Fifty is a milestone for most of us.
When you touch fifty, stock taking and bucket lists happen. It has its bright side. For one, it focuses energy on a new set of priorities, a quest to live the rest of one’s life truer to what one is.
Chitra Nadkarni was born Chitra Mallya in 1963. She lived her early years at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The city was then a bustling center of India’s textile industry. Indeed some old-timers argue, it was the profusion of textile mills with their work running in day-night shifts that cemented Mumbai’s reputation as a city that never sleeps. Chitra’s father worked with the National Textile Corporation (NTC); her mother was a housewife. She was the youngest of three siblings, the others being a brother and a sister. As a youngster in school and college, she was into sports. She was a sprinter enjoying the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m and good enough at it to compete at inter-district competitions. Further, with the Shivaji Park swimming pool located in their neighborhood, Chitra’s mother made sure that all three children learnt swimming. However, when sports competitions began to require travel out of town, the parents grew trifle concerned and advised Chitra instead to focus on studies. She majored in psychology.
At the age of 21, Chitra married Nitin Nadkarni. The couple has a daughter, Nameeta. For regular job, Chitra worked with Unit Trust of India (UTI). In all her years with UTI, she recalls one year when an annual sports-meet was held and it provided erstwhile athlete opportunity to revisit some of her old favorite sprint events as well as enjoy a bunch of games. In between, as family, there was a shift from Shivaji Park to Borivali and then back to Shivaji Park. On that return to Shivaji Park, in 1993, she decided to revive the physically active life and got back to swimming. Alongside, she also commenced aerobics. “ In 2003, I quit my job,’’ Chitra said. We were at her well-kept, beautiful apartment in Bandra West. Outside a typical Mumbai summer day was drawing to a close. So was yet another working day for the city; the roads near Lilavati Hospital had reverted to peak hour traffic with people driving back home from office. Both Chitra and Nitin were at home; Nameeta – now a veterinary surgeon – was away at work in another part of town.
Nitin quit his job with HDFC Bank when he turned 50. He didn’t want to work in a job past that age. In 2013, Chitra was due to turn 50. As the milestone approached, so did its accompanying baggage of introspection and reflection on life and environment. The old textile mills of the city had vanished. In their place, shopping malls and business districts had emerged. Chitra’s life too had changed – her father had passed away in 1989; her mother was no more, as was her mother-in-law. Her siblings were not based in Mumbai and her daughter had grown up. Suddenly there was space opened up. That old sports bug came to haunt. In all her relapses to the physically active life since marriage, employment and raising family, she hadn’t yet revisited running in a serious fashion. Why not resume running? – She thought. “ I believe I picked running just to get back to my childhood,’’ she said. Erstwhile sprinter, Chitra has much respect still for the sprint events. But she wasn’t aware of the `Masters’ category of competitions in which, veterans can participate in sprint disciplines. On the other hand, she had seen the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). She decided that she would mark her fiftieth year on the planet with a half marathon run. With that in mind, in 2012, she resumed running. For coach, she found Giles Drego.
In October 2012, the annual edition of Mast Run was due in Mumbai. They had a 10km-segment, which Chitra enrolled for. She finished the race first in her category. With her original plan to run the half marathon segment of the 2013 SCMM, clashing with an overseas trip that the family had planned, she shifted her attention to Goa. Here we must pause and explain an interesting angle. After she returned to running, there is possibly not a race Chitra participated in, in the domestic circuit, where she did not end up on the podium. So, even if we fail to highlight it specifically, every race in India, featuring Chitra, mentioned in this article concluded in a podium finish for her. It would be convenient to attribute this to her past in school and college as an athlete. Yet aside from her tenure as athlete in college – prematurely ended when she traded sports for studies – there was no formal training in running. “ We had a good coach in college. But in school, there was no coaching,’’ Chitra said. After more than three decades of no running, Giles was the first coach she trained under. Embracing distance running wasn’t easy. One October, in the initial phase of her return to running, Giles asked her to run a 13 km-stretch of the Bandra-NCPA run (it is a half marathon) hosted on the first Sunday of every month by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR). “ I remember being worried about the distance. It was daunting,’’ Chitra said. Nevertheless she persisted with the training. In August 2013, she did the half marathon segment of the Hyderabad Marathon. Among marathons at Indian cities, the Hyderabad Marathon is reputed to have one of the tougher courses. “ After running the Hyderabad event, I started enjoying my return to running,’’ she said when asked about not just the resumption of running but also the transition to being a distance runner. By the time she completed the 2014 SCMM, she had managed to pull her half marathon timing into the sub-two hour realm. “ Chitra is a very disciplined and determined athlete who always gives her best. Every event that she participates in, she takes it seriously,’’ said Dilip Patil, recently retired as Deputy Commissioner (Sales Tax) and runner since the first SCMM in 2004. A seasoned veteran of several marathons, half marathons and ultramarathons, Dilip has trained with Chitra.
In the world of running, podium finishes are like the telegrams of yore. Bullet points illustrating the outcome of a race, the names of those who won, travel around becoming part of background chatter. Soon Chitra was being talked about. “ These podium finishes mattered a lot to me. They really made me happy and provided encouragement. Not to mention – the winner’s cheques kept some money coming my way,’’ she said. In due course, she joined the running group, Top Gear. The group had individuals who had run The Comrades in South Africa or desired to attempt it. It was in the company of Top Gear that Chitra started thinking of attempting The Comrades. At 89 km, The Comrades is an ultramarathon; it is longer than the regular marathon distance of 42 km. Up until that point, Chitra the distance runner had only gotten up to the half marathon mark. She hadn’t run a full marathon. For that, she selected Amsterdam as venue. Such choice of location is driven by another motive – she tries to keep some of her races a family outing. If a run can be combined with a holiday for her family, that works well. She is also clear that while she may be a podium finisher at races in India, she is very far from the podium at races abroad. The quality of talent in her age group at races overseas is much more competitive given the active lifestyle everyone there grows up with. In India, the active lifestyle is a deliberate choice. Sometimes, even if the active lifestyle was chosen, it is cast to hibernation, courtesy pressures of work and family. Running culture and running movements are still young in India. Back home in Mumbai, Chitra has the advantage of being in the vanguard of those from her age group foraying into distance running. The pool of competitors is still limited and their roots in the past lay in times when sport and physical activity for women was rarity. “ By the time, today’s youngsters – the ones currently running in the open category and those in the 30-40 age group – by the time they reach my current age, then this age group will heat up with real competition because they would all be hailing from a tradition of running,’’ Chitra said. At that point in time, here and overseas may start looking similar in terms of competition for the veteran category.
Amsterdam marathon done, Chitra ran the full marathon segment of the 2015 SCMM, the first time she was running a full marathon in India. Following that, all focus shifted to The Comrades. A portion of the training for this ultramarathon was based in the hill station of Lonavala, some distance from Mumbai. Here, many of those from Mumbai, attempting The Comrades, gathered. Among those assembled was Satish Gujaran, who had run The Comrades quite a few times. He recalled Chitra asking him about the course in South Africa and other details of the ultramarathon. “ She was very dedicated to the training and eager to learn. She put much effort into her work. She appeared a determined person, someone who wouldn’t easily give up,’’ Satish said of Chitra, from that time The Comrades aspirants converged in Lonavala. Chitra enjoyed the runs in the hill station. She remembered in particular a 56 km-practice run begun at past 2 AM and progressing in pouring rain. “ It was a magical experience. Just you, rain, running and fellow runners,’’ she said. Weeks later in South Africa, The Comrades turned out to be an equally enjoyable experience. Chitra who loved the cheering in South Africa, finished the ultramarathon with a timing that qualified her for the bronze medal category of finishers. Every year, The Comrades alternates between an uphill and a downhill course. The 2015 Comrades featured the uphill course. Chitra would like to taste the downhill too. But repeating The Comrades several times as some runners do – she isn’t into that. She would rather move on. As a matter of fact, she has already moved on even as the downhill course remains on the agenda. Post 2013, Chitra had resumed running, she knew swimming and she was no stranger to cycling – predictably the triathlon beckoned.
At the 2015 Comrades Chitra heard of Kaustubh Radkar, the Pune based triathlete. Kaustubh is a one time national level swimmer who pursued his higher studies in the US. During that period in the US, he not only trained further in swimming but also kicked off participation in a string of Ironman events. One of the most active triathletes from India, as yet, he has completed well over a dozen Ironman events besides completing an Ultraman (for more on Kaustubh Radkar please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/ironman-13-times-and-counting/). When Chitra decided to attempt a triathlon she turned to Kaustubh to be her coach in swimming and cycling. He sent her training schedules, which she diligently followed. There were also coaching camps in Pune and occasionally Kaustubh traveled to Mumbai to monitor his ward’s progress. “ I just wanted to challenge myself and see if I can do the triathlon,’’ Chitra said explaining why she made the diversion to triathlon. Her weak spot in the triathlon is cycling. “ I suck at cycling. I am not comfortable with the gear system – what gears to use when,’’ she said. So far she has successfully completed three triathlons – in Goa, Pune and Bahrain; the Bahrain event (a half Ironman) being replacement for a triathlon scheduled in Turkey but rendered dicey due to political developments. “ At some point, I want to try a full Ironman,’’ she said.
The time we met her, the event looming large and imminent on Chitra’s calendar was the 2017 Boston Marathon. She was in training for it. Her coach in running was Suchita Varadkar. According to Suchita who has been a coach for 12 years, the pleasure in training Chitra is that she follows everything she is told to do, to the T. “ Nothing happens without my approval,’’ she said. Chitra chooses her events in consultation with Suchita and once she selects an event, she maintains her focus. When the Boston Marathon was selected as an event to attempt, Suchita advised her against participating in the 2017 SCMM. Chitra readily complied. “ She has done this many times in the case of other events too, so that the focus and training for a chosen event is not compromised through some distraction,’’ Suchita said. Further, according to her coach, Chitra, despite her many podium finishes does not court victories through participation at races where competition is weak. “ She goes for the genuinely competitive ones,’’ Suchita said. The group Suchita oversees is known as Frontrunners. When she is not around, Suchita is happy to entrust her wards with Chitra. “ She is a good support system for the whole group,’’ Suchita said. Chitra had qualified for Boston based on her timing in the full marathon at the 2016 SCMM. Earlier, she had earned an entry by lucky draw to the Berlin Marathon, famous world over for being one of the fastest courses, one where records get rewritten. With Berlin in the bag (she finished this race in 3:56) and Boston expected in a fortnight’s time, among Chitra’s personal wishes was attempting the world’s six major marathons – besides Berlin and Boston, they being New York, Chicago, London and Tokyo. She was also exploring the world of ultramarathons – fellow runner Pervin Batliwala had told Chitra of her experience running in Ladakh; not to mention tales of Spartathlon with its demanding stages, which intrigued her.
“ I think she is catching up on lost time. If you look at her graph in running, it is sharp. Everything – including the triathlons – happened after 2013,’’ Suchita said. Chitra’s journey post 50 years of age hasn’t been without its challenges. So far, her biggest support has been her family, in particular her husband, Nitin. Registering for events, training well, traveling to events here and abroad – it all costs money. Nitin is not into running but he has financially supported Chitra in her new found role as competitive distance runner. “ All the funding has been from my dear husband,’’ she said. A consistent podium finisher at the Indian races she participates in, Chitra has had mixed fortunes with sponsors. She admits to being talkative; her friends – Dilip being one – second that. However by nature, she does not socialize a lot or court visibility. Her day’s running done, she typically retires home. In the currently prevailing sponsorship model imagined by marketing folks, the measurable return for support is mileage in the media. Visibility, socializing – all these are deemed positive attributes in athlete. The paradigm also requires athletes to be social media savvy. Further, sponsored athletes have to engage in activities the sponsor wants you to. Besides her natural reticence, Chitra believes that her Achilles Heel in the sponsorship game is her low appetite for social media. While it is possible to argue that you must wire yourself differently to merit the support contemporary world can offer, it is also true that it is your unique wiring which birthed in the first place, the talent now seeking sponsor’s support. At 50 plus, do you learn to be social media savvy or do you focus your limited energies to run as best as you can? In the kitchen-cum-dining area of her flat, cups of fresh coffee served for all, her disappointment with the prevailing sponsorship model was evident on Chitra’s face. It wasn’t a subject she liked probing because according to her, all she wants to do is run peacefully, free of controversy.
“ So far in my life in running, I have gone with the flow,’’ she said.
Chitra Nadkarni / Track Record as of early April 2017 (Abstracts)
(1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1 km run with periodic cut offs)
Bahrain Ironman 70.3 (Dec 2016)
Seventh position in Veteran Women Category
Timing – 7:05:12
(1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run)
Tritheos Olympic Triathlon, Pune (Nov 2016)
First Place – Veteran Women Category
Timing – 3:54:57
Goa Olympic Triathlon (Feb 2016)
Second Place – Open Women Category
Timing – 3:29:04
Comrades Ultra Marathon, Up Run / 87.7km with periodic cut offs
Durban, South Africa (May 2015)
Second Fastest Indian Woman and Finisher in Bronze Medal Category
Timing – 10:43:54
FULL MARATHON (42.195kms)
Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (Jan 2016)
First Place Age 50-55 Category (Women)
Timing – 3:54:46 (PERSONAL BEST)
BOSTON MARATHON QUALIFIER TIMING
HALF MARATHON (21.1kms)
Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (Nov 2015)
First Place Veteran Category (Women)
Timing – 1:46:33 (PERSONAL BEST)
Keep On Running India, Mumbai (June 2016)
First Place Veteran Women Category
Timing – 00:50:48 (PERSONAL BEST)
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)