Different groups of people assemble every morning in different parts of the country, from Delhi to Chennai. Like many others, they seem to be there for a jog. However, these people are training for what is now gaining momentum in India—the ultra marathon.
An ultra marathon (or just an ‘ultra’) is a marathon that goes beyond 42 km— which has been the length of the classic marathon ever since it was turned into a race in commemoration of the Greek soldier Phidippides, who in 490 BCE ran 42 km from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to convey news of a Greek victory over a Persian army; he is supposed to have dropped dead right after that. Undeterred, modern long-distance runners are testing their stamina for up to five times that distance. And while it’s not easy to train for an ultra, there are many groups that not only organise such runs, but also help anyone interested. Runners For Life, Globeracers, RunXtreme, Chennai Trekking Club, and Running and Living are among them. The ultra, they say, is the new run on the block.
“Once you can run 42 km comfortably, you want to take up a bigger challenge,” says Peter Van Geit, a Belgian who’s made Chennai his home since 1998 and has organised several marathons under Chennai Trekking Club, which he began.
It’s a ‘domino effect’, according to Kavitha Kanaparthi, the 42-year-old founder of Globeracers, a group that focuses on training and promoting endurance athletes in the country. “The number of marathons being organised in India has gone up,” she says, “Earlier, the full marathon itself was the ultimate race. Now, people want something more. As people started to understand that there’s something other than a marathon, [the ultra] caught on like wildfire.”
Those who do ultras are said to be in a different league altogether, taking on this ‘mad’ run solely out of a passion for running—for the meditative effect it has on them. It’s like being in a trance, many say. The Bangalore Ultra, organised by Runners for Life and the oldest such race in India, began in 2006. It was born after Madhu Avasarala, a veteran of many ultra-marathons, called for a meeting at Airlines Hotel in Bengaluru to kick start an ultra marathon in India and sent invitations to as many runners in the city as possible. Member No 1, Dharmendra Dilip Kumar, 37, who’s been running for 14 years and is now a full-time coach for runners, says, “You need to build baseline fitness first. If you run anywhere up to 100 km a week, you’ll still need about six months to a year [of training] to run an ultra.” Kumar also advises one to run a couple of full marathons before trying the ultra. That’s why the entry rules for ultra marathons usually require a runner to have completed a reasonable number of half and full marathons. This is mostly to avoid unnecessary injury to a runner. “There’s no real hurry for an ultra marathon,” adds Kumar. “It’s not an item to be ticked off a list. This run is for people who are patient and have some amount of experience.”
Talking about how coaching helps prepare for an ultra, Kumar says some people would rather have someone else do the thinking for them and just follow the rules. “While India’s running record is reasonably abysmal by global standards, amateur running has increased in the last 4-5 years, and a lot more people are taking to the ultra,” he says.
“Running has exploded in India in the last few years. Even marathons in Coimbatore are getting 10,ooo registrations. People are now looking for hills and trails to make running more interesting,” says Van Geit, who recently ran a 600 km ultra in Himachal Pradesh. While he says that running groups are not necessarily responsible for ultras becoming more popular, “they provide a good foundation”. He gives due credit to social media as well—where people may feel inspired upon seeing their friends at the finish line of an ultra. “That’s what got me into running,” he admits. Through his group, he organises regular ultras, such as the Javadhu Hills Ultra, and even weekend treks that usually involve being on one’s feet for about 100 km.
It’s true when runners say that not everyone can run an ultra. Some people even call it ‘crazy’. “You need to enjoy yourself. If you’re able to do that, you’ve already become strong enough. You’re mentally at peace, and that calmness makes you tougher,” says Shshank Pundir, who has run nine ultras in three years, and is someone with whom even a short phone conversation is inspiration enough to take up running. Talking about his 220 km-run at Bhatti Mines, officially known as the Salomon Bhatti Lakes Ultra, Gurgaon-based Pundir says he’ll run it again—he completed the distance, for which he trained for six months, in 43 hours and describes it as ‘very tough’. “I want to do something crazier—in winter—from here to Chandigarh or Jaipur,” he says.
Tarun Walecha, fellow runner and one of the co-founders of the Delhi-based running group RunXtreme, remembers the Bhatti mines run. “It was Shshank’s last leg of 25 km, and my first and only leg. He just stopped for a bit, had a banana, some curd rice, poured water over himself, and said, ‘Chalo, let’s go’. And here, I was warming up, stretching, for a mere 25 km run,” Walecha recalls.
Those keen to know what it is like to attempt such a gruelling run would perhaps benefit from Dean Karnazes’ Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, which chronicles the writer’s humorous experiences of ultra running. He even devoured a Round Table Pizza with ‘extra everything’ and an entire cherry cheesecake while attempting his ultra. The aim of Karnazes’ book was to raise awareness of youth obesity and urge Americans of all fitness levels to ‘take that next step’. Another book, which serves as a dummies’ guide to ultra running, is Bryon Powell’s highly inspiring Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide To Running Ultramarathons. In its first chapter, Powell aplty describes the feeling of running an ultra: ‘If this will be your first ultramarathon, you will experience a journey into the unknown. The ultramarathon represents a new challenge in attempting to run farther than you ever have before.’
He weighed over 100 kg before he started running. Now, at around 83 kg, Sanjay Balu, the 25-year-old race director of Runners for Life finds running is as natural as breathing. Running has evolved in the country, he says. “Wise men and women say that it takes about seven years to realise your potential as a runner. Interestingly, running in India followed a similar pattern. It trudged along slowly in the beginning, picked up pace along the way, and is going all guns blazing in the last couple of years. A runner who used to be identified as a ‘complete psycho’ is now a well-respected figure in the Indian community.”
Says Walecha, “Ultra marathon runners are a specific league of runners. Not all runners are ultra runners.” An architect by profession, he was always an active sportsperson. However, he took to running only four years ago and has run the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon annually ever since (“I want to attempt an ultra next year”), all with his own share of troubles—he has had a bad case of slip disc and even dengue. You see passion for running written all over his face when you meet him, because he cannot talk about anything else. “There’s a certain positivity that running brings into your life, and priorities change once you take to serious running. As far as an ultra is concerned, it’s about endurance— where you can’t let your mind give up on you,” he says. His group RunXtreme is pretty active in the running circuit, and only those who are regular runners or running enthusiasts are allowed to join the group. They usually meet at Delhi’s Nehru Park or Lodhi Garden for a daily run, with longer runs scheduled for the weekend. “We want to focus more on result- oriented running, which is beneficial to the participants,” he says.
Rahul Verghese, 55, founded the website Running and Living in 2007 after he realised that people needed some form of guidance via running groups. The IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus got into running 15 years ago when he was living in Chicago. On his return to India in 2003, he set up a website that gave running tips and information to those interested. “[Running] brings a powerful change into people’s lives and makes them better human beings,” he says. Gurgaon-based Verghese has run 10 ultras, including the Comrades Ultra held in South Africa which, at 90 km, is said to be the greatest marathon in the world.
“I love to run in scenic locales. The Comrades, for instance, has about 20,ooo people running. It’s an exhilarating form of social engagement. Then there’s the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon [a 56 km- run] in Cape Town, which is also very beautiful,” says Verghese, who is the sole long distance runner in his family of four. While his wife and kids run ‘to keep fit’, he runs ‘to run’.
It’s interesting to note that the ultra marathon, for now at least, seems to have rather few women attempting it in India. While some runners say ‘without wanting to sound sexist’, “Maybe it’s because of their domestic responsibilities”, “Training for an ultra is not easy, as one is running for hours continuously” and so on, women ultra-marathoners are no less keen to test their stamina on daunting run lengths. Not many women run ultras in India, admits Kanaparthi. “But it’s picking up,” she says, “and Globeracers has one race in the Nilgiris, now in its fourth edition, which is a women’s-only ultra. Another interesting thing to note is that women outrace men in most [ultra] races across the world. So among the top ten, almost seven would be women.”
Globeracers helps runners acquire the right gait for an ultra, with their aim to become the organisation “to go to”. “We’ve been organising qualifying races in India for races conducted outside the country as well. We’ve helped people secure finances, get them the products, apparel, hydration… essentially enable a runner to understand what to expect when running an ultra,” says Kanaparthi.
But it’s safe to say that it will take anyone years to reach where India’s most famous ultra runner, Arun Bhardwaj, is. There’s also a Wikipedia page in his name. In 2012, the 46-year-old, who works for the NITI Aayog, ran from Kargil to Kanyakumari in two months. And he’s a pure vegetarian. “I can’t even look at an egg sometimes. I was told I could not run the distance, primarily because I’m a vegetarian. People asked me, ‘Protein kahaan se laaoge? (Where will you get protein from)’”, he recalls. But for Bhardwaj, as with many others of his league, “It’s all in the mind.”
For the mammoth cross-country run of 4,100 km, Bhardwaj diligently drank a litre of milk with turmeric—twice—in the morning and at night; and Patanjali honey because “everyone was talking about it”. Clearly, such an ultra ultra run is extremely tough to attempt, let alone finish. But at the end of the day, for Bhardwaj—who is currently training for next March’s Badwater Ultra, known as Badwater Cape Fear, to be held in North Carolina and said to be the world’s toughest race—it’s all about leaving behind a legacy. “My kids are proud of me,” he says with a smile.
And that’s all the support that an ultra runner needs—the grit, determination and the unrelenting support of family and friends. “I think the ultra is here to stay in India,” says Kanaparthi. “We’re in talks with the Government to include it as national sport, and would like to see that happen pretty soon. Ultra running is a beautiful sport, where it’s not about the distance but the camaraderie—something which you have to witness.”
Marathoners who have pushed themselves to try an ultra would agree. Competitive challenges can unify.