When I was six or seven, I joined swimming classes. There was a boy down the road, Ashwin, whose mom would drive us there in their car. On the way back, the two of us would sit behind my mom on her beaten up scooter, tired and fresh. In a few years, I got quite good at swimming and started competing regularly, representing my state in a few events. I had to go to the pool twice day; running and exercise in the morning, swimming in the evening. I think that was my first introduction to running. I remember running by the green lawn on the far end of the pool in the morning and talking with Aditya, my best friend.
Closer to home, my brother had organised the kids in our street and the adjacent streets into a team that would play sports against another group of kids from a different set of streets. The team was called Spartans and we only played cricket, I think. My brother would take us to Lal Bagh, a park near my house, for training. We would run circuits of the park, and then around pillars making figures of eight, followed by squats and jumping jacks, and more running. Like professionals.
I never really thought of myself as a fast runner, or even as a runner. Running was just exercise. In school races, I would place second or third in the school. Once, my time for the 100 m was 12.9 s. The kid who won ran it in 11.2 s. There was no one between us, and the difference between the next runners was much smaller. I assumed I was winning only because everyone else was slow.
When I was eleven, I quit swimming and switched to Table Tennis. My friend Chethan, and I continued to go to Lal Bagh by ourselves on alternate mornings, running and playing Frisbee with the doberman dog that came with the old guy who looked like he had been in the military. After frisbee, we would run up and down the big rock near the gate.
At eighteen, I went to Bombay for college. Competitions between the hostels were a big thing for the kids there (they probably still are). In my first or second week, all the freshies, as we were called, were made to run together on a “cross country circuit”. I ran wearing my full-pants because I didn’t know any better. Before I started, some one asked me if I was okay running in my pants, and I shrugged and said, “What’s wrong with pants?”
Anyway, I comfortably kept pace with the guy who was showing us the way, like a brilliant underdog who shows up at the beginning of a sports movie, full of talent and just needing some training to excel. Raju Bhai, my senior who was really passionate about sports (he’s now well on his way to becoming to the captain of India’s first Olympic Curling team) decided to take me under his wing. He pestered me to run more, and even try for the inter-collegiate team. That didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t a fast runner.
My first cross-country race in college, I came first by a big margin. An hour after I was announced the winner, I was disqualified because I had (unwittingly) taken a shortcut, that had saved me all of a 100 metres. I remember walking away and crying by myself, sitting on stone bench in front of the hostel. Raju Bhai came out of nowhere and consoled me, probably with words about how winning doesn’t matter. Because of his constant encouragement and goading, I joined the intercollegiate athletics team.
Those guys were serious. They would go to train three times a week in the morning; running up and down stairs, doing things in the gym with a focus on this body part or that. I had no interest in the gym, but I did like running up and down things. I liked how my legs would start complaining and everything would point towards me walking the last few sets of stairs, but somehow I would keep running. I also enjoyed the team camaraderie that came along with, well, being in a team. I remember once, a guy from the basketball team was teasing us. “Yours isn’t a real sport. It’s just something we use to warm up.”, he said. I snapped back, “Yours isn’t a real sport. It’s just something we play when we’re bored of ours.”
In my mind, though, I agreed with him. Running twenty five times around the running track, my eyes would always stray towards the soccer field. “You’re very distracted,” the coach told me, and he was right. I placed fourth in the 5000 m event. I think I timed 17:56 or something. My best time for the 5000 m has been 17:29, which I still repeat to people, sometimes in the same breath that I say that running is not about the speed.
After an unnecessarily melodramatic chain of emails with the captain, I quit the athletics team. “It’s not you, it’s running,” I told them.
Except for a few cross-country races and a triathlon, I stopped running after that. By the time I reached the US for graduate studies, I had stopped thinking about it. Then, after a few years, I started running again. I think that, at the time, running gave me was a change of scenery and a chance to get away from the rest of my life that I was unfairly categorising as depressing. I ran as much as I liked, and when I liked. There would be months when I wouldn’t run, and then one afternoon, I would wear my shoes and run for 20 km.
Once, when I was running in the county roads that bordered the university town, the sun was setting and the corn fields were all lit up in orange. I was really tired, but my feet kept going, and my mind was completely lost in my footsteps, the sunset, the breeze, and the road. Running had become meditation.
A few years and many flat runs through cornfields later, I moved to Seattle. From my apartment, I would run to Green Lake, make one or two circuits of the lake, and run back. On the way back every time, I would try to run up a steep slope (Fourth street, by Dexter Avenue), all the way up without stopping. I made it only two times during my two years living in Seattle.
I loved running around Green Lake, especially when it was raining. The track around the lake would be empty, raindrops would be streaking down my face and falling off my nose. I would come back home wet and happy, have a hot shower and make myself chapathis and Chhole. I didn’t make particularly good Chhole, but when I sat down to eat it and watch a TV show, everything was good.
I quit my job in the August of 2015 to travel and because I was again unfairly categorising my life as empty and depressing. Over the next year, I ran only a few times. I ran once in Paris, through markets and by that canal that leads to theArc de Triomphe, enjoying the smells of bread and whizzing by french people doing french things. I remember running by a bakery and recognising it from Anthony Bourdain’s show.
I ran once in Argentina on a trail (the Fitz Roy trail, I think it’s called. I took the picture that’s the featured image of this post, on that run) that I was going to hike with my tent the very next day. I loved that run, and I still love the memory of it. I was in the wild by myself, having no idea what lay ahead. New mountains and views and skies just kept opening themselves before me. I remember feeling sad that I was getting tired, that I should have run more in the past just so I could have run more now, in the present.
Fast forward to two months ago. I injured my left ankle while paragliding and couldn’t walk without support for four weeks. After that, I was walking and hiking and carefully observing my ankle while climbing stairs. Even though I hadn’t run regularly in more than a year, I was terribly missing running.
I’m turning 33 in a few months, and I saw this post on reddit about a guy who ran 50 miles for his 50th birthday. And I thought, why not try to run 33 miles on mine? The maximum distance I’ve run so far is 20 miles for a train run. Twenty miles wasn’t too bad, but 33 is 13 more than 20. Will I make it? Probably not. But if I fail, there’s always 34 miles at 34.
Running has been a close friend I’ve had many fights with over the years, a friend that I’m now completely comfortable with. It’s a friendship I want to maintain and celebrate, and so, for the first time in my life. I will be trying to follow a training program (that I made on an Excel sheet in five minutes, but still). My dad has bought me shorts for the occasion.
Writing is another friend of mine, but our friendship has faded away to a smoulder over the years. This whole running exercise might just help rekindle that flame too, so watch this space!