This is an article by invitation. Sunil Chainani, marathon runner closely associated with Indian ultra-running teams, writes about the advances Indian women have made in the sport.
- At the 2019 100 kilometer IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning) Asia & Oceania Championships, held at Aqaba, Jordan, Anjali Saraogi set a new national best for the distance. She completed the run in nine hours, 22 minutes, breaking her previous record of 9:40:35. At the same course, debutant Nupur Singh ran the 100k in 9:36:15.
- At the 2019 24-hour World Championships, at Albi, France, Apoorva Chaudhary notched up a distance of 202.211 km, a national best for women in this category of ultra-running event.
- At the same 24-hour World Championships, Priyanka Bhatt covered a distance of 192.845 km.
In April 2020, RunRepeat.com published a study on trends in ultra-running. The study, done jointly by RunRepeat.com and IAU, analysed over five million results from more than 15,000 ultra-running events spread over the past 23 years.
Among the key findings was an interesting point – women runners were found to be faster than male runners in distances exceeding 195 miles (313.82km). “ The longer the distance the shorter the gender pace gap. In 5Ks men run 17.9% faster than women, at marathon distance the difference is just 11.1%, 100-mile races see the difference shrink to just .25%, and above 195 miles, women are actually 0.6% faster than men,’’ the study said.
The number of women participating in ultra-running events worldwide had also increased. Overall participation of runners grew steeply, showing a 345 percent increase in the last 10 years. According to the study, currently in ultra-running events, women runners account for 23 percent participation, up from 14 percent, 23 years ago.
Although running as a sport has been around for long, the modern running movement started taking roots in India only by the twenty first century. First off the mark was the craze for the marathon. Till around 2007, ultra-running was a little known sport in India. Participation in greater numbers in this endurance sport has been fairly recent, coinciding with the country’s growing passion for running the marathon. As distance running took off in big cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, the stream of those attempting distances beyond the marathon started to rise, slowly but steadily. From only a handful of ultra-running events a decade ago, the Indian count of events in the space, have grown and we have almost 50 ultra events in the calendar now.
The number of women participating in ultra-running events has risen but continues to be low compared to global levels. Alongside, the standard of performance has improved rapidly, especially that of women. While an increasing number of women were running ultra-running events in India and participating in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the biggest ultramarathon in the world, very few were competing in international events till 2016. Unlike in other athletic events, there was no formal Indian participation at regional and world championships.
In 2017 India became a member of the IAU; the sport also came under the umbrella of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the apex body for athletics in the country. In the same year, Indian teams participated in the World Trail and 24-hour Championships.
Till early 2018, even with lower cut-off standards compared to today, India found it tough to get more than one or two women to qualify for the national team. In the last two years things have changed and now we have women competing for places on the team.
Anjali Saraogi’s performance has been remarkable in the arena of ultra-running. She fought illness and injury to keep raising the bar and stay ahead of others several years junior to her. Anjali has repeatedly proved that ‘mind over matter’ is important in ultras. She has scaled great heights in the sport despite being based in Kolkata, a city which has much less of a running culture compared to Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Anjali was the star of the Indian team that bagged the silver medal at the Asia & Oceania 100 k championships in Jordan in 2019 – the team came really close to getting gold as we finished in 30:40:33, just 19 minutes behind a strong Australian team. She set a National best of 9:22 at this championship, shaving 18 minutes of her own best time on a tough course where world class athletes were 45-60 minutes slower than their normal times. For Anjali, running is a passion. She believes that destination is but a natural outcome of being focused on the process and journey and her willingness to brave adversities have helped her immensely.
According to her, improvements in her running have always been a part of “following my heart.” Her advice to aspiring women runners is: you will face many challenges but every low is followed by a high. Sometimes, all that we need is patience, self-belief and honesty towards self. The result will be beautiful.
Stadium ultras have gained substantial momentum over the past few years and within that the 24-hour stadium runs have witnessed a surge in the participation of women. Initially, our runners were more focussed on surviving the 24 hours with not much focus on timing. But this changed from 2017 when India sent out its first team for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Belfast.
At the Belfast event, we had the first two Indian women cross the 160 km mark – Meenal Kotak with 160.328 km and Aparna Chaudhary with 169.245 km, which was a national best for 24-hour runs at that time. Aparna’s record lasted barely one year. Meenal broke it with her run of 175.48 km in Bengaluru in August 2018. This was then bettered by Gurgaon-based Apoorva Chaudhary, who ran 176.8 km in December 2018.
Apoorva’s improvement has been truly impressive – she bettered her own mark by an astonishing 15 percent at the IAU 24-hour World Championships, held at Albi, France, in October 2019 and became the first Indian woman to cross the 200 km mark. Equally inspiring was the performance of Priyanka Bhatt, who improved her July 2019 performance of 170 km by almost 23 km at the World Championships. Nine of the top ten 24-hour performances have been achieved between 2018 and now, and we can expect our women to keep raising the bar.
Apoorva attributes her improvement to increased mileage, better nutrition, adequate rest and increased focus on flexibility and strength training. “ I changed mentally by starting to visualize my performance on race day – replacing negative words with positive words. I set challenging goals and focused on achieving them,” she said.
Ultra running requires long hours of training. Given the traffic and weather conditions in our cities, such training is usually possible only early in the morning. Our women athletes face several challenges including work and family pressures, safety while running, lack of training partners and limited access to coaches, sports physiotherapists and nutritionists.
It is extremely heartening to see the emergence of new runners from across the country; competition for places in the Indian teams is getting tougher. Athletes are now training much more scientifically with additional focus on strength training and nutrition.
The performance of these amazing women has led to many more women believing in their abilities and we should hopefully see continued improvement in our standards in the coming years. Provided positive conditions, it is likely that in the next 1-2 years we could see the following marks being achieved by our women ultra-runners:
- 100 K – 8:30-8:45
- 24 H – 220-230 km
Listed below are the best performances achieved by our women in different category of races. Almost all the records have been set in the past 12 months and some of the runners from the 2017 and 2018 teams are now finding it tough to qualify.
- Anjali Saraogi (2017) – 8:38:23
- Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:47:42
- Anjali Saraogi (2019) – 9:22:00
- Nupur Singh (2019) – 9:36:15
- Anjali Saraogi (2018) – 9:40:35
- Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:57:33
- Darishisha Iangdoh (2019) – 10:19:28
(Note – the performance of Anjali, Nupur and Gunjan in 2019 was on a tough course in Jordan where world class athletes from Japan were 45-60 minutes slower than their personal best timings)
- Apoorva Chaudhary (2019) – 202.211 km
- Priyanka Bhatt (2019) – 192.845 km
- Apoorva Chaudhary (2018) – 176.8 km
- Bindu Juneja (2020) – 176.67 km
- Meenal Kotak (2018) – 175.48 km
- Hemlata Saini (2019) – 173.177 km
- Deepti Chaudhary (2020) – 171.23 km
(The author, Sunil Chainani, is a Bengaluru-based management consultant and runner. He is a member of the committee appointed by AFI that oversees the selection of Indian ultra teams and has been a support member of Indian teams that participated in recent international events. This article was edited by Latha Venkatraman. The findings of the RunRepeat.com-IAU study may be accessed on this link: https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running)