Why the Mumbai Marathon is special for these runners

Jan 14, 2015, 08:01 IST | Hemal Ashar

Mumbai runners who have graduated to the ultra, more than the punishing 42-km traditional marathon distance, come back to run in the city’s premier event this Sunday. The Mumbai marathon is still very special for them

Full marathoners, describe themselves as a “little crazy”. Why on earth would one wake up at the crack of dawn, months before the event, trudge to the training ground, road or track and start running, even before the sun has started to lift its yellow head for yet another bright and sunny work day?

The Ultramarathon held by the Shivaji Park Marathon Club (SPMC) last year
The Ultramarathon held by the Shivaji Park Marathon Club (SPMC) last year

They make sacrifices through the year in order to train. Late nights go out of the window, social outings thin out till they reach zilch and sometimes work commitments too may be put off (a little procrastination, you know never hurts) for a shot at 42-km.

Where one feels cleansed in heart and soul or sole, for Shibani Gharat
Where one feels cleansed in heart and soul or sole, for Shibani Gharat

Then of course, they train on Mumbai roads, not in the best of condition at all times, potholes and pavements are injurious to limb, gravel and broken sections are part of the obstacle course, stray dogs often yap at heels, (it is not your opponent but the strays that can make you go faster in practice) and of course, traffic smoke and fumes are part of the length and breath (pun intended) of a marathon.

Bhavin Gandhi is going to pace the 2 hrs 30 min bus at the half-marathon on Sunday
Bhavin Gandhi is going to pace the 2 hrs 30 min bus at the half-marathon on Sunday

So, you need to be “a little crazy” to do the full marathon, 42-km distance in Mumbai. A little crazy for the full, but positively insane, for the ultramarathons. Mumbai’s ultramarathoners laugh when they hear which bracket of mental category they fit in.

Indira Baikerikar and the challenge of running
Indira Baikerikar and the challenge of running

‘Positively insane’ it is. Though they do the ultramarathons as a step up and bigger challenge from the 42-km distance, “We love to run in Mumbai, because it is home ground,” is the common sentiment.

Says Shibani Gharat who has several ultramarathons, like the Nilgiri ultramarathon, Khardungla Challenge and Bangalore ultramarathon to her credit, “I have run the Mumbai 42 km several times and am going to run again on January 18. Though I have done ultras, Mumbai is still the Mecca of marathons for me, like it is for so many others.

And I have promises to keep, says Kiran Solanki
And I have promises to keep, says Kiran Solanki

Here, we runners meet so many others from different cities. The terrain is familiar, the cheers from the spectators ,music to our ears. It is here, Shivaji Park to be apt, that I have grown up and spent so many hours training. The streets have a kind of zany, crazy energy that gives wings to your feet and puts air in your lungs that day,” says Shibani explaining why Mumbai still holds its magic over so many runners.

Limbering up at a Mumbai ultramarathon
Limbering up at a Mumbai ultramarathon

Of ultramarathons she says that, “There is a different agenda for ultramarathons, you know you have to sustain yourself for 10/12 hours. You aim for that, while in a marathon it is timing that may be your aim.” Since running is “life-changing” for so many, Shibani recalls two ‘Kodak’ moments or to be more profound, ‘forever imprinted in the memory moments’ during her ultra runs.

“One was when I was doing the Nilgiri ultramarathon (100 km) and we were running through forest. I passed by a Bison. It was a magical, ethereal moment. I was running with a headlamp, the crew support was great and then, suddenly, there was the Bison. Then, again at the Khardungla Pass ultramarathon, it was snowing, as the flakes swirled around me, I felt something, I must be insane I thought.

I had what one would call an out of body experience. Ultramarathons make you think, you cannot believe what your body can do.” Shibani says that at the end of the runs she feels “cleansed, like for so many runners, it is a cathartic experience,” finishes the media professional.

For Kiran Solanki, who will be running his third 42-km in Mumbai, “Mumbai is my home town. This is where my running started and is always very special to me. Though I have run ultramarathons, in Bangalore and one which was held in Mumbai last year, I have also done the Comrades in South Africa, the Mumbai marathon has the flavour of home.”

This Shivaji Park Marathon Club (SPMC) runner says about his ultras, “In Mumbai, it was a debut ultramarathon, so the accent was not timing, there was no particular strategy as such for me, it was more about enjoying the run. In Bangalore, it was a trail run marathon, I finished it in 15 hours."

This time, Kiran Solanki hopes to post a 4 hr 15 min time for the 42-km, and adds that, "After a long time, I am injury free." The Mumbai Chartered Accountant (CA), explains he was diagnosed with diabetes four years earlier. "It was then that I decided to change my lifestyle. I started walking, then running, soon half marathons became marathons and full marathons became ultras.

With running I control other factors like cholesterol, Blood Pressure (BP). I want to send a message to other diabetics that they should overcome the fear of running. There are so many fears like the fear of injury or the fear of getting a heart attack, these are unfounded. With proper training and exercise, you can run like anybody else.” For Solanki, running is the way to a positive attitude, and a mode to combat ailments.

While both Gharat and Solanki will be doing the 42-km on Sunday, it is ‘help others’ time for ultramarathoner Bhavin Gandhi who is the official pacer for the 2:30 bus in the half-marathon. Decoded, this means he will set the pace for the group which aims to finish within 2 hrs, 30 mins in the 21-km run.

Says Gandhi who is training to do a 60-km ultramarathon at Rotorua (New Zealand) in February this year and who has already done the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa, “I worked for 15 years and quit working recently. Now, I am footloose and fancy free.”

Gandhi is using those feet to pursue his fancy, running. “This time, I am helping half-marathon runners to achieve their goal in Mumbai,” says the Santacruz resident. Gandhi says he has seen the Mumbai marathon evolve and one big part is, “Runners are now concentrating on timings. We have groups all across the city, I am with Striders for instance, runners actually wear different colours with elite runners in the group wearing black, others blue, red and so on...”

Of his personal ultramarathon challenge, Gandhi says, “It will be hot in NZ. Also this is a trail run, so there are a lot of hills, I am practising by going to Malabar Hill doing the Taj Lands End incline. It is going to be very challenging and very different.”

Coming to his pace making strategy for the 21-km on Sunday, Gandhi elaborates, “I plan to lead the runners for 10.5 km in approximately 71 to 73 minutes, I will be walking the Peddar Road and Kemps Corner inclines, and try to finish 17km within 2 hours. Then, I have kept about 28 to 30 minutes for the last 4km,” says Gandhi who adds that, “I will keep talking to the group to motivate them, through the course.”

It is not pace making but pace that is key for Indira Baikerikar, ultramarathoner, who is going to be running the 42-km for the third time in Mumbai this year. She is hoping for a personal best sub-4 hour timing and says, “We are seeing slightly warm days but mornings are cooler.

In any case, I have been running and training in warmer weather to prepare for the Sunday run.” This SPMC runner, says when asked about the difference between a marathon and an ultra marathon, “I would say that in the 42-km, the race becomes a mind game after 32-33 km when so many runners hit ‘the wall’ as you say in running parlance and you have to dig out everything you have to complete it.

In the ultramarathon, it is a mind game from the word go, you know you have to last that entire, challenging distance. For the ultramarathon, there are no crowds on the route to cheer you, especially if you are doing trail ultras, in the forest. It is all about self-motivation, being one with yourself, a kind of meditation in motion even,” signs off Baikerikar on a slightly philosophical note.

It is obvious that these ultramarathoners who go beyond the 42-km distance are returning to roots when they do the Mumbai run. Though the distance is shorter the Mumbai course is brutal. If personal bests are the aim, they too will have to pull out that extra something from their running bag to stop the clock at timings they are happy with.

Marathons are about distance, timing, beating the clock and most importantly, conquering the mind, that jumpy little monkey that starts to whisper; ‘why go on? Just give up. Why the hell are you doing this on a Sunday morning? What is there to prove? To who do you have to prove anything?' as one comes towards the 30 or 32-km mark.

Tame the monkey, and keep going. Peddar Road incline, Babulnath flyover, sunbeams dancing on Girgaum Chowpatty, Gothic Wilson College passes by, the Marine Drive stretch looms, take that turn right towards CST, see the red carpet taking you to the finish line, and finally in one surge you are across that line. The 42-km is yours again. The marathon. Those who know it, feel it.

What is an ultramarathon?
An ultramarathon, also called ultra distance, is any sporting event involving running and walking longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometers (26.219 miles).

There are two types of ultramarathon events: those that cover a specified distance, and events that take place during specified time (with the winner covering the most distance in that time).

The most common distances are 50 kilometers (31.069 mi), 100 kilometers (62.137 mi), 50 miles (80.4672 km), and 100 miles (160.9344 km. The 100 kilometers is recognized as an official world record event by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing body of track and field.

Timed events range from 6, 12, and 24 hours to 3, 6, and 10 days (known as multi-day events). Timed events are generally run on a track or a short road course, often one mile (1.6 km) or less.

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