The last sportsperson’s autobiography that I read was Lance Armstrong’s ‘It’s Not About the Bike; My Journey Back to Life’. It was a gift from a friend who emphasized to my unsporting sceptical mind how such books are important to read in the array of other genres that we usually do. Such books? Well, books which show us how legends are made and how they remain so; which are autobiographical but also self-help, because inspiration can be drawn from them; and which bring to us true first-person accounts of people who dreamt beyond the visible.
Sumedha Mahajan’s ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is one such book. Sumedha was a married, working woman who was on the brink of embracing motherhood when she decided to take up an extraordinary challenge. She had taken to running in community parks to keep herself fit and out of the hospital, which was her second home because of asthma. While Sumedha’s and her husband’s jobs took them to different cities, Sumedha carried her passion along, so much so that ‘running became my religion’ and she realized soon enough that ‘I am addicted to it and there is no cure’. It is at this point that one phone call from Milind Soman changed her life, as he invited her to run 1500 km from Delhi to Mumbai in 30 days, for Greenathon. ‘I wanted to create history’, and so despite misgivings of her family and unpredictably fragile health, Sumedha ecstatically agreed.
‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is not just about the physical challenges that she had to overcome but also about the mental struggles she had to undergo as a woman in India – a married woman who leaves her family behind to run, through conservative villages in shorts, or on dusty highways where even relieving herself and cleaning her menstrual blood came without cover. While her body endured, she had to constantly fight the prejudice of onlookers (even her own crew) who were convinced that she would fail miserably, and primarily because she was a woman. This book then becomes a very personal account of not just an endurance runner but of a woman juggling roles while looking for a new identity. Her story is thus rife with issues that beset so many women trying to challenge the lines of conduct set by a society.
‘Why are you doing this? They all had the same questions. What could I say that would explain my reasons my actions, my endeavours to rank strangers? What motivated me, made me push myself to the limit of my endurance? It’s not something anyone would have ever understood …’
‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is Sumedha’s way of making us see and understand exactly this.
Connection, correlation and context
While endurance runners will find enough in the book that they can relate to, three prominent aspects helped make Sumedha’s story one which connects with lay readers, especially because of the correlations the readers can draw between her life and their own. They are – role of parents, a husband’s presence and a flaming ego.
The Prologue shows us the parents’ instant reactions. Predictably, they wanted to ensure male company during the run and basic physical comfort, at first. Then, once they learnt what the marathon actually entailed, worry and the quintessential concern ‘it’s time for you to run around a baby, not around cities’ escaped their lips. Sumedha signed up for the race anyway, choosing to hear the bits she wanted to. What was left for the parents to do except become cheer leaders waiting at the finishing line, worry and sleepless nights, included? Sound just like our parents, don’t they?
Through the beautifully supportive relationship she shares with her husband, Arvind, Sumedha’s story shows us that side of marriage where ‘with the bib in my hand, I called up Arvind’, not to seek permission for the full marathon but to know his mind, only because she trusts him. Even when he does offer his misgivings the final call always rests with Sumedha. A woman independent in marriage, encouraged by her husband and who decides to follow her in her crew car every weekend only because he cares. A sign that marital dynamics are coming of age, and that not all marriages eat into our ambitions. Something that so many of us experience and thus can relate to.
Then, in so many moments during the long marathon ‘I was dragging myself ahead, but my ego was still not allowing me to listen to my body’. Sumedha’s is a will-power born in her as a child who first feels happy to be able to just play tennis, without even hoping to win it, but soon wants to prove to the people that she is fit and second fiddle to none. On the border is her ego which when defeated (when she gets her first DNF – Did Not Finish tag) rises like a Phoenix soon. With injuries and asthma attacks always hovering in the next polluted town, every blister feeds the ego to push, to move on and further. Sounds quite like mine, and yours?
The story of ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is rooted in an Indian context where on the one hand Sumedha is “privileged” to be running as the only woman in the marathon and on the other, ‘I was running through a state where the birth of a girl child was considered to be a curse’. Where either she is seen as a foreigner or asked by little girls to ‘stop wearing clothes like men and dress like girls’. In moments of humour and frustration we see how the ‘Indian highway belongs to the humble dhaba’ really and the real face of TRP-hungry media houses and management politics behind popular shows. By showing polluted cities and towns, man’s role in environmental degradation, around which idea the Greenathon was conceptualized, is given due space too.
There is a beautiful simplicity, self-judging honesty and seasoned maturity to this narrator who is looking back at a brave chapter of her own life. Sumedha speaks as if she is talking to you so that some moments remain with you – of camaraderie between friends drinking milk straight from dairy bottles, or of those spent in solitude, reading signs of success in 180 degree rainbows and seeking company in peacocks. There are scenes of loneliness and pain, of bandaging blistered breasts with a sock stuffed in the mouth just so no one knows she is injured. And humorous musings too as ‘I never expected to finish the run with any toenails remaining, but I did not want the first one to go on the very first day of the run’. The voice is of a driven woman and at the same time of one who so many drive over with their prejudices, ‘who treated me as a burden they’d rather let go of’. In this very wavering between energy and demotivation, high notes and low we see the human behind the celebrity, the innermost thoughts behind microphone bytes and the humility of lessons learnt behind the pumping ego.
While the narration is smooth and, excuse the cliché, breezy, those looking to experience the book as a story per se with a main central character may not find it gripping. Injuries and attacks become predictable after a point and the book speeds up to hurtle towards the finishing line in Mumbai. Perhaps for this reason the road of narration at the end is lined with editorial errors, with the Epilogue inexcusably so.
In a few places, some generalisations like ‘the educated man is more dangerous than the illiterate one. He is the reason behind the large scale destruction of nature’ seem raw and simplistic. Simultaneously, claims like ‘we had all agreed to be a part of the initiative because we genuinely believed we could make a difference to the environment’ seem tall and unmatched with the personal aim which had led Sumedha on, in the beginning at least. For me, the book would have worked just as well without the pep talk.
Many aspects about ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ would seem picked up from the readers’ own lives. Many others make for novel reading for a non-runner reader, like myself. While I cannot say how the book will fare with pro runners, for others who haven’t run a mile yet the book may help reflect on their identity, and the roles they play. It whispers how life, much like the marathon, ‘is not a race, but an endurance run’ and where we are to ‘channel both encouragement and discouragement towards enhancing your performance’ because ‘for every upward incline, there is a downward incline’.
Sumedha says the run was ‘my passage of self-discovery’. For some, this book might become the same.
'Miles to Run Before I Sleep' is a Rupa Publication, 2015
[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]