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Going the distance with Sagar Baheti

A visual impairment hasn’t slowed down Sagar Baheti’s ambitions to complete the toughest marathon course, writes Deepthi Velkur.

The things we are able to accomplish with a little mind-over-matter is astonishing. Case in point: Sagar Baheti. A 31-year old Bengalurean who runs a successful import and export stone business and in 2017 was the first ever visually impaired runner from India to successfully complete the Boston marathon. In a chat with Sagar recently, I was fascinated by his tale of perseverance, hard work and fortitude. This is what he had to say:

You’ve always been a sporting enthusiast, especially cricket – what brought about the switch to running?

Truth be told, I took to running in 2013 purely because my options were fairly limited given my condition. Cricket has always fascinated me in my early days all the way through to zonal and university levels. After issues with my vision which surfaced 5 years ago, I took up running and as they say, the rest is history.

With the company of a few good friends, I did the midnight run in Bengaluru and that fueled my interest. My first serious run was the Coorg Escapade in 2013 for which I trained a fair bit and the sheer joy of participating in such a run was immense.

What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about running, especially long-distance running?

The feeling of accomplishment is what is most rewarding. When I signed up for the Coorg run (which is a beautiful trail run), it was meant to be a fun weekend activity because I had no idea if I was even capable of finishing it, but at the end of the 12K run, I felt amazing. In many ways the Coorg run was the catalyst for me getting into serious running – I have never looked back since.

You successfully completed the Boston marathon in 2017 – a watershed moment in Indian sport. Can you please describe your feeling at the finish line?

Relief and sense of achievement! There was a lot of build up to the run given that this is one of the most iconic races on the running calendar so as I got to the finish line, I felt a sense of pride in myself for completing the race. Little did I know that I was the first ever visually impaired runner from India to have completed the historic race covering the distance of 42 kms in a little over four hours – it made me glad that I was able to make a mark for myself

Out of curiosity – why the Boston marathon and not someplace else?

Well, after I started running seriously, I covered pretty much every run in India from Bangalore to Mumbai to Delhi and even Ladakh. During this time, I was chatting with a friend in Boston and she suggested I take part in the Boston marathon. Being such a popular race, I was definitely interested so I signed up, managed to qualify for the race and in 2017 successfully completed the run.

One of your goals post the Boston marathon was to raise $10,000 for MABVI – were you successful in raising that funding?

My friend and I have always been involved in fund-raising and she gave me this idea of raising funds for MABVI (Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired) an association based in Boston that she works with closely and I was more than happy to be part of the initiative.

The objective was to serve two purposes – raise funds and create awareness for MABVI. We started off a crowd-funding page highlighting the visually impairment condition and we successfully raised $7,600.

How did you prepare yourself physically and mentally for the Boston marathon? Is it a similar training program to your other runs?

The Boston marathon was bigger than anything I have done before so I really wanted to be well prepared. Overall, I stuck with my training routine that I followed for my runs in India but put more focus on mental strength as the pressure on this run was higher. The circuit itself is considered to be of medium-toughness given the gradient levels and course challenges, so my training program was slightly modified to suit this.

It must have been extremely tough for you and your parents when you were diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease – what drove you on to achieve what you have today? 

Yes it was a tough time – being diagnosed with such a condition really sets you back in your ways because it forces you to make lifestyle changes and increase your dependency on others. I consider myself very fortunate to have family and friends who were very supportive and have helped me along the way. This support is what has driven me to where I am today and helped me in setting goals that put me in the right path to achieve them.

Running a business is not a small task – how do you find the time to train and stay in shape?

The first year post my diagnosis was slow as I had to figure new ways of doing simple things such as reading and writing. With the love and support from family and friends plus using aids such as voice and magnifiers, I got through the tough phase and focused on getting physically active. This support has given me the time I need to train and stay in shape.

For your next run – where and when. Is that all planned out?

As is life, there is always a bit of drama! During a business trip in Spain last year, I went skydiving and ended up having a crash. I suffered a serious cervical spine injury that required emergency surgery and follow-up corrective surgery as well. What followed was a 4-month rehab program that slowly got me to my feet and back into running.

I did run the Mumbai marathon  in Jan 2018 to get my confidence back but my body wasn’t ready yet. During this time, I met a friend who trains with Bengaluru-based running club- Jayanagar Jaguars who encouraged me to join the group. At that point, I thought running as a group will give me more motivation than training alone. There, I met some good runners who understood my needs and now we run as a group. I am back into full-fledged training as I prepare for my next run – the 50k Malnad Ultra run on October 13th and 14th, 2018.
Apart from running, what other sporting activity has kept you busy?

I have always being a cycling enthusiast and though I cannot cycle long distances yet, I am hopeful  to do so once my shoulders and neck feel strong enough. One of my best cycling memories is the 2015 Tour of Nilgiris which is a 850km circuit spready across 7 days. I did the same tour the following year as well.

As with anything these days, I can’t help but think of what Sagar’s experience can teach us all. Very briefly, we will achieve only through practice and hard work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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Run run run… you better run!

One of the most popular and coveted marathon in the world is happening this weekend. Capt Seshadri talks about the Boston Marathon. 

There is only one marathon in the world that has ‘bandits’ participating. And no, not the Robin Hood or even the Gabbar Singh kind, but runner bandits. These were unregistered runners who were eager to participate but did not have a bib number. It was customary for them to be held back till the last of the starters had left the blocks and then unleashed unofficially. After a while, these bandits, like some of their folklore counterparts, became heroes among the spectators and the media. Such is the stuff of tales surrounding one of the oldest marathons in the world.

The Boston Marathon, to be held on April 16, has had a virtually unbroken run since its inception in 1897, even during the years of the great world wars. It probably took its origin following the tremendous success of the first marathon event in an Olympics, in the summer of 1986. In the early years, it was run on April 19, but was soon changed to the third Monday of April, celebrated as Patriots’ Day and now commonly referred to as ‘Marathon Monday’.

Humble Beginnings

What began as a local event, with just 15 participants on debut, has grown over time to receive recognition as one of the most prestigious marathons in the world. Every year, over 30,000 registered runners from across the globe, are cheered every bit of the way by around half a million spectators, that includes the ‘scream tunnel’, a more than a three quarter mile long unbroken chain of young ladies whose cheering can be heard for over a mile!

Can one possibly imagine thousands of athletes, some traveling halfway across the globe to run a gruelling 26 miles, only for the winner to be rewarded with an olive wreath? But, for over a century, the Boston Marathon was a purse-free event, until in 1986, professional athletes threatened to boycott the event unless a cash prize was instituted. Fortunately, corporates stepped in, and cash awards made their entry into the race.

It is one of the most difficult courses in marathon running, with the Newton Hills challenging even trained runners, and their apex culminating in Heartbreak Hill, reducing the most seasoned runners to near walking speed. With this being a physical and psychological breaking point, it presents a phenomenon that marathoners refer to as ‘hitting the wall’!

Women in Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon remained a male chauvinistic bastion until 1972, when women were officially permitted to participate. However, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb is acknowledged by race organisers as the first woman to have run the entire stretch of the marathon as early as in 1966. A year later, Kathy Switzer obtained a bib number and participated. Her run was marred by an ugly incident where a race official tried to tear off her race bib and prevent her from finishing. The gender equation rapidly changed since then; in 2015, around 46% of the participants were women. There is only one woman however, who owns the unique distinction of having run the Boston Marathon in two elements: earth and space. Astronaut supreme and record breaker for much of what happens in space – Sunita Williams. This amazing and tenacious lady ran the marathon, strapped by a harness to a treadmill aboard the International Space Station while the event was being run on earth!

Toughest Qualifying Standards

The event has stringent qualifying standards. Participants must be above 18 years of age and must have completed a marathon certified by a recognised body with international affiliations. There is also a pre-set qualifying time limit, depending on age. For many aspiring marathoners, to ‘BQ’, or qualify for Boston, is in itself a treasured achievement. However, to popularise the event and to honour charitable causes, around 20% of the participation has been thrown open to entrants from charities, sponsors, local running clubs, vendors and marketers, whose philanthropic endeavours garner close to $ 35 million in charity collections.

The Boston Marathon has thrown up many heroes. Foremost among them is Bob Hall whose request, in 1975, to participate in a wheelchair, was accepted, with the proviso that he would be recognised as a ‘finisher’ only if he completed in under 3 hours and 30 minutes, the time limit set for normal runners. The indefatigable Bob finished in 2 hours and 58 minutes. Thus was born the wheelchair division of the race; the event was soon to accommodate visually impaired runners as well.

In 2013, the event was marred by two explosions, around 180 metres yards apart, within the final 200 metres of the finish. Although many of the faster runners had completed the course, the fatality of three spectators and the injury caused to 264, forced the event to be called off, with many runners close to the midway mark. This deterred neither the organisers nor the participants, and the event continues to be a major draw among the fastest endurance runners of the world.

And, going back to the subject of bandits, Boston Marathon Director Dave McGillvray was himself once a teenage bandit!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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Nine days a week – Part 2

In this concluding piece, Capt Seshadri talks about Meb’s fitness and training mantras. 

Meb Keflezighi is an unusual athlete. Born in Eritea, one of the poorest countries in the African continent, migrated to Italy as a young boy and pursued his education in the United States. And, apart from being a world beating marathoner, is a complete family man, autobiographer, motivational speaker, businessman and above all, a wonderful human being.

Meb the athlete, breaks from tradition, and the shattering of pre-conceived notions of what a runner should be or ought to do, begin with his training. He trains over nine day cycles, vis a vis the usual weekly routine followed by most athletes around the world. He insists that this permits him maximum concentration, interspersed with the right periods of rest and recuperation. Quick, high intensity runs, intervals of rest, distance running and cross training help him build speed, stamina and strength. Core strength, running in rarified atmospheres and a high protein diet topped with large servings of fruit are the secret of his continued success over such a long period of time.

Meb the motivational speaker has, under his belt, over a hundred clinics on running and even on retail programs. He is a voracious orator, holding his audience spellbound with topics as far ranging as diet and nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, while bringing to the fore, his world class experience and diverse and colourful early life as examples.

For older runners, he has certain mantras which are both unique and effective. He believes it is never too late to begin or to continue running. While most coaches talk about age being only a number, Meb advises older runners to recognise their age and the limits it brings along, advocating adjustments, both in training and nutrition and to listen to their body talk. Not about numbers and miles run, but about consistency within boundaries.

Cross training must be an essential part of the daily exercise cycle, combining easy runs with short, harsh sessions on the elliptical. When it comes to nutrition, this running guru recommends a diet that offers a nice balance between weight and energy, while putting in enough calories to recover immediately after a training session. Warming up and warming down, stretching before and after running are a must for those flaccid or tired muscles. And never, ever overdo the schedule. Waiting for a day or two, he believes, is so much better than spending weeks on recovery from injury due to over exertion. So, right training cycles and methods, proper nutrition and listening to one’s body are the final mantras for longevity in running, especially long distance events. With these, age does remain a number.

Meb Keflezighi will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most talked about and chronicled athletes in distance running history. While training to qualify for the Rio Olympics at age 40, he quipped: “I used to get anxious before races, but at this stage I have nothing more to prove. I was thinking if I make the Olympic team at 40, wonderful; and if not, I’ve been blessed to have the career I’ve had.”

Post retirement, if such a thing is possible for this age-defying athlete, Meb looks forward to an almost full time career in public speaking, to meeting runners from different and diverse backgrounds and to render yeoman service to his foundation that works with kids to promote fitness and well-being.

A truly fitting legacy from a living legend!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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The runner with the strong wrist – Part 1

Meb Keflezighi, a distance runner who has gained fame for his extraordinary spirit on the course. In this two part series Capt Seshadri profiles this prolific runner

In his long career as a distance runner, this athlete has run 28 international marathons and is believed to have signed more than 30,000 autographs!

In a tiny war-torn country in East Africa, once called Eritrea, which fought a cruel war for over 30 years for liberation from Ethiopia, Mebrahtom ‘Meb’ Keflezighi, was one of 10 children whose early childhood memories were more associated with fatal encounters and dismemberment of his friends and neighbours from warring factions. His first brush with distance running probably occurred at age 10 when he saw his first car and took rapidly to his heels, thinking it was a ‘death machine’. He was later to grin and tell the New York Times: “that was one of the races I lost”. In 1989, at age 14, with his parents having migrated to Italy, Meb watched television for the first time and was left wondering how such big people could get into such a small box.

This was the kid who would ultimately transit from such ignorant beginnings in his home country to becoming a much sought after motivational speaker and brand ambassador to some of the world’s best-known corporates. This is the story that should go down in the annals of sporting history as the marathon of life!

Meb’s family moved to San Diego in 1987 where he began running in earnest. From 5 km and 10 km runs in San Diego High School and UCLA, he graduated both in academics and athletics, winning several medals in championships at the State and then the National levels. With the 2004 marathon silver medal under his belt, he ran on to win the 2009 New York Marathon and then the Boston Marathon in 2014, in the process, bringing gold medal glory to America for the first time after 1982. With this Herculean effort, at an age when most runners are reading about marathons than running them, Meb became the sole marathoner in history to win the New York and Boston Marathons as well as an Olympic medal. He was to continue competitive running at the highest level even at age 41, qualifying for the Rio Olympics 2016.

Setbacks never bothered him as, during the 2008 US Olympic marathon trials, he broke his hip and could not qualify despite finishing eighth, with the debilitating injury.  During the same race, his misery was compounded by the death of his close friend and running mate, Ryan Shay, who died of coronary failure. He rebounded the very next year, winning the 2009 New York Marathon in a personal best time of 2:09:15. In 2010, his achievements were etched in UCLA memory, with his induction into its Hall of Fame.

Runner, writer, trainer, motivational speaker and more. His autobiography titled “Run to overcome” deals with issues of his early life, his milestones and his achievements. MEB Foundation, an acronym of his name that reads ‘Maintaining Excellent Balance’ promotes the values of healthy living and provides a motivational and inspirational platform for school-going youth. In 2014, Meb Keflezighi’s achievements were aptly recognized with the Jesse Owens Award as the USATF Athlete of the Year.

Forty years and running, when even vehicles made of steel are considered vintage.

Read Nine Days a week for the conclusion of this story

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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