THAT YES OF 2017

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

In October 2019, two years after she took up running in a dedicated fashion, Apoorva Chaudhary was among athletes representing India at the start line of the IAU 24-hour World Championships, in Albi, France. She covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers, at the event. The distance logged was a national best in the 24-hour run for women in India. The new record was less than a year after a previous national best of 176.8 kilometers, Apoorva set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018. This is her story:

It was February 2020; the Delhi before COVID-19 locked down India. For runners, there was a major event imminent – the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. People had begun reaching the city from other parts of India for that.

Connaught Place and the café we were in, bustled with activity. Apoorva Chaudhary recalled her years at Navodaya Vidyalaya in Bijnor, roughly 150 kilometers away from Delhi. These schools were commenced by the central government in 1985-86 to bring quality education comparable to the best in a residential school system. It was meant mainly for students from rural areas. Alongside studies, Apoorva was into running a range of distances at the school – 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters. She also played basketball. She didn’t get into teams higher up in the pecking order because she never came first in school races. As she put it, “ I always ran slowly, finishing second or third. My father used to tell me that I wasn’t doing a good job of sticking to the person who was leading.’’ Still the routine of boarding school meant, she participated consistently in sports. That routine was silver lining, for Apoorva secretly disliked boarding school. She hailed from Bijnor and her home wasn’t far off; she couldn’t understand why she had to be in boarding. She took part in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters till she completed her tenth standard.

From Himalayan Crossing, July 2016; the others in the frame are Tserin Negi and Avinash Pratap Singh (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

An eldest child, Apoorva had grown up with the belief that she would become a doctor. “ My grandfather always told me that I will become one,” she said. Her desire was to be an ophthalmologist. In India, the phase of education following matriculation is when professional orientation to studies creeps in. Those couple of years leading to entrance exams for professional courses are usually intense. After completing her twelfth at Bijnor, Apoorva attended coaching classes in Dehradun, chasing the ophthalmologist-dream. The natural outcome of a life dedicated to academics was that sports got completely side-lined. Then, a setback occurred. Apoorva didn’t make the cut in the entrance exam. With her hard work gone waste and chance to study medicine denied, she slipped into depression. For a brief period, she wondered whether she should make another attempt at clearing the exam. Then she gave up on that plan and opted instead for a B.Tech in biotechnology from Kurukshetra University.

Apoorva’s college days didn’t feature much sport. She occasionally played basketball and dabbled in yoga. More importantly, in these years, she developed serious asthma. Following her studies, Apoorva secured work at a company in Bengaluru. She shifted to the southern metro. Not long into this stint, she quit her job; she found it hard relating to experiments on animals, something the work required her to do. A period of volunteer work with NGOs ensued. During this time, following links she made in the film making fraternity, Apoorva said, she was called to act as body double in a film about Kavitha Kanaparthi. Founder of Globeracers, Kavitha organized foot races of ultramarathon distances under that brand. Kavitha was pregnant at that point in time and the film makers needed a body double for shooting some running scenes. Apoorva didn’t know what ultra-running was. During the shoot, she had to run on multiple occasions, at times notching up quite a distance. “ I don’t remember getting tired from those runs,” she said.

At the annual Adidas Runtastic Ambassador Meet, Berlin, September 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

Her connection with Globeracers led to Apoorva volunteering for some of the events they organized. In February 2016, she volunteered for Run of Kutch. “ I enjoyed volunteering for the event. The work also entailed marking the route before the race,” she said. In that same year, she was called to volunteer for Himalayan Crossing, another race from the Globeracers stable. A ringside view to great challenges is often the best encouragement one can have to take the plunge oneself. “ I remember thinking about the insanity of the runners doing these ultra-long distances, little knowing that I myself would opt for such mileage in due course,” she said. Her foray into recreational running commenced after the second edition of Run of Kutch. Apoorva was into running and trekking. The latter activity picked up through personal trips to Dharamshala and Shimla and the visit to Spiti for Himalayan Crossing with Globeracers, peaked on a 2017 holiday in Ladakh that saw her ascent the popular trekking peak, Stok Kangri (20,187 feet). She had set out for Stok Kangri from Leh, alone and self-supported. Along the way, that altered a bit after she met a group from the army headed to the same peak. They in turn, planted in her head the idea of doing a Basic Mountaineering Course. She applied for the course offered by the state-owned mountaineering institute in Jammu & Kashmir and upon their seats for mountaineering being full, was offered a place in the skiing course. It should have been on her agenda for 2017 but then other things happened.

Sometime in 2017, she participated in an informal 15 km-run organized by Delhi Running Group, at Sanjay Park in New Delhi. For most people, their first major project in amateur running is the half marathon. Shortly after the run in Sanjay Park, Apoorva signed up for her first half marathon – part of Adidas Uprising, due in December that year. During her training runs Apoorva heard of runners finishing the half marathon in under-two hours. At Adidas Uprising, not only did Apoorva get her sub-two-hour finish, she emerged the overall winner among woman participants. The prize was a coupon worth Rs 10,000, using which she could buy Adidas products of her choice. She bought her most expensive pair of shoes till then, she said.

Apoorva and Kanan Jain sprinting towards the finish line at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, February 2020 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

After the Adidas Uprising event, Apoorva signed up for the half marathon at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon of February 2018. She finished the race in 1:56:03. “ This was my second half marathon. At this event I met Kanan Jain. Later that year I was to volunteer for the Bhatti Lakes ultramarathon and Kanan was scheduled to try the 100 kilometer-run there. He asked me if I would be interested in attempting a 24-hour run,” she said. The 24-hour run that Kanan suggested was the one to be held by NEB Sports in December 2018 at New Delhi (Kanan Jain is a young ultramarathon runner. In the months to follow he would be part of the official team representing India at the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France. He is now Apoorva’s coach drawing up her training schedules for ultramarathon races). Apoorva said she had no experience of distance running except the two half marathons she had completed. Kanan persisted; he pointed to her volunteering for ultramarathons and her interest in hiking. He asked her to consider the idea. She did. What she found difficult to overlook was how Kanan had pitched the whole thing. He had asked her if she would like to represent India in the discipline of running very long distances. That was a target too hard to ignore. Next day, she said “ yes’’ to the idea.

The ultramarathon embraces distances beyond the length of a marathon. A 24-hour run is one of the many forms of ultramarathon. It is typically held over a short loop. The runner, who covers the maximum distance during the stated period, is the winner. In India, Runners for Life is credited with commencing the 24-hour and 12-hour ultramarathons through their event, Bangalore Ultra. 2017, the year Apoorva commenced her recreational running was also coincidentally host to the last edition of the Bangalore Ultra, pioneer in that space in India. Apoorva’s first tryst with distances beyond the half marathon happened soon after that “ yes’’ to the idea of attempting a 24-hour run. In 2018, she and Kanan participated in the run from Gurugram (Gurgaon) to India Gate organized by Aashayein. At 29 kilometers, it was far from ultramarathon. But the journey had begun.

From the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018; others in the frame are Sunil Shetty, Shyamala Gopalan and Shibani Gharat (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

The 24-hour run the duo targeted was scheduled for the end of the year. Apoorva had time to build up her mileage. “ If you have a goal, it is prudent to have pit stops before you reach the goal,” she said. To create a tiered progression towards the 24-hour run, she decided to do the 12-hour run offered as part of the 36-hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru, in August 2018. To gain entry to this stadium run, Apoorva opted to first run a 50 kilometer-race at Mashobra Tuffman Shimla Ultra. As part of her training for this event, she had managed to do just one 50 kilometer-run. At the Tuffman event, she finished the race in 6:03:56 hours. “ This was my ticket to the 12-hour run in Bengaluru,” she said.

Unexpected twists in life had seen Apoorva resurrect her interest in running from school days and take to recreational running as an employed adult. Hers was a family of five; her father who is a farmer, her mother who is a homemaker and two younger brothers. Her parents were unaware of the changes afoot in the life of their daughter who had elected to work away from home. Nobody in Bijnor knew of Apoorva’s mission to participate in the 24 hour-run. Each time she visited Bijnor, the mission manifested in the form of unavoidable training runs. “ My father was not very happy with me venturing out to run,” she said. He had his reasons. There was the question of a woman’s safety; not many people ran regularly in Bijnor. If Apoorva was running for fitness, he felt a few days of exercise missed wouldn’t inflict significant damage. He was also unaware of the full dimensions of the journey Apoorva had set herself on and why she required to train diligently. Once during a visit home, Apoorva was admonished for stepping out for a run. Even if she had revealed her plans, till tangible results are produced, plans don’t hold water – that’s the Indian approach. Unfazed by the opposition, Apoorva proceeded with what she had to do. She would slip out of her home, walk some distance, change into running shoes and commence her run. “ I cannot afford to miss my runs,” she said. Over time, Apoorva apprised her mother about her passion for ultra-running. Eventually however, to circumvent the situation, for much of 2018, she kept her visits home to the bare minimum. Her determination paid off.

The day after the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

At the 12-hour run in Bengaluru, Apoorva finished first among women and fifth overall, covering a distance of 99.76 kilometers. “ I had a target of 100 kilometers. I was completely overwhelmed by this experience. I hadn’t imagined that I would have the ability to do something like this,” she said. With this 12 hour-run, Apoorva’s circle of friends in running grew. Running groups wanted her to join them on their outings. It felt good. In the days following the 12-hour run, she increased her mileage as part of training for the upcoming 24-hour event in New Delhi. “ I knew that if I am opting for ultra-running, then I am opting for pain and challenge. One is always preparing for a worst case scenario in such long-distance races,” she said. However, there is more to preparing for an ultramarathon than just the mileage accumulated in training. Nutrition and hydration are important aspects. You have to know what foods your body can hold down and utilize while it is being pushed for endurance at the same time. There is no one size fits all; each runner’s preferred nutrition during a race is the outcome of trial and error. Then there is how you race; how you pace yourself when the distance to cover is huge. All this takes time. Experience counts. In December 2018, Apoorva stood at the start line of the 24-hour run with little understanding of fuelling plan or race strategy. “ Prior to the event, during my training, I had done two weeks of 100 kilometer-mileage and one week of 90 kilometers,” she said. It was modest mileage striking a balance between adequate training and saving yourself for a race. That may have addressed the running side of things. But as regards overall experience in the ultramarathon, she was very much on a learning curve.

The 24-hour stadium run in Delhi was tough. At the end of 12 hours, she had covered around 102.4 kilometers, which was more than what she managed in the 12 hour-run of August 2018. “ I was strong for the first 14 hours. Until about the 18th hour I was holding myself well but after that it became very tough. I was dehydrated, tired and nowhere near my target of 200 kilometers,” she said. She even began to doubt whether she would touch 100 miles (160 kilometers). She remembered ultra-runner Sunil Sharma intervening to help her. Vishal Adhav, another runner, started to pace her. “ He ran ahead of me and asked me to just follow his footsteps. For the last two hours of the race I kept doing that and got into a trance chasing the feet running ahead of me,” she said. Apoorva covered a distance of 176.8 km during that 24-hour period. It was a national best among women in India. But it was an effort that left her with questions. “ During breaks in the race I used to ask myself: why am I doing this?’’ she said. There was also a valuable lesson learnt. As part of her fuelling, she had tried yogurt. It suited her.

From the world championships in Albi, France, 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

For all athletes, there is a point when effort pays off and fortunes change. At home in Bijnor, the morning newspaper bearing reports of the stadium run in Delhi told Apoorva’s parents the full story of what their daughter had been up to. The training runs started to make sense. Neighbours who read the newspaper, asked: isn’t that your daughter? The win in Delhi also made the Indian ultra-running community take note of Apoorva. She was selected for the IAU 24-hour World Championships, due at Albi, France, in October 2019. By the time she got to Albi, Apoorva was more knowledgeable of her nutrition, hydration needs and racing strategy. “ That was my strongest 24-hour run,” she said of her experience at Albi. Running alongside Apoorva were some of the world’s best ultra-runners, including US athlete, Camille Herron, who would set a new women’s world record of 270 kilometers at the event. At the end of 24 hours, Apoorva had covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers. It was a new national best for women. And it had come less than a year after the previous national best of 176.8 kilometers she set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018.

Couple of days after meeting this blog at the café in Connaught Place, Apoorva filled in a gap in her progression to the ultramarathon. She ran her first marathon – the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, held on February 23, 2020. She finished seventh overall among women and second in her age group of 18-34 with a timing of 3:28:45. Having graduated to ultramarathon from the half marathon, the classic marathon was a case of going back and catching up on a rung in the ladder, she had missed. On March 24, India slipped into a nationwide lockdown triggered by COVID-19. For almost a month, Apoorva – she now works at the Gurugram office of PeopleStrong, a technology firm in the HR space – was confined to her apartment in Gurugram. She focused on strength training. She was scheduled to represent India at the IAU 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships, slated to be held in Bengaluru over July 18-19, 2020. It therefore made sense to continue her training in whatever way she could. The Bengaluru event was subsequently called off due to COVID-19.

Training in Leisure Valley Park ahead of the world championships in Albi, France (Photo: Bounty Narula)

On May 25, Apoorva managed to travel to Bijnor, where her parents live. She resumed her running there, stepping out very early in the morning for her daily run. It is an hour when few people are out. It suits her for she generally likes to run alone and sometimes with one or two others. The morning run takes around two hours. With no races on the horizon, she does not need to train hard. Her parents are supportive. Nowadays on her return from training, her father asks her how the run was. He still worries for her safety but has his own emergent interest in fitness, which he blends into the solution. “ Today morning as I was returning home, he came cycling towards me. He wanted to make sure that I am alright. From tomorrow onwards, he says, he will be cycling alongside while I run. He says that will keep him fit too,’’ Apoorva said, mid-July. Asked if she had managed to answer that question of why she was running the ultramarathon (she had asked herself that during the 24-hour run in Delhi), Apoorva said, “ I think it has to do with wanting to get out of my comfort zone. If I don’t do that, I won’t get to know what I can do.’’ There was also another question begging an answer. Apoorva’s running had commenced in school. Despite running the 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters in that phase, she got nowhere. After a long hiatus and for no particular reason except curiosity, she took to recreational running in Bengaluru in 2017. By October 2019, she had set one national best and rewritten it. What was different about her journey in running, post 2017? “ I think Kanan gave me an engaging goal in that 24 hour-run and the prospect of representing India. I took it up but was at the same time under no pressure. I had nothing to lose,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on two rounds of conversation with Apoorva.)

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