“Born to Run” is an amazing book by Christopher McDougall on ultra-marathon running. By definition an ultra-marathon is any distance over 42km. There is no upper limit.
Ultra-marathoners must be an insane lot. Unlike us lesser mortals, running a full marathon isn’t exciting enough for them. As the book describes, running a race of 217km (135mile) in Badwater Basin (also known as California’s Death Valley), where weather conditions are most extreme and temperature hovers above 49 degrees even in the shade excites these runners. Who are these super-human people and why do they attempt such feats which could even kill them? Are they born tough or did they train themselves to achieve such extremes? I was desperate to know.
And then I met Raj Vadgama, India’s most celebrated and successful ultra-marathoner. Here are a few of Raj’s achievements –
- He holds the record for running from Delhi to Mumbai (1500km) in 30 days
- He is the first Indian to run 100km at Khardung La Pass (world’s highest motorable pass) in a record 18 hours
- He is the first person to run 10,000km running across the length and breadth of India in the North, South East and West.
And yet, for someone as accomplished, Raj is a very friendly, easy going and warm person. The quintessential neighbour next door.
Born and brought up in Mumbai, he is an interior designer by profession. His entry into the world of fitness began at the early age of 14 with martial arts training. “I trained for martial arts specifically Wing-Chu for more than a decade. It turned out to be the perfect foundation for my future fitness endeavours”.
For more than 15 years he was a practicing interior designer and pursued martial arts just as a hobby. In 2004, registrations for the inaugural edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) opened. Raj tells me how he ended up registering, “I had never run before but registered myself for the marathon on a whim. While selecting the distance, I thought a half marathon sounds incomplete, let me go for the full!” Just like that, he ran the full marathon and his timing was a superb 3hrs 49 hours! Little did he know that his life had changed forever.
For the next two years Raj was a regular in the running circuit. He tells me “I liked running. It got me into a trance. I had never experienced so much calm before. I felt this was the best individual sport”. He started running with groups at Aarey Colony in Mumbai and people started noticing him. Even though he was a newbie, people came to him for advice on form, technique and other aspects of running. He progressed rapidly and by 2006, he was running long distances regularly and started exploring trails around Mumbai.
It was on one such run at Lonavala that he heard about the mother of all ultra-marathons – the Badwater race in California, USA. He watched a video of the Badwater race and was astounded by the enormity of the challenge.
At the same time he couldn’t miss the irony. “Here I was admiring examples of extreme athleticism while in India we hardly saw any runners let alone great ones. Running in India had a miniscule following. I wondered why can’t an Indian match a Kenyan? Genetics shouldn’t be an issue when we know there are tribes in India which have Kenyan origins. Indians definitely have the potential but a platform was needed to promote running in India.”
The idea of going ultra was born. Raj started increasing his weekly mileage to prepare himself for these extreme distances. It helped that the number of running events was also on the rise and a community was slowly gaining traction. Raj organised and participated in a number of such events. In his first major ultra, he ran a 100km in humid Mumbai in less than 16 hours. Next, he conquered the distance between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
In 2012, he ran 160km in the Thar Desert in April in scorching heat. Within 2 weeks of this, he ran 1500km between Delhi-Mumbai in a record 30 days! These feats earned him a place in the Limca Book of Records.
It was notable that he did not suffer any major injuries while he was testing his physical limits. “I think it has to do with the martial arts background. Except for a few minor niggles, I have been able to stay away from injuries”.
Then Raj took me through the most exciting and famous initiative he has undertaken till date “I wanted to encourage runners and spread a running culture. I thought why not run across the border of India? This had never been attempted before and it would be a distance of 10,000km.” The idea of Bharathon was born! Logistics and support, however, were difficult to find. “I approached a number of corporates for sponsorship but in vain. Maybe it was because we did not offer much in return. There was no marketing or PR team”. There was another way; crowd-sourcing. “My daily expense was around Rs. 12000-15000 which included hotel stay at night, medical expenses and so on. Many people, known and unknown came forward and generously contributed to help my cause”. He did find a medical partner, Fortis, who came to his rescue in the most unexpected manner.
His daily schedule during Bharathon was excruciatingly tough. “I would wake up every day at 4am and begin my run by 5am. The first challenge was to keep a track of halt points as it was important for me not to miss my meals. I was running in remote areas where power supply was an issue. Without a proper charge, my phone battery would run out and I would have no clue about my location. With this heavy use, my GPS Garmin watch wouldn’t last long. It was a challenge to take care of logistics on my own while running 50-60kms every day. There were times when I reached a hotel late in the night that there would be no food available. After a full day’s run, I would go on to sleep on an empty stomach!”
“Bharathon run of 10000km in January 2015 in my hometown Mumbai. It remains my proudest moment and my greatest achievement”.
A severe jolt was just round the corner. Some runners, probably driven by envy, publicly cast aspersions on his claim of having run 10000km. “This was a period when I broke down mentally, physically and financially. I had logistical challenges in keeping proper log of my daily runs and people refused to believe me. However if a sponsor would have been there, things would have been different. I would have had a team who would have taken care of these things”.
And then help arrived. “The team of doctors from Fortis had been with me through the journey. They corroborated all my claims and records. My record of having run 10000km is now official and valid”.
We then moved on to Raj’s views on the current running scene in India, “Running is picking up well in India. It is heartening to see so many people taking up the sport”. He has a word of caution though “I see a lot of people start running with lot of enthusiasm. They do more than their bodies can take and get injured, never to come back to running again. I think Internet, with all its other advantages, is partly to be blamed for the situation. Many beginners simply Google for information and blindly follow whatever they read. This is completely wrong. Human beings were hunters earlier and running came naturally to us. We used to outrun our prey! But now our lifestyle has changed and our posture has suffered. One has to understand that even though running seems to be a natural activity, it has to be understood well and treated with care. One has to learn the right technique. Also, non-running exercises need to be done too. Cross training, strength training and stretching are crucial to perform well and stay away from injuries.”
Raj discontinued his interior designing practice and moved full time into his area of passion. As many people were anyways taking advice from him, he started coaching classes. He pursued formal certification to get properly acquainted with the human anatomy. Raj tells me what goes into coaching people, “One training plan doesn’t fit everyone. We do an assessment of every individual. We take medical history and lifestyle into account before designing a customised fitness program. The emphasis is on musculoskeletal fitness, flexibility and cardiorespiratory fitness”
“But that is only the physical part. On an emotional level, we connect with each and every participant to provide the necessary support. And last but not the least; we focus on the right diet”.
What are his views about diet? “Diet is a very important aspect of a sportsperson’s life. One cannot be reckless with food habits. I have 3 meals every day with no snacking in between. I take a heavy breakfast, light lunch and a light but nutritious dinner”
In closing Raj shared with me some very important tips for all runners –
- Muscular conditioning is very important. Runners should do high intensity strength training.
- One should train on all surfaces. It is a myth that hard surfaces result in knee problems. In fact a hard surface builds bones and ligaments.
- Balance is very important. Left part of our body should be balanced with right side. One side should not dominate.
- Focus on ankles and the hip while running. These are rotational joints while the knee joint is not. Strengthen rotational joints.
- You should use mid-foot strike while landing and avoid heel strike. Mid-foot landing also ensures you don’t hurt your knee. If you don’t land mid-foot, please learn it before you start running.
And how does one increase running pace? “Simple” says Raj, “just practice running faster!”
Author – Reena Narula. Reena is a Mumbai-based fitness enthusiast and a regular contributor in Sportsjoy.
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