Why the running movement is not about fitness

Fitness is about moderation and we know there is no fun in that. Endurance is an intoxication


Milind Soman at the 2014 Pinkathon race at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times
Milind Soman at the 2014 Pinkathon race at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times

About 19 years ago, a photoshoot was under way in a sunlit corridor of the Parsi Sanatorium, a gracious ancient building in south Mumbai. Milind Soman, who was then India’s best-known model but wished for a more complex fame, tried not to laugh at his own pensive pose. Then an old woman in a nightie appeared in the backdrop and she refused to be shooed away by the crew. She studied Soman carefully and asked him to follow her. She took him and the long tail of curious crew members through dark corridors and rooms and finally into a bathroom that had a high ceiling. She gave him a bulb and asked him to fix it. For weeks, she had been waiting for someone tall to arrive.

As Soman changed the bulb, he looked like a man who was himself stranded in an old, disappearing world. He had been a model for too long; he was tired of it, his fans were tired of it, and all his efforts at being something else had not been very successful. He wished to be a film star, but Hindi cinema was a more treacherous and unequal place than it is now. Stardom was reserved for the genetic material of the families that owned the industry. Also, other men had successfully created a perception in the industry that he was arrogant and too Western for Hindi cinema. In the years that followed, he faded away as the age of supermodels vanished, and he survived on the fringes of the mainstream. At some point he started running great distances barefoot.

In his early youth he was a national-level swimmer, but in his later avatar as a distance runner he was slow, even for his age—almost 40 when people in Mumbai first began to see him run on the roads. But the sight of the greying icon, raw and himself, at the crack of dawn, looking humble as a man running barefoot would seem, gave him the aura of a sage. Most beautiful people never make extreme facial expressions that disfigure their faces, and Soman, even in the middle of endurance running, never allowed the crumple of grimace. He made running look glorious and photogenic. Journalists, of course, took notice of him once again. Soon he became a mascot of rebirth and second coming, and of renunciation—of old ways of living and shoes perhaps.

It was a time when the fever of running was beginning to infect urban India, and barefoot running was becoming more religion than science. And just like that Soman entered the affluent urban consciousness as the first prophet of long-distance and barefoot running, and eventually of extreme endurance sports. This week, in Florida, he swam 10km and cycled 149km on the first day of the Ultraman, and he cycled over 270km the next day and ran over 84km on the third.

Most people would imagine that such races are about fitness. There is a common view that sports make people fit. To an extent it is hard to argue against this view. But the complete fact is that sports require fitness; and eventually, as the training or practice intensifies, they exploit fitness more than they contribute to it. Endurance running is a brutal test of the body and the mind; it is not the same as a healthy activity. Soman wishes to push his body over the edge and enjoy the rush. Only people who do versions of such things know the feeling. Endurance athletes, like Soman, have to be fit, at least they have to be when they begin, but the excesses eventually take a toll on the bones and muscles.

Fitness is about moderation and we know there is no fun in that. Endurance is an intoxication. Runners who wake up early on most days and set out on gruelling runs are not disciplined, as onlookers imagine. As it so often happens, addiction is misunderstood as discipline.

Most amateur runners are middle-aged or almost, for a reason. It is the defiant body’s final stand against decay. The body, in the infancy of old age, craving to prolong youth.

And there are those who run because they wish to belong to a tribe. They exhibit some common traits. For instance, they talk a lot of about running. You would never hear elite African runners who run 42km in just over 2 hours say anything much about running. But the amateurs are able to talk with great passion, as amateurs do in every other sphere. It is inevitable that they would frequently mention Haruki Murakami and ritually overrate his dull book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Also, they would be very proud of the idea that running is a solitary affair and they would broadcast the notion, but the fact is that most amateur running is communal, it is a social network. There would be a group, and all the members would be of a type, of a certain social homogeneity, and there would be one peacock who would seek all the attention. And they would all talk before the run, during the run and after the run. Then they would talk to others who did not run about the run, and share the routes and photographs of the run on Facebook.

The people that long-distance runners wish to assault are often other runners, especially those who walk the entire stretch of a marathon and claim they are runners. In most races that are not organized well enough to arrange amateur runners in rungs of their documented speeds, there are hordes of slow runners and walkers who clog the roads, torturing the runners behind them. Many stop to take selfies, too.

The need to widely share every human experience has infiltrated the only important gadget a runner needs—the GPS-enabled watch. The saleability of such watches now depends not only on the sophistication of features but also the ease with which a runner can upload his runs on Facebook. The latest Apple Watch, for instance, does not include simple features like measuring laps during Interval Training, but it is very good at transmitting the news of a run to friends.

A quality that puzzles Indians who do not run is that Indians who run long distances do not appear to be in good physical shape. In most bodies, if not all, exercise, including frequent marathons, will not neutralize the effects of a sugar-rich diet. Old notions which suggest that “if you spend more calories than you consume you would not increase your weight” have been discredited for long. In fact, many studies indicate that after adolescence, intense physical exertion is more likely to make an average person put on weight rather than lose it, because of his tendency to eat more after exercise, and eat precisely the wrong food.

Every day, however, hundreds of thousands of people who are not addicted to running, who probably do not even enjoy running but wish to lose weight, huff and puff and suffer and endure the sport. Then they go back home and consume grains and other forms of sugar; and as they slowly get fatter, they believe there is a mysterious cosmic conspiracy against them. They overlook the fact that Milind Soman has the fitness of a 20-year-old not because he runs ultra marathons but chiefly because he eats wisely. The most influential fitness activity is not running, or even other kinds of exercise, but abstinence from the evil of refined grains and other types of sugar

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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