Feature Story

'Did you come first?'

'Did you come first?'
"You came first?"

Maybe because I couldn't pay for a longer stay at my guest house, the owner told me about this community Marathon. It had a prize of Rs. 1000 (a thousand Rupees) waiting for the winner.

Registration had closed the day before, upon my arrival at this little town on the Konkan shore of Maharashtra state. However in rural India nothing will stop locals from making sure a guest feels at home.

So on the next morning we went down to the market street, it's the one and only street lined up with 'front loading' stores: 'cubicles' with only front access, the type of transparent/self explanatory shops.

My guesthouse owner was pedaling as I was sitting on the bicycle carrier behind him. With no cushioning, I added some background vocals with every bump on the road.

The registration office was a local photo shop, a simple and compact hole in the wall.

7:00 AM was set for the race to begin, so we both woke up early and bicycled our 3km down to the local school where the runners gather up.

A question remained unanswered is why Indian show up on official timing when nothing really starts by then... maybe it's the extra time is used for socializing, high on the local's to-do list.

Roses were given to various community member activists, some volunteer in ASTA, to create and run such community events. Next I was surprisingly asked to step up to the podium, and with my name/ foreigner/guest title announced on the speakers was greeted a rose (Gulab in Hindi).

2 km was the longest I ran to that date. I had no special intention to finish the race or pick a prize. it was good enough to mingle with locals rather then remain an observing tourist.

11:00 AM, the run begins after the children 2 km and the teen 5 km races were completed.

On our marks, I am standing in the last row of runners crowd but then am asked to move to the middle front row as a photographer journalist is there in front of us.

The signal is given and the whole herd blazed into a sprint more in line with a 100 meters race. I stay behind while my guest house owner is escorting me on his bicycle in a slow running pace.

The next minutes on the road were all but professional. Some had quit, some had shifted to a walking. Some spectators came up to me curious to have a word with the odd bird on the track.

The path, lined with a few drinking points, delivered water bags and then someone driving by threw me a whole bottle full which I caught in midair while running. Others sprinkled me with water and some residence offered a chilled glassful.

About half way into the race, while in the outskirts of town lined with the beach and some lagoons, I too shifted to walking. I felt that about 3 km is good enough and was tired enough as well.

Joined by my walking peers, I didn't have to feel beaten or incompetent, we were all walking in various positions under the tropical blazing noon sun.

Catching my breath, I comitted my self with Tushar, my guest house owner and companian, as a witness that I am going to run up to a fellow runner wearing a yellow shirt in front.

That was enough to jumpstart my slow cooking rhythem so I countinued past that group and onto the next special curve to the right.

That curve was familiar to me from my 2007 visit. I once arrived at this spot riding behind a friend on his motorcycle, yet that was enough to orient me. Now I knew what is left ahead of me to the finish line.

As I turned the curve i was in Market street. Line up with shops and owners I knew or they knew me, pedestrians on the margins, cycles, cows, motorcycles, rikshaws and sometimes busses and trucks.

My attention now was all but focused, and that was good, distracting me from calculating my millage. People were cheering, standing by the shop doorstep. Some were offering glasses of chilled water. I only rinse my mouth every once in a while and spit out.

By the curve back into the school street, Tushar said there are only 500 meters left. I felt he is on the optimistic side but I appreciated his approach.

Getting closer to the last mark the street became crowder with school kids that had just finished their shorter race a short while before. I manouvered among them with ease after the diverse traffic I practiced with on market street.

At the finish line there was no one waiting for me. All were busy with the champs that arrived first. I enjoyed being only one of many and not getting a special treatment.

Later i went with Mr. Mehta for chai. Being soaked with sweat the fans inspired a cold in my system, I carried for a few days later.

Sometime later, in the schoolyard, a group of men invited me to the certificate ceremony which was held on Republic Day in a classroom at the same school during the celebrations.

The ASTA group and me posed for a photo while I was offered a flower, this certificate you see on this page and an envelope containing money the members had collected for me. I donated it back to support ASTA activities later.

A couple of days later, on a day I had my own improvised shop offering used and new personal clothing and electronic items, I found myself in the local Sakal newspaper. It was worth it :)

Read more about my experience on: My India: Where every village is home

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