Muthupet is located in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, some 360 km south of Chennai. It is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, at the southernmost part of the Cauvery delta. Lagoons and mangrove forests abound. It is an area rich in fish. The man before us was born and brought up in Muthupet. We were at the popular restaurant at Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium; the eve of the city’s 2016 marathon. There was a steady stream of runners proceeding to collect their bibs. Many of them stopped at the restaurant for a cup of tea and small talk.
The previous year – 2015 – Idris Mohamed had finished second in his age category in the half marathon segment at Bengaluru. And that is just one of several podium finishes, the wiry man from Muthupet had been notching up in races across India. Back home, he hailed from a big family. “ I am one of ten children; I have six brothers and three sisters. I was the most active of the lot, given to sports although not the sort winning prizes at school or anything like that,’’ he said. Following school, Idris moved from the coast to Dindigul near Madurai, in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, to study textile engineering at the SSM Institute of Technology and Engineering.
For a while thereafter, he worked as an apprentice at a company in Coimbatore. In due course, given a brother, who had opted to work in Dubai, Idris too, shifted overseas. “ I remained in Dubai for eight years,’’ he said. Despite his background in textile engineering, when it came to livelihood, the man from Muthupet found himself in sales and marketing. Work days were long and involved taking clients out and entertaining them to clinch a deal, resulting perhaps in a sense of life as a lot of time requiring to be spent somehow. Liking badminton, he often played the game. He also enjoyed walking and the occasional jog. There was nothing yet to indicate a later passion for running.
In 1996, he got married. From 1996 to July 2014, he worked in Bahrain. “ During that phase, I gained a lot of weight,’’ Idris said, “ I was close to 90 kilos.’’ To tackle the predicament, he took up running. “ It took me six months to be able to run non-stop for three to four minutes,’’ Idris said. Soon he became member of a club called Bahrain Road Runners (BRR – according to one website, it has its roots in an earlier outfit started by expats in 1972, with its first marathon organized in 1979 to mark the Bahrain visit of Queen Elizabeth II). Every weekend, they had races. “ I never missed a weekend run,’’ he said. Although he was running with BRR, Idris didn’t have a coach keeping an eye on him. His passage in running was by trial and error. Like most rookies, he ran without adequate warm up and stretching. Within a few months he suffered major injuries. “ It put me out of action for almost a year and a half,’’ he said. Lesson learnt, he began warming up and stretching, embarking eventually on a period of running that has since stayed injury-free.
In 2002, for the first time he ran a half marathon; it was the first evidence he got that he had the capability to run 21 km. He finished the 21 km in 1:45. “ That was when they said: you have talent in running. Since then I haven’t looked back; I have been running, cycling and swimming,’’ Idris said. In 2003, he ran that year’s edition of the Bahrain International Marathon. It is considered to be the oldest marathon in the Middle East. Now weighing around 70 kilos and well into running, Idris completed the marathon in 3:35. As always happens, the running bug started working on Idris Mohamed. And as typically follows, the wife took some time understanding husband’s emergent eccentricity. Afroz Banu had her concerns but eventually gave in. Idris spoke honestly. “ For Indians, particularly runners, once you get married, it is an uphill task overcoming the pressure in this department. It is a challenge. It took me three years to convince my wife about my interest in running. There are friends of mine who like running but don’t find time for it because of family commitments. I was lucky after those three years,’’ he said.
The shape of runner Idris has evolved to tracked his circumstances. BRR used to host triathlons – that probably explains the regimen of running, cycling and swimming he came to follow. In 2010, when Indians at triathlons was yet a small number, he participated in an Ironman event in Malaysia completing it in under-14 hours. He funded the participation himself. It was a straight plunge into the full Ironman format without any attempt at a half, before. The event in Malaysia was a struggle. Idris had commenced swimming seriously in 2004. Twice a month he used to swim in the sea off Bahrain. “ It is a relatively calm sea. You don’t find waves there,’’ he said. He found for himself a stretch where he could swim 400 m across and back. His weakness was cycling. He bought a bicycle suited for the needs of the triathlon, a week before the event. He practised some bit, learning how to shift gears and ride alright on flat courses. Malaysia however had a course that went up and down. He struggled in the hills trying to figure out the right gear shifts, the right ratios. “ I wasted a lot of energy in cycling,’’ Idris said about the event. Result – running, which he does well, paid the price. It took him five hours to finish the marathon leg. But the Malaysia episode hasn’t stopped Idris from dreaming of Ironman. “ Now at age 50, I want to do an Ironman. Hopefully, I can be the fastest Indian in my age group in the Ironman,’’ he said. Maybe an Ironman in Australia, he thinks, for his sister stays there. Else in Canada, where his brother lives. “ I want the course to be a fast one,’’ he said. That is among considerations.
Age group also matters. “ I am beginning to get old,’’ he said, “ I want to set a benchmark for veterans. Currently I lay a lot of emphasis on strength training.’’ He lives a packed schedule. On Sunday, he runs two hours to build endurance. Monday finds him swimming in the morning and cycling by evening. Tuesday is a combination of swimming in the morning and hill-running by evening. Wednesday is reserved for stretching and yoga with a bit of cycling in the evening. Thursday mornings are kept for swimming; Thursday evenings for speed work-out. Friday, till afternoon, is prayer time followed by an evening run of 15-20 km. Next day – Saturday – he swims in the morning and cycles by evening. Idris does not have a specific rest day. He prefers to rest through variation in activity. However ahead of a race, this approach alters. He consciously rests for two days before races.
Despite all this, back in 2003, when Idris ran his first marathon, he had finished it believing he will never do it again. His timing was decent. Problem was the state he found himself in. “ I was literally in pieces. I was that exhausted,’’ he said. Nevertheless as the story shows, he persisted. At his second BRR marathon, the timing was less – 3:10. Then came the big one – in 2009, he completed the full marathon in Dubai in 3:04. In 2011, he ran the London Marathon, finishing it in 3:17. His personal best (PB) yet in the full marathon is a perfect three hours, returned at a 2012 marathon in Bahrain. Same year he completed the full marathon along the Great Wall of China (it involves tackling 5164 steps) in 4:36, placing 23rd among 700 international runners. Next year (2013), he finished in the top 25 again at a full marathon in Phuket, Thailand. In 2013, he also participated in the Bengaluru Ultra. In 2014, he ran the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa in 8:56, an admirable timing of below nine hours. In 2015, he moved back to India from the Middle East, a small whirlwind of sporting activity accomplished during his years in Bahrain. His father who had been running a school needed help managing it. Idris returned for that reason. What followed is perhaps the most engaging angle to Idris’s life.
At most races he participated in, in India, Idris found himself on the podium. It intrigued the runner in him. His two children – a son and a daughter – were in senior school and mid-school respectively. Having invested his money well, – his investments had been mainly in real estate and gold – he had some assets yielding income. “ I asked my wife: what should I do? Should I go back to Bahrain? My desire was to run and make a living from it. When you have children, their education is top priority. For that, Chennai is better than Middle East. As regards money to support wife and two children – that wasn’t a problem. The only thing was – how will I kill time? Fortunately my wife agreed. She said: go ahead,’’ Idris said.
Today, Idris is in an enviable spot; a position many men and women of his age aspire to be in. His life has been turned over to his passion – running. Running and winning in his age category, he now makes anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 a month. He races almost every week. “ I am happy. The wife is also happy,’’ he said. In 2015, according to Idris, he participated in close to 32 races. In 2016, by the time we met him on the eve of the Bengaluru Marathon, he had already logged in 22 races. The running season spans July to January with most races happening in the months of July, August, September, October and November – that’s gladiator’s busy season. In April, TCS 10K is the sole major race in his reckoning. This situation wasn’t accidental. Idris admits that you don’t reach here without prior planning. “ This has been a drift in me since 30 years of age. We invested in apartments at that time,’’ he said, pointing to how he had prepared for the life he now leads. “ You can’t make this change all of a sudden. You have to plan for what you wish to do at age 55 or 65,’’ he said. So what’s his future in running, as he sees it?
Although he ran the Comrades, going ahead, Idris does not want to court the ultramarathon. Reason – it slows him down. He recognizes himself as a fast runner. Plus, there is an emergent attraction. Being old and fast at once is both a challenge and a rarity. Not to mention – in that specific bracket of wanting to be fast despite age, competition is less, something important when you are running for money. Currently, that last observation is delicately poised. Idris knows that aside from people like Dinesh Kumar and Ashok Nath for competition, Bengaluru’s well known distance runner, Thomas Bobby Philip, will also be in his age group. There is no cake walk guaranteed. “ However honestly speaking, nothing about any of us really matters. Look at Haile Gebrselassie. At age forty plus, he completes a marathon in 2:15!’’ Idris said. In front of foreign runners, Indians have a long way to go. As he put it, his advantage is solely one of positioning in the market. Right now in India, there are few fast runners in his age group. Out of them, the few who race seriously do so at a few selected events. Idris on the other hand, races every weekend. That improves probability of podium finish, provided he stays injury-free and nobody with a history of long, dedicated training – like somebody from the military’s sports set up – enters the age group. As one dwells on what Idris said, that would still seem a tight rope walk for he also concedes that age notwithstanding, he is “ as competitive as anyone else.’’ Competition and staying injury-free at the same time, is a tricky knife edge.
New life in hand, Idris has everyone bought over to the direction he has chosen, save one person. “ My mother is not convinced that I made a good choice. She wonders how running can be a career. She tells me to come to terms with life,’’ the 50 year-old said. Much time had gone by since we sat down to chat. Having reached Bengaluru just that afternoon and with a race to run early next morning, Idris took leave. Along the way, he paused to watch for a while sport climbers tackling the vertical on the stadium’s artificial climbing wall. By next morning, race over, the results were out. Idris had won in his category of the full marathon with a timing of 3:04:08. Weeks later, he would also finish first in his age group at the 2016 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon with a timing of 1:18:57.
2016: LIST OF RACES IDRIS PARTICIPATED IN:
Amdavad Half Marathon – Age Group First Runner up
Pollachi – Aanamalai 12k – Open 5th Place
SCMM Half Marathon – A.G – First Runner up
Perambalur HM – Open Category – Second Runner up
The Wipro Chennai HM – Open – Top 10
Indore 10k – Veteran Winner
New Delhi Marathon – Age Group Winner
Nise Gel Goa – 10k – Veteran Winner
Mepz HM – Open – 6th
Teendurance 5K – Open – Winner
TCS world 10k – Age Group – Second Runner Up
Vizag Bay HM – Veteran Winner
Bangalore 10K Challenge – A.G – Winner
Kanchipuram HM – Open – Top 5
Dream Runners HM – Veteran Winner
Mumbai Chembur 10K – Veteran Winner
IDBI Mumbai HM – A.G – Winner
Hyderabad H M – A.G – Winner
Mysore HM – Veteran Winner
Surat City HM – Veteran Winner
Coimbatore HM – Veteran Winner
Walaja Dream Run 11km – Veteran Winner
Bangalore Marathon – A.G – Winner
Teenduruns 10k – A.G – Winner
Navi Mumbai Half Marathon – Veteran Winner
Airtel Delhi HM – Age Group Winner
Aurangabad Heritage HM – Veteran Winner
Vasai Virar Mayor’s HM – A.G – Second Runner Up
Tata Steel Kolkata 25K – Age Group Winner
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Details of events and timings therein as well as the 2016 list of events participated in, are as provided by the interviewee. All the photos used with this article were downloaded from the Facebook page of Idris Mohamed and used with his permission.)