Running is not a group sport. It is not a team game. Running is a solitary act. You may run with people, train with them, make friends along the way, and feel at home with your running buddies more than with anyone else. But on the track, ultimately you are always on your own. This is the philosophy I lived by for months of marathon training. But little did I know that was about to change on Sunday, the 16th of November, 2014.
Adventures Beyond Barriers had been working with partially-sighted girls from Niwant Andha Mukta Vikasalaya (NAMV), enabling them to participate in the Pune Pinkathon 2014 run. My regular running group, intrigued by the challenge, volunteered as guides for the runners. Neither we nor the girls had done this before, but we were all certain that this was something we wanted to do.
I was partnered with Khatija, one of the partially-sighted girls, for a 10K run. Khatija is studying in the 11th standard and will prepare for Civil Services once she graduates. She had run a 4K distance before. Now she felt ready to take on the challenge of running a 10K with about 6,000 other people, to prove that she was no different and that she too mattered in this big world!
Fast forward to the race day. All the runners started together; there was no separate track, or starting point, or start time for the partially-sighted girls and their partners. The idea was simple: I would run towards her left and would try to clear her way, and she would run along the track I cleared.
We started somewhere towards the end of the crowd. Though it was not a terrible place to start, it did mean extra bodies to maneuver through. I wanted Khatija to win, so I offered my share of coaching as to how she should pace and when she should hydrate, but she had other plans. “We will run till I don’t get tired and we will walk afterwards,” she told me.
She wanted to enjoy the run. And that she did. When we were over the bridge of the Mula-Mutha river, hearing the sound of the stream, Khatija asked me, “The river would be beautiful, wouldn’t it?” I was stupefied. In all the races I participated in, I had been running to achieve my personal best – and in the process, I had forgotten why I started running in the first place: to enjoy. My runs had often become about the pursuit of my best timing, but that’s not always where enjoyment is found. The idea is to take your time, have fun, and not get tied down worrying about how long it takes. That was lesson #1 for me.
Khatija was unstoppable for the first 7 kilometers. About 200 meters before the 8K mark, she wanted to stop. I pointed towards the 8K board and said, “Let’s run till that board and then we’ll walk.” To which she asked, “Which board?” There was no board in her world. That hit me somewhere deep. We take so many things for granted in life. Our struggles are nothing in comparison to what she has to confront. That was lesson #2.
The crowd offered great support throughout the journey. We kept running, singing, and talking about all kinds of random stuff, describing to Khatija the surroundings, the runners by our sides, updating her of how much the fellow runners were in awe of her. As we took the last left turn, we could hear Bollywood songs playing: the sounds from Mulik Ground, the finish line.
As Khatija and I crossed the finish line, we were surrounded by our running battalion. I was overwhelmed and had tears in my eyes. The running family rushed in, hugged her, and supported her. She had successfully completed her first 10K run. And I had completed my most memorable one.
The event had good media coverage. This is what the Pune Mirror had to say:
“When the prize distribution ceremony commenced at the venue, a group of visually challenged girls received the loudest cheers, when they made their way up to the podium. These girls were trained by veteran marathon runners. It was an uphill challenge to prepare them for the run, but they were consistent in their efforts to overcome all obstacles.”
Running alongside Khatija, closely watching the route and the fellow runners all around us, listening over the loud cheers of the crowds for any instruction or question – it was an emotionally overwhelming and wonderful experience. Observing Khatija’s unbelievable love for running helps her overcome the difficulty of running without the advantage of full sight. She was open enough to trust me with her well-being. All of that was overwhelming. Running took on an entirely unknown dimension for me, and Khatija’s run showed me that running for someone is the best statement about the joy of running I could ever hope to make.
In the end, Khatija finished the 2014 Pune Pinkathon in 1:07:10. I also finished in that time, but I won’t log the race results in my running diary. From here on, running is not about timing, it is about the joy of it. I wasn’t running for me. I was running for Khatija.