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Home / Opinion / A podium finish isn’t the best reason to keep running

As if flying from Delhi’s sweltering 45° Celsius heat and landing in the relief of Bengaluru’s 21° C was not enough, I was caught unawares by a light drizzle in the evening before what was to be my return to “racing". The big race, TCS World 10k Bengaluru, is considered by many as the biggest 10km event in the country, with the who’s-who of medium-distance athletes flying down from all parts of the world. I, however, just had to complete the distance. I had no time goal in mind. After all, running a race after several years would be a high on its own, its own reward.

Running is supposed to be calming for many people. Several corporate leaders I’ve interviewed have told me how it helps them refresh their mind after a particularly difficult week, or helps them plan for the day ahead as they mentally chalk out a schedule while hitting the road at 5 in the morning. Some have even used it as a networking opportunity. They get to meet like-minded CXOs with whom they exchange greetings, discuss health and fix a “business catch-up". But for me, it has had the exact opposite effect. I run to feel alive, to feel in control of my goals, and to get inspired by people who are sharing the track with me. Maybe that is the reason why I have always stuck to a 10km or 21.1km distance. In my opinion, it offers enough time to observe everyone else on the road, take in the sights (especially if you are running in a new city, by the beach or at a hill station), and yet is never so stressful that you feel the need to stop moving.

As far as calmness goes, I am an image of possibly the exact opposite the night before a race. While every other runner I know follows a schedule of eating good carbs, drinking lots of water and sleeping early, I begin drinking tea to calm my nerves (bad idea, since it dehydrates you more), swap it for a bottle of Gatorade half-way through, and then within an hour, I am reminded of my carbohydrate needs and go on to stuff myself with mashed potatoes.

Having done all that till about 9pm, I am much too excited and jittery (thanks, caffeine!) to sleep a wink, and eventually find myself headed for the race wishing I was instead in my bed.

But this is where it all changes. The crowd in any racing event is the only thing that works for me—in a way not even three bottles of Gatorade can. There are people clutching friends for pre-race selfies, groups huddled together to talk about their pacing strategies, and the odd runner warming up in a corner to avoid getting distracted by all the noise around.

Once the race starts, cheers arise from runners and wayside spectators that push you to go faster. In many races across the country—from Mumbai to Goa, Bengaluru and Hyderabad—there are groups playing music on the side, dancers cheering you on, kids asking for high-fives. One of my favourite memories is from a January run in Mumbai. After having completed 16km, I had slowed down. A young girl standing by the roadside with her family looked at me and yelled, “Girls are best, didi!" I could not have let her down at that moment. So I pushed myself and finished the remaining 5km at a decent pace, reminding myself that the younger generation out there must take cues from us not to give up.

The post-run scenes are no less inspiring. Faster runners often come back to help their friends finish. On more than one occasion, I have seen people on wheelchairs racing in the open category. A running mentor in Delhi has been a guide to a runner who is visually impaired but full of passion. Every time I have seen them on the track, I have heard people cheering loudly, their own wins forgotten.

To each his own, surely. But if one word had to describe the spirit of those who run long distances with no chance of a podium finish, then it would probably be ‘perseverance’. This trickles down to one’s attitude off the running track as well. We learn to push ourselves and shut out distractions to focus on what’s needed to reach the target we have set for ourselves. A big project that seems undoable? Do it. A team which has shrunk? Pick up new skills and pitch in for other tasks. If you ask me, someone who runs long distances and does it only for oneself is a champ. One runs not to win, but to prove naysayers wrong and go beyond one’s comfort zone. One needs to respect the sport and one’s support systems. It is much more than dinner-table conversation, it is about finding an hour to do something special when most others might be asleep, about saying ‘no’ to late-night parties if you have to train. Friends don’t always understand it, but running is to embrace a disciplined way of living.

There are millions of jokes on the internet about how runners are hard to put up with. But to me, each runner—no matter his or her speed or the distance run—is someone who should be celebrated. If runners found a way to keep running during the lockdown months of 2020, even if within their own apartments, they will surely find a way out of any challenge thrown at them. India might still be waking up the joys of running, but it is only going one way from here: ahead and at full speed.

Sohini Sen is a journalist with Mint

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