AFTER THE RACE, THE JOURNEY

Meenal Kotak (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Meenal Kotak ran her first half marathon in 2013. Since then she has been running much longer distances and, running a lot. This is her story – the mistakes she made, the projects she got into, the milestones she logged.

Early November 2017. The smoky haziness of Delhi’s smog was there even in the walkways of Connaught Place. It was a relief to step in from smog into the controlled atmosphere of the café Meenal Kotak had called from. She was on home turf; apparently a familiar customer at this café and others in the vicinity.

“ I come from a family of chartered accountants,’’ she said. Her father is a CA, who subsequently became partner in a firm of chartered accountants. His four sisters are also chartered accountants. Born 1980, Meenal grew up in an ambiance in which studies were clear priority. There was no sport. She was on the heavier side and by class twelve, weighed 70-75 kilos. Upon completing her graduate studies in Commerce (Hon) from Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College, she wanted to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But when she got down to preparing for it, she found the syllabus incompatible with her nature. “ I am a very structured person. I need a plan. The syllabus for IAS was too vast,’’ she said.  On the other hand, the road to being CA seemed just her style. “ I am more of a hard worker than a smart worker,’’ she said. The effort and hard work required to clear her CA exams also resulted in a collateral gain – she lost weight, dipping to around 50 kilos. She used to study standing up. If she sat, sleep set in.

By 2004, Meenal finished her CA studies. She joined Citibank, working in corporate banking from 2004 to 2007. Alongside the inevitable tendencies of India spread its tentacles. Well-educated, well-placed young woman must marry. In family of CAs priority was CA for husband. The approach was arranged marriage. So, matrimonial columns in the media were diligently perused and every Saturday was set aside for meeting prospective candidates over a cup of coffee. Sometimes, there would be two dates. The location for many of these dates was the cafes of Connaught Place, Meenal said laughing. Eventually she met Sachin Kotak from Mumbai; a product of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and working with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They got married in 2007.

Meenal at her first 24 hour-run, on trail in Bengaluru’s Hennur forests (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

Post-marriage, Sachin had to shift to Germany on a training program. Meenal resigned her job and went along to Berlin. Sachin’s weekdays were spent in Oslo. To keep herself occupied, Meenal commenced learning German, biking and salsa. Then at Sachin’s suggestion, she decided to do a MBA. She cleared the required exams and joined Mannheim Business School, which had an exchange program with IIM Bengaluru. In a reversal of sorts, Sachin moved back to India after a year. Meenal, now a MBA student, stuck on in Germany. By 2009 end, her course completed, Meenal joined Sachin in Mumbai. The shift cost her any opportunity she may have enjoyed in campus placement. A few other parameters had changed – she weighed 85 kilos, had hyperthyroidism and allergic asthma. In 2010, the couple moved back to Delhi, where Meenal went to work at her father’s firm – Dhamija Sukhija & Co; it was into audit and taxation. It was also the start of another trial. The Delhi she was returning to didn’t feel like the Delhi she had left. Air pollution levels had picked up and Meenal was asthmatic.

Meenal’s brother – according to her, he was always sure he wanted to join his father’s work – had become CA and joined Dhamija Sukhija & Co. For Meenal, the firm was a tough environment initially. “ Small companies are always on cost saving mode. My work experience started at Citibank. I got even more used to corporate attitudes after marriage, not to mention, life in Germany. At my father’s firm, even interactions had to be face-to-face, not email. The initial phase was therefore testing,’’ Meenal said. After two years, she started to enjoy her work. By 2012-2013, she had also joined a gym to shed weight. As her weight slowly dropped and her back problems too reduced, Meenal became a regular 10 km-runner on the gym’s treadmill. “ I was very comfortable in that sweaty environment,’’ she said. Then a friend registered her for one of the editions of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). The year was 2013, month – December. She secured a sub-two hour finish in her very first half marathon, her first outing as `runner.’ ADHM was a turning point. “I was never an outdoors person but that half marathon was a liberating experience. It was both stress buster and challenge. When it ended, a race ended for me and a journey began. There has been no looking back since,’’ Meenal said. The discovery of a running ecosystem also helped. According to Meenal, when she ran her first ADHM, the first shock she had was – Delhi has so many runners! That was potential support group for the journey ahead.

Meenal at her first 12 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

Not long after ADHM, she got a timing of 1 hour 49 minutes at a half marathon in Jaipur. She was a podium finisher. Then she learned an important lesson. In April 2014 she suffered a patella injury, a consequence of doing too much too soon. Further, lost to the joy of running, she had overlooked other ingredients that mattered – stretching, strengthening and yoga. Her doctor, Dr Rajat Chauhan, advised her to reduce her pace. Meanwhile, Meenal had registered for the upcoming full marathon in Hyderabad. In 2014 she joined Delhi Runners’ Group (DRG), where one of those she met was Spanish runner, Alfredo Miranda, known to assist fellow runners improve their running. “ He is my mentor,’’ Meenal said. Given full marathon signed up for, Meenal tagged along with Alfredo for long runs. Eventually she completed the Hyderabad marathon in 4 hours 46 minutes. Just before the Hyderabad event, she chanced to read Amit Seth’s book on running Comrades in South Africa. The idea of ultramarathon, appealed. Comrades in mind, she signed up for the Bangalore Trail Ultra scheduled for November 2014. She enrolled for the 75 km-category, which entailed running three loops of 25 km each. Completing the distance in 10 hours13 minutes, Meenal had a podium finish at the event (according to her that was a course record). She was amazed by the progress in her running but not everyone was happy. Alfredo had drawn up a running plan for her; she hadn’t followed it. Dr Chauhan, who she had consulted following patella injury wasn’t amused one bit. He pointed out that Meenal was breaking rules on two fronts – she was ramping up distance too fast and her pace wasn’t slow yet.

On its website, Mayo Clinic describes bursitis as a painful condition that affects small, fluid-filled sacs called bursae that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near joints. Bursitis occurs when bursae become inflamed. The most common locations for bursitis are in the shoulder, elbow and hip. Three to four days after the Bangalore Trail Ultra, Meenal developed bursitis in the hip. Comrades was off. Even ADHM seemed a question mark. Despite painful hip, Meenal ran the 2014 ADHM, completing it in 2 hours 05 minutes. But she suffered an asthma attack en route. “ I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said of that phase with multiple problems piling up. Amid this she realized that the hip genuinely needed recovery. “ Alfredo hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that many of those who ran the Bangalore Trail Ultra and still did ADHM comfortably had been running for long. Their recovery system was in place,’’ she said. Meenal accepted the need for course correction. She rested for over two months. She didn’t even run on treadmill. Instead, she did strengthening exercises. In May 2015, she went for the 12 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru. In the run up to the event, she read the book by Anand Anantharaman who ran a half marathon on every continent. She asked herself: why not an ultra on every continent? At the May 2015 stadium run, she emerged a podium finisher. Since then, Meenal has been running only ultramarathons. Although anything exceeding marathon distance qualifies to be ultramarathon, in practice they come in varied formats. Some are supported long distance runs starting at point A and finishing at point B; some are on road, some are off road (trail running), some are self-supported and some – like stadium runs – are run as multiple repeats of a loop. There are runs measured by distance, where time is more a byproduct and runs measured by time where distance is byproduct. Each type of run brings its own challenge. Outdoors can be challenging because it is raw nature. But experiencing difficult terrain and weather is what motivates some runners. Loops at stadiums are in comparison more contained environment, but they can be trying for the monotony they inflict on runner unprepared for it. How do you sustain the same route for hours on end? Meenal said she likes enduring loops like those found in stadiums and specially assigned circuits. In November 2015, she completed the 24 hour-run as part of Bangalore Trail Ultra, upping the challenge from running for 12 hours, to 24 hours.

Meenal and Commodore Joginder Chandna, during a 36 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

The ultramarathon is unique in that it often features dedicated support crew. Staged events typically come with their own support crew but the nature of ultramarathon is such that sometimes runners have people close to them, at hand for any required assistance. Those knowing runner well are also best placed to anticipate his / her needs or point out when things are going wrong. Sachin – at the time of writing he was a partner and managing director at BCG – became Meenal’s support crew. “ He is always there for my major ultramarathons,’’ she said. According to Sachin, he has no background in sports. The drift to being support crew was natural; it’s what good friends do for each other. Notwithstanding his considerable experience as Meenal’s support crew, Sachin still doesn’t run. “ I am a consultant. That’s what I do for a living,’’ he said in jest, explaining his link to running. Meenal is also among those who enjoy running with others. “ I can’t run alone, I need company,’’ she said. One of her regular friends in running has been Commodore Joginder Chandna. “ He is always calm and composed yet has the hunger for miles,’’ she said.

According to Commodore Chandna, he must have begun running seriously around the same time Meenal did. His first official half marathon was at the 2013 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM – now called Tata Mumbai Marathon / TMM). At a DRG run in Delhi, around 2014, he met Meenal. “ She sets these huge targets and personal goals,’’ Commodore Chandna said. The second time they met, Meenal introduced him to the Sandakphu 70 Mile Himalayan Race, she was planning to go for. Such distances were new for Commodore Chandna but Meenal convinced him to attempt it. The two trained together for it although eventually that race didn’t happen due to the Nepal earthquake. That was the beginning of a partnership in running. From then till the time the naval officer left Delhi, the duo ran several ultramarathons on the domestic circuit together. Commodore Chandna said that Meenal’s propensity for big targets had an impact on his running too. “ I would have otherwise remained a runner of half marathons,’’ he said. Commodore Chandna’s first full marathon was at the 2015 SCMM (now TMM); in Meenal’s company, he has run several ultramarathons. According to him, Meenal typically ended a race already planning the next one. He felt that tendency to plan and set goals, was a product of the combined natures of Meenal and Sachin.

Sachin and Meenal on the ship to Antarctica (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In 2016, Meenal decided to do a full marathon in Antarctica; that being logistically the most difficult in her plan to do an ultra in all the continents. She practised for it at her local park in Delhi; she wore layers of clothing during her practice runs to mimic how she would be running in Antarctica.  For the event, Sachin and Meenal travelled to Buenos Aires in Argentina and from there to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. At Ushuaia, commonly regarded as the southern most city in the world, they boarded a ship to Antarctica. The event she had signed up for on the frozen continent featured a 7.5 km-loop. The course began and ended at the Russian base but passed close to the Uruguayan, Chilean and Chinese bases. “ The course was windy; slippery ice trail and the temperature ranged from minus 30 to minus 40 degrees centigrade,’’ Meenal said. She had on five upper body layers and four lower body layers plus balaclava, three caps, four socks, mittens, gloves, hand-warmers, toe-warmers – the works. The plan was to finish running at the event (it was a marathon) and then put in an additional eight kilometers to make it an ultramarathon. However as soon as the event finished and she paused to have water and take a few photographs, her body slipped into hypothermia. She started shivering. She was moved to the ship followed by a change of attire from sweaty layers to fresh ones. Meenal completed those critical eight kilometers in the ship’s gym.

Meenal and Commodore Chandna with the three service chiefs – Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, Admiral Sunil Lanba and General Bipin Rawat – on Army Day, at Amar Jawan Jyoti, India Gate, New Delhi. The duo ran 21 half marathons in the days between Navy Day and Army Day (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

The next event she registered for was a 24 hour-run organized by Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team in Basel, Switzerland. With the run scheduled for May 2017 and Meenal’s regular running partner Commodore Chandna shifted to Kochi, she began looking for anyone equally committed to running, to train with. The person she turned to was Mamta Jaiswal. She had first met the software engineer, younger to her by a decade, during a project to run 42 km for ten days. On one of those days, the club Mamta was member of – Sunday Run Club – offered support. At that time, Mamta was a casual runner, doing distances of five and ten kilometers. She didn’t know anything about the ultramarathon. Impressed by Meenal, she asked if she could run with her. “ Meenal has a very positive attitude. She said – why not?’’ Mamta recalled. That was the beginning of her journey in distance running. Mamta’s first ultra was the Shimla Ultra; the list has been steadily growing. Asked if she saw herself as an ultrarunner now, she said, “ if you ask me whether that is how I see myself, I would say: I have a lot of hard work to do before I can call myself so.’’ When Basel loomed, Meenal asked Mamta if she would be interested in running at Basel. The two began training together in Delhi. “ This was my toughest training period. I wished to ramp up mileage, I also wanted to do a 100 miler in Europe,’’ Meenal said. Mamta traveled with her to Basel. It was the first time Indian women were coming all the way from India to participate in the event. “ Everything went alright for the first four hours. Then I started to cramp,’’ Meenal said. Sachin was not around as support crew. The event’s physio advised that she pack up. Meenal nevertheless managed to cover 153 km in 24 hours. She and Mamta placed third; this was despite the duo slipping to sixth position in between. However one goal stayed beyond reach on that trip – Meenal couldn’t secure her first 100 miler. In May 2017, she also participated in the 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, logging 137.6 km.

(From left) Aparna Chowdhury, Meenal, Ullas and Kieren D’Souza at Belfast (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In June 2017, Meenal got the opportunity to participate at the 24 Hour World Championship held in Belfast. It is an event organized by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and held every two years. It is the only IAU event with a limited time format as opposed to being distance-based. In India, the ultramarathon had for long not been recognized formally under the many disciplines of running. According to Meenal, that situation changed mainly due to the efforts put in by Peter D’Souza, whose son Kieren is among India’s most promising young ultrarunners. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) came around to recognizing the sport. This recognition was critical for Indian athletes participating in the event at Belfast. The course at Belfast was a 1.1 km loop; it was almost flat. As of 2017, the course record for women was 252.205 km set in 2013 by Mami Kudo of Japan (she was IAU’s athlete of the year for 2012 and 2013) at Steenbergen in Netherlands. At the event in Belfast, two women participated from India – Meenal and Aparna Chowdhury. They represented a country still new to ultrarunning and within that, having a small pool of woman ultrarunners. “ We knew we were nowhere globally but at the same time, not so very nowhere,’’ Meenal, who hadn’t run her first 100 miler till the Belfast event, said. All teams came with their own support crew, some comprehensive and drilled to perfection. For the four runners from India – besides Meenal and Aparna there were two male runners, one of who was Kieren D’Souza – Sachin was crew.

He recalled the disparity between the Indians and the others. Some of the support crew had their own physiotherapist, doctor, even dietician. Their runners had perfected their diet for such races; they also knew how to eat and drink on the go. Excuses like I don’t want to drink now or eat now – they don’t feature. What to eat and when to eat have been worked out and the support crew makes sure it happens. It enhances the number of good hours a runner enjoys. “ They have a plan,’’ Sachin said of those teams. The difference lay in the style of approach for the domestic ultrarunning circuit in India has similar 12 hour and 24 hour-runs to serve as launch pad. Traveling with Meenal, Sachin has been to several of these events. Unfortunately in India, he believes, runners don’t attach adequate priority to perfecting their on-course food intake and hydration while the presence of aid stations and the way they are managed, are taken lightly. Runners overlook timely replenishment of calories burnt and aid stations don’t proactively engage. Result – when it’s time for cutting edge competition like a world championship, there’s no plan anyone is used to, leave alone got perfected. At Belfast, Meenal completed the event with 160.4 km logged; Aparna logged 169.

Meenal with Mamta Jaiswal at the 48 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Meenal)

In August 2017, Bengaluru was host to a 48 hour-run. Meenal and Mamta decided to attempt it; their plan was to run together and set a new record, potentially admissible in the Limca Book of Records. By the end of 48 hours at the event, they had logged 251.6 km. Meenal plans to apply for the record under the partnership category. Running together with someone and crucially, coordinating it such that milestones reached are officially recognized as shared is not easy. It requires synchronization. This is possible when you are running loops but sustained synchronization amid runner progressively exhausted by each loop run, is challenging. “ More than commitment I would say it is the need of the hour,’’ she said placing her partnership with Mamta in the context of problems women –runners included – face in India. “ Meenal gives me energy. It is always pleasant to run with her,’’ Mamta said. At the time of writing, the next major event Meenal had in mind as part of her plan to run an ultra on every continent was a 24 hour-stadium run in Australia, due March 17-18, 2018.

On the average, Meenal ran a hundred kilometers in Delhi every week. Every two weeks the mileage built up, peaked, plateaued and then lowered. She ran five to six days per week. One day was reserved for strength training, another, for rest. What hung like a Damocles Sword was that winter smog. Meenal keeps inhaler at hand but combating environment worsening through human activity, is hardly the focus any runner seeks. It’s one of the great paradoxes of life – the refined ethic endurance sport gifts the individual and the toxicity of our collective existence we seem to have no solution for.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based mostly on a conversation with Meenal Kotak. Details of events and timings at races are as provided by interviewee.) 

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