It’s been more than 15 years since I saw my classmate Bhumika. I was all excited to see her …
We met at coffee day square…
Bhumika: Smitha, it’s so great to see you!
Smitha: Same here, Bhumika. What’s up?
Bhumika: Just give me 10 minutes, I need to take this call.
For the next 15 minutes, she had her headphones on and was busy on her laptop, while I drank my masala chai.
Bhumika: Extremely sorry, I had to keep you waiting. Now, tell me… What’s special in the US?
Smitha: I’m surprised to see you leading a typical corporate life, constantly working on your laptop and taking conference calls. I always thought you would be a sportsperson traveling the world and making us proud.
Bhumika: (smiles) I work in a corporate firm because I am too good at what I do. I work to earn money so that I can support NGOs and the underprivileged. A decade ago I wanted to be a runner, win competitions and feel accomplished. Today I train people to run. I feel accomplished when I see them run in marathons by my side.
I am lucky to keep my passion alive, the sportsman in me never died…
“Running started a fire in me. It opened me up to the world.” In conversation with Bhumika Patel – catch her here.
Tell us your story from the beginning – how did it start?
When I was in school I was keen in athletics and sports. I used to be excited about training in the stadium. But like most parents of my generation, my parents too failed to understand how sports could provide me with career options in life, and asked me to focus on studies. They had faced several difficulties in life, so they wanted me to study hard, and settle down with a well-paying job. I used to sneak away from home when I used to go for my track events, during my school days. I used to attend training in school. More often than not, I used to walk straight into an event and win. One Sports Day I got my parents to visit the school. I won 5 cups that day, and my parents were shocked and did not even know I had this skill or ability. They were very proud.
After I completed schooling, I joined the usual struggle or rat-race of engineering, and later MBA from IIMB. I landed a job and got married early. In the middle of all this, running and fitness suffered and the cups slowly gathered dust.
“Then, in 2015, I made the jump to marathons”
Slowly, we all got caught up with life’s rigmarole. We got a rude wake-up call, when my father who had a pre-existing heart condition, passed away and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I then decided that I had to consciously make changes to our lifestyles. They were very small, it meant some reading, socializing with my friends and seeking their help to make changes in our everyday routine. I realized that if I could get my whole family excited about this, then it would be easier for them to adopt and adapt.
Apart from ensuring that my family was doing great, I felt I had to do something for myself. My personal fitness started when a friend I knew asked me to join a run club over the weekend. It started with signing up to run a city marathon of 4K. I won the race, coming first and covering the distance in 22 minutes. That day when I stood on the podium, I felt a calling.
After this win, I wanted to continue running on a regular basis. In Bangalore we only had one run club in 2009. I used to go and train with this club over the weekend in an athletic stadium.
After just a few weekend runs, the group’s coach approached me about working with me one-on-one. He saw potential in me and thought he could polish my skills with two more running days per week.
By 2012, I also shifted my running track from local to national and international; running the 5K and 1500 meters in countries like Brazil and Taiwan.
Then, in 2015 I made the jump to marathons, running London alongside my husband with a time of 4:09.25. Since then I have competed in Berlin, Copenhagen, Mumbai, Delhi, and Chicago, the latter with a PR of 3:57.15. I plan on running at least two international marathons in 2017.
Tell me, what have your successes been along the way?
My wins helped me create a running community at IBM (my employer). We used to enroll for all running events where there was a corporate category. For example, we won the best performing company for 3 years in a row; with these wins, the running community started growing. Now, the Indian running community is part of the worldwide running community at IBM. I see more than 200-300 people from IBM at any 10k running event.
Apart from competitive running, I was also active in Bangalore’s small, tight-knit running community. In 2013, I heard of a women-centric running event called Pinkathon, which was being held to raise awareness about breast cancer. A Mumbai edition had been launched the previous year to promote women’s running and breast cancer awareness. Now both of these issues were very close to my heart – I was a passionate runner and the daughter of a cancer-survivor.
When this edition, was announced, I publicized the event and the also trained the runners. The record at the first Bangalore event, was that 1000 women from among the 3500 who participated were from IBM. Needless to say, I quickly became a major player in Pinkathon, and now an ambassador and head coach of the group’s year-long training program in Bangalore.
“I’m now an ambassador and the head coach of the group’s year-long training program in Bangalore”
For all of the group members (more than 700 women are part of the closed Facebook group), I craft day-by-day workouts, tips, support systems and coordinate runs throughout Bangalore, including 6:30 a.m. Saturday runs at Cubbon Park. Along with running, the group often hosts nutritionists, yoga experts, and doctors who talk to the about improving women’s overall health. This group includes cancer survivors, corporates, non-corporates, homemakers, non-runners among others. I motivate them by sharing my experiences and also how I can get them excited to be committed to their fitness regime. I am proud to say that I have created many hundred “educated runners or fitness” in Bangalore.
The educated runners team, then decided to do something for the underprivileged and the disabled. In 2016, I met a city-based non-profit Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled during an event. I realized that they were really doing some great work for the visually impaired. I decided to use my skills to improve the health of the visually impaired by helping them run marathons.
I realized that visually impaired girls needed to have a strong support system if we wanted to make the model successful and sustainable. From the 70 girls in the center, I picked 23 visually impaired girls between the ages of 19 and 23. I felt they needed a lot of personalized attention, hence set-up a small group.
My fitness journey has made me realize that I should not attempt to do all of this just by myself, but instead create a volunteer group who can help with the cause. I have a trainer volunteer group (educated runners) who are all located in the neighborhood (so that we aren’t wasting time in commute) and who train these girls 2 or 3 times a week. The ratio we try to maintain is 1 trainer to 3 girls.
“We support over 700 women runners in Bangalore”
“We train a group of 23 visually impaired girls from the Samarthanam Trust”
The volunteer group was also trained to understand the needs and help the visually impaired girls better. In addition to the training, my entire trainer team sensitizes them about health, nutrition and other issues. Eating right before the night of practice, the morning of the training and what to do when not training. Our training volunteer group is the point of contact for both physical and mental health. Fitness is an overall a development of personality.
I also use the best practices I have learnt by working closely with the UK ultrarunner, Simon Wheatcroft, who is visually impaired, to devise strategies for the visually-impaired girls. We use technology such as the RunKeeper app’s audio features as well as pairing them with running guides.
What are your plans for the future?
After our model with the visually impaired which has been successful, we are looking at increasing our area of influence and adding more people whom we can train. Some of these groups could be people with other disabilities like hearing, distressed women, people with special needs or even underprivileged children.
We look to increase this group from the current 100 to maybe 125 or 150 by mid this year.
The schedule for the year for all these groups is participating in an event every 3 months. We will also train some of the girls who are part of the women’s blind team to participate in the world cup to be held next year. (Inspired by the success in the recent Para Olympics.)
“Our running gear partner is Adidas”
These girls have professional coaches and a team working with them, but our group is providing additional fitness, guides and mentor support. We are looking to enhance some of these activities.
Our gear partners, Adidas are supporting us in our initiative of working with the disabled by providing us with running gear. But we are also exploring if they can support us with cricket gear too. In addition, we have partnered with Porteo to provide physiotherapy to our visually impaired girls. They have undertaken basic assessments and also advised us on what we should do and not do when we do exercises with these kids. This will help us be technically accurate with their training.
If someone wants partner with you, how can they do so?
We are constantly looking to create volunteer groups across localities to help with spreading the goodness of fitness as there is a long way to go and the challenges are numerous. One can get in touch with me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/bhumika.patel.355744) or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org