Most people reach Shirdi by road or rail.
Some choose to walk.
Sanjay Shankar Shinde, the founder of the running club Ramesh Nair trained with walked every year to the temple town from Mumbai. It is a distance of close to 250km as per the Internet. Curious, Ramesh, an engineer turned businessman, walked to Shirdi with Sanjay’s group in 2012. He did so again in 2013. Thinking of a repeat in 2015, he shared the idea with Satish Gujaran. The two lived close by in Mulund. They hadn’t met before, till running put them in touch. Satish had been training largely alone and mostly on the city’s Eastern Express Highway. What amazed Ramesh was the mileage he piled on daily and the dedication he showed to running. When Satish heard of Shirdi and the walk on Ramesh’s mind, he suggested: why not run from Mumbai to Shirdi?
July 25, 2015, 6AM; three runners – Ramesh, Satish and Nilesh Doshi – supported by a car stocked with essentials and driven by Sanjay Gawade, a driver whose many outings with runners has made him adept at the task, set off for Shirdi from Mumbai. Nilesh elected to return on the second day. He had some work to attend to; he also felt his body temperature was rising unreasonably. Satish and Ramesh pushed on; the former, a bachelor and experienced ultra marathon runner, the latter, a family man, regular runner of marathons and someone who prefers to run respecting the boundaries of well being. “ I run within my comfort zone,’’ Ramesh said. Satish seemed a runner moulded by exploration and experience. Ramesh reposed faith in systems and research. For both runners, it was their first multi-day run. In his mind, Ramesh had studied the distance to Shirdi and worked out how much he should run daily based on his experience at marathons and the annual Mumbai Ultra, a 12 hour-endurance run. He had it all chalked out. Satish was battling a private worry; the classical Indian worry – leave of absence from office. They had started on a Saturday. He had to report for work Wednesday morning. Will they reach Shirdi before that?
“ Satish can keep on going. He is a frugal runner whose needs are few. I am not, ’’ Ramesh said. In tune with their experience in distance running and differing styles, a gap opened up between the two. And proportionate to the widening gap on the road, Satish’s worry about Wednesday grew. Ramesh recalled the situation. “ The car was supposed to halt every three kilometres or so. I was running slowly. After I had reached the car and hydrated, Satish would tell the driver to proceed and wait after the next three kilometres. Then I noticed – he was saying three and indicating four with his fingers!’’ Ramesh said laughing. In the end, it all worked out well. Around 2.30PM on Tuesday, July 28, the two runners reached Shirdi. After a quick visit to the Sai Baba temple, they returned to Mumbai. Satish was back at work, Wednesday morning.
Exactly 100 years before from the day the duo reached Shirdi, an event occurred in Europe that would leave its mark on the world of running as well. On July 28, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, officially commencing the First World War. The cascading events that followed sank Europe into one of the bloodiest conflicts of human history. In four years of fighting, more people would die than in the wars of the preceding 100 years. Almost 70 million military personnel were mobilised; of them, over 8 million died. The survivors bore scars in the mind. Happening in the age of empire, the theatre of war exceeded Europe; those fighting and getting killed included many from outside Europe. Among people caught in the tentacles of empire and therefore pushed to fight, were the South Africans. They fought on the side of the Allied forces, in Africa and Europe. The war in Africa, a long distance from the trenches of Europe, was triggered by the German plan to keep the Allied force’s Africa based-military assets engaged in Africa itself.
Vic Clapham was one of the South Africans who saw action and survived. He was born in London on 16 November 1886 and immigrated to the Cape Colony in South Africa with his parents. When the Anglo-Boer war broke out, Vic aged 13, worked in an ambulance team. Later he moved to Natal and worked as an engine driver with the South African Railways. During the First World War, he signed up with the 8th South African infantry, fighting and marching long distances through the savannah of eastern Africa. The hardships he and his friends endured left a lasting impression. Above all, he remembered their camaraderie. As peace returned in 1918, he sought a memorial to commemorate the South African soldiers who had died; a memorial that highlighted human endurance.
Clapham’s home town was Pietermaritzburg. He visualized a foot race from there to Durban. If soldiers could cover vast distances and endure it as they did in the war, Clapham averred, trained athletes should be able to do the same. This in mind, he approached the athletics administration in Natal for support. They declined. Then he approached The League of Comrades of the Great War, a body representing ex-service persons. Initially turned down, Clapham persisted. In 1921, the league yielded. It gave its assent. Clapham founded The Comrades, the world’s oldest ultra marathon race and now it’s biggest. First run on May 24, 1921, the route links Pietermaritzburg in the mountains with Durban on the coast. Forty eight runners enrolled for the inaugural race. Of that, 34 set off; 16 finished. Many of these runners were earlier infantrymen who had fought in Africa. At present, nearly 20,000 people run this ultra marathon every year. They come from different countries. The race alternates every year between uphill and downhill with the former measuring 87km and the latter, 89km. Founded as a war memorial, over time, The Comrades has acquired the reputation of being a fantastic event, remembered for the bonhomie, crowd support and cheering.
Satish never expected his life to get mixed up with The Comrades. He was born at Udipi in southern India on March 27, 1963, pretty close to the May-June period hosting South Africa’s iconic race (throughout its history The Comrades has been run in either May or June). Coincidentally in May 1963, a record was set at The Comrades. South African runner Jackie Mekler, who at five wins overall is tied with three others for the second highest number of wins at The Comrades in the male category, set a new record (5:51:20) in the ` down’ version of the run. With that he became the first runner since 1954 to hold the record for both the `up’ and `down’ versions. In 1960, Mekler had run the `up’ in 5:56:32. Those days there was no ultra marathon in India, likely no awareness about The Comrades. South Africa existed in the shadow of its apartheid policies. For many years, resultant sanctions denied the country participation in international sporting events. Sanctions prevented other countries from touring South Africa. In cricket crazy-India, once in a while the press published a photo or carried an article about South African cricketers. The names of Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Kepler Wessels floated around. Once in a while, the media mentioned Zola Budd, the legendary runner. Else, compared to what South Africa is in sports today, little was known of sports from Africa’s southern tip. Anything South Africa was usually about its politics. The country however featured prominently in Indian awareness. There was an Indian community in South Africa and the names of South African cities and towns had featured in history text books at Indian schools, especially in the context of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s freedom struggle. Pietermaritzburg was where, in June 1893, Gandhiji was forced off a train; an incident that made him determined to fight the racial discrimination against Indians and played a major role in shaping his future thoughts. Today, long after India’s independence and the end of South Africa’s apartheid laden-policies, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi stands on Church Street in Pietermaritzburg.
Far away from South Africa and The Comrades, in India, school for Satish was 3-4km distant from home. Neither the distance to school nor the walking conspired to craft the outline for a future story in running. On the other hand, the youngster was more interested in games than running and athletics. Of his three sisters, two played badminton at the district and state level. The years went by largely nondescript. It was a regular life. Satish attended college in Bengaluru (Bangalore) graduating in commerce. “ There was nothing significant in my life, concerning sports then,’’ he said. The eldest child in the family and thereby expected to work, Satish travelled to Mumbai seeking employment. He did odd jobs for a while. Then, still no runner and given to smoking heavily, he moved to South Africa.
The person, who made this shift possible, was a friend – Dereck Mahadoo. He owned a construction company in South Africa and was looking for a supervisor. In due course, Satish joined Dereck’s company. He stayed with Dereck and his family in Durban, one of the two end points linked by The Comrades route. The new supervisor from Mumbai smoked like a chimney. The boss on the other hand, was a runner. Dereck had already run The Comrades six times. “ One day, he asked me to go along and walk with him while he ran. That became my first attempt at running,’’ Satish said. It was difficult. To start with, he hadn’t run before in his life, definitely not with a view to be runner. To complicate matters, he had spoilt his chances of enjoying a run through becoming a chain smoker. The duo persisted. Helping them was the local environment; South Africa had plenty of running events. There was a race every weekend, including several distances in the link category that helped those newly into running, nudge up their ability to cover distances. The year was 2004. Forty one year-old Satish picked up running pretty fast. Encouraged by the progress, he entered for his first formal half marathon. It ended up a DNF – Did Not Finish. “ By the twelfth or thirteenth kilometre, my knees were in utterly bad shape. An ambulance drove up and a lady said: get in, you have your whole life to run,’’ Satish recalled. That DNF was a lesson. It brought home an immediate war to declare in his journey to distance running – Satish had to confront his habit of smoking. “ It was tough giving that up,’’ he said. Dereck it appears, left an impression on Satish. According to Ramesh, when he was struggling on the uphill at Kasara en route to Shirdi, Satish stepped in to help. He broke down the ascent into smaller goals marked by sign boards along the road. “ From here to there, you walk. Then from there to there, you run. So on. When he broke the challenging section into small portions it helped me greatly. Apparently that is something he learnt from Dereck,’’ Ramesh said. Satish’s stint in South Africa also included some crazy contests, which may explain the reservoir of energy, others say, he digs into. For instance, he won a competition that challenged people not to sleep. He didn’t sleep for a few days.
In 2006, Satish returned to Mumbai. The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) was by then a couple of years old. The spirit of running was catching on in the city. For two to three years, Satish ran the SCMM; he did no other major runs. On the average, he could run a full marathon in about 3 hours 40 minutes. Then in 2009, he picked up talk in Mumbai’s running circles, of The Comrades. Along with his affection for South Africa and memories of good times had there, the idea of running the famous ultra marathon tempted. But he was still a smoker. Between smoking and lessons from the old DNF, smoking had prevailed. The war was far from over. Satish nevertheless registered for the 2010 Comrades. There was a small group of people going. They heard of each other and met up. To train for The Comrades, they followed training regimens found on the Internet. Training started some time after February 2010. In addition to running in Mumbai, they ran in Lonavala, the popular hill station on the way to Pune. As part of preparations, they did two 56km-runs, a full marathon and one run of 65km. Each was apart by 20 days. Some of the runs commenced early; the 65km-run used to start at 2 or 3AM. A car with driver provided support. Satish’s first Comrades in South Africa, was the ` down’ version from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Around the 65-70km mark, Satish suffered cramps in his calf muscles. He managed to handle it but the problem kept repeating. Life was forcing a decision on him. It was clearer than ever – you run healthy or you don’t run at all. Back in India, following The Comrades, Satish joined the `Inner Engineering Course’ offered by Isha Foundation. “ There I stopped smoking. By November-December 2010, I was free of the habit,’’ he said.
Since 2010, Satish hasn’t missed a single edition of The Comrades. Every year he flies to South Africa to run the race. Running in 2011, on the heels of his debut at the 2010 edition, he qualified for an additional medal given to those who do two Comrades back-to-back. By October 2015, he had run and finished the iconic race six times becoming in all likelihood, the runner from Mumbai with the most number of finishes at The Comrades. Satish plans to run The Comrades at least 10 times. “ If you run it 10 times, you will get a green number, a bib number that is permanently yours. It is given by that year’s race winner,’’ he said. Satish explained why he loves The Comrades so much. “ The atmosphere is electrifying. The crowd support is fantastic and runners come from everywhere. The event is well organized. It is like a carnival. The route is challenging, it engages the runner. Finally, Durban has a sizable population of Indians and people of Indian origin. Indian runners get cheered,’’ he said. According to him, completing an ultra marathon like The Comrades is as much about strategy as it is about training. He spoke of veterans who have been running the race for years, taking it slow and keeping their energy in reserve for the course’s strenuous sections. “ Planning is important for good timing at The Comrades. To run slowly, you need courage. It comes only with experience and maturity,’’ Satish said. Over time, his training style also changed. In years gone by, he used to train 5-6 days a week. Now he trains 3-4 days. “ Quality matters more than quantity,’’ he said. Ramesh highlighted one more angle – discipline. Each night during the Mumbai-Shirdi run, while Ramesh took his time to get over the day’s exhaustion, Satish would clean up and finish his chores like clockwork.
Although he has run The Comrades six times, until the Mumbai-Shirdi run with Ramesh, Satish hadn’t run an ultra marathon in India except the annual Mumbai Ultra and those long training runs for The Comrades. One reason for this was work and the commitments at work, which accompany life as employee. The Indian environment, arguably, has two prominent drawbacks. First, the pressure of high population and rat race is such that appreciation of human existence has narrowed to self worth by position and possessions. In this, sport is easily dismissed as irrelevant unless a person’s position in the sports pecking order is such that he is supremely successful. Life is all about success. Second, growing economies gift busy lifestyles to their citizens. Over the past six decades as various Asian economies gathered momentum, this shift has been documented in their respective populations. In India, the shift has occurred within a matrix already rendered crushing by other factors. The business of survival is too tiring at Indian cities to attempt anything else. “ I don’t think I have exploited my full potential,’’ Satish said, explaining his predicament. He sounded a bit sad. Yet at 52 years of age, he toys with the idea of shifting full time to running. He wonders if he will find supportive sponsors; somebody who would both ensure a certain income for sustenance and back his running. Indian youngsters are beginning to articulate such plans; they are getting support from sponsors eyeing the Indian market qualified by the high dose of young people shaping it. But therein lay another challenge – being middle aged and pursuing one’s dream in an India that is now overwhelmingly young, is no easy task. The old – particularly the old and eccentric as distance runners tend to be – are not a priority for commercial support.
Satish however finds a way. In September 2015, a marathon was held in Surat. Satish approached the organizers with an idea – as an expression of support for the event, why not have him run from Mumbai to Surat? They agreed and provided the required infrastructural assistance. Early morning September 10, with a vehicle carrying essentials trailing him and periodically met up en route by fellow runners, Satish set off for Surat. He reached his destination – the event venue – by the end of the third day, having run an estimated 264km. On the day of the event, he polished off his effort by participating in the half marathon. Now he thinks of a Mumbai-Pune run. Also slated for the future, hopefully with the support of the Isha Foundation, is a run from Mumbai to Coimbatore.
It takes a zone of discomfort to make us aware of our capacity for endurance. Limits explored and the self spent, all is peaceful. Imagined differently, you can keep the peace if you remember to engage and exhaust yourself every once in a while, which is what opportunities to run and ultra marathons are all about. It is about finding peace. “ Running is now a part of me. If I don’t do it, I feel uncomfortable,’’ Satish said.
Update: At the 2015 Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon held in November, Satish finished third in his age category in the full marathon with a timing of 3:49:00.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The story of Vic Clapham and the early history of The Comrades have been collated from various sites on the Internet including the ultra marathon’s official website, Wikipedia and http://www.unogwaja.com/ For more on Arun Bhardwaj, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/the-connoisseur-of-distances/)