The first cross-country race (Marathon in North America), I ran was as a Grade 5 student at Sainik (Military) School Amaravathinagar. It was a 5 km run along the base of the Western Ghats on the North side of the school. With every passing year, the distance increased. with it the difficulty. On joining the National Defence Academy (NDA), the cross country race became a ritual in every semester (half-year) and thus I ran six races in three years of about 14 km. During the first 10 years of service in the Army, I ran seven races. On reaching Canada, I ran two such races, in support of charitable causes.
Running a marathon is one of the largest physical challenges you can set, often it is more of a mental challenge – the mental strength to complete the race despite the panting, tiredness and pains. It results in an accomplishment every time, irrespective of your age. It does not matter even if you are the last, you are part of an elite club of people that have completed the race successfully.
At the NDA, the cross country race was more of a team event. The Squadron which won the trophy every semester claimed more bragging rights than the cadet who came first or second. It was a matter of pride for the cadets that their Squadron did well and hence every cadet put their heart, soul and body into doing well at the race.
The practice for the race at NDA would begin nearly a month prior with all cadets running a full race almost every evening and morning on Sundays and holidays. The final race would generally be on a Sunday morning, starting at the famous Glider Dome and ending there. One has witnessed cadets completing the race despite physical injuries – a cadet finished the race after he fractured his leg halfway. There has been many cadets running the race with fever. All to ensure that they do not bring in negative points for their Squadron and let the team down.
In 1987, our Regiment was located in Gurgaon near Delhi and we formed part of the Brigade stationed at Meerut – about 50 km from Delhi. Cross country race was a closely contested competition among the regiments and our unit had the rare distinction of winning it for the previous five years. 1987 was the final year at Gurgaon as the unit had received its move order to the Kashmir Valley.
Our Commanding Officer, Colonel Mahaveer Singh called Late Captain Pratap Singh, Maha Vir Chakra and self to his office in March 1987 and briefed us that we had to win the cross country competition for him. We both were Captains then and by virtue of being the senior, I became the team captain. Among young subalterns, one was away on a training course and the other admitted in the Military Hospital.
The team to be fielded for the competition was to consist of one officer and 15 soldiers. We started practicing for the race – two officers and 20 soldiers. Every morning at 5 we would be picked up from our residence and the team used to be dropped off about 20 km from the regimental location. Now everyone had no option but to run back to the regiment. The faster one did it, lesser the agony.
After a month’s practice, we decided to move to Meerut a week before the race to carry out a few practices there. The race was scheduled for 11 April, Saturday to commence at 6 AM. The day we had planned to leave, Pratap’s mother took seriously ill and he had to hospitalise her and take care of her. I told Pratap to reach Meerut by Thursday evening the latest.
As Pratap had not practiced for the last week, I had made up my mind to run the race. Pratap landed up in Meerut on his motorbike on Thursday evening. On Friday I showed him the route and told him to be stand-by.
In the evening we reached the Officers’ Mess for dinner and all the young officers participating in the race were there. Seeing the senior Captains set to run the race, Lieutenant Atul Mishra wanted to know as to who amongst us was running the race. Pratap said that the person who woke up first would wake up the other and the latter would run the race. Everyone believed it as the same was narrated by Atul after a decade.
After the race, I received the trophy from the Brigade Commander and after a few minutes there was Pratap with his motorbike asking me to get on to the pillion. We rode off and as I was too tired, I hugged on to him and slept off. I woke up only on reaching our regimental location after over an hour of drive.
We handed over the trophy to Colonel Mahaveer, who appreciated us for the efforts and wanted to know where the rest of the team was. Pratap said “now do not come out with your clichéd question as to who is commanding the unit, I have ordered them to relax at Meerut for the next two days and also to visit the Nauchandi Mela”, Colonel Mahaveer passed his unique smile as a sign of approval for Pratap’s actions.
Nauchandi Mela is held every year at Meerut in April-May. It is a rare symbol of communal harmony with Hindu and Muslim shrines – Nauchandi temple and the Dargah (shrine) of Muslim saint, Bala Mian. Visitors pay obeisance at both the shrines irrespective of the religion they belong to. The mela, which originally brought sellers and buyers of utensils and domestic animals together, now includes various kinds of goods, entertainment and food.
Colonel Mahaveer had a knack of delegation and had immense trust in all of us. He always encouraged the young officers to be decisive and whenever we goofed it up, he always held our hands and took the responsibility for our actions.