I'm no stranger to running in Madras. I began jogging in the early nineties, at a time when joggers were not commonplace and you only ever saw one when he (rarely a she) was chasing a bus. As an NCC cadet I used train to run 3 kms and would regularly clock 5 kms in order to improve my timing in the 3 km race.
Back then I used to be laced up and out on the streets by 0530 latest in order to beat the heat and the traffic. But the early hour also meant that I was a target for street dogs to chase and for perverts to grope or slap me under the cover of darkness.
In the intervening years, much has changed in the running scene in the city which hosts its own annual marathon and several smaller runs that it was tempting to experience it first hand. So yesterday for the first time in more than two decades, I signed up to run a 10 km race in Chennai.
The start line was brimming with lycra clad enthusiasts sporting an assortment of running gadgets that have become almost mandatory for anyone who aims to put one foot in front of the other over a certain distance. By contrast I looked at my nylon socks that I'd borrowed from my father-in-law and the canvas shoes that I wear on a daily basis that I was now going run the race in. I looked ridiculously underprepared.
Where was my ipod? Where was the heartrate monitor, the sun glasses, the bandana, the sun cream, the petroleum jelly, the pace band, the Vibram, the leg compressor? Heck, I hadn't even had a proper pasta dinner the previous night. I'd had sambar rice and mixed vegetable and coconut curry and vaadam and thayir saadam with oorugai.
At least I'd had the good sense to pack a sports bra. I sighed, carried my mother in law's orange tupperware bottle filled with water (what? No even an isotonic sport drink?, I hear you ask) and lined up to run 10 kms at 5.45 am in what must have been at least 33-34 degree temperature. As we began running (jogging in my case), I was struck by how different the sights and sounds are to my usual route. Bizarrely I felt like a tourist in my own city of birth. I had never taken part in a race in Madras and the novelty of running on the streets that I'd only ever driven on was striking (including on the evocatively named Elephant Gate Road).
For one, there's dodging the traffic but there's also unusual things that you wouldn't expect to find on a regular running trail. Like a horse drawn carriage being decorated with flowers by a group of women in order to carry two Jain nuns (I waved but they didn't reciprocate). Like a water lorry (I had to stop to let it pass). It was life as usual getting ready to unfurl while a motley group of runners made their way round a loop.
(edited to include photo)
And that's when I was struck by an epiphany. Running and exercise should be organic and integral to regular life. It shouldn't require fancy geekery to set it apart as if it were something unnatural. I finished the race with ease, in a less than personal best of one hour and four minutes. Or at least that's what I think it was. I hadn't worn a watch and had to rely on other people telling me the time. Not that it matters one jot.