I believe I am someone who doesn’t get star-struck easily or too often. But with Ongkar Tony Smith, it was different.
It was in the summer of 2005 when Smith walked into my consultation room in London, complaining of lower back pain. As soon as I got to know that he was the man who had started a chain of running shops called Run and Become, which are in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff, I was in awe of him. I didn’t know anything more about him as a person, but just the fact that he had started these stores was enough for me to have a lot of respect for him. To me running is a way of life, and his stores reflected just that. I instantly knew there was more to him than just trying to sell running shoes.
The name of the shop comes from one of Sri Chinmoy’s (Smith’s meditation teacher) aphorisms, “Run and Become. Become and Run. Run to Succeed in the outer world. Become to proceed in the inner world.” Sri Chinmoy was a spiritual teacher who advocated participation in sports, especially endurance sports, as a means for spiritual upliftment.
Even before I had met Smith, for over three years, I was regularly referring runners there to get fitted for the right kind of running shoes. The shop had a reputation that the salespeople in there were runners through and through. When a runner would go in, they would meet a fellow runner who had done a lot more running than them and could easily connect with them. In the very first interaction, the “salespeople” had passed on the very infectious running bug to the runner .
Since 1982, Run and Become has done “gait analysis” (study of human motion) the natural way. They make the runner run on the street as opposed to a treadmill, which is used by most places. The simple logic being, on a treadmill your style of running is very different. The belt of the treadmill is the one that’s moving, the runner is simply hopping on it. This analysis is done by the salespeople of Run and Become and one doesn’t need an appointment for this. It is because of this very strong foundation created by Smith that even very accomplished podiatristssend their patients for assessment to Run and Become. It is a classic example of how technology and science are trying to catch up with the art of running.
It was only later that I got to know that he had started the road-running revolution in the UK. He was a true hero for me. As he said, “Before I knew it, for once in my life, I was helping lead a boom, in road running.” Smith, while he headed the running club Runners are Smilers, now called Self-Transcendence, made his races some of the simplest and best in the UK.
The most popular Self-Transcendence race is an annual 3,100-mile (4,960km) race that has a cut-off of 52 days (which would easily humble even the most established ultra runners) and has been held for the last 15 years in Queens, New York.
Smith never planned on being a runner as his first loves were rugby, closely followed by cricket. It was only in 1979, on the insistence of Sri Chinmoy, that he ran his first marathon, two years before the Virgin London Marathon began, in a time of 3 hours 47 minutes. He ran in “proper shoes”, which he later learnt were meant for the beach. At that time, lots of people were taking on to running, but there were few sports shops, leave alone running-specific shops. That’s how he got the idea to set up the first running-specific sports shop 30 years ago.
On his second visit to me, he told me that he had been diagnosed with cancer and he told me that he knew I could help him get better. I really wish I had the power to do just that. Smith died in 2006, but to me he’ll always be a superstar.
Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a doctor specializing in sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and founder of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at firstname.lastname@example.org