Ritu Handa (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Ritu Chandel Handa started running in 2014. Three years later she did her first 100 miler – Mumbai2Pune 100 miles. This is her story.

South Mumbai has a charm to it. At its southern end, Sobo (short for South Bombay) as South Mumbai is often called, converges into a study of contrasts. There are the bustling roadside shops of Colaba selling jewellery, clothes and artefacts, the unexpected quietness of its bylanes, the high rises of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade, the heritage buildings of Churchgate, Flora Fountain and Fort, and not far from all this, by the sea, that sea front of four kilometres called Marine Drive.

Marine Drive is a great place to run. Early mornings and evenings here witness plenty of people out for a jog or a walk. Another nice place to run is Navy Nagar but access here is restricted to navy and army personnel and their families. In 2014 Commander Sunil Handa of the Indian Navy was transferred to Mumbai from Visakhapatnam. He was a runner, having begun his tryst with distance running in 2004, around the time the Mumbai marathon made its debut in India’s financial capital. Ritu Chandel Handa, Sunil’s wife, was familiar with her husband’s affection for running. Her own story in the sport started a decade later, when the family shifted to Mumbai. By 2014, her two daughters had grown up and she could afford to take time out to pursue running. There was also the effect Mumbai’s running ecosystem had on her; few cities in India turn out to run as Mumbai does.

(From left) Cdr Sunil Handa and Ritu with others during a run at Yeoor Hills (Photo: courtesy Ritu Handa)

Almost 1500 km north east of Mumbai is the state of Himachal Pradesh. Geographically, it is a composite of the foothills of the Himalaya and the main ranges. Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh straddles elevations ranging from 427 meters to 6401 meters above mean sea level. The district lay in western Himachal Pradesh; its lowest elevation pertains to plains bordering Punjab, while its highest elevations fall in the Dhauladhar Range, part of lesser Himalaya. Life in hilly terrain is ideal for building endurance. The altitude, daily life tackling gradients and slopes – they have an impact on human physiology. As with life anywhere, when you are born to the hills and grow up there, you rarely notice how the geography shapes you. It takes an instance when specific qualities are called for, to put such past in perspective and notice what it meant. Ritu realized that in middle age, when she completed her first 100 miler.

Born December 1972 in Kangra, Ritu did her school and college education in Himachal Pradesh. Then she moved to Rajasthan’s Banasthali University to do her B.Ed. Through these years, sports was completely absent in her schedule. Her first deliberate foray into physical activity happened after marriage, when she joined a gym in December 1999. “I liked gyming,’’ she said. Married to a naval officer, access to gyms was easy given accommodation provided by the armed forces typically included urban amenities. “But now I like running,’’ she said with afterthought. Running was Mumbai’s gift.

Unlike Kangra of her childhood, Navy Nagar is flat land. That’s where Ritu started to train, discovering slowly in the process, the capacity for endurance she had. During the first year of her running, when it came to events, Ritu took part in10 kilometer-runs. Her first half marathon (21km) was during the 2016 Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon. She kept her training runs restricted to the South Mumbai area because she wished to be closer to home and her daughters, aged 15 and 12. Meanwhile, husband Sunil, had considerably notched up his mileage. He was becoming known in Mumbai running circles as a runner of the ultramarathon; featuring distances in excess of 42 km. Sunil would go on to complete demanding races like the 111 km and 222 km segments of La Ultra The High, held annually in Ladakh.

Ritu with Milind Soman (Photo: courtesy Ritu Handa)

Given husband who was an ultramarathon runner, it wasn’t long before the curiosity got to Ritu – can I run an ultramarathon?  “ I wanted to try it at least once,’’ she said. Sunil was keen that she push her limits. What they needed was the right opportunity. That came courtesy Milind Soman, endurance athlete, model and actor, who is associated with the Pinkathon initiative. “ Milind was organizing a multi-stage 100 mile-run from Mumbai to Pune for Pinkathon and he suggested that I attempt it,” Ritu said. According to her, she didn’t think twice about taking up the offer, which would see a paradigm shift in the distance she would tackle. She may have been running 10km and 21 km races until then but all along, she had wanted a shot at the ultramarathon. This was her chance. She took it up. The year was 2017.

One reason why Ritu felt comfortable attempting the 100 miler was that Milind had envisaged a structured approach with training plan and progressive sieving of potential participants to the best eligible lot. As part of training for the event, Milind first organized a six-hour training run at Mumbai’s Goregaon. The distance of 36 km that Ritu covered during those six hours was not impressive but it gave her the confidence that she could do such events. “At the end of the run I was perfectly alright,” she said. How you feel after pushing yourself is a good index of what you can do, how much more you can take and how much work you need to put in to do that. A couple of months later on July 30, Ritu took part in a six-hour night run organized by Mumbai based-coach, Haridasan Nair. Sunil ran with Ritu at her pace the entire time. For him, the run served as training for his upcoming 222 km-run at La Ultra The High in Ladakh. That night, Ritu logged 41 km. “I was not comfortable running at night,’’ she said. Fifteen days later, on August 13, she ran the 12-hour Mumbai Ultra where Ritu was able to cover a distance of 62 km.

Cdr Sunil Handa and Ritu; from Sunil’s successful attempt at the 222 km-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Ritu Handa)

Two days later she travelled to Leh to be part of support crew for Sunil during his shot at the 222 km-segment of La Ultra The High. Ritu was to join Sunil at the 78 km-mark, one of the cut-off points in the race. “I was waiting for Sunil at the 78 km cut-off. Time kept ticking by and I started to panic,’’ she said. Panic soon turned to tears as there was no sign of Sunil. “Dr Rajat Chauhan (organizer of La Ultra, The High) kept reassuring me that Sunil would make it. Then at 10:50 hours with just 10 minutes left for cut-off, Sunil emerged, much to everyone’s relief,’’ she said. Ritu and Rigzin Chosdon, an athlete from Ladakh, ran with Sunil. “I would run 10 km and take a break while Rigzin ran the next10 km with Sunil,’’ she said. Ritu ran a total of 50 km with Sunil at altitude; Ladakh’s average elevation is around 10,000 feet. The naval officer completed the race’s 222 km-distance in 46 hours 21 minutes, placing third.

Once back from Ladakh, Ritu started her training for the 100 miler. “Milind gave a training schedule for all the women participating in the 100 miler. Sunil also created a training program specifically for me,’’ she said. The training plan entailed running for five days a week with weekday mileages of around 10 km and weekend mileage approximating 50 km. “ Fact is that I followed only 70 per cent of the training program given by Milind,’’ Ritu said. Nevertheless, she made it to the final stages of selection for running the 100 miler from Mumbai to Pune. “ I felt I could go for it,’’ she said. According to her, Milind, who was tracking the performance of potential participants, kept streamlining the final list of runners eligible to take part in Mumbai2Pune 100 miles.

From the Mumbai-Pune 100 miler (Photo: courtesy Ritu Handa)

Little over a month after her Ladakh outing, Ritu travelled to Manali with her family. “Sunil was running 60 km as part of Hell’s Race. I had no plans to run this event. But when I got there I decided to do the 30 km-segment and went in for spot registration,” said Ritu. The course laid out mostly on trails across Manali was tough. Ritu took six hours to finish her run. “ It was really hell’s race. I will think twice before I go for a trail run,” she said. Meanwhile as part of training for the 100 miler, Milind Soman organized a run at Yeoor Hills in Thane on October 22. The runners participating were required to do ten loops of six kilometers each, in a time of 11 hours. At the end of this event, 20 women were chosen to do the 100 miler. Ritu was one of them.

On November 23, they 100 miler kicked off at 5 AM from Shivaji Park in Mumbai with five crew cars (one car for each set of four women runners) alongside. The first day was tough with pollution, heat and heavy traffic assailing the runners. Ritu and her team of four women covered a distance of 64 km. A major positive was the superb hydration and food support that runners enjoyed during the three-day run. The second day was much better despite the path being hilly. She covered a distance of 54 km. On the third and final day, she covered the remaining 38 km and reached Pune in the afternoon. According to Ritu, all the 20 women who participated completed the distance. Once the multi-stage 100 miler was done, it was time for Ritu to get back to her home and routine.

Ritu at a stadium run (Photo: courtesy Ritu Handa)

Running a 100 miler does not seem daunting to her. “ It is doable,’’ she said in an unassuming manner. Training is important to run ultra-marathon distances, she reiterated, almost like a mantra to herself. For someone who straddles 10 km, half marathon and now ultra-marathon distances, Ritu was however uneasy about running the full marathon. “ I will run ultras but I do not want to do a marathon,’’ she said.

Ritu’s observation won’t surprise runners. The full marathon, although only 42 km-long, is often more demanding than the ultramarathon because it comes packaged with the need to cover the distance in a reasonable amount of time. The required combination of stamina and speed makes one’s progress in a full marathon, challenging. Ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek, in his book “Eat & Run,” has noted that an ultramarathon isn’t as hard as a marathon. “ With the right training and support anyone can do an ultra,’’ he says. That said, the emergent quest with ultramarathon runners is to be able to maintain a steady pace for long. There are ultramarathons with stiff cut–offs and little external support; not to mention, many 100 milers are run in one stage. After all, what makes a run a race are the challenges added in.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

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