The alarm went off a little before 5am. It had been a restless night with a sick child. The first agenda item on a cold Saturday morning – a 10 mile run with my run group. An hour later, I watched a slim sliver of sunlight break through the thready fog resting low on the horizon as the wind circled the shallow waters of the bay. With pelicans flying overhead, I listened to my breath sounding harshly in my ears, legs straining to climb the next incline. And I wondered how this persona had resided inside of me without my knowledge. Much later, the restless night and fatigue forgotten – I felt jubilant. I had managed to run my first ever 10 miler! My legs shook, but my spirit soared!
And I suddenly had the confidence to run a half marathon in a few weeks time, the event that our group was currently training for.
A Season of “Firsts”:
It had been nearly three months of ‘Firsts. And the biggest first of all, was the moment I broke the pattern of excuses and procrastination. Caught in the despair of post pregnancy weight gain; having tried diets and gym routines with less than stellar results, I was bemoaning the plight of my yo-yoing journey with the weigh scale. My friend Anu, told me about a runners group she was part of. The name caught me immediately. ‘Fierceli Fit’! It brought to mind visions of sleek, toned bodies of elite athletes flying along effortlessly. One look in the mirror showed me the unvarnished truth. I did not, from any angle, look anything remotely like that! The chinks in my self image screamed for attention and I almost changed my mind. Then I held my breath, and got on their wait list.
What made me take that step? Maybe it was the moment my knees creaked while climbing a flight of stairs. Or when I tried to hide the weigh scale to keep from being disappointed, yet again. The worst feeling was that I was failing an active child, exhausted while playing a simple game of tag. My sister sent me encouragement in the form of a timely reminder of long forgotten days when I was an athlete and a dancer. How was it that I had only a hazy memory of that time? All I know for sure, is that I had used up my quota of excuses that started with “maybe”, “if only” and “could-have-been”.
Over the next few weeks, I learned several truths about what it takes to put myself first, and make a commitment that changed the way I viewed fitness. At the orientation session, it was a relief when I saw the turnout. There were easily between 20 – 30 beginner runners who showed up. It was not the numbers that gave me courage. Rather, it was the fact that a lot of them looked like the person whom I saw in my mirror that morning. The hour long orientation helped change my mind about the common delusions, myths, and excuses people entertain – which stops them from altering their quality of life.
One Woman’s Vision:
Fierceli Fit Founder and Coach – Sonali Desai, is passionate about running. And that is a serious understatement! Sonali is many things – Wife, Mom, Career woman, Runner and Coach. Her love affair with running started in 2009 when she spotted a call for runners in the community email list from a local Non Profit organization. They offered training towards running a half marathon and in return, all the proceeds from enrollments would go towards the cause of eradicating illiteracy in India. Eager to shed her post pregnancy weight she joined in, unsure of whether she would actually see it through. At the very least she thought that ir would help in fund raising for a great cause!
Growing up in India, Sonali, like many other girls, was not encouraged to be athletic. She remembers dreading her school’s annual Sports Day and stayed up nights praying that it would be canceled, because it was compulsory that everyone participate in track and field events. So it was indeed a big deal when she enrolled to train for a half marathon! Once she discovered the joy of running, she was hooked! Subsequently she went from barely being able to run a 50 meter run, to running full marathons. That is when she realized, “If I can do it, anybody can!” Sonali felt there were many like her – women who did not realize their potential, and who could use a nudge in the right direction.
She realized that beginner runners, especially women – often harbored preconceived notions and myths about running, “There is a perception that runners are a different breed – unapproachable – and superhuman!” It dawned on her that this could be a role that she could fulfill while helping others like her. The proverbial ‘call to action’ came when Sonali lost a friend to depression. She strongly felt that running can be a ‘tool’ to empower women like her.
In early 2015, Sonali sent out an email via her community network, in Ardenwood, California – offering her help in training for a half marathon. She was circumspect about the feedback that she might receive. The overwhelming response took her by surprise, and she reached out to fellow runner, Pradeep Nagaraja for help with training.
Fierceli Fit started in January 2015, with 20 runners. All except one, were women from the Indian American community. In two years the numbers have grown from 20 to 110! And between them, Sonali and Pradeep have helped nudge many beginner runners, men and women alike, cross the finish line and change their lives for the better.
Aspiring runners can visit their Facebook page, or email – [email protected] – to get on a wait list. They are then emailed a questionnaire covering basic personal information. A few weeks prior to the start of a session, runners attend an orientation meeting where they meet the coaches and returning runners. Members are cautioned to declare pre-existing medical conditions, in which case they require a medical clean chit to be provided by the doctor’s office clearing them for the period of training.
There is no membership fee except for a nominal amount which goes towards procuring the Parks and Recreation permit from the City of Fremont, since all training takes place in the Coyote Hills area. The only requirement the coaches have from runners is that they show up, commit to training and update run logs!
Running to Reconnect:
We live in an increasingly digitized world where we are ruled by social media and work environments. Despite the growing number of digital avatars, or maybe because of it, real life can be filled with a sense of isolation. It is becoming more and more challenging to make and cultivate realistic human contacts and connections. Along with this comes an unrealistic view of the world around us, and about our self image as well.
Sonali and Pradeep strongly believe running has empowered and enabled them to reconnect to the real world. Beginner runners are encouraged to leave their cell phones and gadgets behind as far as possible. Running offers a sense of unbridled freedom from the virtual world! In addition to the obvious physical benefits, it helps build mental strength and clarity as well – a fact that can translate across personal and work lives.
“Running is not just about the physical act of moving your limbs and fitness, or only about the quality of running gear or shoes. It is about setting small goals to accomplish the bigger goal of the race,” says Pradeep. The discipline required to be able to set such goals and follow through, is what ultimately shapes a runner. And in this process you learn things about yourself that you never knew existed!
Pradeep Nagaraja’s journey with running started in India. He was not a serious athlete, but more of a casual runner. He began running while he was pursuing his Master’s degree in the U.S, with the intention of losing weight. Then he signed up for a full marathon – and trained on his own, learning from blog groups and training methods he found online. When he encountered shinsplints midway through the race, he realized he had to learn to respect the miles – and downgraded from a full to a half marathon. Despite this, it was a tough experience.
Pradeep joined other run groups to train, but found they had a ‘hands off’ approach when it came to help or suggestions. Runners were on their own for the most part. He also felt that during a long run, like a half marathon, the time when runners needed encouragement was in the final stretch – the last couple of miles. He did not find this to be the case with the other run groups he joined. So when Sonali suggested forming Fierceli Fit, he jumped at the suggestion, eager to share his experiences and prevent others from making similar mistakes. More importantly the two coaches sought to bust some commonly held myths about running.
Myth # 1: Running destroys your knees.
This could not be further from the truth. There are several articles lending support to dispel such a myth. Standing still for long hours can cause discomfort in the knees, but running strengthens them. Obviously, the correct training plan is important, as is the benefit of having a coach to support and correct running form etc, in order to avoid common injuries with such an activity.
Myth # 2: It is all about the Pace.
Very often beginner runners tend to believe that ‘running’ means – going at a fast clip. This could lead to injuries, instead of helping keep them motivated to finish strong. The pace, or speed at which you run, is not the most important thing as it turns out. Especially for long distances like half marathons. It is important to run comfortably. And it is totally acceptable to take walk breaks in between. Bodies take time to gain conditioning and stamina. Pace is the last thing you need to worry about, when you start out.
Myth # 3: Runners must have the right physique.
The image one associates with a runner is often a cause that can impede interest in pursuing running. Very often they are told, or believe, that they don’t necessarily “look”‘ like a runner. A perfect runner’s physique is tough to attain. And if that is the ultimate goal, there are other types of training one has to engage in to consciously build that “look”. Pradeep cautions beginning runners about harboring such expectations. The most important thing according to him is to “learn to listen to your body”. Commitment and consistency will slowly but surely bring the conditioning required and show results.
Above and Beyond:
Sonali and Pradeep offer their guidance and expertise free of charge to the Fierceli Fit runners. They have been known to go above and beyond their “duties” in supporting their members. Such is their dedication, that the coaches are present for each and every weekend long run. They are on hand to cheer the runners on, video the runs to check for issues with run form, offer suggestions and advice on hydration, and even pace with the runners. This kind of personal touch is what keeps the runners engaged and motivated to return session after session.
Sonali laughingly admits that she has offered babysitting services to runners with young kids to ensure they can run on race day! “Life happens. There might be factors beyond the runner’s control which might impede performance, or even cause them to miss out on a run. But what we aim to offer with Fierceli Fit – is a support system that will shore you up through whatever it is that you might be facing, personally, or professionally,”, says Sonali. The coaches strive to make sure that each runner gets everything they would need individually to be able to go through training and finish the race.
Making themselves approachable is one of the main value-adds that makes Fierceli Fit a success story.
Talking to my fellow runners offered further validation for the training program.
Suju, is an incredibly dedicated runner who has been training with Fierceli Fit for the past three years. She has completed 5 Half Marathons and 2 Full Marathons, while balancing work and family. In her unassuming manner, she credits her older daughter and husband as the main inspiration for her running journey. Fierceli Fit’s training program offered her achievable goals. “The camaraderie within the group, seeing a fellow runner on the trails, lifts the spirits and I know that I am not alone,” she says. “Veteran runners share their experiences and help freely,” a fact that she both admires and is grateful for.
Halima‘s presence in the group is a testament to her courage, determination and the support she receives from the coaches. Losing her mother at a young age had her taking on a supportive role in her family. Her academic pursuits left her with a growing weight problem, which further impeded her health. Halima met coach Sonali socially through a friend. “When I heard how she helped people to run, simply as a way of giving back to her community, that was an inspiration to me,” she says. Overcoming physical injuries as a result of her weight, Halima trained with Fierceli Fit and successfully finished her first Half Marathon in 2017. Running has helped her overcome her insecurities and also build mental fortitude. “I am a primary care giver to my father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. I cannot and will not give up!” she says.
Priyanka joined Fierce Fit with no idea about the distance involved in running a Half Marathon! So she was both shocked and elated that she had managed to complete her training and reach the finish line! As a stay-at-home-mom, she engaged in moderate exercise, walking, yoga and pilates. Running, although intimidating at first, taught her that she had the capability to take on much more than she had imagined. Recruiting her friends to watch her children while her husband was away on work travel, Priyanka made it to all her practice runs. Her husband, who doubted her ability to stick with the training, now wants to join Fierceli Fit himself! She considers this turn of events her true success!
Latha & Soma Ellappan, are one of many couples who have benefited from training with Fierceli Fit. Soma returns each session to bolster his love of running, enjoys the discipline and engagement with the coaches. He also plays a supportive role within the group, along with other veteran runners. He encountered injuries while training, but still managed to finish, only because the coaches tweaked his training schedule and worked around such issues. This further enhanced his passion and respect for the program.
He then encouraged his wife Latha to join the group. Both of them are grateful for the support they receive with training and enjoy the dynamics of the group. “The end goals shifted from the Half Marathon to camaraderie,” says Soma.. Creatively managing child care for their two boys, they are committed to their training, while balancing busy careers as well. Latha is proud that they are leading by example, and paving the way for their kids, by placing a high value on physical fitness in their daily lives. The fact that their children, ages 10 and 8, recently ran their first 5K, is a source of great pride to both parents! Running has changed their family dynamic for the better. It also fosters mutual respect for one another’s achievements and has greatly impacted their expectations from each other. “This is my retirement plan! My biggest 401K,” says Soma!
Other runners have reaped both tangible and intangible rewards over the years. Whether it is quitting a smoking habit, managing to get off their hypertension medication, or successfully turning their weight issues around, Sonali and Pradeep consider it an honor to be in a position to be able to offer help and support. No gain is higher than the satisfaction of watching such positive life changes happen in the lives of their members. All they ask is that you show up! They are hoping to reach out to more communities around the Bay Area and be able to accommodate greater numbers of beginner runners in future.
As for the word ‘Endurance’ – all I hear in the voices of the women and men of Fierceli Fit is courage, determination, and a willingness to renew themselves every step of the way. With their persistence, they have changed the outlook within their families when it comes to personal image, and fitness goals.
Team Fierceli Fit is currently training to run the Armed Forces Half Marathon, on May 26th, 2018.
Meanwhile, I happily confess that I have been well and truly bitten by the Run Bug. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I was committed to stick with the training routine. The morning after we landed in Auckland I discovered that while I had packed all my run gear, I had managed to forget my toothbrush!
There are many paths towards fitness… but none so wholesome as becoming ‘Fierceli Fit’!!
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book, almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.
First published in May 2018.