Vaijayanti Ingawale; from the 2015 Nasik Spirit Run (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

Vaijayanti Ingawale, 60, recently completed Comrades Marathon in South Africa. This is the story of the doctor and her retired banker husband, both now loving their hobby of running marathons at different locations worldwide.

It was December 2012; start line of a five kilometre-run organised by Rotary Club in Thane, the district neighbouring Mumbai on India’s west coast. One of the contestants stood out from the rest of the field that had come prepared to run.

Clad in jeans, she had no clue about the sport of running. The event was her introduction to a running movement spreading across Mumbai ever since the city’s annual marathon commenced. A paediatrician – a busy one at that – Dr Vaijayanti Ingawale, had little time for sports and hobbies, zipping as she did across two clinics and one hospital, managing patients and at the end of a day, home as well.

Till that run in Thane, Vaijayanti’s exposure to sport had been limited to the occasional chance to play badminton and hockey back in her school and college days. “But yoga was very much a part of my life. I started yoga practice from childhood,” she said. It was her grandfather who introduced her to yoga. He had been an associate of Mahatma Gandhi.

Born in Solapur, Vaijayanti’s family shifted to Pune. During her school and college years, sports was nowhere on the radar. But yoga continued. Once through with her medical studies, she got married. Post-marriage, Vaijayanti moved to Ahmedabad where she did her post graduate studies in medicine, specializing in paediatrics. Her husband, Deepak Ingawale, worked at that time with State Bank of India (SBI). In tune with Deepak’s transfers, the couple moved to Umbergaon, Hyderabad and Mauritius. The family grew; they had two sons. During these years, Vaijayanti continued to work as a paediatrician at hospitals in the places she found herself in except in Mauritius where she worked instead on completing an advanced diploma course in yoga from the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre.

Deepak and Vaijayanti Ingawale (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

Early 1997, the Ingawales returned to India. In 2000 they decided to settle down in Thane. Deepak quit his job at SBI and opted for a position at the Mumbai branch of Antwerp Diamond Bank, a bank that caters primarily to the diamond industry. By then after an initial stint as junior doctor at Singhania Trust Hospital, Vaijayanti had set up her own paediatric practice. Soon, she was managing two clinics and dashing around hospitals as a consultant paediatrician. Alongside, she also commenced teaching yoga, initially conducting classes at home.

In 2012, Dr Neeta Saboo, also a paediatrician, introduced the idea of running to Vaijayanti. “Rotary Club was organising a five kilometre-run sometime in December that year. In fact, she registered me for the event,” Vaijayanti said.

She turned up at the start line of the run in jeans. “I didn’t know a thing about the right attire for running,’’ she said. Nevertheless, Vaijayanti finished the run in approximately 32 minutes.

The very next month was Mumbai Marathon, then under the lead sponsorship of Standard Chartered Bank. “ My friend Neela Ghate asked me to try and participate in the Dream Run segment of the event. Below my clinic was a branch of Standard Chartered Bank. She persuaded me to register for the event,” Vaijayanti said. In February 2013, she enrolled for the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon to run the half marathon distance. The same year, her husband Deepak Ingawale – by then three months into retirement – also decided to make his foray into running. He enrolled for the five kilometre-run at the same event.

A civil engineer by education, Deepak had some exposure to football and tennis during college years. After his engineering studies, Deepak ended up in a bank job at SBI. “For the next 37 years I had absolutely no physical activity. I had breathlessness and weighed about 87 kilos,” Deepak said. He had central obesity (excessive fat around the stomach and abdomen) and found it difficult to walk.

Having registered for Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon, they had barely three weeks to train for the event after Mumbai Marathon. Both their sons were away in other cities for their studies. “This was a good opportunity for us to get into some activity like running,” Vaijayanti said adding that her sons were happy with their involvement in running. Vaijayanti was already into running in a small way. Sometimes while waiting for the operation theatre to get ready, Vaijayanti would nip across for a 20 minute-run at the nearby Upavan Lake or Yeoor Hills.

Vaijayanti; at an event in Pune (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

Despite this scattered training with no plan or focus, Vaijayanti completed the half marathon with a timing of 2:40:33. After the 2013 Thane Hiranandani run, she decided to take running a bit more seriously. Like many others, she turned to Internet and Google to find out what was needed for the journey.

She started doing 20 minute runs on weekdays and an hour of running on Sundays. In the same year, she and Deepak enrolled for the Goa River Marathon. It was also a chance for the Ingawales to travel to another location and run a marathon there. Vaijayanti attempted the half marathon and Deepak did the 10 k.

After they finished the run, they left the venue and went on to stay in Goa as part of a holiday they had planned, little knowing that Vaijayanti had got a podium finish in her age category with a timing of 2:23:25, bettering her timing in Thane.

She followed the Goa run with the 2014 edition of Mumbai Marathon. In the same year, the Ingawales enrolled for Wipro Chennai Marathon with Vaijayanti opting for the half marathon and Deepak the 10 k distance. In the months preceding this run, Vaijayanti stepped up her training with some help from articles and videos on the Internet. “I did hill training coupled with regular runs, yoga to improve flexibility and pranayam,” she said. At Wipro Chennai Marathon, not only did Vaijayanti improve her half marathon timing to 2:07:40 but she also ended up winner in her age category.

By now the Ingawales were enjoying the idea of running marathons at various locations. In 2015, they participated in marathons in Jim Corbett (Uttarakhand), Bangalore and the Buddh International Circuit in Noida besides their first foray overseas for running – a half marathon in Malaysia. In 2016, in addition to running half marathons in Satara, Pune, Nashik and Ooty, they travelled to Hawaii in the US and Bhutan to run at events there.

By this time, Deepak had also graduated to running the half marathon; his first in the genre was the 2015 Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon. As his running grew, he was able to get rid of his health problems. In August 2015, he gave up smoking after four decades with the habit. Proof that running had helped Deepak was evident in his heart rate. It was 90 in 2013. By 2018 it was 55.

Vaijayanti; from Tata Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

At the 2017 edition of Mumbai Marathon, Vaijayanti decided to graduate to the full marathon. She finished third in her age category with a timing of 4:39:22 and followed that up the same year with yet another full marathon in Sydney, Australia. “We had a lot of friends among runners with whom we could share and gather information about running,” Vaijayanti said outlining the ecosystem that was helping her. It was through those communication channels that the buzz about Comrades Marathon in South Africa, reached her.

Vaijayanti’s performance in most of the events she had participated in once she took to running in a serious way had been good. At many events she had secured podium finish in her age category. Further, her timing seemed to be improving. It was good enough premise to consider Comrades. She felt she had to attempt it. The tipping point was a Camaraderie run organized by the running community hear Thane to wish success to those heading for the 2017 Comrades.

Promoted as the “Ultimate Human Race”, Comrades Marathon is an 87-89 kilometre ultramarathon that is run between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. The race alternates each year between uphill and downhill and between the cities of Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg. There are a number of big and small hills in between and six intermediate cut-off points.

The number of Indian runners participating in this race has been increasing over the years. The race, which draws runners from several countries, was first held in May 1921. Years ago, when Deepak was working at the Mumbai branch of Antwerp Diamond Bank, Amit Sheth, the brand ambassador for Comrades Marathon in India, had visited the bank for a talk on the famous ultramarathon in South Africa. “I don’t think I paid much attention then as even walking, let alone running was nowhere on my horizon. But years later we procured his book, Dare to Run,” Deepak said.

Comrades Marathon is usually held early June every year. For runners attempting Comrades Marathon, the most important aspect is the training, the timing of which usually coincides with India’s summer months. Those who have been through this grind say that the camaraderie among runners during the training phase is what eventually makes the race special to run. Twice in the three month training period, runners from Mumbai and places close to the city head to the hills of Lonavala nearby, for 65 kilometer and 56 kilometer-training runs. These runs typically start a little after midnight and last seven to eight hours. They bond through both the training and the arrangements that have to be made, which among others spans transport to the training destination, hydration, food and support vehicles.

At the 2016 Nilgiris Ultra in Ooty (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

Vaijayanti put in place her own training plan as well. She joined the gym a year ahead of going to Comrades to step up her strength training. In January 2018, she cut down her clinic hours not so much to focus on her training for Comrades but to spend time with her grandson. However cutting down on her work did give her much needed rest as hours at the clinic sometimes extended close to midnight. In January 2018, at the annual Mumbai Marathon, Vaijayanti completed the full marathon in 04:19 hours. This helped improve her seeding at the start line at Comrades. The Mumbai Marathon also threw up an unexpected partner for the long training runs preceding Comrades – Deepak. He managed to complete the full marathon and joined Vaijayanti on her training runs for Comrades, in Lonavala and elsewhere. Amid the Comrades training season, there was a 50 kilometer-ultramarathon at Lonavala sponsored by Tata. Vaijayanti secured a podium finish at this event. This race outcome boosted her confidence. She also got valuable advice from veteran runner Satish Gujaran, who has run Comrades multiple times.

Vaijayanti’s training was progressing quite well when with six weeks to go for Comrades, she had a fall during the last 56 km training run at Lonavala. Following that fall, Vaijayanti had to abandon all running to help the healing process.

Notwithstanding this setback, she was at the start line of Comrades Marathon at Pietermaritzburg. “In the first 500 meters itself I had a fall,” she said adding that she was going quite fast, not a good thing for a run like Comrades. At 44 kilometers, she had her second fall. “I fell down quite badly and could not get up. I had severe cramps. I passed out for a brief while,” she said. After about ten minutes she got up and proceeded to run.

For Vaijayanti, it was not easy to run after the fall at the halfway mark. For the next 10 kilometers she walked. Then she attempted running but she was assailed by cramps in her hamstrings. Every now and then Vaijayanti resorted to running but had to fall back to walking because of cramps. “At this point, my mind game started. Be positive – I kept telling myself. I had cleared the fourth, fifth and sixth cut-offs. The crowd support was superb and the positive energy was infectious,” she said. The miles kept going by and suddenly in the distance she noticed the stadium lit up. The end was near.

Vaijayanti; at the finish line of 2018 Comrades (Photo: courtesy the Ingawales)

At the finish point at Moses Mabhida Statium in Durban, Deepak and their second son Ameya, an ophthalmologist, were tracking Vaijayanti’s progress. They were alarmed to find that the dot she was on the tracking app, had failed to move. Anxiety set in. “Ten minutes later, the dot started to move slowly but the suspense was almost killing till the end, till we saw her cross the finish line barely seven minutes before cut-off,” Deepak said. Vaijayanti crossed the finish line in 11:53 hours. A subsequent tweet by Procam, organizers of the annual Mumbai Marathon, complimented her on being the only Indian woman aged over 60 to complete Comrades 2018. She did so, on the first attempt.

Many runners who cross the finish line of Comrades Marathon wish to follow it up with back-to-back attempts primarily to complete both the uphill and downhill versions of the ultramarathon. But Vaijayanti wants to move on. On the cards – besides a desire to attempt some of the big five international marathons if possible – is a plan to attempt the Barcelona Marathon in Spain. The Ingawales’ older son, Myshkin, an engineer by training, lives in Girona near Barcelona.

Running marathons in different locations, combining it with sightseeing and socializing with friends and relatives, is something that fascinates the Ingawales. At the time of writing this article, the Ingawales were on the verge of 50 officially timed runs completed together. They wish to continue running together for as long as they can.

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

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