I first met Stephan Van der Merwe at their Sector 18 residence during the 2011 ICC World Cup matches in Mohali. As a South African family based in Chandigarh, the Van der Merwe family was excited about watching their country’s cricket team in action at the IS Bindra PCA Stadium in Mohali.
While the conversation mainly revolved around the famous South Africa based cricket writer Peter Roebuck and the Proteas cricket team, Stephan also spoke about India’s IT dominance and how it had provided him with an opportunity to live and work in the City Beautiful. Six months later, Stephan took part in his first marathon in India, Running and Living Marathon, held in Chandigarh.
Fast forward to 2017. After taking part in more than 17 marathons and half-marathons in the past two years, Stephan is one of the few ultra runners in the Tricity.
As Stephan shows me his pictures of taking part in the Tuffman Shimla Ultra Mashobra 80-km run, the 46-year-old is reminded of his early days in Chandigarh. “If it was not for running, I would not have known the city so well. Back In 2007, there was less traffic and there were very few who would run at the Sukhna Lake. Now I know every street and road in Chandigarh and can even run blindfolded in the city,” he said.
Last month when a sportswear company adjudged Chandigarh the best Indian city with most number of runners in its nation-wide survey ahead of cities like Pune and Mumbai, it only reflected the rise of running community in the city.
While groups like Chandigarh Runners, Chandigarh Distance Runners and The Run Club organise and take part in events like Chandigarh Night Marathon and weekly runs like The Cindrella Run (Nadha Sahib to Morni), The Big Papa (Parwanoo to Kasauli) and 100 Days of Running, Stephan also talks about his experience of organising celebration runs.
“Which place in India other than Chandigarh has wider roads and surrounding hills? That’s the beauty of Chandigarh. You can start running out of your house and by the time you complete running a loop around places like Sukhna Lake and Nepali forest and back to your home, the distance can match a half-marathon,” said Stephan.
However, my question still remains unanswered – How can somebody who has not run more than one km in a go, run a half-marathon or a marathon? For Stephan, it’s his early days at the diamond mining town of Kimberly in South Africa that made him practice running and train his mind, a thing which he says is as important as running.
The latest example has been the formation of running club at his company GP Sourcing in Mohali, where he is the chief technical officer.
“The problem is that people want to start running from the word go. Here at our office, I introduced them to first walk 200m and then run 100m and then again walk for 200m and run. And that we did it for one or two weeks and in three months, all were able to run 5km,” said Stephan.
And while Stephan ran in events like The Comrades Run in 2006, an ultra run between cities of Capetown and Port Elizabeth back home during his early days of running, his 14-year-old younger daughter Anandi started runs of more than 10 km three years ago.
Last week at the Tuffmann run, Anandi finished first in the 20km run in ladies category, while Stephan finished third in the +40 category.
More than 30 per cent runners are women or children in all the three running clubs in Chandigarh. “The running groups provide company and motivation to new runners. You cannot make your running partner or group wait while you sleep. Back home, more than 20,000 runners take part in the Comrades Run. In India, there are not more 2,000 ultra runners. But it will only improve,” said Stephan.
Stephan runs a running blog, http://www.runningwithafriend.com http://www.runningwithafriend.com, where he writes about his experience of running and it is his meetings with villagers and locals in Chandigarh which also motivates him.
From having lassi in villages like Kaimbvala or Kansal to filling his hydration bag at a stranger’s home – Stephan has seen it all. So what’s stopping you from picking up your running shoes and start running?
(Sporting Tales will be a weekly column about sports personalities, sports trends, sports events and more in Tricity)