I used to manage global consumer research in my last role with Motorola. More than in any other country, Indian consumers, when asked about their interests and hobbies, tended to talk wistfully about them as things that were restricted to the domain of school and college. It reminded me of how, as a nation, we remain proud of our 5,000 years of history, rather than being excited about the present, and what we can do for the future. So, taking part in some of the marathons around the country in Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi has been a great learning experience.
In our country
A 55-year-old from Surat was a running mate for several kilometres during the first Delhi half-marathon in 2005, two 20-year-olds were my companions for the last few kilometres as we laboured up Peddar Road during the first Mumbai Marathon in 2004. We’ve exchanged email addresses and have been in touch. As soon as I am in running gear, and see someone similarly attired, I feel an automatic bonding, which I have found reciprocated most times.
Running is the most egalitarian sport—it has got me to chat with world champions, diplomats, truck drivers, men, women, children. The great thing about a marathon is that the vast majority are not athletes and are not running for a position—they are running to change their lives, to just finish, or to improve on their earlier timing. I’ve found running a way to learn from others, get myself and others to smile a bit more, transcend any sociocultural or other barriers that we humans are so good at creating, and have fun in the unfettered outdoors, before we get back to routine.
Over the years, I have found more and more barriers being built within our society by politicians and others as they try to get us to be more insular and parochial. But that’s not how we were meant to be. Just as when we were kids—caste, creed, income didn’t mean much at all. We all played with whoever there was in the park.
There is a need to rebuild some of that, as we connect with people across different dimensions and reknit our rich plural society into the multicoloured fabric that it intrinsically is.
A couple of months ago, I ran in the Pune marathon and in the last 10km, as the water stops disappeared, I found myself catching up with four other runners—two from Pune, one from Nashik and one from Pali in Rajasthan. All of them were thirsty and were running their first marathon. I was the only one who was prepared—I had a water bottle that was full, and some salt. I offered them water and each of them at first politely refused.
Well, another 5km of running did it. After a while I found that it turned into a conversation from a semi-monologue, we encouraged each other and finally, all four of them, one by one, had a sip or two of water, from my bottle. Running had broken another barrier. What a difference running together made for the five of us—none of us knew each other, and perhaps we would never meet again. But we would perhaps recall running together, for a long time to come.
In our city
I run a few times a week at Leisure Valley in Gurgaon, where I live, and over the last few months have been seeing several walkers, smiling at them, or greeting them as I run by. Almost all reciprocate the greetings.
I was in Mumbai a few weeks ago and ran a bit in Colaba Woods and the Sagar Udayan maintained by the Bombay Port Trust. Even though I was there only for a day, I found people smiling back. That was very encouraging.
On 16 December, I was in Hessarghatta on the outskirts of Bangalore, taking part in an ultra-marathon and planning to run 52km. There were about 300 others, most of them running distances which were beyond what they had ever run before. I barely knew a couple of them before I arrived, but by the end of the day, I got to know several as we ran together, achieving something more than we had earlier.
This further convinced me that something as simple as running is the most egalitarian means of coming across people we might not ordinarily meet up with, build bonds along a different dimension and connect as human beings should—without looking for a specific quid pro quo, without having to ascertain caste, creed or income before shaking hands.
In the workplace
Running is a great way to get people to mix across functions, floors, hierarchy and gender. It’s a great way to chat, sweat it out, and bond—preferably in the outdoors, else in a gym.
If there is no gym nearby or in the office, spread awareness of the 5km and longer runs that are happening in the city and get people to train for them.
You will find many other linkages are built across people, families and teams, and this leads to stronger bonds across the organization.
(Rahul S. Verghese is a management consultant. Write to us at email@example.com)