Marathon women

What makes Indian women lace up and pound the streets?

In a busy world where things get done at the touch of a button, and the only involuntary exercise is walking around an office, or running to the nearest coffee shop for a daily caffeine fix, staying fit is a challenge in itself.

But with so much awareness and information out there on how to stay healthy - not to mention staying thin - it's not surprising that regular exercise has become a standard fixture in most women's weekly schedules.

Such is the case with MsJyoti Mayall, a teacher at the Overseas Family School. She runs regularly - even when she's not training to run a marathon.

Contrary to what most people believe, one can run a marathon despite not being tremendously fit prior to training. Most serious runners start out with low or normal levels of fitness. All runners like the fact that it requires no real investment, or equipment to undertake. For MsSumedha Khoche, a professional and a mother, running began as a simple hobby.

"I started running in 2008. But besides some badminton, I've had a fairly unathletic and non-sporty life. So when I took up running, friends and family were surprised, and also dismissed it as something of a fad that I'd get bored with in a matter of months. It started as a challenge in 2008 - just to see if I could do it. At that time, I could barely run two km. Though I started on the treadmill, I soon moved to racetracks and roads. And five years later, here I am - still running."

Since she began with the 10km Standard Chartered marathon in 2008, she has run marathons in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. Like her, most runners begin slowly at first, and keep building on their endurance and strength. So what starts off with as little as 2-3km, three times a week, can eventually build up to running 18km in a space of two hours. Many people do the logical thing by entering the 5km and 10km marathons first, and building their confidence before attempting a half marathon.

Although many women can be runners for years without ever actually running a marathon, signing up for a race gives a whole new impetus to the activity, and, importantly, something to aim for. Such was the case with MsRajee Vissa, who is a part-time teacher at Lasalle College of the Arts and also the co-founder of MadderMoon, a design gallery promoting contemporary Indian design in Singapore. Also not being a sporty person, she had always preferred yoga or dancing to keep active. But when she moved to Singapore, things changed.

"We moved to Singapore in late 2003, and I had just resigned from a great design job in London, and had a five-month-old baby. I felt that I didn't have a goal and most of my days were spent grocery shopping, housekeeping - we had no helper by choice - and taking care of the baby," said Ms Vissa.

But being used to a far busier schedule, she began to grow bored and depressed without something to aim for. Then, she read an interview in a lifestyle magazine about a woman who was training for the Standard Chartered Marathon.

"It suddenly seemed like a great goal to focus on and it would get me fit as well. So I started brisk walking in March 2004, never having run in my life. Then I alternated walking and jogging, and slowly began running. Finally, I registered for the event in December that year and downloaded an online training schedule to help me. It never occurred to me to train with a coach or a friend. I started out as a solo runner and continue to be so today," she added.

Ms Mayall, on the other hand, began running purely to push herself. Inspired by a few of her friends, she joined women-only running groups like Hash House Harriets and other women's runs during the time she lived in Jakarta. "It was my resolution for 2012 to do a half marathon. I enjoyed the 10km runs I had done before, and would be 'buzzing' at the end. So I wanted to push myself further. And this year, my plan is to improve my timing and to complete two 21km runs."

For women like Ms Vissa and Ms Mayall, who are driven by goals, participating in marathons is a great way to get focused. While fitness is always a primary reason at the beginning, seeing the results of such dedicated exercise can easily turn it into something that is as natural as breathing. Marathon mums are also happy to pass on this lesson in good living to their children.

MsUpasna Dewan, 41, a teacher for children with special needs, is a mother of two girls aged 14 and 10. She says that for her, setting a good example to her girls is very important. And although she was never into fitness in her 20s, she started running later at the urging of a marathon runner friend.

"I feel great after I run, I am always in a better mood. And I not only do this to lose weight and stay healthy but also to set a good example to my girls. My husband is into squash and I run, so my girls also realise the importance of physical exercise," said Ms Dewan.

Ms Vissa adds that while it is a challenge to balance kids, work and fitness, it's not impossible to set a healthy example. "My children have got used to waving me goodbye as I leave for a run, and I'm happy to set a good example for them. I came late to fitness - in my 30s - and often attribute it to not having physically active parents. Hopefully, my kids will stay fit throughout their lives, and as parents, we need to lead by example," she said.

Given that running and training for marathons can not only help you get into fantastic shape, but also build endurance, discipline your mind and help you push your body to healthy limits, it can get very addictive. And Ms Koche affirms this.

"Running is addictive. Each time you finish a race, you mentally sign up for a longer distance, better time. So the 10km progresses to 21km, and then to a 42km. Having done one race, the instinct is to go for another and better my time," she said.

What began as a men-only sport way back in the early 1900s has now become hugely popular with the women. In fact, in today's world, with most women laying claim to more "me" time, running has become the perfect way to combine weight loss with staying fit and taking a break from the pressures of work and family. There are many women-only running groups, that do weekend runs, and even travel in order to run marathons together.

Ms Mayall chooses to run this way. "I take part in the organised runs for women-only events, like Shape Run and the Great Eastern Run.

I think I would feel disheartened to have fast men running quickly past me all the time, so I opt for women-only organised runs."

Expat Suniti Ramanujam is a part of one such women's group. She moved to Singapore from the US a few years ago, with several marathons - including a few in California and the Chicago Marathon - already under her belt.

"I have been running for eight to 10 years, and the challenge of endurance keeps me going. I have met lots of people and have made some good friends through running. And the whole idea of 'can I really do it, can I really run and finish a marathon?' keeps me going," said Ms Ramanujam.

"My group keeps me going. On Saturdays, we usually do a 1-2 hour run and follow it up with a massive Little India breakfast. It's hard with the kids and work, but my husband helps out and I have a helper. We usually do our long run on Saturdays, starting at 5 or 6am, and finishing by 10am."

Like Ms Ramanujam, for most women, the luxury of being able to take an hour out of their day is only possible because of supportive spouses. And Ms Vissa says that this "me" time that she has for herself has made her feel like a better person overall. "Running helps me feel balanced and gives me a better perspective on other aspects of my life. After a good run and a refreshing shower, I find myself better able to face mundane life. And taking care of my baby began to be more of a joy than a chore. Running "me-time" helps me sort through my thoughts, or listen to music without any interruptions. Eventually, when my runs got longer and longer, we hired a helper since my poor husband would be stuck at home with the baby waiting for my return so he could leave for work!"

Despite careful planning, the challenges that face these dedicated runners are far from easy. As women - many of whom are wives and mothers - making the time to train every week is hard. While the actual race is perhaps the hardest, the training itself requires tremendous discipline. In order to hit the trail, juggling children, husbands and jobs, takes a lot of sacrifice. And it's not always possible to do.

But mothers like MsVissa are practical in their expectations. "One thing is for sure - in most Indian families, as a mother, it is most often your own routine that takes a hit when one of the moving parts breaks down. If a child is sick, in-laws visiting or helper is on leave, it's most often the mother who has to deal with it, and you can see your fitness routine fly out the window while your husband can carry on as normal!"

Ms Koche, too, admits that it is really hard, but that it's important to stay motivated. "It's tough trying to do it all, especially since I have a full time job and an eight-month-old baby. I prefer running in the evenings as the morning is already packed. Things that help are sticking to schedules and being disciplined - which might mean just a 20-minute lunch break or less socialising and having a household helper. But admittedly, on some days, it's very tempting to come back from work and settle into a cozy chair with a cup of tea or just potter around with my son. The challenge is to fight the temptation and put on those running shoes!"

For these dedicated runners, there are good days - when all is well and they can do their training unimpeded by distractions - and bad days, when they are ill or can't get away for a run. Also of concern are long term-health risks associated with running long distances on hard concrete. But aside from worries about their knees wearing out, the biggest - and most unanimous - challenge for them has been the Singapore weather.

Most have to get a very early start or run after the sun has gone down, in order to beat the heat. "Because it's so humid and hot, running outside has to be either early in the morning or after 7pm. But with kids, it's easier to finish it off first thing in the morning. Running in the heat has definitely impacted my skin negatively, and has given me freckles and pigmentation marks," says Ms Dewan.

Ms Ramanujam, who has enjoyed the benefits of running in the Californian climate finds it extremely challenging to run in the heat. "The weather makes you very dehydrated. Also the land is too flat, the concrete too hard, and there's very little change of scenery!" But regardless of the inconvenient weather conditions, all these outdoor runners prefer to run without the confines of a gym and a treadmill. "Singapore is a fantastic city to run in - clean roads and clean air, moderate weather, park connectors and public spaces that are a runner's delight," said Ms Vissa.

Ms Koche adds: "And running is the only sport which doesn't need heavy duty equipment or loads of other people to coordinate with. Just put on your shoes and run. We are blessed to be in a country where there are runners (and consequently, inspiration) to be found on all streets at all times of the day (and night!). It's a good workout."

Being far more than just a physical challenge, running in marathons pushes mental endurance to the limit. For Ms Koche, the first few kilometres are full of self-doubt and imagined cramps. "But all's well after half the distance is over. Typically, I run without music so I can focus on my breathing. The best times are when I'm running on auto-pilot while my mind is occupied with other thoughts - work, travel, something from a book I had read."

The biggest question is, how do you keep going during the race when both mind and body want to give up?

For the runners who plunge forward, keeping the end goal in sight is what helps.

"There's a certain collective humanity that you feel for all the people sweating and struggling alongside you. Although they are strangers, for that one day, they are brothers and sisters in your personal agony. Once I saw a lady in full sleeves, long pants and a polyester tudung covering her head and shoulders. She was overheated and panting. I encouraged her and told her not to give up as I passed. What willpower she had to face a physical challenge such as that without giving an excuse of her limitations!

"Undoubtedly, the last few kilometres are the absolute worst - mentally and physically. The first time I ran I was so thrilled by the roar of the crowds as I neared the stadium that the final 3km passed in a blur and before I knew it I was at the finish. However after a few runs, the thrill of that fades, so it's up to you and your mind to get over the burning pain in your legs and keep moving. Sometimes I lie to my body that this is the last one and I'm never going to run a marathon again!" laughs Ms Vissa.

Ms Mayall, on the other hand, says that the hardest part for her was after the 15km mark, during the 21km run. "I guess for different people, different parts of the body would start to hurt. For me it was my knees. It just showed that I had to be better prepared next time. For the Great Eastern Run, at each 2km mark, there was a marker and towards the end, some very inspiring quotes/statements. I remember the last one being 'Remember the reasons you signed up for this run'. I found that inspiring and that boosted my determination to complete. It is and always will be determination that sees you through a task."

And it is this determination that propels Ms Dewan, thinking of her children waiting at home, to the finish line. "In a marathon, when you are close to the target, you get cramps, some people feel like puking. But when I think about my children waiting for me at home, I know that I can't face them if I give up - especially when I teach them that when they take up a task, they must complete it. So I tell myself that if everyone around me is doing it, then I can too. When I feel like I really can't carry on, I pop an energy booster jelly, (which are like gummy bears) into my mouth. That keeps me going for a while longer."

Aside from the obvious fitness benefits, running in marathons is all about setting a goal and achieving it. So many of these women are ordinary people, yet capable of pushing their bodies to extraordinary limits through sheer mental strength.

"There is a sort of cult around running - hydration gels, fancy shoes, GPS watches, etc. that may make the sport formidable for a newcomer. The truth is you don't need any of that - just a pair of legs and your willpower," concludes Ms Vissa.

Marathons require far more mental strength than they do actual physical fitness and can become an addiction, but for most, it's just a fun, hassle-free way to getting fit and reaching a goal.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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