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Keep it running

More Indians are running further than ever before. New strides into 2011 will help you and your nation get fitter, faster and better. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 19:29 IST
Samar Halarnkar

'Half or full?' This is the first question that 51-year-old Ram Mallya asks me, rather a strange greeting for someone you don't know. Soon, I realise this is a standard introductory phrase that marathoners exchange as they prepare to do what Indians don't do very well - run. What they mean is: are you running the half marathon (21 km) or the full marathon (42 km)?

I meet many people like Mallya - a chartered accountant and veteran of four Singapore marathons - at the Asian Heart Institute at the far end of a suburban business district.

I have just made a 40-minute journey in a rickety taxi hurtling at 100 kmph across Mumbai's iconic eight-lane sea bridge to hear a doctor talk about a marathon.

I wonder, how many people will - in a city where a day of 24 hours seems hopelessly inadequate and the most popular food is a calorie-bomb called the vada-pao - show up at 11 am on a working day?

As it turns out, the auditorium is full. Nearly 200 citizens, most of them above 30, many in their 40s and 50s, listen in rapt attention to Dr Aashish Contractor, head of preventive cardiology and for six years the medical director of India's most famous race, the Mumbai Marathon.

A lean, lithe man (he's 39) with a shock or hair and the easy gait of a runner, Dr Contractor is an evangelist of sorts, offering medical advice and commonsense tips on running. The session stretches on till lunch, as many runners share their experiences, such as the 60-year-old doctor who speaks of chaffed, bleeding nipples (avoid skin-sticking-when-wet cotton, wear breathable synthetic) and losing toe nails (trim them before running).

It's that time of the year, when cold winds from the great mountains of the north wash across the peninsula, cooling the land, its people and - temporarily - pushing their hot issues to the backburner. So, my mind turns from wrestling with the big questions to taking pleasure from the small things.

Parakeets twist in the crisp winter air over the old mosque in Delhi's medieval-era Lodi Gardens. The blue kingfisher folds her wings, flattens herself into an avian missile and plunges into a pond to emerge with a doomed frog. The beige, plump Labrador puppy, his tail wagging furiously, tries to break free from his leash and join the loud birthday alongside. India's only real skyline is silhouetted against the ochre sun setting beyond the graceful curve of the bay that hugs Mumbai's Marine Drive. Men and women - in jeans, shorts, skirts or burkhas - stroll down the same promenade, as they whisper, giggle, gaze into each other's eyes and celebate young love. Monster 1000 cc Yamahas and Ducatis roar dangerously down the road, their riders abandoning helmets and risking their heads to feel the sea breeze whip through their hair.

When you run, you notice life's finer details.

I am no marathoner. Last year this time I wrote about my ambition: of hitting the 10 km mark. I got there. The recurrence of an old back problem precluded me

from going further. This year, I'm older and wiser. I will work at strengthening my core and my legs before aiming higher. Today, on an average run, I do no more than 6 km. As you can see, it is still enough to make me feel that rush of endorphins, that clear head, that victorious weariness, that lightness of being.

For someone who was called 'Fatty!' all his life, these are great satisfactions.

Dr Contractor says India's running revolution is in its infancy. He watches the sea of people on Marine Drive some evenings and notes that the ratio of runners to walkers is still 1:20. (If running isn't really your thing, walking long and hard is good too.)

Around me, as the new running season wears on, more Indians continue their quest to run longer and harder. The Delhi half marathon is done, as is the Goa river marathon. The Mumbai marathon is on January 16; the Panchkula half marathon on January 15; the Chandigarh half marathon on February 6.

All of them have had or will have more participants than ever before, making some small headway against what is now the world's greatest national health burden of diabetes and heart disease.

The actor Gul Panag, an avid runner, tells me of a study that explains how runners really get into their stride after 30. As I look around at the audience listening to Dr Contractor, I realise how late Indians embrace fitness. I didn't start running till after 40, and Mallya tells me he can't get his teenage son to run.

I believe this is changing. Lots of young people are pounding those tracks, treadmills and our uneven streets, inspiring others to follow suit. There's 30-year-old Sunaina Jairath who runs 7-8 km every day at my favourite, if modest 2 km running track: Delhi's Lodhi Gardens. Jairath, a public relations manager, runs to "connect with herself" and for the adrenaline rush. "The joy of running cannot be expressed in words," says 24-year-old Richa Singh who works for a start-up in Delhi. When I urge her to try words, this is how she puts it, "It's liberating, it's addictive, it's a drug." Puneet, 25, an A320 pilot tells me his theory: "Running makes you a more humble person." Diya Kapoor, 32, a yoga instructor who, after marriage, moved her runs from Mumbai's Marine Drive to Delhi's Rose Garden and Jahapanah Forest and calls her weekly 35 km her "meditation in motion".

There are some to whom running appears to have become as important as the air we breathe, like the 35-year-old Girish Mallya, who has two Bangalore ultra-marathons (78 km) under his belt, apart from other normal marathons in Mumbai (seven times), Singapore and Tibet. My childhood friend and avid runner, Kal Bittianda, has even run an excruciating, painful race in Antarctica, where he wrestled with many layers of clothing and ice in his nostrils and eyebrows.

You don't need to go that far. But it is time to do the first km - or an additional one.