Alittle over a decade ago, a marathon was something Ashok Daniel best enjoyed on television. Then, one day, he was driven by a simple desire to lose weight and hit the road with a vengeance.
Running took over his daily routine, alongside an education in law. When a career as an intellectual property lawyer at the Madras high court beckoned, Daniel would start his day in the wee hours to beat Chennai’s scorching heat, before taking on the day’s work and fitting in a session at the gym in the evening.
When he lined up at the starting line of his first race in 2012, it turned out to be the 50km distance at the Bangalore Ultra, rather than the shorter marathon distances.
“I suffered a lot during that run and vowed never to run an ultra ever again. But I learnt a lot and came back stronger. While my training has changed a lot since that day, my passion for running has remained the same," says the 28-year-old.
The same year, he ran the marathon in Chennai, but it was the ultras that had his attention. As he improved over increasing distances, his first 100 miler came in Scotland in 2014. There has been no looking back since.
“I think I’m quite calm and sometimes just phase out during long runs, staring at nature and taking in everything that’s going on around me. During tough times, I just look back at all the sacrifices and difficult positions that I’ve been in before and try to pull myself back," he says.
Most weekends and vacations are spent taking on gruelling trail runs in mountains around the world, including the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps, the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Dolomites and the Tor des Géants through the Aosta Valley (both in Italy).
“I have a lot of respect and reverence for the mountains. I’m enthralled by their beauty and their wonder is beyond measure. It’s also a great reminder of our own fragile existence and just how small we are," Daniel says.
“My most memorable run was during the UTMB, when we had a full moon during the night and I could see the glaciers lit up. It was a very special moment," he adds.
A regular work week in office makes way for long runs in the hills of Kodaikanal and Ooty on the weekend. To complement his training, Daniel even switched to a vegetarian diet to help with recovery.
“No matter how well you train for ultras, there will always be problems and issues that you have to deal with during the race. Running helps me be stress-free and allows me to handle complicated situations more confidently, which gradually spreads to the other parts of life," Daniel says.
Ultra running usually involves time cutoffs based on the distances that a runner must cover to keep pace with the race. Daniel, though, puts less emphasis on time goals, and only lets these command him when it comes to his law practice.
“I think if you’re efficient, then there is less pressure to meet deadlines. I’m a driven individual at work but it’s all relative in the mountains and the idea is to remain healthy in order to be able to chase my goals," he says.
Last year, Daniel ran six ultras, including races in Cambodia, Romania and Italy, but the one that he cherishes most is his second attempt at the Tor des Géants, where he finished in 143 hours and with a faster time (he clocked 147 hours previously). So far, he has run over 63 ultras in India and around the world.
“It’s easy to be committed to training when you’re passionate about it. While I enjoy racing, what I look forward to more is the process of training and gradually getting better to see it pay off during competition. Just the curiosity to see how much more I can push has kept me going," he says.
Closer to competition, Daniel scales up the training regime, at the same time maintaining a delicate balance to prevent injuries. And through the experience that he has gathered over the years, he’s able to handle a higher volume, both at work and while running.
“From running, I’ve learnt to be humble and keep a level head, no matter what I am dealing with," he says.
While it is hard to decide where work will take him this year, the running is set to unfold at the Maxi-Race International and the Grand Raid des Pyrénées in France. In the new year, Daniel’s practice has just started, both in office and on the trails.
Adventure Junkies is a series about professionals who like to challenge themselves physically.