Vishwanathan Jayaraman, a mild-mannered runner, is something of an oddity. It couldn’t be any more refreshing though, as this wiry runner is an inspiration to countless people struggling to find themselves in a world that’s moving way too fast. The 53-year-old, who works for the South Western Railways, is an IITian with a degree in electrical engineering and also a Gandhian! As a chain-smoker who had been struggling to kick the habit, running was the lifeline that helped him overcome his addiction. Since then, Vishwanathan has run several marathons across the nation and has also taken up barefoot running. While running may have given him a new lease of life, his dedication to barefoot running and his commitment to Gandhian philosophies brings new hope to a cynical world.
Grazilia Almeida-Khatri caught up with him to find out the secrets that keep him healthy, happy and peaceful.
Did you always run barefoot? If not, when and why did you take it up?
I have been running since 2000, I started running barefoot in 2013. As a runner, shoes were always a major item of expenditure and this pinched my conscience and, more importantly, my wallet. I felt a sense of unease and discomfort about pursuing such an un-Gandhian passion. At that time, my rough calculations had shown that at an average price of Rs. 5000 per pair of shoes, having a recommended life of 500km, it cost more to run in shoes than for me to travel by an auto-rickshaw! So, when Barefoot Ted [of ‘Born to Run’ fame] addressed runners before the Auroville Marathon about how barefoot running is the natural way to run and how Indians can easily take to it, I gave it some serious thought. After a month’s practice of walking barefoot, I undertook my first barefoot run of 26 kms on 18th March, 2013. I haven’t looked back since. Nonetheless, I must admit that I do use slippers [Hawaai chappals as they are better known] when the surface gets too rough,
too dirty or too hot.
Is there a particular terrain that you find best-suited for barefoot running?
I have found that the concrete surface, like the airport runway, which you have in some cities is the most barefoot-friendly surface after the synthetic track found in indoor stadiums. Interlocked concrete pavements and tar roads are also fine. Broken roads and loose gravel paths are the worst for bare feet. Among the marathon events, the Mumbai marathon course [except for a small stretch at the mouth of the Worli Sea Link] is the best course for a barefoot runner.
Did you face any mental blocks before you went barefoot, especially about the lack of hygiene on Indian roads?
Frankly, the likelihood of physical injury and the fear of ‘what people would think’ were mental blocks before I started out. But, the ease of running and reduced trauma to the body made a much better case for running barefoot. Besides, it contributed to increased mileage and faster recoveries. Interestingly, once I started running barefoot, my speed showed a drastic improvement in the next year’s Mumbai marathon, from finishing around the 3:50 mark I finished at 3:36.
There’s a school of thought that believes that running is unnatural for humans as we’ve not evolved to be long distance runners. What’s your view on that?
The joy I see on the face of a young kid when they run and the joy I experience while running, contrary to the grumpiness I exhibit on the days I don’t run, makes me believe that we were born to run. As for long distance running, I find that to get the same joy, I now have to run longer distances than I used to run just a few years ago. I love running to the extent that it is an addiction!
The theory of evolution and the logic in the book Born to Run about how the human race has survived from being quadruped to becoming biped to making tools/weapons is very well reasoned and appealed to me. The way the book covered running fascinated me.
Can you share any memorable experiences from the marathons you have run?
The sheer warmth shown by the spectators makes every marathon run in Mumbai special to me. However, the midnight marathon I ran on 14th December 2013 was intensely emotional and spiritual for me—it was the day my father-in-law expired and was cremated. I had not had a wink of sleep from the previous night and was exhausted. My brother and daughter were running with me, and I am sure my departed father-in-law [who was greatly supportive of my running!] would have been applauding from up above.
How has running affected your performance at work?
There has been no physical stress due to running on my performance at work. In fact, running has given me more equanimity and stability. Having a ruling passion, other than work, has made me approach work with a certain sense of detachment and clarity. In fact, the solutions to the most intractable problems both at work and in my personal life have appeared to me while on my long runs.
What inspired you to become a Gandhian?
Belonging to a middle class family, being economical with my money was always ingrained in me, but becoming a Gandhian was never about spending less. I found Gandhi to be one of the few historical figures who was open about his certain imperfections. His life appeared capable of being followed by an ordinary person like me. I have been unabashedly copying the great man and am even, by my own assessment, still a very poor copy. One life is not enough to even become a decent copy of him. The process has been thoroughly enriching for me.
What are the other Gandhian philosophies that you live by?
I took to spinning on a charkha I purchased from Sabarmati ashram back in 2009 and contribute the yarn to make my own cloth. I have been wearing at least one article of khadi to work and as my running attire. I had given up smoking and drinking but I also gave up eating eggs and non-vegetarian food, which I used to consume occasionally. Finally, I gave up all dairy products and turned fully vegan on 12th May 2013 after reading an article highlighting the cruelty perpetrated to dairy animals.
Besides sartorial and dietary changes, I have tried to minimise my requirements and simplify my life. I have become more empathetic towards my fellow beings [including animals]. I have become more conscious of environmental protection through practices like segregating waste. The scene of Gandhi asking young Jawaharlal Nehru to feed potato peels to goats when the latter tried discussing the political scenario in the country from the Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi springs to my mind. I have been carrying vegetable waste during my morning run and feeding it to cattle on the way. I recycle the plastic cover used to carry garbage. I have started washing my own clothes and dishes, using washing soap made by khadi industries. I either walk, use a bicycle or public transport to work. All these ideas were buried within me; but running has given me the courage to do my own thing without caring for what people might think or say!
Any incidents where you were able to use a Gandhian philosophy to tackle a situation?
I used to run on highways in Hubli and the drivers on the highway are notorious for being rash. I consciously started wishing and waving to each driver I crossed on the NH-218 during my daily runs. It is unbelievable, but in a short time most of them became my friends and used to give me the right of way. Presently, I am conducting the same experiment with the drivers in the big city of Chennai and am in the process of proving that Gandhigiri works!
You’ve mentioned earlier that you realised that ‘the way people saw you was all in your head.’ So how have you changed your thoughts to deal with their reactions?
The comment you are referring to was made by me in one of my blogs on how I coped with my decision to go topless whilst running. Initially, I used to be shy and would not look people [especially of the opposite sex!] in the eye when running topless. I then realised that this made them awkward as well. Once I got comfortable with my own nudity, I found that if I looked people in the eye without a sense of shame, which happens when you are convinced of what you are doing, the reaction of people automatically changed. That is when I realised that it is all in our minds! I have seen this with other decisions, like riding a bicycle to work or wearing khadi to work. The hindrance to any change one wants to bring about is mostly in one’s mind itself, and once that is dealt with, your conviction will shine through in the act and you will meet with none of the opposition or ridicule that one anticipates.
Tell us about your dog Biscuit.
He is very affectionate, disciplined and that’s just his natural demeanour. He has taught me to derive joy from simple things. When people ask me how I can run day after day for such long periods on the same route, I can only think of Biscuit. He shows such enthusiasm and vigour when walking the same route, smelling the same trees twice a day [and sometimes more] that he inspires me to appreciate the world around me, no matter whether I’ve seen it all before!
What is the greatest lesson that running has taught you?
The lesson running has taught me is that the body is but a mere slave to the mind. As is true of any other activity, in running too, the physical act is very simple—taking one step after another! Once the mind is focussed on the act, no distance or goal appears unachievable. I have been able to use this positively while trying to bring about changes in my work and personal life. Running has given me the courage to express myself and I have been blogging about my running and life in general, this has given me a lot of satisfaction.
Any running heroes you admire?
There are innumerable stories of how people have used running to overcome tragedies and change their own lives for the better and for me every such runner is my inspiration.
Best part of being a runner
With my unusual gear, being a runner has given me a huge circle of friends spanning three generations. Their encouragement and adulation is a bonus, adding to the joy I get whenever I run.
Not so nice part of being a runner
Running is my passion, but nowadays it often feels like all people want to talk to me about is my running and diet. This has started even with my professional colleagues. From a Financial Advisor who runs, I have now become a runner who also works!
I am an Aamir Khan fan. My favourite film is Taare Zameen Par and I am looking forward to watching PK.
I like home food, cooked by my wife. Her sambar rice is something to die for.
Why do you run?
Running is spiritual to me. When I run, I am able to connect with myself and to things most personal to me.
Message to all runners
Let’s have a ‘Run pe Charcha! [Discussion over a run]
Your mission statement
Continue my experiments with running and life to become a better person.
This was first published in the January 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.