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.