Friday, February 3, 2012

The Falling Star

    I was in my hometown - Mysore, a city steeped in history and culture and also a runners’ paradise with parks, lakes and hills. Kukkenahalli Kere(‘Kere’ means lake in Kannada) is amongst the most serene places to run. Early morning is the best time to put on running shoes and hit the road; a blanket of mist covers the trail along with an eerie silence that is broken by the cadence of one’s own footsteps and a few painted storks clacking gracefully to court the females of their species rather early in the day. That’s until the city wakes up and the trail becomes a maze where runners are forced to dodge walkers. A few resting on the cement benches warily scrutinize runners wearing fuel belts and other fancy gadgets and loudly pass glib remarks about whimsical people who willingly subject themselves to pain and laughter. Overall a charming place to live in and run daily. And that’s where I met speedy Gonzales, a 19 year old engineering student named Ponappa.

    As usual, my run started with a brief and frustrating struggle to get the satellite signal in my GPS watch. When I reached the park, I stopped for a few moments to find a hiding place for my Gatorade energy drink. I decided to consume fluids only in the third lap of the 4k loop around the lake and saw no need to carry it for 8k. As I emerged from the thorny bush that served as my hiding place, I saw two runners blazing through and decided to catch up and run with them. Their muscular physique and graceful movement led me to conclude that they were from a local sports school but they turned out to be engineering students. Ponappa and Vivek were in their elements running fast and I was breathing hard with my fists clenched but determined to keep up. I told myself that my body was still in recovery after Mumbai Marathon and that it would take time to return to usual running pace. The half-truth had the intended placebo effect and I kept up with the youngsters.

    After the first loop was over, Vivek dropped out having pulled a muscle. By now I was intrigued and casually brought up the topic of “best timing” like I was talking about the weather or the picturesque trail. When runners meet for the first time, this question serves as means to break the ice and determines who is higher up in the pecking order. “12k in 39 mins is my best and I am the current University record holder for that distance”, Ponappa proclaimed. The fact that I was running fast and breathing heavily with my mouth wide open, consuming at least a couple of flies every lap, renders redundant usage of the phrase “my jaws dropped”. But it did in a way. Ponappa’s race-time pace was truly beyond my running ability. I had been relegated to play second fiddle and slowed down for my own well-being. I was running with a superstar, somebody who in amateur running circles would have been the cynosure of all. The youngster was of course was oblivious to all that.

    Ponappa had never run more than 12k, no doubt due to PT coaches who would have warned him that he would lose his pace if he ran longer distances. When I told him I was planning to run 16k, he surprised me by gamely agreeing to give me company till the end. Like any runner, he hated running alone and seemed to thrive on company. He took on the role of my coach during our run, reminding me to loosen my arms and swing it proportionally and sometimes advising me to change running form once in a while to break the monotony. Overall he was running at a slower pace only for my benefit and seemed to be itching to run at his usual pace. At the last kilometer I gave him the thumbs up sign and he took off like a spring chicken. He was patiently waiting at the finish point and we completed our post run stretches beside the lake. He was curious about my GPS watch and how it calculated the average running pace and I gave him a brief demo of the system. We parted with me promising to catch up with him for a run the next time I visited Mysore. Something tells me I might never see him running again.

    If Ponappa had been born in China, he would have been identified by talent spotters the minute he showed potential and enrolled into a government run sports school, a veritable cauldron that produces world class athletes. If he had been in Kenya, he would have run day in and day out with a single minded intensity to become a world beater. From my brief chat with him, I think his future in India has all the makings of a well-known tragedy that athletes of our country have endured for decades. Once his next semester starts, attending lectures and labs exams would supersede running; a few years on, he would settle into one of the multitudes of body-shops in Bangalore, run the rat-race called life and probably take up running as a hobby late in life. He would be just another potential long distance runner that our nation lost to engineering a.k.a ‘making a living’.


kckpani said...

There is so much Talent in India like Ponappa Bharath.If there are good sports policies in our country then such Talents will not go waste.Due to lack of this Sportspersons have other primary objectives in their Life.

Rajesh said...

Do we have any other option ??????????????

Bharath K said...

@Pani Sir - Agreed, it all comes down to will and funding of the sports agencies in the Govt.

@Rajesh - Maybe talentless runners like you and me do not have any other option but a true athlete like Ponappa definitely has other options to make a living and also make the country proud in the process.

Ashes said...

Truthfully, every aspiring athlete must have a Plan B both in case he gets injured or after his sports career unless he wishes to do more menial jobs in that field. Scratch the surface of the big names and you will find some sound professional qualification. And so all the Ponappa of India should study and have a proper degree whilst pursuing their sports career. As to funding, i shared recently the concept of us Runners opening a Trust Fund that will allow aspiring talent - runners in our case - to pursue their passion whilst some degree of finance/support is provided to them. Issue arose of "how to recognise this talent". We can discuss and am welcome to hear inputs on this subject

Vikas SS said...

You're very right. That is how it is in India. But, on the brighter side, the growing popularity of Marathons in India has had a positive effect on society. In the long run, things will change for better....

BTW, are you from Mysore? Good to know that. Whenever I visit, I make it a point to run on Kukkarahalli Lake..

Bharath K said...

@Ashes - It is a good concept. We are already doing something similar in the Hyderabad Runners group.

@Vikas - Yeah. I am from Mysore... And do run at Kukkenahalli Kere the next time. The free runs might soon be over, I heard that Mahanagar Palike folks are planning to make it a paid entrance in a couple of months.

@ahmedabadonnet- Thanks mate.