heels on fire: Heels on Fire Go Running with a Legend

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Heels on Fire Go Running with a Legend

Afternoon 4th May 2006
Imagine the scene. It's 1984 and you are laid on the floor of your family living room watching the Los Angeles Olympics on television. Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe are setting the world alight with super human performances. Gazing at the screen the mind of one 11 year old was opened to an amazing international world of different shapes, sizes, colours and creeds. Above all other events and people, one event captured my heart and imagination. It was the women's 400 metre hurdles.
That fateful day, PT Usha, a twenty year old woman from a small village called Payoli in Northern Kerala (affectionately known as the Payoli Express) missed out on a bronze medal by one hundredth of a second (less than the blink of an eye). I clearly recall being sat with my father watching and sharing 56 glorious seconds with PT Usha and India. I consequently spent that summer and many subsequent summers idolising my new found sporting heroine.

All these years later, at the age of 32 I found myself nervously dialling PT Usha's telephone number from central London. A flash of genius had passed through a friend's mind that we should try to link the Heels on Fire run with an Indian athlete. PT Usha had sprung to mind, and out of the network of amazing people involved in this project, PT Usha's website, number and email address had found its way to me. The phone rang and PT Usha answered.
Less than two weeks later the five of us were decked out in our Reebok sponsored Heels on Fire tee-shirts, shorts, socks and shoes driving in silence to meet the Payolli express. We asked strangers where PT Usha lived. Everyone knew where and everyone went out of their way to help. I rang the door bell and in a flash a boyhood dream came true.
Usha welcomed us into her home with a glowing smile and warm eyes. I was in awe as she took me into her living room. Looking to my right at the stairway I spotted pictures of PT Usha with Carl Lewis, Mother Theresa, Rajiv and Indira Gandhi. The length of the wall on my left was a floor to ceiling gallery of medals of the living legend of India and Asia. At the far end of the room was a stunningly beautiful picture of Usha posing in a tracksuit, with 102 gold medals around her neck.
We all sat together and spent some time talking through the idea behind Heels on Fire and the network of people working behind the scenes and around the world. I spoke of the purpose behind the run, about my own background and about the rest of the team. Never have I felt more like a fake than when I described my own running history and my pathetically uncompetitive times. Nonetheless, we could not have been made to feel more welcome. All of us had stars in our eyes, even Aji, the driver bounced up and down from outside the gates to catch a glimpse.

The TV cameras were set up, the microphones attached and I entered into my first ever TV interview with PT Usha, Indian sprint representative at four Olympics (Moscow in 1980 – aged 16, Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Atlanta in 1996), winner of multiple gold medals and holder of many records in the Asian games. If that's not enough PT was awarded the Asian athlete of the year on no less than five occasions. Asia has never had a more successful field and track athlete.
An hour of interview rolled by in a flash. We were all amazed by Usha's story and how she made it to the world stage as a raw athlete with little scientific or focused training and no exposure whatsoever to the world stage. Imagine being sixteen years old and running overseas for the first time, on an synthetic track (for the first time) – at the Moscow Olympics. Imagine being a girl from a small rural village in a country that focuses on few sports other than cricket and hockey. In terms of running, career and life Usha gave us a tour d' horizon through her experiences (she has travelled to 87 countries) as an athlete and as an ambassador. I was truly humbled.

As we wound up the interview, Usha turned to me and said that we should now meet the girls from her School (the PT Usha School of Athletics). Through force of personality and a lot of hard work PT and her equally amazing husband Srinivasan have managed to set up a school for elite athletes from all over Kerala. Hundred of students compete for places. Usha searches for raw talent (no doubt similar to her own as a 12 year old), she speaks with the parents, identifies characteristics through lengthy training camps and ultimately nurtures the girls (at the moment it is all female – but major plans are afoot for expansion) into well-rounded and extremely competitive athletes.
So we drove together to the nearby district sports council stadium in Koilandi. We were received by a throng of young athletes, smartly dressed in their tracksuits, beaming and ready to run. Along with Usha we carried out a number of newspaper interviews before setting off on a loop of the dirt track inside the stadium. The extended line of runners looked impressive in their red and green Heels on Fire tee-shirts. We laughed and joked finding our stride. Despite the run earlier that morning I felt no tiredness whatsoever in my legs. Exiting the stadium onto the main street of Koilandi we passed a statue of Gandhi. Momentarily I wondered what he would make of the passing runners – I think he would approve.
As we ran we attracted more and more attention. Traffic stopped, heads popped out of windows, photojournalists huffed and puffed, horns honked and everyone joined in for two kilometres of carnival atmosphere. Avoiding the traffic we ran side by side in twos. I chatted with Usha just the same as I would with any other runner. We talked about training, food, hydration, running friends, Kerala, her son, cricket, Mother Theresa and the Heels on Fire's development objectives of reaching out to and facilitating developing interaction between vast networks of like-minded people. About how the run is a simple conduit to tell the stories of the people we meet along the road between Kazargod and Kanyakumari. Usha was extremely enthusiastic about what we were doing. She said that she thought that more young people should have the courage to do similar things.
It was a sad to say goodbye, but the girls had been running in the morning and the scrum of people around us blocking the road had become too much. The police were looking stressed. As we parted Usha wished us good luck for the future. She said she admired what we were doing and we exchanged a hug. I received a whiskey sized bottle of honey from Usha's small farm. She said that two teaspoons a day would keep me strong. It had helped Usha to her success over the years, and so the 2 litre bottle might help me to mine.

As we drove away my mind was racing, trying to comprehend the last few hours. I had met a childhood hero, a strong and extremely articulate woman who had truly defied the odds. A true role model for us all. Through endeavour, hard work and sheer determination, a girl from a small rural village had become a global track star and a sporting ambassador. She had mad her dream come true, just as I had mine. The 11 year old boy inside me smiled contentedly. The 32 year old grinned mercilessly. Heels on Fire had gained the endorsement and support of one of the biggest sporting personalities in India and Asia.


At Sun May 07, 03:06:00 PM 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bibi Gaskin, aformer extremly popular radio and T.V presenter on R.T.E (Irish T.V and radio0 has settled in Alleppey. She has a boutique hotel and health spa there has been given info on heels on fire and would like to make contact. She also is dedicated to promoting travel and tourism in Kerala. her link is the Raheemresidency.Com JD - Meena O'B

At Sun May 07, 03:55:00 PM 2006, Blogger mommybazz said...

Why do I see zero comments? ..Pete, I’m afraid I’m not the only one gazing at the screen, totally blown away, but above all speechless.. (if it wasn't for Meena two seconds or so ago :)

I am truly in awe at the sight of you next to the legend with glimps of the next generation to symbolise a bright future.

This big day undoubtedly must have been a milestone to you Pete. This spiritual run is absolute magic.

It’s very exiting to hear about the expansion plan of PT Usha’s school of atletics to look forward to, ..soo dreamrunner, what ever happened to ‘the tiny little bugger’?.. Could you find a way to make this wonder kid the next star?

What else do I see gazing at the screen?

I see hope..

With the picture of two great leaders of the next generation still always on my retina, goosebumps from back to toe, I’m brainwaving about a certain snowball impact as the potential spin off of the century.. Can’t help myself getting carried away, like a daydreamer going through the what if more superhero’s likewise PT Usha would pass on the spirit.

What if there were any likeminded sponsors to be find? In order to enable a proud future generation to make poverty history?

What else do I see gazing at the screen?

..It sure is a brave world.

At Sun May 07, 09:37:00 PM 2006, Anonymous Pallavi said...

Congratulations and Good Luck for the rest of the days.

It is a stupendous exercise you people have undertaken and Rahul thanks for letting me into it...

I am sending this link to some of my friends in Kerala who are in Cochin. They will pass it on to more people and I hope you get the response you want out of it

Getting PT Usha to run and endorse the cause was an achievement and an honour. How I envy you!!! She is truly an admirable woman. Not only does she make a mark of herself in the highly competitive world of athletics but she does it facing a lot of odds in India. Being a woman from an obscure town in India, she epitomizes the power of dreams and perseverance...

Be careful of the humidity...I am sure all of you know what to do but....

Good Luck and GOd Bless!!!


At Mon May 08, 10:49:00 AM 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

THis is so very exciting and what a major day for the Heels on Fire team! Congratulations from Lynne

At Mon May 08, 07:19:00 PM 2006, Blogger justine said...

wow pete,wot an experience,im feel so proud of you reading this,its giving me goosebumps,im glued to the computer! keep on running and good luck to you

At Mon May 15, 10:18:00 PM 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi peter,what a great journey!PT Usha!you must have been so proud!
so who has the avalila now?God speed guys!...


At Tue May 16, 11:32:00 AM 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful landscape! Enjoy! London bussly as ever; meetings, work, more meetings....

Charles (van Oppen)


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