Until five years ago, Mumbai-based Priyadarshini, 28, had never attempted a long-distance run and barely knew what endurance running was. She had been a swimmer in school, pursued judo, taekwondo and kung fu in college and taken up music as a career.
Then, in 2007, a US-based friend, Ram Sethu, convinced her to sign up for the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, among the toughest endurance running races in the world.
Priyadarshini became the first Indian woman to complete the high-altitude race - a five-day trip of navigating on foot steep inclines and declines, stony paths, forested areas and rarified air - and returned home a new person.
"After battling through altitude-induced hallucinations and broken toenails, I wanted to challenge my mind and body again, and I wanted to help others challenge themselves too," she says.
So Priyadarshini started training friends in Mumbai and taking groups of amateur runners on Himalayan runs.
Soon, more of her friends were beginning to take up long-distance running too, and she was noticing a similar trend among runners' groups in different cities.
Across the country, interest in and demand for endurance tests is rising, with urban professionals, both young and middle-aged, participating in ultra-marathons, triathlons and mountain and desert races as they seek challenges more demanding than the marathons that have been catching on over the past decade.
Priyadarshini and Sethu have now launched an endurance racing company called The Windchasers and will organise their first event, the Sandakphu 70 Mile Himalayan Race, from April 29 to May 2. The 20 people who have signed up include 14 Indians, many of whom have never run a mountain race before.
"Marathons are the first step in running, but once people get hooked to them, they want to try greater distances and more demanding terrain," says Sethu.
Now in his late 40s, Sethu, a software entrepreneur, was a casual runner until 2006, when he ran a six-day, 160-mile ultra-marathon across Chile's Atacama Desert.
"On the fourth day, my body completely gave up and my mind took over. It was a surreal experience," says Sethu. "I came out of the challenge with a sense of tranquillity and humility."
Like Sethu, many of those who are promoting running and endurance races in India were introduced to serious running during long stays in the West.
"For the seven years that I lived in the US, I was hooked to triathlons, duathlons and marathons. When I returned, I wanted to emulate those experiences," says Naina Lal, 47, the Bangalore-based co-founder of Runner Girls India, an all-women runners' group that began with eight members in 2007 and now has more than 350 members spread across Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Bangalore-based Runners For Life too has seen numbers rise sharply - from 30 takers for its annual 100-km run in 2007 to 120 participants last year. And five-year-old, Gurgaon-based Running And Living has nearly 1 lakh amateur and professional runners participate in more than 30 long-distance races across the country every year.
A greater physical challenge is not the only motivation.
"Running serves as a great complement to stress," says Rajesh Vetcha, 40, an infrastructure project developer and one of the founders of the informal club Hyderabad Runners.
"Ultra-marathons are also one of the best ways to travel and explore new countries," says Bangalore-based management consultant Sunil Chainani, 54, who has run marathons in Leh, Greece, Germany and the 89-km Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa.
Mohit Oberoi, 44, businessman from Delhi | Completed the Ironman triathlon in South Africa in 2011
'Cycling, swimming, running for 15 hours was exhilarating'
B efore Mohit Oberoi discovered the thrills of the triathlon, his passion was mountaineering. His enthusiasm for the outdoors even led him to start an adventure company that manufactures equipment for rock-climbing, camping and hiking.
A few years ago he began running as part of his fitness training, enjoyed the feeling, and was soon hooked to long-distance running.
"Then I heard about triathlons and liked the multi-sport element," says Oberoi. "I was not great at swimming, but I decided to learn so that I could participate."
In 2010, Oberoi signed up for the half-Ironman triathlon in Singapore. "As soon as I finished that race successfully, I wanted to challenge myself with a new goal," he says.
That goal was the full Ironman, considered the most difficult triathlon in the world. In April 2011, he completed the grueling test in South Africa.
"I needed a whole year of training because the distances are really long. I was among 1,500 people who attempted the race, and I finished it in 15 hours. It was exhilarating," says Oberoi.
Since then, Oberoi has completed a half-Ironman in March and plans to complete another in Australia later this year. "Regular training and a high level of activity has become part of my lifestyle," he says.
Priya R, 48, homemaker from Coimbatore | Will participate in a 70-mile Himalayan race with her son Shivanth
'Shivnath and I help motivate each other'
Priya Ramachandran was a passionate trekker through her college days, before marriage, children and family commitments slowed her down.
So, in February, when a cousin told her about the Windchasers' Sandakphu 70-mile Himalayan race, she decided to check it out. "I logged onto their website and decided I had to take the plunge," says Ramachandran.
Her 24-year-old son Shivanth Krishna, a mechanical engineer, has decided to run with her.
"I injured my knee a few months ago so I will walk briskly while Shivanth will run," says Ramachandran. "We have been training in the hills around Coimbatore and serve as a motivation for each other."
Since the duo was among the last to sign up for the race, the training schedule prepared for them by the Windchasers is more intense than usual.
"I've been running 10 km a day, besides exercising at the gym. I've already lost weight," says Ramachandran. "But the biggest incentive is the prospect of seeing the world's tallest mountains up close."