How this chainsmoker ended being addicted to sport

How Vishwanathan Jayaraman used running to conquer a longtime smoking habit, and got addicted to the sport in the process

September 06, 2017 09:25 pm | Updated 10:23 pm IST

Seventeen years ago, long-distance runner Vishwanathan Jayaraman swapped one love for another. He quit smoking and began running, “a transfer of addiction from nicotine to endorphins,” says the 55-year-old, a senior official of the Indian Railways.

He was 22 when he picked up his first cigarette, “It was late by normal standards. A classmate at IIT-Kanpur dared me to smoke,” he says. So he did, and was soon hooked. “Smoke became my first love; by the end of 16 years, I was virtually a chain smoker,” he says.

He tried quitting half-a-dozen times but never succeeded. This time, however, was different because, “I stumbled upon running. Someone told me I needed to do something physical to get over the withdrawal symptoms and sleep better at night,” smiles Jayaraman.

His new love

He was then posted in Delhi, and was a little conscious about running in public, so he invested in a treadmill. “It helped me get over the shyness of running, as I could do it in the privacy of my home,” he says. He could barely run when he started, “not even 100 metres,” but he persevered, slowly increasing distance and participating in races, beginning with the Hutch Half Marathon in 2005 or 2006 (he doesn’t remember the exact year). And though he no longer races — it ruins his running schedule, he says — he makes it a point to run for leisure almost every day.

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 13/08/2017: Vishwanathan, ultra-marathoner and Gandhian who works with the Railways.
Photo: K. Pichumani

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 13/08/2017: Vishwanathan, ultra-marathoner and Gandhian who works with the Railways. Photo: K. Pichumani

Moving meditation

The sight of the wiry bearded runner, clad in a pair of khadi shorts and little else, weaving his way through traffic, gravel and stray dogs, is now a familiar one in the city. Thirty-two kms — that is the distance he runs every day, he says, tracing out his familiar route, which includes the Marina stretch and Gemini circle.

He appears a trifle dismissive of the distance, however. “I could do 42 kms on the Hubli highway when I was posted there,” he says, adding that the weather and roads there were more conducive to running. It was meditative running on that road, he recalls. “There are stretches where you can virtually switch off. You reach Point B from Point A and you don’t know how you got there.”

The running Gandhian

A bag filled with bales of yarn lies in the corner of the sparsely furnished room, where Jayaraman sits hunched over a charkha, concentration writ large across his face. Expertly manoeuvring the wheel of the charkha, he draws long lines of yarn, that he carefully bundles and adds to the pre-existing bale. This will be given to weavers to be woven into fabric for his running shorts and work wear. It is all part of his own personal philosophy — a Gandhian lifestyle that is minimalist, disciplined and simple. A creature of habit, he adheres strictly to an almost-punishing daily routine.

He begins his day way before daybreak, spending a couple of hours on his spinning wheel and walking his dog, Biscuit, before setting off on his daily run. “It is all about working backwards, since I need to finish by 7.30 in the morning, as it gets really hot after that,” says Jayaraman, who runs shirtless and barefoot. A vegan, he fuels himself on regular Indian food, “Large quantities of it though,” he says.

Giving up on footwear wasn’t just about being Gandhian, however. It was also metamorphic for him as a runner, greatly improving his pace and form. He was at the 2012 Auroville Marathon, when he first heard “barefoot” Ted McDonald, a central character in Christopher McDougall’s path-breaking book Born to Run , and a firm proponent of shoeless running. “McDonald was speaking at the run. He said that it was more natural,” he says, referring to the Tarahumara Indian tribe of Mexico, known for long-distance, injury-free running prowess, who never wore shoes.

And yes, it is more economical. “The biggest cost for a runner is his shoes. I actually calculated, it works up to around ₹10/ km — more expensive than taking a cab,” says Jayaraman, who admits that he hates spending money on himself. His transition from shoes to bare feet was smooth and rapid; he never looked back. “My best timings have come after I went barefoot,” he says. He finished the next year’s Mumbai marathon in three hours and thirty-six minutes, beating his 3:50 mark. “Shoes tie you down,” he smiles.

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