Watching ultramarathoner extraordinaire Michelle Kakade sitting peacefully with her family sipping a drink before dinner, it’s hard to believe she’s a few steps short of completing a mind-boggling 5,000-km milestone of her Golden Quadrilateral run. And that shortly, the tiny (5’1”) ‘queen of endurance’, as she is known, would be off, pounding the dusty highways en route to Mumbai, where she would clock in at the finish with 6,010 km — an astounding Guinness record-breaking run — the equivalent of 143 full marathons back-to-back, and a full 195 days on the road.
Kakade is calm and collected, and this temperament stands her in good stead. It’s been a gruelling six months on the road with her seven-man backup team of support staff and physio. Kakade started at the Gateway of India, Mumbai on October 21 last year, and the run has taken her through 14 states, innumerable cities, towns and villages of India — via Gujarat, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. She will hit Mumbai on May 1, completing the quadrilateral and her world record.
Like many, I’m fascinated by what makes runners run great distances at such great cost, literally and physically. For Kakade, 47, the yen to run came later in life. A close friend died unexpectedly and the shock got her thinking about the transience of life. Long distance running is tough and often very lonely, she says, “It breaks things down to the basic levels of humanity. If you rise above that and overcome it, you can take anything life throws at you.”
A ‘regular sportsperson’ in school, she learned quickly that she could run long distances. “The rawness of running appealed to me,” she tells me. Her first major marathon was the ultimate biggie — the Marathon des Sables, a six-day 251-km ultramarathon through the Sahara, and she admits she wasn’t prepared for how brutal this self-supported (you carry your own food and water in a backpack throughout) run was. “There was lots of media coverage, helicopters buzzing overhead, and I lost six kilos in six days,” she recalls, “At the end I said, never again.” But two months later, she was back to planning the next stage of her 4 Desert marathon set (which includes the Gobi, the Atacama and Antarctica), which she completed, becoming the first Indian ever in the 4 Desert Club.
The Golden Quadrilateral run happened because “I wanted to set a world record next, with a long run with India as backdrop.” Kakade admits that her run has been a huge learning in many ways. “India has a reputation of being unsafe for women, but in these months around the country — starting at 3.30 am every day — I’ve had no bad experiences. People have been so encouraging.” With her run making it to the news and social media, runners from every town she passed have come to cheer and run with her. That was something special, she admits. A vignette: on her run, she found an abandoned Alsatian on the highway from Delhi to Agra. The pup, sensing a kindred spirit, adopted Kakade, and she named him Lucky.
We chatted on about how running has yet to get the funding it deserves as a sport. What next? I asked her. “A long break,” she replies, “My body needs to recover. And then, who knows?” Running is addictive. She would know.