The first time I saw Soji Mathew run was at the 2016 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM).
I was a spectator on the road connecting Churchgate and Marine Drive when the subject of this story flew past to finish fourth in the Indian elite category of the half marathon. A month after SCMM, we sat down to chat.
In school, Soji considered himself a fast bowler. His eyes lit up, talking about Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Franklyn Rose. When children play they assume the names of their idols. Sometimes, it is their friends who choose a name. For anyone keen on bowling fast, the team to worship was, West Indies. He was called by the names of pacers from the West Indies. “ You know a fast bowler’s run-up? That and the general running around on a cricket field – that’s about all the running I did,’’ he said.
Born September 1981, Soji was an only child. His father worked many years with the Military Engineering Service (MES), eventually retiring from it. Home was Mavelikkara, a town in central Kerala. Altitude: approximately 40 feet above sea level. Seen on a map, Mavelikkara is not very far from Kerala’s Kuttanad region, famous for its paddy cultivation in fields lower than sea level. At 7.2 feet below sea level, Kuttanad is the lowest point in India. Life took a turn in eighth standard. During the state’s Onam festival, the youth organization at Mavelikkara’s Cherukole Marthoma Church held an annual running race of three to four kilometres. In Kerala’s rainy weather, the course was sometimes muddy, water laden. “ It was fun watching people run and arrive tired at the finishing line,’’ he said. Eventually, the move from spectator to participant occurred. Although Kerala has produced athletes, like the rest of Indian society, premium adhered clearly to a practical, ` well settled’ life. Cricket being national obsession is perhaps securely conformist. Anything off the beaten track, troubles. Eighth standard-student practising for a local run, elicited the usual questions: what do you get from this; what’s the point in this? That year he came first in the race at the church. “ I got a prize, a glass,’’ he recalled.
Parcels of reflected light, a procession of them, danced on his face as he spoke. It was the metro train passing by on its high perch, under the glare of the afternoon sun. The stainless steel coaches reflected sunlight. We were at a coffee shop on Bengaluru’s (Bangalore) MG Road, close to the metro line. He sipped his cappuccino. Onam falls in August-September. In October, a month after winning the race at the church, the boy participated in the selection process at school for entry into the district level sports meet. He ran a 3000m-trial and finished first. “ It surprised people because I beat the person who had been consistently selected for the discipline,’’ Soji said. Elation, if any, didn’t linger. School boy, wannabe fast bowler, he promptly forgot the whole affair. Life was cricket. Till one morning, dispatched by his mother to buy some meat in the market, he was cycling along when somebody stopped him and asked: weren’t you selected for the district meet? It is today. Go quickly! He was clad in shirt and lungi. Reaching the venue so, he was told to get ready. But he didn’t have a pair of running shorts. “ I borrowed somebody’s Bermudas – you know the big beach shorts. I wore that and ran. It was a 200m-track and we had to do 15 loops. I came first. That is the only time I wept for joy,’’ he said. It was the lone gold medal that year for his school in the event. His photo appeared in the local newspaper the next day. But he was denied entry to the state level meet as he was under-age.
From this stage onward, it was an equal divide between cricket and running. Every year he geared up for the local race at the church. Practice commenced in July, peak monsoon in Kerala. He would run through water. “ People found it odd, tad crazy,’’ Soji said. He ran in his dad’s army shorts, altered to his size. In ninth standard at school, he again won the church race and finished fourth in 3000m at state level in school. By the time he was in tenth standard, he had shifted to senior category and the 5000m, topping it at district level. He had no coach. He ran barefoot; he wasn’t from a wealthy family. But he trained with growing determination. He finished third in the 5000m at state level. Then a second turning point in life occurred, one that fine-tuned his focus.
In a cricket match, wherein he was bowler for crunch-over, he got smashed all over the field by the opposition. That ended the cricket-phase. His attention trimmed to focus on running. To do his eleventh and twelfth standards (those days it was called pre-degree), the runner shifted to Pamba College in the adjacent Pathanamthitta district. Having done well in running at school level, he got admission to college through the sports quota. “ As with many others, for me also college was a sudden flush of freedom. I became active in student politics, one of those assistants to union leaders, ’’ Soji said, mimicking the classic photograph Indians are so used to seeing; assistant leaning in from the side to be in leader’s photo. Amid new found freedom, in his first year at college, he was told that having been admitted via sports quota, he would have to participate in MG University’s upcoming cross country race. He bought a pair of PT shoes, his first running shoes. He participated in the event without any training and finished eighteenth. Luckily for him, those were days when colleges kept a look out for talented sportspersons. Despite the finish down in the pecking order, his running was noticed by officials from SB College, Changanassery. This was to prove the next turning point in his running career.
SB College offered him free education plus no mess fees, no hostel fees. “ That instilled a sense of responsibility in me. I had the urge to give something back for what they did,’’ Soji said. Mr Chidambaram – the college’s coach, was Soji’s first coach. He told the young runner: I will train you. But executing what you learn effectively is your onus. Soji shifted to SB College in his second year of pre-degree (today’s twelfth). That year he came first in MG University’s cross country race. He also placed second in the 10,000m at the university’s track and field meet. At the All India Inter University Athletics Championship in Amritsar, he finished fifth in the 10,000m. He continued at SB College to do his graduation (BA). In the first year, he topped the MG University cross country race, was seventh in cross country at the national universities meet, emerged first in 10,000m at MG University and fifth at national university level. In his second year of the degree course, he became the record holder in 5000m and 10,000m at state level in the under-22 age category, a category that no longer exists. That year he was however plagued by injury. Recovering from it, in his final year, he placed second at MG University in cross country and fifth at the national university level. He also won the 10,000m at MG University in 32:04 (according to Soji, a record that still stood as of February 2016) and finished first in 10,000m at the All India Inter University Athletics Championship held in Jamshedpur with a timing of 31:18.
Following this outcome, Soji was called for the national camp by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). It was a five month-camp, held at the high altitude training facility of Sports Authority of India (SAI) at Shilaru in Himachal Pradesh. Each person is unique; generalizations must be avoided. Still, generally speaking, hill people have good endurance. Some of India’s best distance runners hail from the hills. As do, some of the world’s best; Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are associated with their country’s highlands. The best training spot for distance running is a mix of altitude and fine weather affording long training window. World over, high altitude sports training centres typically straddle mid elevations, neither too high, nor too low. Data on the Internet places Shilaru at 2420m (close to 8000 feet) above sea level; Mavelikkara at 13m (43 feet) above sea level. For Soji, used to Mavelikkara, Shilaru was his first taste of running at altitude. He struggled initially (he did a mix of running and walking), then, slowly found his groove. At the cafe, the Shilaru experience reminded him of an observation from his school and early college days.“ Back then, we used to say in Kerala that none of us from the plains and coastal areas of the state can beat the distance runners of Idukki and Wayanad districts. They were typically the state’s best. Idukki and Wayanad are hill districts with plenty of ups and downs,’’ Soji said.
As part of the national camp, he had to run a 10,000m race in Chennai, where he finished second. Loyola College extended him an invitation to represent them at the A L Mudaliar Athletics Meet, an important event in the city’s sports calendar. Joining Loyola for his post graduation, Soji represented them in the 5000m and the 10,000m at the A L Mudaliar Athletics Meet. He finished first in both. In his first year MA, he also applied for a job at Southern Railways. That didn’t come through to his satisfaction. But Western Railways stepped in. He moved to Mumbai as a Ticket Collector (TC) in 2004. Sportspersons in TC roles are typically put to work on suburban trains or given station duty as that provides them time to train as well. Mumbai has one of the world’s busiest suburban railway systems. Soji checked tickets on the city’s western line. In 2005, following a fifth place finish in 10,000m at the Federation Cup, he was selected once again to the national camp. From 2005 to 2011, he was at the national camp on the strength of his performance in 5000m and 10,000m.
If you are an athlete training for 5000m and 10,000m on a regular basis, you are deemed in line to attempt a half marathon. The weekly training mileage you put in is adequate. The year Soji shifted to Mumbai had marked the debut of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). It would grow to be India’s biggest marathon. In 2010, Soji ran his first half marathon at SCMM and finished second in the Indian elite category with a timing of 1:06:40. In 2011, he placed second in the Indian elite category again. In 2012, he won in the Indian elite category at SCMM, finishing first in the half marathon with a timing of 1:05:26. At the last SCMM in January 2016, he finished fourth. At the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), he was second in the half marathon in 2013 and 2014. Additionally, he has been third at the 2009 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, first in the 2015 Bengaluru Half Marathon and first in the half marathon segment of the Wipro Chennai Marathon held in January 2016. His personal best in the half marathon was at the 2014 Delhi Airtel Half Marathon, which he ran in 1:04:58. Soji has run the full marathon twice. At the 2004 Travancore Marathon in Kerala, he placed sixth with a timing of 2:35 and at the 2010 Pune International, he placed third with a timing of 2:23.
Going ahead, Soji would like to focus more on the full marathon. For this he will need to increase his weekly mileage. He also believes he should gain strength (he is a thin, wiry individual) and train at altitude for a meaningful shift to the full. Now a Deputy Chief Ticket Inspector (DCTI) with the Railways, the basket of events this distance runner addresses for his employer is big. Besides the above mentioned podium finishes at various running events, he was also second in the 2009 World Railway Cross Country Championship held in Czech Republic. There is even a third place in steeple chase at the 2010 World Railway Track & Field Meet in Pune; that’s the only time he ran a race in steeple chase. All put together, his repertoire spans 5000m; 10,000m, cross country, half marathon and full marathon. Age naturally moves the athlete away from the shorter distances to the longer ones. Soji is currently well established in the half marathon. He knows that going ahead, he must move to the full marathon. That requires commitment to chosen discipline. He must focus. However, within the Railways, the inter division sports meets matter. They are prestigious events in which, athletes are expected to compete and bring laurels to their respective divisions. Courtesy this requirement, Soji has to tackle a basket of disciplines instead of focusing on a chosen few or even one. He wishes it were not so. In contrast, in the armed forces, from where many good distance runners emerge to dominate the marathons at Indian cities, you are allowed to focus and specialize.
A seemingly quiet person lost to the world of running, Soji speaks with a stammer. We met after a series of phone calls over a few months, trying to figure out a mutually convenient instance. February worked for him – he was hanging on in Bengaluru (arguably the best Indian city for runners to train in courtesy its weather), busy season over, a month of relaxation to savour before training starts all over again sometime in March. I could sense that the runner in Soji wanted to continue in Bengaluru. He stayed in rented accommodation, away from the city centre and close to SAI’s training facility. It entailed cost – accommodation, athlete’s diet etc. Prize money won at races helped compensate some of the expenses. I asked if aside from the Railways, anybody else supported him. He said he received encouragement from the Kerala based-running group Soles of Cochin. They egg him to do better; suggest apt races, provide shoes. In world by specialization, we live in categories, judging ourselves by our performance within those severely competitive silos. When we met in front of the Deccan Herald office on MG Road, Soji had a question and he posed it sincerely, “ Why do you want to write about me? I am an average runner. There are many who are better than me.’’
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: all race timings and the names of events are as recalled by the interviewee.)