THE ASH EFFECT

Ashok Nath (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ashok Nath has positioned himself as a mentor for runners. He brings to his mentoring, years of corporate experience, an attribute often associated with goal and focus. Yet he also says, “ there is no finite precise goal.” What he seeks is mindful running. 

In 2015, Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman enrolled for a workshop on running.

He had been struggling to improve his running. For the next several months he kept the learnings from the workshop in mind and trained accordingly. At the 2016 Mumbai Marathon he lopped off 14 minutes from his previous year’s timing. That was significant. A month later, in February 2016, he decided to formally join the training program offered by Ashok Nath, who had conducted the 2015 workshop.

Ashok Nath, or Ash as he is popularly known, has been a recreational runner for most of his adult life. Long ago in Delhi, he would wake up at 5AM, read and then go for a run lasting about an hour. To him, it was an exercise to stay fit, nothing more, nothing less. “I never thought of myself as a runner,’’ he said. Years later, the marketing professional is into “mentoring’’ runners but there is a difference. He hasn’t scaled up his mentoring service; instead he has kept it small, premium and cast as “community’’. That brew is tad unusual in the Indian coaching scene, where the general trend is to scale up.  “ I call it the Run with Ash community,’’ Ashok, 56, said.

The youngest of three siblings, Ashok grew up in India, Bangladesh and Canada. His father was in the Indian Foreign Service. Although initially a student of science, Ashok commenced his career in market research. He then took his MBA in international marketing following which, he proceeded to work at a handful of well-known advertising agencies, among them – JWT, MAA Bozell, Rediffusion, Enterprise and O&M. “ My work has been mostly in advertising, public relations and consulting,’’ he said.

From one of the editions of the Mumbai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

In the early years of his career, Ashok was based in Delhi. He used to run regularly, typically loops at the Hauz Khas Rose Garden near the city’s Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Occasionally, elite athletes who trained at the National Stadium close to city center would come to the park as part of their long run.  They saw him running in the park. They also got around to talking. It was window to a world of running beyond deer park and early morning runs. Those days major marathons in India were mainly two – there was the Rath Marathon in Delhi and the Pune International Marathon. The Rath Marathon used to pass by Ashok’s house. For two years he watched the race go by. Then notwithstanding the fact that he hadn’t formally participated in any such event before or trained for it, he registered for an edition of Rath. It was straight dive into the full marathon. “ It happened in 1984-85 and I finished the race in approximately three and a half hours. Then I went back home and slept the whole day,’’ Ashok said. By the standards of amateur runners in India, that is a decent timing, particularly for debut. Still, nothing changed in Ashok’s life. He continued to maintain the same schedules.  The following year, he again completed Rath in near similar time. For the next two years, he kept his connection with events alive, running half marathons.

By now the perspective in urban India was changing firmly. The economy had been opened up and thanks to industries like IT, the workforce was more mobile. People were spending years overseas on assignments, picking up active lifestyles there, returning to India and wanting to continue the same. In 2004, the Mumbai Marathon made its debut. Slowly but steadily it kick-started a running movement in India’s financial capital. More marathons started to come up in India. It triggered alongside an interest in running across the country.  Meanwhile, Ashok’s work took him from Delhi to the Middle East and eventually to Bengaluru. The southern city would bring him closer to running. In 2005, on a dare by an office colleague he enlisted for what was then called the Lipton Marathon. He ran the half marathon at the event in Bengaluru. Six months later, another half marathon happened. He went for that too, and clocked 1:18. In 2008, he registered for the Times Bangalore Marathon and commenced for the first time in his life, structured training with a race in view. He was originally enlisted to do the half marathon; on a week’s notice, he changed that to the full. On race day, he ran strong, staying within the top ten runners till the half way mark. At 25 kilometers, his legs felt as though laden with lead. He decided to walk the next five kilometers. Then he recommenced his running and finished like everyone else. It was a sobering experience.

Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath

Around this time, Ashok was among a small group of runners who regularly interacted with Runners for Life (RFL).  He was slowly but surely getting increasingly attracted to the world around running. “ By 2010 I was thinking: enough is enough. I wanted to leave the corporate world,’’ he said. The advertising profession is famous for extended hours put in at office and much socializing within that ecosystem and immediately related ones. According to Ashok, even as an employee, he wasn’t the sort sticking past office hours at the companies he worked for. “ I give you eight hours of quality work. After that, I need my time,’’ he said. Happening regularly in those hours reserved for self, was his running. Notwithstanding the 2008 experience at the marathon in Bengaluru, Ashok continued to run and emerge a podium finisher in his age category at major Indian marathons like the Mumbai Marathon and ADHM.

For life ahead, he contemplated a mix of writing and running, doing something for the welfare of stray dogs and becoming guest faculty somewhere or being on the lecture circuit. It didn’t work out the way he wanted. The writing proved to be financially unrewarding. It entailed effort – sometimes you sat and wrote for a couple of days – but the payment was downright little. The guest faculty idea failed to gather traction because as Ashok found out, the general expectation in such opportunities was inputs leading to a job for listener. That is boring; it lacked dream. What remained was running. With a couple of friends he set up a company called Running Buddy Sports. Ashok was full time director. There was strong response from some senior fellow runners who were ready to invest in the venture. Running Buddy was meant to offer coaching for running, have a physiology lab and represent Runners World in India. They signed a MoU with Furman Institute of Running and Training (FIRST) to bring their program – Run Less, Run Fast – to India. They also explored tours around the marathon. A proper business study was done for and Running Buddy embarked on a pilot project. Then he pulled out. “ I realized this was going to be a 12 hour plus job. For most clients the convenient time would be early morning or evening. It meant my day would end up crazy. I didn’t leave my corporate job to do this,’’ Ashok said.  The venture shut shop before formal launch. It was back to square one.

Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath

Then Boston Marathon happened. “ Fellow runners would mention of this iconic race and how they aspired someday to participate. So I thought: why not?” Ashok said. He enrolled for the 2010 Boston Marathon but could not proceed beyond Frankfurt due to cancellation of flights, courtesy volcanic eruptions in Iceland. That year the eruptions at Eyjafjallajokull caused massive disruption of air traffic and several thousand runners were stranded. The Boston organizers took note and he was invited to run the marathon’s 2011 edition. In 2011, he ran and finished the marathon in three hours, eight minutes and 27 seconds. He qualified and registered for Boston Marathon ten times and ran it eight times. This includes his run at the event in 2013 – the year of the infamous bombing incident – when Ashok, at that time past 50 years of age, covered the distance in under three hours. According to him, at one point in time he even contemplated training to win the Boston marathon in his age group but realized that there was a serious downside. “ You can’t train and put in the serious hours of mentoring others. I would have had to take a break from work with no safety net. It didn’t make sense,” he said.

Ashok went on to participate in the other five World Major Marathons – Berlin Marathon, Chicago Marathon, London Marathon, New York City Marathon and Tokyo Marathon. He has also completed Comrades Marathon, an ultramarathon of 87-89 kilometers in South Africa, run between the cities of Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 1955 feet. On his first attempt, Ashok slashed the then existing Indian record for the Comrades by an hour. He has finished within nine hours, earning the Bill Rowan Medal at the Comrades Marathon, four times. He is thinking of running Comrades at age 60. It is a thought. “ Will decide later,’’ he said.

Somewhere in the time between shutting down Running Buddy and the marathons he accumulated, Ashok decided to try starting an enterprise in running that entailed just him. “ Why should I throw away my three decades of corporate experience?’’ he asked. In 2012 he studied the market for running again and decided to focus on running technique. “ It’s a small pie. I didn’t want to eat into others’ business. And no one was thinking technique, it was just training and training,” he said. He decided to do workshops. “ I see myself in the knowledge space. I am not an operational person, I am not a coach but a mentor,’’ he said.

Ashok with some of his mentees at Mumbai’s Marine Drive (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

This was the space Ashok worked in at the time this blog spoke to him. What appears remarkable is his positioning within that domain. The runners he assists are spread around India – Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, NCR, Pune, Surat and Vadodara, and abroad. Many of them are doctors. The numbers are intentionally modest, which is a departure from the usual coaching model found in India. Ashok has positioned himself as a premium service provider. “ There is a certain level of affluence and discipline required to afford me,’’ he said.

The workshops he held helped to find people interested in improving their running. That is the intake point, along with word-of-mouth referrals. Preliminary assessment of an individual includes submission of comprehensive paperwork that asks for body composition tests, blood tests, time trials, lifestyle, goals etc.  Ashok does not market a training program or model of mentoring that fits all. He uses his knowledge of running and experience in the sport as palate to dip into for a more customized approach. Roughly 70 per cent of the knowledge he shares is common for all mentees. The rest is customized to each one’s need and ability. The periodic assessments sent to mentees are also specific to individual. He admitted that while running may seem a freewheeling form of physical recreation, he is partial to the corporate approach which sees things as a sequence of input, processing and measurable output. Goals are defined to keep things measurable. He keeps the flock together with a community-touch including get-togethers and group runs. “ I am not looking at big numbers. My approach is low volume, high value.  If your training is made for you, you will enjoy it and if you enjoy, you will persist. Most of my mentees stick around for three years. Some have been around for six years,’’ Ashok said.

From one of the editions of the Kaveri Trail Marathon (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Anuradha Chari is a Bengaluru-based amateur triathlete, runner and banker. She is also one of Ashok’s new mentees. “ His style of mentoring is different. Instead of offering a tailor-made plan, he takes the effort to understand your goals and customizes the training plan,’’ she said. Anuradha has been into triathlons since 2016. Running is her weak discipline. She attended Ashok’s workshop in May 2019 and decided to enroll.  “Ashok emphasizes learning, a lot. He inculcates not just nutrition and exercise but also compassion and such other aspects. They slowly become a practice,’’ she said.

Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman started running in 2010. He heard of Ashok Nath and met him a couple of times at running events. In 2015, he enrolled for his workshop. “ I was not finding any improvement in my performance. That’s when I decided to enroll for his workshop,’’ the army doctor said. “Ashok himself is a very good runner. He has a knack of identifying areas that need improvement. A major improvement in my performance was visible after I did his workshop,’’ the officer, an endocrinologist working at Army Hospital in Delhi, said. His marathon timing improved by 14 minutes to 3:43 hours at the 2016 edition of the Mumbai Marathon compared to how he fared at the previous edition. In February 2016, he enrolled with Ashok for long-term training. His timing kept improving and by the 2019 edition of the same event, he had bettered his timing to 3:17, his best for a marathon so far and a Boston Qualifier for 2020“ Ashok’s approach is technical. He keeps upgrading and updating the training plan introducing the concept of sports psychology and nutrition among other things, to us,’’ the colonel said.

Pune-based Tanmaya Karmarkar said she is more confident and stronger after signing up with Ashok. “ It is a seven-day program incorporating core, gym and running workout apart from mentoring sessions on nutrition and psychology. He also gives us books to help with overall development,’’ she said. She qualified for Boston in six months and will be running her second Boston Marathon in 2020.

From Comrades (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

At the Mumbai airport café where this blog met him a couple of times over August-September 2019, Ashok’s confidence as mentor, took time buying into. The typical coach is a mix of former elite athlete (at least some formal background in sports) and matching certification. Ashok hasn’t been an elite athlete before. He has neither been coached nor is he a certified coach; he is not a doctor who is an expert on human physiology. What he has is structured corporate thinking; years of experience as a regular recreational runner, years of listening to his body, an attentive mind and the appetite to keep abreast of developments in the field. According to him, he reads a lot. He has been steady performer as recreational runner, has the experience of marathons here and overseas, assimilates ideas and has kept his own injuries to the minimum. “ I can count on the fingers of my one hand the number of times I have been to a physiotherapist in all these years,’’ he said. Injuries stem from multiple causes, not all of them physical. Mental well-being also matters. Needless to say, there are moments in his engagement with clients when Ashok’s mentoring would appear closer to life-coaching than coaching for a physical activity called running. And, he seems to have packaged it all successfully into a well-positioned product.

Despite leaning towards the corporate attitude of being focused, Ashok also says there is “ no finite precise goal.’’ He acknowledges that everything evolves with experience; what he may have said five years ago, needn’t be what he says now. “What I want to see at the end of the day is a mindful runner,’’ he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

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