For several years now, Isha Vidhya volunteers have actively participated in marathons to spread information about the project and raise funds. Peggy Wolff, a volunteer, compares and contrasts her running experiences back in Germany, and here in India.
Q: When and where did you first start running? What got you into running in the first place?
Peggy: I started jogging in Germany and the US before coming to India, but I never considered myself to be a runner. In fact, as a teenager, I could barely make it past a few hundred meters! Side stitches would kick in every time I tried. Amongst my siblings, I was the black sheep; I just didn’t have the natural strength and flexibility my brother and sister had. Yet I had my favorite sport too, alpine skiing, the deep and steep stuff.
For the rather hectic work-life I had, playing tennis or swimming did not fit in somehow, and skiing was a seasonal affair. It was only here in India that I graduated from jogging to running. I didn’t seek it out for health benefits, nor to add another hobby, or to make friends — those aspects are all a happy bonus, but they were never the driving force. What got me into running then?
The primary reason I started running was Isha Vidhya. “Running for a cause” did it for me. It was a means to raise awareness about rural education. I figured, if I put in an extra effort to run an extra mile, I could boldly approach my friends to support my cause and put in an extra buck that goes to support the rural kids.
As I helped to enroll people to run for Isha Vidhya at The Wipro Chennai Marathon, I was matter-of-factly asked: “And you will run too, won’t you?” I hesitated for a brief second and then my response came out loud and clear, “Of course. Let’s do it together!”
Q: What were your thoughts related to running when you first heard you had to move to India?
Peggy: Coming to Tamil Nadu, I dreaded the heat, humidity, the all-year warm weather, the potholes and above all the mosquitoes! But today, I find I only leave India when the heat peaks to unbearable levels — at least for a German — in March-April. I love spending time in the snowy Alps that time of the year to ski with friends. I used to jog in the evenings, after work or on the weekends both in Germany and in the US. But in Tamil Nadu, I always run in the mornings when it is still dark. I am lucky to live at the Velliangiri foothills near Coimbatore where there is always a fresh breeze.
Q: What are your favorite running routes in Chennai? Do you run alone or with company?
Peggy: We have a Isha Vidhya school with over 700 kids in Cuddalore, just 3-4 hours south of Chennai. When I come up to Chennai ever so often, I always have my sneakers in the bag. Over the years, Isha Vidhya has become the NGO with the largest contingent of runners at The Wipro Chennai Marathon, so I get to run with volunteers every single time I am in town. It is fun to run in a group, in different places, different terrains, at different paces. My favorite running route in Chennai is in the IIT Madras campus. I love those trees.
Q: Have you participated in any of the local races in India? Talk to us a little about those experiences.
Peggy: I have run twice each in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai now. My first three half marathons in 2013-14 happened within just seven weeks (with a four-week stint in Australia in between!). From a timid 2:26 finish in Chennai to a much improved 2:04 in Mumbai, I have been getting faster. In 2014-15, it’s already been one half marathon every month in November, December and January. Each city is unique!
Chennai in December 2013, stood out for me in so many ways. Of course, being the very first organized race in my life, it no doubt holds a special place. But the water puddles, the view of the sea and above all the most exuberant after-run party made The Wipro Chennai Marathon 2013 a stand-out race for me. To be exhausted, yet still dance for an hour after the finish was incredible.
Delhi of course has excellent weather — cool yet not cold. But I found the course itself rather boring — flat and straight and going through non-residential areas with very few people cheering. It is no doubt a fast course though.
Mumbai has been my favorite of the three races I have run so far in India. The course has its variations, over the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge, up Peddar road, coming onto Marine Drive and of course, the people everywhere cheering the runners! The entire city seemed to be on their feet cheering me as I ran past.
This year I plan to run the TCS 10K in Bangalore and I am looking forward to that experience as running for me in India now equates to creating awareness and raising funds and in the process, having the best fun of my life.
Q: Here’s a toughie: How do you deal with the “mild and pleasant” Chennai weather (and the dogs!) on your runs?
Peggy: Oh yeah, the dogs! My friends in Germany ask me all the time how I handle that part when I tell them I run “with company”. Anywhere in India, be it in urban Chennai or rural Tamil Nadu, or even in remote places like Leh in Ladakh, there are many stray dogs. I always run with an eye on them, picturing them only in half jest, jumping upon my ankles and biting into my achilles! Still, I run the route every day. The dogs seem to have gotten used to my presence in the early morning hours. They seem to “run with” more than “bark at” me.
Q: What’s your go-to Indian carb-loading meal before or after a tough run?
Peggy: I love ragi kanji and upma but to be honest, I am not that much into carbs. After a run I prefer citrus fruits, mangoes or pineapples. oranges etc. Once I am done with the fruits, I enjoy ragi dosa or ragi roties and lentils/beans/paneer for protein.
Q: What’s been the most bizarre, funny, “this can’t be true” running experience you’ve had on Indian roads?
Peggy: Pedestrians crossing the paths of runners in a race, traffic police actually stopping the runners in a race for a few seconds to let cars pass and the Chennai puddles when it rains – these are my India moments in running!
Q: And finally, what do you miss most about running in Chennai when you leave the country?
Peggy: In Germany I run mostly in the woods with nobody around. It strikes me every time I go back there how quiet it is all around. And I have to bundle up much more before I head out for a run. As strange as it may sound, I am guessing I will miss the humid, sweaty climate only because I get to run here in India wearing a simple T-shirt and not worry about multiple layers of running gear to keep the cold at bay.
And, yes, among athletes, and in sports in general there is always a natural bonding, a bonding that bridges our varied backgrounds. If we could all live our daily lives as if we were in an Olympic event, when nations that would otherwise not even talk to each other come together, it would be a wonderful world! And the upcoming first International Yoga Day on June 21, 2015, on the summer solstice, might well be another stepping stone to create that coming together globally!
Actually, Indian runners are amazing! The camaraderie, openness, down-to-earth attitude, and warmth of people here is fascinating. What strikes me every time I run in an event here is how much fun people have while running. Many simply join in, prepared or unprepared, just to do it, to try it out and to have fun.
Yes, it is definitely about giving it ones all yet it is also very much about having fun and not taking oneself too seriously.
Editor’s Note: If you’d like to run for Isha Vidhya, contact 9489045045.
The above interview was printed in The Rundown (magazine) – an initiative of Chennai runners. Issue #7 March 2015.