“ I did everything late. At the age of 40 I started going to discos. I got married at 45. At 50, I started running and at 60, I ran my first ultramarathon!’’ Pervin Batliwala said laughing.
We were at her house, in a quiet residential area that a newcomer to Mumbai wouldn’t suspect existed. As you ascended the hillside next to Babulnath temple and walked into the colony of houses belonging to the Parsi community, a tinge of quaint personal space took hold. Yet Marine Drive and the access to Peddar Road and suburban Mumbai beyond were all close by. As combination of long flat road with plenty of ups and downs at tangents, this part of Mumbai would be prized real estate for any runner. It came in handy for some of Pervin’s training runs. For the bulk of her life however, Pervin who will be 62 in October 2016, didn’t think much of running.
She was born and brought up in Mumbai in a very middle class family. Her father worked in a bank, her mother stayed a housewife. Schooling was at Bai Ruttonbai F D Pandey Girls High School in Tardeo; for college she attended Burhani College of Arts and Commerce at Mazgaon. Finally she studied law at Mumbai’s Government Law College. Then, she commenced work at Hindustan Unilever Limited (formerly Hindustan Lever Limited – HLL), the Indian arm of Unilever. HUL is an iconic company in the Indian corporate world. Not only are its products ubiquitous in India but working there was considered prestigious particularly in the early years of life by MBA in India. The company’s Indian headquarters sat tucked away in a sheltered lane in South Mumbai, on the edge of the city’s well known business district – Nariman Point. Pervin worked at this office as well as at premises in suburban Andheri. Many of her years at HUL were spent as executive assistant to top officials. Like others of her generation, she stuck on at the first company she joined. She remained with HUL till retirement.
In school Pervin hadn’t been into athletics or games in the fashion expected of those seeking identity in such pursuits. She was an active person – that description suited her. From what she said, she appears to have always floated on a reservoir of energy and appetite to do many things. When she got around to doing something she had plenty of drive to dig into. On her visits to the city’s discos, she would dance through the night, all the way into the early hours of the morning. There appears to have been two other trends too. There was a turnover of activity in terms of variety plus, once something caught her fancy, she went after it diligently. “ I would take up something – like swimming, yoga, gym, Shiamak Davar dance classes – and go crazy about it,’’ she said.
During her years at HUL, the company decided to invest in some level of daily activity for its employees, from a fitness point of view. Very close to HUL’s South Mumbai office was that Mumbai landmark – Oval Maidan. It is a vast playground, home to several simultaneously played cricket matches with a jogging track all around. In monsoon, when the cricket pitches become muddy and overgrown, football takes over. Amid city notorious for its ever hungry real estate lobby, this patch of land for play and exercise has survived, thanks to citizens who fight to protect it. HUL had stretching exercises and walk-jog routines for its employees at Oval Maidan. Among those who joined this group was Debasis Ray, currently Head – Public Affairs at Tata Trusts, who at that time worked in the corporate communications wing of HUL. He recalled, “ When Standard Chartered announced the Mumbai Marathon, many of us got enthused. The result – typical of HLL style – was a gym in the basement and a trainer who would train us at the Oval and Race Course. Pervin was part of the group. I too joined in. I recall Nitin Paranjpe, Prasad Pradhan and many others. Pervin, I think, found out that running is her passion.’’ The person HUL entrusted with overseeing the training was Savio D’Souza, a former national champion in the marathon and one of Mumbai’s best known coaches for running. According to Pervin, one day, Savio suggested that the group go onto the road. That brought them formally to Marine Drive and its many runners. Pervin’s tryst with running had begun.
Her first official participation in a run was the short ` Dream Run’ component of the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). The following year, she attempted the event’s half marathon. Well into the race, she ran out of energy. She “ hit a wall.’’ She couldn’t move. “ I was a gone case,’’ she said. Those days, you could get a refund on the timing chip but that had to be done immediately after the race. “ I wanted my money back,’’ Pervin said. Not to mention, finishing what she had begun was also important. She convinced Kushru – her husband – that she should somehow finish the race, walk if she must and get that refund. She did just that. Savio would later tell her that she had committed the mistake many do – she ran the first half of her race, too fast. But the coach told her that she would do well for she seemed to enjoy what she was doing. “ I was disappointed but I took it well. Savio said you will be able to do it, nothing to worry. That half marathon was a learning for me,’’ Pervin said. Savio’s observation was correct. That same year, Pervin ran the Airtel half marathon in Delhi. She won in her age category. In many ways that’s the Pervin Batliwala, Mumbai runners have come to know. She is a frequent podium finisher in her age group. So much so that Pervin honestly admits that in her retired years with ample time to train and attend races, she picks events where she has a chance for a podium finish. She enjoys getting prize money.
Runner born, Pervin trained regularly. She ran early in the morning, a schedule she stuck to even when her work shifted to premises in Andheri entailing daily commute. The mileage she put in every day was modest. “ I used to do very limited mileage at that time,’’ she said. One reason for the measured approach was the findings of a medical test done ahead of joining the fitness-group at HUL. Pervin hails from a family with a history of arthritis. The test showed that her bone density was poor. However what subsequently played out was encouraging. According to Pervin, although she stayed cognizant of the need for caution, fact was – the more she kept running, the better she seemed to do at bone density. In all this time since getting into running, she hasn’t been laid low by any major injury. Slowly she transitioned to the full marathon. Such shifts, usually well thought out and momentous for others, appeared to be a breeze in her case. She doesn’t recall getting stressed by such transitions. Her first full marathon was at SCMM. “ I like 42. You don’t have much tension over timing in that distance. In 21, I feel the pressure,’’ she said. For several years after that win in Delhi, Pervin maintained an annual diet of races in Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru and Delhi. The races spanned half and full marathon. By now she was also largely training on her own. “ Five days of running every week, one day rest, one day for cross training or working out in the gym. I don’t do too much of core and all that. I don’t believe in it. If I exercise too much, it goes into injury for me,’’ she said.
Abbas Sheikh is part of Savio’s team. “ Pervin is a very good runner. She is absolutely inspiring. I have paced her on a few runs and I enjoyed running with her,’’ Abbas said. One of the interesting aspects about Pervin’s running is that she is gregarious in this activity too. She likes running in a group. “ She always has a big gang of runners with her,’’ Parul Sheth, runner and author, said. A person who loves to chat, Pervin’s description of running and the affection she has for it included, talking and running. “ It’s fun,’’ she said of running as a group. Contrary and simultaneous to this is another trend in her – once she gets her fill of something, she moves on. When you have known what the half and full marathon are it is time for ` what next?’ Beyond both these distances lay a distance category, typically described by its inhabitants as discovery of personal space and extended dwelling in it – the ultramarathon. It was Amit and Neepa Seth who introduced Pervin to Comrades, the famous ultramarathon – the world’s oldest – run annually in South Africa. “ Once I hear of something, I try to get more details,’’ Pervin said. In March 2006, Doug Baille from South Africa had assumed charge as CEO of HUL. A keen runner, he had run the Comrades before. Pervin spoke to him to get an idea of the race. She also spoke to Savio, who planted an idea: run Comrades, the year you retire. She planned accordingly, registering for the race in the final phase of her tenure at HUL. However at the SCMM full marathon, which preceded Comrades, she had an absolutely tough time. It cast a cloud on her ability to run the ultramarathon in South Africa. Comrades being significant, her family had also planned to fly to South Africa and cheer her. Now everyone suggested she postpone going for the race. Pervin was determined to go. She said she will proceed alone.
Two of her friends – Sandeep Bhandarkar and Parul Sheth – came forward to help. Parul had first met Pervin when she joined Savio’s group. “ Pervin was already an accomplished runner. She encouraged me a lot in my running,’’ Parul said. Sandeep had created a weekly training programme. Parul’s job was to help execute it. Pervin’s first block of training, specifically for Comrades, was at Lonavla. That 56 km-run went off smoothly. “ From that day I didn’t look back,’’ she said. Savio’s group supported her wholeheartedly. “ I would put up my daily plan on WhatsApp and people would volunteer to run with me,’’ she said. Parul put the preparation in perspective. “ Pervin was determined to do an ultramarathon. She was ready for it. Her training was tough but she meticulously followed it. If she was supposed to log a certain mileage on a given day she would do that or more, never less. Seeing her train, I got to see another side of Pervin,’’ Parul said. As one’s interest in running grows or races become more demanding, eating the right type of food assumes importance. Rupali Mehta, dietitian and runner, planned Pervin’s diet. It also appears to have been training with a characteristic twist; that natural sociability was always around. “ I have to talk and run. You are running because you are happy, no tension, no thinking of anything, you are with friends – that’s how it is for me. I don’t like running alone,’’ Pervin said.
In South Africa, the 89 km-race went off well for the now retired Pervin Batliwala. The ultramarathon – alternatively an uphill or a downhill depending on which year you run – is always spoken of for its several cut-offs and how they are stringently enforced. Pervin’s run went smoothly through it all. “ There is a saying at Comrades that if the winner is announced when you are half way through the course, then you will make it comfortably to the finish line. That’s exactly what happened for me,’’ she said. She liked the ambiance at Comrades and the way people turned out to cheer. “ Cheering is important. It gives you energy,’’ she said. Her friend to talk to while running Comrades, was Kashyap Modi. Savio’s group and her family tracked her progress on WhatsApp. She finished the race in approximately 11 hours 34 minutes. Then, in classic Pervin style she decided that having run Comrades and known what it is she must now look for something else. We asked if her continued appetite for challenge and podium had anything to do with conditioning by corporate life. Pervin dismissed that for the bulk of her employed years had been as executive assistant to senior officials; it is hard to get addicted to corporate instincts that way. What she does have is – she expects the best from herself. “ When I run, it is my race, my rhythm, my timing. I never try to catch up with anybody,’’ she said. She attributes her nature and the desire to challenge herself, to her own wiring. After Comrades what? The question hung around.
“ I speak from the heart. I don’t think of what others may say,’’ Pervin said. There is a video of her, tired and happy, seated by the roadside talking her heart out. “ Comrades is nothing!’’ she shouts happily to the interviewer who had asked what she thought of that race, having completed her most recent one. The location is Leh in Ladakh, the high altitude desert just north of the main east-west axis of the Himalaya. Several years ago, Pervin had run a half marathon there, part of Zendurance. In 2012, Rimo Expeditions started organizing the annual Ladakh Marathon. It had four disciplines, one of which was the ultramarathon called Khardung La Challenge. As a race it was tad shorter than Comrades, being 72 km overall. But with Khardung La (17,582 ft) included in the course, there was weather and altitude for challenge. Used to Mumbai, its warm weather and urban comforts, Pervin had her concerns. The Ladakh Marathon had a stall at the SCMM expo. She met the organizers and told them of her interest as well as worries. They said they would take good care of her. She registered for the Khardung La Challenge due in September 2016. New challenge found, she trained for it. The ups and downs of the hillside around Babulnath and Malabar Hill became training ground. To learn more about the race, she spoke to Khushboo Vaish, Nishant Desai, Dr Arun Nayak and Commander Sunil Handa, all of who had run the Khardung La Challenge before. She put herself on a regimen of Diamox and reached Leh 15 days before the race to acclimatize. In that time, she did a three day-trek to the Gandala Pass, drove up Wari La for a further taste of altitude, proceeded to Nubra and returned to Leh via Khardung village and Khardung La.
On race day, the run from Khardung village started at 3 AM. She approached the pass at brisk walking pace, a departure from her regular credo of never walking at any of her races. Thanks to good acclimatization, she had no problem breathing at Khardung La. Downhill was a chore. Pervin finished in 13 hours 15 minutes, placing third overall among women. She was the only one in her age category. There were reasons for that comment on video. At Comrades, Pervin had stayed close to the starting line in a comfortable hotel. The race began at around 5 AM, which is usual for most races. Khardung La Challenge was a different experience compared to Comrades. The 2016 race was well organized, it had adequate support staff and as the organizers – Chewang Motup and Yangdu Gombu – had promised in Mumbai, they took good care of her, Pervin said. Further, till noon, race day features a Khardung La road free of traffic, something runners appreciate. The difference she found was in how you reported for the race, which was a natural outcome of location. The runners headed the day before the race to Khardung village. They stayed in functional accommodation and endured a 3 AM-start. That was new for her. “ I was running on tired legs,’’ Pervin said. All that made the successful finish, sweeter. Comrades seemed a world away. It was time for: what next?
In January 2016, on the return leg of the big loop that is the SCMM full marathon, somewhere near Churchgate, Pervin had suddenly sensed a truth that crept up unnoticed. With not much distance left to the finish line, she stood a good chance of making it home within the qualifying time assigned for her age category at the Boston Marathon. She gave that last bit of the race all she had and qualified. That’s her next project – the 2017 Boston Marathon. There is room for plenty of slip between the cup and the lip here – she has narrowly qualified and a lot of luck is therefore required to feature in the list the organizers announce. But Pervin hopes for the best. As for other dreams – she wants to attempt the Two Oceans race, try for a sub two hour-finish at the half marathon in Delhi, run one of the two ultramarathons in the Rann of Kutch and someday, attempt an Ironman. As yet, she has done a duathlon, a fun race with her running group. “ Age is what you make of it,’’ she said.
Pervin has no sponsors. She wouldn’t mind such support. But she is also aware that she is too evolved in life to dance to anyone else’s tunes or mouth lines suitable to sustain sponsorship. Such stages in her life are over. “ After I retired I had many offers to work, return to corporate life. But I said no,’’ she said.
This phase – the current one – is her chance to be free.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)