BEHIND A NATIONAL BEST

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

At the 24-Hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru on January 23 & 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar, ultra-runner from Surat, won the 100 kilometer-race in seven hours, 56 minutes and 22 seconds, a new national best for the distance. Here is an overview of his journey in the sport:

In the days leading to the NEB 24-hour Bengaluru Stadium Run held on January 23 and 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar’s plan was to attempt the 100 kilometer-category therein, as a training run. “ I  was not approaching this event as a race. My training was far from adequate. Also, I had been traveling on work across the country and so was not able to chalk out a good training program,” he said.

Before the Bengaluru event, Sandeep could manage two long runs as part of his training plan – a 71 km-run in Manali (through Solang and the Rohtang Pass) and a 60 km-run in Surat; the latter three weeks ahead of the stadium run. He managed decent training mileage for only a week. “ I planned to take this event as a training run. I wanted to support Abhinav,” he said. Like Sandeep, Abhinav Jha, a naval officer, is among India’s leading ultramarathon runners.

On the first day of the event in Bengaluru – Saturday, January 23 – the weather was fairly good. Participating in the 100 kilometer-category, Abhinav covered the distance in 7:57:35 hours. The timing was a new national best. The previous national best was 8:04 by Mumbai-based runner, Deepak Bandbe, who secured it at the 2019 IAU Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. The day after Abhinav’s run in Bengaluru the weather changed. It became very warm in the morning and afternoon hours. “ I started running at 5.30 AM on Sunday. I ran non-stop as long as my body allowed me to do so. In the early hours, the weather was good. But as the day grew warmer fatigue started to creep in. I also began to sense tightness in my quadriceps,” Sandeep said.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

For his run, Sandeep had sought support from the team, which assisted Abhinav earlier. The naval officer, who had commenced his run at 5 PM on Saturday and finished it only a few hours before Sandeep started his attempt, pitched in to help. It was a heart-warming gesture; typically long runs exhaust athletes and dispatch them to rest and recovery. “ Abhinav mixed drinks for me. It helped me to hydrate well during the race. It was amazing that Abhinav helped out so not long after finishing his shot at 100 km,” Sandeep said. Also lending consistent support to Sandeep was Sunil Chainani, member of the committee overseeing ultra-running at the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and who has in the past accompanied Indian teams to events overseas.

Backed thus by a good team, Sandeep was able to pile on the miles. The 30 to 50 km phase went off well. “ I felt I was getting my energy back. From then on I paid attention to my nutrition. I just focussed on getting by, one hour to the next,” he said.

The Bengaluru stadium run was the first event on track for Sandeep. It was also a case of runner progressively getting back into the thick of action after enduring an uncertain period. Earlier in August 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, IAU had held a six-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run for ultra-runners across the world. From India, 25 runners completed the run, held on August 29 and 30. Running in Surat, Sandeep had logged the maximum distance among Indian runners with a mileage of 79.53 km. It was an encouraging performance given the intervening months of lockdown caused by COVID-19 had been trying. In the initial phase of lockdown, norms had been strict; it forced Sandeep to stay indoors. For an ultra-runner, training mileage has to be high. The complete absence of running was very difficult to handle. “ The mind and body felt caged,” he said. He used to wake up very early to do short runs or opt to run late at night. Eventually, he took to meditation. It helped him weather those months.

For the IAU 6-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run, Sandeep commenced general fitness training sometime in July 2020 and by early August 2020, he started run training. He chose to run in Surat as it was familiar training ground. His run went off well, helped by his training and the pleasant weather. Roughly a year before this virtual run, in 2019, Sandeep had been part of the Indian team at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. However, the race that fetched Sandeep the attention of India’s ultra-running circles was the Comrades Marathon. Over 2017 and 2018, he had completed the uphill and downhill versions of this iconic race in South Africa in the best timings reported till then by an Indian runner.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

Sandeep comes from a farming family in Haryana. His grandfather was in the Indian Army. Typically, the son should have followed the father’s footsteps but being the only son Ishwar Singh (Sandeep’s father) was vested with the responsibility of managing the farmlands owned by the family. During his schooling years at Sonipat, Sandeep Kumar engaged in a variety of sports – cycling, running, trail running – but mostly on his own and not on a formal basis.

In families that are into farming, it is general practice to recruit all available hands for farm related activities, especially when schools close for the summer holidays. Sandeep did his share of enduring the hard work. What must have been a chore at that point in time has probably proved beneficial to Sandeep in later years; ultra-running entails coping with hardship. But it would be still more years before he got seriously into running.

Through his years of study at the Government Engineering College, Sonipat, Sandeep did not involve much in sporting activity though he did take part in runs over distances of 3 km and 5 km without any prior training. On securing his degree in engineering, by way of campus recruitment he was offered employment at Larsen & Toubro (L&T) at Surat in Gujarat. “ After an initial stint in design, I was shifted to the execution department. Here, the work required walking 10 to 15 kilometers, visiting the various sites and departments,” he said. Sandeep joined a gym to strengthen himself for this assignment. “ I developed a muscular body. It was completely unsuited to long-distance running but at that time I had no clue I would go into running,” he said.

After five years in the execution department, Sandeep was transferred back to design. “ It was a desk bound assignment. Initially, it was a relief from all that walking about. But soon, sitting throughout the day started to stress me out,” he said. In 2011, he incorporated a one kilometer-walk as warm-up before his gym session every evening. The walk slowly became a warm-up run and in due course, a part of his daily routine. He also commenced doing trail runs of short distances.

In 2014, he participated in a 5 km run (an event) finishing it in 30 minutes. “ I was happy with my speed though at a younger age I have run faster. This performance motivated me to take up running,” he said. Running was also a source of strength; it gave him a sense of equanimity.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

In 2014, Sandeep heard about the Surat Night Marathon, held in March. He enrolled for the half marathon. “ During my training for this run, the longest distance I ran was 16 km. During the race, I was able to run non-stop for about 15-16 km. After that I resorted to walk-run. The last 6 km was tough. I had no idea of hydration. I drank too many energy drinks and ended up with electrolyte imbalance,” he said. Sandeep finished the run in 2:02. His next major outing was the full marathon at the 2014 edition of Hyderabad Marathon. The training was again inadequate. He completed the race in four hours, 15 minutes, 48 seconds. “ During the Hyderabad Marathon, I realized that I enjoyed long distance running. I started reading up on running and understood that I should also focus on speed among other things,” he said. This time he got his preparation right. At his next outing, which was the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Sandeep finished in 1:31, a marked improvement in his timing in the half marathon.

Running is like living; there’s always room for improvement. Although he had been training well, over time Sandeep understood that his recovery was slow. “ I realized that I was not following a good diet. I had to reduce the intake of saturated fat and increase multi-grains in my diet for a lean body, which is critical for long-distance running,” he said. He believes his timings improved substantially after he tweaked his diet and incorporated nutritional foods. In the process he also gave up dairy products and in 2016 adopted a vegan diet.

Sandeep Kumar (left), in his role as race organizer (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In 2016, Sandeep enrolled for his first race in excess of the full marathon distance, a 55 km-run at the Vadodara Ultra. By now, he had also started offering tips to other runners and doing training runs with them. Sometime in 2016, a local runner had approached Sandeep Kumar for coaching for running ultra-distances. This runner had attempted the 2016 edition of the Comrades Marathon, an ultra-marathon of roughly 89 kilometers, held every year in South Africa. However, he had failed to complete it within the mandated finish time of 12 hours. He wanted to attempt the race again in 2017.

Up until then Sandeep had been largely focussed on the full marathon and had completed only one race that was in excess of the marathon distance – the 55K race at Vadodara Ultra. After the conversation with the above mentioned runner, the idea of attempting the Comrades Marathon began to assume shape in Sandeep’s mind. The runner agreed to help Sandeep with the visa process. At L&T, Sandeep was able to get leave as his new projects were scheduled to commence much after the race. He enrolled for the 2017 edition of Comrades Marathon. The ultramarathon held every year in May or June in South Africa, attracts a large number of ultra-runners from around the world. The contingent from India has been growing over the past few years.

For the 2017 edition, Sandeep trained mostly in Surat. He occasionally traveled to Dudhani near Silvaasa to do a long run of 60 km across hilly terrain; he did this a couple of times before the race. “ “I managed to get four months of training and notched up a total mileage of 2100 km,” he said. The training mileage was good. Yet there was trepidation on how the race would pan out.

From Comrades (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In South Africa, Sandeep started the race slowly but after the 40 km-mark found the going tough.  He kept moving. “ My legs felt very stiff and I wanted to give up several times. I persisted,” he said. During the last 12 km of the race, he rediscovered his momentum and sped all the way to the finish line. His finish time for the uphill version of Comrades Marathon was 8:24 hours, a new national best for men from India for that distance. “ When I finished the race, I felt on top of the world. I got hooked to ultra-running,” Sandeep said. The next year, he ran the downhill version of Comrades Marathon and finished in 7:30:17, another Indian record.

According to Sandeep, the diverse experience of enjoying natural beauty, traveling and getting to know different cultures, people and cuisines makes ultra-running appealing. As every ultra-run is a lengthy engagement, it lets him use all his knowledge about sports and mental skills. “ Ultra-running tests the character. It defines who I am; I talk a lot to myself during a run,” he said.

In 2018, for the first time ever, India sent a team of runners to the 100 km IAU World Championships in Croatia. For the sport of ultra-running in India, it was an important moment. Thanks to his performance at Comrades, Sandeep was among seven ultra-runners chosen to represent India at the championships. In 2019, he ran the Boston Marathon and finished the race in 2:56:07. He also ran the 43 km IAU Ultra Trail Championships in Portugal, not as part of the Indian team but in the open category. In the same year, he represented India in the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan on November 23, 2019. The men’s team secured a gold medal and one of the team members, Deepak Bandbe, finished on the podium with a bronze medal. Sandeep’s performance in Aqaba was not up to his expectations. “ After 60 km, I developed severe cramps and had to slow down,” he said.

The victory lap; Abhinav Jha carries Sandeep Kumar on his shoulders (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

A year and two months later, his fortunes appeared different at the stadium run in Bengaluru. Notwithstanding the heat, Sandeep was able to manage his hydration well thanks to the volunteers helping him with his needs. Once he crossed 60 km, Sandeep realized that he would be able to continue running despite the stiff quads. According to him, he wasn’t chasing a national best or any such mark. However at around 75 km, it became apparent that his progress was in line with the national best set earlier by Abhinav; and if he managed things properly, that mark could be revised too.“ I know my body well. I can push for a good finish. I finished the race in good shape,” he said. January 23-24, 2021 remain special for ultra-running in India, in that within a span of several hours the national best for the 100K was rewritten twice – first by Abhinav Jha and then by Sandeep. A report on the IAU website by Shibani Gharat, highlighting the sportsmanship displayed, said that following Sandeep’s run, Abhinav carried the new national best-holder on his shoulders for a 400 meter-lap.

Away from participating in races, Sandeep has teamed up with ultra-runner, Nupur Singh, to organize ultra-trail races under the banner of Great Indian Trails or GrIT, a couple of road races, training camps and coaching under the banner of RunGineers. He is an IAAF level-1 athletics coach and ACSM certified trainer for the marathon. He is also an active promoter of veganism. Going ahead, he plans to focus on his own running and his roles as an event organizer and coach in ultra-running.

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

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