The story of a woman, who overcame her fear, used what she had around her to train and completed a half Ironman.
“ I wanted to do something in life rather than just get married,’’ Meena Barot said.
It isn’t that her parents didn’t understand. The larger family and community she found herself in didn’t expect women to work.
Most women married and settled down, raised families.
If there was anything for a woman to gravitate to, it was that predicament.
Born 1972 in Vadodara (Baroda) and roughly a decade later, shifting to Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Meena wasn’t one bit inclined to tow the community line. In her schooldays, she was into athletics and excelled at badminton. “ That sporting spirit probably brought some aggression to the table,’’ she said, mid-2016, at her neat apartment in Kharghar, where she stayed self-contained, two bicycles for company.
Realizing early that India assigns set direction for girl child and one’s own effort is the only way to foray a different path, Meena kept busy. Continuing on to college, she worked part time while still an undergraduate. She did her PG Diploma in Pathology from Grant Medical College and worked full time at Hinduja Hospital as a lab technician for the next four years. “ I believe every woman should be financially independent. Dependence and relations can take a twist at any point in life,’’ she said, adding, “ you don’t need others to tell you that you are strong. You need to realize it yourself.’’ While still at Hinduja Hospital, Meena enrolled for a MBA in marketing from the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) and successfully completed it. She funded that MBA course entirely with her earnings. “ It was a struggle doing all that. But the struggle made me a strong person. My life to date has been my decision,’’ Meena said.
Following the MBA, she worked for three years at a company called Becton Dickinson, shifting later to a smaller outfit called Shalina Healthcare, which though smaller, allowed her room to learn. In their employ, Meena moved to Shijiazhaung near Beijing, tasked with setting up operations for the company in China. She had to do everything from scratch, from finding a place to stay to finding a place to set up office. Shijiazhaung had just two other Indian families. Indeed there were few foreigners in town. “ It was tough but the local people were good,’’ she said. Back in Navi Mumbai, for some time now, her father had known that his second child had no appetite for conventional womanhood. According to Meena, he maintained his views on life but rarely interfered with her choices. When she got the offer to move to China, she didn’t inform him at first. Once everything was in place and the shift was imminent, she broke the news at home. The China angle also came at the right time. With her siblings marrying and settling down in life, there was pressure on her to follow suit. China put an end to that. For the next five years – from 2005 to 2010 – she was based there. One of the highpoints of that tenure happened in 2008. As the Beijing Olympics drew close, Meena who participated in a contest by Lenovo to choose a bunch of ordinary people who would get to carry the Olympic torch, found herself in the lucky lot. After the relay, she got a torch as memento; it is there at home with her.
Setting up a company office entails much work. There was considerable stress. A year after moving to China, in 2006, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. It triggered weight gain; she nudged 90 kilos. Living alone and the long, lonely stint endured from schooldays, navigating her path in life – all that was also taking their toll. “ I was in the happiest phase of my life. Strangely, I was also depressed,’’ Meena said of that period in Shijiazhaung. What particularly depressed her was the loss of stamina. Going up stairs had become difficult. She joined a gym, working out regularly after work. It helped physically (she brought down her weight to 80-83 kilos) and while it did help mentally, it also posed a fresh problem – over time gym becomes boring. For engaging alternative, she joined a badminton coaching class, where the students were mostly children. That didn’t demotivate her, she kept up the routine till a new set of problems emerged – knee pain and lower back issues. The doctor she consulted while on a visit to India, said, “ no exercise.’’ Once back in China, Meena took up cycling. She was getting on a bike after 25 years or so. It was a lady’s bike called ` Emily,’ single speed, no frills. She started cycling to office. Soon she was going everywhere on Emily. Around 2008, she bought a Giant MTB (mountain bike). The shop, which sold her the bicycle, also hosted organized rides. That way, Meena started riding 30-40 km on weekends. China is both the nerve centre of global bicycle production and home to a large number of people using bicycles for day to day commute. “ Half of our regular road in India – that is how much space they demarcate on roads for cycling,’’ Meena said. Her parents visited her in China. She remembers the visit for her father’s observation. “ I am happy you didn’t get married although I pressured you to,’’ he said.
In December 2010, Meena moved back to India and Navi Mumbai. Reason was her father’s ill health. He had a heart problem having suffered his first stroke in 1987 followed by a bypass surgery in 1992 after his third stroke. In 2009, he was victim of yet another stroke; this time, severe. He had called up Meena in China and asked her to return. Not long after she returned, in March 2011, he passed away. He was 66 years old. Meena felt the loss, deeply. She had moved back to Mumbai with the same company that sent her to China. In India, she was tasked with setting up a new department and that involved considerable work. So much so, that within a week after her father’s demise she was back at her office desk. “ That got me thinking – what am I living for?’’ she said. The old depression was coming back to haunt.
By November 2011, she had made up her mind to quit her job. It was a well thought through decision – she had cleared her loans, had some savings, endured a high pressure job with consequences and wanted to be done and over with that lifestyle. China had sent her back with a hobby for gift – cycling. She was now cycling regularly in Navi Mumbai. One of the friends she made so was P. V. Subramanyam (aka Subra). He was a member of Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR). He kept saying that Meena should get into running. By then, she had also linked up with Shalil Nair, one of the founders of NMR. In 2012, after her last day at work, she went out for a run with Nair who incidentally asked her about her background and realized that she was between jobs. He was Director, Human Resources at Institute for Technology and Management (ITM Group of Institutions). Meena was offered a job as part time lecturer at ITM Business School in Kharghar. “ I was thus unemployed for only eleven days,’’ she said. She sought six months break before joining. In that time, she did a cycling trip with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) in Himachal Pradesh, to the Jalori Pass.
One of the great challenges for people living alone is – what do you do with time? Bereft of human company and the evolving dynamics of person meeting person characterizing crowded Indian life, time sits still, a palpable quantum on one’s shoulders. A sense of engagement is essential. If you don’t have that, the very fabric of life – time, can turn against you. Still insufficiently engaged in life for a person of her nature, time was turning against Meena. Over January-June 2012, she was severely depressed. “ I had nothing to look forward to. The biggest issue was – what do I do with my time?’’ she said. The good thing about life is surprises lurk in every corner. Kripa Sagar is Meena’s friend, met through cycling. “ I had heard about Meena from some friends. I met her sometime in 2011 after she returned from China. She was into cycling. Our first ride together was to Nere-Maldunga, off Panvel. She came across as a very unassuming, friendly and grounded person who was at the same time a strong woman. I enjoyed her company,’’ Kripa said. One day Kripa had gone cycling to Kharghar; she called up Meena and asked if they could meet for tea. “ I went over to her house. While sitting in the balcony, I mentioned to her: why not do Ironman? We both agreed to try,’’ Kripa said. Meena had neither done distance running nor did she know well, what Ironman was. She read up on Anu Vaidyanathan – among India’s best known triathletes – and lapped up what she could learn about Ironman. It was 2012. At least a half Ironman by 2016 seemed possible. Less than four years remained. As with China, it was another start, almost from scratch. “ Meena took on the challenge seriously and trained intensely. It was a very tough training session that she chalked out for herself. Some days, she would train for 7-8 hours. Many runners and athletes could not keep pace with her intense training schedule,’’ Kripa said. Although Ironman was an idea shared by both, Kripa had to drop out as she was committed to another project.
Ramachandra Rao is a senior runner living in Kharghar. He used to be an organic chemist and researcher with Ciba Geigy (now part of Sandoz). He got into running during his days at university in the US. Every morning, he and his wife (she likes to walk) go out for a walk and a run. A quiet person and a dedicated runner, Rao is a member of NMR. He first met Meena on a NMR-run from Nere to Maldunga. It was some time before Rao got to know her better; that happened mainly because Lavanya Chillara, a runner staying in Rao’s housing society and Meena, used to run together. “ One thing sets Meena apart from others,’’ Rao said, “ others plan but often don’t do, she plans and executes meticulously. She is very committed.’’ According to Rao, once the Ironman idea was in, Meena went after it diligently. She had Daniel Vaz as her running coach. Off and on, Rao would run with her. “ In one year, she improved a lot from jogger to runner,’’ Rao said.
By October 2012, Meena had run her first half marathon at that year’s Vasai-Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM). The same year, she also got to know of the Brevet des Randonneurs Mondiaux (BRM) events in cycling and consequently rode 200 km from Borivali in Mumbai to Cheroti and back. Determined to improve, she found a cycling coach. Soon she was regularly cycling and running. By 2013-2014, she was securing podium finishes at some competitions. In 2014 she participated in a duathlon organized by Kripa Sagar – 100 km cycling plus 21km running. The cycling was from Navi Mumbai to Nariman Point and back, while the running was done on Navi Mumbai’s Palm Beach road. However, if the Ironman was to be goal, Meena had a major obstacle to overcome. She didn’t know swimming and, she was scared of water. In June 2014, she joined the Belapur YMCA’s coaching sessions to learn swimming at their pool. It taught her the basics. As was her habit, she kept working at pushing her limits. There was a big problem. She may have learnt to swim and overcome some of that fear of water in the process. But the Ironman event required her to swim in open water and the two – swimming in a pool and swimming in open water – are two distinctly different animals for those tackling water right from the basics. In one you have a sense of containment and accessible safety, in the other, you are on your own and safety isn’t quite at hand. Where was she to go for a taste of open water?
The question is stupid in Mumbai-Navi Mumbai for the urban agglomerate is right next to the sea. But it is also one intense mass of human habitation and industrialized to boot. The sea around Mumbai-Navi Mumbai is polluted. To compound the problem, the coast in these parts sees significant ingress and egress during tides. Most beaches during low tide are an ugly sight with debris and garbage exposed; the scene sticks in mind even if you swam only during high tide. What do you do? In the meantime, Meena had registered for the 2015 Chennai triathlon and the Hyderabad triathlon. Her running was improving; she had even ended third in her category at one of the editions of VVMM. She was also regular at the BRMs. Roughly two hours’ cycle ride away from Belapur is Karanja. It is on the edge of the sea. People come to the boat jetty here to take a ferry and cross over to Rewas. On a Sunday morning, a cyclist reaching here from Navi Mumbai would be treated to the not so dainty sight of muddy land surfaced in low tide, fishing boats with their hulls exposed in the receding tide and murky waters typical of tidal zones. It was to Karanja and its boat jetty that Meena turned to for familiarity with open water swimming. She was determined to go for an Ironman. She knew she had to make do with what was available. No point complaining. Accompanied by her swimming coach and good friend Ramachandra Rao, she frequented Karanja, where they went out in a rented boat with Meena subsequently swimming in open water supervised by her coach. “ The water was very muddy. It was also prone to tides. I was a bit concerned about her health, swimming in that water. Meena though had no hesitation in jumping in and swimming,’’ Rao said. Despite her efforts, she would remain a slow swimmer. At Chennai, it took her an hour and ten minutes to cover 1.5 km; at Hyderabad where the swim was in a pool, she needed an hour and twenty minutes to cover 1.9 km. Internationally the cut off time for 1.9 km is 1:10. Altogether, she took nine hours to do the half Ironman distances at Hyderabad. To compete in Europe in 2016, which she planned to, she required cutting this time by a whole hour.
Then in December 2015, while working out at the gym, she injured her lower back. “ I just could not bend,’’ she said. In January 2016, running the half marathon at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), she noticed mild pain in the left leg. At a cycling trip in Sri Lanka, which preceded SCMM, she had felt heel pain. She managed to complete the half marathon at SCMM in 2: 12. However the heel pain steadily worsened till it was diagnosed as Plantar Fasciitis. Post SCMM, there was no running and looming ahead in July 2016, was the half Ironman she had signed up for in Budapest, Hungary. To add to her woes, the 2015 monsoon season had been weak with resultant water shortage in the state of Maharashtra. By March 2016, many swimming pools in Mumbai-Navi Mumbai had shut. Meanwhile, to reduce the heel pain, the doctor recommended a steroid injection. By mid-April she was back to cycling and running. For swimming, it was Karanja. Then towards April-end, the heel pain returned forcing her to stop running. By May, she was left with only cycling to do. It didn’t end there. In mid-May, while training, she fell from her cycle. With that, she was off running, cycling and swimming. How much adversity will life throw at her? “ I used to cry a lot,’’ Meena said. Her friends told her to take it easy.
On the bright side, she was able to merge an ITM trip to Europe, with the Budapest Half Ironman. In Normandy she found a place to run, cycle and swim. With weeks left for Budapest, she trained as best as she could. Ahead of the event, Ramachandra Rao – he had become instrumental to keeping her motivated – texted Meena regularly with positive thoughts. On July 29, a day before the half Ironman, there was a trial swim in open water at Budapest. “ I went into the water and panicked. I tried five to six times but I kept coming back. I was scared, it was psychological,’’ Meena said. There was a sense of endless depth to the water and seeming absence of limits nearby to the expanse of water she had to tackle. She decided against participating in the event. Some of the Indian participants told her not to do so and to at least swim up to the buoy midway. But as she did so, she panicked again attracting the attention of the rescue boat. The doctor on the boat shouted at her, “ what you are doing is not swimming! This is not a swimming pool. You will kill yourself!’’ Back on land, those comments hit Meena hard. From January 2016, given all the reverses life had thrown at her while preparing for the half Ironman, she had been battling depression. The universe didn’t seem to notice what she had done; all it appeared to see and enjoy toying with, was her nervousness in water. Suddenly her motivation crashed. She sat in Budapest, eating ice cream, hoping to lift her spirits up. “ I didn’t tell anyone back home what I was going through. The only person I called was Mr Rao,’’ she said. He told her to calm down and relax. It brought back some of her motivation. She decided to attempt the race. “ I know her potential. I was very positive that she will do it, provided she keeps her mind calm. I told her to remain calm and see that thoughts don’t disturb her mind. Don’t get involved in it. Always think that you have the ability to do it. It is easy to say so but to practise it in adverse situations, it entails much work,’’ Rao said. Meena also had a chat with a colleague from ITM, Deepthy, who got her to meditate. Thus calmed, she fell asleep.
On July 30, race day, she decided to tackle the swim in segments and not visualize it as the entire distance it represented. She also told herself: it is okay to be last. What is important is to attempt the swim. “ If you don’t attack fear at the time it appears, then it sets in for life. I will then live my life knowing that I messed up at the starting point and didn’t attempt the race at all,’’ Meena said. Further as the medic’s shouting of July 29 showed, the rescuers were alert and good. She was in safe hands. She finished her swim just within cut-off time, in an hour and ten minutes. The organizers provide a grace period of 50 seconds. By the time she started cycling, the professionals had already completed their first 45 km-loop. But there was a pleasant difference to their cycling. “ They cheer you on,’’ she said. Both the cycling and the running went off well for her. In the end, she finished the half Ironman in Budapest in seven hours and forty six minutes compared to the nine hours she took for the same distances in Hyderabad.
Looking back, Meena credits the journey completed to hard work and discipline. She used to wake up at 4 AM and start training. Aware of her capacity for depression, she stayed off all forms of negativity. This included keeping away from people who were negative or tended to doubt her abilities. “ I was out of all social media groups – WhatsApp, Facebook, all that. I was in touch with only those who were positive,’’ she said. “Rao sir’’ was very important in this framework. “ Never once did he say, don’t do it. He always said, you will do it,’’ Meena said.
Uniquely, Budapest taught her to relax.
“ I don’t have to prove a point. I am happy with the place I am in, right now,’’ she said, explaining her learning.
Meena hopes to do a half Ironman every year.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used in this article – except those otherwise mentioned – were provided by Meena Barot.)