This article is on Lourdes Irudaya Bosco, who works with Indian Railways and is among Chennai’s senior runners. He grew up in the neighborhood of the city’s Loyola College, studied there, trained on its running track and continues to author his life in running with that track at its center. Into running since 1985, Bosco also trains others.
For Lourdes Irudaya Bosco sport was sole option.
Born December 1967 at Nungambakkam in Chennai, the youngest child of a teacher-couple, he had that one problem which usually spells calamity in India – Bosco was weak in studies. He studied at St Joseph’s School in Nungambakkam and later at Santhome Higher Secondary School. At the latter, during his tenth standard exams, he failed in a couple of subjects. Eventually clearing matriculation, he did his eleventh and twelfth grades privately. Bosco used to play a lot of football. By the time he was nudging college that interest in sport was all he had to shape his future.
Bosco looked up to his elder brother, Maria Xavier. The latter had commenced a snack bar business, where Bosco worked. It was a struggling enterprise. Amid his challenges on the business front, big brother also realized that Bosco was desperate for something to latch on to for rudder in life. Maria Xavier and his friend Cyril took Bosco to meet Nedunchezhiyan, a former national level athlete in the 800m. Nedunchezhiyan in turn introduced them to Sathoor, coach at Chennai-based athletics outfit: Star Track Club. With Star, Bosco began running 5000m, 10,000m and cross country races. Training sessions were at the 400m-track of Loyola College and at the local YMCA.
Maria Xavier was into karate. Along with his friend Philip Francis, Maria Xavier used to go for daily runs. The duo allowed Bosco to accompany them on these extended runs, covering a fair amount of distance. That was when Bosco discovered that he liked long distance running. Star Track Club had groomed him in middle distance running. Those days, distances longer than middle distance, weren’t as popular as today. Moving into long distance running typically entailed personal journey. After completing his stint at Star Track Club, Bosco began training individually. His brother stood by him. “ The level I reached in sport is only because of my brother,’’ Bosco said. They evolved their own training program. Bosco trotted behind his brother on his bicycle. That way they covered 30-40 km. For three crucial years, from 1985 to 1988, Maria Xavier helped keep the flame of distance running alive in his younger brother.
Bosco joined Loyola College to do his BA. As you talk to him, you realize that Loyola College means a lot to him. According to Bosco, Satyaseelan, Physical Education Director at Loyola College, offered him support and guidance including use of the college ground for training. Bosco still stays in the neighborhood of Loyola College. Having become a regular fixture at the college’s running track he now trains others there. “ I am thankful to this college,’’ Bosco said. Loyola was also source of other memories. A gentleman called Shivdevan, used to frequent the Loyola premises for walks. He noticed Bosco training regularly. He became a supporter of the upcoming athlete, sponsoring his shoes. Also sponsoring shoes was Rajkumar Subramaniam of Chrompet Cheetah Runners. Chinnadurai, Director of Panimalar Engineering College, who was yet another benefactor, supported Bosco for two years, letting him access nutritious food for his running. The rest of the support came from his brother (Maria Xavier now runs a food products business in Puducherry).
In 1989 Bosco ran his first full marathon, the YMCA Madurai Marathon. He finished in sixth position with a timing of 3:13. By the Pune International Marathon of 1989, he had that down to 2:42:15. Maria Xavier’s faith in his brother was paying off; Bosco the distance runner had arrived. Around this time two other things happened – Bosco began representing the state at long distance (half marathon, full marathon) and cross-country running events; from 1991 to 1993 he participated in distance running events as an invitee of the Indian Railways. A secure future and employment was priority. Indeed, Bosco’s journey into sport had been partly fueled by his lack of other options to sculpt a life. He tried to join the army. Although good athlete with track record to show, he was over-age to be army recruit. In January 1994, having finished his BA course but ahead of giving his exams, Bosco joined Indian Railways. There he has remained since. Four years after securing employment, another change happened. From 1985 to 1998, he used to train in shoes but run at events, barefoot. Following new rules by sport administrators in India, Bosco’s barefoot-running at events, ended. “ I used to train in shoes. It took a little while getting used to racing in shoes. Overall, the transition wasn’t a big problem,’’ he said.
Once Bosco joined Railways, he came under the wings of coach, H.K. Seetharama, a former army person and silver medalist at the Asian Games. Seetharama, who hails from Shimoga, was the first proper coach in Bosco’s life. “ He guided me. I learnt to be disciplined from him. That is how I improved,’’ Bosco said. The young runner was introduced to training camps in Mysore and Ooty. There were around 15 people, including women, in the distance running team of Southern Railways, spanning middle distance to marathon. The weeks went by in a blur. It was the sort of schedule Bosco had long wanted. Mondays were typically reserved for pace running. Tuesdays in Chennai, he ran on the city’s flyover, they being the best way to mimic hill running in urban landscape. Wednesdays he spent running on the track. Thursdays he went to run on the beach; he ran on varying textures of sand ranging from sea shore to beach sand. Friday was devoted to speed running. Saturdays were kept for long, endurance runs. On Sunday, he rested. Again, within this schedule, broadly speaking – mornings were spent running on the road while evening usually found him doing track work-out at Loyola College. Bosco’s narration was littered with many names that he said he owed much in life to. There were his “ advisors’’ on the Loyola track: Ranjith Narayanan (former 100m runner) and M.E. Rajasekhar (former 110m hurdler); there was John Britto, a former Loyola student whom he included among supporters, there was Nandakumar,…it was a long list.
Someone who has been running for long needs milestones revisited to recollect and remember. Bosco has been running since 1985. At his house not far from the boundary walls of Loyola College, he sat with a fat file of certificates accumulated over the years. For this author, newcomer to running (and still struggling with it) it was like a dive into running’s history in India; not the really old chapters but old enough given a robust running movement in India is still quite nascent. The certificates provided data and timings; Bosco’s nature made sure he remembered his benefactors. Strung between certificates and supporters, Bosco’s story continued. Before joining the Railways, Bosco used to run several marathons a year. After joining the Railways that all-out participation was replaced with more judiciously chosen events. Slowly over the years, podium finishes accumulated. There were certificates from the Mavana Sugars Marathon and podium finishes from Kaveri Trail Marathon, Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM; now Tata Mumbai Marathon), Allahabad Marathon, Chennai Marathon and Hyderabad Marathon. As Bosco aged and slowed down to that extent, the podium finishes have gradually shifted from open category to podium position within age category. His personal best in the full marathon was around 2:30. And while he may have slowed down over the years, he can still pull off a mean timing. The week before I met him in Chennai, at the 2017 Coimbatore Half Marathon, Bosco had finished second in his age category with a timing of 1:31.
Of all the events he has participated in, one event has stayed close to his heart. On August 8, 1998, he ran at the Fourth National Travancore Marathon & Track Meet in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He finished the full marathon in 2:34:50 to secure second place. He got Rs 50,000 as prize money. Twenty days later that money helped him fund the expenses of his wedding. On August 28 that year, he married Jenacious Priya; they have a son Andrew Jose. Then there are the amusing side stories: once he mistook reference to ` cross-country’ in the advertisement for an outstation event to mean running and landed up ready to run. He was taping his feet to help it tackle cross-country terrain when the organizers asked him what he was doing. That was when runner realized what he had walked into – it was a cross-country bicycle race. He borrowed a cycle and completed the event, finishing in fourteenth place. The organizers gave him Rs 150 to cover his travel expense to the venue and back.
In his long career in running, Bosco has run several marathons in sub-2:45 timing. When I met him, he said that he was now in the realm of three hours and above. As age and experience mount, he has been playing the role of coach. During 2014-2015, he was a fitness trainer with Reebok, training people on Saturday and Sunday. Talking to Lourdes Irudaya Bosco you notice the subtle yet major questions faced in runner’s life. For instance, there was a phase long ago when recommendation was strong that Bosco specialize in middle distances like the 1500m. Reason – he ran with long strides. That didn’t happen because for the most part he trained alone. A significant factor for this training style was his closeness to his family, something you sense in the many years he has stayed in the familiar vicinity of Loyola College and the respect and affection he showed his brother. For person courting solitude to train, there is rarely coach at hand to effect transition and transformation. So for most part Bosco trained himself; he trained for what he liked – long distance running. That gift of long stride, sensible perhaps to capitalize on in runner’s younger years, was overlooked. Then there is Bosco with his wealth of running in Chennai as chronicler of a city’s changing ambiance in running; it’s changing face. “ When I started running, there were very few distance runners out on Chennai roads. Now that number has risen. There are also many running clubs, events and competitions. In the years gone by, there would be an event once every three months or so. In all, Chennai would have less than five races a year. Now there is a race almost every week, there is prize money too,’’ Bosco said. That is good but it also needs a word of caution as regards indiscriminate participation.
Two things are very important for runner, according to Bosco – rest and diet. “ There is no point in continuously training and running; you spoil the body doing so,’’ he said. What worries however, is the state of Indian roads; Chennai’s roads included. “ In 1985, the roads were relatively free of traffic. Early morning runs were easy, enjoyable affairs,’’ Bosco said. Thanks to exploding vehicular traffic and congestion, veteran runners like Bosco are now scarred warriors. “ Now, that early morning enjoyment of running has faded. You cope with pollution and heat,’’ Bosco said. Over the years, he has endured burning eyes and dust in the air. In his effort to escape traffic and run peacefully, his morning runs have been starting earlier and earlier. He goes to sleep at 11 PM and sometimes wakes up at 2 AM to train. Traffic is a problem unraveling across Indian cities for runners and cyclists; they are shifting to being the moving shadows of pre-dawn hours in cities still lit by streetlights. Sunshine has become traffic’s privilege to enjoy.
A couple of other points also stood out in the conversation. Like many runners – rank amateurs and those from the elite category – Bosco envied the runners from India’s defence forces. They have discipline, good coaches, proper training and proper diet. They also have access to high altitude training camps, something every athlete wishing to push limits aspires for. “ They get to focus on what they wish to do,’’ Bosco said. That was him looking back on the years gone by and commenting. From that same sweeping gaze, which he is entitled to given his experience of three decades plus in running, he also suggested that races and running events make it standard practice to recognize and encourage the top ten finishers in every age category. Don’t cut off encouragement at the top three or top four-level; encourage some more – he felt that makes sense.
Courtesy a little confusion over where exactly Bosco’s house was in Nungambakkam and my decision to walk and explore my way to the venue of our meeting, our chat had begun a bit later than scheduled. Past 6 PM, there were phone calls landing up every ten minutes or so from trainees on Loyola’s track, seeking instructions from their coach. Bosco guided them on the phone extracting that much more time to spend with me. Around 6.40 PM or so, I could sense we had probably reached breaking point; those trainees needed their coach on the track. Bosco dropped me off on the main road. I headed for a quiet dinner at Besant Nagar beach; he headed to the running track at Loyola.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)