For Hemal Shah, running is the music of life

The 46-year-old is the president of Ahmedabad Distance Runners, which now has 310 members. She has inspired change in a small but not insignificant scale.

By their very nature, text messages can be terse and dispassionate but this one had a joyous ring to it. “Finished today full marathon in 4:33,” Hemal Shah wrote to a journalist after finishing second in the bSafal Marathon in Ahmedabad on December 24 last. If there was any doubt about her recovery from a fibula fracture, those were effectively erased.

The 46-year-old with a ready laugh completed an unusual double – it was the first time that she was running two marathons in a calendar year; more importantly, she was convincing herself that she could do the distance despite having spent a good part of half a year recovering from the shin bone fracture she suffered during the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon in January.

“The runner ahead of me was dodging and when he moved to his left, I moved to overtake him. The road was uneven and I found myself imbalanced. I could hear a popping sound and was in pain but I decided I had to finish the race for my ailing father-in-law. He had encouraged me to go to Mumbai,” she recalls, wincing when playing freeze frames of the mishap in her mind.

Back then, she must have run a good 10km with the injury, perhaps aggravating it. “I would have stopped if it were a practice run. But running gave me the endurance, the power and the strength to deal with the pain,” she says. “The leg was in a cast for three months. The next three were in rehabilitation. I am pleased that I could finish a marathon at home this year.”

The fact that she inherited osteopenia (lower bone density) from her mother was at the back of her mind. “It meant I needed more calcium to overcome the risks,” she says. “And running is therapy for me. I could not wait to get back on my feet and run. Thanks to Dr. Amir Sanghvi, I was able to resume running in September.”

She recalled that running was a big help when Samir and she moved to the United States in 2000 after years of living in a joint family of around 30. “Running helped me survive. I was working and studying in a night college besides raising two kids. And when we returned to Ahmedabad after 13 years, running was integral to me.”

Then again, the clear-thinking and articulate Hemal Shah is not the sort to be riddled with doubts. For, she had made running her passion, scaling it up further after losing her father, Ramanbhai, five years ago. “It was stress-relieving for me. Then, I started running the marathons. It is almost as if he gifted me distance running,” she says.

Her tryst with running started 15 years ago when her younger son was born in New Jersey. “Though I was never fat at any point of time, I always saw the prospect of being fat as a disaster and a nightmare. A few months after Shrey’s birth, I ran on the treadmill to lose weight. After six months, it became a passion and I didn’t stop.

“When I was in school I was a sprinter and played volleyball and basketball but after the 10th standard, studying took over,” says the Master of Sciences. “I got back to sport many years later. Running has helped me develop patience and the ability to deal with all circumstances calmly. I keep talking to myself in what is my time. And that helps me during the day. Every day.”

 “I ask the men to sacrifice their own running a day or two a week to give their wives the time to run as well. I am pleased that the wives now come along at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she says.

One of the first she motivated was her husband Samir. “He got a cycle instead of going to the gym. He is a very good swimmer. I got him to run as well. He completed a Half Iron distance in Chennai last year,” she says, pausing only to reveal that mother-in-law Nirupama has been a tremendous pillar of support, looking after her grandson’s needs.

She first experienced the joys of trail running in Switzerland. “When my husband Samir completed the 1230km Paris-Brest-Paris randonneur in August 2015, I discovered that I could run a trail marathon in Berne. The Vadodara Trail 55k came next with its own challenges – thorns, running through a rocky river bed and having to get on all fours in some places when ascending,” she says.

Even though she has done some cycling events, she prefers to be on her feet. “I don’t get punctures in my shoes. But on a more serious note, I have done the 900km Montra Tour of Nilgiris with Samir in 2014,” she says modestly, not revealing that she had a podium finish. “I have done other brevets too but the need to have someone with you can be pretty overwhelming.”

Then again, she is in the process of switching her attention to triathlon event, the Iron Man. “In 2018, I will have to make the transition to swimming to be able to become a triathlete. If I don’t go for the triathlon, I will then train to become a sub-four-hour marathon runner. I am pretty satisfied with being in the four and a half-hour range but I need to recalibrate my goals,” she says.

However, she says running under stress of time is not enjoyable. “I enjoyed running the Durshet marathon in August 2016 without a timing chip. We were in resplendent Khandala and I wanted to enjoy the monsoon run. There were waterfalls on both sides. I was singing and running!” she recalls. “I finished first but didn’t get a prize. Who cares about timing in such an event!”

There are many who plug in the headphones when setting off on a run but Hemal Shah says she sings aloud. “I make a whole playlist for each marathon. From slow to fast rhythm with a variety of songs like Bounce Baby Bounce, Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring and Cliff Richard’s Congratulations. There are other artistes and groups like Enigma, George Michael and Wham!

“Some old songs are inspirational; their rhythm is so amazing. And when the rhythm is right, the legs are moving as if they are in a trance,” she says. So, when you watch a woman runner pass by with a song on her lips, it would be a good wager that it would be a mother of two who answers to the call of Hemal Shah.

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