Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Swimming is my passion. I am happiest in the pool,’’ Pravin Gaikwad, 55, said.

The doctor though is best known as a runner; he is also a triathlete. His parents hail from Devgad in Maharashtra (the same Devgad that is famous for its strain of Alphonso mango). Pravin is the youngest of six children. He was born and brought up in Mumbai. His father worked at Ciba Geigy. His mother was a housewife. The family originally lived in Chembur; then shifted to Ghatkopar. Ghatkopar had a swimming pool and Pravin – then a sixth standard student – began frequenting it. The youngster went as part of group of dozen boys or so but in due course, most others dropped out. Pravin continued.

Those days, swimming pools used to have their own swimming team. When he was in the ninth standard, Pravin was taken into the pool’s team. Training became systematic. In competitions that followed with teams from other swimming pools, he won a prize in the 25 m-butterfly stroke. By the time he was pursuing studies at the tenth and twelfth standard levels, Pravin was winning medals regularly at swimming competitions. At medical college which followed, he became captain of the college swimming team. However when he completed his MBBS and enlisted to do his MD, swimming had to take a back seat for work load was high.

Pravin and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati; from a SCMM gone by (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

After completing his MD, in 1988, he joined Sterling Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai and moved that side. By now Pravin was married to Arati, a fellow doctor who, incidentally, had also been his student. When the Gaikwads arrived in Vashi, it was the early phase of Navi Mumbai’s growth. Vashi and other suburbs in the region were hardly the well-developed residential areas they are today. For a pool to swim in, they had to go all the way to Belapur, where the local YMCA maintained one. For eight years, Pravin worked at two hospitals in Navi Mumbai. Then in 1996, the pediatrician started his own clinic in Nerul. The Gaikwads moved to Nerul, staying first at an apartment near the local railway station, eventually moving to a proper house in the center of the fast growing township. Meanwhile the commitment to swimming continued. One of the housing societies in Nerul, Sailesh Towers, has a swimming pool. The Gaikwads headed there first. For a brief while in between they shifted to the swimming pool at the D. Y. Patil sports complex nearby; then they returned to the pool at Sailesh Towers. In 2007, Pravin resumed participating in swimming competitions (short distance ones) earning podium finishes for nearly three years.

Sometime in 1998, the Nerul Gymkhana started to organize annual cycle races. The Gaikwads were regular podium finishers in their respective categories with one year being particularly notable for the podium finishers included not only Pravin and Arati but also their children and Arati’s father. “ It was indeed a proud moment for the family,’’ Pravin said. In 2010, Arati’s brother Atul, asked her to participate in an adventure sports race in Pune called Enduro. It was a mix of cycling and hiking. Pravin, Arati and Atul registered as a team in the forty plus age category; their team aptly named Fortified. They were podium finishers at the event in all the years of participation, in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well.

On the Kharghar Hill road (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

On Parsik Hill; (from left) Asutosh Roy, Pravin, Vijay Kalpati and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Like Mumbai earlier, Navi Mumbai too is an area blessed with enough nature to make a sports enthusiast happy, yet steadily losing that bounty to the incessant march of townships, roads and traffic. Vashi, Nerul, Belapur – they are all accessed after a sea crossing from the Mumbai side. Once you cross so, you see looming in the neighborhood, like a long wall, the stretch of Parsik Hill running north-south from Mumbra towards Belapur and Kharghar. Simply put, Navi Mumbai has quick access to both the sea and the hills. Not many places are privileged so. On the edge of Belapur, overlooking Kharghar is a wonderfully located road. It snakes its way up from near the Mumbai-Pune highway to villages at the top of the seasonal Pandavkada waterfall. An early morning visit to this ascending road – some five kilometers long one way – would yield a collection of runners, walkers and cyclists. There are other such roads frequented by walkers and runners in Navi Mumbai but this is the prince of it all. Locally, it is called Kharghar Hill Road. In 2011, the Gaikwads were out walking on this road when they met two runners – Surya Buddhavarapu and his wife Sudha, both of them, members of the group: Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) – who suggested that they get into running. Until then, the Gaikwads had done the occasional run. They hadn’t ` taken up’ running. We use the term ` take up’ deliberately for Pravin is by nature and grooming, a diligent pursuer of what he decides to do. He believes in systematic approach and committed preparation. “ At school, I wasn’t very intelligent or anything so. I was hard working. Studying medicine may have strengthened further the need to work hard and my faith in that approach. I have also read somewhere that if you keep on doing something, then you will be amazed by what you achieve,’’ Pravin said. He speaks with care; there is little impulsiveness and much that seems to hark of thinking through his responses.

Arati in contrast, is a spontaneous person. She likes fun. Born in Maharashtra’s Dhule’s district and living since the age of two in Mumbai, she readily concedes that her approach to life is very different from that of her husband. She prepares and trains but not as devotedly as Pravin. And she isn’t above taking her chances at races, prepared or not, settling often for the satisfaction of completing a race as opposed to chasing a personal best timing or being on some trajectory of improvement.  An element of fun is eminently acceptable. “ I have always been interested in nutrition and fitness,’’ she said. Shortly after the couple moved to Nerul, she bought a bicycle. “ The attitude was that you should be active, both of us were regular walkers’’ she said. At the time she bought the cycle, Nerul was a quiet place with only a bus stop where long distance buses halted, for link to Mumbai. “ We shifted to our current residence 10 years ago. The cycle travelled everywhere with us,’’ she said.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin (lemon yellow T-shirt); from one of the editions of the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

In April 2011, Pravin reported for a NMR organized-run on the Kharghar Hill Road. He ran up and down the hill comfortably; he didn’t pause anywhere to drink water. Arati joined in at the next such run, sometime in May. According to the Gaikwads, NMR helped nurture and bring out their potential. Swimmers, they also noticed the difference in running. “ Running provides social context,’’ Pravin said. That was remarkably different from the secluded cocoon of immediate world that is the predicament of swimmer in water. What running provided was relevant for the Gaikwads. Besides, as Pravin pointed out, by then Arati was also running well. At the first formal running event they participated in – it was at the Borivali National Park in August 2011 – both husband and wife ended up on the podium. Slowly a new ecosystem grew. The occasional podium finishes they got encouraged the doctor-couple to run, while in NMR, they had a motivated group of people to train with who were also quite egalitarian in their perspective. To this Pravin added his characteristic twist – always the devoted student, he read up on running and researched the sport on the Internet. This was blended with his tendency to push himself. I always wanted to challenge myself. The human body has considerable reserves – these were among sentences that cropped up regularly in our conversation with him. He credited that approach to his medical training. In the medical profession, one is always learning about what the body was designed to do, what the body has wrecked, how that happened, how the body repairs itself and what the body has in reserve. Pravin graduated from the early short runs to the half marathon and on to the full marathon. His transition was smooth. “ If you are a good swimmer, you don’t fight with water. You glide through it. You can do the same with running,’’ he said. All this was alongside busy days at the clinic. In 2012, the two doctors travelled to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala so that Arati could do a short course in problems concerning adolescents, at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Now she also works with Pravin at the clinic devoted to children’s health. “ We would as pediatricians love to influence the lives of the adolescents we work with by acting as role models directly or indirectly, by motivating them to inculcate healthy food habits and healthy lifestyle with physical activity playing some role in their lives,’’ Pravin said. In November 2016, the Gaikwads were part of a group of eight doctors who conducted sexual health workshops in Dahanu tribal schools. “ We hope to do many more workshops and empower our adolescents to take the right decisions for a healthy life and a better future,’’ Pravin said.

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Life with a swimmer brought Arati seriously to swimming. She was no stranger to water and swimming. In her childhood her father had packed off his children to the pool at Shivaji Park, Dadar, so that they were acquainted with the basics of swimming. But with no proper coaching at that time, it was at her swimming sessions post-marriage that she genuinely learnt. After Pravin started going out for runs, he used to tell her that she should experience it at least once. “ He knew I would be interested. Upon trying, I found running doable. On my first run, I didn’t stop anywhere,’’ she said. She was able to complete a 21 km-half marathon in two hours, forty five minutes. Although she had the distinct feeling that she would be able to run well, she took a back seat. First of course, was her nature, which was partial to being less systematic; it was more organic and less deliberate or driven. “ I am not very focused,’’ she said. Arati for instance loves her sleep; Pravin being endurance junkie can do with much less. Pravin spends on equipment, researches what bicycles to buy. She doesn’t. Second, as she put it, “ in a family, both people being equally dedicated to running can be a problem!’’ They have two sons. She confessed to being secretly happy with the occasional injuries Pravin picked up through running, for it kept the endurance junkie at home with family. At times her happiness showed. “ He would quip: you seem to be happy with my injury,’’ she said laughing. For most of her races, Arati trained alone. Her first formal half marathon was at SCMM, the result of an event registration gifted by Pravin. After three years spent running half marathons, Arati moved up to the full marathon. “ There is a world of difference between half and full marathon. I want to try running 42 km without formal training, without the tension of going through a systematic programme. I am a different personality, he is a different personality. I cannot be like Pravin,’’ she said. Yet notwithstanding this core disparity in their individual nature and personality, the Gaikwads participated together in several events. In 2013, Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) chose them as the running couple of the year with Pravin and Arati being additionally declared second runner up in individual awards for the male and female categories.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin; from a half marathon at Durshet (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

It was his endurance cast through long association with water that provided the basic substratum for the runner in Pravin to stand on. His competence in swimming has grown to encompass both the confines of a pool and the openness of the sea. He has been a participant in sea swimming competitions with podium finishes at some. With running also added and cycling known, the triathlon beckoned. Both Pravin and Arati have participated in and completed triathlons in India. In April 2015, the couple participated in the Pune Triathlon with Arati winning in her category in the sprint distance and Pravin finishing second runner up in his category in the Olympic distance. In December that year, they also participated in the Maharashtra State Triathlon in Sindhudurg emerging winners in their respective categories. “ I can do the half Ironman, that shouldn’t be a problem,’’ Pravin reckons, “ a full Ironman will require devoted training; maybe in two to three years’ time.’’ Their passage through these disparate sports, all sharing the common thread of endurance hasn’t been without its moments of anxiety.

In Nerul, not far from the town’s Ayyappa Temple, is the small bicycle shop run by Inderjit Singh Khamba. He worked for many years in the training and development line; then quit his job to begin something on his own. He loves technical stuff. The first business he ventured into was assembling computers. Currently he is fully into selling, building, maintaining and repairing bicycles. Inderjit knew that the bikes he built were only as good as they performed. So he started going for rides on them, acquiring thus a background in cycling. One of the people who dropped by at his shop was Pravin. As their mutual familiarity grew Inderjit asked if Pravin and Arati would be interested in participating in a 180 km-Veloraid, which Inderjit had taken part in twice before. It was a team event. Pravin hadn’t cycled such a long distance before. So they went out for a test ride and with the outcome looking promising, the Gaikwads said yes.

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

According to Arati, they were a team of six cyclists. The Veloraid was from Yeoor Hills to Tansa Lake and back. During training sessions, they had been on a section of the route before. On the day of Veloraid however, it rained and there was mud on the road. Roughly six to seven kilometers before Tansa, on a downhill section of the route, Arati tried to avoid a pothole and went off the road. “ I was ahead and heard something like the sound of a tree cracking or crashing,’’ Pravin said. Inderjit was behind Arati; he saw the accident happening. According to him, Arati’s perch on her bicycle wasn’t perfect; the handle bar was too close to her body. This meant, the slightest jerk while steering the bike, translated into major variations at wheel level. “ Into the descent, there were a few S-shaped bends on the road. Two things happened. First, Arati gathered speed on the descent. Second, there was an arc-shaped portion on the road’s edge, where the tarmac had totally weathered off. The wheel of her bike entered this portion and didn’t climb back up. Instead, the pothole’s edge guided it off the road,’’ Inderjit said. Arati was hauled up from the hillside, some eight to nine feet below the road. “ I was in a daze. I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said. While she escaped with minor injuries, her helmet was a statement of what could have been – it was split open down the middle. She had a cut just above the eye, a cut on the chin, bruised elbows and knees and overall body pain from having had to be pulled up. Post-Veloraid, it took her a long while to recover from both the strain to her torso as well as the overall shock, a side effect of which was weight loss. The Gaikwads’ return to cycling has since been careful. On his part, Inderjit, noticing the mismatched positioning of the handle bar on Arati’s cycle, has built Arati a new bicycle. “ I will resume running, cycling and swimming when my body feels ready for it,’’ she said. About 10 days after we met her, Arati was among those who successfully completed the half marathon at the 2017 SCMM. It wasn’t the best of timings but true to her nature, she appeared content and happy.

Pravi and Arati with Arati's brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they used to participate in (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati with Arati’s brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they  participated in as a team (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin’s diligent training continues. Those who train with him say that he is very disciplined in his approach. He is strict in training schedules and adherence to proper diet (if he is running at a location away from home, he often brings along food suited to the diet he is observing). While training, if he is supposed to meet a certain target on a particular day, he will make sure he does, Mani Iyer, who has trained and run with Pravin, said. As combination of doctor, keen runner, triathlete and someone who reads to know more, his friends consider him well informed on the subject of running and endurance sport. An approachable person, he is known to offer tips to others on how to improve their performance. At the same time, even during his training hours, he remains available to patients. He is capable of running and discussing a medical case on the phone at once, friends who know him well, said. Pravin’s personal best in the full marathon so far, is 3:38, registered at the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). He has also done ultramarathons – he did the Javadhu Hills Ultra in Tamil Nadu in 2016 (Pravin was first runner up in his age category, while Arati who ran the shorter 25km-event was first runner up in her age group), the annual Mumbai Ultra and in 2012, a dawn to dusk run in Navi Mumbai organized by NMR. “ I don’t want to run many events. I would look at perhaps a full marathon, an ultra and a triathlon every year,’’ he said. In terms of events overseas, he has his eyes on the Boston Marathon and The Comrades in South Africa. No matter what the event, he would like to prepare diligently for it. On that, he is clear.

Personal Best (Pravin):

10km – November 2016, Navy Run – 43:50

21km – December 2016, VVMM – 1:38

42km – January 2017, SCMM – 3:38

Personal Best (Arati):

21km – February 2014, Thane Hiranandani – 2:02

42km – January 2015, SCMM – 4:48

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)            

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