Tohana is on the border of Haryana and Punjab.
The nearest big city is Hisar. It is typical Haryana, relatively flat and according to Wikipedia “ desert land’’ until the Bhakra Nangal sub-branch canal came along. Once irrigation water became available, Tohana developed into an agricultural hub. Simta Jhamb (now Sharma) was born here in January 1988.
Her father ran a grocery store in town; she was the eldest of three siblings, two sisters and a brother. As a child, she was prone to the occasional epileptic seizure. Her schooling was entirely in Tohana, during which time, sport wasn’t a pronounced part of day to day life. However life in general was a physically active one; she walked or cycled to school, enrolled for the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and thanks to that irrigation canal which changed the fortunes of Tohana, learnt to swim and enjoy swimming at an early age. There was also a brush with karate when she was in junior school. But there was nothing to indicate a runner latent in her. She never thought of herself as a prospective runner.
On completing her school education, Simta moved to Chandigarh to do her BSc in Computer Applications at the MCM DAV Women’s College. “ I always wanted to be in a big city,’’ she said. Following her graduation, in 2009, she traveled to Mumbai out of her own choice, to do her Masters in Computer Applications (MCA) from the city based-SNDT Women’s University. Initially, she lived at the university’s hostel near Churchgate in South Mumbai. Here, like many do an early morning in mid-January, she too stood by the roadside to see those running the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). “ There was no emotional connection to the spectacle or a tug in my heart to participate one day. I just watched it, the way I would watch anything,’’ Simta said, sipping a cup of black coffee. We were at a café in Marol, like Tohana a name on a border, in this case, the overlapping border land of central Mumbai and north Mumbai. The running season was slipping to hibernation. Outside, the summer of 2017 had suddenly made its presence felt after what had been, strangely, a pleasant January-February. Mumbai lay cloaked in a simmering heat.
In appearance, Simta Sharma is quite athletic. That wasn’t the case when she watched her first SCMM in 2010. She was then on the heavier side and having issues with her thyroid. After that initial phase of stay near Churchgate, Simta shifted to Juhu in the city’s western suburbs, where her college too was located. There she commenced going for morning walks in an effort to reduce weight. A week long camp conducted by the National Service Scheme (NSS), introduced her to yoga. She found it helpful and continued to practise it even afterwards. She also started jogging. In 2011, she participated in a seven kilometer-run (the event was called Mast Run) and ended up third on the podium with a three thousand rupee-cash prize to boot. That was both unexpected and motivating.
A year later, she started to work for Nautilus Software Solutions, a company based in Wadala. While working there, yet another edition of Mast Run cropped up. This time it was a 21 km-run. Relying on nothing but her trusted mix of yoga and jogging, she went ahead and ran the race. She isn’t sure how much of it she covered and so declined to name it as her first half marathon. Simta followed this up with a 10 km-run in Powai, which she completed in 53 minutes. Her boss at Nautilus Software Solutions was Vivek Sasikumar. Associated with the city based running group Striders, he took note of emergent runner in office. Vivek encouraged Simta to run regularly and as means to step up mileage, introduced her to the monthly Bandra-NCPA run organized by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR). This training run, held on the first Sunday of every month, spans the distance of a half marathon. Over the years it has become an institution in Mumbai’s running circles. In February 2013, Simta, now a resident of King’s Circle in the city, reported for her first Bandra-NCPA run. This was her formal introduction to Mumbai’s running community. “ Vikas Mysore was the first runner I said hello to,’’ she said. She became a regular at the monthly Bandra-NCPA run and as she did so, her circle of friends in running slowly grew. Ajit Singh is a popular face on the Bandra-NCPA run. A member of MRR, he works for FDC, the company manufacturing Enerzal, the well- known energy drink. He recalled Simta’s early days. “ She came in through the Facebook group. She was into fitness and had run only events featuring short distances. She had no experience of the half marathon. So with her, we first ran at Juhu. It was three of us – my friend Purnendu and I, both of us runners who prefer to run bare-chested, with Simta in the middle. She didn’t say it then but later she admitted that she had felt embarrassed!’’ Ajit said in jest. The Bandra-NCPA run was a significant addition to Simta’s life from another angle too. On the second Bandra-NCPA run she reported for – the run of March 2013 – she met Kshitij Sharma, her future husband. They would be married less than a year later, in February 2014.
Soon after marriage, she shifted from her King’s Circle residence in central Mumbai to Kandivali in north Mumbai. During the period from 2014 to 2015, she worked with Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) at their D.N. Road office in South Mumbai. The distance between her place of stay and place of work in a Mumbai that operates daily on a north-south tide of human and vehicular movement, limited her ability to find time for running. She couldn’t train seriously with any group of runners. “ It was difficult to spare every morning for that,’’ she said. In August 2014, she shifted to Vile Parle, a move in the southerly direction from Kandivali, which brought her tad closer to work. While living in Vile Parle, her father-in-law was diagnosed with diabetes. He was determined to control it through diet and exercise. He was already into walking and exercising but the diagnosis made him more serious in the pursuit of fitness. In some ways, her father-in-law’s decision to be serious about exercise proved synergic with Simta’s interest in running. What she had been missing until then was drive and determination. Suddenly that seemed found. The two of them started running every morning at a nearby ground. More important – Simta’s training became more focused in the process. This phase was a turning point in her life as runner.
Every year, Total Sports (a chain of shops selling sports goods in Mumbai) and Run India Run organize a 10 kilometer-race in Borivali, northern Mumbai. In 2014, Simta won this event in her category; she won it again in 2015 and was placed third in 2016. Notwithstanding her given place on the podium, her timing was steadily improving – it was 52 minutes, 48 minutes and 44 minutes respectively in those three years at that event. “ It was a good feeling’’ she said of her first win in 2014, her first major podium finish. Meanwhile in the run up to that podium finish, she had completed her first major half marathon in Thane. She completed it in 2:01. Through all this, a new runner was also born in the Sharma family – Anil Sharma, Simta’s father-in-law. Now 59 years old and a Chief Manager with Central Bank of India, he graduated through running seven kilometer-races to 10 km and 21 km and eventually, a full marathon.
Simta too progressed to the full marathon. Her first major full marathon was the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon, which she completed in four hours to place second in her category. An interesting aspect about Simta is her apparent lack of long term focus on any particular distance category and adoption instead of short term focus on whatever is the distance of the event she is training for. Thus, she says she has no problem shuttling between 10 km, 21 km and 42 km; moving from one to the other, forward or backward. On the other hand, she said, “ the greater mileage I had to put in while training for the full marathon had a beneficial impact on my shorter runs as well. It is possible to improve timing across distances.’’ One discipline she has had mixed fortunes with is the ultramarathon. She attempted the ultramarathon in Vadodara, twice. The first time, she went off course and ran longer than needed. The second time she had to call it quits at 33 km, resulting in a Did Not Finish (DNF).
For her first major full marathon at Bengaluru, she trained for about two months. As said, thanks to her work schedule, Simta was never in a position to formally train with any runners’ groups or have a dedicated coach. Post marriage her husband, Kshitij, who is a Senior Network Analyst with FIS Global Business Solutions in the city, became her coach. He draws up her training schedules. “ I never miss my work-outs,’’ Simta said. She appeared content training under her husband who is an amateur runner. We asked Kshitij why he had taken on the role of Simta’s coach. “ I know her lifestyle well, her diet, sleeping pattern – these details matter. If she trains under a coach, these details may not get articulated or may get overlooked. As a runner, I had trained under coaches and know what they offer and what they don’t notice. In Simta’s case, she was also epileptic and I did much research to find out the best approach she can have,’’ Kshitij said. According to him, Simta has fine endurance. “ I have noticed how she runs three to four hours in the morning, comes home, prepares food and leaves for office without any strain,’’ he said. He thinks she has reserves she can tap into before the duo – runner and coach – enter the more challenging realm of extracting incremental improvement. Simta puts a lot into her training runs. The events she chooses to race at are few and handpicked. It is a different matter that she won some events, which she treated as training runs. “ You become stronger when you are running, not when you are burning out,’’ Kshitij said explaining the conservative approach. Amid all this, Simta also moved to a new job at Turtlemint (via another job in between at Purple Squirrel), which has its office in Andheri East, not far from her home in Vile Parle. Work place being closer to home meant better attention for training. On a regular day, she rises early and cycles to her chosen location for training (usually Juhu). It was a Simta shaped so by her life experiences, who geared up for the 2016 edition of The Wipro Chennai Marathon (TWCM) in January 2017.
TWCM is the brainchild of the Chennai based runners’ group, Chennai Runners. Indian IT major Wipro Ltd has been the main sponsor of this event since 2012. The company has a strong association with running through its annual Spirit of Wipro run and its in-house running club (Wipro Running Club, begun in 2012), which boasts a membership of 150-200 people. The 2016 edition of TWCM was to be the event’s fifth edition; 20,000 runners were expected to participate. TWCM includes a full marathon, a half marathon, a 10 km-run and a fun run for differently abled children. The event usually falls in December. The 2016 edition was however postponed following the hospitalization of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa. She eventually passed away. As it turned out, the postponement appeared wise not just from the perspective of avoiding any political turbulence; in December 2016 Chennai was also lashed by Cyclone Vardah, one of the most powerful cyclones to strike India’s eastern sea shore. Originally set for December 11, 2016, the 2016 edition of the marathon was rescheduled to January 8, 2017. As was routine, Simta had trained ahead for the Chennai marathon. Her approach was diligent; Ajit recalled some training runs they were on together in the run up to TWCM. Simta’s family had made plans to holiday in Goa after TWCM. When the event got postponed it put a question mark on the holiday, for Simta now had to stay in practice longer. They found a creative solution. Why not practise in Goa? The 2016 Goa River Marathon was due on December 11. Simta managed a late entry. As it turned out she ran the half marathon in 1:38 finishing first in the open category for women. Both running and holiday in Goa were salvaged!
Chennai, January 8, 2017: it was for Simta, a humid day. “ Humidity was the biggest challenge for me while running TWCM,’’ she said. There were also two other issues, according to her – there was a festival that day and it occasionally brought people on to her path for a couple of kilometers; second, as measured by her GPS, the whole route appeared to be tad longer than usual (by about 800m or so), which given the competitive circumstances of a race made its impact felt towards the finish. “ I couldn’t stand up after finishing,’’ Simta said. On the brighter side, she loved the fact that the pilot vehicles kept her company three to five kilometres from the start itself. “ They were cyclists and not motorcyclists. They gave me water and snacks on the go. It meant I did not have to stop at any aid station along the way and could keep moving,’’ she said. This was a major difference from many other races where the pilots appear only towards the finishing stage of a marathon. “ I love running with the pilots,’’ she said. Simta finished the full marathon in 3:34:27 placing first in the open category. The win at Chennai was an important victory for the runner from Tohana, TWCM being a major race in the national calendar for marathons.
Less than a month after the full marathon in Chennai, on February 5, 2017, she ran a full marathon at Rajkot in Gujarat winning it in 3:28. Rajkot’s is not as high profile an event as Mumbai’s SCMM or Chennai’s TWCM. Why deign to run Rajkot, when you are on a high after victory in Chennai? For Simta, the common thread running through her choice of events is that her timing is improving – she clocked 3:34 in Chennai; that was down to 3:28 in Rajkot. Should anything else matter? A critical observer may question otherwise – if you run at smaller events aren’t your chances of podium finish that much higher? Runners obsessed with podium finish are known to harbour that streak; strike gold where competition is less. Simta argues that is an incorrect view. As example, she points to her participation in the half marathon at Rajkot in 2016. She had finished the distance in 1:40. “ Yet I was placed tenth. There were people running the distance in 1:23,’’ she said. Aside from the fact that she likes running in Rajkot, Simta said that smaller events bring forth a category of local talent that is genuinely competent but rarely makes it to the big events in India’s large cities for want of resources. These are good Indian runners and they shine at the smaller events they participate in, returning timings that would be the envy of city based-runners. “ I enjoy participating in these smaller events,’’ Simta said.
Tohana to Bengaluru, TWCM and Rajkot – it has been a journey of transformation. “ Simta’s improvement has been dramatic – from someone with very little experience in running, she has become a podium finisher in the sport. The thing about her is that she is dedicated and trains hard. She is also very focused on the event she is planning to participate in. She doesn’t let that focus be upset by any other event advertising itself as potential distraction,’’ Ajit said. Noteworthy performance has fetched Simta sponsors. After her podium finish in Bengaluru, Adidias elected to support her. Later FastandUp and TomTom joined in. Concerned more about training than participating in events, Simta hadn’t yet figured out her calendar for 2017 when we met her in late March. “ I am looking at the Airtel Delhi half marathon. As regards a full marathon for the year, I haven’t decided yet,’’ she said. She was however clear about one thing – she is now focused on running.
Simta Sharma – Personal Bests (as of end March 2017)
10 K – 00:44:29
21 K – 1:35:17
42 K – 3:28:13
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The timings at races are as provided by the interviewee.)