From the gruelling Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc through Europe, to the Batti lakes near Delhi and the upcoming race here in Bangalore, four super runners take us into the world of ultra marathons. By Ruma Singh
Randeep Singh Arora | 49, COO Operations, Gokaldas Exports
It’s hard to believe that Arora was once 100-kg. But the Delhi-ite who moved to Bengaluru with his family, describes himself as once overweight and unfit. Until he began running with Rahul Verghese, his mentor in Gurgaon, who was training for the Comrades. Arora was soon a running addict, doing regular weekend runs at ‘crazy hours’. He had done no more than a half marathon when he heard about the Bangalore Ultra and attempted 75-km for the first time in November 2010. “Here was potential to do something insane. I went from half-marathon training, straight into Ultra training.”
The 2010 Ultra was a huge learning experience for him. “I finished fourth, but my body was cramping, I was weeping with exhaustion. My family cheered me on. Although my wife said ‘you can do it,’ it was so incredibly hard I swore ‘never again’. Within a week I’d started training for the 2011 Ultra.”
His toughest run? “The Bhatti 100-mile in Surajkund. It’s through rugged trail, thorn shrubs and rocks. I’d trained well – all-night runs, 12-hour runs, learnt to stay awake all night — and was in top notch form, but I had a heatstroke and had to opt out after 57-km. I ran the Bhatti again in 2013, and I was mentally stronger this time and enjoyed it!”
Two weeks later, after this gruelling run, Arora completed a 24-hour run at the Bangalore Ultra placing first in the senior men’s category. In the recent 2015 Mumbai marathon, he achieved his dream of doing a sub-four-hour full marathon.
The Ultra community
Ultras are less competitive than marathons as many are not time/goal-based except at the personal level. Ultra runners train together, motivate and support each other, sharing tips and workout sessions. “It’s a close fraternity,” says mentor Chainani. Adds Arora, “today there are 300-400 Ultra runners in India who have done 100 miles and more. Five years ago, there wasn’t even one.” Chainani is among the few respected mentors who advises newcomers to the sport. “I tell them, battle against yourself. Running can be lonely. You can be running alone in pitch darkness. Staying motivated is vital.” Dharma adds, “a handful of us are torchbearers now. We need to motivate more people into the sport.”
tough Ultras globally
Bhatti Lakes Ultra: A 100-mile run in October 2015, organised by Globeracers (globeracers.com). It’s a qualifier for the tough Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc and the Badwater.
The Bangalore Ultra: Organised by Runners for Life (runnersforlife.com) in November 2015.
La Ultra –The High: Organised by orthopaedic doctor Rajat Chauhan (laultra.in), in August 2015.
Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley, USA: A 217-km run with a gain of 13,000 feet of elevation and two mountains. Arun Bharadwaj was the first Indian to participate.
Comrades marathon: South Africa has a 12-hour cut-off, making it one of the hardest to complete.
The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc: A mountain marathon across the French, Swiss and Italian Alps for 166-km.
The Ultra lifestyle
Ultramarathoners often train in groups, or even
alone at 3 am. Thangaiah runs without a weekend break. “I run everywhere, day or night – I don’t care . I’ve been chased by dogs, stopped by cops.” He and his wife do trail runs and treks together. “While she doesn’t run Ultras, she always cheers me on,” he says. Socialising and vacations take a hit. “Weekend runs start at 6 am. We watch what we eat, rarely drink – maybe a beer. Many friends have stopped inviting me. Though I’ve made great running friends,” says Gopalan, adding, “my family couldn’t understand my passion initially. Now my younger son and husband run marathons.” Arora agrees. “I run 30-km on weekdays, 40 to 60-km on weekends. There’s nothing else, no outings. Yet my wife and kids are supportive.” Many Indian Ultra runners enter international runs like Comrades or Badwater. Chainani recalls his run in Comrades in 2011. “I cramped badly midway. My feet expanded, my toenail cracked and bled but I didn’t give up,” adding, “many marathoners don’t believe running 24-hours is possible. But it is.” During 24-hour runs, runners have been known to fall asleep on their feet! Says Thangaiah, “the first 25-km is physical. After that it’s all in your mind. You run to beat yourself.”
For a running enthusiast wanting to participate in Ultras,
having the right mentor or training companions is vital. Mentors are veteran runners with the experience to guide and instruct. Runners For Life plays an important guiding role for new runners. Santhosh of Runner’s High (runnershigh.in) has motivated runners like Chandra Gopalan. Sunil Chainani is always there to help. Dr Rajat Chauhan (Back 2 Fitness) assists with medical advice and motivation. Globeracers, a
Delhi-based group, organises and motivates.
Chandra Gopalan|57 Director, Contours India gyms
One of the few women in the ultra running community today, Gopalan was sporty in school. But after her marriage and children, her sportiness dwindled to occasional morning walks, until she moved to Bengaluru, ultimately starting her own franchise of women’s gyms across the city. “I’d occasionally run in Ulsoor which I enjoyed,” she says. On her runs, she encountered marathoners who became her friends. In 2004, on a whim, she entered her first Bengaluru half marathon – with no training. “It was a cakewalk,” she says. Gopalan realised how tough running was when she ran her first full marathon in Mumbai, 2007. “I then decided to train.” By 2008 she was averaging four marathons a year. Her first 100-km came in 2013. “Then, my trainer pushed me to try a 24-hour run. By now I’d realised that Ultra running was so much more enjoyable than marathons. Now I juggle multiple night runs, work and family but I am supremely happy. Training has made me a stronger, calmer and better person.”
Navin Thangaiah | 41, Co-founder of Tribyte, an interactive learning platform
An IIT/IIM graduate, Thangaiah took the corporate route in his early career before creating his own startup. A sports enthusiast in college, he tried out every sport except running. “In IIT, even 7-km was considered long distance!” he smiles.
Dabbling in the occasional half-marathon and hash runs, Thangaiah was drawn towards Ultra running while pacing his friend Jaggi, a veteran runner. “I was in good shape,” says Thangaiah. When Jaggi started training for the Bangalore Ultra 2009, Navin decided to join him. “I remember Honda-san, a Japanese runner going for 100-km like a Duracell bunny. I decided I must finish 75-km before Honda-san completed his 100-km, and I did – in 10.21 hours, five minutes ahead! I was so happy that I started running regularly.” In 2012, he finished his first 100-km competitive run at the Bangalore Ultra in 13 hours and 45 minutes.
Thangaiah ranks his 168-km run from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi as his toughest. “I ran 168-km out of 217-km, at 9,000 feet over undulating hills. I had a super-powered crew tracking me, but I got cramps after a break. My knees hurt, I couldn’t feel my ankles and so I ultimately had to drop out.”
His next goal is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a self-supportive run through France, Italy and Switzerland. “I am accruing points to get an entry – they take just 2,300 people every year,” he says enthusiastically.
You don’t give up on life after a setback. You get help,
push through — Dharmendra Kumar
Dharma, as he’s known, is an engineer who gave up a 9-to-5 job to start his sports management company. In 2009, he decided to try the 10K run. “It was a struggle to finish,” he recalls, “I’ve always been sporty, but running uses totally different muscles.” Loving the atmosphere of the big run, he entered the 2012 Bangalore Ultra. Kumar covered the 24- hour run in the 2013 Bangalore Ultra in 151-km and the following year at the 2014 Bangalore Ultra delivered his career-best 24-hour run at 165-km. He placed second both times. “I see Ultra running as an analogy for life,” he says, “You don’t give up on life after a setback. You get help, push through.”