“ PERFECTION IS MAKING THE BEST OF WHAT YOU HAVE’’

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Anjali Saraogi took up running earnestly in 2016. Less than four years later, she had made it to the Indian team, set a national record in the 100K and been chosen AFI’s woman ultrarunner of the year for 2018-2019.

The 2016 edition of the Mumbai Marathon was special for featuring both the Kipketer siblings on the podium.  Hailing from Kenya, Gideon Kipketer won the men’s elite marathon in a course record of 2:08:35. His sister, Valentine, who had three years earlier set the course record of 2:24:33 (still standing as of 2020), placed third among elite women with timing of 2:34:07. Held on January 17, the 2016 Mumbai Marathon saw 40,285 registrations overall, at that time the highest in the event’s history. Somewhere among the thousands who ran that day in Mumbai, was a woman from Kolkata, roughly a year into running at events and who secured a second place finish in her age category (40-45 years) in the half marathon. That modest distance covered in 1:44:07, betrayed little of her future; she would become one of the finest ultra-runners from India.

Born into a business family, Anjali Saraogi didn’t pursue sports at school. “ I was on the heavy side and I had developed a psychological complex around it too,’’ she said. Away from her school – La Martiniere, Kolkata – she practised yoga and swam. The habit was naturally acquired; her parents were into yoga and physical fitness. “ I grew up in that environment. So I picked it up,’’ Anjali said. Upon reaching college, she studied commerce, attending classes early in the morning and CFA (chartered financial analyst) training sessions later in the day. In the middle of this, she also got married. For a brief while after marriage, Anjali ran her own leather export business. West Bengal (of which, Kolkata is capital) is not far from the eastern sweep of the Himalaya. Between the Himalaya and the plains of India is an intermediate zone of fertile flood plains. In northern India and southern Nepal, this zone is called Terai. In north east India including the northern part of Bengal, close to the Himalayan foothills, this region goes by the name – Dooars. A major crop here is tea. Anjali’s husband owned tea gardens in the Dooars. In the years following Anjali’s marriage, a phase of downturn hit the Indian tea business. Estates in the Dooars were badly impacted. The couple decided to foray in a different direction. Anjali exited the leather business she had and together with her husband, commenced a healthcare enterprise.

From the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ It was a busy period. There was no time for myself,’’ she said. However she continued doing yoga; she also walked (it was a mix of walking and jogging) five kilometers every day. The combination delivered results. “ My daughter was born in 1998. Within a year after that, I shed most of the weight I had carried since childhood,’’ Anjali said. She also acknowledges that there may have been something smoldering underneath, which kept her determined to become fit. “ During my school days, we used to get television signals from Bangladesh in Kolkata. On one such occasion, the program was about the Olympic Games and it showed long distance running. Those visuals may have impressed me a lot and stayed in my head,’’ Anjali said. Room for women to pursue whatever they wanted wasn’t much those days. In endurance sports in the India, the major centers of growth have traditionally been in and around an arc from south east India to the north via the west. In its span are cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi with other cities partaking in the phenomenon (like Kochi, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad), located in the neighborhood. Kolkata was away from all this. “ In the early 2000s, women wearing shorts and going out for a run or workout was still a matter of debate in our generally conservative society. It was alright in parks but even there you got looked at like an oddity,’’ Anjali recalled.

At Tata Steel 25K, Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In 2015, the local arm of Round Table India organized a half marathon in Kolkata. Anjali was at that time a member of the women’s wing of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI). A team of women from FICCI were due to participate in the 10 kilometer-run that was a part of the event.  Anjali weighed her options. She had been systematic on the yoga and walking front. She decided to register for the half marathon. She had no idea of running attire; she turned up for the event in a T-shirt meant for golf and leggings borrowed from her daughter. This was the start of her career in running. She covered the 21 kilometer-distance in an hour and 55 minutes; pretty good timing for a debutante. “ That first run at an event, I didn’t suffer. I enjoyed the experience,’’ Anjali said. She followed the half marathon with another, this time at the Goa River Marathon of 2015, where again she completed the course in similar time. Some months later, she was part of the thousands running the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, where she secured a podium finish in her age category improving her timing from previous half marathons run by almost ten minutes. “ I don’t know how that happened. I didn’t know a thing about training. All I was doing was yoga and that regular walk-run of five kilometers,’’ she said. Post this 2016 event, Anjali decided to train properly. Her husband was supportive of her decision. There was one problem. Runners who are committed to the sport typically align themselves with a good coach. Located far off to the east from the busy arc of endurance sports in India, Kolkata had neither robust distance-running culture nor coaches reputed in the sport. “ I looked up the Internet for training inputs,’’ Anjali said. It wasn’t a perfect solution by any yardstick. Proper training is real life and dynamic. The coach sees his / her ward; feedback is comprehensive and realistic. The Internet on the other hand, is rich in data. “ Just data is not good enough,’’ Anjali said. But that would be her predicament for the journey ahead. Aside from the Internet and training inputs occasionally received from fellow runners, she hasn’t had a formal coach. “ It wasn’t my choice. That’s how things turned out. If there was a good coach in Kolkata I would have joined,’’ she said.

From the 2019 Boston Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

After the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, she ran in the 25 kilometer-category at BNP Endurathon in Mumbai.  Then, things started to gather pace. For next event, she chose the full marathon; she picked the 2016 Chicago Marathon. Having studied in Massachusetts, her husband had friends who lived in the US. On visits to Kolkata, they had spoken of the great race in Chicago. In 2016, when the group planned a reunion in the US, Anjali decided to attempt the race for her debut in the marathon. There was also a pattern seeping into the madness. As with many runners, Anjali wished to run the iconic Boston Marathon. The qualifying time for Boston that year was 3:45 hours for her age category. It became a goal to chase and Chicago seemed ideal venue to do that. She completed the marathon in Chicago – her first formal full marathon – in 3:32. The marathon debut was followed by the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and the Tata Steel Half Marathon in Kolkata. Her Personal Best (PB) in the half marathon was by now 1:33 hours. For comparison try this: in 2017 Anjali would have been around 43 years old. That year she won in her age category in the Mumbai Marathon, covering the 42 kilometer distance in 3:29:12. It additionally placed her second overall among amateur women; the overall winner from amateur women registered timing of 3:17:15. At the same event, the winner among women in the open category of the half marathon finished in 1:32:02, not far from Anjali’s PB of 1:33. For the lady from Kolkata who came late to running, further shifts were underway.

On the Internet, the synopsis of the book, Dare to Run, describes it as the inspiring story of Amit and Neepa Sheth, a husband-wife duo who took up running as a sport in their late thirties. In a collection of essays written over five years, Amit takes the reader along on “ a journey of determination, discovery, courage, self-awareness and self-belief. He takes us with him from his first, almost fatal, 200 meter jog on a beach in Mumbai, to the finish line of The Ultimate Human Race: the 89 km Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. Along the way, Amit uses a combination of poetry, philosophy and scriptures to explain his unique perspective on life, religion, spirituality and running. This is a book not just about running but about the need to relentlessly follow your dreams and passions, no matter what they may be, ‘’ the synopsis said.

In South Africa, for Comrades (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

It was a colleague from FICCI who told Anjali about this book and sent it to her. By the time it arrived, Anjali was down with an injury picked up in the gym. She read Dare to Run while recovering. It became her window to contemplate the ultramarathon. “ Amith Sheth’s book showed me a world I didn’t know existed. His book made me fall in love with Comrades,’’ she said. One more factor inspired her to attempt the ultramarathon. In the days spanning October 21, 2015 to May 1, 2016, Michelle Kakade from Pune had run 5968.4 kilometers along the Golden Quadrilateral, a set of major highways linking India’s major metros. Kolkata was among cities she passed through. A group of Kolkata runners crewed for her at this stage and Anjali was one among them. She was impressed by Michelle and the mission she had embarked upon. It set her thinking about the prospect of distances longer than the marathon. “ There is no point in being afraid. Hard work pays and I am a workhorse. I am not scared of failure. I have no expectations to live up to except my own,’’ Anjali said. She took the plunge. In June 2017, she ran and completed the famous 89 kilometer-ultramarathon in South Africa, Amit Sheth had mentioned in his book. At the time of writing, the time she took to complete Comrades – 8:38:23 – was still the fastest time at the event by a woman from India. Her Comrades result would become a game changer for Anjali.

From the IAU 100K World Championships in Croatia (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Post Comrades, she ran the Tata Steel 25K, the 2018 Mumbai Marathon and the 75 kilometer category of Garhwal Runs, where following an incident of losing her way during the race, she placed third. The major race on her agenda that year was supposed to be the 2018 New York City Marathon; it was the goal driving her training. Meanwhile in February 2017, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had become a member of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). In July, having heard of Anjali’s performance at Comrades and Garhwal Runs, Lieutenant Commander Abhinav Jha, a naval officer and ultrarunner, contacted her on Facebook.  It was a call from the blue. The 2018 IAU 100 kilometers World Championships were due to take place in Croatia in September 2018. India was planning to send a team. At Abhinav’s suggestion, Anjali applied for a position on the team based on her performance at the 2017 Comrades. However, not long after applying, she withdrew. Her target for the year and the event she had been training for was the New York City Marathon. It was due in November. The call of July and the two events – in Croatia and New York – all seemed too close to each other for comfort. Anjali wasn’t sure she would be able to do justice. Peteremil D’Souza, an air force officer who is on the committee overseeing ultrarunning at AFI, then spoke to her. He convinced her that she would be able to do well at both Croatia and New York. Anjali understood her predicament better – in pursuit of good timing, she had been training intensely for New York; if she reduced the intensity she should be able to pull off the longer distance in Croatia. It put her back on track. Abhinav advised her on how to train. One week into training and with no more than a few weeks left for the event in Croatia, she had a bad attack of dengue. The disease took a toll on her body. She had high fever and eventually needed two instalments of platelet transfer. Time was lost to disease and recovery. It impacted training. That September in Croatia, the 100 kilometer run proved challenging. “ I was still feeling weak. But there was the high of representing the country. When I finished the race I was in a bad shape,’’ she said. At the event, Anjali covered 100 kilometers in 9:40:35. “ It was a lot of hard work. I could do that only because of Abhinav,’’ she said. Ten days before the New York City Marathon, she ran the Changan Ford Ultra Challenge 50 in China, covering the course in 4:22:22, ranking 35 in an overall field of 155. In November she ran the New York City Marathon, finishing it in 3:24:12. In July 2019, the AFI named Anjali their female ultrarunner for 2018-2019.

At Tata Ultra, Lonavala (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

A rather unusual thing about Anjali is her competence across distances. She still runs anything from shorter distances like the 10K and half marathon to the full and the 100K. She has had podium finishes and good timings in most of these disciplines. According to her, she considers the 42 kilometer-marathon as the foundation for her running. If you are good at it you can run the half marathon well. And if you are training systematically for the marathon, you should be able to handle the 100K as well. “ To run a 100K, you have to be good at 42. Anyone can run a 100K. But if you want to excel at 100K, then you should be good at the marathon because that is the base from which, you go longer or shorter,’’ she said. The marathon addresses all training aspects – speed runs, tempo runs, long runs and recovery runs. “ When I train for the marathon, my performance for the half and 10K improves alongside. Same holds true for the ultramarathon. When I train for the ultramarathon, I am getting better for the marathon too. People hit walls usually for a reason – typically, poor or incorrect nutrition. In a marathon, there are no mistakes. You get what you trained for,’’ Anjali said. At the same time, despite the devotion to systematic training and acknowledgement of the marathon as a process that delivers true to what effort was put in; she is not a big fan of technology. There is no great amount of math and measurement in her approach. “ I run by feel. I can only do what my body is doing. I can only run based on how I am feeling,’’ she said. In her heart, she admitted, she leans more to the 100K nowadays. That is what she would like to focus on, going ahead.

From the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

If it was dengue in the run up to Croatia, post-Croatia another nasty surprise awaited. Anjali was diagnosed with lumps on her breast. Given she had undergone platelet transfer not long ago, surgery was ruled out. Medical opinion initially said that she give up running. Luckily the tumor turned out to be benign. “ There is nobody who does not have a problem. I think perfection is making the best of what you have,’’ she said. In the months that followed, she ran the New York City Marathon in 3:24 hours, Boston in 3:14 and Berlin in 3:23. In November 2019, she set a national record in 100 kilometers at the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, covering the distance in 9:22:03. Meanwhile as India’s amateur running movement penetrates deeper and deeper into the country, competition has been increasing. To remember alongside is also the angle that India has the biggest pool of youth in the world. The classic amateur running movement in India saw people discovering the active life in their working years and middle aged athletes registering sterling performances. In recent times, it has also meant an army of young people taking to the sport and setting new benchmarks. Even in the ultramarathon, a sport traditionally identified with experience and a slightly older crowd, youngsters have been making their presence felt. As of 2020, Anjali was in her late forties. She came late to running and had done much in the years since. But a question any observer would ask is – how much longer? “ I believe my best is yet to come. I feel there is a lot left in me as regards the marathon and the 100K,’’ she said.

With Sachin Tendulkar at the 2019 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In the run up to every edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), the question on runners’ minds is how the weather may be on race day. In 2018 and 2019, the pleasantness of late December-early January had suddenly transformed to heat and humidity. Two days before 2020 TMM, not only was it still pleasant in Mumbai but there was also a nip in the air that evening, at the café on Marine Drive. Coffee and conversation done, Anjali left to attend a wedding reception at Trident Hotel, a short walk away. Two days later, she won in her age category of 45-49 years at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon, covering the distance in 3:24:53. Among amateur woman runners of all age categories running the marathon (the fastest of the lot was clocked at 3:16:26), she placed fourth. Roughly two months later, the running scene in India ground to a halt as COVID-19 zoomed to pandemic. The situation affected Anjali too. Hemmed in by lockdown, the need to protect her family and with her own house bordered by containment zones, she decided it would be wise to pause her running till things improved. Yoga and strength training continued. Early August, this blog asked her what the impasse – complemented by the irreversible nature of time – meant to her. “ The question is meaningless to me. I don’t run for a podium finish. I run because I like to run. It is alright if right now, I must temporarily stay off running. That is a conscious decision made in view of the prevailing times of viral disease and my desire to protect my family,’’ 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 Anjali, one in January 2020 and the other in August.)        

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