Every year, the tradition of a city-based marathon grows. In India’s case, that tradition is the Mumbai marathon. Started 20 years ago, the organisers say that a staggering 55,000 people will run in this year’s edition on the 15th of January. Two-time Olympic gold medallist Yohan Blake is the ambassador this year. The city, starved of a marathon after Covid forced a two-year break, is expected to take the chance to participate in large numbers.
I have never run a marathon and do not plan to. Neither have most people. This may make one wonder why people run a marathon in the first place. Preparing for a marathon becomes a purpose and a fitness goal; participating in one makes one feel part of a large community of similarly tuned people, and completing your goal offers a massive sense of achievement. The feeling of crossing the finish line, cheered on by spectators as endorphins rush into your system, has been described by many as one of the most memorable in their lives. Especially since many runners are amateurs, or doing it because running is an interest or a passion or a hobby that comes to life during marathon season.
There are other activities that can make one feel this way, of course. But the marathon is probably unique in one particular aspect. By being goal oriented (with distances as a goal) and having scientifically sound progressive training methods, it is the one sporting event that can push people who are not into any other fitness routine, to develop one. For some, the marathon becomes a “transformation point”. Especially if they are suffering from life-threatening health issues.
“If you have had a chronic long-term disease, it has an impact on mental health and this can differ from person to situation. Self-doubt; the questioning of why me; and insecurities about doing regular activities are at the forefront. Everyone has a different journey and we want to get them on the spectrum where they feel better than before. This [training for a marathon] becomes a transformation point because ironically they get fit because of the disease,” says Dr Ashish Contractor, who is the director of sports medicine and rehabilitation at HN Reliance Foundation Hospital.
One of his patients is 63-year-old Madhvee Pandya, who went for a routine checkup and found out that she had liver cirrhosis without any history of smoking or drinking. While it came to her as a shock, she admits she had no fitness routine till then. “A schoolteacher’s life is tough and the hours to oneself are limited. So while I knew I was a bit overweight, I never took an interest in fitness.” After her results though, Pandya has been slowly building up her strength with 4-day workout weeks and has set herself a 6km goal for the Mumbai marathon.
Dr Contractor, who is deeply involved in creating the schedules for his patients, says that the key is in treating them as regular adults but within their conditions. “For many, it starts with walking for two minutes and building up from there. I keep telling people to treat this like going from one point in a city to another. We face obstructions, traffic jams, speed bumps and a lot of demotivating factors but we still need to get to a place and we do. The magic when you’re training with people who have issues is that seeing them overcome them is enough motivation to keep going.”
60-year-old Anirudh Nansi has had such a setback after injuring himself in the process of training for the marathon. Having been involved in sports all his life, Nansi went through a heart transplant and is now a beating example of what one can achieve with the sheer will to keep the body active. Less than a year after his heart transplant surgery, he participated in the Otters Club Swimming Meet at Bandra, coming in overall 6th in the 50 mts freestyle for those above 50 years“I eased into swimming and playing golf and joined Run India Run [one of India’s largest running communities] and got up to a point where I could walk/jog 5km. While I am recuperating from a knee injury, I still plan to walk 6km in the Mumbai marathon. I never did long-distance running in my life and I think it was the missing piece and that is why I took up serious training for it,” he says.
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Both Pandya and Nansi say that life has changed drastically since their health issues, but there are more positives than negatives. “My energy levels have gone up. My sleeping issues are gone. Most of all, I look forward to exercising, which wasn’t the case earlier,” says Pandya. Nansi is also a motivational speaker now, spreading awareness about heart transplants and telling people of how he has returned to a life of sport after all these years.
The magic about the marathon is that it will get the best long-distance runners from different parts of the world, along with those like Pandya and Nansi, who approach the event with the same motivation but through entirely different storylines.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.