Bhumika Patel loses no time in extolling the virtues of running. And, why not? She has seen her own personality undergo quite a dramatic change. In her own way, she is now inspiring change around her, empowering everyone, visually impaired runners included, to romance the joys of running and to feel the wind on their cheeks.
Yes, you read that right the first time itself. Among the many the 45-year-old Bengaluru runner encourages to enjoy a healthy lifestyle are the visually impaired. “I have experienced great change in life, thanks to my running and it is only fair that I get more people to have their own unique journeys,” she says.
Let us first trace her transformation from the time she was a schoolgirl in Hyderabad. Listening to her, it is clear that it has been gradual and remarkable. Back in her teens, she would run, without any kind of training, and win school meets for an institution that has no playground worth its salt, without letting her large, conservative family know until she returned home with the trophies.
“There are times when I wonder how I would have fared in track and field sport had I undertaken some good coaching. But then, those were different days. Even if my parents were supportive, we are from a traditional Gujarati family that did not believe much in sport, let along girls taking part on sporting activity,” she says.
As Bhumika Patel’s luck would have it, the handful of friends that she had either in school or in Osmania University College of Engineering where she completed a degree in engineering were not the kind who would push her to explore the world of sport. Education was soon followed marriage before employment and sport remained inaccessible.
The narrative did not change after the shift to Bangalore where she added a Master of Business Administration degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management. The thinking veered towards a fitness regime in the wake of motherhood. But there was not much action until a few years later.
She says she was driven to running because she used to feel fatigued at work. The lack of exercise added up to the pressures at work and she would feel irritated by small things. In 2009-10, she shed the lethargy that was creeping in and took to running. There was just a simple goal – getting healthy – and, enrolling the family as well into it, a plan to achieve that. The diet changed, too.
Those were not the only things that evolved with running. She learnt lessons in goal setting and employed the learnings at workplace and in personal life as well. She believes she got smarter with her decision-making. She felt she got stronger and would not get burnt out like before. Above all, she enhanced her ability to deal with stress beyond levels she did not know she was capable of.
It also led her to break barriers of a different kind, opening herself up to the world. “Some things like this was alien to my character before. I would interact only with a small group before. But now dealing with a range of people,” says the IBM Program Manager, speaking about her evolution from a shy, introverted person to a brave and confident woman who is a mentor to many.
“I faced challenges even in getting started. Back in 2009, it was not as simple as it seems now. I believe sharing one’s experience can help another. There are many of my colleagues, especially women, who look up to me. It is a two-way street since even I draw from their collective energy. Mentoring them helps me with my own recovery. Yes, it feels good, a win-win for all,” she says.
Bhumika Patel made mental notes of the guide-runners who helped the visually impaired during her tryst with the Chicago Marathon in 2016. And inside a week she was running the Bangalore 10k where she experienced guide running when assisting Nagarathna Venkatesh for a while. She realised that run organisers in India also need to be sensitised.
However, the more important thing was to find and encourage more people to become guide runners since India does not have a formal set up to train guide runners or the visually impaired. She has been inspired to take up the task of imparting skill training for a community, however small.
“There are challenges like getting them to come to one place or getting regular runners to give up their pursuit of personal bests,” says Bhumika Patel. “It is not as if a runner can turn up and say I want to be a guide runner today. You have to strike a good partnership with the visually impaired runner, communicating all the time. We are overcoming these challenges.”
In December, she hopes to see a few visually impaired India runners taking part in the California Marathon. For drawing from her own running to doing her bit to make healthy lifestyle a routine for everyone around her, Bhumika Patel, a once shy, introverted girl who ran races for her school without telling her family, has found her inspirational calling.
Along the way, her own belief in herself has been reinforced manifold time.