From South Africa’s popular Comrades Marathon to the Bangalore Ultra and the upcoming Chennai Trail Marathon, super runners introduce us to challenges for the seriously committed.
The Belgian, who’s been calling Chennai home for the last 16 years, has always been an outdoors man—with hiking, trekking, running and cycling among his list of passions. “I began running seriously in the last few years—inspired by all the marathons being organised here. And the last couple of years, I have been focussing on ultra runs in the hills,” admits Van Giet, who heads off to a hill station on most weekends and, in fact, completed 10 ultras in January (a total of 500 km) alone. During the week, he keeps himself motivated with 10×10 runs—10 km every day for 10 consecutive days. Describing ultras as the “complete run”, he says it not only builds fitness and endurance, but is also a chance to connect with nature (most ultras take you away from traffic-clogged city roads). Van Giet, who aspires to run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) soon, is organising a 100-km ultra near Ulundurpet on February 21-22 in an attempt to “get more people into ultra and hill running”.
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BIB Bala, as he is popularly known among the running community, credits an open heart surgery at the age of 25 as one of the reasons why he took up running. “Around the same time I lost my elder sister, and I wanted an outlet for my grief. Running brought strength and discipline to my life,” reminisces the father of two. Marathons, and then ultra runs, were just a natural progression. Today, Balasubramanian hits the roads at crazy hours, in search of his “me time”. Like the recent 150-km run to Tirupati. “On January 24, I set off at 1 am from Venkatnarayana Road and ran to Tirupati for a darshan, with a break for sleep after 110 km,” he says. One of the city’s mentors for beginners, he has many ultras under his belt—including the Nilgiris 100 and the Bangalore Ultra. “I want to inspire more people to run. If I can do it at my age and with my health, anyone can,” informs the vegan.
His toughest run? “The 12-hour Bangalore Stadium Run last year, for elite runners from around the country. You run from 6 am to 6 pm, with an exit sign tempting you to leave when your body is drooping with exhaustion. But then you get this surge of determination and will power to keep at it,” says the runner who did 199 laps and clocked 80 km. Admitting he has a long bucket list, he is currently preparing for a run in May. “Peter Van Giet and I plan to run from Simla to Ladakh, which is 750-odd kilometres across the mountains, in 15 days,” he concludes.
Preeti Aghalayam | 41,
She doesn’t consider herself a true ultra runner—“I haven’t participated in any formal runs”—but Aghalayam is among a handful of women runners in the city who have gone beyond a full marathon. A marathon runner since the age of 30, she gave the ultra a go in 2012. “I was training for the Mumbai marathon and though it didn’t make sense to run 50 km the previous month, I felt brave enough to attempt the Shahid Ultra—from Alwarpet to Mahabalipuram,” smiles the president of the Chennai Runners group, who went on to better her time of six hours in 2013, by completing the ultra run in five and a half hours. Admitting that the ultra is more taxing, with hilly terrain (“the maximum incline you get in the city is a flyover”) and uneven ground, Aghalayam says she wants to do the
Nilgiris run and the 90-km Comrades Marathon.
Fresh off the Nilgiris run in December last year, Giriya is currently training for the Comrades Marathon. “This is the 90th year of Comrades and my first international ultra. My training is quite gruelling—I run a minimum of 100 km every week. In fact, I just got back from an 18-km hill run this morning,” begins Giriya, who also works strength training, beach running and the like into his training schedule. What is now a passion began quite innocuously—he put on 10 kilos after he got married in 2012. “Initially, my wife used to run with me. Now that we have a 10-month-old baby, she cheers me on from the sidelines,” he smiles. Ultra marathon runners are a special breed of enthusiasts who challenge themselves to go much further than the standard 42 kilometres (full marathon) distance. Most aim to cross 100 miles or complete a 24-hour run—choosing to ignore bloody toes, trashed hamstrings and quads, with just brief stops to grab a quick bite, check blood pressure or even catch a quick snooze if the event covers an extended time frame. Bangalore-based association, Runners for Life (RFL), is credited with popularising the ultra running revolution in India, with the first Bangalore Ultra in 2007. “They changed people’s approach to long distance running,” says Sunil Chainani, director of Fab India and a veteran runner. In the city, the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) organised the first open-to-all ultra marathon, the 50 km Chennai Trail Marathon, in September last year. “We got over 100 participants. This year, I am scaling the run up to 75 km and hope to attract double the number,” says CTC founder Peter Van Giet, who hails from Belgium. We catch up with six ultra runners currently training for their next challenge.
Manivannan V S | 39,
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Embarrassed when he couldn’t complete a fun run organised by a client in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2002, Manivannan started running to get in shape. His lifestyle slowly changed, he says, and from 2007 he started training for marathons, graduating to ultras when he came back to India in 2010. “I competed in the 2012 Bangalore Ultra and it was horrible. I was suffering—cramping, dehydrated—and I was a little delirious too, singing and stammering. Had someone noticed me, they would have pulled me out,” he admits. That didn’t put a damper in his stride though. In fact, in his second ultra, the Nilgiris 50, he came in second, at five hours and 57 minutes. Now a veteran of six ultras, he explains, “You can train all you want, but once you cross a certain distance, you will be in pain. Ultra running is not about the distance, but the mind. You go into a Zen-like state, in tune with your body and surroundings, where pain gives way to determination.”
Aravind Kumar | 28,
Kumar started running in 2011 while doing his MBA at Great Lakes and he got hooked to ultras a year later. Then Amit Sheth’s book, Dare to Run, inspired him to register for South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, one of the biggest and oldest ultras in the world. “I trained hard for a year, with help from mentors like Bala and Neville. I ran in Yercaud and Kolli Hills to mimic the terrain—besides doing strength training and speed workouts,” he says. However, the 89-km run last year was tougher than he expected. Midway, he pulled his adductor muscle. “At 60 km, I was in terrible pain and tired. But I had this mental picture of reaching the finish line,” says Kumar, who became the youngest Indian to complete the race (11 hours and 14 minutes). Though a recent shift to Hyderabad has him concentrating on his career, running is always priority. Currently participating in Run of Rann, a 101 km run (to be completed in 36 hours), he says, “My next goal is the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile run in California (at 40,000 feet net elevation), one of the toughest in the world.”
Surya Praphulla Kumar