Bhumika Patel was never a big smiler.
The Bangalore native was focused on other things: getting married, having a daughter, earning her MBA, and climbing the corporate ladder to become a project manager at IBM. But despite her achievements, others noticed her meekness before they noticed anything else about her.
“When I first met Bhumika just a few years ago, she was so introverted and shy,” recalls Milind Soman, founder of Pinkathon, a circuit of women’s-only races across India. “I never saw her teeth. She was always around and working on something, and she never smiled. She wore these funny, baggy clothes that didn’t fit her.”
Like most of her peers, Patel, now 42, was used to wearing a saree everywhere she went. So when she started running in the fall of 2009, she did it wearing her husband’s T-shirts. He had signed her up for a 4K that his company was holding, hoping it would give her some mental relief.
“My dad had just passed away from heart problems and my mom was battling breast cancer,” says Patel, noting that in India this type of cancer can bring social stigma. “Many women in India who have breast cancer do not come forward about their diagnoses, since it can devalue their daughters and risk their opportunities for marriage.”
She says she struggled to manage everything emotionally at first. Leading up to the 4K, she and her husband went on several weekend training runs with his company. “It was very intimidating, and I was shy with all of the men there,” she says.
Then, on race day, she donned a free T-shirt given out from the event and took to the start line. She won, coming in first among all of the race’s women with a 4K time of 22 minutes.
“When I was on the stage, I knew there was something there. Some potential,” she says. “Something got awakened inside of me.”
From Run Club to Global Stage
After that race, Patel immediately went online and found that Bangalore, a city of more than 8 million people, had one running group. The coed group met on weekends in a local athletic stadium.
After just a few weekend runs, the group’s coach approached her about working with her one-on-one. “He saw potential in me and thought he could polish me with two more running days per week,” Patel says. “My first question was if I would have to run outside of the stadium in front of people in those tight fitting clothes. He said, no, it will all be in the stadium and you’ll feel safe. I’ll be watching you the whole time.”
In three years, she moved from winning in local races to competing against higher competition, racing events like the 5K and 1500 meters in countries like Brazil and Taiwan.
Then, in 2015 she made the jump to marathons, running London alongside her husband with a time of 4:09.25. Since then, she has competed in Berlin, Copenhagen, Mumbai, Delhi, and Chicago, the latter with a PR of 3:57.15. She plans on running at least two international marathons in 2017.
“When I went internationally, I saw that what I was wearing was very different. They were all in tiny shorts and things. I started learning about performance clothing.” Patel, now an Adidas-sponsored athlete, still remembers the first day she “tried a racer back.”
“I slowly started to build up my self confidence. I started smiling. Now I don’t stop smiling,” says Patel, who now works with Soman on a near-daily basis through the Pinkathon.
An Ambassador for Female Runners in India
As a budding member of Bangalore’s small, tight-knit running community—of which women make up about 15 percent—Patel naturally heard when a female-centric running event called Pinkathon announced it was coming to Bangalore in 2013.
At Pinkathon’s first Bangalore event, 3,500 women took to the start line—1,000 of them from Patel’s IBM office. Needless to say, Patel quickly became a major player in Pinkathon, and is now an ambassador and head coach of the group’s yearlong training program in Bangalore.
For all of the group members (more than 700 women are part of the closed Facebook group), she crafts day-by-day workouts and coordinates runs throughout Bangalore, including 6:30 a.m. Saturday runs in Cubbon Park. Along with running, the group often hosts nutritionists, yoga experts, and doctors who talk to the about improving women’s overall health.
Knowing that there was a sizeable contingent of visually-impaired runners participating in Bangalore’s Pinkathon, Patel reached out to the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled. There, the mother found young girls (many of whom are teenagers, just like her daughter) living orphaned or living at the center because families are unable to meet their needs. Just like other runners, they were also eager to shave seconds off their race times.
Patel has worked with UK ultrarunner Simon Wheatcroft, who is visually impaired, to devise strategies for working with these girls, using technology such as the RunKeeper app’s audio features as well as pairing them with running guides and personal mentors who are available to them around the clock.
“People talk about inclusion at running events, but what does one day matter if it doesn’t affect the other 364 days per year? We have to ask if what we are doing actually has an impact on their lives,” Patel says.
Her volunteers explain how they work with the girls with their schooling, feminine hygiene and health, and basic nutrition advice. Patel says she sees potential in these girls, and all the women she now runs with on a regular basis.
“Running started a fire in me. It opened me up to the world,” Patel says. “Now I see the picture is so much bigger than any race.”
Source: Runner’s World