distinction as commercialization of running, an act that took running away from the basic freedom in which it was rooted. Among human activities, running is closely identified with freedom. Why chain it with money? At her first Boston Marathon, the bandit from Mumbai finished in approximately four and a half hours (her fastest time in a marathon has been four and a quarter hours, the slowest – four and three quarters of an hour). But there was a problem. She wasn’t sufficiently exhausted after the marathon. She was back at work the day after the marathon.

At the farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The situation engaged. Should she run faster or should she run longer? As regards speed, she knew from her Holyoke days that she didn’t enjoy running fast. Besides, she wasn’t gaining any speed in her running either. The right direction appeared to be longer distances. Influencing this was also an old experience. Years ago, a school friend of hers had returned from France toying with the idea of running slower but longer. As school kids in Mumbai running on Marine Drive, they had then pursued the idea. One day in Boston, Gaytri overheard a colleague at office talk of a run that was longer than the marathon. That was how in 2004 she signed up for the JFK 50, the oldest ultra marathon in the US. As the name says, it is a race of 50 miles or 80km. According to Wikipedia, “ the race starts in the town of Boonsboro, Maryland and heads east out of town toward the South Mountain Inn. The first 2.3 miles are on a hardball road, which leads to the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail piece is approximately 13 miles. The trail then continues on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for 26.3 miles, following the canal to Dam #4 on the Potomac River. The final leg of the Race follows 8.4 miles of hardball roads to Williamsport, Maryland.’’

Gaytri finished the race; she placed thirteenth among women at JFK 50.

There is a South African movie that Gaytri talks about – Gods Must Be Crazy. To be precise – the second film from the franchise, released in 1990, in which the main protagonist Xixo (played by N!xau) follows on foot a truck that has taken off with his children. It stuck in her mind, an image of what the human mind can push the body to do. “ I left the JFK 50 hooked to the idea of ultra marathon. I had participated asking if it was possible for me to run the distance. I found I could. After that it was all about sucking up to an addiction,’’ she said. Her training regimen those days was pretty flexible. During weekdays, she ran five miles and 8-12 miles alternatively. Weekends, she ran 16, 18, 20 or 22 miles. “ It was always driven by the want to run. Rest day was whenever,’’ she said. Unlike structured runners, Gaytri didn’t have a scientifically designed training schedule. She also hiked a great deal. “ For me, hiking was like a long run. I would typically choose routes with high ridges and possibilities of going up peaks,’’ she explained. Her preferred ultra running route was trail; off-road, new terrain, point-to-point without repetitive loops. “ Wilderness is exciting,’’ she said. Gaytri’s next ultra marathon was the Laurel Highlands Ultra in Pennsylvania. It was a run of 70.5 miles (112.8km), point-to-point and along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. The route went through different types of forests; it also had extended sections of muddy trail. “ Everyone had somebody to support them. I didn’t have anyone supporting me. I went without a water bottle or hydration pack. I drank at aid stations. At some point, a volunteer shoved a water bottle into my hand saying – take it. I finished second among women,’’ she said.

Farm produce (Photo: Shyam G Menon).

Farm produce (Photo: Shyam G Menon).

By this time, Gaytri had run the Boston Marathon a couple of times as bandit. But after running ultra marathons, her fascination for marathon and Boston Marathon declined. “ The ultras are so silent in a way. The other thing is that personal wear and tear after an ultra is less than in a marathon. Over time, I completely lost interest in the marathon,’’ she said. This was however inspiration to run the Boston Marathon differently, once again as bandit, but doing the race as a “ double.’’ On the eve of the race, she reached the finish line at night and started running towards the starting line. She was late doing so, for the runners doing the double had already set off. She caught up with them, continuing on with two senior ultra runners, a man and a woman. As they ran, the older woman – an accomplished ultra runner – narrated her life story. Reaching the starting point (full marathon completed), Gaytri immediately turned around for the return run back to the finishing line. Although formally registered for the race and not bandits, the two older runners also joined her. In due course, they had the elite runners of the Boston Marathon barrel down the road from behind. Giving a comparison of marathon and ultra marathon pace, Gaytri recalled that the male ultra runner tried keeping pace with the elite men and could do so for just five seconds; he tried again with the elite women and managed at best 15 seconds of running alongside. Gaytri finished the double. Next day, her knees were utterly beat. After that double, she tries her best to avoid road-running.

Gaytri’s last major ultra marathon was the 100 mile (160km) race – the Cascade Crest Endurance Run in Washington State, in 2007. Across the course’s length, it featured a total elevation gain of 21,550 feet; it was 75 per cent trail, 25 per cent dirt. “ That race sounded gorgeous. It was all trail, point-to-point, no redundancy and you were in wilderness,’’ she said. Her arrival for the race was a small adventure in itself. She was flying via Atlanta and at that airport she ran into flight delays. After much pleading she was accommodated in the earliest flight possible. She killed time at the airport repairing her running shoes, stitching the tears in it with dental floss. At the race, once again with no support team, she dispatched the stuff she needed en route to aid stations further down the trail. Then she ran, finishing the 160km-course in a little over 27 hours (to see a photo of her from the race please try this link: Gaytri said that her progression in running had been intuitive and felt. She referred the Internet to schedule races and keep in touch with the community. She avoided magazine articles and books about other runners. She didn’t want other people’s experiences interfering with her personal experience in running. She didn’t care much for timing either. “ My goal was to finish a run,’’ she said. Her running in the US was done in three pairs of running shoes – all of them, Adidas Super Nova Classic. When the model went out of production, she wrote to the company’s board of directors seeking some pairs for keeps. She got no reply. Luckily she found them at a Boston store; she bought three pairs, one of them is there at her house in Mumbai awaiting a good run.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Soon after Cascade Crest, life took a related but slightly different turn. A colleague at work was going on an expedition and Gaytri joined in. The objective was to climb Mt Rainier (4392m / 14,494ft). Owing to a storm, the team couldn’t summit that peak (they withdrew from around 12,500ft) and instead ended up climbing Mt Baker (3286m / 10,844ft). She loved the experience of being out in the snow clad mountains. Everyone else in the group was associated with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), the premier outdoor school in the US. Gaytri was impressed by their conduct and the comfort they showed in the outdoors. She went and did a formal NOLS course – a mountaineering course in the Waddington Range in south western British Columbia, Canada; often described at NOLS as a classic. Following this she did her Instructor Course with NOLS and became eligible to work as an instructor on the school’s backpacking courses. Alongside, adventures in swimming also continued. A strong swimmer, she gained some notoriety for being turned back by life guards at the beaches she swam at, not to mention, one incident in which a US Coast Guard vessel blocked her extended swim and nudged her back to safer waters.

On return to India from the US (she spent a decade or so in the US), she briefly ran on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, very close to her house. For several months she tried running at 3.30AM or 4AM and stopping by 6AM when the traffic commenced. But she hated the traffic and the experience of running on the road. Eventually, she stopped running in the city except for two attempts at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) – the first time, she felt hungry and terminated her race near Kemps Corner to much subsequent regret; the second time she ran ahead of the race bandit style and completed it. Her last spate of long distance running was at Auroville in Pondicherry, where she enjoyed going barefoot in the forests.

Vrindavan Farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vrindavan Farm (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Gaytri now splits her time between farm work in Onde, home in South Mumbai and work as outdoor instructor with NOLS India in Ranikhet. A working day began early at Onde with farm workers arriving by around 8AM. As the day progressed, the scorching heat of the Indian summer made its presence felt. Past noon, the world slunk into inactivity; then came alive for evening’s embrace of day’s work concluded. Vrindavan Farm was a quiet place, absolute antithesis of day-to-day Mumbai. It was as silent as the deep end of an ultra. Endured for days, which a resident manager must, it was – to my mind – rather similar to a long distance run. You are in a world of your own. I asked Gaytri what it felt like when running an ultra marathon. She said, for her there were three stages. “ Typically I find the stages as – one: what the heck was I thinking of when I signed up for this? Two: body screams seeking attention, three: I call this moving meditation; the mind has overcome matter and now it is a flow that can carry on endlessly.’’ She said she ran the ultra marathon to find out what she can do.

It was a couple of years ago that Gaytri assumed responsibility for her family’s farm. Although she used to want something more than just being a visitor to the farm in her childhood, her move to Onde to manage the property, was accidental, “ a product of circumstance.’’ Harnessing her backdrop in environmental studies, her attempt has been to keep the farm completely organic. The result is a web of intra-farm connections – one in which, land and human lifestyle reside mutually supportive. The farm’s product portfolio is diverse. One of Gaytri’s contributions has been the systematic creation of a seed bank. Navigating her way by observing the land and resident nature as best as she can, she said she would eventually like to see the farm as “ a forest of foods.’’ Getting her ways accepted wasn’t always easy. Onde is on the edge of tribal habitation. The local farmers had time tested, longstanding approaches to farming, particularly with regard to what they will grow. There was wisdom in it. They had also become trifle closed to learning new things and experimenting with new styles. Gaytri had to tackle in the main two challenges – she had to coax her workers to try new methods; the workers had to get used to a woman as manager. V.D.K. Nair aka Mani, hails from Palakkad in Kerala. He has been living in these parts for the past twenty years or so. Previously he used to manage the farm for the family. Now he drops by once in a while to visit. Looking back, Gaytri felt she was always gravitating towards the outdoors. She used to visit the farm as a child; she had a phase when she was interested in outdoor sports including ultra running, she then chose to return and stay at the farm. “ I don’t go seeking the outdoors anymore because it is now my home,’’ she said. According to her, one of her small joys was realizing that she slept under the stars for more than two thirds of a year.

Gaytri Bhatia (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Gaytri Bhatia (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sensing our presence, the scorpion in the ellipse of light curved up its tail in a defensive gesture.

Gaytri had been stung by a scorpion before.

We walked past the scorpion to the section waiting to be watered.

The valves to be shut and opened were in a cavity in the ground. Gaytri reached down to do the job. A mild chorus of water sprinkling in the backdrop died out. There was silence for a second or two. Then a fresh chorus started in a different direction nearby. The drip irrigation of a new patch of farmland had begun.

It was close to midnight.

I knew that I would succumb to sleep shortly.

Gaytri would stay awake, counting the hours and watering the farm in sections.

It was mid-April.

In summer, the night hours between sunset and sunrise are best to feed land.

She did that alone.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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