As I was scanning Chennai horizon for people who make a difference my friend and a fan of Chennai this Week (CTW), chipped in with the name of Hari Shankar, a marathon enthusiast and co-founder of Chennai Runners. I too run a bit, so I was elated to get a chance to write about someone passionate about running.
When I spoke to Hari Shankar, he told me there is someone worthier than him to write about. Then he introduced me to Ram Viswanathan with this mail.
“Ram Viswanathan is a mentor to me and many others in his professional and personal life. He has run 48 marathons in many countries and has run 5 Majors Marathon out of the 6 Majors. He works at IBM and was awarded ‘ Distinguished Engineer’ which is highly prestigious.”
I got in touch with Ram Viswanathan instantly through mail. His reply was:
“Pl. consider doing a story on HariCan himself… He has broken all bones possible.. but has an indomitable passion towards running.. that makes him run even after all those mishaps.. and that too.. run well..”
I pause to think about the greatness of both these people to want to put the other under the arc lights. However, I cannot bear to fence-sit any longer and toe Hari’s recommendation to write about Ram. I get a prompt response to my request to Ram for time – at 5 am on Thursday, 17th April, at Dimensions on C.P Ramaswami Road in Mylapore.
I am at Dimensions before anyone else. At 5.15 am, after the elaborate ritual of body stretching, the small group of eight or nine people begin their run, each at his or her own pace. I try to keep pace with Ram.
To my question about Chennai Runners, Ram explains it was started in 2006 by Hari Shankar, Vidyuth and him without any pretension of making it into something very big. It now has more than 1000 people with 9 chapters in different parts of the city – Velacherry, Marina, Alwarpet, Ashok Nagar, Porur, Besant Nagar, ICF, Chrompet and Nungambakkam. Every year, Chennai Runners organize the Wipro Marathon where about 10000 people participated this year beginning.
The rudiments of running long distance
I remark that completing 48 marathons in seven years is a huge feat. Matter-of-factly, Ram tells me he runs about six or seven marathons every year, in different parts of the world. And what motivates him to run? The challenge and the sense of accomplishing, he explains to me.
When I suggest it must be physically draining, Ram’s answer is running a marathon is done more in the mind than by the legs.
I confess that I have always wanted to run a marathon, but is there any chance at sixty-one years to make it? Ram reminds me Fauja Singh ran his first marathon when he was eighty-nine years old. So, what is the key to running a marathon? Wake up early and hit the roads consistently, is Ram’s only prescription. He advices that I undergo a medical check-up first. When I tell him about the pain on my ankle, he reminds me, one thumb rule of running is not to run with pain.
Ram then elaborates on the difference between safe and reckless running. At comfort zone, running is comfortable, but it is only in the zone of stretching that we learn to go beyond our perceived limits. When we stretch too much, we enter the risk zone which is the threshold to danger zone.
The trick, he tells me, is to start running consistently, take injuries in my stride, heal them and keep running.
He advices me to run 30 to 40 km every week for 3 months. The distance can then be gradually increased, till I run my first marathon before the end of this year.
When I query him on the right way of running, he briefs me about the five tips for enhancing running performance. 1) Keep spine erect, 2) graceful movement of arms, 3) landing smoothly, 4) looking ahead and 5) cadence or keeping a brisk rhythm.
On the way, I see several people running – young and old. It seems Ram has formed a kinship with them… he waves at them and tells some how well they are doing as he passes them by. When Soundaramma running with us falls behind, Ram runs back or waits till she catches up.
I admire the way the runners are always there to support and motivate one another – particularly the beginners. I notice that they enjoy the company, but their single minded focus is the passion for running. I also discern a sense of respect they develop for one another.
Soon enough we are on Besant Nagar Beach. There are so many people I see, stretching in their individual ways – as they run, walk or stretch.
The stretching I witness gives me the cue for the next question – the relationship between running and other aspects of life. Ram is convinced runners are generally very energetic, do not tire easily and develop a never-say-die attitude. Above all, excellence captured as runners also seep into other areas of life.
We turn back near Velankanni Church. I observe that he is an inspiration for so many people. He is happy to be a tiny spark, he says, to remind people that we are all capable of much more than we think. The essence of happiness for him is sharing. He realises he can be nothing more than a spark, the decision and the discipline to run is entirely up to people.
That morning, we run for about an hour and twenty-five minutes, covering a distance of 12.48 km. It feels very good, soaked in sweat.
The next day on Friday, we meet again in the morning for a run at St.Thomas Mount. Just the two of us run, stopping very rarely, through secluded parts of the city, discovering new terrains. And, we also run up the hill almost right till the church.
That day, my questions are aimed at getting an inkling of the person Ram is.
I ask him about his job. It is centered on listening to customers, Ram answers. That customers want him is a good enough indication he says, about how well he listens.
In his role as CTO at IBM, he tells me he has the opportunity to influence about fifty thousand associates. He gently objects when I speak about people ‘reporting to him.”
I am impressed by Ram’s quiet assertiveness. He seems very rooted. Instinctively I ask him whether he has a system of reviewing and evaluating himself. He takes, he says, feedback from his customers and his associates on a regular basis.
As we run, we spot a number of poor labourers sitting in the army cantonment area. He speaks for a while about the strength and heroism he sees in these poor people and their readiness to share the little they have. He suggests that I should write about their struggles and victories. When I ask him if he translates his compassion for the disadvantaged into action, he speaks about ‘Deepam Trust’, founded by him and through which about 200 children are provided opportunities to study.
We probably run about 15 km that day. I do not see him with the group two days later on Sunday, at Anna University.
I again get an opportunity to be with him on the following Tuesday as we run to Marina beach and back. I find out that the previous Sunday he was in Kolli Hills near Salem, participating in a grueling challenge where he ran a distance of 50 km. I ask him about the longest distance he has run. He is almost inaudible as he whispers – 70 km.
I keep wondering to myself, Ram has just done 50 km, and yet he is too reticent to speak about it.
Ram Viswanathan’s tally of marathon runs which was forty-eight when I first met him ten days back, is now forty-nine. The number keeps increasing, as he puts one foot after another, with belief in his power.
As I sit completing this post, I know I am going to give it everything I have, to complete a marathon before the end of this year.
Ram Viswanathan’s life makes a huge difference.Going through his very comprehensive web site where he chronicles his experiences in running among several other enduring passions, I learn, what drives him is deep desire to make a difference.
* Joining Chennai Runners it is very easy. Visit http://chennairunners.com/groups and join the gang at any of the nine locations they start their runs from. At the Ashok Nagar chapter of Chennai Runners, I saw the beautiful sight of about 15 kids preparing for their run at 5.15 am.