Heroes of Running : Maj. Devender Pal Singh

Q. Major, tell us about yourself – growing up years, joining the army, life in the army and your story during the Kargil war.

A. I hail from a village near Ambala but did my schooling from KV Roorkee as I was staying with my grandparents all through my school days. My grandfather settled there on his retirement from CDA. My dad was in Border Roads Organization and he was posted at far flung places. As you see, I was surrounded by persons who were related to the armed forces that my school was also managed by army. It was bound to have effect of the same on me. Moreover my martial race background had already infected my genes and aligned it pro armed force.  Thus there was no doubt left in my younger years itself that I will only wear olive green. 

Amazingly, Roorkee is also famous for IIT and 98% of students even drop their year or more to prepare for the entrance. However, I preferred to be in the elite 2% breed. It took me some time to reach my destination as I cleared my graduation following earn and learn technique. Due to some financial situation, I had to be independent as soon as I came out of school and so I joined a nationalized bank to complete my grad. 

It was in December 1997 that I took commission from IMA (Indian Military Academy) Dehradun. My unit, 7 Dogra was already deployed at LOC when Operation Vijay, commonly known as Kargil war started in May 1999. After doing my initial mandatory courses like YO’s (young officers) course and Commando course, which took first year of army life, I joined unit back in 1999 May. Within few days of me joining it, the war started. I was deployed on one of the forward post located bang on the LOC. 

I felt myself lucky as in the very second year of my army life; I was fighting to save my motherland, which any faujii dreams to do. During one of those fateful days, on 15th July 1999, while in action I was hit by a mortar bomb. The effect was bad enough to make multiple holes all over my body. Shrapnel pierced through my body leaving me in pool of blood. I was declared dead on being evacuated to the nearest hospital, which was 2 and 1/2 hrs away. As luck would have it, there was a specialist doctor on visit to that small hospital. He took interest and revived me to consciousness after about a day. 

It was only after three days when my situation further deteriorated that I was evacuated to Udhampur to be treated in a bigger hospital. There, I was shared with the news that my right leg, which was the most severely affected, needed to be amputated as it was being infected with gangrene. That was the time when the first thought of being disabled crossed my mind. But I proudly share that it was not a negative thought. Rather, I said to myself – Let me see how physically challenged people live. I told myself that this will be a new challenge for me and I will surely do something to motivate them.            

 

Q. What motivated you to take up the sport of running after your injury?

All the years since my injury happened in 1999, I was craving to run the way I use to do with two legs. My adventurous and fauji attitude never let me sit silent. So in my second birth I had grown up pretty fast, without wasting my time in crawling. I learned directly how to stand on feet (rather foot) and walk initially with the help of crutches and then on artificial leg.

Gradually to come back to normal life, I picked up sports. Initially I played Golf but it was good only to begin the journey as I was craving to sweat again. I shifted to squash, volleyball and power exercises taught in the army such as, ropes, beams etc. But running was still a distant dream owing to improper artificial prosthesis. Later in 2005, I also ventured into rally sports, another taste of mine, and did a marathon rally from Kargil to Kanayakumari ( K2K). 

In 2007, I hung up my uniform owing to my personal commitment towards my small son as single parent and my ailing parents. Personal commitment however could not take away my dream of doing something different in order to keep my morale high and send a message to the differently able bodied community.

I thought of going for car rallies but it was a costly affair and I hunted for sponsors. It was during this hunt period, when I was frowned upon by sponsors for being a disabled person that I saw the advertisement for ADHM 2009. It was hardly 40 days away from event and the humongous task of reviving the body, endurance and stamina was placed in front of me. All this along with the knowledge that I still did not know how to run and my prosthesis support was nil.

Notwithstanding all that, I practiced thinking that covering 21 KM is the aim and nobody is going to question me if I do it running, walking, crawling or jumping. I somehow managed to move fast by doing hopping which something in between running and walking. Finally it took 3hrs 50 min to complete my first half marathon in 2009. What elation it was! I still remember the pains, aches, sprains I suffered all through the distance but somehow I did not stop in between. The most difficult part of that run was walking to refreshment collection counter after the finish line.

It was only after reaching home when the body was totally cool that I found the amount of abrasions & bruises I suffered all over my hip, amputated stump and under the crotch. It took me few days to recover from the injuries. The best part of the run was on Rajpath when a viewer on wheelchair, a person waived towards me and cheered me up. I felt as I was on my dream path. Then in 2011, the army saw my efforts and helped me with the running limb – Blade prosthesis. That’s how in ADHM 2011, I became the first person in India to run on Blade which is famous due to Oscar Pistorious, the south African double amputee sprinter.

Till now I have run 5 half marathons and improved my time every time to reach 2hrs 26 min in my last one in Mumbai this year. Unfortunately, prosthesis fitness is still the same challenge and It still peels of my skin in every run and forces me to stay out of artificial leg for next few days. Owing to lack of prosthesis support and poor quality and services, I even missed the opportunity to go to London this time, but who cares. 

 

Q. We are in awe of how fit you are! Tell us about your fitness regime. Did all those years spent in the army help?

A. My whole body is shattered with various injuries affecting my ribs, liver, elbow, left calf,thigh, knee, hearing, intestine, neck, bladder, tendency of Vitamin B12 depletion and of course, an amputated right leg. I don’t have any choice but to keep my overhauled parts in moving condition and the best way to do so is to exercise. As mentioned above, remaining in routine is also a challenge for me. As runners you all are aware, once out of practice for even a week, you are back to zero and it takes all the efforts to come back to shape again. For me it’s a regular affair – due to the injuries and sometimes due ill-fitting prosthesis owing to change in my body dimensions (any amount of weight gain or loss makes the limb tight or loose and leads to its repair). Notwithstanding all, I still don’t have any choice but to start again and again. 

Of course, one thing which helped me is my training in Army. Perhaps the attitude build up was done in the army and it’s the attitude which matters, nothing else. 

 

Q. How do you mentally prepare yourself to run a race?

A. When I went for my first run in 2009, I was not sure about myself till even that morning when I woke up. To tell you, I had enrolled myself for both 6 KM and 21 KM thinking whether I could practice or not. In practice, I could not complete more than 9 KM and that morning luckily, I could manage my bladder clearing easily (damage and partially removed intestine forces me for multiple clearance in morning). Till the time I reached the holding area, I was not sure which chest number I should wear. However as soon as the public saw a one leg guy and stared towards me, I got a kick and the fauzi in me woke up to wear the 21K bib. Further before the start point I saw two 70 yrs old gentlemen standing next to me at the start. Whatever little doubt I had was removed by their blessings. 

Since then it was never in my mind that I cannot do it. Over a period of time, the injuries have left a mark and it makes the negative mind a little stronger. However diverting mind to think of finish line, good times and of course that all of them who are running around are also fed up and in no great condition than me makes my positive mind more stronger then negative one. And you all know it’s all a mind game. 

 

Q. You recently took part and finished the TCS World 10K. How was your experience of it?

A. It took me 2hrs 24 min to complete the 10K, 2 min less than my personal best for21K.However the elation I had this time was even better than running 21K and the reason was Arun. I was down with fever, cough and cold since few days prior to the event and one of my old left calf war injury was open again. But I knew Arun was about to run his first ever run and it would be a historical day for “The Challenging Ones” (TCO), the FB group and NGO initiated to change the life of amputees in India, as after me it was Arun who was about to make a mark and compete in any run. Thus it was important for me be next to the kid and make him complete his task. 

Arun lost his leg not even a year back and it was a commendable task for any amputee to stand back on his feet and run such a distance within such a short span. To give you some insight, initial year or even more is taken by the amputated stump to settle down and take shape as muscles starts getting degenerated owing to less usage of muscles which were made to support the amputated part of leg. It took me 10 years to run and he did it in his very first year! What more can a person who is aspiring to bring such changes in life of amputees in India ask than this? Do I need to explain more about how I felt?

 

Q. Major, you are an inspiration to all of us. Is there anything you would like to say to the all the runners/non-runners who are reading this article?

A. Be it an amputee or a normal bodied person, if we keep aside the prosthesis difficulties, running is the same for all of us and the mind is the most powerful tool we use. I am an emotional guy and I  learned in the army that it’s not important to win individually in any game but to take make each one of us win as a team. I would humbly request you all that whenever you can, run together holding hands with each other and make this world a beautiful and fit place to live. 

Through TCO, the effort is to make India a better place for The Challengers (word I use for physically challenged -It aims to give a platform to discuss the daily life challenges which we face, generate peer support group to handhold the fresh cases and encourage youngsters like Arun to move towards adventure and sports activities and brining laurels to India in Paralympic games. It would be nice, if through you all, I convey this message to all and sundry to come forward and support the cause for its easy sailing. 

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