TRACK: MARATHON MAN

15 Nov 2020

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The motivation that turned into a social movement
The motivation that turned into a social movement

If you happened to be on Seaview Beach in Karachi at 6am on August 14, 2017, you would have spotted three men holding the Pakistan flag, running on the beach without anyone cheering them on. Those were the initial days of Born2Run Pakistan, and the three men were the first members of what has now become a thriving community of men and women runners in the metropolis.

Born2Run Pakistan is one of the largest groups of its kind in the country and is the brainchild of Sohail Sardar — a furniture-maker by profession — who embarked on his own fitness journey in 2011.

Sardar’s running journey began organically the day he entered Nisar Shaheed Park in DHA Phase 4 for the first time. “On my first day at the park, I spotted a man in his mid-50s walking briskly on the track,” says Sardar. “That man was a champion brisk walker and I tried to keep up with him, but just couldn’t. He was extremely fast and I was inspired.”

For the next couple of months Sardar regularly walked behind his inspiration, trying to keep up with him. “It took me three months to overtake him. After that I became the champion brisk walker in the park. You really can do whatever you put your mind to,” he says with a smile. Eventually, Sardar graduated to running.   

From 2012 onwards, Sardar could be seen running regularly at the park. “It was a lonely journey, with just me and my music. I didn’t make a single friend at the park and when I met some of my business clients there, they thought I was incredibly rude because I would not acknowledge them. It was difficult to explain to them that I wasn’t being rude. I just wanted to stay focused on my running.”

Unbeknownst to him, his determination and resolve were being noticed by those around him. Seeing his unerring focus, he was approached by a lot of park-goers who were curious about what he was doing. “I was constantly asked how I was able to run for so long.” Seeing that there was no real platform for endurance runners in the country, Sardar decided to form a running group in 2017, thus laying the foundation of yet another lonely journey.  

A social movement of sorts that began a few years ago in Karachi has become a force to be reckoned with. And it’s all because of one man’s passion to run

“I wanted to organise early morning runs on the beach and regularly approached people to join me, but without much luck. People told me no one would wake up at 6am to join me and that I was wasting my time,” recalls Sardar. For four months, he either ran alone or with two other runners who were also running solo on the beach.

The three did the Azadi run on Seaview in 2017 to mark Independence Day and, for a while, three remained the strength of the group. Eager to induct more people into the group, Sardar created a WhatsApp group called Born2Run Karachi, in which he would randomly add people. “I ended up with about 300 people on the group, but none of them would come for runs,” he smiles at the memory.

It was in December 2017 when he started offering free training for families five days a week at the park, which sparked people’s interest. “I believe when you start helping people, God starts helping you,” he says.

Things started turning and the group steadily began to grow. What started out as three runners, has now grown into a network of runners. Sardar estimates that he has helped start almost 300 runners — both men and women — on their fitness journey. And he is doing it all for free.

A committed band of runners, Born2Run Pakistan members wake up early for run meets every weekend. They also meet on weekdays to train at local parks and regularly embark on 10-15km runs, with some moving on to run half and full marathons.

Sardar can be regularly seen at local parks leading his ever-growing groups of runners on the track. During the course of this interview (which was done in the park), he was approached by two people expressing an interest in running — one, a walker wanting to graduate to running; and the other, a man, concerned about the health of his son.

One regular member of Born2Run Pakistan, Abdul Sami has been running with the group for nine months. “I was a smoker who couldn’t run more than 25 seconds less than a year ago.”

Ask him what attracts him to the group and he is quick to answer, “I like how he [Sardar] accepts who you are and doesn’t differentiate depending on where you come from and what you do for a living — although I remember that, in the beginning, I hated running because Sardar would push me so much. Yet I love his passion and the fact that he accommodates everyone. This is why people from all over the city come to run here every Sunday. We even had a group join us from Hyderabad!”

Another runner Waqas has been running with Born2Run since 2018 and is its oldest member. He joined the group shortly after embarking on his fitness journey. “I was overweight and had joined a gym, when

someone told me about Born2Run Pakistan. I messaged Sardar and he instantly got on my case to start running.” Waqas ran 6.2km on his first day with the group and has never looked back.

Women are a regular part of the running group and, according to Sardar, the number of women runners is growing fast. “A lot of women join the group to lose weight, in the hopes of getting married. It helps that the training is free, so for many it is a no-brainer. Yet, once they start running, it becomes about more than just losing weight. You can say many people become addicted to running.”

Sardar stays closely connected to his large and growing community of runners, which is why he has been actively able to recruit a large number of runners for various events, such as the Commissioner Karachi’s marathon and the Special Olympics Pakistan. He has also helped fill up events with runners for FMCG brands that has organised running events in Pakistan.

“I stay in contact with my runners,”

he says with pride. New members of Born2Run are often surprised when they receive wake up calls from Sardar at 5.30am, egging them on their fitness journey. He has also been known to help members procure running shoes for those who can’t afford them.

Through Born2Run, Sardar has been organising the group’s own running events on a regular basis. “Every year we organise at least three free running events, without the help of any sponsors. I usually end up paying for it out of my own pocket, just because somebody has to do it.”

Every year Born2Run members take part in the Azadi Run on Independence Day, and a run on March 23. The group also organised Pakistan’s first sprint for women on the road and a run for children. “From three guys running on Seaview, we have come quite a distance and have organised about 13 or 14 events for the Born2Run community. There is a definite change in perceptions about fitness and exercise amongst Pakistanis, and the fact that there is this growing community of runners is evidence of that. So we have come a long way from where we were in 2017, yet there is still a long way to go.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020