It is 15 minutes to six in the morning. A faint smog glows in the yellow street lights of the Marine Drive. Some men are warming up near the NCPA. Occasionally, they look towards a deserted traffic junction. They are waiting for Anil Ambani.
At about half past six, a Land Rover arrives in a rush. Photographers rush to the car. Ambani emerges in running gear and walks hastily towards the waiting men. The word “sir” that repeatedly punctuates their friendly banter fills the winter air. Suddenly, the number of runners swells to about 20. Ambani, though shifty and constantly walking in large circles, is clearly at the centre of the crowd.
He throws quick instructions while doing a momentary spot jog, and plans the route. They will go for a short run as the marathon is just three days away. They will run down the Marine Drive, up to the steel benches on the incline of Malabar Hill, and run back. Just 10 km. “Run slow,” a man tells Ambani, “we have to keep up with you.”
This is a small group of stock brokers, industrialists, fund managers, a canteen boy, a student, a police inspector with the CID and a lady gynaecologist that has found immense pleasure in training for the 21-km half marathon with Ambani. Between them is the fellowship of long distance runners. They all run to “burn the bugs in their mind,” one of them says.
Ambani has been an inspirational figure on the Marine Drive. Many businessmen have started running after seeing him. Sanjay Kapadia, a 47-year-old stock broker who formed the core group that trains with Ambani, says that sometimes a few men arrive on the Marine Drive disguised as runners just to get familiar with one of the richest men in the world. There have been times when Gujarati women have arrived in droves to take pictures. “One woman even brought her 18-year-old daughter for a picture with him,” says Kapadia. But these are odd events. Usually, the dawn assembly is preoccupied only with running. Almost all acquaintances here have been fostered through running and no one here talks business with Ambani.
Sanjay Kapadia formed the group because he needed company while running long distances. So, for the last four years, he recruited people he came across during his daily dash at the racecourse or on the Marine Drive. One of them just happened to be Anil Ambani.
“I pulled people along wherever I went,” says Kapadia grinning. After running the Mumbai Marathon in 2006, Kapadia injured his spine and had to undergo an operation. His surgeon, Dr Abhay Nene, also a marathoner, performed the operation free of cost as a tribute to their common passion. Though Kapadia was disappointed at missing out on the marathon last year, he drove his car along the marathon route and offered tired runners bananas, water and energy drinks. Now he is back on his feet and raring to run the half marathon.
He’s had plenty of practice. On Sundays, the clique runs 10 to 25 km on the road. Some members find this tough. Some want more, like Sanjay Dalal, son of cookbook writer Tarla Dalal. He runs marathons across the world in cities like New York, Venice, Prague and Cape Town. “While the Mumbai Marathon is only 42 km, in Cape Town, it’s a 56 km run along hilly terrain,” he says.
The runners say they’re greatly inspired by Savio D’Souza, Mumbai’s first international marathon winner and 62-year-old Dr Rodhan Shroff, who constantly pushes the group to run greater distances.
“Running has changed my life,” Kapadia says emphatically. And so have the friends he’s made along the journey. When his mother had a heart attack and was admitted to Harkisandas Hospital, one of the doctors, Gaurang Shah, a runner himself, instantly recognised Kapadia. “He (the doctor) visited my mum every single day in the hospital,” says Kapadia.
Their run that morning is coming to an end. Ambani accelerates as he reaches the finish line. People on the parapet clap. A man runs with him and screams, “Your average is 10.6 km an hour, sir.” Ambani slows down into a hurried walk. He chats with the gang, makes fun of some of them, and accepts some jibes. He then runs to the Land Rover and takes the wheel. The Rover leaves in a flash. And one by one, everybody goes home.