Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Kolkata-based ultramarathon runner Anjali Saraogi is comfortable training with gels and branched chain amino acids (BCAA) that help in reversing muscle loss, reduce muscle soreness and aid muscle recovery. That was her trusted recipe till Aqaba happened.

Jordan’s only coastal city – fans of Hollywood would remember it from David Lean’s masterpiece: Lawrence of Arabia – was location for the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia and Oceania Championships held on November 23. In the run up to the event in Aqaba, Anjali’s training suffered setbacks caused by health issues. All the same, she aimed for a sub-nine-hour finish.

At the championships, she was cruising along very well when the blazing sun and strong headwinds started to take a toll. “ At the 60 kilometer-mark, I felt I was sinking and actually ended up sitting on a chair. That is completely unusual for me,’’ she said.

Abhinav Jha, one of the crew members of the Indian team, came to her assistance. “ He made a drink with honey and lemon. That revived me,’’ Anjali said. She stopped consuming gels, thereafter. Anjali went on to complete the race in nine hours and 22 minutes, a new national record for women in that category. She bettered her own previous national record of 9:40 hours, set at the IAU 100 k World Championships held in Croatia in 2018.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ When exhaustion levels are high, it is best to opt for natural foods. You can never go wrong there,’’ Abhinav, Lieutenant Commander with the Indian Navy, said. The naval officer was originally part of the Indian team and slated to run the race. But he opted to stay out due to injury and instead, joined the team’s support crew. Hemant Beniwal, the stand-by runner, was called in to complete the team taking Abhinav’s place. “ As most of us are amateur runners, we are working on nutrition and hydration on trial and error basis. But in an ultramarathon, the best plan is your own plan,’’ Abhinav said.

In an ultramarathon, crewing can be challenging. The challenge stems from the difficulty in assessing the hydration and nutrition needs of runners. At the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France over October 26-27, Pranaya Mohanty avoided solid food for a long time and chose to stick to gel and salt tablets. But after a few hours of running he started to crave for solid food. “ I wanted either curd rice or dal rice. There was bread on offer but I prefer curd rice, dal rice or khichdi,’’ Pranaya said. The crew members arranged for the same.

At the event, Pranaya covered a distance of 211.956 km. He twisted his ankle in the eighteenth hour and was forced to slow down. He also suffered stomach distress and had to keep going to the rest rooms. “Binay Sah was also in bad shape. His nutrition plan did not go as per plan and he had to stop running,’’ Pranaya recalled. Fuelling for an ultramarathon event is not confined to the race alone. It starts months ahead along with the training.

Ultramarathon runner, Apoorva Chaudhary drew up her training plan for the IAU 24-hour World Championships with a target of covering 200 km. “ There are two vital elements in training for an ultramarathon – working with a target in mind and focussing on nutrition and hydration,’’ Apoorva said. She went on to cover a distance of 202.212 km, setting a new national record for 24-hour run (she surpassed her own record of 176.8 km set during the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018). Apoorva not only put in all the mileage and strength training required, she also focused on nutrition. “ I prepared my body with a variety of foods – different kinds of solid foods, different gel brands,’’ she said. She also did training runs with very little hydration. “ I did a 30 km-training run without food and water just to prepare my body for a worst case scenario,’’ Apoorva said.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

Priyanka Bhatt, who too was part of the Indian squad for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Albi, trained with race day conditions in mind. “ I work with energy bars. Gels don’t suit me,’’ she said. Her training was focused on building endurance, running back-to-back distances that would be in the range of 130 to 160 km every week.

In August 2019, a camp was held for ultra-runners at Bengaluru. The camp helped runners with guidance on training, nutrition and hydration. Despite training with different foods and drinks, things can go wrong during a race, runners said.

At the 2019 edition of the Bengaluru Stadium Run, Apoorva’s nutrition did not go as per plan. At Albi, Apoorva’s nutrition plan went off well for the initial part of the race but thereafter it was difficult to retain food. “ I kept talking to myself to stay in a positive frame of mind. After the initial few hours, the effort to work on your pace, mileage target and nutrition intake is entirely a mind game. For the first 13 hours, I had a very strong run. After that I felt like crying. My ribs felt swollen. It was more a mental issue than a physical one,’’ Apoorva said. In fact, one of the most insightful articles following the 2019 24 hour-world championships in Albi was one on Camille Herron of the US, written by author Adharanand Finn and published in The Telegraph. While lovers of the sport worldwide noted her victory in the women’s category, the article brought out the suffering Camille underwent in the grueling race.

Both the ultra-running events – the IAU 24-hour World Championships held at Albi, France in October 2019 and the 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held at Aqaba, Jordan in November 2019, showcased significant improvement in ultra-running by Indians despite the sport being relatively new for the country. At Aqaba, the Indian team of nine runners (three women and six men) secured gold medal in the men’s team category and silver in women’s.  In addition, Deepak Bandbe won the individual bronze medal and Anjali Saraogi set a new national record for women in 100 km.

Pranaya Mohanty (Photo: courtesy Pranaya)

“ The team did very well. There was a big jump in performance. All the six male runners finished in sub-8.5 hours and two of the women in under-10 hours,’’ Peteremil D’Souza, member of the ultramarathon committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said. The women’s performance was outstanding, Sunil Chainani, also member of AFI’s ultramarathon committee, said. Earlier at Albi, including Apoorva’s new national record, five athletes in all – three women and two men – had achieved new personal records. Among women, besides Apoorva, Priyanka Bhatt (192.845 km) and Hemlata (173.178 km) secured new PBs, while from the men, Pranaya Mohanty (211.956 km) and Kanan Jain (211.157 km) set new personal records. Also, five Indian runners – four men and one woman – covered distance in excess of 200 km at Albi.

According to Sunil, Indian runners are now looking at a multi-faceted approach to training that focuses not merely on building mileage but important aspects of nutrition and hydration as well. “ It is a new sport. We are constantly on a learning curve,’’ Abhinav said.

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

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