Lieutenant Colonel Sundaresan Renganathan (Retd) set out to make his fiftieth birthday different and meaningful. This is his story.
Towards the finish line of the Western Naval Command Navy Half Marathon on November 19, 2017, two siblings ran side by side the last kilometer of their respective runs.
Saroja Narasimhan was completing her 10 km-race while her brother Sundaresan Renganathan, a retired army officer, was finishing his fiftieth marathon in fifty weeks with just that day between him and his fiftieth birthday.
Age is usually treated as just another number. But fifty has a special ring to it. For Sundaresan, 50 was sufficient reason to do something. “The thought that came to my mind was – why not run 50 marathons in 50 weeks and conclude it just before I turn 50?” he said.
On November 19, 2017, Sundaresan was up by 1 AM at his house in Kharghar, one of the prominent townships of Navi Mumbai. Given the event he was running was a half marathon organized by the Western Naval Command, it became essential that he run a half marathon in advance so that his day’s run would measure up to a full. Sundaresan’s run therefore started at 3 AM. He had the company of a few runners, who volunteered to run the distance from Navi Mumbai’s Vashi to Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, the starting point of the navy half marathon.
Apart from Saroja, many of his family members, friends and batch mates from the army turned up to cheer him at the finish line.
“What can I say? He is my mentor. It’s great to run with your guru. He is my baby brother but in running he is my motivator and my guru,” Saroja said. Now 61 years old, she was nudged into running at the age of 58, by Sundaresan.
The idea of being a runner, reached Sundaresan late. While in the army, for 13 years he was posted to Jammu & Kashmir with stints in Siachen, Poonch, Doda and Srinagar. There was adequate trudging up and down the mountains that served him as endurance training. Amid this, over 1500 kilometres away in Mumbai, in 2004, the Mumbai Marathon, sponsored by Standard Chartered bank, made its debut. Sundaresan was posted at Pathankot then. His sister-in-law called him to tell him about Mumbai Marathon. “The idea got into my head,” Sundaresan said of how his running started.
Born 1967 in a family of six siblings, Sundaresan was not actively involved in competitive sports in his schooling days at AFAC School in Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai. Following school, he joined SIES College to secure a degree in chemistry. He was into sports including some bit of running in a rather informal way, nothing competitive ever.
While many of his classmates were making furious attempts at going overseas, mainly the U.S., to pursue further studies, Sundaresan, readied himself to join the armed forces. “During my college years I was active in NCC and I was sure that I wanted to join the army,” he said. He was commissioned into the Rajput Regiment, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army. There, he stayed for 23 years, before seeking voluntary retirement as Lieutenant Colonel.
For much of his years in service, active participation in any official sport was not possible but the accent on fitness was strong. In 2008, he got posted to Mumbai. Given residence in South Mumbai’s Colaba there could not have been more appropriate moment and location to start running. Sundaresan registered for the 2009 Mumbai Marathon to run his first timed half marathon. That trend continued into 2010’s Mumbai Marathon as well. Soon after that he wanted to move into the full marathon and was aiming to run the full marathon at the 2011 edition of Mumbai Marathon. But his initiation into the full happened in 2010 September when he ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon. This was followed by another full marathon in December, the Sabarmati Marathon.
In 2010, he chanced upon Amit Sheth’s book, Dare to Run, on running the Comrades in South Africa and immediately decided to attempt this iconic ultramarathon. Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon and now it’s biggest. At present, nearly 20,000 people run this ultramarathon every year. They come from different countries. The race alternates every year between uphill and downhill with the former measuring 87 km and the latter, 89 km. Founded as a war memorial, over time Comrades has acquired the reputation of being a fantastic event, remembered for the bonhomie, crowd support and cheering.
In 2012, Sundaresan retired from the army. Jobs in the private sector that came his way were primarily for heading security. He worked for ITC Grand Central Hotel, Panoramic Group and had a short but tight stint at the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) in connection with the T 20 World Cup and IPL 2016. During these years, he never let go of his desire to run Comrades and registered for the 2016 edition of the run. This edition was the downhill version.
To get the final confirmation for the run he had to secure sub-five hour timing in the marathon. For someone who was running the marathon in excess of five hours, he had to first focus on sub-five hour timing. He eventually achieved it at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon where he finished 42.2 kilometers in 4:36:49.
“I took tips from many of the runners who had attempted Comrades. Satish Gujaran was one of them. But I did not have a structured training program,” he said. Satish, an ultrarunner will be attempting his ninth consecutive Comrades in June of 2018.
Some amount of training was already behind Sundaresan by the time he finished the 2016 Mumbai Marathon. From February to April of 2016, he was tied up with work, as part of his assignment for BCCI, for T20 cricket World Cup followed by IPL 2016 season which runs through April and May of every year.
Heading security, he was required to travel to various destinations where the teams were playing. “I used to get up at 2 AM to do my running,” he said. During his hotel stays he did something unusual. He would enter the hotel’s swimming pool not to swim but to run the length of the pool. “I did all of two long runs. One of 54 km and the other of 56 km in February and March,” he said.
Sundaresan says he enjoyed Comrades thoroughly. According to him, it is a “should go” event for ultramarathoners. “It’s a fun event but yes one should go prepared,” he said. He completed the run with a timing of 11:52:54 hours, within the final cut-off of 12 hours.
Five months before his Comrades attempt, Sundaresan had already discussed the idea of running 50 marathons in 50 weeks with a couple of runner friends.
Once back from South Africa, he started developing his plan, which included listing out all running events through the year across the country and accounting for the weeks when there would be no marathon events especially during the summer months.
Funding was a major requirement and Sundaresan realized that he would have to dip into his earnings. Once family (wife and daughter) and siblings’ approval was sought he went about diligently writing to companies including sporting entities to seek funds. “I wrote to many companies and also to some sports companies. Nobody responded positively,” he said. After six marathons, Global Group of Companies agreed to pick up his air fare for travel to marathons across the country.
Alongside, he also thought of running for a cause – raising funds for the families of martyred soldiers. His endeavor got a name thereby – Run with a Soldier, Run for a Soldier. The cause of his run brought in some incentives. At some running events, organizers waived off his registration fee and also offered accommodation.
He embarked upon his run on December 11, 2016 with the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon. For the next 49 weeks, Sundaresan was crisscrossing the country to run marathons where marathons were available or running two half marathons where the event was a half marathon.
Sundaresan traveled to various destinations to run his marathons – Kargil, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Guwahati, Dehradun, Sikkim, Manipur, Rookee, Raipur, Matheran, Kochi, Saputara and Shimla among others. The aim was to cover as many states as possible.
“Fifty weeks is a huge time period. Anything could have gone wrong during this period. Thankfully, family support was superb,” says Sundaresan, who often left on Friday for his outstation marathons and returned on Monday, missing weekend with family.
During these weeks of running, Sundaresan experienced two setbacks. On April 20, 2017, he lost his father. “It was a Thursday and on Friday I was scheduled to leave for Guwahati for the twentieth marathon on Sunday, April 23. That evening after the cremation was completed, the extended family came together to goad him to go for his run and his mother was duly informed. “She told me, go and run. Your father’s blessings will be with you,” Sundaresan said.
The second setback came during the 44th week when he woke up with viral fever. Slated to leave for Pune, he had to cancel his run and also had to skip the next week’s marathon at Surat. Over the next two weeks he decided to run four marathons to cover up the loss of the previous two weeks.
He rates his best marathon to be the one in Sikkim in May, when the army went all out to make arrangements for the run from Changu Lake to Gangtok. “There was no organized run in Sikkim. But I chose to run here to get a break from running in in the May heat,” he said. India’s first blade runner Major D.P. Singh, retired army officer, ran with him a distance of about 25 km.
Among the running events he went to, he rates the Dream Runners’ Half Marathon of 2017 held in Chennai as the best half marathon event. Of course, he had to run a half marathon before the event to make it a full marathon. “I started running from Valsaravakkam at 2:30 AM and then joined the starting line of the half marathon,” he said. The distance from Valsaravakkam to the starting line is 18 km and he covered the balance 3 km running around at the start point. The toughest marathon was the Tuffman Shimla Trail Marathon where the entire route was trail with good amount of elevation. One of those who had a ringside view of Sundaresan’s project was Dhaval Ajmera, Executive Sous Chef at ITC Grand Central. “When I met Lt Col Sundaresan, who was the head of security at ITC Grand Central, I realized that he was into running. I was already into running. We started running together. I was quite comfortable and it was great fun running together. Even after he quit his job at ITC and moved out to another job, we continued running together. He told me about his plan to run 50 marathons in 50 weeks. I have been able to help him to some extent. I ran with him some distances in couple of his marathons, including the final one at Navy Half Marathon. He was quite dedicated to the cause of his run,’’ Dhaval said.
In the initial weeks of the 50 marathons in 50 weeks-challenge, Sundaresan added a couple of short practice runs in between his marathons. But as the weeks went by he dropped it to a single run and finally gave up running for practice. Instead he focused on strengthening and stretching, which, he believes, stood him in good stead over the 50 weeks. He did not sustain any injury. Averting injury was high on his priorities. He made sure he ran slowly and at events, never more than the marathon distance he was required to meet. He was assailed by cramps only in two of his marathons – one at Matheran, the other was the navy half marathon.
Sundaresan was able to raise Rs 27 lakh for martyred soldiers. Twenty seven families were chosen to be given one lakh rupees (Rs 100,000) each. “ The money is in the process of being disbursed,” he said. The pattern used for raising funds and disbursing them was simple. Given Global Group of Companies was the main sponsor, Global Foundation became the temporary repository of funds raised. They would then make out the payment as required to Sundaresan, for onward disbursement. The beneficiaries – families of martyred soldiers – were identified with the help of the army; Sundaresan contacted the commanders of the units he had served with for the same. Most of the 27 families identified had members – since martyred – serving with the Rajput Regiment. A few are connected to Rashtriya Rifles.
At the finish line of the final marathon at Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, Sundaresan felt happy that the project had ended smoothly. “The credit for this goes to my army training,” he said.
(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Sundaresan Renganathan. Except for the first photo, all the other photos used herein were downloaded from Sundaresan’s Facebook page and used with his permission.)