This article is about a family from Meghalaya and their quest to spread the running bug in the state, home to some fine natural-born runners.
North Goa and Panjim had drained the overnight bus from Mumbai. Just two people remained for last stop. Stepping off the big bus felt as empty. The Kadamba bus stand in Margao was far from crowded. Being weekend, morning and Goa, there was none of the noise and commotion typical of Indian bus depots. The pilot (Goa’s bike taxi), I hired, drove through streets still indifferent to the time. My hotel – the only one on a rather bare road in Fatorda – made me wonder for a while: what’s happening? Where’s the hustle and bustle? Without it a certain Indian normalcy went missed. Then I hushed myself to my age and stage in life. You have seen enough of that madness, haven’t you? I embraced Goa. That afternoon in Pajifond, an enterprising shop owner helped me find The Cinnamon Tree Project. Usually interviews for this blog feature an individual. This time there was a family. Like freelance journalist born in Kerala, living in Mumbai and now in Goa to meet him, Gerald Pde was a man from elsewhere. He and his wife Habari seemed to have chosen consciously in life – their children were being home-schooled and for the last two years, the family had spent winter in Goa.
Gerald was born 1974 in Shillong, Meghalaya. Along with seven other states, this part of India is generally referred to as the North-East. Connected to the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor of West Bengal, the North-East is the largest salient (elongated protrusion of a geopolitical entity) in the world. Aside from the plains of Assam, the terrain here is mostly hilly. Gerald was one of four siblings – two brothers; two sisters. His father served in the Border Security Force (BSF). His mother worked in government. He attended school in Shillong and although he never represented his school in sports, Gerald had a unique streak – even as a 7-8 year-old, he loved getting up early in the morning and going for a half hour-run. Very few people ran in Meghalaya’s capital those days. Gerald does not know from where he acquired the trait. He believes his father was into sports for the family has an old photo showing him at the finish line of a race. After school, Gerald set his mind on becoming an architect. From 1994 to 2000, he studied at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi. On completing that course, he “ joined the bandwagon’’ of students heading to the US for higher studies. He was accepted at Arizona State University. Upon completion of that course, he moved to New York (he had friends in the city) and started working there as an architect. It was there that he met his future wife – Habari Warjri; she had completed her Bachelors in Business Administration from Baruch College, New York and had just started her first job at Lehman Brothers when they met. More important, although they met in New York, Habari too hailed from Shillong. Her father worked in the Indian Foreign Service and as happens in the family of officials with transferable job, she had grown up in India and overseas. She had been in the US longer than Gerald. They got married in Peru in 2004. In 2008, both of them left New York and returned to India. Gerald set up an architecture and environment design practice in Shillong called EarthStudio. He was there for two years, then, he shifted to Delhi and tried working from there. The Delhi ambiance was not to his liking. So he moved back to Shillong.
Habari’s page on Dailymile introduces her as a runner based in Bogota, Colombia. That was one of the places her father was posted to. While studying in the US, she had been into cross country running albeit not long distance. Sporadic running continued in New York; the distance she ran never exceeded 10km in this phase. Many years later, after the birth of her daughter and she was only seven months old, Habari trained in Colombia and ran the New York City Half Marathon, completing it in 2:06. Her first full marathon happened two years after this half marathon; it was the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon in Meghalaya. When he moved to New York, Gerald revived his running. He was a member of New York Road Runners. After their work stint in New York, the India Gerald and Habari returned to, was different from the country they had known earlier. It was beginning to have a running movement. In 2010, while he was trying out Delhi as place to work from, Gerald said that he was into running but “ not in a serious way.’’ In 2011, things changed. Roughly four years after Gerald completed his architecture program from SPA, the first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM, now called Tata Mumbai Marathon / TMM) was held in India’s financial capital. By 2008, when Gerald and Habari returned to India, SCMM had settled in as an annual fixture on Mumbai’s calendar. It was the biggest event in a domestic running landscape beginning to sprout more and more events. In 2011, Gerald ran the full marathon at SCMM. He finished second in his age category completing the 42km-distance in approximately 3:23. Two months after SCMM, he ran the Tokyo Marathon with a timing of 3:03:32. He got his personal best in the discipline, the following year at SCMM, running the full marathon in 3:03:21. Since then Gerald has run SCMM every year (he has been podium finisher multiple times) and his list of races span locations ranging from Mumbai to Tokyo, Boston (twice), Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Delhi, Kolkata and Goa. Over the past two years, Gerald had been focusing on distances longer than the marathon – the ultramarathon.
That is not to say that he moved off marathons; he continues to run events like the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). Just that his natural preference was now favoring the still longer distance of the ultramarathon. “ Maybe the marathon comes across to me as a tight schedule. In ultramarathon, all that structure goes away. I no longer wear a watch while running. I run from one point to another. That process is very fulfilling for me. I find it freer and more meaningful. Compared to this, I find the marathon more commercial and providing a fixed, structured experience,’’ Gerald said. Two weeks after the 2018 TMM, which he completed in 3:14, he ran the 80km-category of the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra. He finished that in 10:15. “ I run TMM because it is like an annual pilgrimage. It is tough to secure a fast time in Mumbai given the weather, the Peddar Road gradient and the inevitable rendezvous with half marathon runners,’’ he said. In 2013, he had attempted to secure sub-three hours finish in Mumbai. But that wall of half marathon runners ensured he slowed down.
Dan Lawson is a British ultra-runner and charity worker. Winner at the European 24 Hour Championships in 2016 and a podium finisher at Spartathlon, he has also been a winner in India at races like Run the Rann, Nilgiris Ultra and Bangalore Ultra. At the last named event, he set a record for the maximum distance run in 24 hours in India – 226km. Dan Lawson is Race Director for an ultramarathon in Goa called Paradise Trails, a 101km-UTMB qualifier. The course spans a mix of Goan scenery – beach, countryside, forest, hills and villages. Ever since he started spending the winter in Goa, Gerald has liked running in the coastal state. Unlike Shillong which has caught that modern epidemic of the hills – vehicular traffic, the village roads of Goa are quieter. “ Where we live in south Goa, there is less traffic,’’ Habari said. There is also another difference. Although the hills of North East India harbor much talent in sports, runners out on the road every day is a phenomenon that is still catching up. Running in South Goa, Gerald said, he witnesses less traffic than in Shillong and more runners on the road, the latter also because Goa as tourist destination attracts plenty of recreational runners from around the world. After meeting Dan and learning about the race he oversaw (it started and ended a few minutes away from where they stayed in Goa)l Gerald decided to attempt the Paradise Trails Ultra of November 2017. It was tough. “ You are given a GPS with route laid out. You have to follow it. The route is not marked. That made it difficult. I got lost a few times,’’ Gerald said. He completed the race in 14 hours and 10 minutes. Gerald was the first to cross the finish line and having Habari and children there was a memorable moment for the family. He plans to try it again in 2018.
The longest distance Gerald had run before Paradise Trails was a 60km-run he did in Meghalaya as part of scouting a route for a race he was organizing a week before the 101km-race in Goa. In fact, aside from their own running, what makes Gerald and Habari interesting from the perspective of running in India is the work they did to promote running in Meghalaya. A hilly state, Meghalaya offers some unique attractions. To begin with, it is one of the wettest areas on the planet with Cherrapunji holding the world record for most rain in a month. The western parts of the state are at lower elevation and hence warmer; the east – including Shillong, the capital (elevation: 4908 feet) – are at higher elevation and hence cooler. According to Wikipedia, the maximum temperature in the Shillong area rarely exceeds 28 degrees Celsius. The British, who once ruled India, called Shillong “ Scotland of the East.’’ Although rain can be an issue, the rolling hills and the never too hot weather, makes this region engaging for running. However until some years ago, Meghalaya had no formally arranged large event in the sport. In 2013, as part of the state’s autumn festival, Gerald and Habari, in collaboration with state authorities, organized a Shillong Half Marathon, the first event of its kind in Meghalaya. “ It went off quite well,’’ Habari said.
This event was the seed for RUN Meghalaya, an initiative Gerald and Habari founded, wherein they raised funds to take talented runners from the state to run at city marathons elsewhere in India. Commencing with the 2013 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), they have since taken Meghalaya’s runners to the Mumbai marathon and races in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The first outing to ADHM was realized through crowd funding. Thirteen runners participated under the RUN Meghalaya initiative. Almost all of them placed in the top 10 in their respective categories with the fastest runner completing the half marathon in 1:13. According to Gerald and Habari, although they have persisted with RUN Meghalaya, there are challenges. There is for instance, noticeable gender imbalance in the region’s running culture; as yet women runners are few. Specific to RUN Meghalaya, funding remains main challenge. “ After every year, we have to start all over again,’’ Habari said. In general, finding corporate sponsors for events in India’s North-East is difficult because the region does not represent a big market. A silver lining is that government agencies assist. However governments change frequently.
The Shillong Half Marathon and later events the duo helped organize, like the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon, received some support from government. For the first edition of the Cherrapunji Marathon in 2014, there was only one runner from outside the region – Vishwanathan Jayaraman. According to Gerald, Jayaraman’s article on the event hosted on his blog, helped publicize the Cherrapunji Marathon. Although he didn’t participate in an event there, Athreya Chidambi is another runner who sampled running in Shillong. “ They have good runners,’’ he said in a later conversation with this blog in Bengaluru. By 2015, the Cherrapunji Marathon saw 1500 runners. But an event’s stature is founded on more than just scale of participation. As Habari and Gerald found out, all it takes to dent image is a shortcoming or two. For its third edition, the Cherrapunji Marathon attracted close to 1700 runners. That year – 2016 – the weather played truant. While you can’t imagine Cherrapunji without rain in the frame, rain was more than enjoyable measure on race day. “ It strained race logistics,’’ Habari said. Result – the organizers came in for a barrage of negative feedback. Runners used to events are a different breed from those who approach the activity in a more spontaneous, organic way. When the barrage of negative feedback hit them, Gerald and Habari wished there was some empathy shown for the effort that goes into organizing an event in hilly terrain amid inclement weather. They wondered if this had something to do with the half marathon and marathon reducing over time to structured, stereotypical events; promising guaranteed return on money paid. Such conditioning spares little tolerance for variables like weather, hiccups in logistics etc. It is one of the inbuilt paradoxes of sport as event. Packaged so, notion of the unpredictable as part of life – an integral part of being free and enjoying it – is leached away. According to Habari what made the feedback particularly difficult was that it was on top of their family life already squeezed by the pressures of organizing an event. “ He was always running around to get things done. We hardly got to see him,’’ she said of Gerald.
Another factor also influenced their thinking after the 2016 edition of the Cherrapunji Marathon. A race anywhere passes through multiple localities. Ideally these localities must participate and support. In a big city like Mumbai, governed by one large municipal corporation, continued sense of locality is cosmetic. It is for all practical purposes one big metro. Organizers backed by civic authorities can ensure things happen as planned everywhere along the route. That is not so in the North-East where sense of tribe and tribal ownership of terrain prevails. You have to engage with each of those constituents and get them interested in the event. Support for the Cherrapunji Marathon, Gerald and Habari felt, wasn’t uniform all along its route. Not all communities on the race’s route seemed to have bought into the idea well. They felt there was the need to reinvent the wheel – create a new model where running is again revered and its inherent joys are rediscovered. This juncture precipitated by a convergence of various factors, Habari said, was when the duo started to look at organizing an ultramarathon instead of a marathon in a place that embraces running. While they were arranging races in Meghalaya and finding runners to sponsor for races elsewhere in India, the duo had also been getting an idea of where the state’s best runners were coming from. “ Almost 90 per cent of the good runners were coming from one region – Mawkyrwat. Within that, they were mostly from two villages close to each other – Sakwang and Shngimawlein,’’ Gerald said. The reasons for this can only be speculated and range from – difficult terrain to generally active life, good running form and a diet dominated by locally grown organic red rice. Mawkyrwat liked running.
This is how the idea of the Mawkyrwat Ultra was born. The location would be a place with resident running talent; one of the aims would be to potentially open up a second economy in the form of “ running tourism’’ that can monetarily help runner families from humble backgrounds. The ultramarathon was chosen as discipline based on the belief that it’s seasoned, older participants or at the very least those weathered by nature, appeared a comparatively more serious community of runners to deal with. Three distance categories were marked – 70km, 45km and 30km. The event – largely on trails – is designed to benefit the local economy, Gerald said. Woven into the concept of the ultramarathon is the idea that runners should get a feel of life in these parts. It is hoped to be a mutually beneficial transaction with runners from outside getting a chance to run in rural Meghalaya and local runners, getting a chance to meet runners from elsewhere in India and overseas.
The inaugural edition of the Mawkyrwat Ultra was held in 2017. Among those who participated was Suresh Zimba from Darjeeling. “ The location was roughly three hours away from Shillong. It was a rustic setting with the villagers leading a simple life. We stayed with the villagers, in their houses. They took good care of us. The race route was very nice. It was mostly trail with some road. The run went through the main town as well. I participated in the 70km-category. I think about a dozen people ran in that category. Participation was higher in the other categories. Given it was the first edition, the race wasn’t well known,’’ Suresh said. As regards funding of the event, half the required amount is provided by Gerald and Habari with the rest coming from the state’s tourism department and through registration fee. The running is self-supported and the race has been certified by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA). It is the only such race in the east of India; it also offers UTMB points. The second edition of the race is due in October 2018.
Given the family’s annual move to Goa and emergent focus on other aspects of life like their children’s education, running and the events they organize, EarthStudio progressively took a back seat. “ I still work on selected projects but do not take up more than two design projects a year,’’ Gerald said. At the time of writing, Habari was helping him in some administrative aspects of the design practice. What people are and what they do in life are often mutual reflections. “ My work as an architect and environmental designer and my passion for running – they have some correlation. For example my work deals with utilizing the laws of nature to dictate design decisions – to come up with buildings that try to respond to the nature around us such as light, wind, the Sun and natural materials. Similarly over the years I have found running to appeal more to our natural selves. The more we run the more we realize how connected with nature we are – you can only push one’s running capabilities as much as nature allows you to and so the more we push the more we are humbled by it,’’ Gerald said.
Sunday evening at the Kadamba bus stand was different from Saturday morning. Working days ahead had made their presence felt. Tourists were returning to wherever they came from. Not all seemed happy to do so; the disappointment in going back to an all too familiar life showed in the facial expression and body language of some. Mercifully, freelance journalist wasn’t among those reluctantly returning. It was a smaller bus this time. Destination: Bengaluru.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Gerald and Habari in Goa and further interaction by email.)