Arnie James loves to run – That’s an understatement. He is chasing 200 marathons.
“Welcome to my shrine,” he says, gesturing toward his wall full of 198 medals the minute we walk into his quiet ground floor condo in Somerville. “My friends love to joke with me. They keep telling me the wall is going to come down.”
It seems like a valid concern. The medals, each with a bright blue, yellow or red lanyard, take up a considerable portion of wall space- not surprising, given that he collected his first one in 1987 and hasn’t stopped since. Looming overhead, they hang like shingles; their brass ends clank together as the door closes.
In three days, he’ll add the 199th medal to his collection after the 2017 Boston Marathon.
James sits on a brown high back chair in his living room. Beside him, a muted large flat screen plays The Big Bang Theory. Two table lamps light the room (he finds the overhead lights too harsh). “Ask me anything you want,” he says, and sips his coffee. “The girl who interviewed me before is now an accomplished journalist,” he adds with a shrug.
I ask him his age, but he doesn’t want people to know. He says he doesn’t share it because he’d “rather be judged by energy and personality.” He doesn’t want people to assume things about his running style based purely on his age. The only ballpark figure he’s willing to share is that he is above 50, but he told the now accomplished journalist in 2013 that he was 69.
It’s a peculiar thing about aging- the years you live become symptomatic of your move forward toward life’s particular goals. What that goal may be depends on the individual person. For Arnie, it’s not so much a goal, it’s a finish line. So he counts his life in races.
Dressed in a purple marathon t-shirt, blue dad jeans, a black and blue New York City hat worn backwards, and light brown boots (which also act as his wallet), he talks in an affable demeanor and laughs at his own jokes. He is balding, but a flattened mohawk lies atop a mannequin head nearby. His lips find company with a thick dark moustache. The two studs on his left ear, one green and the other golden, catch the dim glimmer from the lamps. He touches his pink-tinted oval spectacles from time to time while speaking.
Baptized Arnold James in a country he doesn’t want to share (his fear of being pigeonholed resurfaces), he calls Toronto, Canada home. “It’s where my family is, and that’s what matters. I call myself an Indian born in Canada.”
He came to the United States for his undergraduate degree in Biology, changed his name to ‘Arnie,’ and has lived here since. “Look at me,” he says, opening up his arms, “Do I look like an Arnold?”
James works at Career Source, a resource center for those seeking employment. It’s a 9:00 to 5:00 job, but he makes time to run thrice a week- on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings. He calls himself a minimalist, and says that he’s such a steady paced runner that people like to think of him as their rabbit. (It’s a reference to the lure that Greyhounds chase when they’re raced). But those rabbits and the dogs that chase them run fast, while James has no shame in not classifying as a fast runner. He’s not in it to compete, rather, to complete. All’s well that ends well– in a medal.
We begin to talk about past runs. He pulls out an old grey t-shirt for reference.
The t-shirt has “MARATHON” printed in bold red paint vertically on the front right side, with the names of cities including London, Boston, New York printed all over the chest and sleeves horizontally in blue. Below the city names, are dates in yellow, organized chronologically and horizontally. The shirt is a record of his incredible 198 run journey, and he is looking forward to adding this year’s date below Boston (important, since his name doesn’t show up on the official marathon list the Boston Athletics Association published online). “I make all my own t-shirts. They’re all unique, and most have a naughty message. None of that ‘I love ra-ra-running’ crap,” he says.
He illustrates his point using a black t-shirt with the words “Boston Marathon 2011” printed in white on the front. He smiles cheekily and flips it over. “Not everybody gets the joke,” he says. It reads “Heartbreak Hill my…” with an arrow pointed downward.
He also has a ledger, where he draws hearts around the number of marathons he’s completed, and doodles things like the Statue of Liberty, or the thespian symbol around the hours he took to complete them. He estimates that he will finish the Boston Marathon in roughly 5 hours and 45 minutes. It will be the 27th time he will be running the route. It was the first marathon he ever ran. During the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, James was on the course.
He saw the route populated by policemen and laypersons. It confused him.
“Someone’s got to tell these cops how to do their jobs” he recalls thinking, “they’re blocking the whole route!”
Once he ran as far as he could into the crowd, he realized that the cops were intentionally blocking off the path. He then noticed the crying faces, and the runners covered in mylar blankets. He approached an anxious, tall pedestrian who stood in front of him and asked what was going on. “There was a bomb near the finish line. I saw body parts,” he was told. The first thing that came to his mind was – “What about my medal?”
But the thought quickly disappeared and the reality of the situation sunk in. He pulled out his phone and called his daughter. “Jessy, there was a bomb, but I’m okay,” was the message he left on her voicemail. He remembers consoling a woman whose call with her husband had gotten cut off after the bombing, and reassuring her that everybody would be okay. He then remembers running over to O’leary’s – a bar on Beacon Street he and his running buddies traditionally frequented after every marathon- to check on his pals.
Jugaad. It’s a colloquial term in Hindi that’s a more nuanced way to say “by hook or by crook,” often implying a low-cost or low-effort and intelligent solution to any problem. Jugaad is a skill that James has, and that’s why the medal for 2013’s Boston Marathon hangs in his shrine. “I ran to O’leary’s. It was about the same distance from the finish line to Beacon street, so I did complete the 26.2 miles.”
James takes pride in being part of the “2620 Club” (A hundred 26.2 mile marathons), a feat he claims to have achieved despite all odds and ailments. Monday will be the fourth marathon he’ll run with a hernia. In the past, an injured shoulder and kidney stones have also failed to stop him. Weather certainly never has either, “except when they cancelled the New York Marathon because of Hurricane Sandy.”
He’ll run his 200th marathon in Toronto on May 7th, and is currently designing a special t-shirt for the occasion. “Arnie Chach’s 200th Marathon” it’s going to read. (In Indian culture, a father’s brother is referred to as ‘Chacha,’ and so his brother’s kids in Toronto have lovingly named him ‘Chach’).
Does he see himself stopping? No. James is like Finding Nemo’s Dory on land.
Just keeps running.