In March 2003, at a hotel in Pune, a senior company executive checked his weight.
He had spent years in sales and marketing. That was his forte. It was life chasing targets; there was travel, quick decisions, coordination of teams and much socializing to keep the sales numbers growing. The job shaped you. At his feet, the weighing scale’s needle hovered wildly for a while, then narrowed its range and settled on the correct number – 88 kilos.
Sunil Shetty decided he must do something about it.
Born 1962 in Mumbai, Sunil grew up in the city, attending Fatima High School and then, Ruparel College, from where he graduated in statistics. Although good at mathematics, this wasn’t exactly the career progression he wanted, for this grandson of a gentleman who once ran a restaurant in Mangalore desired to be in catering. But his bid to be accepted at catering college, failed. So he went into statistics, commenced a career in sales and marketing, complemented his college education with an Executive MBA from IIM Calutta and somewhere along the way even met the late Thangam Phillip, who headed the catering college he couldn’t get into. She was guest at a function, the company he worked for organized. Sunil worked 20 years with Nestle India, then some more at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), all in sales and marketing, a line of work that brought on those two unwanted bedfellows – 36 inch-waist and 88 kilos on his feet.
The youngest of four children and raised in middle class values emphasising studies over sports, Sunil had grown up with an interest in football and cricket but no great presence on the playing field. In life ahead too, he embraced the popularly accepted practice of well settled life. It was so till the accrued weight of such existence settled atop that weighing machine in Pune. Sunil decided to take up running. Normally that is a major stretch for somebody at 88 kilos. But in Sunil’s case, he discovered he could run. “ I managed 2-3km comfortably on the first day itself,’’ he said.
Back in Mumbai, after a few days spent getting the feel of jogging, he bought a pair of Power running shoes from a Bata showroom. He ran roughly four days a week. When he was around 15 runs old on his new shoes, a gym opened in the housing complex he stayed in. He shifted to the gym’s treadmill doing 6-8km every day. Alongside, he started to eat and drink in moderation. “ I haven’t stopped anything. I still eat well and drink but the idea of moderation set in,’’ Sunil explained. Within days of him taking up running at the gym, his wife Sangeeta joined him. After 18 months of running on the treadmill – 6-8km every day, four days a week – he found that his waist size was down to 32 inches and his body weight, 64 kilos. Life however was work-home-family-work. Running on a treadmill in a gym in one of the world’s biggest and most populated cities, he still knew none in running. Those days Mumbai’s running scene was a shadow of the movement it is now. In January 2004, the month and year the city hosted the first edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – it would change the local running scene forever – Sunil left Nestle India and joined J&J.
J&J supported the NGO `Nanhi Kali,’ founded by industrialist Anand Mahindra in 1996. Thanks to this association, every year in time for SCMM, the company used to get 100 bibs, the availability of which was informed to employees over mail. Sunil would see this mail and let it pass for he had never thought of himself as a distance runner, who could tackle a marathon. However at the gym, he had this friend, five years senior to him, who walked 12km on the treadmill. That caught Sunil’s attention. He tried and found that he could run 12km. An amiable competition kicked up between the two, one walking, the other running; the distance rising alongside to 18km. Then, another friend suggested: why not try the half marathon at SCMM? In October 2008, Sunil looked up the Internet for training tips, enrolled for the event and ran his first half marathon at the SCMM in January 2009.
Sangeeta who had been as regular as Sunil in training at the gym, recalled that day. Sunil had asked her to wait at the finishing point (in 2009, the half marathon was from Azad Maidan to Mela Restaurant on Worli Sea Face and back) and expect him there about two and a half hours after commencement of the run. Sangeeta did as told. She witnessed some of the strong runners in the discipline finish in style. Then the better runners from the remaining lot strode in. Then the regular lot poured in. Then some of the senior citizens arrived. There was no sign of Sunil and it was past three hours. At 3:03 Sunil slowly walked in. “ He looked exhausted,’’ Sangeeta said. Sunil had found the run difficult. He cramped at around 12-13km and could only walk after that. He told Sangeeta, “ this is the first and last time I am running this distance.’’
That 3:03 hit Sunil really hard. Following the 2009 SCMM, Sunil went back to his daily treadmill run. But unconsciously and without any deliberate design, his regular 6-8km run occasionally extended to 10km; the distance was increasing. In October 2009, the annual mail about bibs from Nanhi Kali landed once again. It began tempting Sunil. Should he? Should he not? He spoke to Sangeeta. It was decided – they would both run; Sangeeta would do the half marathon, Sunil, the full. “ I promised myself I will train,’’ Sunil said. Like many others, he downloaded Hal Higdon’s training regimen and used it as a reference point. Training started late, only by October. As part of it, his four days a week on the treadmill was mixed with two days running on the road. Running the SCMM full marathon in January 2010, Sunil cramped at 26km and walked the remaining portion. He covered the 42km-distance with a timing of 6:03. “ I was not as dejected as I had been the previous year running the half marathon. So I decided that I will continue running the full,’’ Sunil said. Sangeeta, out on her first formal half marathon, finished it comfortably and in decent timing. Born 1967, she used to be into sports in her school days. “ I liked running after I got into it. It keeps me fit and makes me a more peaceful person,’’ she said.
Soon after the 2010 edition of SCMM – it was the first time they participated together in a running event; a format they have repeated since at many races – Sunil and Sangeeta embraced the discipline of regular running with SCMM for annual outing. By the January 2011 SCMM, Sunil’s timing for the full marathon had improved to 5:40. He was now cramping at much later stages in the race. In June 2011, he quit J&J. From September 2012 onward, he became officially self-employed. “ I now had more time with me,’’ he said. One of its side effects was greater trawling of the Internet for ways to improve his running. Gathering information is easy; running efficiently is tough. For the January 2012 SCMM, he trained targeting sub-five hour timing in the full marathon. It eluded him.
Striders is one of Mumbai’s running clubs. According to the Internet, it was started in 2006 by Praful Uchil and Deepak Londhe. Unknown to Sunil, his next door neighbour was Praful’s brother. When Praful visited, he introduced himself to Sunil and Sangeeta and realized that the two of them were runners. He mentioned of the upcoming Kaveri Trail Marathon (KTM), organized by Runners for Life (RFL). Sunil had heard of RFL. When he researched for more on KTM, the Bangalore Ultra popped up. A plan took shape – do the full marathon at KTM and follow it up with the 75km-run at the Bangalore Ultra. The first was in September; the second, in November. They began training systematically. Sunil ran his first KTM in 4:57. Sangeeta came first in the veterans’ category, her first podium finish. Later, in November that year, both Sunil and Sangeeta took part in the Bangalore Ultra. It was a loop of 25km in a forest composed mostly of Japanese Bamboo. The year Sunil ran it for the first time there were about 20 people in his age bracket, running the 75km-distance. Sunil finished in 10:23, earning first place in his category. Sangeeta finished first in her category in the 75km-run. A couple finishing so was reportedly a first for Indian running.
The Bangalore Ultra marked a shift for Sunil and Sangeeta. Not only did they feel ready for a 100km-race, they felt their appetite reducing for the shorter distances. “ One thing about us is that we rarely keep doing the same distance again and again. We wish to attempt the bigger challenge,’’ Sunil said. However, it is a qualified challenge and not to be mistaken with simply increasing the distance or making a race rougher and tougher. Sunil, for instance, does not fancy such challenges like running between cities that are far apart or engaging in self-supported, multi stage expedition type races. He firmly favoured well supported runs, well organized events with proper support facilities. “ I don’t want to torture myself,’’ he said. Talking of cut-off stages, both Sunil and Sangeeta said that they prefer a single stage with reasonable cut-off time. “ Multi stage and unreasonable cut-off times make you tense. You don’t enjoy the run. I try consciously not to run fast. I will not pay for a race that puts me under pressure. The moment the pressure comes, I may not perform well,’’ Sangeeta said. This is one reason the couple like ultra marathons. Unless the multi stage, competitive paradigm intervenes as spoiler, an ultra is an escape from the shorter distances loved by evangelists of competition.
For the 2013 Bangalore Ultra, Sunil and Sangeeta registered for the 100km distance-category. Sangeeta finished first in her segment; Sunil placed second. As a well known couple from Mumbai into running, Sunil and Sangeeta are often invited to run the shorter distances. But their heart is with the longer runs. In 2014, Sunil and Sangeeta attempted the 24 hour-run category in the Bangalore Ultra. The run started at 5AM on November 8th that year and ended next morning, 5AM. Sunil covered 138km to finish first in his category. Sangeeta covered 120km to place second in her category. Ram Venkatraman is a longstanding runner and one of the founding members of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR). “ Sunil and Sangeeta are the most respected running family in Mumbai, nay India today. Apart from being highly disciplined and dedicated to their craft, which results in Sunil Shetty getting a personal best in practically every race that he runs, they are also the most warm, loving couple that you could find. Sunil’s knowledge on endurance sports especially running is vast and he therefore lends a helping ear to any budding runner. Sunil was rightly awarded the Most Inspirational Runner at the MRR Awards 2014,’’ Ram said.
Sunil and Sangeeta have a daughter. The family stays in a leafy part of Powai in suburban Mumbai. Their apartment is in a housing complex, which is in turn part of a much bigger complex. On the perimeter of this large complex of many residential blocks is a sort of-circular road, which thanks to the unevenness of the underlying geography has ascents and descents. A full loop on this road is approximately 1.5km long. This is daily training track for Sunil and Sangeeta, the laboratory for all those personal bests. It works in two ways. First, by running more and more loops you directly gain distance. Second, running loops toughens the mind to stomaching events like stadium based-endurance runs, where the biggest challenge can be monotony. Another aspect you notice when talking to Sunil and Sangeeta is that the mix of training and event-running – the proportion assigned for each – matters. YouTube has an engaging documentary on the great American athlete Edwin Moses, wherein the champion hurdler points out that compared to the days of training he did in a year, the actual time he spent competing was very small. When you reflect on that observation, you sense the truth you miss on popular television, which focuses on victory. We remember Edwin Moses for the several times he was the best in a discipline concluding on track in under 50 seconds of top notch hurdling. Add it all up and Moses hurdling competitively can be counted in the minutes in a year. What we don’t see is the hours, days and weeks of training away from the glamour of high profile sporting events and the glare of media.
You find something of this in Sunil and Sangeeta. They are advocates of the requirement to train, they train regularly and even today, the number of events they participate in is modest compared to what many regular runners do. Further all the stretching of human potential, all the testing for enduring stress is done in the training phase. “ Both of us give our 100 per cent to training. I still don’t run more than four days a week and I do strength training for two days,’’ Sunil said. During off season the said strength training increases to three days – a wonderful pointer to how off season in the running calendar needn’t mean off season for runner. Once in three weeks, the couple try and do a 50km plus-run. To illustrate how he has prepared himself, Sunil said, “ at short notice, I can do 70-80km.’’ In an article in the Times of India following the 2014 Bangalore Ultra’s 24 hour-run, V. Anand pointed out that in the run up to the event, Sunil and Sangeeta had covered 1900km over five months, in training.
This kind of dedicated training yields two benefits. First, given all that goes into the training, the actual event becomes a mentally relaxed, enjoyable affair – as mentally relaxed and enjoyable as you can make it, that is. For, every discipline as it happens still has its own challenges. Second, the systematic build-up with care for building a solid foundation, promises less injury and potentially longer life in running. There are other details too. Sunil does not advocate the sprint finish; that finish with a flourish, you see many people do. According to him, his last two kilometres in a race are typically the slowest as this helps the recovery process. Finally, the couple don’t obsess with timing. “ One of the reasons we have been injury-free is that we are not obsessed with timing. This is the thirteenth year of our running, we are content with what we have,’’ Sunil said when we met him and Sangeeta over two sittings in Powai (it was November-December 2015). Neither of them was ashamed of Did Not Finish (DNF). If the body says stop, they will. “ My body is more important,’’ Sangeeta said. Probe further – it is an outline of detachment and contentment that exceeds running and timing. “ I don’t believe that we need to provide for two generations after us,’’ Sunil quipped at one point in the conversation, a quip that is insightful of life in more ways than just making money. Including one in which, you find the time to run.
January every year, Sunil and Sangeeta sit together, check the year’s running calendar and shortlist the events they would like to participate in. Typically what they choose to participate in (they are invited for more) don’t exceed 4-5 races. “ Perhaps an ultra, two full marathons and a half,’’ Sunil said. By way of suggestion for young people, he said that if you are running two full marathons and two halves in a year make sure that one of each variety is run well. And if you want to get into an ultra, make sure that you run at least 4-5 full marathons before attempting an ultra – it should be a gradual build up to such distances, not a jump and a jolt. Unfortunately the popular trend is something else. Thanks to competition and the need to prove, contemporary life’s dominant flavour is impatience. “ I find people wanting to reach where we reached in 13 years, in two to three years time,’’ Sunil said.
So what is the future in running, the couple dream of? They do have running abroad in their list of things to do. But it is not a Boston or New York Marathon kind of aspiration. “ Something like – maybe a 100 miler?’’ Sunil said. He also has his rounds giving motivational talks wherein he encourages people to get into running, tells them that to get into fitness you just need to jog every day and not straight away tackle a formidable marathon. He advises them to look inside their own houses for company to run. “ I also tell them that if they manage to motivate one person a month to begin running, then it will start a chain reaction,’’ Sunil said. Now seasoned runners, both Sunil and Sangeeta are backed by Puma. Uniquely, despite such affiliation, one of the runs Sunil has been associated with (he is one of the founders) is an annual 10km-run called United V Run as 1 in which no prominence, no mileage by advertising is offered to sponsors. It would seem a counterweight of cleansing for all that happens as commercial running. “ Sunil and Sangeeta are a great inspiration for many Mumbai runners; individuals as well as couples. People consider them as role models. They are very down to earth, punctual and dedicated. I consider them very talented runners, friendly and always happy to share their knowledge,’’ Satish Gujaran, city based-ultra runner, said.
Sunil now weighs between 56-58 kilos.
Somewhere in Pune is a weighing scale that started it all.
Sangeeta Shetty / select races and timing:
Year Event Distance Time Remarks
2010 SCMM HM 2:59 First timed race
2012 SCMM FM 5:41 First FM
2012 KTM FM 5:46 1st in veteran
2012 BU 75k 12:07 1st in veteran
2013 BU 100k 16:48 1st in veteran
2014 BU 120k 24hrs 2nd in veteran
2015 Spirit of Wipro 10k 60:08 1st position
2015 Spice Coast HM 2:23 1st in veteran
Sunil Shetty / select races and timing:
2009 SCMM HM 3:03 First timed race
2010 SCMM FM 6:10 First FM
2012 KTM FM 4:57 First sub-five hours
2012 BU 75k 10:23 1st in veteran
2013 BU 100k 13:38 2nd in veteran
2014 BU 138k 24hrs 1st in veteran
2015 SCMM FM 3:53 First sub-four hours
2015 ILFS 10k 44:45(minutes) 1st in veteran
2015 Spice Coast HM 1:39 1st in veteran
HM: half marathon, FM: full marathon, k: kilometre, SCMM: Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, KTM: Kaveri Trail Marathon, BU: Bangalore Ultra
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)