My Fitness Journey Began With Running From A Tiger
And you thought your running coach was fierce?
October 2019. We’re fifteen minutes into a two-hour nature walk in the forest adjoining a resort in Coorg. The forest guide walks ahead of us—a lookout. His colleague, a young naturalist, interests us in jungle trivia. He explains how the anthill extends as deep under the ground as it does above. We’re peering at elephant dung, when the guide runs towards us. The expression on his face is unmistakable—fear. It’s a tiger! Run, run, he whispers.
My 22-year-old daughter and the naturalist take off the way a tiger’s prey should. I fall when I start to run. I’m lodged in the ground like a tire stuck in wet mud. My husband lugs me up. Faster, faster, he urges, and the guide picks up the refrain. I try, but my feet don’t take cue from my heart beat. I stumble behind the others, dreading the grip of claws any moment. It’s a moment of epiphany: I cannot run to save my life.
Ten minutes later, within the safety of the resort property, there’s nervous laughter and questions. The tiger is a young male, probably returning from a visit to the watering hole. He was 20 feet ahead of the guide when a low growl announced his presence. A collective stab of envy runs through the others: wish we’d seen him; wish we’d photographed him; wish we’d met him at the end of the walk. I only wish I’d run faster.
A month later, my daughter runs a 21-kilometer race near Ranganthittu, the bird sanctuary. Her friend’s mother had run the 10-km event. I’m envious.
It’s December. I’m checking the website of a hiking group. The cutoff age is 55 for a trek I’m keen on; I’m eligible. I must share proof that I can run 5 kilometers in under 40 minutes; I cannot. I’ve walked an average of four kilometers every day for 20 years, but that doesn’t count. A trek in the Himalayas in April to coincide with my 50th birthday will remain a dream.
It’s Jan 2020. I resolve to write more short stories, and start work on a novel. No progress. I have an empty nest and cannot focus. One desultory afternoon, I pay up for a month of fitness training to a local running group. I’ve watched them train in my neighbourhood for the past three years. Early mornings explode with their exuberance. I’ve no clue why the sweating and labouring runners look so joyful. I think: I’ll quit if it gets tough. I buy running gear.
February kicks off on a hopeful note. We meet thrice a week at 5:15 am. There are others like me. I alternately jog and walk the four-kilometer route. We complete post-run workouts on the road and inside the park. The month is an eye opener: drill exercises expose my instability; stretches reveal idle muscle groups; core exercises become my battlefield. On the fourth day of training, a senior runner, runs beside me. “Go slow, don’t stop,” she urges. That day, I run my first 4 km, non-stop. I’m astonished.
The author exercising at home (Photo: Jyothi Vinod)
It’s March. I enroll for a ten-week programme to run 10 kilometers. My body doesn’t protest anymore. I run 6 kilometers before the virus drives India indoors. I struggle to stay motivated. I follow broadcasts sent over the group’s mobile app: I race up and down stairs; do gym workouts with buckets and backpacks; lift weights; contort myself on the yoga mat; share proud selfies on the runners' WhatsApp group after workouts.
When the lockdown restrictions ease, I run alone around the block wearing a mask. I rush home to complete guided workouts. I’m running longer and stronger. I will run ten kilometers before July begins.
The benefits of running touch other aspects of my life. I’m reading and writing more. I’m calmer. ‘Go slow, don’t stop,’ becomes my mantra whether I’m cooking or cleaning, driving or dusting. My sense of direction and memory has sharpened.
I often think of the tiger in Coorg. I don’t answer the ‘what ifs’ from that afternoon. These are such trying times for the world: the virus is holding our present and future hostage. It’s so easy to fall prey to dark thoughts.
As for me, I believe there’s always a tiger—fuelled by self-doubt— in hot pursuit. To outpace it, I have to keep running. That’s the only way to reclaim my life.