January 9, 2017 by DAVE JACK
Probably most people who are regular readers of my blog will be familiar with the name Amit B. Sheth, the Comrades Ambassador to India and recipient of one of the Spirit of Comrades Awards in 2016 for his work in road running in India over the last few years and it certainly was a well-deserved award.
I “speak” to Amit on a regular basis via Twitter but we had both hoped to meet at Comrades 2016 but for a variety of reasons we weren’t able to meet up but we have read each other’s blogs and I certainly find his writings very interesting and I started wondering who exactly is this man and how and why did he start running and how did the interest in running and in Comrades in particular start from a country that at the time he first started had virtually no entrants in “The Ultimate Human Race” so I sat down and asked him how it started.
ABS: It started 12 years ago with me sitting on the couch and watching TV. I was watching the first running of the Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon because my brother-in-law was running it and it seemed like the runners were really enjoying themselves and I made a resolution to run the race the following year.
Of course, I forgot all about the resolution until about 8 months later and with just 4 months to go for race day, I trained myself to the best of my ability and then ran my first marathon.
So that first run at the age of 38 was brutal. At 200 meters in my first training run, I thought would get a heart attack and die. But 4 months after that 200 meter run, I went on to finish my first marathon. I almost died, again. 7 hours something to walk-run the distance. I was the last to finish the race. The finish clock and finish carpet had been removed and all the organisers and runners had long gone home. The Africans after winning the event were on their way to the Airport.
DJ: So did you have an interest in other sport since a young man because when one thinks of India and sport one immediately thinks of cricket.
ABS: Most Indian kids play cricket when they are in school. They play in the driveways of their apartment complexes or on the street or in play grounds if there is one around. I did too but only until the 8th grade and then studying just took over and that was the end of any athletic activity for me until 12 years ago when I wore my shoes and stepped out to run. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved sports all my life, but only from the comfort of a couch with a glass of beer in my hand.
DJ: How did you first come to hear about Comrades at a time when little was known of the event in India?
ABS: After that first disastrous marathon, many more such disasters followed. I also ran some of them internationally. I then decided to run an Ultra to help raise funds for children suffering from cancer and being treated at the government run charity hospital, “The Tata Memorial centre” in Mumbai. My wife googled and came up with The Two Oceans Ultra in Cape Town and we went to run that in 2008. At the expo, I saw the Comrades Booth and I decided that this was the right crazy way forward.
DJ: If I’m not mistaken, you were the first runner from India to compete in Comrades. Firstly that must have been a real thrill but a daunting prospect.
ABS: Yes it is truly daunting, but you must understand that to a certain point ignorance is bliss. The truly daunting nature of the endeavour dawns upon you when you take the route tour.
That is not to say that I wasn’t worried. There was nobody to hold my hand and formulate a training plan for me. Mumbai has no real hills and I had to figure out how to train for the unrelenting hills of Comrades. The fact that I had run two oceans helped to a certain extent but in a way that was also a problem because being able to finish two oceans and being able to finish comrades are two different things. And so I trained all wrong. I ran a final 10 hour long run in the blistering summer heat of Mumbai and I think, I can pin-point that day as the day I DNF’ed my first Comrades.
DJ: You started writing about running and your book “Dare to Run” has become a best seller in India. Was distance running virtually unknown prior to the publication of your book because today the number of runners from India has grown tremendously and I see it from the stats on my blog the way the followers from India have grown.
ABS: Yes, it certainly was not main stream. There were very few runners like Arun Bharadwaj from Delhi who were real athletes and running long races but as far as a “normal day-job holding regular chap” is concerned, perhaps I was the first to start this. In 2009, I was the first Indian to come and run Comrades, for 2017 we have 119 registrations.
DJ: When did you become involved with Comrades and how did it come about that you were appointed Ambassador to Comrades for India?
ABS: So I spectacularly crashed and burned in my first Comrades 2009. I got cut-off at 82km. I cried and cried and cried. Then I came home to Mumbai and wrote a blog on the Comrades chat forum (which in those days was on the Comrades web-site and was really an awesome place to exchange ideas about Comrades).
The blog went viral. A week later, I got an email from Bruce Fordyce. It was a Saturday morning and my wife, Neepa, was sitting alongside me and I open the mail box and it said mail from Bruce Fordyce. My wife says, “ Hey look, Bruce Fordyce wrote to you” and I said, “ Are you nuts? It must be a generic mail sent out to all the participants.” I open the mail and it is from Bruce Fordyce and it read, “Amit, I have just read your blog. You are a runner a who embodies the Comrades spirit. Come back again next year and you will finish the race. If you need any advice feel free to ask me. Your son should be very proud to you.”
A week later I got a letter from Thami of CMA inviting me to become the Comrades Ambassador.
DJ: Training in India must be very different from training in other parts of the world. In the UK and USA the training is done in mid-winter in very cold conditions but your training is exactly the opposite and is done in very hot conditions. Tell us about that.
ABS: Yes you have that right. Training for Comrades in India is quite brutal. The weather starts getting hot and humid from March onwards and the heat and the humidity in the peak training months just becomes unbearable, especially for the long runs. For our final long run which is anything between 55 and 60 depending on the runner, most will start at 1:00 am so that the run can be finished before the sun finishes us off.
DJ: Apart from your book “Dare to Run” you write some fascinating things on your blog which is in most instances of a very personal nature and from the heart in your blog which you then post on Twitter. Very often after I have read it I retweet the blog and in many cases it has been written very shortly after an event and one that I think about particularly was one you wrote shortly after Comrades 2016 about scraping home in just under 12 hours and having a good day when others were complaining. Where does that come from that enables you to write that inspiring stuff?
ABS: Running has been such a gift. It is something I am deeply grateful for. Whether I finish the race or not, I am simply grateful that I am privileged to be a part of this celebration. I think that that feeling of gratitude on my part comes through as inspiring stuff for others. At my end, I’m simply thanking the Universe for the opportunity.
DJ: Winning the Spirit of Comrades Award must have been an amazing experience. You are able to put a lot of your emotions in words. Are you able to express this emotion in words?
ABS: Sometimes, in order to express certain emotions, one needs to laugh and hug and dance and sing.
DJ: You have been successful in getting your wife to run Comrades with you. Did that take a lot of persuasion or was she a willing follower?
ABS: She did it willingly. When she saw me DNF in 2009, she was waiting at the finish line with my daughter Namrata and son Aryan. She saw how wrecked I was: physically, mentally and emotionally.
I think she thought to herself at that point, “Unless I carry this fellow from the start to the finish, he is never going to make it. I better run in 2010 to get his sorry butt to the finish”.
And that she did and kept doing, again and again. I will forever be grateful to her for her help.
In 2010, as I struggled to put one leg in front of another she kept willing me on. She kept shouting at me, in English. “Amit come on, run, come on, we have trained hard, come on Amit, the kids are waiting at the finish, come on, Amit you cant walk now, come on, don’t give those motivational talks if you can’t put them into practice’
So at one point and stopped and spoke to her, “Neepa, please ! At least don’t shout at me in English, everyone around us is listening. Lets speak in Gujarati (our local dialect)”
But she didn’t care. She carried me through.
Women are so awesome !
DJ: And when you are not running or writing, what do you do to keep yourself busy? What are you by profession?
ABS: I own a company and we manufacture Skylights. I have a Masters degree in Business Administration from the USA., an M.S degree in Plastics Engineering also from the USA and a Law degree from the Mumbai University.
But mostly, I spend my time day dreaming about Comrades.
There you have it. The next time you read “Amit – Dare to Run” you will know a little more about the man who virtually single handedly took Comrades to India – and you think I have a passion for Comrades!