By Jamie Alter
I never excelled at a particular sport. I made it to my middle school basketball team, I was a liability as football goalkeeper in class six and, in class seven, I came second in a swimming race comprising just three. I took a few horse-riding lessons but was too afraid, ironically, of the majestic beast named Nazakhat (finesse) I was saddled upon. In high school, I tried my hand at cricket and volleyball and found, refreshingly, that the former suited me far better.
That I captained my college cricket team owed more to my ability as a man-manager than sporting skill, and even today the club cricket team I lead has players far better than me.
If there are two sports I took to with ease, they are long-distance running and cycling. I use the term ‘long distance’, but truth be told, in those high school years I never ran more than 10 kilometres at a stretch. It felt like a lot more, however, due to the terrain and altitude of Mussoorie.
The charm of these two athletic pursuits was the fact that it did not require anyone else. The solitude was bliss, and testing my limits while alone was surprisingly pleasing. Having never run seriously until ninth grade, one inter-house run along Tehri Road was enough to push me to speak to the coach to see if I was good enough to make the school cross-country team. The noise that greeted me as I rounded the final bend before Woodstock School’s gate still rings in my ears, because nobody expected me to finish in the top ten.
Our coach, Mr Weibe, allowed me to try out and after a few runs I was passed as good enough to be on Woodstock’s inter-school team. I was the weakest link, without doubt, but this did not matter because I enjoyed myself and did not burden my mind with expectations. To run amid a mass of runners from St George’s, Wynberg Allen, Oak Grove and Mussoorie Modern was an unforgettable experience. I finished 35th out of about 70 students, which made me feel good about myself.
My interest in cycling was piqued by the 1992 Aamir Khan film, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, and summer vacations in the subsequent couple of years were spent riding around Mussoorie. Then, from 1995 to 1999, I cycled more regularly on weekends and made trips with friends to Dehradun and back and as far as Lacchiwala, and with my father out past Suwakohli and then from Landour to Dak Pathar, past Kempty Falls and Chakrata and onwards. Cycling became a weekend escape from hostel life, and a time to let my mind wander and dream. Hindi film songs playing in my head – ‘Deewana Dil Deewana’ from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, ‘Koi Na Koi Chahiye’ from Deewana and ‘Yahaan Ke Hum Sikandar’ from JJWS – I lost myself on my trusted set of wheels for hours.
After graduating from Woodstock in 1999, it was years before I cycled again, in 2011 to be precise, when I covered 40 kilometres though the hills of Himachal Pradesh, from Manali to Patlikuhl and back. Breath-taking scenery on either side, the Beas flowing in the valley below, alpine trees dotting the horizon and offering shelter from the sun, the road curving like a scythe, arms outstretched, wind in the face, music in the ear! It was a challenge, but one overcomes through determination.
Cycling back to Manali was a lot of uphill, and my legs were aching and burning after the first climb. My new acquaintance Abhishek – a fit Indian Air Force pilot at the time – and I kept at it, stopping once for water and then at the halfway mark for some hot tea at a roadside dhaba. Then it was back on our cycles, legs pumping as we scaled the terrain and managed to stay clear of buses and trucks as the light faded and day made way for night. To reach our destination, the Dragon Lodge in Old Manali, and to slap backs and hug friends and retell our journey was a fine way to cap a fine day. Needless to say, I slept peacefully that night.
Alas, it is down to my own laziness that I have not cycled seriously since, barring a couple of attempts at tagging along with a Noida-based cycling group.
But I have stuck to running far more regularly. I suppose having spent a lot of my youth in the Himalayas strengthened my lungs and legs, which is why my two serious attempts at losing weight – in 2005 in Boston and in 2015 in Noida – were successful. I was able to slip back into running between 5 to 12 kilometres a day without much hassle because of my upbringing in Mussoorie. The legs and lung capacity switched back on, and I surprised myself with my longevity. Within three months of resuming running after a decade, I ran my first half marathon and completed 21 kilometres in two hours and 16 seconds.
Do I run regularly today? No, unfortunately, because the air in Noida is not conducive. But three days just after Diwali in Rajasthan, when I cycled at 6 a.m., has pushed me back into the zone of competitiveness. Something has to give. Watch this space for more.
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor)