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Inspiring! This Marathoner wants you to break free

By Norma Godinho
Last updated on: January 18, 2017 13:08 IST
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Partially paralysed, but with unbreakable will power and determination, Nihad Panju beat the odds to run his 4th Mumbai Marathon on Sunday.
The 26 year old tells's Norma Godinho he wants to inspire people to believe in themselves and pursue their passions.

Nihad Panju at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon

IMAGE: Nihad Panju at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon. Photograph: Kind courtesy Nihad Panju/Facebook

If thought about deeply, a lot of parallels can be drawn between living our lives and running a marathon.

As we grind our way through the journey of life we set ourselves a few goals to attain, and in our attempt to reach those targets we often stumble upon small and big challenges en route -- we recognise them, work on them and then fight them.

Running a marathon is based on more or less the same basics -- knowing your target, preparing for the run in earnest, setting the pace and completing the race no matter the weather, the track.

It's the simple principle of mind over matter.

That is the very principle on which Mumbai lad Nihad Panju has based his life -- and it is no ordinary life.

This is an extraordinary story of a young man who was left partially paralysed at just 5 months of age, but has not allowed that to hinder his progress in carving a well-rounded personality.

Nihad ran his 4th Half Marathon at the Mumbai Marathon on Sunday and completed the 21 km course clocking a time of 3 hours and 31 minutes.

An ever-smiling face and optimistic in his approach, Nihad reveals how his Marathon journey started: "In 2011, a group from the gym (at the Cricket Club of India where he trains) were training for the 2012 Mumbai Marathon. I was motivated on seeing their dedication. My gym trainer Rustom Warden seeded the idea of long distance running and I decided to give it a shot. His inputs helped and motivated me and I trained for the Half Marathon in the general category."

Nihad's story then veers to the part we are more or less aware of regarding society's treatment of people with disabilities.

"Except for family and friends, most people were discouraging. But determination kept me focussed on my target and I completed the Standard Chartered Mumbai Half Marathon not only in 2012, but also in 2013 and 2016," the articulate lad says with a hint of pride in his voice.

But getting to this juncture in life, decorated with success and laughter, was not the smoothest ride for the Panjus.

Misfortune struck the family when at 5 months of age, Nihad was diagnosed with TB Meningitis. He had to go through surgery that left him with left-sided Hemiplegia (partial paralysis).

Nihad Panju

IMAGE: At the end of four-and-a-half years of following a programme by The Institute for The Achievement of Human Potential, Nihad became 'physically fit, physiologically stronger than many and intellectually at level with my peers.' Photograph: Kind courtesy Nihad Panju/Facebook

Nihad's parents held on to every thread of hope they could and tried every form of conventional/unconventional therapy they heard of, with little or no success.

The Universe Maker then finally smiled on the Panjus when at age 10 Nihad started a programme prescribed by the Philadelphia-based Institute for The Achievement of Human Potential for which he had to be pulled out of school (till the 3rd standard he studied in St Mary's ICSE, Mazgaon, south Mumbai).

It was a holistic programme covering physical, physiological, nutritional and intellectual aspects which involved diet and respiration.

He was on the programme from age 10 to 14 years and had to be home schooled. Nihad's mother worked with him on the programme 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week and was permitted no holidays. Those were lonely, painful days of hard work.

But they received solace as Nihad's health gradually progressed.

"The programme made a huge difference to my condition and at the end of four-and-a-half years I was physically fit, physiologically stronger than many and intellectually at level with my peers," explains Nihad.

The programme worked wonders such that, at that point he was confident enough to go back to school -- he attended the Mercedes Benz International School, Pune, for two years and then completed his IGCSE through the British Council, Bombay and Symbiosis International School, Pune.

Determined to stand on his feet, at age 18, Nihad gained admission to the Raffles Design Institute, Singapore where he lived by himself.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Interactive Multimedia Design and went on to complete a 3-year course at the Raffles campus in Mumbai and then worked in the fields of branding and design.

Nihad, who now assists his father in running a consulting practice, says he owes a lot to the programme, where he also learnt the importance of physical fitness.

Not letting his condition get in his way, Nihad pushed himself to better his fitness and worked with his trainer Rustom Warden at the gym.

Nihad's regular visits to the gym resulted in a budding friendship with Rustom, under whose guidance he blossomed into a fitness freak.

Nihad Panju (right) and his gym instructor Rustom Warden train at the CCI Grounds in Mumbai

IMAGE: Nihad Panju, right, and his gym instructor Rustom Warden train at the CCI in Mumbai. Photograph: Kind courtesy Nihad Panju

And Rustom swears by his ward's grit.

"He has got more confident in the last 7 years. His will power is great. To complete an 18 km run sometimes takes 3 hours. You have to understand that anyone with a brain injury has poor pulmonary function. His breathing is affected substantially, his breathing at rest is like when one is sprinting so you can imagine how it is when he is actually running, that is the determination he has."

"Everyday is different for him. Running till he's exhausted. He wants to overexert and I have to keep him on a leash. This is his 7th half marathon (January 2017). It's phenomenal," Rustom says in awe.

No physical limitation could stop Nihad from trying a hand at other sports -- golf, table tennis and lawn tennis were other sports he dabbled in.

Nihad's exceptional drive is measured by the pains he had to undergo to become an athlete.

He has had a few accidents in the gym, but his family trusts Rustom.

"I have used Nihad as a guinea pig, experimenting with different methods and techniques. Because of the misalignment in his body I had to try something different. I had to focus on exercises to improve and strengthen his hand, elbow, legs, fingers; often experimenting with various forms of intervention. I had to keep in mind that Nihad uses the right side of his body optimally," says Rustom.

The gym sessions were good, but Nihad's potential as a distance runner came to fore when he decided to join the gym members' running group.

"We planned a 7 km run and I did not expect Nihad to complete it. People around Nihad said he would not be able to do it and that was all he needed to psyche him up," recalls Rustom.

"Most of the time we go running together and I remember this one time at the Singapore Half Marathon, Nihad was cramping from the 16th kilometre. But I was amazed from where Nihad got this sudden burst of energy and completed the marathon," the 36-year-old trainer recalls.

Detailing the routines that involve Nihad's training, Rustom says his will power is infectious and nothing is impossible for Nihad, who has a varied programme every day.

Nihad says he runs 'because it gives me joy and a sense of achievement having beaten stiff odds. I have a passion for running and encouraging others to remain healthy'

IMAGE: Nihad says he runs 'because it gives me joy and a sense of achievement having beaten stiff odds. I have a passion for running and encouraging others to remain healthy.' Photograph: Kind courtesy Nihad Panju

"He trains and runs so much, some days it takes time for his legs to go back to normal. Boot camps, lunges, push ups, free hand exercises, core exercise, even the plank on one hand, crunches with one hand below his back, squats, squat jumps are things he does without a trouble," says Rustom.

Wanting to make his life an example unto others, Nihad has run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Half Marathon in 2012, 13, 16, the Auroville (10 kms) Trail Marathon in 2012, the Poona Half marathon in 2013, the Standard Chartered Mumbai Dream Run in 2015, the Standard Chartered Half Marathon Singapore in 2015 and the 10km Adventure Beyond Barriers Run in 2016. Pune Running Beyond Myself - Adventures beyond Barriers - 2016.

An inductee into the Nike Runners Club, he has also run for Cancer Awareness -- the Terry Fox Run in 2012 and 2016 in Bombay, The St Jude India Child Care Centre Footsteps 4 Good 2016.

With the physical and other obstacles he has breached, Nihad says, "I run because it gives me joy and a sense of achievement having beaten stiff odds. I have a passion for running and encouraging others to remain healthy."

Training for the Mumbai Marathon, Nihad ran 10 to 12 km once a week and shorter runs in between.

His other methods of preparation included cross training that involved an outdoor workout thrice a week and core/freehand exercises workouts at the gym twice a week.

Using his love for sport and running as a medium to inspire others, he has started a project called Run Strong which is in its infancy.

Nihad has a simple message, "There are so many people who do not know their potential and limit themselves because of externally imposed limitations. If I can do it, anyone can. Believe in yourself. Everybody is good at something and needs to find his/her own passion. Find, follow and focus on your passion."

Summing up Nihad's life and their relationship as a trinity of "God, me and him" working together, Rustom says, "Had Nihad been injury free, no misalignment of his body or had more time to practice, he would easily do the full marathon."

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