About 30 kms from the city, a little off Sarjapur Road is Ananya School, a unique institution for underprivileged children. Ananya is a part of an effort to bring the benefits of long distance running to its students. Trained electronics engineer and now full time runner, Santhosh Padmanabhan (30) is the brain behind the programme.
Padmanabhan is the founder of Runner’s High, a Bangalore-based organisation that aims to promote ultra running and integrate running as an activity into the curriculum of schools for underprivileged children such as Ananya School. They also coach interested individuals for long distance runs and marathons.
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Padmanabhan’s interaction with the children at Ananya began in his capacity as a volunteer for the Asha India, organising and taking part in charity runs and fundraisers. Asha is an organisation committed to bringing about social change though education. The organisation supported the work of the Ananya Trust in its initial years, when the school was set up in 1998.
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Children from Ananya have taken part in events organised by Asha. “When Santhosh came to us with the idea (of incorporating running in education), we were thrilled,” says Shashi.
Since June 2009, the students at Ananya have been part of Padmanabhan’s initiative to “erase the lines between running, learning, and physical education.” Ananya presently has 38 students between the ages of 8 and 16, involved in the programme. They practice three times a week, run for about an hour each session and three children are training for a half marathon.
Apart from Ananya, Santhosh’s programme is in place at Sita School, Bangalore and at Thulir in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu as well. These institutions are associated with the Asha India.
According to Padmanabhan, his initiative allows him the chance to interact with children and share his passion for running. He adds that the initial idea came after the success of a few pilot projects in these schools, and was made possible as a result of the coaching activities of Runner’s High.
Padmanabhan, who also teaches mathematics at Ananya as a volunteer of the Asha India, insists that the children in the programme, especially those below ten, are not pressured to run. “Of course the kids will [run], because they have no fear at this age, and they are excited,” he says, while adding that only children above 18 are encouraged to do marathons or distances above 21 km.
Shashi Rao, founder and managing trustee of Ananya Trust, which runs this residential school for the disadvantaged, testifies to the success of the programme, “Their concentration levels have gone up, they sleep better, they have less time to think about drugs or other such things.”
Shashi adds, “Running is not a separate subject, but a part of all their subjects.” Not only are students coached in running as a physical activity, but it is also used to help them understand concepts in science and mathematics. For example, the difference in the pulse rate before and after running is calculated, and used to explain the circulatory system; knowing about nutrition required for runners helps children understand the digestive system.
“Our mind gets fresh,” says Sharath V, a tenth standard student at the school. “When we run, we feel something,” adds his friend Suresh Kumar, who says they forget all feelings of tiredness once they cross the finish line.
Through presentations and stories, the children are encouraged to incorporate their experiences of running marathons into their language studies as well.
“Not about coming first”
“Running is not about coming first. It is one sport where each person can perform to their potential and keep pushing that potential,” says Padmanabhan, insisting that running brings a number of physical as well as social benefits for the children, most of whom have had no success in mainstream schools.
“Through running, when they see they have a talent that others look up to and appreciate, their self esteem and confidence increases drastically, and that reflects in other aspects,” he explains. He says it helps them interact with others, gives them exposure, inculcates patience, and improves organisational skills.
The students are coached by Padmanabhan and volunteers from Runner’s High. The walls of the school are covered with drawings of long distance runs and competitions that the children have been part of, including the runs at Auroville, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Judging from these, it would be safe to say that the children enjoy the activity.
Preeti Ashok, the physiotherapist at Runner’s High, and the schools themselves are closely involved in the programme to monitor the health of the children before and during runs. “We keep track of the background of the kids, if they have any ailments,” she says.
Funding for Padmanabhan’s programme to take children to running events comes from donations through the Asha India and his regular coaching activities at Runner’s High. In addition, the “runner community” have stepped up to sponsor individual trips for children from Ananya and Thulir to events, such as the Auroville marathon that took place on February 14th 2010 at Pondicherry.
He admits that apparel and travel make up a large chunk of expenses. Costs would also escalate if the children are to be given proper training shoes. “Right now they use canvas shoes, which come closer to barefoot running, but it doesn’t have a long life.” However, he argues that the very necessity of conventional training equipment is debatable.
A Runner’s high
Padmanabhan, who is described by his colleagues as a “mystery” and an “inspiration”, wants to take this programme to other schools in and around the city. He says he would like to volunteer his services to institutes like the Spastics Society and Association for the Physically Disabled, to bring the benefits of running to disabled kids as well. He also hopes to organise common events where children from mainstream schools get to run and interact with the children already involved in the programme.
Padmanabhan would like Runner’s High to slowly grow. For now however, he is careful about taking on too many schools. “Quality and personal interaction dies down very fast when you become too big for yourself,” says this former techie, who left a high paying job as an engineer working with VLSI CAD, designing microprocessor chips for high end computers, to start the organisation.
“The biggest test over the last one year was to see if this could sustain me, and that it definitely did.” He says he had the full support of friends and family while making the unconventional career change.
“Running is a way of reaching out. My motivation has been what I learn from the kids, not what I teach them,” he signs off. ⊕