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On the run

Running an ultra-marathon can be a lonesome experience. But the stories emanating from these runs are truly inspirational, and best testify the resilience of the human body. Rahul Fernandes reports.

other Updated: Feb 18, 2013 00:03 IST
Rahul Fernandes

Running an ultra-marathon can be a lonesome experience. But the stories emanating from these runs are truly inspirational, and best testify the resilience of the human body.

Take equal proportions of courage, determination, grit and willpower. Mix them well and add a dash of masochism. Voila, you've got an ultra-marathoner! While the Indian marathon calendar is now dotted with events almost every Sunday of the year, a growing number of runners have decided that 42.195km is simply not good enough. An ultra-marathon is a distance greater than the traditional marathon length. The run could be distance- or time-specific. The most common distances are 50km, 100km, 50 miles (80km) and 100 miles (160km), while most events are run over six, 12 and 24 hours.

Running an ultra-marathon can be a lonesome experience. Apart from big-ticket events like the Mumbai Marathon and the Delhi Half Marathon, most long-distance runs seldom have any spectators and almost never receive media attention. But the stories emanating from these runs are truly inspirational, and best testify the resilience of the human body. Take Arun Bhardwaj, 43, for example. Perhaps India's foremost ultra runner, he recently ran what he calls the 'K2K' route. It's strange he chooses to use an abbreviation, because shortcuts aren't quite his thing. He completed a distance of 4,150km from Kargil to Kanyakumari in a two-month period, averaging about 68km a day. "Do mention that I ran this distance via Leh, which is a tougher route," he says.

Always on the move
A resident of Delhi, he runs 27km to office everyday --- from Dwarka to Yojana Bhavan on Parliament Street. He averages 200km a week, which probably explains how he has managed to complete 23 international ultra-marathons. Interestingly, he doesn't own an automobile. "If I can't run, I prefer to go cycling." So, it's not surprising when he tells you that he ends up using about 10-12 pairs of shoes in training every year. And if he's running non-stop, as he often does, Bhardwaj sometimes discards a new pair after four days.

Luckily, a shoe brand picks the tab.

While long-distance running makes you dig deep into your reserves, it can also force you to dig into your savings. Despite working in a software company, Pune-based Aparna Choudhry (34) says she doesn't have much of a bank balance. "Most of my money is spent on registering and travelling for ultra-marathons. You also need to fork out money on training," she says. Choudhry has run several ultra-marathons, including the gruelling Thar Ultra, a 100km run that starts at Pokaran and ends in Jodhpur. What's more, the event is held in the blazing April sun. While some turn to books for inspiration, others like Sumedha Mahajan (29) turn authors to tell their story. The Mumbai-based-ultra-marathoner quit her MNC job to write a soon-to-be-published book narrating her experiences. Last summer, she ran 1,500km from Delhi to Mumbai in a month and earned a place in the Limca Book of Records.
Sumedha had her training buddy Raj Vadgama for company during the punishing run. An interior designer and marathon trainer, Vadgama follows a strict schedule in the build-up to an ultra-marathon. From building mileage to tapering, he has it all planned in his mind. He is also conscious of his diet and only lets go — with a beer — after the run.
Ultra runners are often posed with the challenge of dealing with the vagaries of the weather gods. But what about the body clock? "Running an ultra requires you to stay up all night. So, every Wednesday I run to office in the morning, then run during the lunch break and set out for an all-night run after dinner. I return home in the morning, take my daughter to school, run back to work and return in the evening and crash." Did someone say masochism?

Where's the money?
Kavitha Kanaparthi of Bangalore-based Globeracers, which organises a handful of ultra-marathons, says the number of participants is growing at a fast clip. She says there are about 1,000 ultra-marathoners in India, while the number of marathoners is about five or six times more. "The number of runners upgrading to ultra-marathons is on the rise." But she admits that organising such events if far from profitable. "These are early days. It is a community-driven activity. But sponsors are showing interest."

Raj Vadgama, who has also set up an entrepreneurial venture, Xtreme Sports India, has organised a few ultra-marathons in Mumbai. "I don't really make any profits from these events. Hopefully, with increased participation things will change."

Clearly, money is not a priority when you're in it for the long run.