At precisely 5.45 am on most mornings, come floods or scorching summer heat, a group of bleary-eyed middle-aged men and women are going through what looks like a school PT drill at Juhu beach in Mumbai. They’re warming up to run, but my hunch is that these visuals would turn into video gold if some enterprising soul were to film them. But then, there isn’t another sane soul in sight at this hour. A stray dog or two lazily opens one eye to take in the scene: humans jumping, lunging and stretching. It’s really too early for these Jane Fonda moments, they must think. I do too, when my alarm goes off at 5 am.
One of the things I always ask those who run is why they choose to do so. Most want to tick a marathon off their bucket list, some take to running encouraged by a friend or a family member who also runs, and others, like our coach, have always been athletic. I believe that all of us are after the runner’s high. The rush of endorphin is quite dramatic in my case and hits me the instant I begin running. A friend, whom I conned into signing up for running, tells me that my early morning cheer can be as annoying as a pup who gnaws at all the furniture in the house.
My rush lasts the entire day and the days I don’t run, I’m told I’m a different person: a black hole as it were. I didn’t think running would turn into a lifeline when I took to it in 2013, to get over a whole bunch of things. One of them was to challenge a spine surgeon who issued an ultimatum: I wouldn’t be able to walk if I didn’t opt for surgery. I did a year of physiotherapy and walking got too boring. Thoughts rushed at me and I needed to fade out the noise. I must admit that there’s some clatter when I run now too, but it’s easier to find a quiet space because there’s very little time to think. I’m mostly trying to find a rhythm when I run: am I breathing easily? Is the body torque helping my run? Are my knees and feet doing okay?
A lot of times, I’m discovering a stretch of the city I hadn’t noticed before. The cottages of Ranwar in Bandra, which I’d got to know more about during a heritage walk, the roads that lead to Chimbai fishing village. I have the time to admire the golden laburnum trees in Juhu, without traffic snarls breaking my thoughts.
Those of us who have a tortured expression on our faces, which is most of us really, are struggling to either breathe right or get rid of a cramp or power through physical conditions that are unique to women. Yes, women never have it easy. A lot of times, I wished I were flat-chested so I would be in a much better form when I run, and so that the creep on Juhu beach, who pretends to be chanting some poor god’s name, would quit staring. My stink eye seems to have failed on him, so I’ve learnt how to ignore him. Some women have even have been hit on their backs by bikers while running in Mumbai. It’s a route I’ve taken in the past, all along the Marine Drive stretch, starting at Nariman Point, and I still cannot fathom the malice behind this incident. It’s a tough stretch because running on concrete is far more taxing on the knees and feet — we’re watching out for bumps in the roads, potholes and all eyes are peeled to avoid vehicular traffic. My group, Striders, has a team of coaches who lead and watch out for us on the road, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that we women can never play equals — can we?
When I ran the half-marathon in 2014, I wanted to give up almost every kilometre after I finished the first seven. This was the first time that I had signed up for the 21-km run, which begins at one end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and ends at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in south Mumbai. The maximum I had run while training was 15 km and I was too wound up to get enough sleep the previous night, which explained the fatigue on D-day.
But the mind knows how to shift gears when you run — it’s a survival instinct perhaps. By the time we reached Aarey Milk Colony, I wasn’t focussing on my form but other things like how the booming beats of the dhol cheered us on, and how at Worli Sea Face, there were smiling residents who had spilled onto the streets waiting to distribute water and fruit — I’m told this is an annual routine they look forward to. And I have a thank you: I ran the half-marathon in Mumbai playing a single track on loop: andov.a by an electro-punk group from Mumbai called Mode.AKA. So Sandeep Madhavan and Manas Ullas, take a bow. It was a physical and mental endurance test like no other, and the sense of achievement at the end of it is unparalleled. And for those who will ask: I did not see Milind Soman run the marathon barefoot and am none the sadder for it. There was another sight that will always remain with me.
During the last leg at Marine Drive, I saw a group of Kenyan runners, who seemed to be gliding across the stretch. They looked like a flock of birds, their feet barely touching the road. This is the final shot that I’d like to play in slo-mo a la American Beauty when I’m done running.