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Profiles | Can’t stop running

For these ordinary people, extraordinary feats of endurance are an addiction
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First Published: Sat, Sep 07 2013. 12 07 AM IST
(From left to right) Anuradha Vaidyanathan, Aparna Choudhary, Bhupendrasing Rajput and Ram Viswanathan
(From left to right) Anuradha Vaidyanathan, Aparna Choudhary, Bhupendrasing Rajput and Ram Viswanathan
Updated: Tue, Sep 10 2013. 03 43 PM IST
Aparna Choudhary | Married to the marathon
Even when the Pune ultra runner is not racing or training, she is constantly thinking about running
Aparna Choudhary wanted to be a hockey player—it was the sport she chose when in boarding school. But the dream somehow unravelled quickly when she was in college in Jaipur. A heavy defeat in a university match and some other circumstances took the fun away from it. Left without an activity, she switched from running up and down a pitch to running around it. Soon it was a run on a 900m stretch of road near her home and then it became an obsession. This was, of course, some time ago.
Choudhary says she prefers running alone so she can maintain her own pace. Photo: Milind Wadekar/Mint
In July, the 34-year-old became the first Indian to be invited to run the 222km La Ultra-The High—the race through Ladakh with extreme temperature changes, and less than half the oxygen available, compared to sea level. She was disqualified early because she took 6 minutes extra for the first 48km (7 hours, 6 minutes), but continued to finish in 59 hours, 27 minutes. It was still easier than the time she ran The Thar Ultra. In April 2012, she ran near Pokhran, Rajasthan, in over 40 degrees Celsius—100 miles (around 160km) in 33 hours. “Wherever I run, I think of that race and believe how much easier this one is,” she says. “It was miserable; there was no shade anywhere. I wanted to cry but was so dehydrated that I could not find the tears.” The only woman among five racers, she finished second.
Why does the Pune-based business analyst with IT solutions company SunGard India do it then?
“I don’t have an answer,” Choudhary says. “If you ask me 10 times during different points of a day what I am thinking, nine times I would say, running. Every time you see me staring into blank space, I am thinking about running.”
Running got a new meaning, as a concept, when Choudhary was in Philadelphia, US, on a project for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) from 2006-09. An acquaintance suggested she participate in the 10-mile Blue Cross Broad Street Run. But as someone used to doing only around 4 miles, the sudden jump made her feel like her “lungs would pop out”.
"THE FIRST RUN: Aparna Choudhary’s first long run was a 13-mile half marathon in Philadelphia in November 2007 in freezing rain. ‘As I heard the words announced that this was the end of the half marathon, I have never felt happier.At that point, i did not know you can stop or walk if you like during the race. i thought you had to run all the way.’"
Other runs followed—a half marathon in Philadelphia, an 18-mile run in New Jersey, US—before she came back to India in November 2009 to find out about the Bangalore Ultra marathon. She managed to run 75km next November. Bhati Lakes in National Capital Region in October 2011 was 160km—“towards the end, I was walking with my eyes closed,” she says. Uttarkashi was 220km in September 2012 completed in 45 hours, 27 minutes and another 100km was accomplished in December 2012 at Nilgiris 100 in 14 hours, 59 minutes.
“On long distances, I try to think of funny things, but that lasts an hour. Initially, I want to maintain a pace, but after 20 hours I just want to crawl,” she says, laughing. “It’s better not to think about running when you are running,” she says.
But Choudhary unwittingly answers an earlier question, about why she runs. “When I say the time does not matter but it’s important to finish…that’s hypocritical. Finishing well is a moment of indescribable joy. The break you get after a run, nothing is better deserved in life.”
Arun Janardhan
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Sunita Tummalapalli | Racing through the year
The Hyderabad runner is ticking off a marathon a month, and loving every minute of it
In January, the Mumbai Marathon. February brings the Auroville run. A forest trail through Corbett in March. The flat asphalt of Chandigarh in April, where a personal best—4 hours 53 minutes—is set. Up the steep course, through misty pine forests, of Sangla Valley in Himachal Pradesh for the Himalayan Marathon in May.
So Sunita Tummalapalli, a 44-year-old homemaker from Hyderabad, marks the passing of the months—by running a marathon.
Tummalapalli at the ASICS Kepler Challenge, a 60km mountain ultra in New Zealand
Last year, Tummalapalli and her closest friend, both amateur runners, decided that they would do at least one 30km run a month, just as a personal challenge. They did that. This year, they thought of raising the bar—at least 40km every month.
“Then we realized that’s just a couple of kilometres short of the marathon distance, so why not try and run 12 marathons in 12 months?” Tummalapalli says.
In June, a visit to the US to meet her son, who is in college there, coincided with the Minneapolis Marathon. She threw in the San Francisco Marathon for good measure (because she was close by). In July, she was back in India, running the high-altitude Ladakh Marathon. Though she could not find a race to suit her plans this month, she will make up for it by running two in September, in Wisconsin and Illinois, both trail runs, the kind she loves. Then it’s on to the venerable Chicago Marathon, one of the six World Marathon Majors, so she can be with her husband, who divides his working time between Hyderabad and Chicago. Istanbul follows, and finally, a homecoming of sorts with the Chennai Marathon in December.
“It can’t get better,” Tummalapalli says. “I’m getting to travel like I’ve never done before, and I’m getting to go to places—all these trails and forests and mountains—that I would probably never go to otherwise.”
Most people take weeks to recover from a long-distance race, and a marathon-a-month can break the hardiest of runners, but not Tummalapalli. Since she first began running in 2008, Tummalapalli has come to learn about her body and its limitations in sharp detail. She knows she recovers faster than most people from running fatigue; or that the traditional high-carb marathoner’s diet doesn’t work for her, but lots of fruits and vegetables do just fine.
“The way I’m doing it, every run is getting better,” she says. “It’s almost as if the previous marathon is a training run for the next one. So every race I enjoy a bit more than the last one, feel a bit faster, and fitter.”
Her family and friends keep her going. In 2011, when she hesitated about running in the New Zealand ASICS Kepler Challenge, a 60km mountain ultra, because of the time and money needed, her husband secretly registered her.
“He takes on all the responsibilities of the house when I have to run,” Tummalapalli says. “I cursed him through the training for the New Zealand Ultra though, when I had to start running at 3.30am, and he slept soundly.”
"THE FIRST RUN: It was in 2008, a half marathon in Hyderabad, on a whim, after watching runners compete in the Everest Marathon when she had gone on a trek to the region. I made the classic mistake and ran really fast in the beginning to keep up with people,and within the first 2km, my shins started hurting badly. I finished the race, but I suffered through it."
It was worth it, of course, she is the only person of Indian origin to have completed the race in its 25 years of existence. But the sweetest reward was when she found out that she was a celebrity in her nine-year-old daughter’s school after she ran the Everest Marathon in 2011 (she has three children).
“I had no idea that she was bragging about me at school till I went there one day for a meeting,” she says. “Then all her friends started coming to me, excited, and asked me ‘you ran on Everest?’”
Rudraneil Sengupta
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Ram Viswanathan | There’s nothing like a marathon
From the mountain trails of Zermatt to the ghettos of Durban and the ‘Big Six’, IBM’s chief technical officer combines running with travel.
Viswanathan in on track to completing all the ‘Big Six’ marathons. Photo: Saisen/Mint
Ram Viswanathan, chief technical officer at IBM, travels a lot for work. The first thing he does when he knows the dates of his next trip is look up the race calendar to see if there’s a marathon at the same time within a 50km radius of wherever he is headed. Family visits or holidays get the same treatment. “I would rather be running than doing anything else,” Viswanathan says. “For me the best way to travel is on foot. It gives me a tremendous world view—running through the mountain trails of Zermatt, or the ghettos of Durban.”
Running came to Viswanathan, 50, accidentally. He had come back to India from the US in 2005, and was complaining to his family, one night over dinner, about the lack of outdoor sporting activities in Chennai. He used to be a skater in the US. His son, then 13, told him about a poster he had seen in school advertising a “marathon” in Chennai. “It turned out to be a 10K run,” Viswanathan says, “but I went and ran it. And that was the beginning.” Within a year, he had set up an informal group of runners. That circle of friends has now extended to over 1,500 members, and the group, Chennai Runners, organized the city’s first international marathon last year in December.
Viswanathan himself has run 43 marathons so far, and is on course to completing the “Big Six”. Boston, Chicago, Berlin and London are done. Next year, it’s New York and Tokyo.
“Running has become the family mantra now,” Viswanathan says. “My wife, who has never run in her life, started last year. My son and my daughter both run. My mother is quite the sight, running 10K races in saris.”
"THE FIRST RUN: The first long-distance race Viswanathan took part in was the 2005 Singapore Marathon, a run he squeezed in between two working trips, one in Macau and the other in Australia. ‘I had prepared for it, and thought it would be a relaxed run,’ he says.But i was in a plane 24 hours before the race, and in a plane 12 hours after the race. that was tough."
Viswanathan too has clocked his fair share of mileage this year—seven already, including the London Marathon in April, and a gruelling trail run in Zermatt, Switzerland, in May.
While the London Marathon was a dream come true, the trail run at Zermatt was one of the toughest Viswanathan has ever done. “Trail marathons are lonely, extremely rugged runs,” he says. “The ground is uneven, the ascent was more than 6,500ft over the course. There were roots popping out of the ground everywhere, streams to be crossed—trail running just makes you tougher.”
He needs all the lessons in toughness he can get. At this year’s Comrades Marathon, a brutal 89km ultra in Durban, South Africa, an old heel injury flared up yet again. He had to give up 10km from the finishing line. For weeks, he could not put his heel down even to walk. “Comrades is unfinished business,” Viswanathan says. “I went last year and could not finish. I had to pull out this year. I need to fix this heel, and try again.”
Rudraneil Sengupta
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Bhupendrasing Rajput | The last man on his feet
The Pune runner does not follow conventions, but runs for the sense of freedom it offers
Rajput does not need the company of other runners or aids like music when he is doing long distances
It’s almost as if Bhupendrasing D. Rajput was born to run and his inherent desire for peace and solitude, a perfect partner for the lonely sport of long-distance running.
Yet, the senior sales manager from Thermax Ltd, Pune, busts all myths associated with running these days. His diet is not especially protein-rich, his training schedule is non-existent, he has no particular routine and he has never had injuries. He runs on a whim, he is not competitive, and shows up for events not carrying weeks of preparation but just his curiosity.
Rajput, 44, was working in Mumbai in 2005 when he happened to spot a sign for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon on a bus. He thought of giving it a shot. Initial training started in Joggers’ Park in Andheri, where he would run a few staggered hundred metres. He ran the 2006 half marathon in Mumbai in 2 hours, 33 minutes, which triggered the passion in him. He reckons his ability to run owes its origin to a childhood spent on open fields in rural Maharashtra. There, free from boundaries, shoes and competitors, he would run for sheer joy, or necessity to travel from one place to another. The outdoor bug built a stamina whose reserves run deep, which is one reason, he says, he has never had to try too hard.
Two more half marathons followed in Mumbai before Rajput switched to the marathon in 2009. Since then, he has done more than 20 marathons in the country but that was never going to be enough. By 2011, he had concluded that around four-and-a-half hours would be his “bandwidth”, till someone mentioned a 150km run in Pune.
“How does 150km work? I was curious. Thought if it doesn’t work, I would go back home,” he says. He returned home after chugging on for 23 hours, having completed the race which set new personal boundaries.
"THE FIRST RUN: When he went for the 2006 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, having never run any such race, Rajput turned up like he would for work—in a shirt, trousers and leather shoes. When he looked around, he realized that it might help to get the right gear. He completed the run, but before the next one, he got running shoes."
Others followed—Bhati Lakes in October 2011 outside Delhi, 160km in 27 hours, 28 minutes; 200km in January 2012 near Munnar, Kerala, in 26 hours, 10 minutes; 160km in April 2012 through nearly 40 degrees Celsius near Pokhran, Rajasthan, in over 30 hours—winning all in respective categories. “In Pokhran, running in the night through deserts, you can lose your way. You have to follow the signs, which are these red ribbons tied on bushes. You are looking for them with a hand-held torch. It’s easy to miss them because for long distances, there may not be any bushes,” he says.
Rajput’s mind switches off, in a way that can be best described as hypnotized. “I may look at you, but I may not even see you,” the engineer adds. “Physically, there are several better runners but mentally they may not be able to push the boundaries.”
Running, he says, gets his mind off daily problems and gives him the space a city cannot. “I carry no concerns of the world. If the rupee is falling or someone is calling for work, it does not matter.
“Running,” says the bachelor with a smile, “is perhaps also a substitute for loneliness.”
Arun Janardhan
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Anuradha Vaidyanathan | Ironwoman
There’s no race tough enough for this Bangalore runner and triathlete, the only Asian person to have completed the brutal Ultraman triathlon
Vaidyanathan uses the races as a platform to speak about gender rights and to raise funds for girls’ education
Running is many things for Anuradha Vaidyanathan. When she first started, back in 2003, it was a way to beat the stress of a demanding engineering programme at a top US college (and to fit into tighter, shorter clothes). It evolved into a personal adventure—the excitement of midnight training, the secret thrill of watching the body grow stronger, the rush of pushing past one’s physical limits. Then it became an opportunity to shine, to be part of an elite field of amateur athletes taking on extreme endurance challenges, and the buzz of being from a country typically not represented at those events. The 32-year-old from Bangalore was the first person from India to complete an Ironman Triathlon—a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride and a marathon on the same day—back in 2006 (she has competed in four more Ironmans and seven Half-Ironmans since then). In 2009, when she finished sixth at Ultraman Canada, a three-day triathlon comprising a 10km swim, 420km of biking, and a 84.4km run, she was the first person from Asia to do so (she remains the only one).
She has done over 50 races now—marathons, triathlons, and ultras—and the pleasures of being a pioneer has transformed into quieter, more serious motivations, like using the races as a platform to speak about equal access and gender rights. Vaidyanathan now raises funds for Educate Girls, an NGO that works for the education and social empowerment of women in rural Rajasthan, through her races.
“The one thing that does not change is the adventure of it all,” Vaidyanathan says. “And the incredible relationship I have with the outdoors and with nature.”
Though Vaidyanathan, who runs her own intellectual property management firm, got into sports in college in the US, it was only when she moved back to India in 2005 that she began to train seriously for extreme races.
“That in itself was an adventure, the training in India,” she says. “There is so little infrastructure. Access to stadiums was not easy, and they did not have changing rooms or loos for women.” The training involved waking up every morning at 3.30, so she could get her long bike ride done before the traffic became impossible.
"THE FIRST RUN: Vaidyanathan does not remember her first long run, though it happened sometime in college, when she was 18 or 19. She did it to impress a friend. ‘The one thing I do remember,’ she says, ‘is that throughout that first race, all I thought of was— what will my friend say when I tell him I finished the race?"
“Just after I moved back, I was living with my parents for a few months,” Vaidyanathan says. “My parents were puzzled by my training schedule, but kept out of it. One day, my father could not help himself and after I left in the morning for my bike ride, he followed me in his car.”
But soon, he lost sight of her on the highway, and decided to stop the car and wait. On her way back, Vaidyanathan spotted her father’s car parked by the side of the road.
“At first, I thought I was delirious,” she says. “Then I went up to him and asked him ‘what are you doing here?’ He had the same question for me. We had a good laugh about it.”
Rudraneil Sengupta
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First Published: Sat, Sep 07 2013. 12 07 AM IST