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The Indian runner who made history in Boston

May 02, 2017 12:04 IST

'I ran with the Indian flag throughout and, believe me, it is a fantastic feeling.'

Sagar Baheti

IMAGE: Sagar Baheti.

Last month, runners from all over the world strained every sinew while running the Boston Marathon.

Among the 30,000 participants was India's Sagar Baheti, who achieved the rare distinction of completing the 42.2 km course in the visually impaired category.

Why the Boston marathon is a big deal

The Boston Marathon is America's oldest and iconic race.
The success of the first Olympic Marathon in 1896 inspired the first Boston race in 1897.
Boston is also unique because it is a qualified race. A Boston Marathon shirt means runners have run fast.

Sagar, 31, who made the cut via qualification, crossed the line in 4 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds.

In the process, Sagar became the first visually impaired Indian to compete and finish the 121st edition of the world's oldest marathon.

The Bengaluru lad began running the gruelling distance five years ago after being diagnosed with Stargardt disease.

It was while playing cricket that he noticed something was wrong with his vision. He had problems catching the ball.

After consulting several experts, it was concluded that he couldn't identify objects beyond a metre.

What is Stargardt disease?

Stargardt disease is the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration.
The progressive vision loss associated with Stargardt disease is caused by the death of photoreceptor cells in the central portion of the retina called the macula.
Decreased central vision is a hallmark of Stargardt disease. Side vision is usually preserved.

Not one to let vision issues or anything else stand in the way of his ambition, Sagar goes about his life with a steely determination.

Rediff.com's Laxmi Negi spoke to Sagar about running and life.

How did you feel crossing the finish line in Boston?

It was overwhelming!

I ran with the Indian flag throughout and, believe me, it is a fantastic feeling.

The fact that very few Indians participate in this prestigious marathon makes it overwhelming.

As I crossed the finish line I thought it was not the end, but the beginning of new challenges.

I was extremely happy that my parents were at the finish line. They did not realise that marathons are such a big deal. They used to think that running is a great form of exercise to remain fit.

It was a great experience for them to see millions of people turning up to cheer the runners.

Were you nervous running with a guide?

I generally run with my friends, but in Boston it was a good experience running with a guide; it was very helpful.

The organisers asked whether I needed a tether (a rope-like harness tied to the athlete and guide), but I declined.

I just needed someone to warn me about the turns and potholes.

I have limitations as to how far I can see, so I just put my head down and run. I forget everything else.

My concentration level is at an all-time high and makes me focus harder.

These guides are trained runners. How I wish we have this system in India!

I am sure there are many runners who would like to volunteer. I am going to try and work on this aspect.

What was most interesting about the Boston Marathon?

The guides were describing the route and various milestones. They also spoke about the people cheering and holding placards and the landscape.

In between, they constantly kept reminding us of the bumps, turns and potholes. The way they guide is fantastic!

Around the half way mark there is this women's college (Wellesley College); the students come out and cheer with the most bizarre placards!

They create a screaming, cheering line of humanity that will motivate just about any runner.

Also, on the route there are various bars. They invite the runners to have a beer and doughnuts. It was like a carnival.

Why did you start running?

After my condition, it was difficult to continue playing cricket.

I was used to getting up early for nets sessions, a game day on Sunday.

It is the lifestyle of an athlete. I was missing this healthy lifestyle.

With my deteriorating vision, it was difficult to pick up another sport.

One of my friends suggested going for a run to Coorg.

Had it been Bengaluru, I wouldn't have agreed, factoring the weather, but since it was Coorg, I considered it.

That's how I participated in the Coorg Escapade.

My friend kept saying if I don't run fast, he would not wait for me. He said he would go ahead with breakfast and sightseeing.

The funny part is I finished the 10 km run much before him, leaving him red faced! (chuckles)

The beautiful route did play a part in helping me take up running seriously.

I started looking up runners who were faster than me. I wanted to know what the winner does and how they trained.

I got very curious about running. I wasn't looking at winning races, but wanted to train better.

I wanted to be better prepared and come closer to the winners. That was my target.

I participated in the Cauvery Trail, Bengaluru Ultra, Ladakh Marathon. I did all the above to challenge myself.

I was a newbie in running, but I wanted to do better.

Do you train alone, or with friends? What about long runs?

I don't drive anymore, so I depend on my driver or friends.

For shorter runs, it is easy to find company, but it is a challenge to find people for long runs.

For me it is advisable to run in loops or parks. It is safer for me.

So I start my long runs at 4 pm (after hearing this I almost yelled WHY! Why would anyone run in the harsh afternoon heat? His reply melted my heart...)

I used to wake up at 5 am and be ready for my runs.

But since I depended on my commute to the running spot, there were times I was left indoors because someone didn't turn up.

My driver is with me almost until midnight and I cannot expect him to come back at 5 am.

That's why I started running at 4 pm.

It is convenient for everyone. I get dehydrated, I run slowly, but at least I get to train.

If I am running for 30, 40 minutes, I manage on my own, but if it is a long run, the first half of the training I run alone and then later in the evening, to cut the boredom, I convince my friends to join me.

What were the challenges you faced during the Boston Marathon?

My plan was to complete the run in 3 hours, 30 minutes. Until 20 km, it was going according to plan.

I was strong, but suddenly after 23, 24 kms I slowed down considerably.

I couldn't understand what went wrong. I am relatively a new runner, but I knew it was not cramps.

Luckily, my guide was an experienced runner. I explained my condition to him. He told me it was shin splits and it happens with runners who are not used to running on hard surfaces.

So when you push harder, the weak shin gives way.

I realised I had done most of my running in parks and mud surfaces.

With the kind of roads in India, it is not possible for me to run on roads.

I stopped a couple of times to stretch. My guide asked me if I wanted to continue or...

I told him that is not an option. I have to cross the finish line, even if I have to crawl.

I wanted to do it, so we decided to go slower.

What has been your toughest moment so far in running?

The Ladakh marathon taught me many things.

It was, without doubt, my toughest run.

While I was running I saw an army man running with blades.

I was shocked to see him! I was shocked in an inspiring way.

It changed my outlook towards life, not just running. I stopped grumbling.

Do you fret over personal best timings?

See, when you are running a prestigious marathon, it tends to get competitive.

But timing is not my thing. I don't obsess about it.

For me, completing the marathon, feeling strong, is important.

After completing the Boston Marathon, I felt better.

What after Boston?

I will run a half marathon on May 7 in Frankfurt. It is a beautiful marathon along a river.

It will be too soon (after Boston), but my friend convinced me to run.

There will be more runs and challenging runs in the future.

The Boston Marathon has motivated me to do more. It has inspired me to target new things.

I have a few ideas, which I will start working on.

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Laxmi Negi / Rediff.com