Early morning, like the quiet before the storm, MG Road was vacant.
It was a welcome sight for anyone valuing a walk or a run. That generally temperate weather – for long Bengaluru’s USP – may be altering but it’s still there. Bengaluru isn’t the humid oven Mumbai has transformed to. Cubbon Park, sprawling and hosting walkers and runners by dawn, bristled with activity. Some walked slowly; some fast, others jogged, a few ran. The man in orange T-shirt seemed settled into a rhythm, as distance runners do. He was barefoot. “ Hi Bobby!’’ someone called out. He waved and continued running.
Two days earlier, we were near the city’s Old Airport Road. It was a nice house; definitely designed by an architect, with attention to materials and detail. You sensed choice exercised, somebody translating an image in the head into a liveable habitat. It was cool within. There was Thomas Bobby Philip and his mother. His wife was away at office; daughter was at college. Bobby who works with Nokia, worked from home. The arrangement suited him well as it saved travel time.
Life began however not in Bengaluru but in the city we had come to visit him from – Mumbai. That’s where he was born and brought up. The family lived in Mulund; he studied till early college in Thane and Mumbai, then did his engineering from Pune. Work brought him to Bengaluru in August 2003. “ I was never into sports. During my school days I may have played cricket but never such that I could call myself a sportsman,’’ he said. Subsequent life too was conventional; he had his share of smoke and drink. Things changed in March 2009 when his daughter had to prepare for a sports meet in school. He accompanied her for her practice sessions at a garden near where they stayed. A loop around the garden was approximately 200m. “ At first, two rounds of it used to exhaust me,’’ Bobby said. After a week, his daughter stopped. Her effort had been in pursuit of the requirement at school. The father however, persisted, slowly building up mileage. His daily jogs at the garden and its vicinity progressed to running on the road. He ran for about 15 minutes or so covering a distance of roughly two kilometres. That was it. It was all running; no warm up, no stretching or exercises. As his interest grew, he looked around for a pair of good running shoes. The exploration introduced him to the city’s Nike Run Club (NRC) in April 2009. Bengaluru was the first Indian city to host NRC. Exercises, stretching, best practices – they entered the frame. “ NRC taught me sustainable running. Training with them produced tangible results. The results were an incentive to run,’’ Bobby said.
The time Bobby started out in running Bengaluru didn’t have as many running groups as it does today. There were Runners for Life (RFL), NRC, Runners High and BHUKMP. Running events were few. “ That was actually an advantage,’’ Bobby said, “ you were not rushed into doing many races.’’ Arguably, running in those days was less injurious, healthier and more sustainable. Today the retail urgency in running is a lot higher. Everybody is impatient. “ Injuries, as many and as frequently as reported today, were unheard of back then,’’ he said. Bobby’s biggest challenge wasn’t injury, it was something else. He lacked endurance. Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium, where runners gather early morning to train, has a 400m-track. Bobby couldn’t do many loops on it. “ I was ashamed of it,’’ he said. NRC’s weekly training every Saturday and Sunday was also tiring him out. On the other hand, he had enrolled for the city’s 10k run then called Sunfeast (now TCS) 10k. Bobby’s question to everyone he met was: is it possible to complete a 10k run without stopping? At the 2009 Sunfeast 10k, his big achievement was exactly that – he completed running 10k without stopping in 58:58 (58 minutes, 58 seconds). That was the beginning. Following this run, he kept up the momentum. In 2009, Bobby ran two more races. Besides the Sunfeast 10k and another 10k, he ran his first half marathon – a race in Chennai – as preparation for the 2010 SCMM in Mumbai. In January 2010, he ran the half marathon at SCMM, completing it in 1:52 (1 hour, 52 minutes). A year later in January 2011, he ran his first full marathon at SCMM, completing the distance in 3:49. The period 2010-2011 was committed to improving endurance. According to Bobby, in 2011, he was doing an average weekly mileage of 65km-75km. In 2010, it was still higher; some weeks he averaged 90km-92km.
K.C. Kothandapani is one of Bengaluru’s best known coaches in running. He was also Bobby’s running partner. “ Bobby is a determined runner. He is committed and once he gets the required inputs, trains by himself,’’ Kothandapani said. It was a kind of synergic, collaborative link between the two. Kothandapani, who used to be an athlete in his days with the Indian Air Force (IAF), had tonnes of experience in running. Bobby, who credits Kothandapani with being his mentor, egged him to do something with the vast experience in running he had. Thus was born PaceMakers, a new running group anchored by Kothandapani. PaceMakers became a success, helping many in Bengaluru take to running. Bobby trains with them when he has the time. When he doesn’t have the time, he trains by himself. “ I am self motivated,’’ he said.
In 2012, Bobby transitioned to running barefoot. It started off as an experiment. His first run so was for two kilometres. The second one spanned six kilometres. Then something happened. He went back to wearing running shoes and found them “ heavy.’’ It was a tipping point. He took the plunge, decided to continue barefoot. The transition took time and it had its difficulties. But overall the gains he experienced outweighed the pains. “ The absence of shoes on the feet is a luxury compared to all the aches and pains,’’ Bobby said. However, he cautioned that the body’s experience with barefoot running varies from person to person. “ In my case, it has really improved my performance,’’ he said. Bobby’s first barefoot run was in April 2012, three years after he began running. In May 2012, he ran the city’s annual 10k race, barefoot. At the 2016 SCMM, Bobby who finished second in his age category in the full marathon was not only barefoot, he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt. He compares it to running free, as naturally as possible. “ Talking of barefoot running, if you look around, human beings are the only animals running in shoes. That’s something to think about,’’ he said.
In 2015, Bobby was all over social media having run the Boston Marathon barefoot. It worked well except perhaps for one factor he had to cope with – Boston is cold, its roads are cold (incidentally, the reverse has also occurred – his writings show he has had to cope with very hot roads). That year he did something unusual; soon after the Boston Marathon, he ran the Big Sur Marathon, also in the US. His normal approach is to do a few races, that too, well spaced out. Typically, his running calendar builds up around two events – the TCS World 10k in Bengaluru and the SCMM in Mumbai. In 2015, besides these and the races in the US, he also ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon where he finished with a personal best of 1:22:24.
If you want to put Bobby in perspective, try this reality: Bobby was born in 1966, which puts his age at close to 50 years, at the time of writing this article. Right now, he is one of the best distance runners in Bengaluru across age categories in the amateur segment. Having completed the 2016 SCMM full marathon in 3:06, his goal for the year and ahead is to do a sub 3-hour marathon. So what keeps Thomas Bobby Philip interested in running? From our conversation with Bobby, we present a few hints. First, in his experience, running has been an investment delivering results. As mentioned earlier, results work as incentive to improve. “ For example, 3:06 at SCMM was a motivation. It inspires me to attempt a sub 3 hour-marathon, which is my clear goal for the 2016-2017 period till the next SCMM,’’ he said.
Second, strange as it may seem, among the distances he runs, Bobby enjoys most the shorter ones – the 10k and the half marathon. “ I like the intensity in these distances. I like to finish off a race fast. I am not a fan of ultra distances,’’ he said. Third, Bobby appeared the type who likes the ambiance of a race. None of his personal best timings have been in training; they have all come under race conditions. The trend is underscored by the timings reported at races. In one of his articles providing an overview of his first five years in running, Bobby has listed the timings he registered for the 10k, half marathon and full marathon races he ran. In each, you see the timing reduce, sometimes sharply. His faith in continued improvement wouldn’t seem misplaced. “ Something takes over at races,’’ he said. Finally, there is perhaps the fact that he lives in Bengaluru. “ The weather here is amazing. Every morning is superb for running,’’ Bobby said.
Bobby’s preparation has a method to it. To start with, some of his articles on running reveal him as capable of sustained focus on objective. There is also a bit of a paradox at play – in as much as his training is dogged and systematic, Bobby’s improvements and milestones have come rather fast as though he found something meant for him, in running. The broad outline of his annual preparation appeared generic to Bengaluru’s training calendar, it was an outline we found when we met K.C. Kothandapani as well – the city uses the two polarized distances of the TCS 10k and the full marathon of the SCMM as reference points for progression through the training calendar. Bobby explained how it worked for him: for the TCS 10k, which comes earlier, the focus when training is on strength and intensity. As runner shifts to SCMM, the focus includes endurance. Specifically for the sub 3-hour mark he is aspiring for in 2016-2017, Bobby has punctuated these two reference points with a half marathon in the middle. “ You also have to be fit,’’ he said. He devotes time to strength training and some (not much) cross training, mainly cycling and swimming. Around 2014, he started work outs aimed at “ reducing belly size.’’ “ I do it all at home, I don’t go to the gym,’’ he said. At present, every week he visits the physiotherapist for a technical massage; he maintains a disciplined diet. The old drinking and smoking – they disappeared naturally with the growing presence of running in his life. In 2009, when he began running, he was around 75-76 kilos in weight. Now he is a stable 62 kilos. He is not into yoga or meditation. “ There is a lot that can still be done. There is room to improve,’’ he said when asked of advancing age and the continued pursuit of better performance. Did he expect any of this? “ I never in my wildest dreams thought that results will be so. This is what keeps me going. I feel running is my right sport. My technique is falling in place. Photos show that my running form is good. My body is running in rhythm. Form is crucial for sustainable running,’’ Bobby said.
Before Nokia, Bobby worked with a company called Intec, now known as CSG International. It was a different Bobby then – he was focused on career, he travelled on work and he was known for his work. “ Now I avoid all kind of travel. A lot for me revolves around running. My identity is more with my chosen sport,’’ Bobby said. So would he look at making a living out of running; make running his work? “ I doubt if running as source of livelihood can be as successful as a regular job,’’ he said.
Walking in Cubbon Park was a pleasant experience. The man in orange T-shirt kept going on and on doing his laps. Every time his trailing leg lifted off the ground, it gifted a barefoot to all on cushioned soles. In a quiet corner, we took off our shoes and walked a bit, feeling the road and the park’s bare earth below our feet. It did feel different, like long lost sensations stirring alive. We put our shoes back on returning rubber sole between foot and earth, exited the park and confronted a MG Road now needing care while crossing. As the day progressed, we travelled by vehicle, distanced even further from earth and the mechanics of human movement. We became part of Bengaluru’s traffic, the storm that invades every city’s roads.
EVENTS & TIMING
Sunfeast World 10k 2009 – 58m 58s
Sunfeast World 10k 2010 – 47m
TCS World 10k 2011 – 45m 01s
TCS World 10k 2012 – 43m 15s (barefoot)
TCS World 10k 2013 – 41m 06s (barefoot)
TCS World 10k 2014 – 39m48s (barefoot)
TCS World 10k 2015 – 38m 24s (barefoot)
Standard Charted Mumbai Half Marathon 2010 – 1h 52m 12s
Airtel Hyderabad Half Marathon 2012 – 1h 39m 44s (barefoot)
Kaveri Trail Marathon 2012 – 1h 39m 41s (barefoot)
Dream Runners Half Marathon 2013 – 1h 38m 11s (barefoot)
Airtel Hyderabad Half Marathon 2013 – 1h 34m 59s (barefoot)
Ajmera Thump Life is Calling Bangalore HM – 1h 29m 54s (barefoot)
Dream Runners HM (DRHM) in Chennai 2014 – 1h 32m 20s (barefoot)
Bengaluru Half Marathon 2015 – 1h 25m 22s (barefoot)
Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2015 – 1h 22m 12s (barefoot)
Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2011 – 3h 48m 32s
Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2012 – 3h 42m 20s
Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2013 – 3h 29m 38s (barefoot)
Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2014 – 3h 19m 48s (barefoot)
Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2015 – 3h 15m 18s (barefoot)
Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2016 – 3h 06m 34s (barefoot)
Urban Stampede 2010 5 – 21m 10s
Urban Stampede 2011 – 21m 15s
Urban Stampede 2012 – 20m 10s (Barefoot)
Bangalore Ultra 2010 37.5 Kms – 3h 21m 35s
Bangalore Ultra 2011 37.5 Kms – 3h 25m 46s
Bangalore Ultra 2012 50 Kms – 4h 52m 47s (barefoot)
2010 – 3200 km
2011 – 2450 km
2012 – 2200 km
2013 – 2170 km
2014 – 2464km
2015 – 2469km
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: race timings are as provided by the interviewee.)