By Rupal Ramesh Shah
(Editor’s note: Rupal Shah has run in six World Marathon Majors–Chicago, New York City, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo and London so far– and will be going for another marathon in Australia at the end of the year. She is a long time AID Boston volunteer as well as a huge pillar for the TeamAIDAsha program for several years. Her love for running started with running with the TeamAIDAsha program.)
BOSTON–According to the World Bank, approximately 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water. More than 500 children under the age of 5 years die each day from diarrhea alone. These issues are due to lack of access to clean drinking water. Association for India’s Development (AID) focuses on addressing such issues in India through grassroots projects as well as other interconnected issues in the realm of health, education, natural resources, and agriculture. I have been volunteering with AID since I was a student at Clemson University in South Carolina. When I moved to Boston in 2007, I immediately became a part of the AID chapter in Boston.
In 2008, I decided to join TeamAIDAsha, a marathon training program that raises funds for AID and Asha for Education, another non-profit organization that works on projects related to education for underprivileged children in India. TeamAIDAsha is one of the largest fundraisers for AID Boston. Having volunteered with AID for several years I was passionate about the work we were doing on the ground in India and wanted to be a part of the large fundraiser here in Boston. Within several months, I started training for my first marathon with TAA. Little did I know that running with TAA would kickstart an ardent relationship with marathons.
After a successful marathon training season with TAA, I ran my first marathon in Chicago in 2008. It was a tough training season as I had never ever run before that. During our training season there were times when I felt reluctant about waking up early to run for 18 miles. Some Saturday runs were even tougher due to drastic weather changes. The reason I kept training was because of the coordinators and mentors of TAA and the volunteers of AID and Asha for Education. They continued to encourage us, push us, and truly believed in us. They carefully organized the routes for us and consistently provided water support during our Saturday runs. Through that training season and as I completed my first marathon, I learned one very important lesson: Be patient but determined and you’ll surely get there! Even at times when I doubted myself, the TAA coordinators and mentors kept assuring me that I will be able complete my first marathon and they were right!
After the completion of my first marathon, I knew I wanted to run another race and as I was trying to figure out my next race, I came across the World Marathon Majors. The World Marathon Majors is a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. The races take place in Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo, and London. Upon completion, runners’ names appear on the website along with race timings. To date, approximately 6000 runners have completed the World Marathon Majors.
There it was; the next goal for my life—to run each of those marathons. As I have now completed the World Marathon Majors, one thing has crossed my mind; each marathon has taught me a different and very important lesson.
In November 2011 during my second marathon in New York City, I had the chance to participate in the Parade of Nations. The Parade of Nations is a parade that takes place before race day to feature runners from various countries. Runners have the opportunity to walk with their country’s flag and of course, I signed up to represent Tanzania. When the New York Road Runners wrote to me, they had decided I would walk with other runners who carried the flag of the Commonwealth of Nations, since my country did not have a sizeable number of runners. That began a trail of e-mails as I made a case to walk with the Tanzanian flag and not the Commonwealth flag. We may be a part of the Commonwealth but our country has long gained independence and it should be fully represented with a flag of its own! Needless to say, the final decision was for me to walk with my Tanzanian flag. I learned another important lesson from that experience: If you truly believe in something, be persistent enough to fight for it. Walking with the Tanzanian flag has, to date, been one of my proudest moments. It gave me the opportunity to represent my country and more importantly, meet runners from neighboring countries who walked with their flags and who I still keep in touch with!
My third marathon was in Boston in 2013. This was one of my favorite races as it is now my home city and I had several friends who joined me on the race course during the last five miles. As a team, they were ready to help me cross the finish line. Unfortunately, the race ended differently. As I was one mile away from the finish line, I remember a police officer yelling for everyone to go home. I was speechless as all I could think of was how close I was to the finish line. You see for a runner like me who has already been running for five hours, when you’re getting close to that finish line, you’re already out of this world. It wasn’t until the police finally yelled that people are dead, that I realized how serious the situation was. Thoughts of confusion and sadness crept in as I realized I wouldn’t cross the finish line and even worse, that lives were lost. As everyone dissipated, a beautiful thing happened. My good friend Ashok grabbed my hand and ran with me, away from the marathon, for a mile to ensure I would complete 26.2 miles! Ashok knew how much it meant to me and as a local who knew the roads well he turned that tragic moment into something memorable. I learned: Never undermine the power of a community. On race day itself, not only did people reach out to me, but many people all over the world, reached out to my parents and siblings to check on me. For my family who couldn’t get in touch with me for hours after the race, the experience was nerve-wrecking. Days and weeks after the race, I saw the community come together and show support for one another. It made me realize that even though one act of hate shook our community, many acts of kindness ensued, such as Ashok’s gesture, and built the community back to make it stronger.
My fourth marathon was in Berlin in 2013. This was my first international marathon and my first marathon, traveling with my good friend, Catherine. When I decided to go to Berlin, I was going to be there to just run the race. My friend Catherine convinced me to go for a week and travel around Berlin and Munich. From that entire experience, I learned one thing: If you have one good friend, you have a lot! Catherine was there to cheer for me at several spots during the marathon, she was there to meet me at the finish line, and she was there to celebrate with me after the marathon. She made sure I got home safely and made sure I was well-taken care of days after the race, as I recovered from the marathon. Days later we toured the city. Together, we not only learned new things about Berlin and Munich, we made some great memories that will last forever! Additionally, since then, Catherine has accompanied me on several overseas marathon trips!
I came back the following year, in April 2014, to run the Boston marathon again. All those who didn’t complete the marathon had the opportunity to register and run again. Some of the people who lost limbs during the bombing also came back to run the marathon, a sure sign of strength and resilience. One thing that was evident from the marathon was: People get stronger through trials and tribulations. Apart from running and completing the marathon, most of them have continued on to do great things after overcoming that tragedy. The energy not just among the runners but throughout the city of Boston was at an all time high! There was positivity, there was happiness, and there was a sense of camaraderie amongst everyone. As runners crossed the finish line, many would yell ‘Boston Strong’, and many were crying. Although I didn’t cry during that race, I was definitely emotional.
I ran the Tokyo marathon in February 2016. Truthfully, I wasn’t prepared for it at all. The previous year had been a difficult one for me and the only reason I didn’t cancel my plans was because I knew I wouldn’t get my money back. Somehow, although I wasn’t confident about finishing the race in good time, I was convinced that I would be able to cross the finish line. I have to admit this is the closest I have been to the sweeper bus as I certainly saw it a couple of times during the race. My personal difficulties the previous year had taught me that emotional pain is real. It also taught me that I have a lot of mental strength and will power to overcome such pain. This helped a lot on race day as I crossed the 40 km mark and was having a hard time getting to the finish line. I listened to my inner voice and listened to my mind. All along I knew I wanted to run the Tokyo marathon, so I had to finally complete it. Soon enough, I was at the finish line. The lesson I learned from that race is: Mental strength is everything. Even if you have the physical ability to do something, it won’t be possible if you don’t have the mental toughness!
My final World Marathon Major was the London marathon in April 2017. For many reasons, this was a memorable marathon. I travelled around London for the first time. I met childhood friends from East Africa that I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. I met my infectious diseases hero, Dr. Peter Piot, who discovered Ebola. Sadly, this was the marathon that Neelu, my friend who I lost to cancer several year ago, had wanted to accompany me on. Memories of Neelu came to my mind several times on race day. Instead of letting her memories make me sad I smiled as I thought of all the silly things she would say to cheer me on. From what I knew about Neelu, she would only want me to smile, laugh, and perhaps even dance at the thought of her. Deep down, I knew Neelu was cheering on me. I looked up and thanked God for letting her watch me. Her memories brought one realization to me: A friend in heaven is an angel in heaven; far in sight but not far in spirit. As I crossed the finish line, I prayed, one more time, a thankful prayer as I know I couldn’t have done it without God by my side and Neelu cheering from up above!
Since I have completed all six of the World Marathon Majors, I have a new goal to run a marathon in each continent. I just completed a marathon in Antarctica last month and will complete a marathon in my final continent, Australia, later this year. I have to thank TAA for instilling the love for marathons in me. Now, ten years later, I am one of the coordinators for TAA and assist with the program logistics. The program is one of the best designed ones for first time runners and due to all the support that the program provides, everyone who joins the program successfully completes a race with TAA. The program can proudly brag that more than 350 runners have crossed the finish line after training with TAA!
For more information about TeamAIDAsha visit www.teamaidasha.org
For more information about AID Boston visit www.aidboston.org
For more information about World Marathon Majors visit www.worldmarathonmajors.com