BORN AGAIN RUNNER

Ravi Kalsi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

If you like the active lifestyle, then a hill nearby is an asset.

Navi Mumbai has two hill roads that are popular with runners. Both are on the local range called Parsik Hill. The shorter road of the two, near Nerul, goes up a finger of Parsik that got isolated from the main range thanks to a highway slicing through it; at least that’s the story the scars on the hillside indicate. The road then descends the other side to Belapur. The longer one winds up the Khargar end of Parsik; it is five kilometers one way, culminating at a village on top. Walkers, runners and cyclists love these two roads, still intact despite Mumbai’s real estate industry. Sundays are typically favored for long runs.

It was early morning, Sunday. Shorter hill road and passage through Belapur done, two of us pulled into the longer Khargar Hill Road, where the local running group – Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) – was hosting a hill run. Quite a few runners had assembled; a briefing was on. Knowing our slow pace, we pushed on. I reached the village and had just commenced return, when the relatively fast vanguard of the runners who were being briefed when we passed by, emerged to the flat stretch of road on top. They had started much after us and had made it to the top in probably half the time we took. Leading the pack was a tall middle aged runner of lean build; his feet clad in cheap minimalist shoes sporting very thin soles. That outing was the first time I spoke to Ravi Kalsi. I had only seen him before on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, finishing point for the monthly Bandra-NCPA half marathon organized by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR).

From a run on the Kharghar Hill Road (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

“ I was always very fond of sports. But I couldn’t cross that line between aspiration and getting into the school cricket team or anything like that,’’ Ravi said recalling years gone by. He put in 100 per cent into the effort. But in the eyes of others it was be like zero. “ Probably I wasn’t good enough to make it into a team,’’ he said. It was early June, 2017; well into the decades of India at its youngest with over 50 per cent of the country’s population currently below the age of 25 and over 65 per cent below the age of 35. We were at a café in a Navi Mumbai mall. The world around us swarmed with young people reeking of confidence. It was their world; the sheer luck of being born at the right time in demographics and economic growth to have a whole country singing your tune. That also made the new confidence tad synthetic. It smacked of being borne on the shoulders of time. In contrast, Ravi’s early disappointments at not being good enough appeared realistic. He was born October 1971, the son of an army officer from Gurdaspur who commenced a business in Mumbai following his short service commission and a Mumbai born-homemaker who briefly worked as a teacher. Growing up in Mumbai, Ravi attended Hansraj Morarjee Public School in Andheri, all the way to matriculation. Amid his attempts at getting counted in sports, the farthest he reached in this phase was – a third in doubles in badminton. “ My father on the other hand, had played cricket for Punjab University. He was an all-rounder. So it wasn’t lack of encouragement. I wasn’t good enough; it boiled down to that,’’ Ravi said. He was the only child of his parents.

Following school, he joined MMK College in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, where he did his graduation in commerce. His experience at sports in school weighing him down, he stayed off sports altogether in college. “ It all died there,’’ he said. The state of mind must have taken a toll. Around this time, as a means to acquire confidence, Ravi enrolled for karate classes. He also joined a gym, hoping to fill out his lean frame a bit. Once again, the prevailing pattern in his life got the better of him. When it came to stretching as part of his karate classes, his flexibility wasn’t good enough. He attended martial arts training for about nine months and then drifted away from it. Silver lining was – that stint at karate left in him, an element of discipline. As for the gym sessions; with his body stubbornly refusing to sprout any visible musculature, Ravi lost interest in that too. College and life – both seemed a case of serving time with nothing to show for personal identity or flair. Uniquely and quite unlike the Indian trait of blazing through education in one determined haul, there was a gap of one to two years in studies after MMK. Ravi then did his MBA (Marketing) from Mumbai Educational Trust Institute of Management Studies. His first job thereafter was with Camlin, a much loved name in India for art and writing materials. In 1999, he got married. It didn’t work out well; the couple slowly drifted apart. In the café, reflecting on his life, Ravi would refer to these years of first job and marriage as directionless. The universe was simply not connecting.

Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi

In 2004, Mumbai saw the first of the annual marathons sponsored by Standard Chartered; the since well-known Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). Thanks to SCMM, in 2010, Ravi’s life in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri began to change. That year, his neighbor signed up for SCMM’s shortest sub-event – a seven kilometer run, which over the years has slowed to a crawl thanks to a large number of participants. “ At that time seven kilometers seemed a lot for me. I was in a different league and admired my neighbor for what he had got into,’’ Ravi said. His neighbor’s participation in SCMM prompted one change – on October 4, 2010 Ravi decided to rejoin the gym. “ I needed to vent my frustration with life,’’ he said. The trainer set him up with a routine; warm up with a ten minute-walk on the treadmill, lift weights thereafter. This went on for two to three weeks. One day, Ravi inquired if he could run on the treadmill instead of walking. Permission secured, he ran. “ I felt different doing that, I felt good,’’ he said. He also realized it was the first time he was feeling so after physical exercise.

As the ten minute-running grew to fifteen minutes and then half an hour, he began looking forward more to the treadmill session than the rendezvous with weights. “ The more I ran, the more I liked it,’’ Ravi said. He formally requested the trainer to be spared weights and focus on just cardio work out. The next stage was – he put in 100 minutes non-stop on the treadmill one day and started thinking of shifting to running on the road. He kicked it off with small doses – running five to seven kilometers, from where he stayed in Andheri to Juhu. Then he ran from his home to his former college in Bandra, a distance of 10 km. “ It was a big psychological boost. It showed me I can get out of my comfort zone. Once I got to running on the road, I never went back to the treadmill,’’ Ravi said. In July 2011, he enrolled for the Thane Varsha Half Marathon. Given it was a formal event he bought a pair of good running shoes. Although training hadn’t been proper or systematic, his confidence was high – after all he had bought running shoes! He completed the race in 2:46. “ I felt like a champ,’’ he said. Then the learning started. When he told his friends that he had run a half marathon, they mentioned cut-off time. It was the first of many words and phrases from running that would guide Ravi in his self-managed progression through the sport.

From the 2015 MRR anniversary run (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

Stretching on Marine Drive after the monthly Bandra-NCPA half marathon (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

Cut off understood and burnt into mind as a parameter to watch out for, Ravi registered next for the half marathon in Hyderabad. On the train to Hyderabad he had the company of other runners. From their conversation, he gleaned another crucial word: strategy. Hyderabad’s was a tough run. However he completed it in 2:27, which was a faster time than what he had clocked in Thane. By now he was becoming more and more aware of the running ecosystem, including the sport’s ecosystem in Mumbai. One of the names he heard of was MRR. He also saw photos of their runs and was in awe of the group. “ I was reluctant to run with them. They were like Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan for me. They were my heroes although they didn’t know of it. I wanted to be in but I was worried I might embarrass myself joining them for the monthly Bandra-NCPA half marathon. So I told myself, let me get better, then I will go for it,’’ he said. Next event in Ravi’s growing romance with running was a half marathon in Delhi. Gearing up for it, his learning was the term `sub.’ Specific to the half marathon, he heard of sub-two. On race day, the weather in Delhi was awesome. “ I finished the race in 1:57,’’ Ravi said. Sub-two in the bag gave him adequate confidence to try what he had long wanted – run Bandra-NCPA with MRR. From the first Sunday of January 2012, he started to run with MRR. “ That first Bandra-NCPA felt really good,’’ he said.

In the paperback version of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, page 157 begins with Barefoot Ted’s Eureka moment inspired by the observations of Barefoot Ken Bob who led a community of barefoot runners:

Shoes block pain, not impact!

Pain teaches you to run comfortably!

From the moment you start going barefoot, you will change the way you run.

In February 2012, Barefoot Ted visited Mumbai. He was scheduled to run the Bandra-NCPA with MRR.

Ravi reached the starting point in Bandra, as usual, with shoes.

At the 2015 VVMM (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

At the café in the Navi Mumbai mall, one of the employees hovered around our table, seemingly a bit concerned by the long conversation underway. It is a problem of our times – we go to cafes to chat over coffee but too much conversation and too little coffee is deemed bad for business in times more appreciative of money than life. Monetization – one day its seepage into every nook and cranny of human life will leave us with existence as exoskeleton and nothing human or lively within. Ravi has no particular interest in painting. But he appreciates it and responds to art on the strength of what personally appeals to him and what doesn’t. He was aware of M.F. Hussain as a great Indian artist. One thing that had always intrigued him about Hussain was – his aversion for footwear. The great artist was notorious for going barefoot. Artists sometimes lock on to details of life, others overlook. We stand on our feet. Yet it is the super structure our feet support, which gets all the attention and laurels. Who appreciates feet? Centuries ago in Europe, one of the most inquisitive minds of all time – Leonardo da Vinci – had lauded the design and bone structure of the human foot. “ To me, there seemed to be some connection between Hussain’s art and his tendency to go barefoot,’’ Ravi said. Beset with a chance to run alongside Barefoot Ted, it seemed the best opportunity for him to take off his shoes. He had never run barefoot before. But he could hear his mind nudging him to try it. So Ravi took off his shoes, tied one to each side of his hips and proceeded with Bandra-NCPA. “ My foot was hurting but the determination to complete the run saw me through,’’ Ravi said. Then came, the next flush of intuitive confidence in his progressive resurrection of the many instincts he had missed in school and college. Barefoot Ted was giving away autographed copies of his book and Ravi Kalsi felt damn sure that his name would be called out to merit one. The universe stood by him. Ravi’s name was called out. In his mind, it was an endorsement for running and barefoot running. “ It was destiny speaking: this is your stuff Ravi,’’ he said. Them feet were still paining. But what the heck, he had found his groove.

In January 2012, he ran his first SCMM in the event’s half marathon segment. He finished in 1:52. Running with MRR, he decided to attempt graduating from the half marathon to the full. He needed some handholding for the transition. Born in 1931 and 85 years old as of 2017, Hal Higdon is an American writer, runner and author of the bestselling book: Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide. Ravi used Higdon’s training program for the transition. His personal idea was to combine full marathon and running barefoot. The venue selected was Hyderabad and its annual marathon. While packing for the trip, Ravi consciously left his shoes behind in Mumbai. It shut a door in the brain. There was no going back. It eliminated self-doubt; set him up to deliver. He ran the full marathon in Hyderabad barefoot, completing it in 3:56. “ A sub-four barefoot – that was really a big achievement for me,’’ he said. However given Hyderabad roads were good then and Mumbai roads, not so, when it came to the full marathon at the 2013 SCMM, Ravi reverted to using shoes. He finished that race in 3:46. It was ten minutes faster than how he had performed in Hyderabad but he wasn’t quite satisfied. He also noticed another thing – he was getting quicker. What should he focus on? Go longer and stay with the full marathon or go faster and be loyal to the half marathon? He decided on the latter. He hasn’t done a full marathon since. Not just that, he found that if in his pursuit of speed he curtailed distance to 10 km-races, he isn’t as comfortable as he is in a half marathon. He wasn’t a track athlete by grooming and thus well placed to run a fast 10 km-race. On the other hand, the half marathon, while being fast also allowed Ravi to find his rhythm and dwell in a zone. The half marathon appeared apt combination of speed and distance for him. With this the Ravi Kalsi Mumbai runners know now was born. By the 2014 SCMM, his half marathon timing dropped further to 1:31. At the 2015 SCMM, it was 1:35; an outcome of not being able to train much given 2014 was a busy year at work. By now, he was employed with a BPO.

Running at SCMM (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

Ravi has never had a coach in running. He is self-taught. It wasn’t deliberate. It just happened that way partly propelled perhaps by the fact that his friends include coaches and he considers himself a good listener. “ I like to watch videos of elite athletes running. When you look at them running, you get to know what running is all about and what one’s own running is,’’ he said. On the surface it would seem all about beating the clock and returning a good timing. But at day’s end it is about making mind and body perform so and fact is – there is a way to run faster. “ Elite athletes get that timing because they run in a manner, which gets them such timing. My focus therefore shifted to running right. The 1:31 I got at the 2014 SCMM was not a case of running right. I am still a work in progress,’’ Ravi said. North of Mumbai and now an extension of the giant Mumbai-Thane-Navi Mumbai urban sweep, is the town of Vasai. Technically, it falls in Palghar district. Vasai and the adjacent township of Virar have for some years been nodal points of a much loved running event, particularly noted for its cheering – the annual Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM). In 2015, running the half marathon at VVMM, Ravi notched his first sub 90 minute-finish in the discipline. Roughly two months later at the 2016 SCMM, he finished the half marathon in 1:29:55, narrowly breaking the 90 minute-barrier and ending up third in the event in his age category. It was his first podium finish at a major event. Ravi does not however give this result undue importance. “ Coming third is like being in the right place at the right time. It was luck, nothing else. I compared this result with results elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, there are like 500 people better than this timing and I get a third place here? That doesn’t speak much,’’ Ravi said. According to him, he is still not running right. He continues to go wrong as regards running form. He is merely running faster without running in the manner that sustains fast running. “ If you get it correct, it becomes smoother, more efficient and faster,’’ he said adding that he is able to figure out the biomechanics involved by himself. The year though wasn’t smooth sailing. His training was inadequate for the IDBI Federal Mumbai Half Marathon in August and it showed; “ past the eighth or nine kilometer, things went downhill.’’ But less than three months later, at the Indian Navy Half Marathon of November 13, Ravi bounced back. This time it was a win in the veteran category of the race’s 10 km-discipline with a fifth place overall in the men’s segment alongside. His timing was 40 minutes, 16 seconds. Then, at the 2017 SCMM, he finished the half marathon in 1:25:29, once again placing third on the podium in his age category. “ I still have this feeling that I am nowhere. I need to improve,’’ Ravi said.

On the podium after winning the 10 km-discipline in the veteran category at the 2016 Navy Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi)

When I met him, he believed he had improved a bit after the 2017 SCMM. He had experienced the improvement in his training runs. He wasn’t running a lot; he was averaging about 40-45 km per week. Closer to an event, he stepped it up a bit. “ I don’t run much. But when I run, I try to do it right,’’ he said. For him, rest was as good as a work-out. Rest is important. He was doing no cross training but admitted to consciously living life’s small moments, like climbing stairs, listening to feedback when running on sand, listening to a walk etc. One thing he made sure to take care of – his diet. He ate in moderation and ensured that what he ate provided nutrition. Plus, he didn’t attach a premium to competing in races. At events, he simply did the best he could. In 2004, Ravi and his wife were blessed with a son. I asked him if his son was aware of his interest in running and whether he had seen the medals and certificates; more importantly if he knew the happiness, running brought. “ I think he feels good about it. That is quite heart-warming,’’ Ravi said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the subject. Race timings are as provided by the interviewee.)

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