Runners of Manipal – Rohit Baba

This is a true story. An Untold Story. Not unlike MS Dhoni’s, this is also a love story. And yes, there are sad breakups and sudden goodbyes. But it too has a happy ending.

Many today know me as a cycling and running enthusiast, but you’d be surprised to learn that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was never the plan either. With almost a decade of Manipal soaked in and seeing many-a-generation of Manipalites spending their best years here, mine has been quite the roller coaster, in retrospect.

My claim to fame, through schooling, was shotput. I won’t lie; I was thrilled with the exhilaration that running seemed to give but lacing up my boots was on my bucket list for probably my next birth. Coming to Manipal at a time before Marena, I soon hit the gym seeking what many a 20-year-old considers to the epitome of human conditioning –The Hulk Hogan body and the strength to bodyslam a giant!

Sports in many an Indian village remains an untapped, unrealized dream. I regularly did well at district and zonal meets as a shotputter during my school days but the necessary coaching, cross-training, and equipment to enhance my abilities remained elusive. I had to make do with multiple sets of push-ups, practicing with the shotput till my arms went sore, and whatever training I could make do with a tattered down, rusty old 60 Rs per month gymkhana.

Manipal changed all that. Amidst all the glitz and glam that overbears our beloved University town today, with all its multiplexes and fast food chains and the cosmopolis that it has become, the simpler Manipal I acquainted myself with, in mid-2010 calls out to me. In the days before Extreme Fitness and Marena, every wannabe Mr. Olympia worked out at the Hostel Gym. Some Malaysian students who stayed with me at Tagore Block helped me early on and not much after, I was pumping iron fully expecting to have melons bulging out of my biceps.

But alas, that was not to be. A few months into my 2nd Semester, I started having health issues. My liver had developed an infection and I was hospitalized. That wrote the swansong for my trysts with the gym. Forget deadlifts, by the end of the whole thing, I couldn’t even bring myself to ‘bag-lift’ to class. I bid a tearful goodbye to weights and my love for shotput. It fell on the ground with a hard thud. Never to get up again. 

I told you it had sad breakups.

As fate would have it, I ended up fishing out the bucket list I had reserved for my next birth and picked up running. I harkened back to the last time I ran. It was in the 7th standard, probably. In a 400m race. I tripped and fell around 200m in, only to get up after no less than 20 people ran past, around, and mostly over me. Out of breath as I ran from my hostel barely making it past the EDU Building. The ‘Hump Ahead’ sign laughed cruelly at me as I paused to catch a breather. The hump seemed like a mountain and each meter took an eternity.

If you’re expecting a story of perseverance and grit and the overcoming of all odds to finally become a Marathoner in the following paragraphs, I’m sorry. You are in the wrong place. This is a love story, remember? And a sad one at that.

My breakups were far from over. But to segue into the next one, we must back up a little for a bit of context. You see, before Kratos from God of War made the bald-bearded look so cool and awesome, it was a time when Ishant Sharma was rocking the long hair and who didn’t want to be like him? My hair was thinning rapidly, and I’d been taking pills to… well, stop that!

Not much after I picked up running, as what would later come to light as a side effect of the medication, I dislocated my knee. It was quite serious with surgery recommended. I was in great pain and daily commuting was turning out to be a nightmare. My knee was broken, as was my spirit. Here I was, a 20-year-old student in a new city far away from my native Bihar and I’d been through hell this past year.

My love story didn’t look so good. But it was more than that…

Mohobbat thodi thi ki jaane de dete, Is baar ye Zid thi!

And, I was not willing to lie down and let 20 runners run over me this time!

“Do you trust me,” I remember Vijay asking me. Vijay was a Master’s student of Physiotherapy. I had my sessions with him to help my recovery. This was before we had the Centre for Sports Science and Marena was just in its infancy. “If you do, we can fix this, and you will get better without the need for surgery!”

I have run 6 Half Marathons and 2 Full Marathons since then, so you tell me if I trusted him!

The road to recovery was hard, but one I would come to cherish as some of the most productive time. For 9 months I had kept alternating between medications after a point got fed-up. Every morning, I bandaged up my leg and dragged myself to college. That was followed by standing for 3 hours every day in the lab. Vijay’s cheerful disposition and egged me on as I cross-trained with cycling, kept up short-distance running and sessions of physio over the next few months. Things got better and I picked up running once again.

Athlos, my college’s sports event was approaching. I registered for what was then my longest distance yet. The 1500m race. Forget half and full marathons, one and a half kilometres was the dream then!

“1500-meter dekhna nai, daudna hai!” an acquaintance had remarked, smirking over my decision then. 7 years later, the same chap would ask me for advice for the first Manipal Half Marathon. Karma has a funny way of circling back to ground zero, don’t you think?

Bachelors got over. Then I joined a Master’s program in Manipal. Running and Cycling had become part of my life now, along with whatever job description came with the title ‘Baba’ I’d told last time that it’s a story for another day. Today is not that day! It remains a story for the other day!

I digress. In one of my evening runs to End Point in 2015, a running acquaintance I’d gotten to know over time talked to me about the Nitte Half Marathon. Spurred on by his encouragement, I registered and successfully completed my first half marathon. That first medal and the rush that came with completing a mammoth 21 kilometers is probably the best feeling I’d felt in a long time. It was a testament to what 5 years in Manipal had given back to me. I was slowly, but surely falling in love again.

I soon realized I was not alone. The bustling running community in Manipal had started to grow, and fast. Soon we started going out on Group runs every other week and participating in 10ks and HMs in the surrounding districts. We had matching T-Shirts and the townsfolk started taking notice of what later became the Manipal Runners’ Club. I’ve made some of my best friends here running many-a-kilometer on weekends and on Marathons all over the country. The Syndicate Udupi Half Marathon, a precursor to the current Manipal Marathon took place in Manipal taking me through the ‘hump’ I once struggled to cross circling back with dividends once again.

That isn’t to say there was no support. Every love story needs a wingman… And I had many of them! Physical Education Directors, Dr. Satish Mallya, and Dr. Shridhar, Rohan and Viccaji, folks that are diametrically opposite to me in personality, united by the passion for running, and many others who got in and out of my life at this time, gave the much-needed support and encouragement in moments of hapless desperation and despair, and in times of mirth and merriment. The friends I’d grown to spend many an evening with grew thicker and stronger forging a bond that stays strong even to this day.

I moved on from studies into the next phase of life. I landed a job as a Scientist at a Pharma Research Facility in Manipal. Research sounds fancy with lab coats and goggles as they make it seem on TV. But that’s barely scratching the surface. Add 12-14 hours of work every day many-a-times with carcinogenic chemicals with innumerable trials of the same thing that would bore anyone to death, it’s got a fair share of grim sides to it. Friends I’d spent time with graduated and moved out of Manipal. Me time started reducing as I plunged myself deeper into work and my love story took a turn for the worse.

It was at this phase in life that I met someone who ended up as one of my greatest friends, a mentor, and an all-around inspiration. Dr. Girish Menon, or Doctor Sahab as we’ve grown to call him. His lifestyle, his mannerisms, his courtesy, his work ethic and his approach to everything he does is something worth emulating and learning from. In the many conversations, runs, and tea I shared with him, I have come to see life and living from a different perspective. Solving problems as they come instead of spending hours crying about it. Picking oneself up, dusting oneself off, and pushing through life like you own every moment of it!

 With renewed vigour, my runs resumed getting better with time. As did my work ethic. What was written off as a redundant activity in a time of motorized mobility soon picked up all around. In a rare moment akin to a comic book crossover, my colleagues from work picked up running and participated in the Manipal Marathons.

What makes the journey so special is the people you pick up along the way and the things you stand to learn from just about everybody. Ask the 10-year-old me and I’d never have imagined I’d be such good friends with a lanky, bespectacled kid from Telangana. Today, I can’t imagine I’d ever have finished the Bangalore Full Marathon without Rahul matching me stride for stride all the way. Photography would also have fallen somewhere in the next birth’s bucket list and who would have I’d ever get Navaneeth to actually run! A Half Marathon, no less! Better men have tried and failed! Cough *Rahul* Cough, Doctor Sahab *Cough…

That isn’t to say, I haven’t flirted around a little bit… I have had amorous dalliances with the bicycle, the flute, the camera, long hours of birding at Endpoint and dabbing with languages whenever I could, but the rush, the thrill, and the rhythm that accompanies you as your boot hits the ground, putting one foot ahead of the other, thick beads of sweat flooding out to cool the body raging with fire, and the soul swaying to the music of scores of runners cutting through the monsoon winds is one to last a lifetime.

Seeing the fledgling runners’ community grow and expand out into campuses afar, meeting friends in different runs across the country, mentoring and helping a group of young, passionate students in pulling off one of the best Marathons I’ve ever seen is proof of what running does. It builds strength, integrity, and character. It builds camaraderie, and it gives you the power to write your own story, held taut by the sinew that holds your body together, and the perseverance that grounds your psyche.

Today, a little over 5 years since we began running, the whole town runs along with us. Come February, every year running is a celebration. Weekends are spent at Hoode or Malpe and the best part is the run to and from there, with new faces joining in every new weekend. One of my favourite trails for Group Runs is up the Agumbe Hill. A much-loved cycling trail. I believe the misfit team of Doctor Sahab, Shobha Madam and myself were the first to scale it on foot with good timing to boot. Each time is a surreal experience. Every time we scale the mountain and let out our victory cry, I’m reminded of the first day I stopped huffing and wheezing at the EDU Building unable to cross that hump. From shotput to shoes, and the humps beside Indira Block to the Hills of Agumbe, you never know what life has in store for you. All that matters is you make it yours and make it a story worth telling!

1 Comment

  1. On my way to duty saw you running many times in and around manipal early hours and today I know the story behind it. Trust me “invisible baba” you inspired me even before reading this story.

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