A long-distance relationship

S. Balaji, who has run thousands of kilometres, talks about what it takes to be a marathon runner

August 11, 2016 03:56 pm | Updated 03:56 pm IST - S. Balaji, comrades Ultra Marathon, South Africa, Coimbatore marathon, volunteers

See you at the finish line! S. Balaji at the Comrades Ultra Marathon

See you at the finish line! S. Balaji at the Comrades Ultra Marathon

I set the alarm so that I won’t be late for my early morning appointment with S. Balaji. He is a marathoner; not just any old runner, but one who has done the ‘Ultra’. For other running ignoramuses like me, an ultra marathon, also called ultra distance, is a run that is more than the marathon distance of 42.195 kilometres. ‘Wow!’ was my son’s response when I told him about the meeting. “Ask him how he trains and about his diet,” he instructs me. Any significant conversations with my son, that elicit more than a monosyllable in response, involve either running, or food.

In my best track pant and tee shirt, I nervously await the marathon man. There is the sound of running feet and a slim, fit guy in shorts, tee shirt and footwear that looks like gloves for his feet, halts in front of me. We shake hands and set off on a walk as we talk. “I tried out every sport there was in school and was an utter failure in each one, so I began running,” laughs Balaji. I look disbelievingly at him and he assures me it is true. He also feels this is the reason may be why more and more people are taking to running — all those who were either too tall or too short, too thin or too fat to try out for any sport. “So many of us are put down in childhood. But, size, age, gender, status…everything is irrelevant to a runner.”

To the inevitable question of ‘Which has been your most unforgettable run’, he says, “Every run with my friends is memorable, no matter the distance or time. If you ask about a specific run, my experience of chasing a chain snatcher and failing miserably would rank as memorable. It just reminded me how bad I am at running!” He loves reading posters and graffiti as he runs past them. “They are hugely entertaining and are like Facebook posts for those who do not have Internet!”

Balaji refuses to take himself seriously but acknowledges that running has changed his view on life. “I meet a lot of positive people from diverse backgrounds and each has an interesting story.” He has also worked for several years with an NGO that works with children from disadvantaged background. He saw how running gave them a focus and purpose in their otherwise abusive and neglected lives. “These children felt a sense of acceptance when they ran.” Balaji is involved with the organisation of the Coimbatore Marathon on October 2. He has helped organise other Marathons too such as the Auroville one. He shares his thoughts on the marathon.

On organising Marathons: Each Marathon has a unique spirit. The way it is conceived and organised is different. For example, the Auroville Marathon came about as a people’s initiative. A handful of runners there decided take it to the next step and set up a Marathon. In Coimbatore, the Marathon is institution driven. Institutions got together and initiated it. But in either scenario, it is the runners who are the most important component.

On Fitness : Just be active, get up at five and see the sunrise is my mantra. I don’t do any elaborate training, I just run. Before big events, I may run a little bit more, otherwise I just keep active. (Balaji is vocal about ‘the last mile connectivity’ everyone is talking about in public transport. Nothing is more reliable than your legs, he says). Using two wheelers for ridiculously short distances, air conditioned vehicles…fresh air and exercise are diminishing in the lives of children. It is good to catch them young and motivate them to start running early.

Diet : Curd rice and pickle! And, I avoid any store-bought food. I think if we eat what we normally do and not overeat, we should be fine.

On the memorable ones : I ran the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa in 2012 from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Comrades was instituted in 1921by war veterans. The 89.2 km has to be completed in 12 hours. The guy who reaches the finish line at 12 hours and one second doesn’t qualify! Some friends persuaded me to register and I did so with no great expectations. But the ambience there was electrifying with 50,000 to 60,000 spectators all along the way cheering you on. It is the last two kilometres that is the toughest.

But my first Marathon was in 2006. It was the Mumbai Marathon and I ran the 5 K. I booked myself a plane ticket much to many people’s consternation. ‘A plane ticket to go running in Mumbai?’ was the question, both asked and unasked!

Then there was the memorable temple run where we covered about 175 kilometres over three and a half day. We visited nine Navagraham temples in Thanjavur district. I also trekked the Mt. Kailash Circuit. Another memorable journey was when I cycled solo from Kanyakumari to Vasco-Da-Gama in 18 days.

Coimbatore Marathon: I haven’t run in this marathon but am helping organise it. That’s as good as running it. As organisers we don’t choose any specific roles. We do what has to be done at any given point of time. Marathons are all about participation of people - runners, volunteers, spectators and so on. The ultimate aim is make sure that each one of them feels he or she is part of the event. It is the people who make an event successful.

For Balaji, the most important aspect of long-distance running is its democratic approach and the camaraderie it fosters. “This is not a race. There are no winners and losers. Running helps you discover the strength you have in you.”

Quick facts

To register for the Marathon go to www.coimbatoremarathon.com

Registration closes on August 31 or earlier depending on numbers reached

Registration fee: Rs.800 for 10k and half-marathon; Rs.500 for 5k. Student discount of Rs.100 on production of valid id

Visit the website for more details or email info@coimbatoremarathon.com or call 8939801188

The proceeds go towards the Coimbatore Cancer Foundation

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