It was a Sunday.
The monthly Bandra-NCPA run in Mumbai had just concluded and the runners were beginning to disperse from Marine Drive. First Girish Mallya and then Kutty Krishnan Nambiar informed that they were headed for the Gateway of India, to witness the conclusion of a landmark run. We had originally met this run as a stall at the expo preceding the 2016 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), nearly four months earlier. Gateway of India wasn’t far from Marine Drive.
The reception for arriving runner was over by the time we reached. From Colaba’s Regal circle onward, we encountered runners who had been part of the receiving team, returning. The immediate precincts of Gateway of India too were relatively empty, it being a Sunday morning and as yet early for the regular inflow of tourists and hangers on. A runner directed us to a small, compactly built woman standing to the side, away from any attention lurking around. That’s how we met Michelle Kakade.
She was born Michelle Rocque in Bhopal, year 1968. Her grandparents were British. Michelle’s father worked in the merchant navy. They were five children in all – she has an older sister, two younger sisters and a brother. She was the middle child. For seven years, from third standard to the tenth, the siblings studied in Nainital, Uttarakhand. “ From a very young age, we were pretty independent,’’ she said. After completing that stint at boarding school, she returned to Bhopal. She was there in the city, when the infamous gas tragedy struck. Post eleventh grade, she secured admission to a catering course in Mumbai but didn’t find herself comfortable in the big metro. So she moved to nearby Pune, where her sister was pursuing an MBA; Michelle joined St Mira’s College to study humanities. After completing her twelfth, she studied English literature. Through school and college, she was into sports but not in the manner, where one pursues it diligently. Her participation in sports had much to do with sports and games being mandatory in school. “ It wasn’t because I had any special calling in anything,’’ she said. She was good at the throws – like discus. But there was no running. She got married early, at age 20; children and family life followed, equally early. Her husband, Anil Kakade, runs a successful construction business in Pune. A couple of months after that first meeting near the Gateway of India, it was at Poona Club that we sat down for a conversation with Michelle.
Post marriage and well into family life and membership at Poona Club, she began frequenting the club’s gym. The club had a ritual every Republic Day (January 26). It hosted a run featuring 26 loops of the adjacent ground. The trainer put her name down for it and as it turned out, she emerged first in the run. “ More important, I liked the experience,’’ she said. Michelle also mentioned something else, something we have since heard some extreme runners articulate and suspect, remains unarticulated in many others. “ I get bored very fast,’’ she said. According to her, she tried a lot of things but very few interests sustained. In running, her interest hasn’t diminished. “ After that first run, I began to get more and more involved,’’ she said. Those were early days for running in Pune, particularly with regard to women in running. The city was home to the Pune International Marathon, one of India’s oldest marathons. When she decided to participate in its half marathon segment and was training for it, there were few women running on Pune’s roads. At the event itself, women runners in the discipline she chose were four or five of which, two or three were foreign runners. Michelle finished her first half marathon in 2 hours 15 minutes. There was no timing chip then and the certificate issued at run’s end was a certificate of completion. When she pointed out that the slots meant to show timing were vacant, she was told to fill it herself. “ As time went by, my timing improved. I now do a half marathon in under two hours,’’ she said. The event whetted her appetite. A few more half marathons done, she set her eyes on the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). One reason for this shift to Mumbai was that in Pune, the full marathon was considered a male preserve with very few women participating. She did three full marathons in Mumbai; according to her, on the average she runs a full marathon in around five hours.
During one of those SCMM editions, in the holding area for runners, she met a lady from Germany who was preparing to run with a backpack. As the two got talking, Michelle learnt that the German runner was in training for the Marathon Des Sables (MDS), which takes place in the Sahara desert. With Germany cold in January, the lady had elected to run in Mumbai. “ I was blown away. This sounded very interesting,’’ Michelle said. On return to Pune, she wasted no time browsing the Internet for more information on MDS. Although the event seemed challenging, what encouraged Michelle and hinted at the possibility of her doing it, was news doing the rounds (eventually it was denied) of a 51 year old-Madonna (the singer) deciding to run the 2010 edition. However, the trigger to participate came from an unfortunate, unexpected incident. At that time, the president of Poona Club was Manoj Malkani, who was a friend and relative. A play was due to be put up at the club and a discussion was on about it. “ He got up to leave and a while later, in the car park of the club; he suffered a sudden heart attack and died. That incident was reason enough to introspect. I asked myself – if something like that was to happen to me, what is the one thing that would define Michelle Kakade? I didn’t have an answer. We tend to procrastinate about a lot of things in life, we just keep delaying,’’ Michelle said. Manoj Malkani passed away in August 2009. In September 2009, Michelle signed up for the April 2010 edition of MDS.
The Marathon Des Sables is a multi-day stage race – six stages over seven days. Altogether the distance entailed exceeds 250km and includes one long stage of over 80km. Given its location in the Sahara desert, daytime temperatures can be very high. Michelle’s training for MDS was very sketchy. In Pune, she approached the Army Sports Institute for help. But she was told that they train only army personnel. “ Sometimes ignorance is bliss. When you don’t know what you are getting into, everything seems rosy,’’ Michelle said. She trained at the Poona Club. Taking a leaf from the German lady she met at SCMM, she stuffed a backpack, put it on and ran with it. “ It was also a case of not knowing oneself. I was unprepared because I was unaware of what I can do,’’ she said. Reporting for the MDS in North West Africa, she discovered that she had got her equipment wrong. “ My equipment; food, backpack – everything was wrong. But you have to make the best of a bad situation. The atmosphere was super charged. The euphoria carries you on,’’ she said. During the race Michelle was bothered a lot by her inappropriate backpack. Then, she was hit by diarrhoea and a bunch of painful blisters on her feet. After the race’s long stage, she passed out. “ There were moments when I thought of giving up,’’ she said. But the people around were supportive. The MDS, like many ultramarathons, carries no prize money. That alters the competitive spirit and the company you find at the race. Further, there was something about an ultramarathon that addressed one of the problems Michelle had spoken of – the tendency to get easily bored. Unlike a typical road race, an ultramarathon – road or trail – is so long and pushing runner to his / her limits that you course through a variety of situations and experiences. “ You don’t know what is in store for you. I can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. The newness appeals to me,’’ Michelle said. She completed the 2010 MDS.
As at SCMM earlier, MDS introduced her to a potential next project. She saw a runner who was wearing gaiters with `Four Deserts’ printed on it. As she found out, it denoted the driest, coldest, windiest and hottest deserts; and there was a race – 4 Deserts Race – embracing all four attributes. According to Wikipedia, the 4 Deserts Race was recognized as the world’s leading endurance footrace by Time magazine in 2009 and 2010. At the time Michelle heard about it, the race entailed running in Chile’s Atacama Desert (driest), China’s Gobi Desert (windiest), the Sahara (hottest) and Antarctica (coldest). There is a three month-gap between each race. At each of these locations you have to run 250km. The run in Antarctica is by invitation; to become eligible for it you have to run in at least two of the other deserts. If you do all four you become part of the 4 Deserts Club. Back from MDS, Michelle was immediately into planning the four deserts trip. To start with, she signed up for the Atacama race. Eventually she did all four. She ran three of the races in 2011; the Antarctica leg which is dependent on the availability of a window, she completed it in November 2012. However, after the Antarctica race she was hit by a case of severe shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Given she was not resting adequately, the condition worsened till she could do nothing and was forced to take a whole year off in 2014. At its end, getting back to running was like a start all over again, albeit a quicker process.
It was on January 6, 1999 that former Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee laid the foundation stone for India’s Golden Quadrilateral project. It was a massive project envisaging a highway network spanning almost 6000km and linking some of India’s biggest cities. It was India’s biggest highway development project and the world’s fifth biggest. In the years since, the Golden Quadrilateral has become a reality. Wikipedia pegs the total available length of highway under the scheme currently, at 5846km. With her ability to tackle distances proved, Michelle had thought of running from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. But while she was toying with the idea, Delhi based-Arun Bhardwaj who is among the best known ultra-runners from India; did it. This made her think about the Golden Quadrilateral instead. If you run it, the distance is also more than the distance from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. “ It would be a huge jump in mileage for me. The planning of the run alone took about a year,’’ Michelle said, adding, “ the biggest challenge here is not the running but repeating the monotony for days.’’
She did a trial run from Pune to Mumbai in July 2015. During this run she did three days of more than 50km each. It was a valuable input to decide what would be the optimum distance to run daily on the Golden Quadrilateral, such that a backlog does not pile up. “ Backlog in this type of extended runs can be a killer,’’ she said. She decided on 35km as optimum daily distance to run. It increased cost but appeared safe and sustainable. She also engaged Raj Vadgama as personal trainer. “ Raj’s previous experience was very vital. From him, we got to know relevant details for running everyday on India’s roads,’’ she said. Michelle had earlier secured a place in the Limca Book of Records for running on a treadmill. For the Golden Quadrilateral run, she decided to approach the Guinness Book of Records. Michelle commenced the run on October 21, 2015, from Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Typically she ran seven days and then rested on the eighth. The longest stretch she did without such rest was 12 days. Her days on the road began usually at 3.30-4 AM. She would run for two to three hours and then take a break for breakfast. In that period, she would have covered a little over 20km. Then she ran the balance of a day’s planned mileage. The maximum mileage she ran on a day was 42.5km. As the run progressed, she was treated to a range of response from the regions she was passing through. According to her, she found support from fellow runners almost every day in Maharashtra. In Karnataka, she found support in Bengaluru and Hubli. There wasn’t much support in Chennai but Kolkata, provided “ very good response.’’ There was little support on the stretch between Kolkata and Chennai. There was little support for her in North India. However as a woman running on the road, Michelle had this to say, “ in the entire six months, I had no instance of anyone infringing on my personal space.’’ Michelle ran the Golden Quadrilateral from October 21, 2015 to May 1, 2016. That day when we met her at Mumbai’s Gateway of India, at the end of the run, she had covered 5968.4km.
It was now noon and Poona Club was beginning to gets its lunch time rush of members. Some of them said hello to Michelle. The folks at Guinness Book have ratified her record setting run. Her record is for “ the fastest time to travel the Indian Golden Quadrilateral on foot (female).’’ She had no new projects in running planned. It was one of those in between periods to take stock of what all happened. Michelle concedes she has been fortunate. She was able to pull off overseas runs and big projects because she had resources. From what we understood, the bulk of the cost for running the Golden Quadrilateral was borne by Michelle and her family. Despite her position and connections in life, she too had difficulty finding sponsors. Every now and then, somebody writes to her about running the Golden Quadrilateral or some other pet project, something big and life-changing. Too many dreams lay unfulfilled for want of resources. Her simple, straightforward question is – why burn your fingers attempting projects beyond your pocket? Why run the Golden Quadrilateral and lose what money you have? “ Till you get a sponsor don’t attempt it,’’ she said.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent writers based in Mumbai.)