TRANSFORMED

Girish Bindra (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A logistics business keeps you on your toes.

You must ensure your vehicles are in good shape and available to haul cargo; find cargo, make sure the cargo is delivered on time and manage the cargo transit environment with its plethora of paper work, which in India – land of forms, taxes and toll plazas by the dozen, is never easy. Finally, there is that vigil over one’s vehicles being on Indian roads and surviving the traffic. Logistics is not for the faint of heart. That modern work place – the smartphone – didn’t spare Girish Bindra even in the depths of a 48 hour-stadium run. Transporter by profession, he is currently among Mumbai’s leading ultramarathon runners. “ On the second morning of that stadium run, I was answering calls from work,’’ he recalled. We were at a coffee shop in Chembur, not far from his office and its modest fleet of trucks and trailers plying the roads of western India. It was quiet in the café compared to the busy road outside. The road led to Navi Mumbai and destinations like Pune, Goa and Bengaluru beyond.

From the Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Most runners have a story, one that harks of transformation. Girish too has one. More than just a story, for anyone who has run in Mumbai these past few years and crossed paths with him somewhere on the road, it is a small movie of transformation playing out in front of you. In appearance, Girish is now an absolutely fit person. He reminds of a triathlete, which he isn’t yet. Two to three years ago, he was visibly on the heavy side. Somewhere in the time elapsed since, his persistent physical activity saw him get past that point of no return for fat to continue sticking around. He transformed to athletic build. The Girish of old was actually heavier than the Girish we met for the first time on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a couple of years ago. Born October 1973 in Mumbai, Girish is the middle child among three siblings. The family lived in the Mumbai suburb of Sion. “ My father ran a transport business. He is now 78 years old. He is my inspiration. Both my parents are diabetic. For the last forty years, they have lived a simple life and stuck to their daily walking,’’ Girish said. He attended school at AMK Premier High School in Sion, studied commerce at Podar College in Dadar and pursued his cost accountancy and chartered accountancy. Life nudged him towards taking over his father’s business, which he eventually did; merging it with a transport business he himself founded to merit the fleet size he managed when we met him. Apart from playing cricket in college and being good enough to be included in the Podar College-team twice, Girish had no other involvement in sports. In 1997, he did what many in India do – he went in for an arranged marriage. Five years later, he was a well looked after-93 kilos. Concerned, in 2002, he joined a gym. He was regular with his work-outs there. The main goal was to cut down weight. But 11 years ago, in 2006, a crucial twist happened in Girish Bindra’s life.

Girish with his elder son, Hriday, at Matheran in 2003 (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Girish was at his sister’s place in Ahmedabad, when for the first time ever, he got convulsions. In the course of one night, he got three epileptic seizures. The subsequent medical investigation revealed cysts in the brain and neurocysticercosis, a major cause of acquired epilepsy. It is a serious condition. Neurocysticercosis is a form of cysticercosis, a parasitic infection. The onset of the infection was attributed to excessive intake of salads. Doctors advised strict rest and no work-out at the gym, for one year. Every day, Girish had to take 20-22 tablets. “ I was quite depressed,’’ he said. The changed lifestyle was unbearable. He had come to enjoy his daily work-outs at the gym. He used to do weight training and exercises for cardiovascular fitness. To compensate for the lack of gym visits, Girish started going for walks at Five Gardens in Matunga. One of the oldest instances of planned urban development in Mumbai; it is an area now popular with walkers and runners. During his days of walking there, Girish inevitably came across the specter of others running. “ I thought why not give it a try,’’ he said. Slowly, he progressed from walking to a bit of running. But he got tired easily. “ Three hundred to four hundred meters of running and I would be a panting mess,’’ Girish said. Improvement was gradual. In six to eight months, he reached the stage where he could jog 8-10 kilometers. Running and its accompanying gift of endorphins helped Girish combat his depression. In turn that enhanced the pace and quality of his recovery from neurocysticercosis. His doctor – Dr Ramesh Patankar – was happy with the progress, Girish said. In retrospect, a seemingly insignificant factor may have also helped. Many of us commit the mistake of focusing excessively on the upper body while working out. That is the physical landscape of our vanity. The legs are typically forgotten. Girish didn’t do that. At the gym, he had invested effort in exercising his legs too. So when the time to run came, his legs were in a position to cope with the strain. Girish’s interest in running gathered momentum. The seizures had happened in 2006. By 2009, Girish was off medication. By 2010, he was also free of the half yearly medical check-ups doctors wanted him to do. In between, in 2008, he registered for the half marathon segment of the 2009 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), now called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

From the 2016 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

“ That run was my first half marathon. It was the most I had run till then. I found it tough. I finished in two hours, 55 minutes. However notwithstanding the difficulty, I enjoyed it very much. It was a liberating experience, I felt very positive,’’ Girish said. There was no looking back after that. Girish began running regularly. He kept up his regular visits to the gym too. In 2012, he signed up on Facebook to be part of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the biggest runners’ groups in the city. The introduction came through Runners for Life (RFL); MRR had a relay on a five kilometer-route in Navi Mumbai, which Girish subsequently went for. He liked the outfit and became a regular on their practice runs. Through the network of friends he gained at MRR, his got introduced to more events in running. In 2013, he registered for his first full marathon, signing up for that year’s Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), an event on Mumbai’s periphery loved by runners for the fervor and scale of its cheering. In as much as VVMM greets you with infectious cheering, it tends to be a hot and humid race. The 2013 edition was notoriously hot and humid. Girish got cramps after 30 kilometers and had to walk the rest. He finished in five hours 27 minutes. As paradigm change from the half marathon, Girish said, he had no difficulty embracing the full marathon. “ I genuinely like to run. So for me, it was an invitation to run more, do more of something that I anyway enjoy doing,’’ he said.

At the 2017 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

At the 2017 Tarblazers Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

According to Girish, since 2012, he has participated in more than 45 half marathons and 11 full marathons, including the well-known races in Mumbai, Vasai and Hyderabad. His best timing in the half marathon was 1:35; in the full it was 3:43. It doesn’t stop at these established distances. Girish had done 20-25 races over the 10 kilometers-distance; his personal best was 43 minutes, eight seconds. He had also done 12 ultramarathons, including those spanning distances of 75 kilometers and 100 kilometers. He had two 12 hour-stadium runs (one each in Mumbai and Hyderabad) and two 24 hour-stadium runs (Bengaluru and Mumbai) under his belt. The 2016 24 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, where he placed second covering 182.8 kilometers, had qualified him for the world 24-hour endurance championship due in Ireland in 2017. He got to know of his qualifying only much later and so could not go. However in 2017, he achieved another personal milestone, ending fifth in the 48 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, covering 252.8 kilometers. This repertoire, spanning 10 kilometers to ultramarathons and 48 hour-stadium runs, can be found among amateur runners but it is not something people persevere to retain. Most gravitate towards a chosen discipline or two. Girish has no such plans yet. “ I love speed as well as mileage. Whatever it is, I work to give it my best. I am a fighter in life. I have seen what I went through; there was that medical condition, I also overcame financial difficulties in my business. I don’t want to repent not having tried anything,’’ he said.

It is important to note that Girish’s journey in running never had a coach in it, save four months of training he did with Raj Vadgama. For someone navigating his route by himself, Girish has done remarkably well. He reads up on running. He listens to his body and appears to have struck a healthy balance between actual running and strengthening his body. At the time of talking to us, his weekly mix was approximately three days of running and four days in the gym. He used to cycle but has since given up on cross-training; a judicious balance between running and working out was his mantra for continuing the journey. “ The strengthening exercises and stretching I do at the gym have helped me,’’ he said. His recovery after strenuous events is good. At the time we met him, Girish was not following any special diet. He liked his food as tasty and wholesome as they came. The largely self-taught runner had also doled out training plans and tips on training to his friends in the sport. “ It gives me immense pleasure to be of use like that,’’ Girish said.

At the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

With Kiranpal Singh Dhody at the 2016 Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Chittu Shetty, 50 years old in 2017, had met Girish through MRR’s practice runs. The two used to pass each other while running on the road. Chittu was always doing long runs and Girish had been noticing it. When the two got talking, Girish offered advice. “ He is a very approachable person; somebody who is willing to help. He gave me tips on resting and improving my speed. I followed it and my performance in the half marathon improved. I used to finish running 21 kilometers in 2:15 or so. I was able to haul that up to 1:53. Similarly in the full marathon, he gave me tips like the right stage to have an energy gel. My personal best in the full is now 4:23,’’ Chittu said, when contacted. MRR runs were the context to meet Girish, for Ritu Kudal too. As of 2017, she had been running for six years. For the first four years or so, when Ritu stayed focused on the half marathon, Girish provided her periodic tips on improving performance. In 2016, she decided to train for the full marathon segment of the 2017 SCMM (now TMM). That needed a whole plan and Girish provided her with a comprehensive training plan, starting in July-August 2016 and leading up to the race in January 2017. “ It was a good plan; one that really helped me. I finished strongly and did not suffer any cramps,’’ Ritu said. Her opinion of Girish was similar to Chittu’s. “ He is a very down to earth person, very grounded,’’ she said.

For Girish, quality of training matters more than quantity. The number of days in a week that he actually runs remains pretty much the same; it hasn’t altered despite portfolio of disciplines ranging from ten kilometers to the ultramarathon. Within that, intensity and mileage may go up depending on whether he is training for a ten kilometer-run, a half marathon or a full marathon. During the course of a regular week, he can be usually seen doing hill work-out every Wednesday near Mount Mary’s Baslica in Bandra, speed intervals every Friday at Five Gardens or on the Eastern Express Highway and long runs of 20-30 kilometers every Sunday, commenced either at Shivaji Park or Nariman Point. Not long before we met him, Girish completed his course in marathon training from Exercise Science Academy (ESA), Mumbai. Officially therefore, he is now a certified trainer. It is a line of work that he would like to grow. Japanese athletic equipment manufacturer, Asics, is set to start its running club in Mumbai from October 2017. Girish said that he has been selected to work with them as a coach.

Latter half of the 2017 24 hour- stadium run in Mumbai; feet covered in blisters, younger son Sahaj for company (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

In terms of races ahead, Girish had registered for the 2018 Comrades in South Africa. He admitted that work pressure denied him the chance to travel and run at various locations, he would otherwise love to. A destination like Ladakh for instance, requires runner to include a proper acclimatization schedule. Many days away from work is tough for transporter juggling the responsibilities that go with trucks heading this way and that. Well supported runs at easily accessed locations, at altitudes not drastically different from Mumbai’s, are therefore easier to handle. But one wish still defies this time constraint authored by business – at some point he would like to attempt Badwater Ultramarathon in the US.

For all the personal supervision Girish must do in his business, he maintained some clear switch-off points in his daily work schedule. His running is always in the morning. For regular runs, he is up at five in the morning. On days of long training runs, he is up at 3.30-4AM. After his running, he heads to work. Every evening he heads from office in Chembur to his gym in the same suburb. By about 7.30-8PM, he makes sure he is home for time with his family. Girish has two sons. The eldest, he said is creatively inclined. Except Girish, nobody from his family is into running. In much of the narrative about his running, that world and the world of his family don’t overlap. However, during the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, his wife, Rashmi came to see it and after Girish developed a bad case of blisters on his feet, which reduced him to walking, his younger son joined him on the 400 meter-track, keeping him company for some of the mercilessly repeating loops. “ That felt good,’’ Girish said.

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

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