Banajit Kumar Barman’s heart lies in two things, his family and running. The 39-year-old fire fighter, whose other identity is that of an ultra marathon runner, is media shy and before the interview began, he earnestly requested several times not to highlight his “paltry” achievement. So this is the story not only of Barman but also of marathon and those runners from the state who are occasionally recognised only to be forgotten for most part of the year.
Barman’s run started more than a decade ago when he joined the police force. However, he started ultra marathon, or more than 42-km run, only two years ago. Recently, Barman took the Khardung La Pass Challenge, which is the highest and one of the toughest marathons in the country.
Comfortably perched on a wooden bar stool in a small coffee shop in Laban, the medium-built man, who looks healthier than anyone of his age, was trying to recreate the raw beauty and wrath of nature which petrified as well as stupefied him at the freezing 17,618 ft height.
“The temperature is extreme. The North Pullu side was freezing at -14 degree Celsius and South Pullu was around 28 degrees. Other than the army camp there was no village up at the pass,” narrated Barman, his face flustered with excitement.
The challenge, which had 176 participants from 23 countries including two from Meghalaya, was a life-changing experience, said the runner, already restless on the stool as he prepared to string together his memories of the run.
“I can put the experience in runner Kelly Roberts’ words who said, ‘Running has taught me to redefine success and failure because it is not about the outcome, it’s not about the time, it’s not about the personal record — it’s not even about making it to the finish line. It is about having the courage to show up’,” he said sitting upright.
Barman, who prepared for the run for over five months, said the worst part of the challenge was when it started to rain on the way to North Pullu. “I was only trying to save my shoes and so I put the feet into the crevice of a stone. The cold was draining my faculties and I was running out of my wits. A fellow runner whom I had known was also baffled. Then I mustered all my energy and decided to start walking risking that my shoes might get troublesome. I advised my partner likewise. Once the chill gets into you it becomes difficult to move,” he said as he got up from the seat to order a second cup of Espresso.
Before settling down, Barman pointed at his toes. A nail from each foot was missing. He lost it during the run and “such things keep happening to runners”, he said with a smile.
Resuming his narration, Barman said when he reached the finishing line, the 23rd runner to do that, he was all disoriented and had to be carried to the medical tent.
Barman first ran marathon from Shillong to Sohra in 2016. He covered 42km in four hours and one minute. “That marathon led to the germination of Run Meghalaya. By introducing marathon in Shillong, Gerald Pde and Habari Warjri have done a wonderful job. They have given platform to so many runners in Meghalaya,” said Barman and added that he started participating in ultra marathon after Pde and Warjri encouraged him to test his endurance.
“Ultra marathon is different from other forms of marathon. The former type requires endurance and you have to be tough enough to face the natural extremities.”
Barman said he used to run after he joined the police force in 2001 but was barely serious. However, circumstances changed after marriage and Barman became more aware and responsible. “I quit smoking and drinking and focused on my health. I love eating so I started exercising and running,” he said and steered the conversation towards marathon and runners in Meghalaya. As he said in the beginning, he did not want to make it a personal story and so stayed away from divulging too much personal details.
Barman pointed out that Meghalaya has many ultra runners, some of them from the rural pockets “who do not get recognition even at the local level”.
“How many people know about Biningstar Lyngkhoi or Tlanding Wahlang of Mawkyrwat or Darishisa Iangjuh? They are the real talents and need to be highlighted. If the government wants, it can send them to World Trail Championship. As regard to Wahlang, I must say he will definitely shine at the international level. His timing for Mawkyrwat Ultra was 5 hours and 39 minutes,” he said with earnestness and went back to Khardung La.
The non-linearity in his narration made it dramatic and thrilling.
“Khardung La challenge is one of the toughest. But the spirit of the participants, including several aged runners, was indomitable. It is this spirit that drives one to face the challenges. But ultra running is considered an extreme sport and is not recognised by the government as much as other sports are. Awareness on running and its benefits is necessary,” Barman, who is a member of Run Meghalaya, said.
The word marathon comes from a place of the same name in Greece. Marathon witnessed a battle in 490BC when the Persians were defeated by the Athenians. Legend says a messenger named Pheidippides was sent back to Athens with the news of the victory. He ran without rest and after reaching, he exclaimed, “We have won”, before falling dead. The road from Marathon to Athens was 42 km. It was not until late 19th century that the idea of creating a race of this distance came up, Barman tried to give an insight into the history of the sport.
Women were allowed to participate only in the second half of the 20th century. American runner Joan Benoit became the first woman to win an Olympic marathon. With time, women’s participation has only grown and now there are women-only running events too. In 2010, hundreds of marathons were organised in several countries to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of marathon. Shivnath Singh was the first from India to participate in Olympic Men’s Marathon.
Barman said running is the cheapest way to stay fit and anyone can start running at any age because its benefits are galore. “Running not only strengthens our lungs, muscles, immunity, bones and confidence, but also improves mental health. Just don’t be scared because human body is tuned for running,” he listed out the pros.
However, the expert advised that some important points should be kept in mind before starting running seriously. “Stretching and warm-up are important or else there is a chance of injury. Also, don’t eat less but eat healthy,” said Barman who has turned “almost vegan” after he started following a strict health regime.
Barman rued that despite all these advantages, it is always difficult to find corporate sponsors for running events, especially in the North East because the region does not represent a big market. “The talented runners from rural areas here do not have money to participate in events outside the country. So how do they get exposure? There is also no federation for runners in our country,” he said.
Asked about his next challenge, Barman said right now he is nursing a knee injury. Immediately after the 72-km Khardung La challenge on September 7, Barman had participated in Ladakh Challenge on September 9. “It was tiring but again it was a big challenge for a runner and an endurance test,” he added.
Asked what one thing he would like to do for local runners, Barman said he would send them to international competitions because “I am confident about their potential”.
Before ending the 45-minute-long interview, Barman once again pleaded not to highlight his story and when complemented on his humbleness, his faced reddened. “If there is anything that makes me proud is the endeavour of Pde, Warjri and all those runners who could achieve more than what I have done so far.”