What do they know about running, who only of running know
Mumbai Marathon might be a celebration of the spirit of the city but for many enthusiasts, who don’t necessarily make it to the podium, it remains a serious event and they don’t get the attention they deserve
Mumbai: Soon after the Mumbai Marathon ends, images of lanky runners weaving their way through the streets of the city will start to hit. Many among the uninitiated will take a vow: To start running. But such vows are like New Year’s Resolutions. They peter out.
However, there are people who have put the time and the years on the track. And they will run the Mumbai Marathon, such as Girish Mallya, Ram Venkatraman, or Kumar (name withheld on request), who will participate ‘remotely’ from the South Indian city he has shifted to. All of them know a few things about running.
“A good run is like discovering a great single malt or an exquisite chocolate you didn’t know about. Is there any other metaphor you can think of to explain why people like us go running?” Girish Mallya asks over the phone from his home in Chembur on Thursday morning.
Mallya’s name is familiar to many on the city’s running circuit. And his question is rhetorical. He earned the respect of his peers in India over the years for having done a spectrum of runs through places as diverse as the Sahara Desert and the Satara Hills.
So, what’s with Mallya and the Mumbai Marathon? Turns out, while he has run all over the world, this is home turf, and on Sunday, he will be the only person at the start line to have participated in all the 18 editions of the Mumbai full marathon since inception.
That is why most runners of consequence in Mumbai and other parts of India are rooting for Mallya and others such as him. But how they root will not be livestreamed nor will their displays of support be visible to the spectators en route. All the focus, instead, will be on the elite athletes, such as the wiry Ethiopian and Kenyan runners, who are expected to make it to the podium.
Be that as it may, what people such as Mallya and many others such as him know is that they will turn up at the race because “it is the only day of the year when pedestrians are allowed on the Sea Link”.
Then there is unpredictability of how the run may turn out. To place that in perspective, this year, the 2023 edition has witnessed a record number of registrations. People want to be out. Those who have tracked marathons over the years know that of the people who sign up, at least 15-20% don’t turn up. The veterans expect fewer people to drop out.
Larger numbers of people can make runs difficult and that adds to the unpredictability. But people such as Mallya, Venkatraman and Kumar have learnt to take it in their stride. There is some irony in this as well because most serious runners dislike spectacles and crowds. Runners like to run alone. They are understated and talk to each other, silently. To use a cliché, when running, their actions do all the talking.
But what most people will see on the day of the event are almost choreographed pictures of people in all kinds of costumes that look like they don’t belong to a sporting event. There will be the usual line up of big-name corporate leaders, bureaucrats and celebrities who sign up for the ‘Dream Run’ – officially a distance of just 5.9 kilometers. But how would those outside the circuit know they are not regular runners?
Most people won’t know that to train for runs such as this and stay in shape, Mallya, Venkatraman and Kumar practises in all kinds of ingenious ways. On his part, Mallya runs from his home to the workplace and between meetings. His backpack carries multiple changes of clothes and people such as him clean themselves with wet towels and talcum powder in the washroom so they appear fresh.
Venkatraman manages his daily runs close to where he stays. As for Kumar, he will miss the run this year because he had to relocate to another city. In solidarity with his running buddies, Kumar will, however, run the half marathon in the city he has shifted to.
However, such stories don’t make it to the public domain. What makes it out there are those of mini-celebrities that have public relations team who work hard to doll them up in designer gear.
This is not to suggest all celebrities are fake. What the mainstream narrative will not capture is how much harder it is for people such as Tata Group chairman N Chandra or Anil Ambani of the ADAG Group; or a career bureaucrat such as BMC commissioner Iqbal Chahal; for that matter actors Rahul Bose, Milind Soman and Gul Panang to train for such runs.
Venkatraman co-founded Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the earliest running groups in Mumbai. This Sunday, MMR will have 40 volunteers stationed at three points across the route.
It is registered as a not-for-profit entity. One way it spends the funds it collects through the year goes to ensure the volunteers who on the route stay there, until the last runner crosses the finish-line, just so they can offer a fellow runner, celebrity or not, extra water or perhaps a few shouts of encouragement, just to keep them going, because they need it.
The reason this group came together was to create a formal entity to support Mumbai’s nascent running community. Once upon a time, many of them used to train inside the pristine Aarey Forest.
Over time, early runners such as him could see the issues first-hand. Most narratives were focussed on the peripherals. There were few that celebrated running, respected the runner’s ethos to do what you do quietly, nor attempted to understand why runners run.
This is where the contradiction begins as well. How do you bring people together and yet let them be alone?
“We congregate at a certain time on the first Sunday of every month to run,” says Venkatraman. After agreeing on the distance and the end point, everyone takes off at a pace each one believes works for them. That’s one way to get people together. “No one competes. We support.”
This is the sentiment Haruki Murakami captured in his book ‘What I talk about when talk about running’: “In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”