Bala had alerted me almost six months before this run and honoured me to be first few founding runners. Let me confess that I was merely a running partner and had no contribution in the organization. I am of course talking about the Navagraha Run, the plan was to cover the nine temples dedicated to each of the Nine graham (nine planets) located in and around Kumbakonam. The icing on the cake for this wannabe Gandhi was the run was to culminate on the Gandhi Jayanti and this was inspired by our Dandi to Sabarmati run of the previous year around this time. My exposure to the navagraha’s before this run was only that I circumambulated the nine idols looking away from the Sun idol in temples especially on Saturdays to ward off the ill effects of Saturn.
The run was to commence on Sunday the 29th of September from near Kumbakonam. The build up to this run was not without its ups and downs, more downs I would say. If I thought getting four days off (with the office already bossless for over a month) was a challenge, the situation got compounded by my getting nominated to a program at the Indian School of Business with virtually the who’s who of my service upto the evening of the 28th September. While I was grappling with the challenge, my wife gave me the courage to book a flight ticket from Hyderabad to Chennai (my first big expenditure for a run, maybe, shape of things to come. I may still spend and run the Comrades!). The General Manager of the railway obliged by agreeing to my week long absence (subtly guided by showing an article about my barefoot running in Livemint recently, thank you Pavitra!). The course at ISB was thankfully light and an unending orgy of eating with lecture breaks. I was able to put in a few smaller runs on the picturesque campus. The heavy fare at the campus did not suit my Gandhian palate (being a newly turned Vegan did compound my problems!). Result, I had the runs for the last two days at the campus. What I remember of my departure from the Campus to my eventual arrival at Kumbakonam Railway station next morning was the loo breaks at the various stops enroute, including the small one on board the Dornier aircraft. It would be ungrateful of me if I did not mention the stop over at my nephew’s place in Chennai where I got home food and loo. The night train was late by about an hour late.
I was continuously tracked by Bala, like an anxious mother of a teenage girl out on her first date, on his mobile. It was extremely kind of him to offer to wait for me for even a late start, if need be, to accommodate my late arrival. Mention must be made of the able assistant of Bala, Saravanan who received me at the station (7.30 AM, the runners had already started an hour before from Thingalur, which was about 30 Kms from the station) and literally flew me to waiting Bala’s car (I am reminded of a similar episode where my colleague, Pandeyji, who had similarly flown me to the start point when the Hubli passenger had earlier gone to tango with the Pedong Express, Roshni Rai!). I had already changed into my running gear on the train itself. The swamimalai temple evoked many memories in me (it’s our family deity), the village Alvandipuram I crossed next touched me a bit more, this is the place from where my paternal grandfather comes from and from where he walked away in his prime with only the clothes on his back over a dispute with his siblings. I met Bala, my wife and his wife and after a brief interaction we reached the Ganapathi agraharam, the place where the group had stayed the previous night to take blessings from Lord Vinayaka. The lady of the house met us outside the temple. She gave one look at me with concern and asked my wife if I have to necessarily run to all the temples. I was touched by the concern and affection shown by the simple folks within a few hours into knowing you. We rode to the first temple of the circuit, Thingalur (the abode of the Moon). I crossed the runners and waved to them, most of them later told me that they did not recognize me because of my spectacles. After a brief prayer (after wearing dhoti over my running gear, topless, top tied around my waist), Bala and I started at 8.40 AM (a full two hours and 10 minutes behind the others). After a brief stretch of bad road we got on the main road and to paraphrase Barefoot Ted, it was like a baby’s bum (Hema Malini’s cheeks if you prefer Lalu’s analogy!). The shady trees along the road made it even more pleasurable. We stepped on the gas and my mind was already scheming to catch the advance group. When Bala tried to get me interested in the greenery and the various water canals enroute, I remember having told him, we were like two candidates with arrears papers and could not afford the luxury of enjoying our run. The smiling assassin, the Sun was up in full glory and was making lip smacking sounds. The first leg till the lunch was 44Kms, the longest in the entire run. I pushed Bala with a view to reducing the gap. We had breakfast of Idlis, Sambar and Chutney (I avoided Pongal for the ghee it had!). I also had my first outdoor dump and with that overcame this fear of long distance cross country run. This was the first of the many breaks I took along the way and abundant Cauvery streams were a godsend. Despite Shanti (Bala’s better half) pleading to not push him too hard, he was doing admirably. I was running with him after a long time and was impressed with his grit and stamina. We passed on the left over breakfast to a reluctant assistant of a lorry driver. We carefully packed the paper and plastic refuse so as not to litter.
The road was now getting hot and our drinking breaks were now every 3Km’s down from earlier 5K. Both the wives were doing a great job of countering the Sun and keeping us interested by mentioning that the tail of the advance group was only half an hour away.We now started taking unofficial breaks with Bala deciding to charm kids and ladies to get us water from every house/shop enroute. We also met a farmer who was cleaning freshly harvested cotton. He was befriended for a drink after Bala claimed brotherhood with him by introducing me as a person who spins yarn from fresh cotton. We crossed a group of ladies singing aloud while working in the field. I now found many locals going about topless, on their bikes and in the fields. I looked less out of place in my topless attire. Bala also decided to go topless. A look at the green paddy fields and streams did wonders to counter the hot sun baking me at both ends. We entered a populated place with concrete structures and heat particulary at the bottom became unbearable. I let myself be coaxed into putting on my slippers. It is now I remember I badly needed to take a potty break in the middle of a built up area. My wife’s extroverted skills came in handy here, she knocked into the house of a M.A. M Ed, a retired DEO (I forget his name!) and befriended the couple and even found common acquaintances while I used their toilet. Bala used the time for stretching. I remember telling Shanti about my wife’s skills at making friends, that, she could find and make acquaintances even if we were stranded in Timbuctu! My Gandhian reservations notwithstanding, I was force fed a pill to arrest my runs. Before evening, the trick was done and I had a peaceful run thereafter.
Soon we could spot the last two runners of the runners of our team, Chakra Rangarajan who was painfully walking and Ravi Krishnan who was keeping him company. We wnt on to then meet Ram Viswanathan and Balaji and a few photographs later we ran on. We crossed some more runners (whose name I did not know then). At 2:40PM, Hubli passenger and Chennai mail chugged into our lunch point (6 hours for 44KM in the hot Sun was really superb), Well done Bala! A nice shower and before that a nice stretch by Manikandan the team physio was what the doctor would have ordered. Here we met all the runners, Selva’s mother, who very affectionately and personally fed us. Selva’s brother gave a smiling welcome, I felt as if I was in their home, he had come from Neyveli to make us comfortable. I must also mention Cindy, Peter’s pet, who took time to become friends but eventually we hit it off very well. Thank you Cindy for the company! We had a short nap and visited the second temple, Alangudi (the temple dedicated to Guru, the lord Brahaspati).
We started the evening run at 5:50 PM and the Sun now tired from its day long atrocities was no match for Neville and my combined onslaught. Our destination was Thippirajapuram, the Race Director, Narayanan Sir’s village, where we were to stay the night. Neville was game when I suggested that we do the 11K in one stretch. We had a good run and Sinu (Peter’s mate) paced us on the cycle for the initial part of the run. We now also had the luxury of more aid vehicles now. We did the distance in 55 minutes and while I was celebrating, when Krishna and Shreya (Bala’s kids), grounded me by telling me that Srikumar uncle had come first and we were second and third. We got a grand reception from Old and young alike. The house where we gents were to stay was an old mansion complete with a big swing, high ceiling and walls replete with old black and white family photographs and Tanjore paintings. Here I was made to feel like a Cine star by a bunch of youngsters, who claimed that they had seen me in the movie ‘Edhir Neechal’. Ice broken, we had an interesting discussion on why I run and how old I am and what I eat. Krishna and Shreya made friends with them easily. We all were given a public reception with the elders welcoming each one of us traditionally with a shawl. The picture was complete with press coverage. We had literally arrived. Dinner was excellent with Narayanan Sir personally serving each one of us with a local sweet speciality (I had to pass over, it was not Vegan!). My wife and the ladies were put up in a separate house and they were fussed over no less! Thus ended Day 1, with my having covered 55 Kilometers in 6 hours and 55 minutes.
Day 2 started with not many aches and pains. My habit of early wake up meant no rush for toilet. I had a good spinning session on my spinning wheel. People came to life starting 4 AM. Cindy was squealing for attention and I had a good time petting her. There was no order in the chaos and it was well after 6 AM when the juggernaut rolled. We learnt from the next day when Selva Sir took over and we had prompter starts thereafter. We said our farewells to the now almost family elders of the place. I had done my bit to prolong my connection with Narayanan Sir’s place, I had forgotten my spectacles in their house where I stayed the night (or so I thought). I am still managing with my wife’s spectacles as I type this account a full two weeks later. Our first stop was about 12 Kms away, at Thirunageswaram (Rahu sthalam). I was disciplined and kept along Bala and Selva Sir for about half an hour, thereafter I let my natural pace take over and joined the lead group. I mention this habit of mine of sprinting off as this would be a subject of a major heartburn the next day when I caused an embarrassment for the group! The stretch of road was bad on one part of the run and I had to switch to my slippers, I must have been a sight, shirtless with a pair of bathroom slippers in hand. I met Saravanan who had come as promised to join us for the run this day. Srikumar, Neville and I reached the temple car park. We were stranded as our temple gear was stuck in the vehicle which was bringing up the rear. We had an imropmptu photo session. The bus arrived. We grabbed our Temple wear, and rushed to the temple pond for a dip. Peter, Selvam Sir and I had a good swim. I left my running clothes on the side of the pond to air and went off to be with my wife. When I rushed back to the pond, I found only my towel and my shorts and top were nowhere to be seen. This lost and found ended quickly much to my wife’s chagrin who gave a long lecture on my carelessness, when Selva Sir came to my rescue having taken my clothes to the vehicle. Today was a big day for the reigning deity for the temple as the day was Rahu’s day when he did the trick of turning the milk offered to him blue, the time being the rahukalam (7.30 to 9 AM on Mondays!) added to the crowd. We wished him from a distance and went for the much deserved breakfast. My stomach was holding well with the previous day’s pill having quelled the culprits. I had a good breakfast even tempting my tender tummy with half done Rice Upma! The cooks and attendants who fed us took personal care and fed us lovingly. This group really ran on their stomachs! A big part of the success of the run without any casualty was largely due to the culinary skills of our Annadaatas!
The next stop was to be the Suryanar koil (ruling deity Sun!). The fact that we were going to pay obseissance to him did not cut any ice with him and he kept up to his torturing tricks and sapped us dry. The volunteers (minus my wife who had an engagement with the Registrar at Kumabakonam for the morning) kept up tirelessly the good work of hydrating us all along the route. The distance of about 12 Kms looked like a mountain in the hot Sun. The temple was special in that it had separate sannadhis for all the nava grahas. Even though I had read once the material on all the temples painstakingly compiled and circulated by Selva Sir and Shanti, the details keep merging into one another and I only remember following the crowd and the visit was an endless ritual of receiving of the holy ash and prostrations.
The next stop was Kanjanoor the abode of the planet Venus. The best part was that this was a short run of about only four kilometers. Delayed start in the morning and the time taken at the first temple meant a sunny run and delayed arrival at Kanjanoor. We took a cooling break at a canal enroute. Peter and Selva Sir led the way. Selva Sir’s mother seeing us in the water from her vehicle on the bridge, rushing to the water like a young girl would stay etched in my mind. Krishna and Shreya also joined under the care of the Grandmom. She is really an example to the dictum that age is just a number. We did the rest of the journey in one stretch and Peter kept me company. Peter ran up a debt at the local shop for cold water. Soon others joined us and most of us crashed at the temple, the big cemented courtyard and sparse crowd of devotees also helped. We seemed to be in no mood to go on to the next leg of the journey to Vanaathi rajapuram (another 11 Kms) for lunch. We received word that free Annadanam is done at the temple. Most of us trooped in to partake of it. Even though the quality of rice was not too good and food was a bit spicy we had a go without a care for the upcoming run. We learnt that the cost of feeding is met from offerings and shortfall is made good by the State Government. I observed that the people serving food were partial to us well dressed and were not treating the locals with equal care. Peter’s white skin was a hit. I also have been impressed with the ease and felicity with which he took South Indian food from a plantain leaf. Looking at the delay I rang up my wife to try and come to Kanjanoor itself after she finished her work at the Registrar’s. Selva Sir, bowing to popular demand shifted the lunch venue to Kanjanoor and the temple authorities obliged. We lay down in the cemented courtyard, the high ceiling and cool breeze gave us a perfect rest. Soon lunch arrived and I lunched on Lemon rice and fried savouries to go with it. Within an hour, the water warriors led by the ever young Selva’s mother made plans for a dip at river Cauvery on the way to the next stop. I reluctantly stayed back for my better half to arrive. Within minutes of my wife arriving, we decided to run to the bathing point. This was about 3 Kilometers from Kanjanoor. A waiting colleague of Selva Sir, informed us that at this point, Cauvery flows northward and that it is a holy spot. The dip at this point is supposed to be equal to a dip in river Ganges at Kashi. We needed no such sales talk, a dip in cool waters in the hot sun was inviting enough. Srikumar, Neville, Peter and I had a good run and rushed to the waters where already the earlier gang was cooling off. Cindy showed off her swimming skills. Durai took many snaps of the group here and we had a nice picnic like atmosphere. Our next target was to reach Vanaathi Rajapuram, where the management of Flexi was to have hosted us lunch. Since the lunch was taken at Kanjanoor, they had kindly accepted to host us evening refreshments. We were told to reach by 5:30PM. We decided to cool off a bit more and wear down the Sun and felt that one hours run would get us home. The next part of the run was the best with people pressing on the accelerator, road obliging with smooth top and not much traffic. A barefooters paradise!
I got carried away and had a good run, soon sighted a banner welcoming the Navagraha Ottam runners. We were welcomed by the people with farm fresh bananas and copious amounts of lime juice. I don’t remember how many bananas and rounds of lemon juice I would have downed. I remember someone fondly drooling for Vazhakkai Bajjis. Peter and a few others went straight for the borewell to cool off from the run. My wife tells me that the owner of the farmhouse used to entertain belonged to a Muslim owner who was currently in Middle East. This happens only in India that a Muslim fetes runners doing a Hindu temples circuit. It was getting dark and there was still 11 Kms to go for the night halt point at Myladuthurai. The hospitality and weather was so good that we did not want to leave.
Reluctantly, we set of for the last leg for the day. Neville and Srikumar led from the front and I had Vadivel for company. After a few kilometers, Vadivel wished me well and dropped back. I pressed on to try and catch up with Neville and Srikumar. The road was straight and the instructions from the race director were to look for guidance after crossing the level crossing gate. I must have slacked a bit as I could not see the lead runners. It was getting dark. I got company in the form of a young kid on a bicycle. He looked embarrassed in accompanying an old man who was running barefoot, topless with a pair of bathroom slippers in hand. Just before the level crossing I confirmed from him the direction to take after crossing the level crossing gate. He airily waved and asked me to take the right. I crossed the gate and looked for some guidance, no one was in sight. I stopped and asked direction from the saw mill owner. He also corroborated the direction given by the youngster.
I turned right and sped on. I still had hopes of catching up with Neville and Srikumar. It was getting dark and there were no street lights. I started remembering the handout and instructions given during the briefing before the last leg of the run. I remembered being asked to look for AVC kalyana mantapam and was to watch out for somebody who would guide before we hit the Kalyana mantapam. Almost half an hour of run later and many enquiries later, my worst fears came true. I had lost my way, was not sure of the name of the land mark. I had no money and no mobile! The things in my favour, I could speak passable Tamil and I could call from some shop to my wife! A very confident looking middle aged man told me that I have taken the wrong turn at the level crossing gate. I was advised not to turn back but to take a parallel road and ask for the Kalyana mantapam. After a few kilometers on a busy road I reached the kalyana mantapam. There was no lookout there too. I stopped at a shop and asked the shopkeeper to make a call. My wife had reached home, but, there was nobody to guide me. While I was struggling with my Tamil with the shopkeeper, I heard Bala abd Selva Sir’s voices. I experienced what Robinson Crusoe would have experienced on sighting man Friday! It turned out that they all were also lost. I had a good talk with Ravi Krishnan about our Labrador pets and I felt better. Finally we all reached home. After dinner of chapattis and korma (here also sweet dish had to be forgone, including one provided by the hosts, for being not Vegan), I walked to the nearest ATM to pay Bala our contribution. When I returned back with my legs aching for rest, I found a war council in progress. The group went silent as in entered. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to guess that I was the person under discussion. I was confronted by the three inquisitors, viz., Selva Sir, Narayanan Sir and Bala and told in no uncertain terms that I should not run alone, should carry mobile and cash. I don’t know if it was the late hour or my tired muscles, I decided to join issues with them in tones not befitting a wannabe Gandhi. In restrospect, I can now see that their outburst was out of concern for our well being. I apologized to both Narayanan Sir and Selva Sir. Bala I am sure understands. For records, I carried mobile and cash on the next day at least! Thus ended Day2 and 48 kilometers of recorded run and lots of fun and drama. I had a restless night, maybe, a combination of fatigue and guilt at having been rude to Selva and Narayanan. I got up early and spun yarn for some time. Cindy wanted my attention after spending the night alone on a leash and I obliged much to her pleasure.
Amidst the riot act the previous night, Selva Sir had announced departure at 5.30 for the next day. Runners assembled by themselves eventhough Selva Sir did blow a few whistles like a PT master for effect. Today the first stop was Vaideeswaran temple (abode of Mercury), a run of about 13 Kms. Volunteers guided us on to the highway and then we were on auto pilot. One more decision of previous night was that I was paired with the speed demons, Srikumar, Peter and Neville. Neville looked a bit reserved today and was not giving his all. Sri and Peter put in a good distance between them and us. Presently, the Sun came out from our right, he looked so innocent. I was not to be fooled; I goaded Neville to step on the gas. One aid vehicle was serving us four and the run was pleasant. I must have been a sight running barefoot with slippers in hand. I made it a point to explain to people who commented about it and later even before they commented that the slippers were for if the road got bad or too hot later! We reached the temple about five minutes later than Peter and Sri. We walked to the South entrance, which was our rendezvous, warding off locals offering to read our future by reading palm scripts. The temri was emphatic that it was all fraud. I personally have not much interest in what the future holds and prefer to read the book called life without reading the back covers or flipping to the end.The joy of life is in its glorious uncertainities! Trading our running gear for impromptu swim wear we rushed to the temple tank. Peter jumped in and before you could say ‘Jack Robbins’ he was on the other side of the tank. He also posed from the top of the pedestal in the middle of the tank. I also followed suit taking care so as to not lose my towel in the water. When I reached the other end, an officious looking guy (not in any uniform) was having a go at Peter in chaste Tamil for swimming in the tank. I had no problem with the message, but, his tone was offensive. I gave him a piece of my mind and few other pilgrims nearby suppoted us. Presently, Selva Sir entered the water and when told of the altercation, informed us that he could clear the pond of all other pilgrims and arrange for our group’s private bath with police escort if required, such was his clout in the town! After a nice run and a bath we changed into fresh clothes and visited the temple. The temple was grand and had a separate sannadhi for Dhanvantri, physician numero uno! I could only think of my blisters. This is where Lord Rama believed to have performed last rites for Jatayu. There was something unique here, the navagrahas surrounding Sun were looking to the Sun whereas they normally look away as if in a fight. Balaji had a simple take on this, he felt the architect made a mistake! After the temple visit we all assembled along the pond side for a hearty breakfast of Idli, Sambar and Chutney (Pongal, coffee excepted!).
It was around 9, when we set off for the next venue, Thiruvengadu (Planet Mercury). Others had started earlier, and we set off to catch them. Vadivel was also with us and we stopped next at a borewell. Vadivel took permission from the owner and we all had a nice head shower to cool the body. The aid vehicles carrying Bala’s and my wife and Shreya located us and stopped for us. After a drink whiel we were just contemplating starting again, we spied an ice-cream vendor. The lic-lolly kind which has many flavours. We tried Grape, Mango and Orange and I can bet the taste was better than the best. It brought back childhood memories. Simple joys of life! Race director informed us that local guide would help us cut 3 Kms of the run to the next temple. He was the father-in-law of Selva Sir’s assistant ang gave us all the Son-in-law’s treatment. He made us cool off in his house. We decided to sprawl there till others arrived. The high ceiling and breeze gave us a feeling of being in an air conditioned room. Next was 5-6 Kms of dry run with the person guiding us on a moped at each turn. The temple had a spacious and covered quadrangle where we all rested and ate groundnuts. All runners got special treatment from the temple priest. We waited for the food to arrive. Today was a little tricky as we had to do another stretch after lunch to be at temple dedicated to Ketu by 4.30PM. To run in the Sun after lunch would really be a challenge. I wanted to eat light, but, the food was tasty and hunger took over and I ate without a care for the run to follow. On a full stomach, blood drained to the stomach and bodies fell left and right in the shaded quadrangle.
One by one the runners started to leave for the next temple, Keezhaperumballam (abode of Ketu). We four whom Selva Sir has started calling the elite runners left at 3 PM, distance of 8 Kms in one and half hour should be challenging! Luckily, the road was shaded on both sides and not hot for the soles. My blisters were now quite bad and my feet were refusing to go into the slippers. We met the other runners just where we had to take off from the main road. Even though the road ahead was quite pebbly and hot I preferred to rough it out as the soles looked better equipped than the feet being forced into slippers and aggravating the blisters. We reached the temple premises at 4.15 PM, well within the rahukalam (Tuesday 3-4.30PM). To witness the rahukalam puja at this temple is considered auspicious. There was a big crowd and we stayed on well past 4.30 PM to have a leisurely darshan and to read about the lore of the place which was prominently painted on the walls of the temple in English (which I discovered after struggling with Tamil) and Kannada. We all went outside to have cool drinks. I had two Bovontos (a local drink of Kumbakonam) which I hadn’t found anywhere else. Bala gave me his half finished bottle when he heard me saying that I like it. Neville and Sri had a buttermilk downing contest and this was to tell on the elite runner’s performance later in the evening. While Neville and Sri were at it, Peter and I decided to walk the bad stretch till the main road (my soles were scorched and I couldn’t risk running on this bad stretch). They took a long time in coming and when they did come, they kept delaying the start of running. So much so that I felt guilty about stopping for a drink at the aid stations. What Krishna said did the trick! He said, Uncle, I am mixing you special energy drinks and you can’t walk! Despite express instructions of the previous day, Peter and I started a slow jog, we wanted the end the day running and on a high and not walking and limping. We had a good run in the evening breeze and had an interesting talk about our pets. We reached the intersection where went off the main road. Here we met Selva Sir and Bala. I stopped to walk with Bala and Selva Sir and Peter ran on. It was quite dark now, I did not wan’t to repeat the previous day’s fiasco! Bala coaxed Selva Sir to do walk and run lamp post by lamp post. My legs had jammed due to prolonged walk and I was finding it more painful to walk than run. Selva Sir and I had an interesting discussion on Gandhi. This was our long march. Tired and battered we reached Sembanar Koil the venue of our night’s stay. What Krishna said about the place sums it up for me! ‘This place is like home, it has nice toilets’. The hosts were Selva Sir’s acquaintance. We were plied with bananas (which I gorged on) and fried cashews (which I had to decline as they were fried in Ghee!). I had a nice bath and even washed my running gear. There was ample space in the balcony to dry clothes. Manikandan gave us all a good stretch, interesting how you feel more tired after a walk than a run! Selva Sir’s CA friend Sreenivasan joined us. He was to accompany us on the run next day in his car. Coming to know that I am a die-hard fan of Gandhi, he shared interesting news. His firm had audited Gandhiji’s Harijan Seva Sangh Trust’s accounts at Gandhi’s request and he had a hand written note from Gandhiji thanking he firm for the same. He has been kind enough to send me a scanned copy of the same to me. We all sat around and gossiped till dinner was announced. We had started more and more to resemble a joint family. Balms and creams were being passed around and gentle leg pulling went on with sterner stuff by the physio. Dinner was downstairs in host’s drawing room and I had a hearty meal of Dalia upma. We were provided with beddings and had ample space. Tomorrow was the big day Gandhi jayanti! I was looking around for a place to be able to spin charkha without disturbing others. Balcony looked a good place. Bala’s wife and my wife joined the lady of the house on the ground floor for the night.
I got up to my alarm at 2.30 AM. I went to the balcony on tiptoes avoiding spread-eagled bodies in the dark. Somebody was sleeping there. I woke him gently and asked him to take my place under the fan. I think it was Vadivel? I had a long session of spinning after putting on the balcony light. People came to light slowly starting 4 AM. Selva Sir’s PT mastersque voice was to rudely awaken late birds. I think Ram or Balaji suggested putting on Suprabhatam! Suprabhatam and the smell of filter coffee, reminded me of childhood vacations to my uncle’s place. After having lost the spectacles on the second day and not being able to blame my wife for it, I was feeling miserable. I made do with my wife’s spectacles. I had been pestering Narayanan Sir to check up at Thippirajapuram if I had left it there. Loads of files to attend on return, at least three days without spectacles (even if I order immediately on return) was weighing heavy, not to speak of being poorer by Rs. 500!
The hosts had assembled at the early hour on a national holiday to see us off. The distance to the temple, Thirunallar (abode of the dreaded Saturn) was 24K. The first group started minus Neville, Sri, Peter and me (Sri was not ready; he has a knack of reaching the start point at the last moment!) The spectators felt disappointed that the runners were walking and limping. I remember to have a told them that it’s a long distance train and would pick up speed once it left the platform. Race director briefed us about the various landmarks. They were absolute tongue twisters and I decided to stay with the group. Neville was not fully fit and we two started at a slow pace. Sri and Peter were flying! After some time we crossed Balaji and Ram. We crossed a bridge where the villagers were celebrating Gandhi Jayanti. They had placed a photo of Gandhi on a chair, garlanded it and lit incense sticks. They were offering chocolates to passersby. I stopped, said a silent prayer and took the chocolate (Lacto king, here goes my Vegan vow, but, the occasion demanded it wouldn’t you say?). Since the ladies and other support vehicles were to start after an hour, we were asked to stay in groups. Having lost all hope of catching up Sri and Peter, I tried to coax Neville to speed up. Even though he asked me to go on, I felt guilty and stuck on. He was getting better in his breathing and rhythm. I had a good long discussion with him. As luck would have it, Peter and Sri had been waylaid by a tube well much to our delight. We all had a nice refreshing bath and feasted on bananas and oranges. Our aid party had caught us. Here everybody met and venue for next break and breakfast was being decided. Sri and I had a consultation and we decided to run the entire stretch in one go and take breakfast in the end. Our plan was to run light and avoid the Sun. I summoned the courage and told Narayanan Sir of our plan. He could not hide his disappointment, but, understood our logic and fully suppoted us. Sreenivasan kept our company. We four set off, Neville was running stronger now, but, he still lagged. I went ahead with Sri and Peter as Neville waved me on. He kept us in sight all along. Next stop was a cold drink shop where Sri, Peter and Neville had chocolates (Sugar loading for the take off!) After this break, Peter fell behind and I kept up with Sri, hoping Peter joined Neville. After sometime, I asked Sri to wait for Neville and Peter. He reluctantly obliged. Neville reached after some time and informed that Peter is not feeling well and would be joining the others. Now Neville was also running hard and we three set off. The weather was nice, the Sun notwithstanding! Suresh had been doggedly going at a steady pace without any break. The next 15 odd kilometers were a dream run and it was a pleasure matching Sri step for step. There is no better tango than finding a running partner who can match you for pace. The road was absolute billiard top. We stopped at a shop for cold drinks for Sri, I also took a sip of Maaza. Neille joined us here. Next we were stopped about 3Kms from the temple by the breakfast vehicle. Narayanan Sir had sent us food. We politely told the keen feeders that we would eat after the finish point. Nothing could stop this dream run, not even good south Indian breakfast on a hungry stomach. We both stopped about a kilometer from the finish and waited for Neville. We downed concentrated salt dissolved in Limca, I don’t know how many pegs! Then the three musketeers walked hand in hand to the finish point, my wife handing us a mini 5 star bar each as finisher’s prize (mine went to Shreya). I was offered kosher groundnut chikki instead! While I gorged on Idli, Gothsu and Chutney, Neville and Sri started downing Moosambi juices! We ate and drank without the sword of next run hanging. I finished my heavy meal with another favourite of mine Panneer Soda (Krishna and Shanti were also partners in crime in this!).
Shanti and Banu decided to go shop for gifts for the support staff and left me with Durai’s Camera and finisher’s 5-star to welcome finishers. Selva’s mother felt bored at having been left behind by the shoppers and kept me company. One by one all the runners completed the run and we all proceeded to the temple tank for a dip. An impromptu closing ceremony complete with photo coverage was organized at the temple tank. Race director was presented a momento and he was overcome with emotion while receiving it, kudos for the effort Sir! All runners were garlanded and momentos were given to all support staff. Finally a group photo was taken.
Neville the most devout of us, followed all the rituals after consulting all the experts. I felt like a fraud Tambram. We all visited the temple and relaxed in the hall. Run done, people started preponing their return. The late night train people managed to hitch a ride with vehicles leaving. Peter obliged me and Banu and offered to drop us to Puducherry. Durai and Manikandan also joined us. Packed lunch was taken and we decided to stop enroute for lunch break. Peter and Sinu took turns at driving and baby sitting Cindy. We stopped at a bus shelter for lunch. Banu gave me her Sambar rice, curd rice packets which were extra were fed to Cindy and a street side Romeo! After a comfortable ride in air-conditioned comfort we were dropped at Puducherry station. They waited till I threw my rank and managed a room in the rest house. Thank you Peter and Sinu!
Thanks to Selva Sir, Shanti, Bala and Narayanan Sir and all the volunteers for a wonderful time. Looking forward to many more such runs in the coming days. Bala are you listening? We spent the evening reliving the last four days. Its two weeks now and we still say last week this time we were…As I go to press I have some good news, Narayanan Sir has located my spectacles in the vehicle and hopefully it would reach me through the Railway channels, Alls well that ends well!