Salil Murthy. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Salil Murthy. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Salil Murthy: I get some of my best ideas while running

For Salil Murthy, country head, General Mills India, the best runners, like the best leaders, are the ones who smile through the pain and pick up the pace

He represents India in amateur golf tournaments, runs marathons all around the world, is surrounded by cakes and ice creams all the time, and “in between the interstices" of all this, he also works and looks after the India operations of international brands such as Pillsbury and Häagen-Dazs. Salil Murthy, 38, is the country head of General Mills India.

A physics graduate with a master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C), Murthy has spent the better part of his career working in the consumer goods sector across global markets.

With a timing of 3 hours, 44 minutes, he is up to speed with marathons the world over. One of his goals is to run all the six marathon majors (London, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Boston). “They’re all fantastic, storied courses. I’ve run two so far, and Tokyo’s next on the list," says the fitness enthusiast. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you start running?

Initially, I started running to lose weight. It was about nine years ago, when my shirts began to “magically" shrink; poor eating habits and long hours spent sedentary were the real culprits. At first, I could barely do 2km on the treadmill and that really annoyed me. So I started running a few times a week and signed up for a couple of 10km races after six months. By then, I was running more for the joy of it and weight loss was a happy by-product. I ran my first half marathon in 2009 and, three years later, my first full marathon. As of today, I have run seven full marathons (three in Singapore, and one each in New York, Chicago, Amsterdam and Edinburgh) and several half marathons.

How do you balance your training and work?

I think that’s a bit of a false binary in that they’re both important parts of my life. The key lies in developing the mental resolve to spend some time each day looking after yourself. Once that’s in place, the opportunities will present themselves.

I typically run early in the mornings but if I’m travelling, I’ll run in the gym or even just up 10 flights of stairs wherever I’m working. There’s always a way to make it happen.

Tell us about your toughest race.

My first full marathon was the adidas Midnight Marathon in Singapore, in 2012, where I lived at the time. Naively, I thought that running at night would be easier because it was cooler but I hadn’t accounted for the fact that in Singapore, humidity peaks at 2am. It’s really hard to see in the dark when there’s sweat dripping into your eyes. I cramped at 12km and even managed to lose my way for a bit—it was a massive slog and I’ve never been so happy to see the finish line.

Has running changed the way you work?

I’ve come to recognize that running has a pretty significant impact on how I approach my workday. Physically, on the days that I run, I feel energized for more hours, my pace (in everything I do) is a little faster and my mind a little clearer.

I get some of my best ideas while running because I am more calm and less critical. What I have learnt to do when I have a tough issue or problem is allow it to percolate for some time and think about it again when I am running. I often look at it in a new way or come up with a solution that wasn’t obvious to me at the time.

Any leadership lessons you find in distance running.

The most important thing I’ve learnt (from distance running) is the will to persevere despite everything that is thrown at you. By the 32nd kilometre of a marathon, you have reached the limits of your glycogen reserves, you don’t have anything left in the tank, everything hurts and you just want to go home and take a nap. We all face trying moments like that at some point in our careers and in our lives. The best runners are not necessarily the ones who are the fastest; they’re the guys who, at these moments, find a little inspiration from somewhere, smile through the pain and pick up the pace. This is a transferable skill that I think applies beyond running.

What has been your favourite running moment?

At the start of the Amsterdam marathon, in 2016, thanks to a bib mix-up, I found myself right up front. I was pretty nervous anyway and to ease the tension, I turned to the runner next to me and stuck out my hand, saying, “Hi, I’m Salil, have a good race." He grinned, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m too." At that point I realized he was Sammy Kitwara, a 2 hours, 5 minutes marathoner, and I was starting next to him. We ran barely a metre together before he took off...but that was fun.