I had been keeping away from Marathons conducted in Chennai (nee Madras) after I read a few reports about how badly they were handled. Sudha Mani fellow runner from Chennai made a pitch during Hyderabad Marathon this year about how the Chennai runners would be organizing this year and that it would be nice. I registered and my daughter also followed suit (even if it meant air lifting her from Delhi after her internship!). My wife refused to join us as the visit was too short, a little over 24 hours only! This let the Gandhi wannabe the freedom to indulge in Sleeper class travel. My daughter’s flight was to reach at 1 PM and it gave me a little more than an hour to park my luggage at the railway rest house and rush to the airport (if the train kept to time!).
I was worrying about staying in the Railway rest-house near Central station and the problems of travelling early on Sunday to IIT for the run. In answer to my prayers, Bala, a good friend and a runner from Chennai, called the day prior to my leaving and requested (to be frank ordered!) that we stay at his place. He also offered to have our kits collected (not for nothing he is christened bib-Bala!). My wife got into the act and our kitchen garden was harvested for taking to Bala’s home. I felt like a country bumpkin carrying garden fresh vegetables to my city cousin!
I caught the train on 30th night after an early dinner (even by my standards) and despite meticulous packing by my wife, I boarded without a sheet to protect me from the elements. My wife got into mission mode to see how she could get me the sheets for my return journey on Sunday. I was allotted a side lower berth and the two backrests did not sit evenly causing me discomfort when I lay down. I put down the steel shutters and the glass window and bravely lay down to sleep armed with a flimsy towel which could cover only one half of my body. Some of the co-passengers had a bad experience with Pulao sold at the station as it had too much salt and they had to throw the food. As the train caught speed, both the shutter and the glass pane came off by turns and sent me cowering for cover. The unmatched seats did their bit to making my night as uncomfortable as can be. A railway man given the taste of his own medicine! I had a bad night and was left craving for the Sun to warm my old and cold bones.
The train got empty at Yeshwantpur, a suburb of Bangalore. I could do with some green tea and a bright Sun. Sun came out at the appointed hour and the train while hurtling through the built up area of Bangalore gave me some warm snatches of sunlight. I had used the toilet at my usual wake up time of 2AM and having warmed to the sun, I now set out to feed myself on the Bread and Jam. I kept looking at the extract of the timetable as I crossed each station to see if the train was on time.
The train was now largely occupied by railway employees returning from and going to their work. Amma and the power crisis in the state of TN was the center of conversation which I refused to join despite sufficient provocation. My fear of being lynched for the state of my spoken Tamil was also a reason for my subdued behavior. The milling crowds of office-goers and students on the various suburban stations kept me occupied. I did not have to go back to Vinoba Bhave’s ‘Talks on Gita’ for the rest of the journey. Train stopped at Basin bridge and next at the outer signal giving me anxious moments, but, it reached Chennai at 11:40AM a full 15 minutes in advance (A gentle hint to the Hubli passenger for the Sunday run?).
My usually efficient PA and my colleague for Southern Railway had not given me any confirmation of allotment of room in the rest-house. I rushed with the luggage from PF No. 1 to the 9th Floor in the adjoining Moore Market complex. I was relieved to see my name in the list of allottees (my contribution to the Websters) and more joyed as the room was the second from start, every second saved counts! I rushed and plonked my luggage and returned to rush to the suburban station of Parktown across the road to catch a train to the Airport. I had to wade through a sea of humanity (why is it always against the direction you are going, another Parkinsons Law!) to reach the station. I got a train soon and it was 12 Noon. The journey takes 45 minutes and that meant that the asking rate was well and truly under control. I texted my daughter that I was on the way to the airport and settled back to snooze in the warm sun of Chennai.
The train reached Tirusulam, the rail head for the Chennai airport at 12:50PM. The subway leading from the station to the airport was extremely dark and I gingerly crossed. There were no clear signages to lead one to the arrivals gate. It struck me that some clear signages at the Airport and a well lit subway could encourage people to take the suburban train and help check pollution and the cause of energy conservation. 1 PM came and went, but, there were no announcements. There was no board indicating arrivals also. I settled down to wait observing people who had come to see off and receive their near and dear ones. I tried reading the baggage tags on the arriving passengers baggage to see if I could spot a Indigo flight tag from Delhi, alas, all the tags only had the destination boldly printed (they were meant for the baggage handlers and not waiting relatives at the destination!).
At 13:30 my daughter called saying she has landed and that she would collect bagged and come. I acknowledged safe arrival to the consignor friend’s family at Delhi and my anxious wife back in Hubli. It was worth the wait to finally spot my daughter beaming through the glass at the arrival gate. She continued to strip her heavy woolens to adjust to the Chennai weather. She was game to walk to the suburban station to catch a suburban train back to Chennai. She fed me on her one month stay at Delhi and her experience on the flight.
We negotiated the dark subway and I joined my daughter in criticizing the Municipal authorities for their callous work. Soon we were inside a first class compartment with only standing room. An old gentleman thought it necessary to warn me that we were in a first class compartment and could get fined. I thanked him for his concern (It happens only in Chennai and Kolkata and maybe with older folks only, who take liberty of advising!) and told him that, being a railway man, I am entitled to travel first class on suburban. As if on cue, a ticket checking squad entered at the next station. It was led by a lady official who accepted my statement of being a railway officer without challenge (does it show on our face!). I insisted on showing her my prized silver metal pass. She and her team were very polite but firm with the ticketless passengers and had raked in quite a bounty from the erring passengers. My daughter was pleased with the lady’s performance and I felt good.
We got down at Egmore and walked into a restaurant for a meal as it was well past 2 PM. Food was decent but nowhere near the standards of the famed ‘Ramprasad’ hotel meal I used to have during our probation. I have a nagging fear that our excesses on his offer of unlimited meals may have also led to his closing down his business.
Got back to the rest house and crashed with alarms set for 5:30PM. Our main reason for refusing Bala’s generous and insistent offer of dinner at their place was our plan to walk down to Marina beach and follow it with the famed Idli Sambar at Ratna Café in Triplicane. The sky was overcast and Kareena seemed to have planned to sabotage our walk in the Sun/Moon. I tried assuring my daughter that lack of practice would not affect her finishing her Half marathon the next day. It got quite dark by the time we reached the beachfront, even though the time was only 6:30 PM. We walked with cones of salted groundnuts but did not go near the water. The beach was quite crowded as it usually is. It was nice to walk in the cool sands in our bare feet.
We took the road from Kannagi statue towards Triplicane high road smelling for Ratna café. We walked past the famed Chepauk stadium. I reminded my daughter that this is where I had come in my TVS50 in January, 1990 to visit my would be wife (and now my wife)!
Soon we were abreast the crowded Ratna Café and entered it to the welcoming aroma of Coriander powder laced sambar. We settled on an empty table and ordered the usual with the air of regulars. Soon two plates of steaming Idlis on plaintain leaf covered steel plates and two eversilver spoons arrived, but, surprise surprise, the waiter brought a plate containing two Jalebis. I politely told him we haven’t ordered for it. To our delight he said that it was on the house as the day was the joint’s 70th anniversary. Soon the famous mug overflowing with sambar came out and the Idlis were covered with the magic potion. We mashed the Idlis and much unlike Idlis we get at home these disintegrate like fine rava and soak up all the Sambar. Jeeves waits for this and approvingly pours out more sambar in the plate. It is really surprising how much sambar can be held in a flat steel plate. Quickly the idlis vanished and we repeated the order and to be fair to the dish we could not discern any demonstration of the Law of Diminishing Marginal returns! We took photos of the lavish spread, before we polished them off, for posterity.
In my moment of Ratna café Idli softened mood I offer to my daughter that we could take an auto to Central and my daughter did not need a second invitation. We reached the rest house, packed the stuff for the night stay and started to catch the MRTS to near Bala’s place, Kotturpuram. We just missed one train as we entered the platform, I desisted from trying to board a running train despite my daughter’s taunt (am I getting old!). We had to wait for another 20 minutes till the next train came, meanwhile, we were treated to Tamil songs on mobile by a few street side Romeos (not that we had a choice). After two stops, I beat my head when I found the Tiruvallikeni stop staring at me. I could have taken a MRTS from Triplicane to Chennai (avoidable expenditure of Rs. 50/-). Soon we crossed Greenways road stop and I alerted Shanti (Bala’s wife) as she had promised to bring their vehicle to pick us up (Bala was recuperating from distributing running bibs after his first marathon in his series of 12 marathons in 12 days). The kids had gone to sleep. They tried waking up the kids to meet us and I stopped them. Meeting them would have to wait till after the run the next day.
Balas’ have very spartanly but very artistically maintained their house. They have no TV and minimum furniture. He had rolled out a Pai (woven mat) for my sleep and my daughter got to share the bed with Shanti and his daughter. Bala and his son Krishna were in the other room. I say Bala’s easy chair, the one he uses for resting without sleeping for his early morning runs. The all night working of pouring of concrete in the next plot under construction kept me tossing and turning and I woke up before my alarm announced 2 AM. I had a good session of spinning during hydration. Bala woke up shortly thereafter and after cold water bath went through elaborate prayers. We woke up my daughter at 4 AM. Bala wanted me to come to his office to pick up some caps for distribution after the event. He showed me his office. It showed how he does business as a benevolent Uncle/father even if he loses employees is the bargain.
We reached home at 4:30AM and after I had pinned the running number on my daughter’s top (not before taking a shot at her expanding middle!) I changed into my shorts. I pinned the running number to my shorts in preparation for the strip tease during the run. We left after telling Shanti that we would call her after we finish, mark my estimate, most likely at 9:30AM. I was expecting a four and half hour finish.
We reached the venue with 20 minutes to go. There I met a lady runner from Chandigarh who my brother had told me would be coming. I put her in touch with my daughter and joined the milling crowd at the start line. The scene at the start line of a marathon always gives me a feeling of race horses stamping and breathing heavily on the race course. I met Dr. Ram and quite a few other Dailymile friends. Shri Ram Viswanathan (now famous at our house after his interview in Jaya TV) flagged off the race.
I took the rear so that I don’t get stamped on my bare feet from people trying to overtake. The crowd was very subdued as compared to the raucous start of ADHM/Delhi or the size of crowd at SCMM. I tried to engage people in conversation as I weaved through the runners. I remember somebody advised me to conserve energy by not shouting. Soon I was out of the campus and we turned right to hit the main road. The weather was very pleasant and there was not much humidity. Still after about a kilometer, I took off my top on the flyover, much to the amusement of the policeman on duty. The winding stretch between Adyar and Lighthouse was quite tortous for my bare feet, I called this stretch the Amma’s torture. Soon we were on the beach road and there was company of morning walkers. Excepting the kids, the elders had to to waved to called out to to elicit a return greeting. The policemen were much more forthcoming in their response to my greetings. The KM marks were not yet posted and I was running to my feel and had no idea of my speed. The road was smooth as a baby’s bum (to quote Barefoot Ted) or like Hema Malini’s cheeks (much closer reference by Shri Lalu Prasad) and the sea breeze heavenly. Soon I spied the Ugandan and the leader of the pack returning from the opposite direction. You just cannot stop from admiring their running style.
Soon we were directed to a lane on the right from the Beach road before the bridge and I got into a rougher road. I was tempted to take a biological break, but, it did not offer much protection even to the male runners. I had not taken any water break till now. On the return direction I continued strongly and soon sighted the 16K mark back on the beach road. I looked at my watch; I had taken one hour and 24 minutes. I felt I was on course for a 4:12 finish. I crossed Bala and Dr. Ram on the Beach road and exchanged high fives with other runners also. It was great to be able to run in the middle of the Beach road. Sun peeped out, but, did not look threatening at all. I had done 20K in one hour 52 minutes, I was on course for a sub 2 hr. HM. I then took a biological break on a side lane and many more followed suit. I encountered the tortuous stretch now and my feet were scuffed and hurt a bit. Soon I was back on the Adyar road and the traffic was building up on the other side of the road. Lot of people commented on my attire and bare feet, mostly complimentary but, a few jeers also. I have got used to take it in my stride.
I then entered the IIT gate for the two loops inside the campus. The shaded trees were very welcoming, but, the IIT crowd was conspicuous by their absence. I crossed my daughter at her KM18 and she was plodding on. In my second loop I met Bala and Dr. Ram and they cheered me on. I realized I had not looked at my watch very much and I seem to be going faster, but, my lungs were not stretched and legs were holding. Anyway, the KM marks were not very regular and I lost track of speed and time. I ran to my rhythm. I did not even stop to take snaps of a few deer which crossed my path or stopped in its Sunday morning breakfast.
My running was hampered by a lot of walkers who wanted to run hand in hand without regard to runners following them. I maintained a constant chant asking them to give way in English and Tamil. For an added measure, I asked them to give me a cheer, which invariably made them go up in a cheer. Soon I entered the stadium and with 300m to the finish, my watch showed 8:35AM, I was well on course for a sub 3:40 finish. I had a tough time negotiating differently abled children on wheel chairs who were finishing their run, I am not complaining! I reached the finish point to find my beaming daughter. A young volunteer put a finisher’s medal around my neck. The medal was very well crafted and quite heavy! In all this I forgot to stop my stop watch. When I stopped it, it showed 3 hours 40 minutes. Now with the results out, I have it that I have done it in 3 hours, 38 minutes and 22 seconds. My earliest best for a marathon was in my SCMM in 2011, 3 hour 52 minutes. Some are saying the course was 1K short. My daughter finished her HM in 2:45, an improvement of 32 minutes over her Hyderabad debut. That despite no practice and severe cramping after her KM 18. Chennai is kind to its guests!
I must put in a word for the volunteers manning the aid stations along the route. They were very professional. The liquid was just the right quantity in the cup and the volunteer met the runner so that he/she does not have to change course. Small things, but, which I am sure every runner must have noticed and appreciated. I and my daughter got to talking about it on our journey back and I immediately rang up Sudha Mani and asked her to pass on our appreciation to the volunteers.
The breakfast was a jumbo sandwich, a muffin, an apple and a packet of salted potato chips. I was a little disappointed, I get a feeling that this somehow did not go with the ambience and character of the Chennai run. My suggestion would be that the organizers could adopt the traditional Pongal, Vadai and Sambar breakfast of Auroville. The reference to Auroville was apt more so because there were a group of physical trainers helping runners in their after run stretch. I drew a trainer by name Yuvraj, who did a wonderful job on me and had me as good as new, but, for my scuffed souls. I am sure that in the coming years, this event has a chance of holding its own even with the famed SCMM.
Having bored you all enough, shall not elaborate on the return journey. Suffice to say that this event will see bigger crowds in the years to come! Hubli passenger signs off with the promise to return in the Bangalore Midnight marathon of 15th December night, Insha-Allah!