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Saris and salwars make for perfect running gear. Photo: Anu Vaidyanathan
Saris and salwars make for perfect running gear. Photo: Anu Vaidyanathan

The ‘Babushka’ brigade

Do our mothers and grandmothers have something to teach us when it comes to endurance and enduring?

I have met a lot of determined, older women. In Bengaluru, on several mornings, running through Malleswaram ensures repeat encounters with said women. They typically dress in saris (and sweaters, since most mornings are crisp) and walking shoes and have one or two other women walking with them. The subjects of conversation are varied and entertaining, in the minuscule timeline when I get within earshot on my runs. Sometimes, they discuss recipes for the perfect sambhar. Sometimes they discuss jobs, either their own or their children’s or other family members’. Sometimes they discuss politics. For a brief period, they even discussed actor Tiger Shroff’s growing influence in their living room.

Whatever the topic may be, Malleswaram and beyond, I can count on my unknown but steady company to keep my runs entertaining, even safe. These women are not always in groups. The lone walker is a bit of a rarity, but there are a few regulars. I typically end my runs at 7am but the band of walking Babushkas go on for long after that.

Of late, I wonder often whether our mothers and grandmothers don’t have something to teach us when it comes to endurance and enduring. Before the age of the washing machine, the dishwasher and the iRobot, women seemed to still find a way to swing a career, nurse their children and make time for the impossible stack of priorities which men are so intimidated by. In running lore, Olympic athlete Priscilla Welch was one such Babushka in my book. Starting her running career at the young age of 35, she went on to become pretty prolific in her own right.

Most of my questions for people who have the potential to impart some knowledge have not been about what pace to run my 100m intervals at. They have been about how to go about my life and include this notion of excellence in it.

I have worked with a couple of mentors. Some have been super-organized, some not-so-organized, but all of them have had a very deep influence in my day-to-day life. None of them have ever set foot in India, though...so it would be fair to say that most of my motivation is based in a very broad imagination. I am inspired by people, most of all. In that book Running With The Legends: Training And Racing Insights From 21 Great Runners by Michael Sandrock, which sat on my bedside in the years when training in less than ideal conditions, two stories stood out. The story of Frank Shorter running in some desert, feeling the sun on his back (we can never feel the sun on our back without travelling for miles in my hometown, so I used to feel the sun on my back by proxy), and Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first Olympic marathon for women—maybe these two had the answers, I thought.

I had the opportunity to interview Samuelson once and I was surprised at how down-to-earth and sensible she sounded. And no, she was not impressed by gadgets either. She was vocal about inclusion and a focus on health, especially for the younger generation hooked on fries and highly processed foods in the US. Granted, this Babushka was American but I don’t think our own children are too far from this right now. Since when did fast food replace a fully cooked meal?

Food has become even more central to our lives now, whether or not we realize it as we traipse through the neighbourhood supermarket. Perhaps part of the endurance lesson several Babushkas have taught me in particular revolved around food, fitness and freedom. The freedom to walk at 6am, with the two people you have known for most of your life, talking about important topics and then not-so-important topics, wearing a sari, canvas shoes, a nose ring, and a sweater, when necessary. I often dream of joining them, if nothing else, just to say hello. I also dream of growing that old and strong, being a keeper of tradition, with a will that is perennially out of reach.

Anu Vaidyanathan is a long-course triathlete, the first Indian to compete in the Ironman and the first Asian to complete Ultraman Canada. This is a fortnightly series on running.

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