We speak to Athreya Chidambi, runner of multiple distance categories but above all, a lover of trails.
The Auroville Marathon is a much loved event in the Indian calendar for amateur running. It is mostly on trails and unpaved roads. What makes it special is also something else. There is no timing chip. It is a minor difference from the regular running event but one that is profound if you are the sort declining life with blinds. Removing timing chip from the frame restores to running dimensions missed at races. Every year the Auroville Marathon gets its faithful seeking a paradigm apart from the killer competition of Indian cities. “ Auroville is one marathon I try to do every year,’’ the wiry, bearded man said. The fragility of his view was evident as he spoke. Right there in the café on Bengaluru’s MG Road, the table next to us was resonant with high decibel conversation of selling some product, moving consignments around and clinching deals before competition did. Can you be happy these days, doing something just for the love of it; without beating somebody? Good question.
We play to win. In world dominated by the brain’s analytical and engineering faculties (a quality we increasingly bring to sport too), Athreya Chidambi aspired for a career in art. He was born in 1978 in Bengaluru, growing up thereafter in the city. As a school student he was active in sports – mainly basketball and football – but constant companion all along, was drawing and sketching. His father worked as a management consultant; his mother taught at the same school Athreya attended – Mallya Aditi. Following school, he joined Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat in the city to do a foundation course in art. But that inevitable child of the Indian rat race – the question: what employment prospects will you have? – wormed its way into his environment. None in his family had studied art and while successful artists exist, a career in art has never been without its share of ups and downs. Indian imagination on the other hand values security. So a tweak was made. He shifted to Melbourne in Australia to do a course in multimedia; that subject seemed safer bet for livelihood than pure art. However, his return to India coincided with the dotcom bust. “ It took a while to get a job,’’ Athreya said laughing. When it came, it was with a company called Thought Gun. He worked there for about a year and then joined Rediff.com in Mumbai as a web designer. It was during the two years he spent in Mumbai, that the first edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM / now called Tata Mumbai Marathon) happened. Curious, he participated in the event’s seven kilometer-Dream Run.
In 2004, Athreya shifted to London where his sister stayed. He had a “ working holiday visa.’’ London was a runner-friendly city. It had large parks and small hills that could be easily accessed by public transport. There were pavements to run on. People gave way to pedestrians. When one runner saw another, a “ hello’’ or “ good morning’’ was said. There were running events spanning distance categories ranging from five kilometers to multi-day events and they were spread throughout the year. Plus, you had access to a wide variety of clothes and equipment for running. January 2005, Athreya started training to run; he also signed up for a half marathon – it was called Three Forts Challenge – scheduled for May that year. Three Forts was held in a small town outside London. The run went off well for Athreya, he finished in two hours. “ I was very happy with it,’’ he said. Trusting his longstanding acquaintance with sport and not yet knowing the details and micro-details of progression in distance running, he decided to aim next for a full marathon. He signed up for the Budapest Marathon of October 2005. He isn’t sure what motivated him to vault from first half marathon to first full marathon so soon and so early in his running career. “ One of my seniors from school had done the New York Marathon. I suspect that may have prompted me to register for Budapest,’’ Athreya said.
In June 2005, Athreya joined London’s Serpentine Running Club. The club’s origin is linked to the London Marathon, one of the world’s top running events; its first edition was in 1982. To prepare and train for the 1983 edition of the event, a group of runners had formed a club, since well-known as Serpentine Running Club. Wikipedia describes it as a cross country running club that draws members from across Greater London. A member of Serpentine is called a “ Serpie.’’ Athreya found their outings helpful; they were quite structured with distances assigned and pacers allotted for each category. Besides regular runs, there were hill-running sessions every Saturday. Athreya got by on a mix of getting tips from coaches and figuring out things himself. It was trial and error. Luckily injuries were few. Aside from a minor brush with shin splints, there wasn’t anything major. In October he completed the Budapest Marathon in 03:22:38. However his good fortune didn’t sustain. At the next marathon he signed up for, an event in London, he got cramps. Then in April 2006, Athreya ran the London Marathon. “ Entry was by lottery and I just proved lucky. Two of my friends who had been in the UK longer, didn’t get it. I think I was just lucky,’’ he said. The London Marathon was an experience. “ I had never seen a crowd so big. Everyone comes out to cheer. Belonging to Serpentine, which is a major club, also helped; you are noticed and encouraged. At London, it is hard not to run even if you are struggling,’’ he said. He completed the London Marathon in 03:41:49.
Besides the above mentioned races, during his stay in UK, Athreya also ran the Nike 10k, Luton Marathon, Watford Half, Hastings Half and Clapham Common 10k. For food on the table, he worked freelance. He traveled a lot in the UK; he also visited Hungary and Norway. In 2006, soon after the London Marathon he returned to Bengaluru. To keep his running alive, he initially trained near his house. Then, he joined Runners for Life (RFL). In Bengaluru, he set his eyes on the Bangalore Ultra, deciding to attempt the 78k category they had then. “ To my mind, there is difference between how the west approaches running and how India does. There, things are structured. Here it is more a case of being bitten by the bug, experimenting and carrying on. I got no formal education here on how to progress or effect transitions from one distance category to another. When it came to the ultra, I just decided to try it,’’ Athreya said. He planned his route to Bangalore Ultra with the Kaveri Trail Marathon (KTM) of September 2007, in between. It was designed by the organizers as a stepping stone to Bangalore Ultra. Athreya completed KTM with timing of 03:57:47. He found that he liked running on trails. You can take a road-run for granted because the surface is even. Not so, trails. “ On trails you have to watch every step. I also find that I recover faster from trail runs. After most of my road-running events, I am tired for three to four days. With trail runs, I recover in a day or two,’’ he said. Notwithstanding KTM, Athreya was laid low by a stomach bug during the Bangalore Ultra. He had to DNF (Did Not Finish) at around 50 kilometer-mark. “ For a long time I was dejected and depressed. Slowly I got over it,’’ he said. The reversal he suffered remained in the head as unfinished business. Next year he enrolled for the Great Tibetan Marathon (GTM), which used to be held in Ladakh. A week before the event he tore a ligament. He ran GTM wearing a brace, finishing the event at altitude in approximately 04:32:19 hours. Next on the agenda was to address that unfinished business at the Bangalore Ultra, the route to which lay through KTM. This time he DNF-ed at KTM (conditions were quite warm and he got cramps) but completed the 75 kilometer-category of Bangalore Ultra, successfully. He finished in 09:05:43.
Apart from some exceptions, the bulk of Athreya’s running has been in peninsular India. One likely reason for this was a factor he repeatedly kept observing the evening we met – Bengaluru may have become chaotic and its traffic, horrible, but it still has that weather, which is probably the best among big Indian cities for running. Like Auroville, which he frequents to run free of the tyranny of timing, two other events that surface consistently on Athreya’s annual list are KTM and Bangalore Ultra. In 2009, the year he got married, he ran the 75k category at the Bangalore Ultra. In 2010, he did the 100k covering the distance in 12:06:18. He also made a foray into a business that brought a touch of nature to people’s homes. For quite sometime now, Bengaluru with its mix of young people, educational institutions, software companies and well-traveled executives has been India’s city of ideas. After they got married, Athreya’s wife who worked at Infosys, quit her job. She and three others – Athreya among them – commenced a start-up that tapped the opportunity to grow plants in the balconies of houses; it was called mysunnybalcony.com. For regular job, Athreya also worked at a company called Logica.
By now, Athreya’s distance running was well past the days of introduction to the sport. In 2011, he got into a 24 week-training plan for ultra-running, the first time he was doing so. That year he got his personal best at KTM – 03:14:24. It was followed by the 50k category at Bangalore Ultra, completed in 03:58:56. This phase of running was different for a few more reasons. For the first time, Athreya felt competitive in a race. By now he was also running Bengaluru’s annual 10k (associated originally with Sunfeast and later with TCS), covering the distance in around 40 minutes. He also trimmed his preferred ultra-distance to 50 kilometers; that’s what he has mostly stuck to since at the Bangalore Ultra and similar runs elsewhere. In 2012 Athreya joined Aditi Technologies.
There wasn’t much running in 2012-2013. In 2015, he ran the 50k category of the Javadhu Hills Ultra. Athreya explained why trail running suited him. First, he likes nature. “ I have always been an outdoors person; I am not the city type,’’ he said. Second, he is the sort who usually trains alone. He likes that solitude. “ I can’t take crowds. I typically train on my own. In Bengaluru, I normally train on a mud track near Ulsoor. The other place I train at is Nandi Hills. Traffic is less there and I get to do both road and trail-running,’’ he said. Third, he likes small races. “ They don’t end up extremely competitive like the races in cities. They remain a personal experience. Running has always been a personal experience for me. If I do better, it is for my own self. Trail running is hard initially. To get through distances all by yourself on trails, is mentally tougher than managing a city based-race where you have people egging you on,’’ Athreya said. He covered the 50k distance category at Javadhu in 04:16:21. In 2015 he quit Aditi Technologies and partnered his runner friend, Dharmender, to see if coaching runners attracted as profession. Dharmender, who used to work at KPMG effected that switch successfully. Athreya didn’t find it his cup of tea. But that phase indirectly helped for the regimen of coaching at Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium and adhering to training plans, improved his performance particularly in the half marathon and 10k. In 2015, he ran the half marathon in Hyderabad in 01:26:33 and the annual 10k in Bengaluru in 39:30 minutes. By 2016, he had lowered the timing in 10k at this event to 37:41 and at another similar event, to 37:06 minutes.
In 2016 Athreya also made a departure from his 50k-fixation in ultra-runs, to attempt the 110 kilometer-category at Malnad Ultra. He knew the organizers and had been part of the team, which did the recce. Athreya wrote in his blog about why he chose this race: As most people progressed to running distances of 75k, 100k and 24 hours, I decided to stay at 50k. 50k had become my go-to race distance. I stuck to trail races and wanted to get better at the distance before I went back to doing ultras. And it did get better – I got stronger at the distance but I had got comfortable. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and see where I was at in terms of longer distances. The Malnad Ultra route was through coffee estates. To train for the event, he ramped up weekly mileage to roughly 100 km per week, peaking at around 120 km. He did several 40k runs around Nandi Hills and once, an 80k. He trained alone. On race day, Malnad went well for Athreya till around the 80k-mark. Then things started to go downhill. Amid the running, he had missed having lunch. By the time he reached the last 10 kilometers, he was tired and delirious. He finished in 13:45:55 hours. What doesn’t satisfy stays as unfinished business. Following Malnad, he ran the half marathon at Bengaluru’s annual marathon. In 2017, he came back to Malnad and did the 110k all over again (this time the course was slightly different with more elevation), completing it in 13:11:45 hours. Then as before, he ran the half marathon in Bengaluru, finishing it in 01:28:35. Same year he also did the 75k at Javadhu completing it in eight hours.
Another race Athreya ran in 2017 was the Chennai Trail Marathon. “ Many of us got lost while running that,’’ he said. Getting lost is one of the problems faced in trail-running. In trail-runs, the location is typically away from crowded city centers, people are few on the course and off it, markers may be inadequate and as happens sometimes – volunteers may give you directions but dropped off in wilderness, they may be as confused as you are. In some trail-running events, runners have to do the navigation themselves. If you are terribly competitive or seeking money’s worth, things going wrong can be an irritant. Racers sometimes come off cursing event organizers for what went wrong. I asked Athreya how he reacts to an incident of getting lost. “ For me, I guess, it is okay, part of the deal. I try to enjoy that also. I would probably go mad if it was a city that I got lost in. On trails, I have no expectations. If I get lost, I get lost. That’s one more way to know a place,’’ he said. In the running he has logged so far, Athreya has had several podium finishes in his age category, spanning both ultra-distances and the shorter ones. At the time of writing, what he wanted to try next was a 100 miler. “ I want to do it well, do it within a certain time,’’ he said. As for places he would like to run in, there was Kutch, Khardung La, Hong Kong and Nepal’s Annapurna circuit.
When people meet, they exchange visiting cards. Athreya’s was sky blue in colour with letters printed in white. The card introduced him as designer of useful experiences and illustrator. The reverse of the card was yellow with a sky blue circle at its center. Within the circle were a running shoe and the tag line: designer on the run. His website was no different. It declared unabashedly: this website combines my love for running and design.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Athreya Chidambi. Timings at races are as mentioned by interviewee.)