How distance runner Sufiya trained to set a new record at the Shimla Ultra

Distance runner Sufiya recently set a course record at the Tuffman Shimla Ultra marathon. This is how she did it

Shail Desai
First Published20 Jun 2024, 06:00 PM IST
Ultra runner Sufiya came first in the women's section of the Tuffman Shimla Ultra race.
Ultra runner Sufiya came first in the women’s section of the Tuffman Shimla Ultra race.

There was a lot on Sufiya’s mind when she lined up at the start of the Tuffman Shimla Ultra earlier this month. In February, the distance runner was looking to reclaim the record for the fastest crossing of Qatar on foot, one that she had held in early 2023. About 12 hours into the Qatar crossing, she experienced chest pain and soon collapsed, as emergency services rushed her to the hospital. Her medical diagnosis—muscle breakdown—wasn’t a cause for concern, but she had a lot to prove to herself on her first big run since that incident. 

Her intention for the Shimla Ultra was to simply put in a good effort and get to the finish. But by the end of the 80km ultra marathon, she had clocked 10 hours 46 minutes to smash the previous course record of 12 hours 7 minutes. She took top spot among the women and finished sixth overall.

Also Read The story of Sufiya, India's record breaking long distance runner

“The medical tests after the Qatar run were fine. I was just advised to rest before I started training again. But racing demands a very different approach, so I wanted to test my body and was eventually quite satisfied with how I was performing. Training in the mountains really helped during this race,” Sufiya, 38, says.

A few months ago, Sufiya shifted her base to the hamlet of Majach near Manali in Himachal Pradesh, since a lot of her goals for the year feature races and expeditions in the mountains. Her new home allowed her easy access to the trails at altitude. 

The Shimla Ultra was the first of a series of races approved by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) that she planned on running. Gathering enough points through such runs would help her qualify for international trail races and ultra marathons later this year. Her last run, back in January, was the Tata Mumbai Marathon, a much shorter distance on a flat course, and she realised that the Shimla Ultra would need a different plan.

Also Read How ultrarunner Sufiya ran from Manali to Leh in six days

“During marathons, I need to stick to a much faster pace to achieve my timing, so there’s a lot of speed work involved as part of training. It’s a completely different mindset since the distance is much shorter and it demands consistency. Running an ultra marathon is all about patience. The pace is a lot more comfortable and often varies during the race. But more importantly, you need to sustain the effort for a much longer period of time in order to survive the distance,” she says. 

Sufiya took on a different approach to training since starting out in March. Besides the weekly long run where she would log about 30-50km and keep track of the elevation she was gaining, she didn’t pay much attention to the mileage she was logging. 

“The distances in ultra running are such that one can never really prepare for it. Instead, what you can do is work towards making the body really strong to avoid any injuries during these extended efforts of endurance,” she says. 

The morning would begin with breathing exercises and yoga to get warmed up. Thrice a week, Sufiya would focus on strength workouts and exercises such as weighted squats, deadlifts, lunges and wall sits that worked on the glutes, quads and knees. Two days would be dedicated to speed workouts featuring interval training and tempo runs. One aspect of her training that was a daily feature was a core workout that included planks, sit-ups, crunches and Russian twists. A basic, protein-rich diet fuelled her training and a day before the race, she consumed calories through dates and hydrated her body through electrolytes.

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The Shimla Ultra features a total elevation gain of around 2,300 metres, with a maximum elevation of 2,200 metres. The race is run over a 40km loop that that is a mix of about 40% trails and 60% roads, besides a few tricky sections over stones and boulders that are encountered on uphills as well as downhills. 

Sufiya had the course record on her mind, but more importantly, wanted to run a good race to test her abilities. The first couple of kilometres featured a steep uphill that warmed the body in the predawn chill. Once she set into her rhythm, she made continual progress to lead the women’s field. 

“I was running at a comfortable pace without pushing the body too much. By the end of the first loop, I knew that the course record was within reach, though I was more interested in meeting the targets I had set for myself,” she says. 

But as the sun came out and the temperature rose, Sufiya struggled to maintain pace, especially during the last 20km, much of which included steep ascents. 

“I had to be patient because it got quite demanding after a point. My energy levels were dipping as it got hotter, but I had a lot on my mind and knew that a good race would do wonders for my confidence,” she says. 

The category win and the course record in her pocket, Sufiya set off for Ladakh where she’ll be attempting a 500km run from Galwan Valley to Dras later this month. “The body is sore from the run and the travel, but it feels good to be back at my best again,” she says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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First Published:20 Jun 2024, 06:00 PM IST
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