The compassion of the long-distance runner – Team Asha

By Vidya Pradhan

At 39, the mid-life clock was ticking for Anu Singh. She wanted to do something challenging and significant in her life and also benefit others in some way. When a friend suggested joining the Team Asha marathon program, Anu was intrigued but doubtful. She had never run for more than two minutes without huffing and puffing. 26.2 miles seemed like a daunting, if not impossible, goal.

In 2000, the non-profit organization Asha for Education was looking for a way to raise funds quickly. Team in Training™, the Leukemia and Lymphoma’s society’s sports endurance program had been very successful in this endeavor and Asha’s volunteers decided it was a model worth emulating. So they got themselves a coach and 25 runners from their core volunteer group and decided to raise money and enrich their lives by running a marathon. The runners raised around $150,000 and the program, called Team Asha, has never looked back since. Team Asha follows the same format as other marathons. Participants sign up early in the year to compete in one of several marathons or half-marathons scheduled towards the end of the year. After about a month of trial workouts, they have the option of backing out or continuing. Should they decide to recommit to the program, they have to make a fundraising commitment to Asha. In return, Team Asha provides coaching and training help. But that is understating the real impact that the program can have in the runners’ lives. “I cannot describe the exhilaration and joy when I ran all the way around the neighborhood park for the first time,” muses Anu. She was heartened to see 50 other people, all younger than her, facing the same challenges she was, week after week. “The entire process was a transforming experience.” Rajeev Patel coached Anu and many other Team Asha runners for 3 years. “Indians are culturally not attuned to fitness,” he says. His first team of runners was quite unfit and barely able to run half a mile. “It was like watching a child take its first steps. When they cross the finish line, most of them are crying because of the challenge they have overcome and the courage they have found within themselves.” As coach, Rajeev was on call for his runners the entire time, fielding questions about aches and pains and diets and encouraging them when they felt they couldn’t go on. The biggest challenge, according to Rajeev, is the mental block. To someone who has never run before, 26.2 miles can seem like an unattainable goal. But “trust in the training,” he says. The program is gradual, but intensive. Runners practice 3 to 4 times a week on different aspects of building endurance. There is a comprehensive program to get the runner from 0 to 26 in 20 weeks. “Most runners do not join because they want to help underprivileged kids in India,” adds Rajeev. “They are there to do something different with their lives and achieve something that maybe 1% of people in the developed world can do.” Along the way, they espouse the cause. When the last few miles are a struggle, it helps to know that your efforts are making a difference in a child’s life. Fundraising is another daunting task for participants. To make things easy, Team Asha’s program coordinators hold workshops, mentor participants and provide practical help, like sample letters. So far, no participant has ever failed to meet his or her commitment. In fact, some of them have been so successful that they now hold sessions to teach others how to do the same. Chandrakala Kappana and Raman Kumar run the Team Asha program today. A 5K-10K walk/run was successfully implemented this year228 runners have signed up and their goal is to raise around $400,000. There are 4 runs on offer this year, including the Silicon Valley marathon and the San Francisco half marathon. This year there are four coaches to accommodate the larger number of runners, including a female coach, Martina Koldewey. CK, as Chandrakala is popularly known, was also a runner with Team Asha before she decided to take on a bigger responsibility within the program. She tried out Team in Training™ but found that the group had pretty high endurance levels to begin with, which was pretty intimidating. In Team Asha, she found a group of people just like herself and formed strong bonds with her fellow runners. She ran the Chicago marathon in freezing 40-degree temperatures last year and calls it the best thing she ever did in her life. All the runners I spoke to echo the same sentiment – Team Asha pushes them, challenges them and moulds them into a community of runners who have been in the trenches together. The unbelievably strong bonds last years after the runners have gone their separate ways. “We are still an incredible close group,” says Anu of her 50-odd co-participants. “We have formed movie clubs, photography clubs and continue to meet regularly.” Thanks to Team Asha, Anu Singh has not only run marathons but also competes in triathlons now. “Running a marathon does wonders for your confidence,” concludes Rajeev, who has also moved on to ultra marathons. “Once you have passed this grueling endurance test, there’s not much more in life that can faze you.” if you feel that you are up to the challenge, or you just want to make a difference, contact Team Asha. Registration for this year is still open for the Silicon Valley Marathon. Hurry, the clock runs out end of May, 2007.

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