In May this year, lined up among the several personalities participating in the Wings for Life World Run in Gurgaon, was an exceptional athlete whose own running journey is a tribute to human courage, endurance and spirit. Major Devender Pal Singh is a Kargil War veteran, whose role in the 1999 Operation Vijay nearly cost him his life. Declared dead at the army hospital, he was revived after three days—at the cost of having his right leg amputated. 10 years later, this exceptional army man was well on his way to becoming India’s very own Blade Runner at the Delhi Half Marathon — setting new standards of bravery and resolve for the rest of us. In a two-part interview, Major Singh discusses his introduction to marathons and how running is a far greater testimony to mental toughness than physical strength.
Was running a part of your childhood?
Like for any other kid in my era, there were no computers or mobiles then. All games of the time involved running and so did all the extracurricular sports at school. Of course, I was not familiar with distance running or marathon distances back when, but running by itself is an integral part of my life—like walking. See, everybody knows how to run. It’s a separate issue that we’ve come to rely hugely on cars and bikes. But the simplest and most effective way to be physically sound and active is by using what’s been naturally given to you – your ability to run.
You suffered serious and multiple splinter injuries during the war in 1999. How did you keep from losing hope at that time?
I don’t think I gave myself a chance to be acquainted with the idea of losing hope. Of course, the injuries were bad, but the thought I wouldn’t survive never even struck me. That is possibly why I recovered fast as well. I treated it like any other injury. Later, once I was out of ICU, there were 5-6 other injured officers recovering with me; so that camaraderie motivated each of us. Most importantly, you accept the reality and live your life accordingly. I was certain that I was not going to let the loss of my leg compromise the quality of my life. I was determined to get back into shape, to go for movies on my crutches, to army clubs and dance with the leg I had.
What motivated you to take up running? Tell us a bit about your journey from then to your first half marathon in Delhi.
During the years after my injury, I went around asking the opinions of doctors and prosthetics experts on how I could run with an artificial leg, but at that time, no one had attempted such a thing in India. Overall, the general reception from society towards people with disabilities was more of pity, sympathy and skepticism; it was like a question mark on my abilities after the amputation. So, as a rejoinder to this general disbelief, I responded like a true fauji – act first, talk later – by picking up something which uses legs. By chance, I saw an ad for the Delhi Half Marathon in the papers. If an amputee could take this up, perhaps it would open room for discussion on their abilities rather than disabilities. You do require legs for running, but for long distances, you need your mind. It’s mental toughness that gets you through. So though I had to work harder to build up my for the race, I took it as a challenge to prove that having a disability is not a disadvantage if you continue to train and use your mind.
What would you consider the most challenging and the most memorable race you’ve participated in till date?
Well, definitely my first half marathon in Delhi was the most memorable one. It took me 3 hours 40 minutes to complete; after so many years of leading a sedentary life, I actually ran. I was tired and hungry by the end of it, and constantly in a battle with myself. So yes, that race is indeed unforgettable.
I was certain that I was not going to let the loss of my leg compromise the quality of my life. I was determined to get back into shape, to go for movies on my crutches, to army clubs and dance with the leg I had.
The toughest one, in recent times, would be the Mumbai Half Marathon this January. Just before that, I had run a 25K in Kolkata, where I had injured myself a bit and was not really in ideal form to train for Mumbai. But I had promised some of the amputee runners in my group who was looking forward to their life’s first event, and I didn’t want to back out at the last minute. During the race, there were two instances where I had to remove my prosthetic and wear it again: there was a fitting problem. So that was definitely the toughest one.
You also participated in the Wings for Life Run this year. Tell us a bit about your experience there.
Wings for Life runs for those who can’t, and being there made me realize that there are no boundaries or lines of control when it comes to fighting against something that affects all of us. There were 35 countries and 6 continents running together to gather funds for the research of spinal cord injuries and their treatment. And it’s not like the people we were running for did not want to run, it’s just that at present they do not have the answers on how they can, just like I didn’t a decade or so ago. So it was great being the ambassador for the event with the hope that one day even they would be able to run with us. Besides, the format of the race itself was very interesting. It was not about you reaching the finish line but the finish line approaching you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Main Image: Red Bull