It wasn’t difficult locating Venugopalan Arunachalam in the park.
True, Tower Park in Chennai’s Anna Nagar had many people by evening. But there was only one person in distinct running shoes, track pants and a bright colored T-shirt that said: Chennai Runners. No need for smartphone and quick reference of Facebook photo; your senses said he had to be the quiet person, sitting at one end of a park bench. That’s another attribute, if one may submit, of those who have journeyed long in endurance sports – they typically have an air of self-contained detachment.
Over the next two hours, we were treated to a conversation that every company in the country – public and private – should perhaps take note of. A septuagenarian now, Venugopalan was born almost 600km away in the port town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin). He was the third child among six siblings. His father worked in the Post & Telegraph Department. That meant several transfers on work within the country. Venugopalan started school in Jodhpur but soon enough, the family shifted to Kalyan near Mumbai. There, he studied up to third standard before moving south to Thoothukudi, where he stayed with his maternal grandmother and studied up to class six. “ It was there in school that I won my first race in running. I was probably ten years old and a got a red soap box as prize,’’ he said. While Venugopalan was in Thoothukudi, his father had continued at his work in Kalyan. With his father being transferred next to Jabalpur, Venugopalan followed, struggling in the process with the shift from Tamil medium of education to English medium. At school in Jabalpur, he found himself qualifying in the heats for the 100m, 200m and 400m races. He practised daily for the finals. “ In the finals I came last in all three. The competition was really good,’’ he said. However that outing was both beginning of life as runner and a precious lesson learnt – maybe his strength wasn’t racing fast but racing long?
In those days, the “ mile-race’’ was a popular fascination. For the following year, Venugopalan thought of registering for the 800m and 1500m events. He was a small, lean lad. In his tenth, eleventh and twelfth standards, the rather reserved and independent thinking youngster from Thoothukudi trained regularly for the distances he aspired for (he used to run five kilometers everyday) and consistently managed podium finishes in the 400m, 800m and 1500m disciplines. He also merited a second place finish in a 3.5 mile-race. “ It convinced me, I am better at long distance running,’’ he said. He practised his running mostly at night. His family was supportive. “ They didn’t know how much I was running but they were happy to see the certificates come home,’’ he said.
Following his school years, Venugpolan opted to study mechanical engineering. While his father shifted to Delhi on work, Venugopalan moved to the Benares Hindu University (BHU). There, after other students had completed their daily dose of football, he would run on the ground, savoring the everyday fix of five kilometers he had got used to from school. On BHU’s annual Sports Day, he would participate in the 800m, 1500m and 5000m competitions, usually winning all three. “ Engineering students are typically a studious lot. Work load is high and they don’t have much time for sports. The competition I faced in these races was mostly from arts and science students,’’ he said. Venugopalan passed out from BHU in 1968. He secured a job at Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) in Trichy. The company – a public sector undertaking (PSU) – was one of the leading industrial enterprises of the government. It was Venugopalan’s first job after BHU. For the next 40 years or so, until his retirement over a decade ago, aged 60, he remained at BHEL. Joining the company was a turning point. Life changed drastically for the young man used to running five kilometers every day and enjoying races, since school.
At Trichy, BHEL had its own cocooned ecosystem. Its township was a good 14 kilometers away from town. There was running and sports in Trichy. But its vibes rarely reached the insulated township. “ The problem I faced was this. Both the Indian Railways and the military encourage athletics as part of sport. PSUs, in contrast, were partial to games. They had no interest in comparatively solitary pursuits like athletics,’’ Venugopalan said. By nature, he had little interest in games. Result – at BHEL, his active life came to an utter standstill and his fitness nosedived. At Anna Nagar’s Tower Park, the septuagenarian Venugopalan cut a trim figure. Back in his BHEL days, despite no smoking and drinking, by the time he hit his mid-thirties, he had sprouted a tummy. Around that age, all BHEL employees had to go in for a mandatory medical check-up. In the check-up, he was found to be mildly diabetic. It rang alarm bells for there is a history of diabetes in his family. Venugopalan speaks rather bitterly about this turn of events. Although he resorted to walking to stay fit following the medical diagnosis of diabetes, up until his eventual retirement and exit from BHEL, there was no relapse to running. He says it was simply impossible in the ambiance of the township. For instance, the athlete in him was soon looking for ways to make walking more engaging. He read up on race-walking and began practising it. Needless to say, that made him an oddity. By the time people hit that midlife medical test, many would be advised to walk. But few – likely none – race-walked as they do at the Olympics. One man doing something different stands out in crowd of conformists. Is that why the industrial environment is partial to games? Games teach you to collaborate and conform as a team, while athletics is often a solo trip to self-discovery? One wonders.
“ I firmly believe athletics should be encouraged at PSUs. On the one hand we say that it is not machines but manpower that is the wealth of an organization. But then, we make no provision for the health and wellbeing of this manpower. In their own interest, corporates must make arrangements for their people to have an active life. Running is the least infrastructure-intensive of sports. You can even do it alone. Nowadays, the private sector has begun recognizing this but PSUs in India still lag,’’ Venugopalan said. It wasn’t BHEL alone that appears to have weaned athlete away from his regimen. Along the way, Venugopalan got married and raised two sons. In the Indian context – as both culture and economics – family is a commitment and society’s perspective of this institution rarely accommodates what the individual desires personally for meaning and fulfilment in life.
When Venugopalan shifted from mere walking to race-walking what catalyzed that move in man tucked away in industrial-township was the growth of the Internet. The worldwide web brought the notion of larger planet home; suddenly it was possible to leap over immediate society and notice others like you elsewhere. “ I read up on race-walking and started to practise it,’’ Venugopalan said. Used to having an early dinner, he was the type who experienced wakeful hours by 3 AM. So he started to go out for race-walking that early, come back and sleep again. Slowly, a commitment and devotion to something he was passionate about, built up. In 2005, Venugopalan retired and moved to Chennai where he stayed on rent in Anna Nagar West Extension while his house was being built in Anna Nagar West. Given he had elected to tackle his diabetes through exercise he continued the daily walking he had started at age 35. One day when out walking, he saw a marathon underway and elite African athletes go by. “ It ignites a spark in you. Such images, you don’t forget at all,’’ he said. Long forgotten running legs stirred restless again.
As luck would have it, in ` The Hindu’ newspaper, he read about the group – Chennai Runners. He joined their Google group, regularly perusing their posts on running, occasionally pitching in with a comment. Meanwhile, his friend and running partner from BHU days – Brigadier K. Venkatraman – called up from Bengaluru informing that he had been running the marathon. “ That is how the seed to resume distance running was sown in my head,’’ Venugopalan said. His first attempts at running in the local park were a total failure; he would be out of breath in no time. So he started to jog around in his apartment, emerging to run in public only after he felt ready for the transition. He chose a 10.5km-loop in Anna Nagar for his daily run, covering it on the average in about 70 minutes. He ran 10km every day, raising the distance to 15km on weekends. Soon enough, he reached that point where he could run 10km without a break. Then the inevitable happened: one day he did two laps of the circuit, making it a half marathon. That was the first time, he had done 21km. “ It was a really good feeling,’’ he said.
The East Coast Run in Chennai featured distances of 10km, 20km and 30km. In 2009, he did the 30km segment, completing it in a mix of running and walking. “ There I got recognition from Chennai Runners that at close to 64 years of age, I was able to cover 30km on foot. The way they used to talk and chat about it; that gave me self-confidence. It really helped me. People came to me, they spoke to me, they became friendly,’’ he said. The sight of elite athletes in action, which sparked the resumption of running, had been from the Chennai Marathon. A year after that sighting, Venugopalan did the half marathon segment of the event, completing it in 2:20. “ Towards the end, I was quite tired,’’ he said. Then a smaller version of the BHEL-quarantine struck. Like most Indian parents, Venugopalan and his wife wanted to see their sons married and settled in life. The sons though – the elder one in particular – had a mind of their own. Over time, Venugopalan’s wife, initially skeptical of her husband’s running, had both become empathetic towards it and even commenced her own share of walking. However as prospective alliances for their sons fell by the wayside, she decreed that Venugopalan’s running should be halted till the required marriages occurred in the family. Two years went by so. During that period spanning 2010-2012, his friends in running would call up to inform of upcoming events, even offer to get him out of the house and running. He declined the offers, determined to address family responsibilities. At best, he went along to see his friends run. “ That’s hell, to see others run and not be able to run myself. My children are now married. Thank God the embargo on running did not extend to my children having children too,’’ he said laughing in jest about the many eccentricities of the Indian predicament.
In 2013, Venugopalan ran his first full marathon at Auroville in Pondicherry, covering the distance in 4:55. Later in the same year, he participated in the Wipro Chennai Marathon. He completed the full marathon there in 4:05. He has since gone on to get podium finishes at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), finishing third in his age category in the full marathon in 2014, first in 2015 and third again in 2016. His personal best in the full marathon is 4:04. Aside from walking at aid stations along the way, at full marathons, he runs the rest of the distance. In between, he also did a race involving six hours of cycling and six hours of running. However, the gains have not been without their share of related problems. He has had to cope with running injuries. But what has laid him low is herpes. Its onset has meant a weakening of muscles. It forced him off the 2017 SCMM; he didn’t participate. Ageing athlete hasn’t given up. He has embraced the Pose Method of running, wherein gravity is roped in as active partner to aid one’s running. “ Using this method I am now able to cover 20km in 2:18. I must now add speed. I haven’t run a race yet using the Pose Method. Now I have to,’’ Venugopalan said.
The evening light was now slowly fading and as the sun threatened to drop out of sight, the urgency of those playing games in Tower Park grew. A misdirected smash from a volleyball match racing against sunset saw the ball land close by. “ Careful, careful,’’ Venugopalan gently told the youngster who came to pick it up. He has often thought of what made him run years ago. He didn’t have a single answer. In his childhood he has chased after his older brother as the latter and his friends ran around pushing their toys – was that how it all started? He doesn’t know. “ I don’t quite know why running interests me. I think I like the feeling of the wind blowing in my face. It used to give me a lot of happiness. It is also true that when I run, I feel my body and mind is one and not limited. It is expanding. I feel I am one with the universe,’’ he said.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)