For Jayanthi Sampathkumar (44), running in a sari was never a big deal. To all those who raised a quizzical eyebrow, or dared to ask, the Hyderabad-based runner’s reply would always be: “Just like that.” The earliest signs of disbelief came from a group of construction workers who saw her run near her home. “You can try it too,” she would say, as she breezed past them.
The scepticism only egged her on. Ms. Sampathkumar says, “I’ve grown up watching my mother drape a colourful sari, every single day of my life. I’ve watched as she carried it off with absolute ease, while shuffling around the kitchen; outside while doing her chores, and with such elegance while socialising. The sari is the only attire my mother ever wears. And I wanted her — and other women like her — to know that it shouldn’t hold you back from anything; that you can exercise, and even wear it while sprinting.”
Ms. Sampathkumar will be running the Tata Mumbai Marathon for the first time this year, although she is no stranger to marathons. On August 20, 2017, she ran the fastest marathon dressed in a sari in four hours, 57 minutes and 44 seconds at the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon.
The fitness frontier
Ms. Sampathkumar didn’t begin by running in a sari. She says, “I first took up running in 2015, as part of a family goal to get fit. Back then I instinctively reached out for familiar sports gear: tracks and T-shirts.” This was her attire during her first marathon ever: the Wipro Chennai Marathon in 2016 (Initially scheduled for December 11 that year, the marathon was postponed on account of Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s death, and took place on January 8, 2017).
Having completed her first fitness goal, Ms. Sampathkumar was ready to take on more challenges. “As I took up running, I was becoming increasingly aware of what I was putting into my body, my diet, and my lifestyle in general.” Having already gone vegan, Ms. Sampathkumar decided to work on her diet to increase proteins, and other necessary nutrients needed for running. It was around this time that she also decided to de-clutter her life, starting with her wardrobe. “The idea was to use rather than hoard.” She loves handloom saris, and about a decade ago, decided she would invest in one traditional loom from every State across the country. Naturally, Ms. Sampathkumar’s ambitions lead to a wardrobe that was overflowing. Like most women, she would save her gorgeous saris for ‘special’ occasions. But a quip by her husband got her thinking. She says, “I was cleaning out the wardrobes and he boasted about how little space his clothes took up, as compared to mine. I realised now is as good a time as any to wear them.”
A style that fit
About the same time, Ms. Sampathkumar came across a WhatsApp forward on her runners’ group that spoke of a man who ran a marathon in a business suit and made it to the Guinness Book of World Records. She then began to Google her favourite topics: saris and marathons. “I came across the story of a 61-year-old woman who ran a three-km race at the Baramati Marathon in a navvari (nine-yard) sari; of 76-year-old Usha Soman, mother of model Milind Soman, who joined her son in the last leg of the Great India Run, wearing a sari.”
The stories inspired her. She also chanced upon an existing Guinness category, ‘Fastest marathon in a sari’, and found no takers. Ms. Sampathkumar decided to fill the slot. “Initially, I started running in a sari only when accompanied by my husband as I worried about curious looks.” Slowly she got bolder and realised that people around her were extremely supportive. “My runners’ group egged me on. In time, even passers-by would give me a thumbs-up.”
Support also came from her sari-loving mother. “We’d work together to figure out different styles that would make it easier to run in.” Ms. Sampathkumar has tried every style from the navvari , which was “hard to hold in place without using too many pins” (she also worried about the tucked-in part coming off while running); to the madisar , a traditional technique traced to the Tamil Brahmin community, which she recollects was worn by her grandmother. There were the embarrassing moments: with strong winds, the sari tends to fly. Sari-sprinting also came with a fair share of bruises and cuts; she would often trip while running.
Eventually, Ms. Sampathkumar settled on a ‘modified madisar ’, with two knots — instead of the traditional single knot — to hold the sari firmly in place. In addition, she uses safety pins to hold the layers in place. Despite the modifications there were challenges.
“When you’re running and faced with headwinds or tailwinds, there’s more traction in a sari. It’s harder on the body. But I just realised I would have to train more and harder.” She also mentions the practical aspects: It’s hard enough to use a toilet in a sari, and more so when you’re faced with a mobile toilet.
For the upcoming Tata Mumbai Marathon, she has already picked out a sari, details of which have been sent to the Guinness Records as per their requirements. She will also be videographed by her friend Dharma Teja K., as yet another stipulation set by Guinness. She hopes to beat her personal best at the Mumbai Marathon, by completing the run in four hours 45 minutes. She has her hopes pinned on this one. “Hopefully, Mumbai will serve as the stepping stone for me to participate in marathons abroad, in my saris.”