Each year, as my school’s annual sports day rolled around, I would get excited. I really had no reason to. While I played cricket and soccer in my neighborhood, I would never qualify for any of the athletic events. I loved sports though. I followed the Olympics (past and present) and Asian games closely. Jesse Owens, Al Oerter, Jim Thorpe, Alexander Dityatin, Wilma Rudolph, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek. I could reel off their nationalities, their sport, their medals, records and so on. It was useful for my quiz competitions but not on my sports day. The sportsmen in my school are the legends of our time. Even today, thirty plus years after graduating from high school, my classmates and I discuss their heroics with awe.
My only brush with sporting glory in school, came in 4th grade when I was conscripted to run in the 50m relay. Now, this was not due to my athletic prowess. It just happened that when the relay was about to start, my house, “St. Patricks”, was a boy short and I was loitering around and was reluctantly drafted. My team came second and the silver medal still occupies a pride of place at home. But I digress. We would get a week off after our sports day and I would wake up each morning at 6 am, don my Carona keds and run a mile or so. I would then forget about sports until the next sports day rolled around. Even though I was not a sportsman, I very much wanted to look like one. Tracksuits and sports apparel seemed to make the athletes stand apart and look very athletic. Riding a red BSA SLR cycle (with gears) and donning a blue tracksuit with white stripes was the ultimate image of a sportsman in my mind’s eye. However, I was realistic and I would have gladly settled for a pair of running shorts. These were usually made of some synthetic material with a notch at the thighs and a stripe that ran along the border. I could never get around to asking my dad to buy a pair for me, in my mind they had to be earned and I could not wear them without really qualifying for an event.
The LA Olympics in 1984 was the first Olympics that I watched on TV (at least the opening ceremony). The focus was on Carl Lewis and whether he could emulate Jesse Owen’s feat from the 1936 Olympics. It was my last year in High School and inspired by Carl Lewis’s triumph, I actually signed up for the 800m and 1500m events. I practiced on a field near my house. I had no way of measuring the perimeter, so I just approximated the distance by walking around and counting my steps. I used an old pair of white cotton shorts, cut a blue satin ribbon and stitched it along the sides. To add more dramatic effect, I tried to embroider a stick figure of a runner on either pocket. It looked like a respectable pair of shorts to my biased eye, however, a couple of my friends took one look at me and burst into peals of laughter. That did not deter me though as I made my way to the starting line. The shorts did not do much to improve my performance and I did not qualify for the 800m or the 1500m finals and that was the end of my dreams.
I started running steadily again when I lived in South Florida. I had worked my way up to 8 miles and was thrilled at the distance I was running. Something was not right though. I wore cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt. Running in 80+ degree weather with the humidity at almost 100%, I would be drenched in sweat. As I ran, the shorts that were thoroughly soaked, stuck to me and chafed pretty much from mile 3 onwards. The T-shirt would chafe too, “Jogger’s Nipple” is a real condition and it is painful! On a trip to an outlet mall, I happened to wander into a Reebok store and I found a couple of running shorts and t-shirts on sale. I bought them on a whim and wore a pair the next morning as I ran. The difference was palpable. The shorts were comfortable and the wicking material ensured that I did not end up with shorts clinging to me as I ran. The t-shirt sat lightly on me and I thought I looked sharp in it! I actually looked forward to my runs each morning. The gear made me look like a runner and I felt like one. I was faking it till I made it! I signed up for a 10-mile race and then for a half marathon. As I finished my first race in my Reebok shorts and shirt and walked off proudly with my finisher’s medal, I thought back to my days at school. It was odd that a pair of shorts that I coveted while in school would indirectly act as a catalyst for me to take up distance running. Or perhaps, it was just the little schoolboy in me still seeking that elusive sporting glory.