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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Running fever

A remote village in eastern Maharashtra takes baby steps towards becoming a nursery of marathon runners. Shivani Naik visits Sagroli where children start their day by running barefoot on the state highway

February 24, 2007 11:25:30 am

THERE are a few givens in marathons: photo-finishes happen seldom, beaming-smile photo-ops are rarer still; the weak-hearted never manage to win and the Kenyans never seem to lose. Add another set of truisms to that: nothing propels marathon runners to plod on further than bare pockets and emptier stomachs. Cut across continental lines—screen the current top run-guns from China and Russia if the African example seems trite—and the results are startlingly similar: you’ve got to be insanely driven or hopelessly impoverished to be willing to take up the challenge of the Big Run in your young years.

We in India tend to rush out with tri-colours and wrap the dutiful nationalistic sentiment around every sporting achievement and be coy about money-matters. Step into Sagroli village, and you won’t grudge sportsmen the money they earn.

Now, parroting the patriotic theme is common to Sagroli too. Teenaged runners from this arid, non-descript village in the Nanded district of eastern Maharashtra will voice their desire to represent the country at the next Olympics, and even bring home the gold. Once on the beaten narrow state highway though, these trainees of the Sagroli Sunrise Project line up at the starting grid keeping paper-chits in their pockets, which bear the amount they will earn if they cross the target-timing to complete a 7 km-daily route.

“Trophies, certificates are all fine— they make you happy for a day or a week. We want to be realistic—there’s no better incentive than money,” says project convener Deepak Kanegaokar, who hands out cash in multiples of thousand.

Sagroli is a pilot project based on marathon’s unwritten scouting law: scan the rural-side for lean frames whose daily struggle for survival tones up the calves and lungs. Layered with tenacity, these body types are hard to find on four-laned urban roads, which may host one marathon for every million SUVs passing on them every year.

Carried out of the Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal—an umbrella of schools in an obscure corner of the state, the project hand-picks marathon hopefuls from amongst a school comprising orphans, remand home boarders and students of a modest Sainik school—over 90 per cent belonging to the socially and economically deprived classes.

A dried-up river bed, a small hillock, a tar road-bridge which rattles under the impact of huge lorries and a half-baked athletics track at school form the training base for the group of 50-in the 8-19 age-bracket. And the neatly-folded paper scribbled with their run-and-earn figures provides the motivation as they go about touching the Andhra border check-post at Bodhan daily and do it thrice over to complete the 21 km mileage once a week.

“It is definitely about giving their talent an outlet, but also about breaking the caste barrier. Sports provide them a platform—where no one can question their background. Its simple—the better your timing, the higher you rise on the podium,” explains Kanegaokar, adding that education with its admission formalities is not really free of humiliating caste-posers in rural India. Running here is literally an expression of breaking free.

Picked as skinny aspirants—after being rejected by the state-run Krida Prabodhini sports scheme for being under-weight, the school authorities took it upon themselves to add some bit-bulk to the skeletal frames. Principal Arvind Deshmukh recalls how many returned teary-eyed from the trials— denied an activity they believed they were naturally adept at. “They were rejected because they did not meet the basic weight requirement. But we didn’t exclude them from our project, and in turn they never lost heart,” he says.

Carbo and protein loading was introduced with Kanegaokar entering the kitchen himself to chart out a breakfast diet—rich in sprouts and soya, besides food supplements. This man, dabbling in chemical businesses in Mumbai, who had dared to take his perfume brand to markets in Paris and broken even, went back to his small-town roots of kerosene stoves concocting, mixes to suit both an active athlete’s voracious appetite and the school’s strictly vegetarian insistence. Eggs were exempted—they are gulped down raw, after breaking the shells with no fuss.

A finance firm from Chennai was roped in for a monthly donation of Rs 50,000 fulfilling their CSR-criterion, and a training regimen put in place to prepare the runners who would pound Mumbai’s streets at the high-profile Standard Chartered marathon two years ago.

With no one being eligible for even the 21 km half marathon since they were well under 18, the Sagroli contingent ran the 7 km-dream run, finishing with winners in both the boys and girls section—a proud 1-2-3 for its girls who had only days ago been scandalised at the thought of running in shorts.

Running bare-feet as they do back in the village, the group attracted suitable attention. But it was 12-year-old Sunita Kanna’s confident reply at the obvious query, which fetched them adoration. Asked rather tactlessly if they could not afford footwear, Sunita had retorted: “We wouldn’t wear shoes even if we could afford them. They are an added 1/2 kg burden, and we like running light.”

After getting over the enormity of the skyscrapers of the western metropolis and steering clear of the crowd after a mini-stampede, Sagroli’s young guns had learnt their first lesson of marathons – much bigger than coach Bhagwan Nagargoje’s constant refrain of a heel-toe running technique. “As first-timers to a city, they were told to not get stuck in the crowd. So they positioned themselves in the front row and then shot ahead like bullets,” recalls Nagargoje.

“Intimidated by the affluence at first—especially staring at the branded shoes all around, they slowly realised they were more powerful despite running barefoot,” says Kanegaokar.

A quick trip to Fashion Street to spend their prize earnings saw the boys return with strange picks—a red Tee to go with orange pants, but like second-placed Shivling Dongardive, now 17 and one among 5 orphaned children, says, “Now, we know we need to save up for travelling to competitions, and we’ll make sure we can fend for ourselves so the younger lot can be sponsored. We learnt how to spend, as much as to earn.”

Results came in quicker than expected with wins in road races at Vishakhapatnam, Tirunelveli and nearby Aurangabad, and principal Deshmukh believes that this stemmed any funds-related frustration from setting in.

Project Sunrise hit the big-time when their best bet Rameshwar Chitgire became the first of success stories—to have made it to the state’s Federation Cup squad recently, on the back of titles at four cross-country events, and a state-meet where he finished third behind seasoned runners from Railways and Services.

Not that he needed the mop of curly to qualify as Sagroli’s poster-boy, but the 19-year-old keeps it anyways. Along with the gold chain he bought from his paper-chit earnings amounting to Rs 45,000—a far cry from the times when he saw only crumpled notes and coins at home in Marathwada, from where he reached the remand hostel at Sagroli at 14, after his parents declared they couldn’t afford to keep him at home.

He is an icon on the school campus, having picked up a few more followers since he turned down an offer to join a private athletics club to stick around in familiar environs.

“I think it’s important that I stay around for the youngsters. When kids from Sagroli start, they don’t consider themselves good enough. They need a role model here to boost their confidence,” Chitgire insists, throwing back his stylised mop of hair.

Today cricket stands banned at Sagroli, except on Sundays, when one movie screening is also allowed on national television for residential boarders.

“They remain obedient and grateful for what they are getting. Since they are poor, have no attachments of a family back home, no city-style distractions, and have the fire in the belly, it is not difficult to put them through exacting routines,” says coach Nagargoje, who retired from the armed forces seven years ago and took up the position of a physical instructor, bringing with him the discipline and commanding boom of a Serviceman.

“Their biggest fight is against their own bodies—to wake up at 5, keep running when limbs are heavy with lactic acid and ensure that they don’t get trampled upon in competitions since most are very small at 12-13,” he adds.

The bigger challenges lie ahead: beating the politics-infested sports bodies while asserting their merit during selections, and performing in big events on par with those who can boast of better facilities.

But still in their nascent stage, these youngsters would like to stick to the simple formula: lesser time for greater distance. Running, minus all the complexities of competition, can be quite liberating. Aditya Kushan, who came to the military school at Sagroli from Yavatmal after his father died of brain-tumour states it succinctly: “We are not millionaires, we won’t get carriages or big cars to travel. But we have our strong feet, so we will run and make up the distance.” Kushan’s father was a writer, and would have been proud of his son’s choice of words.

The SOS village – an affectionate shelter

While the residential school set-up has ensured that athletes (20 of the 50 are housed here) devote all their time and attention to training, the SOS children’s village,Balgram, helps these orphans to return to a group of nine, they’ve come to call family now. So, instead of the dull bunks—typical of hostels and strict wardens overseeing discipline—12 Balgram families have seven neatly lined beds for children in different age groups, and an Aai (mother) and Mama (maternal uncle) organising the household, lending each housing unit a homely touch. “We want them to come back to families, not a hostel,” says principal Arvind Deshmukh, adding how the prize-winning model for students till Class 12 has inculcated a sense of dignity to go with the discipline here.

Families are currently competing for number of members donning the maroon-and-blue track suits of the Sagroli Sunrise Project; the sporting outfits deemed a major status symbol in the village here. “We may be orphans but we go back to a mother who’ll come and cheer for us when we train, and sisters who give us a nice massage-rub after a long tiring training session,” says Savita Kamble, Sagroli’s top woman runner at 16. Her current aim: Get the rest of the tribe hooked onto running, to complete a sporting family picture.

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