On June 19, 2016, Mumbai had its first 12 hour-stadium run. The inside lanes of the track at the city’s University Ground, were reserved for those running alone. Lanes further to the outside were for teams running the event in relay format. Among those running in the inside lanes was a young man, still a long way off from runners’ wiry build. He wasn’t one of the favorites; there were those better accomplished and looking the part, in the field. He compensated for his shortcomings with a committed work ethic. He kept at his task, steadily chugging along. By evening with an hour or so left for the allotted 12 hours to end, the others allowed themselves to relax but he appeared to sustain his pace lapping up as much mileage as possible. We left it there. At night, browsing race results, we found that the hard work of the concluding hours had paid off. He had finished third logging 99.2 km in 12 hours.
Mid-April, we were at a café in Chembur, Mumbai. “ Three years ago I was 95 kilos,’’ the youngster before us said. Given a big waist size he was finding it difficult to get a suitable pair of jeans. He realized he had to do something about his predicament. He started playing football at the RCF ground near where he stayed; he also began a daily regimen of exercises and subscribed to a strict diet. This brought down his weight a bit. Balan, who was the football coach, told the youngster that his future prospects in football seemed bleak but maybe, he should try distance running. Accordingly, around July 2013, he started running. It was tough initially; his knees hurt and his running form (posture) wasn’t good. But he persisted; slowly raising his daily mileage to ten kilometers. Balan introduced him to a routine of strength training that would stand him in good stead as aspiring runner. “I still do the exercises he taught me. All natural stuff, no visiting the gym,’’ the youngster said. Not just that, he found that he liked strength training. To this end, he also did much browsing on the Internet, looking for exercises that would help him.
After participating in some of the smaller running events he took part in his first half marathon – the Varsha Half Marathon held at Thane, near Mumbai. “ It was very tough for me but I managed to complete it in about two hours. I was totally exhausted after that race,’’ he said. It left him wanting to quit running. He thought about it. Then as before, he decided to stick with what he had begun. Although he trained through November-December of 2013, he failed to register for the 2014 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) because he didn’t know how to register. He couldn’t figure it out. He confessed to a wrong doing – he ran SCMM using another runner’s bib (running with another’s bib is forbidden). He said he completed that full marathon in 4:02. This was followed by the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon, which he finished in 1:52. In August 2014, he ran the 12 hour endurance run called the Mumbai Ultra (it is different from the stadium run), covering 86 km. He also did a full marathon in Hyderabad, repeating the wrong he committed earlier – he ran on someone else’s bib. He closed that year with the Vasai-Virar full marathon, completing the race in 4:13 hours. By now, he had developed an appetite for running. “ My grandmother would tell me to focus on my studies. I would go for a race saying this is my last race and so on,’’ he said. His grandmother matters much to him. For the runner in the making, parents were grandfather and grandmother.
Between the 2014 full marathon in Hyderabad and the one later in Vasai-Virar his life in running took a turn. While the Mumbai Ultra is a fully supported non-competitive event in which runners pile up as much mileage as they can, he ran the 100 km-category of the Nilgiris Ultra, finishing the race in 12 hours 23 minutes to place fifth. Ultramarathons differ from marathons and half marathons in many ways. There is the obvious difference in distance covered. By definition an ultramarathon exceeds the length of a marathon. That excess is however only the beginning of ultramarathon distances. They can range anywhere from in excess of marathon length to 100 miles (160 km) and multi-stage races wherein runners do marathon lengths and more back to back for several days. Some of these races are supported; some are not wholly supported, requiring the runner to carry a small pack bearing essentials. Some have set routes following roads, trails or paths; some require the runner to navigate. Some ultramarathons are big affairs with many people participating. Some are secluded events that see few people participate. Unlike marathons, usually set in cities and now almost an urban fad, ultramarathons are typically associated with interesting terrain and scenery. Interesting terrain may also mean challenging terrain. In locales like Rann of Kutch and Ladakh in India, you not only endure distance but also temperature and elevation change. It is often said in climbing that climbers begin with rock climbing, which is fueled by youth and then transition to mountaineering. Nature and the multiple challenges posed by nature, make mountaineering wholesome. Age is a much respected ingredient in this transition. Ultramarathons have for long been the bastion of a senior lot. Can you be young and experienced enough for the ultramarathon?
In Mumbai, Inderpal Khalsa, the young man who others feel is in a hurry to get somewhere, divides the running community. Born November 1994, he was 21 years old that day at the café when he spoke of his life and in it, the Nilgiris Ultra. That ultra was his first proper ultramarathon. In his head, it set something in motion. Distance appeared his forte. “ I have a fascination for distances,’’ he said. He counted on social media to locate interesting races. The Nilgiris Ultra was discovered so. In February 2015, Inderpal ran a 100 miler (160 km) in the Rann of Kutch. He trained for it in Mumbai, running at Juhu, hydration pack strapped to his back. The Rann of Kutch (it is one of the biggest salt deserts in the world) was challenging environment; during day it would be hot, by night it turned cool. It took Inderpal 31 hours to complete the race, which was called Run of Kutch. He finished first in the open category. Soon after the race in Kutch, Inderpal went to Manali with fellow ultramarathon aficionado, Kieren D’ Souza. The two had met at the 2014 Nilgiris Ultra where Kieren finished fourth and Inderpal, fifth. “ We did trail running in the mountains around Manali. It was part of preparations for a race I was due to participate in,’’ Kieren said when contacted. This trip to Manali was just after Inderpal’s exams. By then running was pretty much life for the college student. He maintained his regimen of strength training, attended classes and ate only food that was appropriate for the running he had embraced. 2015 was Inderpal’s defining year.
It kicked off with the earlier mentioned race in the Rann of Kutch. This was followed by the Manali trip and a barefoot-run of 80km in 11 hours, done for the fun of it, mainly to see how well he could run barefoot. “ While I enjoyed this run, getting started in barefoot running was quite tough. I had to cope with a lot of blisters,’’ he said. Then an opportunity to be part of an inter-city run emerged. Satish Gujaran, among Mumbai’s best known ultramarathon runners, was running from Mumbai to Surat. Inderpal joined him as a support runner. Due to difference in pace and gaps opening up (it makes the job of the support vehicle difficult) Inderpal didn’t run the entire distance in a continuous, unbroken fashion. Following this outing, Inderpal ran the 24 hour-stadium run at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru (running barefoot he covered 136 km) and the Mumbai Ultra (where he covered 80 km in 12 hours). At the Bhatti Lakes 100 miler (160 km), he ran the distance in 31:08 hours placing third. “ This was a challenging run. It was very hot and my skin was burning,’’ Inderpal said. November 17, 2015, marked his twenty first birthday. He said he celebrated it with a 20 hour-walk in Mumbai. Among marathons that year, he ran the Hyderabad Marathon and the Vasai-Virar Marathon. He wrapped up 2015, running the Western Ghats Ultra in Pune. Inderpal couldn’t complete the race. “ It was very tough,’’ he said.
In January 2015, when Inderpal was preparing for his run in the Rann of Kutch, an IT professional, roughly ten years older, participated in the first running event of his life – a 10km race in the Mumbai suburb of Powai. Born 1985 in Rajasthan, schooled in Karnataka and working with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Mumbai, Jayaraman Rankawat had never been into sports before. In fact, during his days in school, he was among the timid who got bullied. Life in Mumbai with its annual SCMM got him interested in running. He took 90 minutes to complete that Powai run. “ For the next couple of days I was in pain,’’ he said this June, at a café near the Airport Road metro station not far from Andheri. However the pain made him think – had he practiced and run, wouldn’t the pain have been less? He started going for all 10km runs he could find. In February 2015, the month Inderpal went to Rann of Kutch, Jayaraman ran his first half marathon in Thane, finishing the race in 3:15. Searching on the Internet for people he could connect with in running, he found Sharmila Munj and the organizers of Pinkathon (a running event focused on getting more women into the sport) now held in several Indian cities. He started running with them in Juhu. In April 2015, he found himself at a non-competitive event called `United We Run As One.’ There, he saw among the many runners assembled, Mumbai’s well known running couple – Sunil and Sangeetha Shetty; they were wearing T-shirts from the Bengaluru Ultra. “ I went home, searched for the event on the Internet and when registration commenced, registered for the 100km race at the Bengaluru Ultra,’’ he said. In August, Jayaraman ran the 12 hour Mumbai Ultra. In the allotted 12 hours, he managed to cover 62 km. “ The Mumbai Ultra gave me confidence to face the Bengaluru event. If I can be on my feet for 12 hours, I figured I should be able to be on my feet for some more hours and complete 100 km on foot,’’ he said. Within days of the Mumbai Ultra, Jayaraman went to Hyderabad and ran a half marathon there finishing it in under-2:45. Back in January, although he wasn’t running the SCMM, he had visited the race expo and the stall put up there by the organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. In September, after ensuring some dedicated preparation for the event and reaching Leh a week in advance to acclimatize, he ran the half marathon there, completing the run in around three hours. “ It was tough,’’ he said of the effect of altitude. Next month, his monthly mileage in Mumbai was about 350 km, making him winner of a “ challenge’’ issued by some local runners. In November, he ran 100 km at the Bengaluru Ultra, taking approximately 19:30 hours to complete the distance. “ The last 20 km I walked,’’ he said. Later in November, he ran his first full marathon at Vasai-Virar, finishing it in roughly six hours. Then he followed it up with the Goa River Marathon in December, completing the race in 6:30. In January 2016, he ran the full marathon at SCMM in 6:20. “ I spent a lot of money in 2015 traveling to run at 26 timed events in different locations,’’ he said.
One of the friends he acquired in this haphazard journey through a clutch of distances was Inderpal Khalsa. Their paths crossed at the Mumbai Ultra and again, at the Bengaluru Ultra and the Vasai Virar Mayors Marathon. In February-March 2016, two runners from Bengaluru – Spoorthi and Giridhar Kamath – ran from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, in connection with a Pinkathon event that was due in Hyderabad. A similar event was scheduled in Goa in April. It set Jayaraman thinking: why not run from Mumbai to Goa? He floated the idea on Facebook, asked if anyone was interested. Inderpal responded. They discussed the project with actor and runner, Milind Soman and the Pinkathon team. On April 6, 2016, Inderpal and Jayaraman started their run from near Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple. Days on the road began at 6.30 AM. On April 15, some 600km covered and ten days after they left Mumbai, they reached Goa. Milind ran with them on the first day, the third day and the last two days. Future plans for Inderpal included, a run in August from Lucknow to Delhi, a yet to be finalized run from Mumbai to Nagpur, a 36 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru and a 135 miler (220 km) in Uttarkashi. “ After Kutch and Bhatti I can run in any weather,’’ he said confidently. His dream is to run the Badwater Ultramarathon in the US and the Spartathlon in Greece. Both Badwater and Spartathlon are coveted races, usually aspired for by really good and experienced ultramarathon runners.
Much before we met Inderpal, we picked up the observation about him in Mumbai’s running circles: he is doing too much, too early. “ I think that at least till the age of 30, he should gather experience running half marathons and full marathons. Ultramarathons need you to know yourself well. That, and maturity, come only with age and experience,’’ a seasoned senior runner in Mumbai with appetite for the ultramarathon, said, adding, “ what is the guarantee that 20 year-old running ultramarathon distances now will continue doing so?’’ It is a valid point. Instances like being pushy to further his chances, maybe even those episodes of running on others’ bibs – these have reportedly left some in the running community questioning the young man’s ways. The Mumbai-Goa run also fetched its share of critics. Although there were regular updates on the Internet about the progress of the run, the duo failed to properly plot their passage on a GPS. Proof matters where peers are involved. “ Except for the Pinkathon team, nobody from the established lot in the running community appreciated us for our effort,’’ Jayaraman said. Like Inderpal, he is physically on the heavier side but with the ability to hang in there on long journeys; that tenacity was evident at the 12 hour stadium run of June 19, where the duo and Milind were present. Asked what he thought of his slow timing at the half marathons and marathons he ran and why he had approached running in such an unplanned fashion, Jayaraman said, “ I am interested in running free. I don’t want excess technical information; I don’t want something planned as per the books.’’ As he put it, he already has the structured approach in corporate life. Running, on the other hand, is something “ I chose.’’ Why make both similar? He regrets the vanishing element of exploration and fun. We decided to explore the issue of age and structured approach to the ultramarathon, some more.
In India, the story, which immediately comes to mind in the context of young age and long distance running, is that of Budhia Awooga Singh who at the age of four ran from Bhubaneshwar to Puri, covering the distance of 65 km in seven hours and two minutes. He earned a mention in the Limca Book of Records. Wikipedia’s page on Budhia says that by the age of four, he had run 48 marathons. Although fame by media and sponsorships piled up, Budhia’s marathons were banned by the state on the advice of the Khurda District Child Welfare Committee. In a later submission before the Odisha High Court, the state cited potential early onset of osteoarthritis and burnout among reasons for the ban. In September 2007, Budhia was admitted to a sports hostel of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). An April 2016 report in The Indian Express pointed out that Budhia, now 14 years old, wasn’t enjoying his stint at the sports hostel for a variety of reasons; one of them was that he had been shifted to running middle distance races, which are faster and don’t tap into the endurance he had displayed originally. While the hostel coach declined comment, the report mentioned Surender Singh Bhandari – as coach, he mentored Nitendra Singh Rawat, Kheta Ram and T. Gopi, who have all qualified for the marathon event at the 2016 Rio Olympics – as saying that Budhia needs to wait it out. According to him, the Indian body develops slower compared to foreigners and if Budhia were to start running marathons again at 14, not only may some of his old injuries act up but he may become burnt out and injury prone by the time he is 20-21 years old. In the report, Bhandari, who believes that the ideal age for Indians to start training for the marathon is “ after 20,’’ says that the apt thing for Budhia now would be to stick to middle distances so that he is in touch with running and can build up his body, speed and stamina.
In 2006 – the same year Budhia gained entry into the Limca Book of Records – a train of events was unfolding some 15,000 km away. Sample this account from those overseas incidents: Jenny and Billy had only started running two years before, but Billy was already winning some of the toughest 50ks on the East Coast, while “ the young and beautiful Jenn Shelton,’’ as the ultrarace blogger Joey Anderson called her, had just clocked one of the fastest 100-mile times in the country. These lines are from the book ` Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall. Preceding the above description of the two runners McDougall was to meet at the airport in El Paso, Texas, is their introduction: I was pretty sure I was wasting my time, but there was a chance I’d be picking up Jenn “ Mookie’’ Shelton and Billy “ Bonehead’’ Barnett, a pair of twenty-one year-old hotshots, who’d been electrifying the East Coast ultra circuit……In the book, 21 year–old Jenn and Billy, all of two years into running then, are among those who eventually race with the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyon in running’s most loved ultramarathon story. A decade after the ultramarathon at the heart of ` Born to Run,’ Wikipedia’s page on Jenn Shelton says that she now finds marathons more challenging to run than the ultramarathon. Shelton, who competed in the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials (but did not finish due to a hamstring injury), has said that she intends to run more marathons and shorter races, citing a desire to run faster races, the page said.
Which of the above suggestions / patterns do you go with? In the US, running became the movement it is, in the 1960s and 1970s. Europe followed. A mere 24 years separates the start of the world’s oldest marathon (1897 – Boston Marathon) and the world’s oldest ultramarathon (1921 – The Comrades). However, compared to the visible popularity of the marathon by the early decades of the second half of the twentieth century, ultramarathons became similarly known later (the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) was founded in 1984; it was recognized by the International Amateur Athletics Federation in 1988). This likely meant that those running in the early flush of popularity enjoyed by the marathon would have advanced in years by the time the ultramarathon became popular. The ultramarathon filled a niche experience some of them were seeking in their progression through life and running. It is possible that the well-entrenched description of the ultramarathon runner as a middle aged mature individual, owes much to this demographic transition. Does it mean only that age group qualifies for the ultramarathon? What complicates matters is that a correct apples-for-apples-comparison is hard to find for the variables are many. There are personal variables, generic variables, variables based on whether your expectations are competitive or recreational etc. One approach would be to work back from the perspective of risk. At a running event – like an ultramarathon – nobody is shouldering as much risk as the event organizer. When things go wrong the event manager faces the heat. Some of the world’s leading ultramarathons require that applicants should have run comparable races before; they also enquire about applicants’ overall experience in the sport. Dr Rajat Chauhan is the Delhi based-organizer of La Ultra-The High, a tough high altitude ultramarathon held every year in Ladakh. Asked if the twenties are too young an age for the ultramarathon, he said that age by itself is not the problem. “ Runners should gradually build up. Injuries happen if you are not careful. There is a very simple observation in sports medicine – the vast majority of injuries happen because you are doing too much, too soon,’’ he said. What makes the Indian context fertile for injury is competition, the need to prove, the `challenges’ proliferating on social media – in other words, the many distractions diverting attention from personal journey. What if Dr Chauhan is faced with a 20 year old applying for an ultramarathon? It is, he said, a matter of the organizer being adequately convinced. “ I will study that individual’s application very closely. I have zero issues if he is capable of running a given ultramarathon,’’ he said, adding a lot of “ back and forth’’ in choice of race (ie in terms of distance elected to run) and creative running outside the traditional formats of 21 km and 42 km are bound to happen in India too. That even unplanned approaches to running explore the opposite side (in this case, the more ordered side) was evident in Jayaraman’s transition – against 26 timed events run in 2015, in the first half of 2016, he did only three.
According to Inderpal, he doesn’t dwell much on whether he is running too much, too early. He reposes faith in his youth and exercise routine. Besides the strength training he has been doing, he also does yoga. Some of this confidence – irksome to those advocating a slower progression in running – may be rooted in age. At the same time, it was clear that whatever he was doing was rubbing off on the young man. “ It is a different high that you get when running an ultra. It is meditative. The sleep that follows a long run is utterly deep. Once every two months, if I am not running an ultramarathon, I feel something is missing,’’ he said. Inderpal’s parents divorced when he was very young, when he was yet a child. He said he has never seen his father. His mother, who remarried, made efforts to reconnect in his adolescence. But he related to her as though to a stranger. “ It is difficult to suddenly feel close to someone who wasn’t there for you in your growing up years,’’ he said. For all matters concerned, the grandparents who looked after him were his family. Those familiar with the situation said that the grandmother stepped in to stabilize the remains of a marriage gone wrong and brought up Inderpal and his brother, like her own children. They lived in an apartment in Chembur; a joint family, which also included two of Inderpal’s uncles and their families. The brothers navigated their way through the rough and tumble of life. Their grandfather passed away sometime back. Running has given Inderpal identity and belonging. He said he likes the ultramarathon community. It is way smaller in size than the huge army of regular runners out there and because the ultramarathon world is a smaller community, its races are smaller affairs; its denizens know each other. “ In every ultramarathon, every race, I learn something new,’’ Inderpal said.
When we met him, he had just finished his graduation and applied for a MBA in sports management. The yoga bug had also got to him and he wondered if he would be able to open a yoga institute at some point in the future. Finally, there were those sandals which the young man makes and he had brought in his bag to show us. They looked like running sandals, the sort you find mentioned in `Born to Run.’ The ones we beheld at the café were made of leather sourced from Dharavi, the city’s hub for locally made leather goods. They seemed their part – minimalist sandals that reminded of running. “ You can’t run in these sandals but you can use them as casual wear,’’ he said, his product pitch tinged with hope.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: all race details are as provided by the interviewee. This article is best seen as the mix of a young person’s life story as told by him and musings around a question it opened up: is there an apt age for running an ultramarathon? The article does not seek to suggest or promote any particular approach to running.)