Article on distance runner Hema Menon with a look alongside at what’s happening in Thiruvananthapuram, the southern-most capital city with a movement in amateur running.
Meals Ready – the board outside the teashop said.
I wasn’t exactly hungry. But given dietary restrictions rising elsewhere in India, my visits to Kerala had come to smack of guiltless indulgence in the cuisine I grew up with. I dove into the teashop, joining a small clientele of executives and techies who loved their food to be defiantly local or naadan, as you would say in Malayalam.
Twenty minutes later I had a full stomach; it was past 2 PM, there was a bus to wait for and not a tree for shade on the by-pass from Kazhakoottam to Kovalam. Perhaps I could walk, keep moving? Walk? Where you wish to go is some distance away. Who will walk in the blazing afternoon sun?-the waiter at the tea shop quipped, tucking up his mundu for added emphasis. How about hiring a three wheeler? They will fleece you. Why spend two hundred rupees when a bus will take you there for much less? Several minutes in the hot sun later, a bus appeared. It didn’t stop. The second one did. I got off at the assigned stop simply called `Infosys.’ Next to it was the building I required to go to – the office of UST Global. I was at Technopark, inaugurated in 1990 to welcome India’s IT revolution to Kerala; not to mention – winds of change to the state’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. In the 27 years since, Technopark has become a sprawling entity.
The first time I ran some distance, was almost 30 years ago in Thiruvananthapuram. Good friend, Rajagopal, would come by early morning with Afzal and the three of us would run towards the city’s zoo and museum, where morning walkers congregated on a small circular road to walk in a furious whirl of flying fists, erect spines and thrust out-chests. Runners were very few. Thanks to their association with the National Cadet Corps (NCC), both Rajagopal and Afzal could jog well. Nerd on chicken legs, I soon dropped out. In my mid-forties and back to running, I was happy to see a runners’ group from Thiruvananthapuram at the half marathon in Auroville, Puducherry. Then one day, on a visit home, I decided to go running on Thiruvananthapuram roads and was delighted to see a modest number of runners, out early morning. Maybe those winds of change did blow after all, I thought as I walked past security to the UST Global office. Hema Menon was already there in the spacious lobby. Born 1969, the youngest of three children, she was from Thrissur. Her father worked at State Bank of Travancore (SBT-now merged with State Bank of India [SBI]); her mother was a science teacher. She studied in Thrissur; St Paul’s Convent, St Mary’s College and eventually, the government engineering college in that city, from where she passed out, a civil engineer.
For a few years, Hema worked with a housing development firm in Thrissur. In 1993, she got married; her husband Subhash had been a student of computer science at the same engineering college she studied at. Subhash worked initially with the IT company, Wipro in Thiruvananthapuram, and later, in Bengaluru. Work as civil engineer required Hema to liaison locally and she found that hard In Bengaluru given she spoke no Kannada. So she became a bank officer working with Federal Bank in the city. At that time, when things appeared to settle, Subhash was dispatched to France. Then he was sent to the US. Soon the family – they had a son by then – realized they needed to make a choice if they were to be together. Quitting her job and shifting to the US, Hema found that the mix of civil engineering and work at bank which she possessed, was irrelevant in that country. Meanwhile, the couple had another new arrival – a daughter. Against this backdrop, Hema commenced her masters in software engineering at the University of Texas, Dallas. She graduated with a job at Intervoice (now called Convergys). Starting out as a trainee, she rose to manage the line of business division in R&D. In January 2008, her mother suddenly took ill; her kidney was failing. Two weeks after Hema reached Kerala to be with her, she passed way. It was a shock. Hema had all along thought that between her father and mother, the former was delicate. In May 2008, she moved back to Kerala with her children. Both Hema and Subhash secured jobs at UST Global. The return to Kerala provided her three quality years with her father. In 2011, he passed away. “ I treasure those three years,’’ Hema said. But that wasn’t the end of such sorrows. Her father-in-law slipped into dementia. It was a condition that progressively deteriorated. A few years later, he too was gone. Subhash’s brother is Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, one of the founding members of the runners’ group – Soles of Cochin. Hema used to call him Forrest Gump. The brothers come from a family with history of diabetes. Subhash had diabetes; Ramesh was the only person in the family free of it. Then Ramesh had a terrible accident with fractures to his leg. “ The way he came out of it was amazing. That’s when I paid attention to his running,’’ Hema said. An Onam season, she joined Ramesh and his wife, Seema, for a run. It was fun running in the rain. But then, Hema was based in Thiruvananthapuram and Soloes of Cochin was in Kochi.
Thiruvananthapuram, previously known as Trivandrum, encourages curiosity for the world. Libraries, book shops, film societies, music societies, centers teaching foreign languages – they all exist. Decades ago, when Siddharth Basu’s iconic program Quiz Time was a national craze on television, the city had stunned the country putting two of its teams in the final rounds. One of Thiruvananthapuram’s book shops – Modern Book Center – is easily among the best in India. The variety of books it offers would delight any mind that refuses to be contained within the walls of ` native place’ or finds the market driven choice of books at stores elsewhere, boring. The unpretentious capital city with its state Secretariat besieged by half a dozen protests on any given day, is also home to one of India’s most talented rock bands – Avial. Yet notwithstanding this serious quest for universe, the city is so set and sure in its ways that if you returned there after seeing the world, it won’t be to breathe world into the city, it would be to live as Thiruvananthapuram does. This is a city that will stretch intellectually to accommodate an earthquake of an idea in the head. What it doesn’t wish to see is – the same manifested externally; there can be no ruffling the social fabric or established attitudes. There is a traditional perception of itself by itself that Thiruvananthapuram is reluctant to let go. In Kerala history too, while commerce dominated the proceedings of the northern kingdoms, it is the state’s southern kingdom – Travancore – that provided a sense of enduring state. When the north was invaded, it was the south that helped defend. On each visit to Thiruvananthapuram, I find it an enigma. I struggle to explain how a place that resists change shapes riveting minds. I knew quite a few. It is almost as if, the fuel for excellence is the unyielding environment. It exists to provoke the urge to rebel, search and thereby, excel. Which in turn I suppose, justifies the rigidity. It isn’t an exclusively Thiruvananthapuram story. Arguably this is true for Kerala – at once modern and conservative – with Kochi being to Thiruvananthapuram, what Mumbai is to Pune. “ Even though I lived here the past nine years, I am yet to understand the heritage of Thiruvananthapuram. There is a calmness here compared to other places,” Hema said.
Around the time Hema did that first run with Ramesh and Seema, moves were afoot in Thiruvananthapuram to form a runners’ group. Abhayakumar N. S (Abhay) is an architect who is also partner at The Cinnamon Route, a restaurant on Pattom-Kowdiar road in the city. Until a few years ago, he was on the visibly heavy side, weighing 115 kg. His family has a history of cardiac problems. That weight had to go. He used to talk to people walking on that circular road at Thiruvananthapuram’s zoo and museum to know what their experience was in terms of weight loss and fitness. He also had a friend on Facebook who was a keen runner. This was how Abhay got into running; he jogged regularly at Mannanthala, a suburb on the MC Road linking Thiruvananthapuram with Kottayam. He complemented running with a vegan diet, making exception for fish. He shed 35 kg in three to four months. Abhay was a classmate of Seema, Ramesh’s wife. In Thiruvananthapuram, Abhay understood that to sustain his running he needed a helpful ecosystem of people, perhaps a runners’ group. Initially what he catalyzed stayed a circle of close friends. In November 2013, Trivandrum Runners’ Club (TRACS) commenced activities with a weekly 10km-run every Sunday from Kowdiar. In December 2013, Abhay ran the first Cochin International Half Marathon; this was followed by the full marathon at the 2014 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM – now set to be called Tata Mumbai Marathon [TMM]). “ In March 2015 TRACS organized its first event in Thiruvananthapuram – a half marathon plus 10km-run. In November 2015, we hosted our first full marathon,’’ he said. The second edition of the Trivandrum Marathon was held in November 2016. Local authorities were supportive when it came to arranging these events, Abhay said. The next edition of the Trivandrum Marathon is planned over two days, with runners tackling the shorter 10km distance doing so on the first day; 21 km and 42 km will be on the following day. “ I can say TRACS started the sport at a popular level in the city,’’ Abhay said.
Among those who reported for TRACS’s first run in November 2013, was Hema Menon. “ I couldn’t run much but I remember saying that I plan to come every week. I went every week,’’ she said. Every Sunday, she drove from Kariavattom where she lived, to Kowdiar, to run 10 km. In December 2013, she participated in the 7 km-segment of the first Cochin International Half Marathon, the first event she was taking part in. By 2014, she had signed up her entire family for an event in Ohio, USA, with herself doing the half marathon. She completed the run in 2:31.
TRACS has its group run just once a week. Abhay put this schedule in perspective. “ Our message from day one has been: let’s try and get people to run 10 km. The focus is becoming healthy through running; it isn’t about timing and distance. We remain a very basic running group and we will continue to be so. We mentor to initiate people into running,’’ he said. He acknowledged that TRACS is different from Soles of Cochin, which has never hesitated to push the envelope. For those determined to push the ante, the TRACS-schedule / approach won’t suffice. For Hema, there was also another angle to address. She was driving perhaps 15 km into town to run 10 km. Alongside marking her attendance at the weekly Sunday runs at Kowdiar, Hema began running at Kariavattom and on the highway near Technopark. In due course, much of her running shifted that side. But there was a larger branching off happening at TRACS, which Abhay accepts as needed and normal. Dr Shankar Ram, a specialist in physical medicine was among those at TRACS wishing to push their limits. He and others commenced a break-away offshoot called Iten, named after the town in Kenya famous for its distance runners. Iten now hosts three practice runs every week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, with the latter reserved for a long run. Compared to the 10 km-weekly run TRACS stuck to, Iten ventures farther. They have run the 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala. Once a month they also run 14 km to 21 km on the slopes of Ponmudi, a 3609ft high hill with forest and tea gardens, some 56 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. It is accessed by a steep road with 22 hairpin bends on it. Few cities have what Thiruvananthapuram offers; the proximity to Ponmudi for hill running, being only one example.
According to Wikipedia, the 2011 census pegged Thiruvananthapuram city’s population at slightly short of a million. Runners in Mumbai, a city of around 20 million people, speak in the main of two stadiums in the metro that have synthetic track for athletics – the University Stadium in South Mumbai and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) sports complex in Kandivili. The two locations are separated by approximately 30 kilometers. Mumbai with paltry infrastructure for athletics probably has the biggest amateur running movement in the country. It puzzles over why a large amateur base isn’t translating into strong presence in elite athletics. In contrast, in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city and in tune with Kerala’s strength in elite athletics, you find synthetic track at two stadiums within hailing distance of each other – the University Stadium and the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium. The latter’s track, easily visible from a city bus negotiating the adjacent road, hosted none every time I passed by. It was always an empty stadium. Roughly 15 kilometers away (no distance by Mumbai standards), at Kariavattom, is a big brand new stadium with synthetic track – Trivandrum International Stadium, legacy of the 2015 National Games held in the city. Where there used to be one Olympic sized pool open to the public years ago, there is now an entire swimming complex that has come up at Pirappancode, 22 km from Thiruvananthapuram. Kariavattom is also home to the Lakshmibai National College of Physical Education (LNCPE) which has its share of grounds for athletics, a swimming pool; it even has a velodrome for cycling. All these places are well connected by public transport. Yet they haven’t sparked a larger movement in amateur sports or pronounced desire to lead the active life. There are running and cycling groups and there is now a city marathon but it is happening so late and on a scale that is small compared to the size of some of these sports assets and how long they have been around. Just like all that you read and saw of wider world remains within the head, the idea of sport contained in these stadiums doesn’t move the city.
Unlike Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram’s puzzle would be why so much sports infrastructure hasn’t inspired an interest in sport at large. On the other hand what I found freshly added to Kerala’s depiction on hoardings of gold, marriage, real estate, home appliances and similar images of settled success; was a rash of posters showing every locality’s topper in some exam or the other. Academics remain exalted. That plus, the state’s ageing demographic profile may partly explain why the amateur running scene is still nascent. But it can only partly explain, for a lot of the participation in amateur running, even in a city like Mumbai, is from the 30 plus age group. Meanwhile, the physical energy of the state’s youth, which can easily be channelized into endurance sports, continues to be spent on political clashes and such. Perhaps more worrying is that despite its known strength in sports and athletics, what is most visible in consumerist Kerala is a steep rise in that runners’ woe – privately owned automobiles. My Sunday visit to mist laden Ponmudi included a traffic jam on top.
Hema is a piece of Soles of Cochin, living 220 km away in Thiruvananthapuram. Her best memories in running are interwoven with Soles. Post Ohio, she did the Dream Runners’ Half Marathon in Chennai, completing it in 2:38. In 2014, she did roughly six half marathons. In October 2014 she did the half marathon in Bengaluru and despite a niggling pain she picked up at its end, went on to run the full marathon at Spice Coast, Kochi. Among those she met at Soles, were Paul P.I and A.P. Kumar. Signing up for a 50 km-run at the Chennai Trail Ultra, she ran it in the company of Paul, Kumar and Mathew Mapram. “ These guys made the run interesting for me. It was my first ultra,’’ she said. She ran the full marathon at SCMM in 2015 and 2016, following up the 2016 run (5:18) with the full marathon at Dubai (5:02) and the full at Wipro Chennai Marathon (5.30). “ Surprisingly I had no problem with recovery,’’ she said. But things did go wrong at the next event, a full marathon in Delhi. It was a nice course but she didn’t get it right. “ I nearly broke down,’’ she said. In July 2016, Hema signed up for the 75km-race at Javadhu Ultra. She practised with Soles of Cochin at Kulamavu in Idukki district. At Javadhu, she finished her race within cut-off time. “ Trail running is so peaceful. The problem in cities is traffic. I am not a fast runner and by the time slow runners are finishing at events, traffic begins to hit you. Trail makes the experience very different,’’ she said.
In October 2016, she signed up for the 80km-segment of Malnad Ultra. Then Paul and Kumar called up to inform that Mathew was attempting 110 km. So why shouldn’t they? The cut-off was 24 hours. All four committed to 110km. But on the day of the ultra, Kumar reported sick, Paul was injured and Mathew deciding to focus on a marathon in Bengaluru cut his distance short at Malnad. That left Hema alone for the full 110km with none of her friends for company. Malnad is a roughly 100 km-wide corridor running north-south in Karnataka’s west, sandwiched between the state’s sea coast and the Bayaluseeme region. It spans both the western and eastern slopes of the Western Ghats. These are richly forested hills; Karnataka’s highest peak – Mullayanagiri (6316ft) – is located in this belt. “ It was an amazing place,’’ Hema said of the ultramarathon’s route. Nevertheless, it was a tough run and at sections, where the route was through forest, she had to find somebody to run along with. At 5 AM with an hour left for cut-off, she completed the assigned 110km. “ Malnad changed a lot of things for me,’’ Hema said. She was due to run the full marathon at Bengaluru soon thereafter. But she withdrew from the full marathon so that the Malnad experience would linger longer. “ Peter Van Geit of Chennai Trekking Club does a lot of trail running away from cities. After Malnad, I understood what he was talking about,’’ Hema said. In January 2017, she ran the 71km-race at Munnar Ultra. According to her, ultras allow her to be at peace. “ You are not always running, you are with nature,’’ she said. She attributed her running to her ringside view of Ramesh’s recovery from accident, the infectious passion of Soles of Cochin, the influence of Seema and her hope that if she keeps running, so would Subhash; running helps check his diabetes. The time I met her at UST Global, Hema’s family was based overseas. Her son, having graduated in physics and math from Ohio State University, now worked in the US. Her daughter was studying cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. ` It is time to make a choice again – India or US?’’ Hema said. Looking ahead, she said she would like to get a sub-five in the full marathon, eventually maybe a sub-four. She would also like to run the Boston Marathon after qualifying for it. None of this is to be confused with competitive instincts. “ There is plenty of competition at work anyway. Why bring that to running?’’ she asked.
On the way back from UST Global, I passed the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium. I asked Abhay and Shankar about Thiruvananthapuram’s empty stadiums and the fledgling dimension yet, of the city’s interest in amateur sports. They felt it may have something to do with the local tendency to attach purpose to what we do. Elite athletics are so because they come with defined purpose. Your goal is to achieve, be the best. Amateur athletics have no purpose beyond recreational value. Pursuits without a purpose and trajectory to be the best, find little empathy in the state. I thought of those posters of rank holders. Most of them will be unheard of later. But right then with ridiculously high marks they fit society’s notion of achievement. “ In none of our passions, do we follow it for what it is,’’ Abhay said. The question is frequently posed: what’s the purpose? At his office within the Jimmy George Indoor Stadium, Shankar searched for more explanations to the mental wall denying as much social encouragement for the amateur athletics movement as elite athletics. He pointed out that in the recent past even as a larger amateur movement in sport eluded Thiruvananthapuram there has been an explosion of shuttle courts. Bengaluru owes a lot of its amateur running movement to the IT wave. That city has marathons and the Sree Kanteerava Stadium hosts extended endurance runs. Did Technopark and much travelled IT workforce make a difference to amateur sports movements in Thiruvananthapuram? – I asked. Neither of them felt so. Abhay in fact, had an interesting observation: those who shift to Thiruvananthapuram do so for the city and what it represents; not to question it.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)