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Ketaki Sathe training at her home in Mumbai (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)
Ketaki Sathe training at her home in Mumbai (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

Unseen 2019: The endurance athletes next door

Indian sport today is defined by a match-winning Virat Kohli knock or P.V. Sindhu’s smash—athletes who play for a living. But there is a growing tribe of semi-professional athletes who have celebrated benchmarks in endurance sports while juggling the needs of daily life

In the dead of night, Deepak Bandbe, 29, puts on his shoes and steps out, wary of the street dogs that reign during the wee hours in Mumbai. He cautiously makes his way to the Western Express Highway at Dahisar and breaks into a light jog that gradually builds up to a steady pace. Over the next 5 hours or so, he covers around 60km, even as the city comes to life and gears up for another frenetic day.

Once home, he has just about enough time to change and fix a quick meal of eggs, for just like the rest of us, he has to go to work. At 10am, he dons the role of an automobile salesman, ready to take on endless queries from customers through the rest of the day. By the time the shutters come down at the showroom, Bandbe musters the energy to make his way home and gear up for another early start the following morning. To his relief, the training plan suggests a shorter distance this time around.

The runs that started with the intention of staying fit eventually led Bandbe to discover a part of himself that he didn’t know about. When the shorter distances were knocked off at an astonishing pace, it only encouraged him to keep running until his body begged him to stop. That breaking point came in November, in the arid environs of Aqaba in Jordan, during the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) 100km Asia and Oceania Championships. But by the end of that run, he had done enough to bag the men’s bronze and set a new national record of 8 hours, 4 minutes for the 100km distance. This was his reward for an unwavering work ethic, and he quietly celebrated within his running circles, far from the media glare, before training his sights on the next challenge.

The heady fix of endurance and adventure is what folks like Bandbe thrive on. Distances and feats that once seemed unfathomable have gradually been knocked off through persistent effort. At the same time, though, each one of them has to make a living.

Indian sport today is defined by a match-winning Virat Kohli knock, P.V. Sindhu’s latest triumph or that diving header from Sunil Chhetri, which hogs headlines and screen time alike. These are athletes who play their respective games to make a living. What Bandbe represents is a growing tribe that has celebrated new benchmarks in endurance sport on their own terms, while chasing conventional careers to satisfy the needs of daily life.

While growing up in Pune, Vedangi Kulkarni, 20, aspired to become a professional footballer. Cycling was a hobby she pursued alongside, but a camp in Kullu in 2016 changed all that. The first fix of adventure while riding some 30-odd kilometres up and down the mountain slopes had her hooked. Once she took on the testing Manali-Leh-Khardung La route, she realized what it felt like to sit in the saddle for hours.

“I learnt that I could continue riding if I decided to push myself, even though I was tired. And that was such a good feeling," Kulkarni says.

The cycling continued even after she moved to England to pursue a degree in sports management. By the time she finished her coursework, she had pulled off multiple self-supported rides. One of them started from Bournemouth and lasted over 1,300km, all the way up to John O’Groats in north-east Scotland. Before graduating, she decided to do something big. While trying to identify the longest ride possible, she stumbled upon endurance cyclist Juliana Buhring’s book, The Road I Ride. It took some consideration and research, but soon she had made up her mind about a world tour. In 2018, once the preparations were in place, she made her way to the starting point in Perth, Australia, ready to write her own story with her bicycle, christened “Cappuccino".

Riding the 29,000km distance solo was just one part of the challenge offered by the open road. Kulkarni had to endure a bout of food poisoning in Australia, a grizzly bear attack in Canada, run pillar to post to sort out the visa for Europe and deal with a mugging that led to multiple injuries while in Spain. She held her nerve, even as she realized that the record for the fastest time (124 days by Jenny Graham) had slipped away. But after 159 days, on Christmas eve, she arrived back at the point she had started out from and became the youngest woman and first Asian to pull off the incredible feat.

“I don’t know where it comes from, but I thought it was really badass to cycle around the world. And I wanted to be badass! I had to be mentally calm and keep small targets to maintain steady progress. It has a lot to do with what’s in the head than what’s really happening around you," Kulkarni says.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Kabir Rachure lined up at the start line of the Race Across America (Raam) in June. While Kulkarni had time on hand, his was a single-stage race across 4,940km from the west coast of the US to the east. The time cut-offs to be made at regular intervals only made his task harder. And unlike Kulkarni’s effort, a crew led by Rachure’s sister, Sapana, tailed him in a car.

It wasn’t the first time Sapana had handed him the opportunity to chase his dreams. Rachure followed in her footsteps and arrived in Mumbai from his hometown, Latur, to chase a degree in law, followed by practise at the Bombay high court. When he bought his first bicycle in 2015, he couldn’t wrap his head around riding hundreds of kilometres on dusty highways. But after relishing his first brevet (long-distance cycling), he started devouring the distances. What started out as a recreational activity soon saw Rachure waking at odd hours to train, before going to work. After earning his stripes in races across the country, he decided to take on the Raam as the ultimate test in endurance racing.

“I raced the Ultra Spice (1,750km) in January as a simulation ride to understand how ready I was, even though Raam was three times the distance. I had no idea how my body would react, but I had the numbers during training so I felt ready. It also gave us an understanding of how the crew could execute their duties efficiently," Rachure says.

While Sapana was a taskmaster in the law office, she was generous in giving him three-month leave to gear up for Raam. A lot was at stake, given the investment of over 30 lakh.

“We had planned it for so long and pooled in all our savings. It’s like running a company—now was the time for returns, so there was definitely pressure to pull it off," Rachure says.

The weather battered him from the onset, ranging from extreme heat waves to relentless rain. Relief came in the form of piping hot khichdi and chicken prepared by the crew. After 11 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes, Rachure, aged 28, became the youngest Indian to get across the finish line.

*****

Over the past one year, Indians have registered many firsts in endurance sport. In February, Brijmohan “Breeze" Sharma pulled off the Delirious W.E.S.T.—a 218-mile race (350.7km) in Australia. Two weeks after he won the 338km Bhatti Lakes Ultra in November, he became the first Indian to finish the 170km run in Oman over rugged terrain with an elevation gain of 10,388m—labelled the world’s toughest adventure race by National Geographic.

Back home, Ashish Kasodekar, 48, from Pune found his own spot in ultra running history as the first Indian and one of only three to pull off the mammoth 555km distance at La Ultra in Ladakh. The altitude and sleep deprivation added to the challenges, which made running just one element of the entire suffer-fest.

“It’s essentially a nasha (addiction). The moment you are in it, you don’t look at what you are going to get out of it. The event lasts for a few days, but the journey carries on. And you grow with it as a runner," Kasodekar says.

As part of his training, Kasodekar’s focus went beyond logging miles. The day would start with an early morning run, before he attended to work at his travel company. He would get back home and hit the road again to train on tired legs in the evening. Though it took him a while, he soon mastered the art of catching power naps through the day, sleeping just 4 hours each night.

“Maybe I didn’t put in the mileage needed for 555km. But getting quality rest was key to finishing the race," Kasodekar says.

While this world of chasing both work and sport may seem like a selfish, individual pursuit, further balancing it with quality family time is an art that Ketaki Sathe, 42, has mastered over the last few years. It was only after the birth of her second baby that she first considered competitive running, with a focus on bettering her timing. Other responsibilities that came her way while working as a public relations professional tested her intent, but the resolve to improve meant juggling a daily routine that revolved around her children.

Things got even more intense when she took a liking to triathlons, which meant adding swimming and cycling to the running training schedule. Access to a 24-hour gym and an indoor cycle trainer and treadmill made life simpler, even as she stole time to train in between packing lunch boxes and putting the children to bed. In October 2017, she finished her first triathlon in Kolhapur.

Prabhat Koli
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Prabhat Koli (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

As she became comfortable with the distances, Sathe decided to sign up for her first Ironman 70.3 in Goa in November, where she not only finished second in her age category but was also the fastest Indian woman at the event. The result also helped her qualify for the 2020 World Championships in New Zealand.

“Both training and work complement each other. Each have their unique place that gives me immense joy and satisfaction. I wouldn’t be able to push in one area if I didn’t have the other. And to round it off, being a mother and having to nurture two lives keeps these two aspects of my life in balance as well," Sathe says.

*****

The pursuit of these sports, which are just about gathering an understanding and a following in India, comes at a cost. Over the last four years, Prabhat Koli’s parents have had to sell off their row house in Nerul and shift to the staff quarters that his father’s employers offered. They even took loans and raised money from supporters so that Koli, 20, could satisfy his ambition of completing the Oceans Seven challenge—seven of the toughest open water swims around the world.

In April, Koli rewarded their efforts by finishing the 14.4km Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco. It was his sixth swim since 2015, when he swam across the English Channel. These days, they are repeating the exercise one last time, as Koli sets his eyes on the Cook Strait in New Zealand next year.

“It’s hard to maintain the level of training, so it’s important to finish off the swims as soon as possible. At the same time, there’s a long wait to land a date for the next swim, which means that the funds must be available the moment we hear back from the organizers. A lot of things need to fall into place to make each swim happen," Koli says.

While cricket and Olympic sports have it relatively easier these days, thanks to government-run schemes, sponsors and support from private organizations and individuals, the world of semi-professional sport thrives either on deep pockets or the backing of well-wishers.

When Bandbe arrived in Mumbai from his village near Rajapur, his efforts were noticed by Borivali National Park Green Runners, a local runners’ group. They connected him to running coaches who gave him a training plan to follow. The races and travel costs were sponsored by the group, which even signed him up for tiffin service so that he could get his dose of necessary nutrition.

“What I have achieved today is only because of their backing. With my salary, I just about manage to pay rent and send some money home," Bandbe says.

These days, Bandbe is doing his bit to give back to the sport that has given him an identity. When he came across a few Indian Army aspirants training on the service road where he first started running, he decided to guide them in order to help them achieve their dreams. In time, he hopes to infect them with the same running bug that has him gripped.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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