Why Samir Singh could not stop running
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Samir Singh has always been running.
As a child prone to mischief, he ran from angry parents, friends and the parents of friends, after a prank invariably raised their ire. As a farm boy, he ran after cows that strayed from their fields. As a teenager, he twice ran away from his home in Malwa, Madhya Pradesh, to come to Mumbai.
He ran from one job to another, from responsibilities, from commitments, from expectations and, by his own admission, from boredom.
So it is perhaps no surprise that Samir Singh almost pulled off the challenge he set himself, of running 10,000km in 100 days. At the end, on 6 August, he fell short of his goal with only 36km remaining, after suffering physical setbacks and a “loss of motivation and interest”.
A few days after this run, Singh arrives for our meeting in a book store in Juhu. He is initially reluctant to meet, fed up of giving interviews where one question keeps coming up: How did he feel about missing out?
He looks frail—he lost 15-18kg in 100 days of running—and climbs slowly to the second floor. He is not tired or in pain, he says, but in recovery.
Heavily tanned, about 5ft, 7 inches tall, dressed in a tracksuit, with deep-set eyes, the hair on his arms burnt out or bleached light, the wiry 44-year-old looks every inch a long-distance runner.
He takes off his shoes when he sits, showing scars from burns and wounds. But he laughs easily and deeply when recounting his life story and its single biggest accomplishment.
The mammoth effort has had other effects. He finds dates and incidents difficult to remember. He has not worked for nearly eight months—Singh used to be a running coach—but will start again soon. His life has changed, but his ambition has only been marginally fulfilled.
Singh wanted to do something different. He wanted the fame that his non-starter movie career did not grant. The 10,000km run was going to be his claim to fame—and it is.
When he started the run, in Mumbai’s searing late-April sun, he realized he would have to find ways to adapt. In the initial days he ran barefoot, but soon found that the soles of his feet were getting scalded. He switched to running on sand when possible. Once his feet would get acclimatized, he would move to the road.
Friends and clients (from his coaching days) often came to the rescue. They got him a pair of Vibram Fivefingers, a brand of minimalist running shoes that are supposed to replicate the feeling of running barefoot.
The Vibrams worked to an extent, but his running style was not ideally suited to them. Having suffered two injuries on his right leg—as a child, when he was flipped over by a bull, and as an adult when a car knocked him down—he cannot distribute weight equally on his legs.
The Fivefingers distorted his toes, so he cut the Vibram suitably, tying a cloth around to hold it in place. In the later stages of his run, he would on occasions run with a shoe on one foot and a Vibram on the other.
The monsoon brought another challenge. Mumbai’s infamously fragile roads came undone with the first showers. As a casual runner, you can jump over them, but a small step for a recreational runner is a giant leap for the marathoner. Any deviation from a straight path puts unnecessary strain on a body that has done many miles. Loose pebbles bored through his Vibrams, so he switched to shoes. He changed footwear depending on injuries and pain.
He found encouragement on the streets. Random strangers would offer him company while running. Film-makers Vikram Bhatti and Vandana Bhatti, of Marathon Films, joined in, chronicling his endeavour online with the marketable title, “The Faith Runner”.
People would stop him for selfies. When they asked him why he was doing this, he had no straight answer.
There were distractions too. He was called names—“takle” (bald-ie), “choti” (ponytail, for the little tuft of hair on the back of his nearly bald head) and “haddi” (skeletal) among others.
Some people taunted him, some heckled, but he ran on.
Through each run he generally kept his mind blank, uncluttered. When he found his energy flagging, he would chant, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare...”, or sing patriotic songs.
Often the rain was a relief, washing away the exhaustion and the sweat, making it cooler.
Word spread, through the Bhattis’ Facebook campaign and newspaper reports. Plans were made for the final flourish, when Singh would complete his epic run to flashing bulbs and garlands.
But it was not to be.
Always a runner
The eldest son of a farmer, Singh studied till class IV, helping his family in the fields. He dreamt of working in cinema: becoming an actor, maybe even a director, or working in one of the technical branches of the industry.
The family did not concur. It took a while, but once he mustered up the courage, Singh ran away from home, getting on a train to Mumbai.
The city scared him, particularly after he was shooed away from one of the homes of actor Amitabh Bachchan, so he decided to return to Madhya Pradesh. The next few years were a blur: he worked in many places, including Ujjain, Kota, Kochi and Ahmedabad, in jobs ranging from dish-washing to construction.
He was once spotted by people from his village in Ujjain and forcibly taken home. A few years later he escaped again. This time, in 2000, he stayed on in Mumbai.
Older and more worldly wise, he felt more settled and confident in the city this time around. He worked in the dockyards at Nhava Sheva, sleeping in boats there on occasion. He did street plays and some work in television, sales jobs and market surveys for companies.
The flexibility and freedom of such work suited him: Singh admits he does not like to be shackled, whether through work or other responsibilities. A job conducting surveys about the Mumbai marathon in 2004-05 led him to the idea of long-distance running. He had strong legs and fancied his speed. Why not try the marathon?
There were other incentives. Singh believed the prize money ($25,000 for the men’s winner, or around Rs16 lakh now) would allow him to make his own movie. He could meet famous runners like industrialist Anil Ambani, and become “friends with them”. He would not need to do menial jobs any more. Or so he thought.
A visit to “chor bazaar” and he had running shoes, “the smallest of shorts” and a vest, all for Rs150. He gave up smoking beedis, and started training for the marathon in 2008, running in the dockyards and then on the roads.
Singh says he bolted ahead of the pack at the start of the 2009 marathon. Nearing a kilometre, he became confident that the next 41 would be a breeze, until he saw a flurry of legs fly past him. The professional African marathoners had raced ahead and all Singh could do was watch them, mesmerized.
“Their legs seemed so long that I lost hope,” he says.
He quit then and there, because his motivation—the cash prize—was not good enough to chase the leaders. The same story was repeated in the half marathons of Delhi and Bengaluru. He was angry, and “without the money, there was no fun either”, he says.
One day, he picked up a book from an Iskcon (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) stall at Andheri station for his father, with whom he had finally made peace. When he read it himself, he felt drawn in.
A number of visits to the Iskcon temple in Juhu followed. He changed his work schedule so he could chant. He says that it gave him new meaning, altered his lifestyle and helped his running.
“The right techniques for breathing are based on the Gita,” Singh says. “Yoga is all about breathing.”
In order to spend more time chanting and praying, he switched professions. He became a running coach with help from fellow runners, who got him clients. He felt he had enough experience, if not textbook qualifications, to get the job done.
“If someone like me tries to do this (attempt 100x100), it would be shocking,” says Simta Khshitij Sharma, who won the Chennai Marathon last year in the open category and has trained under Singh in the past. “(But) he can do anything he wants. He has the faith, he believes in God.”
The second coming
Singh says all the doctors he consulted told him he is not even supposed to run. This diagnosis is based on the condition of his legs after all these accidents: he has had stress fractures, an injury to the anterior-cruciate ligament, other knee damage, some of which most likely troubles him even today.
“If you look at medical theories, people who have had these injuries would not be allowed to run,” says Mumbai-based sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee, one of the people Singh consulted, but who encouraged him to continue running.
When Singh decided to start competing again, he upped the ante, aiming for longer runs than marathons, like the Ultra (55km). He won the Vadodara Ultra in November 2015 in a time of 6:34.28. He finished fifth the following year.
He completed the Mumbai marathon in 03:02.03 in 2016, the Delhi half marathon 2015 in 01:22.41, and did 121km in 12 hours in the Mumbai Ultra.
The wife of a client had joined the 100-days-of-running programme, a fitness movement started in 2014-15 in which participants commit to run for 100 consecutive days. Singh decided to adapt the idea to his own capabilities, in an attempt to do something “different”.
He believes that the human body, the ultimate machine, should not take more than 6 hours to recover from a run. If he was taking a week or more, then something was wrong.
“Like when we do jaap (the meditative repetition of a mantra or name), this shrinks our insides, the lungs rise up, and the body becomes smaller,” he explains.
“If our upper body becomes smaller, our legs carry less weight and we run better. Oxygen intake becomes easier. Stamina does not come from running alone; it’s inside the heart and the core.”
So he started testing himself with long runs every three or four days, then every alternate day, and finally every day. He went to Vrindavan in November to seek blessings and to practise.
A few days before the 100x100 run was to begin, he felt nervous and hot, finally dropping off to sleep with a deep sense of melancholy. He had a vivid dream: “lots of light, many moons and a figure of God with many necks touching the sky.”
It looked so beautiful, he took it as a sign. He woke up crying, read the Gita and stopped worrying: This too shall pass, he thought.
He just wanted to run
During the course of his mega run, Singh took different routes. He ran in two sessions, morning and evening. His best time was 9 hours and 42 minutes; his worst timings ranged between 15 and 16 hours to complete the 100km.
Singh remains disappointed he could not finish 10,000km. But he sees his failure as a sign of something greater left to achieve. He was told that the circumference of Earth is 40,000km—an indication, possibly, of his next target.
“When you accomplish a task, you get arrogant and it is not God’s will for you to get arrogant,” Singh says. “Maybe I was meant not to finish.
“When people say I can’t do something, that’s when I want to do it,” he says. He uses the Hindi term keeda for it, a thought that gnaws at him constantly.
Singh says the public attention, the interviews and a stomach bug broke his rhythm, which he just could not get back. “I dealt with many pains and problems, but they came one at a time,” he says. “The stomach and the accompanying fever I could not solve.”
On the 96th day, the gastrointestinal infections started. He was admitted to hospital and discharged the next day, pumped so full of glucose that he felt he had the energy to complete the remaining distance. By the 99th day, the fever was back.
He tried running on his own, without telling anyone on the last day, still needing to cover some distance after the setback. After he finished that day, he realized he was still about 36km short.
He had run 9,964.19km in 100 days, a quarter of the Earth’s circumference.
So is he a kook, a publicity seeker, a hopeless romantic or someone with a shaky hold of reality, as Jon Krakauer wrote about climbers of Mount Everest in his book Into Thin Air?
None, says Singh. He just wanted to run, so he ran
Why they run and talk about running
Like Bengaluru has its professional divide—those who work in information technology and those who don’t—Mumbai has some sort of fitness divide: those who run and those who don’t. The annual Mumbai marathon, now more than a decade old, has transformed the mindset of many people in the city. Running has also become a fad and a social media compulsion.
In the first edition in 2004, 800 people registered for the Mumbai marathon and 3,500 for the half (21km). In 2017, the numbers were 6,342 and 14,663, respectively. About 22,000 people participated in 2004, including all categories of runs (competitive and non-competitive). This January, that number had swollen to 42,379.
Running, a deeply personal, meditative experience, is not just that anymore. It’s also a group activity. It’s a community of shared injuries, aches and elation. Model-actor Milind Soman made it sexier, pounding barefoot on the streets around Shivaji Park. In Saturday evening cocktail parties, runners brandish their fresh lime soda like a badge of honour, insisting they must “leave early because of their Sunday morning run”.
Those who do not run will not understand why runners are so passionate, desperate—and possibly “nutty”. Distance runners talk always of the relief of crossing the finish line, the curiosity of pushing your body to the limit and seeing what it can achieve.
Christopher McDoughall’s book Born To Run is often cited as the Bible of distance running. The book claims that humans can run longer—not faster—than any other land species, and that our early predecessors hunted animals initially by wearing them out.
There are no observed limits to how far a human can run. Marathoners, after they’ve pushed themselves beyond 42km, are constantly chasing higher goals. “There are enough people out there who want to do the easy or hard,” wrote Rajat Chauhan, a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine, in a column in Mint last month. “That doesn’t excite me. What excites me is the impossible, pushing fellow human beings to push beyond what they think they are capable of doing. Pushing the human limits. Because we say no too soon.”
Chauhan, author of The Pain Handbook: A Non-Surgical Way To Managing Back, Neck And Knee Pain, is the founder of La Ultra—The High, which has runs of 333km (to be done in 72 hours), 222km (48 hours) and 111km (20 hours). Chauhan and several other long, long distance runners repeat the need to push one’s limits, reach for goals otherwise considered unachievable. That is their motivation for running.
“This sort of running is personal accomplishment, to prove a point to yourself,” says sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak, co-founder of Samiksha (a sport and performance psychology consultancy). “For excellence in anything, you have to be crazy about it. You have to be devoted and dedicated, need to know the science and math of what you are passionate about. It’s addictive, like all success.”
Ultra runners do not think about wear and tear, about what their bodies and minds go through in the process. The body repairs, eventually. It’s the mind that pushes them on even after every muscle is screaming to stop.
It starts with a 5km run, then 10, then the half marathon. The body feels a release. It de-stresses. Adrenalin kicks in and a sense of purpose takes shape.
People who do the Ultra, and other extreme runs, are usually above the age of 30, and even closer to 40, says sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee. “Endurance events attract the older person. Essentially, the body is losing speed and you try to go longer rather than faster. People get a sense of achievement and no one can take it from them.”
“It’s like anything else, climbing the Everest or doing yoga, which makes your body flexible,” says Shibani Gharat, who has done an 184km, 36-hour stadium run. “It’s about convincing and stretching your mind.”
In 2015, ultra runner Raj Vadgama claimed to have run 10,000km in over five months, covering 70 cities. He called it “Bharathon”. In 2006, American Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states of the US and wrote about it in his book 50/50: Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days—And How You Too Can Achieve Super Endurance!. In 2013, Kílian Jornet practically ran up Mount Kilimanjaro (from base camp to Uhuru Peak) in a little over 7 hours. At 19,340ft, it takes an average climber seven days to get there. Britain’s Jim Plunkett-Cole is running 30,000 miles across the UK and the US for more than seven years without a day’s rest (averaging 12 miles a day over 2,500 days). He started in January 2013 and is expected to finish in January 2020.
Critics say one needs to be crazy to do such runs. Others, like former state-level sprinter Ayesha Billimoria, who now coaches, believes that quite often it’s a fad driven by the need to “share”, of following the herd.
“When they see me limping, when my immunity drops on a long run and I get fever, when my skin looks like a shade card… everyone says that… But it’s alright to be crazy in a way. It’s important,” adds Gharat, who works with media group Network 18. “People collect coins, some collect art. For us it’s about collecting miles.”