Ahead of the ‘women-only’ Pinkathon in the city, its brand ambassador Milind Soman tells Shonali Muthalaly that running makes women pay attention to their bodies
“Let’s assume you want to catch an antelope.” Pause. Everyone looks at Milind Soman with polite incredulity. Most of us know him as one of India’s most popular male models. Some people remember him as an actor. And then there are the weak-kneed fans, referring to him as everything from ‘mantastic’ to ‘hunkalicious’. Which is why this tea party borders on surreal. Especially when Mr ‘Hunkalicious’ starts telling us how to chase antelopes.
To put this in perspective, we are at a demure meeting at the MIOT Hospital — over tea and mini-idlis — to discuss women and running. Well, demure to begin with, at any rate. The context is the fast approaching MIOT Pinkathon. The Pinkathon, for which Milind is an ambassador, began in Mumbai in 2012. The run aims to encourage women’s health and fitness, while simultaneously spreading awareness about breast cancer. Last year this women-only event was organised in four cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru — and had almost 12,000 participants. This year, they’re adding Chennai to the list.
“I promote running for fitness because it’s easy,” he says, adding, “We started the Pinkathon to make women more aware of how their bodies function. If you tell women to go for check-ups, they just don’t take it seriously.” He confesses, with a shrug, “And I understand that reluctance. I’ve never had a check up in my life. And I’m going to be 50 years old next year.” However, he cautions, it’s vital to be self-aware. “This is why we want women to run. It makes them pay attention to their body on a daily basis… You’re likely to forget or postpone a check-up. But if you wake up in the morning, and feel you can’t run, then you know something is wrong, and you will see a doctor about it.”
The Pinkathon, in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, offers three categories of runs — three km, five km and 10 km. “You can buy a chip if you want to time your run, but it’s not essential. That’s why we focus on calling it a community run,” says Milind, discussing how the Pinkathon is designed to be a safe, non-judgemental and celebratory space for women of all ages. “Our runners come in hijabs, in saris, in salwars. Even during the training, they’re jumping, dancing and singing,” he smiles.
These spontaneous outbursts of joy aren’t the only reason the former model is now a committed running evangelist. He knows what it’s like to fight all the way to the finish line. “I hated running,” he confessed. But somewhere along the way, Milind decided that completing a full marathon is a necessary rite of passage. “I know how hard it is,” he says, “It was tough to get up to five km. Ten km was worse, 15 was traumatic…” Then he did his first half marathon (21 km). “And it was easy. So easy it was like an epiphany. And that was the revelation. That’s the addiction. The ability to do things that seem impossible.”
Both Team Milind and Team MIOT put down their tea cups to glare at him in unison. Easy? “Running is a natural human ability,” he counters. “For you maybe”, someone snorts, balefully eyeing his rippling muscles. “Okay. I’ve always been fit. I started winning swimming competitions when I was 10 years old, but I stopped competing at 23. When I was modelling I had, like, an amazing body.” As everyone breaks into delighted peals of laughter at how embarrassed he looks about his spontaneously honest pronouncement, he bashfully adds, “Or so I’ve been told.” Then continues, with a grin, “Come on. I was paid for it. And remember, I used to swim five hours a day. It was a carry over.”
Swiftly turning tables on us, he brings up the antelope. “Running is a natural ability whether you think it’s possible or not.” In the vein of Christopher McDougall’s influential book Born To Run, Milind explains how human beings evolved through ‘persistence hunting’. “If you chased an antelope, you would be able to catch it in two to three hours, because we are the only living beings that can keep going because of how our bodies are designed. You run as children. Then you don’t use those muscles for the next 20 years. So when you begin again, of course it’s torture. But at some point your cardio-vascular system will go boom. And you’ll be filled with energy…”
While he maintains that running is accessible, Milind cautions runners against being over-confident. “In Karate Kid, remember how Daniel’s first lesson is waxing the car? Similarly with running, you have to train your body into perfection of movement. You have to learn efficiency. It’s something you intrinsically know, but need to relearn.” He says, “I don’t usually say this — because it may intimidate people, but the truth is, after more than 10 years, it’s only now that I feel I’m really learning how to run,” then adds, “Just allow your body to train itself.”
Why run barefoot?
Shoes change your posture. The thinner the sole, the better your body responds to surfaces. I know people get put off by the dirt on the roads, but it doesn’t bother me — I know I run better when I connect with the ground.
How often do you run?
Two or three times a week. Each run is anything from 15 to 30 km.
I was half-way through a run when I realised that my player had stopped a while ago, and I hadn’t even noticed. So now I run without music.
It honestly doesn’t matter to me. I like to run on the road. Traffic, dogs, potholes, garbage... I love it.
Further proof running is easy?
My hair. (Laughs) I keep it grey on purpose. Then younger people think, if he can run, so can I.
(The MIOT Pinkathon will be held in Chennai on April 13. The run is exclusively for women. Register on www.pinkathon.in)