Rahul Verghese just loves the energy of big city marathons. In 2001, at age 40, Verghese completed his first marathon in Chicago, US, to cheers from some 950,000 spectators. February 2003 found him in New Orleans, where he did his best time: 3 hours, 41 minutes. At the 2009 Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, South Africa, Verghese again found himself in a party-like atmosphere. There were no barricades between the runners and spectators, and he often found himself having short exchanges with complete strangers. At the Comrades 89km run the following year in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, he spoke to co-runners along the way, shot videos with a hand-held camera and all-in-all had a great time. He still gets goosebumps thinking about the “energy, positivity and determination” at the start line, he says.
It didn’t matter that Verghese got started only after 40, an age when doctors say the body enters the “degeneration phase”. When cardiovascular reserves, the capacity to return to normal breathing quickly after intense physical activity, start to go south. Bones start to become less dense. Even the smallest injuries take longer to heal. But Verghese had found a new interest, one that gave him a high, and these physical considerations seemed small.
As an added bonus, in Chicago, for the first time in his life, Verghese had received a “medal for something sporty”.
For motivational speaker and behavioural and skills facilitator Sunil Gwalani, the switch from a sedentary lifestyle to a marathon junkie has been extreme, almost cinematic. The 47-year-old always treated his ability to maintain weight (around 71kg) as a sign of fitness and an excuse to skip the gym. “I’ve always been a lazy guy, a couch potato even, but I’ve never been overweight,” says Gwalani. “I often end up spending 7-8 hours standing and walking around during corporate programmes and I really believed that was enough exercise for me.”
In 2008, Gwalani joined the gym for what he describes as “the nth time”. When he expressed his dislike for working out in closed spaces, his trainer recommended he take up running. Although apprehensive of the sport triggering the lower-body injuries he suffered as a footballer in college over 20 years ago, Gwalani teamed up with a small neighbourhood runners’ group in Thane. A few runs later, his coach advised him to set a target and sign up for the Standard Chartered Mumbai half marathon to remain motivated. “I didn’t even know the distance of a half marathon and yet I was preparing to participate in less than two months,” says Gwalani. “But hey, I finished the marathon (in January 2009) in 2 hours, 32 minutes and thought ‘that’s not bad for a first-timer at the age of 42’. When I got on the bus to return home after the race, I couldn’t wait to run the marathon next year.”
There’s been no stopping Gwalani since—he has participated in over 22 half and full marathons. This February, he even decided to sign up for the Nike Run Club, a training group for endurance running, in Mumbai in order to transition from full marathons to ultra marathons. “I’ve always felt I was strong mentally but not physically,” says Gwalani. “Running has not only given me solitude but it’s made me believe that if I push myself, I can overcome even the most unthinkable physical barriers.”
Gwalani and Verghese are just two of the thousands of people over 40 who are discovering, or rediscovering the joys of running. One day they start running because the doctor tells them to, and a few months down the line, they are restlessly pacing the starting grid of a marathon.
Running, unlike say football or squash, allows people over 40 to ease into the sport. They can keep their own pace, and yet get the adrenalin kick that comes with participating in a competitive sport. What’s more, most marathons are by nature open public events. Anyone can sign up, irrespective of age. It helps that running groups can be great places to meet people.
The social network
Daniel Vaz, coach of the Nike Run Club Mumbai, says about 85% of the members in his training programme are over the age of 30 and a whopping 50% are aged 40 and above. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified trainer explains that the sport not only affords runners an opportunity to stay fit as they age, it also offers them an opportunity to be a part of a large running fraternity.
“The running fraternity is a whole new social world for people who are just coming into their veteran years,” explains Vaz. “Let’s say at the age of 40-45-plus, where else in your life would you end up making perhaps 50-60 new friends? I’m not saying these are just casual friends. These guys high-five each other and have breakfast together every weekend after long runs. They talk about training methods and exchange information to stay motivated.”
Mohana Ganesh, 55, and her husband Ganesh Krishnan, 61, took up running in July 2009 and participated in their first half marathon along with their 28-year-old son at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January 2010. They have since participated in over 20 half marathons across the country with their running buddies. The Sion residents are members of most runners’ groups in the city, such as the Navi Mumbai Runners and Mumbai Marathon Runners, and rely on Facebook to stay notified of each club’s weekend activities.
Mohana says outstation marathons, like the Goa River Marathon, tend to be like mini picnics and they often book group tickets and stay in the same hotels as their “running family”. She adds, “As a couple, we have always been social, but there’s no denying that we have made a whole new set of friends, especially outside Mumbai, since we started running.”
Training is everything
Running also comes with its own set of challenges for people over 40, and the principle concern is always this: How to keep the body free of injuries?
“There is nothing wrong with people starting to run after 40—provided they train to run,” says Sheela Nambiar, a gynaecologist, National Association for Fitness Certification (USA)-certified fitness consultant and author of Get Size Wise. “Running is a high-impact activity. Every time you land on one foot after another, you land with almost two and a half times your own body weight. That means that an intense amount of pressure has to be withstood by your knees and ankles.”
B.R. Hariharan, 64, is well aware of the importance of training. At 6am on most days, you can find him running at the Kasu Brahmananda Reddy National Park in Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad. The chief investment officer at Shriram Life Insurance in Hyderabad ran his first half marathon in 2007, at 59 years. He was inspired by a colleague two years older than him, who had participated in over 100 marathons. Hariharan is quite aware that his body is not the same as that of a 20-or 30-year-old. While he loves the feeling of overtaking a lot of younger people in the race, he makes a conscious effort to listen to his body to avoid injuries. “I keep reminding myself, ‘You’ve got nothing to prove to anyone else’.” he says.
Long-distance runners must watch out for overuse injuries like stress fractures.
“He (the over 40 long-distance runner) cannot lose patience. He has to take care of everything. He may be young at heart, but the body has lost some things,” says Raman Kant Aggarwal, a senior orthopaedic surgeon at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon. “Ideally someone over 40 should train for at least six months, running 8-10km, five days a week, before even thinking of signing up for a marathon.”
Running can make you feel at the top of the world. Most serious marathoners train up to six days a week, mixing running and non-running activities like swimming or yoga or weight training for the best results. But the training and racing regime can be exacting.
"’There is nothing wrong with people starting to run after 40—provided they train to run.’"
“I have travelled to Australia, South Africa, North America for marathons, and I have completed marathons and ultras in Asia,” Hariharan says. “Perhaps I am selfish, but I don’t take any holidays, not even to take my family out on vacation.”
Just like it can help you make friends, running can also bring out the recluse in you. Solitude is something long distance runners know well.