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Exclusive: Milind Soman’s journey to becoming a marathon runner at 43

  • In his new memoir, the former champion swimmer, supermodel, actor and entrepreneur gives us a ringside view into his unconventional fitness regime
  • This exclusive excerpt on him turning a marathon runner will inspire you to get off your feet in the new year

Milind Soman during the Rani Run held in Noida to promote Pinkathon, in 2017.
Milind Soman during the Rani Run held in Noida to promote Pinkathon, in 2017. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

D Day had dawned.

Well, all right, not quite dawned, if you wanted to get technical about it—the hands of the great clock in the tower of Bombay’s soaring, sprawling, historic Victorian Italian-Gothic railway station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, showed 6.40, which meant sunrise was still a way off. The race of my life, however, was due to start in five minutes. Four to five hours hence, assuming all went well, I would be ticking off one of the items on my ‘acts of endurance’ bucket list; an item that, along with summiting Everest, had graced this list since I was a boy of eight. At the age of forty-three, I was all set to run my very first full marathon.

It had taken me thirty-five years since that list was drawn up to get to this point, mostly because I had spent twenty-five of them actively detesting running. There was a reason for it—once I had discovered swimming (which happened a little after I had made that list) and gotten accustomed to the joy and lightness of moving in a zero-gravity environment, gravity had become, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute drag. In those twenty-five years, I had been national swimming champion and supermodel and TV star and Bollywood actor—none of them, I feel compelled to add, careers I had actively pursued or wished for myself. Through it all, however, I had successfully avoided running. Even as a child, I had found creative ways to skip the mandatory warm-up jogs around the pool.

Made In India: By Milind Soman with Roopa Pai, Penguin Random House, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Made In India: By Milind Soman with Roopa Pai, Penguin Random House, 256 pages, 499.

But life has a way of bringing you right back to ground zero when you are least expecting it. One morning in 2003, as I lounged around in my mom’s house, scanning the newspaper, a report caught my attention. Sports-management company Procam International, it said, had just announced that it was creating, on the lines of the New York, London and Boston marathons, India’s very first, very own big-city marathon. The property was going to be called, after the title sponsor, the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) (today known as the Tata Mumbai Marathon), and the race would be run on the third Sunday of January each year, when Bombay was at its least muggy.

I sat up. In some dusty recess of my brain, a long-forgotten memory stirred and stretched. A marathon! There was something golden and heroic and mythical about the word itself, conjuring up visions of ancient Greece and unbowed heads and bloody battlefields. And I, thirty-seven years old, and at a point in my working life where things were good and steady but not particularly exciting, was ripe for a midlife crisis, a brand-new challenge, or both. My various careers in the glamour industry had each brought me a wealth of new experiences and a generous measure of fame and money and success, enough of it for me to realize that they weren’t the really important things. I had been looking for something more ‘real’, and now I had no more excuses—the marathon was coming to my own city. It would never get easier than this. I decided to sign up and train for it.

Sensibly, I chose the half-marathon as my first challenge. I trusted my body. I knew that with a bit of disciplined training and some tender loving care as far as the right nutrition was concerned, I could get it to do what I asked of it. After all, I had put it through its paces in the swimming pool, day after day, for no less than fourteen years, between the ages of nine and twenty-three, so the basic body conditioning and mental strength required for a feat of endurance was already in place. I would only need to remind my body of it, and its various moving parts, a tad rusty from disuse, would have to be freshly lubricated and shined up. The only question was how that was going to be done....

I trained for a full three months, fitting my workouts into my film-shoot schedules. At that time, I was shooting in Malaysia for a Hindi crime thriller called Jurm, starring Bobby Deol, Lara Dutta and Gul Panag. The fact that Gul was part of the film turned out to be fortuitous—being a fitness freak herself, she signed up for the half-marathon with me, and the two of us began to train together in the kind of humid conditions that mimicked Bombay’s.

I had expected it to be very tough to get back to a decent level of fitness, but the moment I began training, I fell easily, almost gratefully, into the old remembered rhythms of sporting discipline—getting to bed early, waking up before the sun, drinking plenty of water, eating meals—and guilt-free, hearty ones at that, to replenish energy and rejuvenate aching muscles—on time. I ran on the treadmill until I could do 10 kilometres without a break, realizing in the process how much I hated being in a gym. A couple of weeks after that, I moved my training out into the streets for good. Soon enough, I was doing 15-kilometre runs effortlessly.

I had been told time and again by friends that, counterintuitive as it might seem, a runner in training should not run 21 kilometres regularly if he was planning to run a 21-kilometre race—he should run 15 or 17 kilometres instead, conserving his strength for race day. On the big day, I was told, the adrenaline rush that came with competition and the natural high of running with thousands of others would give the body the extra burst of power it needed to see one over the line comfortably. There were dire warnings as well, about everything that could and would go wrong, apart from all the nasty unexpected surprises that one should brace oneself for. I listened and read and processed and, not knowing any better, did as I was directed.

The day of the inaugural Mumbai Marathon in 2004 dawned bright and clear. I set off at a good pace and completed the 21-kilometre course in 2 hours 5 minutes, with almost ridiculous ease. None of the terrible things I had been warned about had come true. I was stunned. And, expectedly, very self-congratulatory. Despite the fact that I had put my body through no serious physical training for almost fifteen years, despite all the abuse I had heaped upon it in a decade and a half of easy, louche living—alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, endless cups of sugar-saturated chai, late nights, parties—my body had proved it was still my ally; it had still come through for me like a champ. After far too long, I was experiencing the phenomenon known as ‘sportsman’s high’—the exhilarating feeling of well-being when your mind and body have worked in sync to achieve something physically demanding and therefore fulfilling—and I realized I had missed it dearly. Obsessive by nature, I was instantly hooked to my new fix—on that third Sunday of January in 2004, a runner was born.

I ran the half-marathon at the SCMM every year for the next four years, improving my timing to a very respectable 1 hour 39 minutes at the 2008 edition (I had hoped to complete in ninety minutes, but that was not to be). It was after that race that NDTV got in touch with my film-production company, Face Entertainment, with an idea for a new show. They would love for us to produce a six-part series for them called How To Run A Marathon, they said, which they proposed to air over the six Sundays leading up to the next SCMM. The brief went something like this: each episode would have lots of insights and tips from fitness gurus to sports-medicine experts to doctors and nutritionists, to help those who proposed to run the SCMM. I would not only be conducting the interviews but also putting all those tips into practice, because—plot twist!—I would be training to run the full marathon myself. The last episode would feature me as a participant in the actual race, and I would be filmed all the way. A 42-kilometre reality show, in other words. Would I be interested?

Would I be interested? Of course I’d be interested! I’d been meaning to ‘graduate’ to a full marathon for a while, and this was the perfect set-up. Face Entertainment had produced several series for NDTV before this, so the production itself was never going to be a problem. But the other part? Putting myself out there, training for and running my first marathon, in the critical glare of the television cameras? You would have thought that would have scared me at least a little, but it didn’t; instead, it got me tremendously excited.

Five episodes of the series had since been canned and telecast. And here I was, in the Sunday predawn dark, ready for the sixth one—that of the race itself—to begin filming.

A record 36,000 people were running the SCMM that year, although only 2,000 of them would attempt the full marathon; the others were running the shorter races, including the half-marathon, the 6-kilometre-long Dream Run, the Senior Citizens’ Run and the Champions with Disability event. As I warmed up, I gazed at the beautiful, imposing facade of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in front of me, remembering with a sudden shudder that only seven weeks earlier, this very building had been the starting point for what was the very antithesis of the positive energy that surrounded it today—a terrorist attack aimed squarely at the heart of Bombay that had left over 150 people dead, an event that the world now simply referred to as 26/11. Looking at all the colour, excitement, anticipation and noise around me that morning, however, it was as if all that had never happened; as ever, the never-say-die spirit of Bombay and her people had triumphed; the trauma had been written over, forgotten.

The starter’s whistle went, and the first line of amateur marathon runners from across the country began to stream out into the streets of my city. I’m not, as a rule, the sentimental type—in fact, I have often been accused by girlfriends of having no emotions at all—but as I watched them go, I felt a surge of something like love for this megalopolis that I had called home for over thirty-five years, this fabled city of dreams that kept a million hopes afloat, this hub of big business that turned the wheels of the country’s economy, this grimy, glittering city by the western sea that had welcomed so many into her capacious heart and made them her own.

The runners just ahead of me began to move. I did a quick analysis of my condition—my mind was clear, my body felt strong and healthy, all was well. Allowing for the inevitable blood, sweat and toil that a four- or five-hour run in humid conditions would demand, I reckoned the race wasn’t going to be a killer. As before, I had trained assiduously, for four months this time, both on and off camera, completing a couple of 30-kilometre runs in the run-up to today. Seriously, how much more difficult could 42 kilometres be? I was soon to find out.

Edited and excerpted from Made In India: A Memoir, with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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