We spoke to Ramachandra Rao, winner in his age category (70 years and above) in the half marathon for men at the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).
Much of Ramachandra Rao’s life was devoted to science.
It was so till questions about existence – traceable back to his student days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – resurfaced and whisked him off to a dozen years of quiet contemplation. As with many people who explored the puzzle of existence, Rao’s responses during our conversation were replete with the urge to be as honest as possible and doing so, delving into blasts from the past suffused with clarity about the universe. Only then does the train of reasoning behind each response line up properly. It also spawned the struggle – where are the words to describe insight as accurately as possible?
Rao, 71, is a scientist specialized in organic chemistry. He used to work with a leading multinational company in the pharmaceutical sector; in their research lab. A combination of factors triggered journey to spiritual dimension. The fine research lab he worked at progressively shut down. Subsequent assignments he took up were not sufficiently engaging. Those days, the Indian R&D environment wasn’t a match for what MNCs offered. It disappointed Rao. At the same time, questions about the meaning of existence, long unanswered came back to haunt. There was also the coincidence of means to find answers – books on spirituality for example – landing up without him seeking them out. He had suspected all along that something was not adding up in materialistic world. It seemed time to apply his scientifically trained mind to those questions.
During the time Rao lived the withdrawn phase that followed his departure from employment, he stayed near the Mahalakshmi Race Course and at Churchgate, both parts of Mumbai quite close to the annual Mumbai marathon’s course. He admits to having been aware of the event; at Churchgate he could even hear the sea of runners passing by. But he had no interest in watching the marathon. The questions in his head held no room for running right then. Rao’s phase of withdrawal eventually made his mind quieter, helped him deal with his thoughts and lightered him as a human being. The journey also elicited a physical toll. By the time he shifted to Kharghar in Navi Mumbai, sustained lack of exercise meant he couldn’t walk for long and when it came to tackling stairways, he needed a railing for support. His wife, who is a regular walker, remembered Rao’s interest in sports and athletics while he was doing research in the US. She encouraged him to recommence running. He had no running shoes. Luckily an old pair belong to his son was available in the house. It took Rao a couple of months to find his stride and rhythm. There were also other challenges to overcome. A freak accident in childhood had ensured that Rao saw little with his right eye. His vision is therefore limited. On the other hand, Indian roads – the most accessible training surface for runner in this country – tend to be uneven and the traffic on them, unpredictable. It took some time getting used to early morning runs. Running in low light is difficult for Rao and when automobile headlights shine harshly, he is easily blinded. Nevertheless, once he found his groove, a new journey began.
A soft spoken person, Rao trains in Kharghar, now a bustling township. He is a good runner. In 2014, the first time he ran the half marathon at the Mumbai marathon, he ended up third in his age category. In 2015, he improved that to second position. He was also on the podium twice (in the half marathon category), at the Satara Hill Marathon. At Kharghar, he trains five days a week. His companion on some of these training runs is triathlete Meena Barot, who lives in the same township. According to Rao, Tuesdays are kept for an easy run. On Wednesday, he runs fast “ like a tempo run, making sure I don’t exhaust myself.’’ In terms of distance, this would span 8-10 km. He does not run on Thursday. Friday, he does interval training with adequate gap between sets to rest and recover. On Saturday he does an easy run of not more than eight kilometers. He does a long run of anywhere between 15-20 km on Sunday. He also does some strength training. Running in Kharghar used to be more enjoyable; nowadays it gets occasionally taxing. “ There are factories in Taloja nearby and my trained organic chemist-nose quickly senses pollutants in the air,’’ Rao said, adding that several runner-friends have shifted their training towards the adjacent township of Belapur to escape the pollution.
Like most runners, Rao had his share of experiments with running shoes. Finding suitable shoes in India is tough; generically, the nature of shoe sales here is such that finer details get glossed over. Rao has slightly wide feet with requirement for a large toe box. A perfect fit eluded him. Then four to five years ago, he began trying barefoot-running. The transition was both testing and time consuming. “ You have to be patient,’’ Rao said. Navi Mumbai runners, Surya and Shyam Sunder, introduced him to Vibram’s collection of minimalist footwear. It worked well for Rao. Even the old back pain he had, subsided. Then, a new problem emerged. Kharghar has relatively wide, straight roads and for hill running, there is that lovely road leading all the way up Kharghar Hill. The hill road, much valued by runners to train on, has fallen into a state of disrepair. Having found his ideal footwear for running in Vibram’s collection, Rao’s disappointment with the hill road’s condition and the poor surfacing of Indian roads in general, was pronounced. Uneven surface and lose gravel aggravate the pace of wear and tear on runner’s footwear; they also poke through soles, hurt runner’s feet, cause twists and such injuries. Injury has been a recurrent issue in Rao’s running, revived in his years as senior citizen. Rao does not participate in many events. Twice, in 2016 and 2017, he registered for the Mumbai marathon but could not run because of injury.
His passage to the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) started with gradual recovery from the last major injury, sustained in 2017. With injuries laying him low in 2016 and 2017, he had a technical problem to overcome – he had no valid timing certificate to submit for eligibility to register at TMM. To get one, he first participated in a half marathon at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) sponsored by Hindustan Times. He finished that run in 2:17. He applied for TMM and was accepted; his designated holding area at the start line of the race, was `E.’ From past experience at the Mumbai marathon, Rao knew how holding areas lower down the alphabetic order can be. You risk getting trapped behind a wall of runners. There is also much pushing and jostling, something he prefers to avoid, given age and limited vision. So in the days that followed he ran another half marathon at BKC, this time organized by the Indian Navy, covering the distance in 2:09. Then he requested the managers at TMM, if this new timing certificate could be considered when allotting holding area. To his delight, they accommodated his request. He graduated to `D.’
Race day was smooth for Rao except for some delay in accessing his first dose of hydration. TMM’s half marathon starts on the road along Worli sea-face. It then traverses up and down the massive bridge across the sea – popularly called Sea Link – before proceeding through Worli and Haji Ali to South Mumbai. The first aid station Rao passed by on the Sea Link was yet to be manned. At the second one, volunteers were just unpacking cartons of bottled water. In the hurry to access a sip, his limited vision ensured that he banged into one of the volunteers. It left Rao with a cut on his lip. From aid stations elsewhere on the course he availed two to three packs of oral rehydration solution. “ I need these replenishments; they are important for my running,’’ Rao said. He finished the half marathon discipline at 2018 TMM in 2:02:01, placing first in his age category (70 years and above). Seven years earlier and younger in age by as much, he had participated in his first running event – the Pune Half Marathon of November 2011. There, he had completed the distance in 2:06.
“ It is strange, the happiness you get from the physical exertion of running and the happiness you get from the wakefulness that follows meditation – they feel similar,’’ he said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)