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Identity Crisis on the Marathon Track: Running in the Shadow of Milind Soman

The day journalist Milind Ghatwai shared Bhopal Marathon track with fitness icon and supermodel Milind Soman

Having interacted with VIPs and celebs during more than three decades in journalism, I am not prone to being starstruck or overawed by their flamboyance. But a recent incident brought home to me that it’s no fun sharing your name – even part of it – with a celebrity. I speak of Milind Soman, model and fitness fanatic. For no obvious fault of mine, that Milind – oblivious of the disaster – left this Milind with an identity crisis.

Well, we just happened to run together for some distance by the picturesque Badi Jheel during a marathon event in Bhopal. No, I didn’t time my run to be with him. And he had no reason to! He suddenly loomed out of nowhere when I was alone on that stretch, our bibs proclaiming our shared first names for anyone around. Not that he needed the bib, though.

Fleet-footed, Soman runs almost barefoot. No, the habit did not stem from the ad campaign for Tuff Shoes in the mid-1990s when he ran into trouble while being locked in an in-the-buff close embrace with Madhu Sapre with only shoes and a python for company.

In case your mind has not wandered to the plight of the python, he runs barefoot because some passionately argue that it is the secret to injury-free running. He chooses that form of running and has come a long way.
For those not familiar with distance running events, a race bib is a sheet of paper carrying your name and a unique number with a timing chip. My bib had my name but he did not require any identity marks. People just knew it was him, from a long distance away.

Every now and then someone would recognize him and shout out his name as we ran at a steady pace. I looked up regularly in the faint hope that someone would acknowledge my presence. Alas!

You don’t read bib names when you run a half marathon or a full version. You just keep running at whatever pace you are comfortable with. So, no one knew there was another Milind. Maybe, there were more, but we wouldn’t know unless they tell us, like I just did.

half-marathon fitness icon milind soman bhopal
When Milind was running just behind Milind Soman | Photo: Arranged

But there was light at the end of the long tunnel (I mean the race route) when a few people took notice of my existence – six in all. Four were people with whom I’d practiced for the race for two weeks, and the other two live in my colony and are family friends.

These six saved me from being condemned to absolute anonymity in the sea of hypnotized admirers of Milind the fitness icon. But even that wasn’t without an admonition. One among my saviors chided me for not wearing the official tee for the half-marathon category. Story of my life, I guess.

In a normal race, no one recognizes me which is absolutely fine with me. But then no one excitedly chants `Miliiiiiiiiiind or Miliiiiind Sir’’ either. There were many that day, doing the chanting at full throttle, having seen his life-size or much bigger photos across the state capital.

Covid saw people take up cycling or jogging as hobbies and many have stayed the course, spawning a sub-culture that seems to have extended even to smaller towns.

It was difficult to second guess what went through his mind as he ran past the ubiquitous hoardings but it brought me closer and closer to my nondescript self.

For better or for worse, a photograph on the Instagram account of the race organizers showed me just behind him. This I learnt when the youngest person I practiced with sent it to me pinpointing my humble existence with a long arrow that made its way between him and another local celebrity.

Journalists are expected not to take selfies with celebrities, politicians or other icons. The dubious hope is that this will preserve objectivity while they write their stuff. But you can’t help it if someone else clicks a photo and you end up featuring in it.

Later, I saw videos posted by fans who were ready to risk his wrath while posing with him. Lo and behold! Some of these videos show me for a fleeting moment or two. Not surprisingly, the clips and reels go with the caption ‘Running with Milind,’ oblivious, of course, of yours truly.

Initially, at one point near the end of Raja Bhoj bridge, he veered sharply to the left and would have almost knocked me down. But he steadied himself and apologized with a poke to my back. (No, I am not making it up.)
In hindsight, he was probably submitting himself to divine justice for the offence his name and fame, of course, unknowingly, were to cause me later. Now I remember he had changed his category from full to half-marathon a fortnight or so before the race day.

Had he stuck to his category, we would not have crossed paths. But I was destined to come face to face with my lowly position on the race circuit. He took less than two hours to cross the finish line only to be consumed by a gaggle of devotees. I took a little longer and almost entered the lane meant for full marathon medalists only to be put in my place by volunteers.

For the next race, I have decided to go with my surname on the bib, wondering whether the phrase “also ran” was coined with me in mind.

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One Comment

  1. You have a unique identity among people who knows you Mr Milind Ghatwai (MG), you are a good & humble Man. No Milind Soman or anybody else can take your place. The gist is, your body achieved a confidence level to complete half Marathon which was the aim. All the best for full Marathon

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