Sandeep Sharma, a mechanical engineer from Delhi-NCR, has been running for the past 14 years. Apart from running many marathons and ultra runs, he has mentored and coached many. Read our this week’s #Finisher Story
Share your fitness and running stories with us in the form of articles and we will publish them on our website. To send your entries, reach out to us through: Twitter: @FinisherMag, Instagram: @finishermagazine, Facebook: @finishermagazine or email: [email protected]
The Humble Beginnings
I was never a sportsperson or an athlete – I had mostly led a sedentary lifestyle. I weighed about 82kgs in 2008 and just after my 40th birthday that year, found out that I was diabetic. The usual routine followed – the doctor advising me to lose weight and start exercising. I started walking and tried to make it a regular part of my routine. I used to read a lot and during one of my walking sessions, I remembered an extract from the autobiography of the legendary automobile expert, Lee Iacocca – his father once told him, ‘Why walk, when you can run!’. These words echoed in my mind and led me to the beginning of what would be an incredible journey in the coming years of my life. Lo and behold, at the age of 40, I started running and it all started at Dwarka where I used to stay, back in 2008.
I started with occasional short runs that gave way to more regular, bi-weekly, 3-4km runs. I could already see the results when my weight started to drop. This gave me incredible motivation and I was well and truly on the way to being fit. I still remember my first formal run at an event organized by some college students in March 2008 – it was a 9km run and I had a miserable day. I did not give up, kept walking and running and managed to cross the finish line. It didn’t take me long to realize that the running bug had now entered my body and bloodstream.
A few months later, I happened to come across a hoarding of a major running event. This was the coveted Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) – with nothing to lose, I decided to take up the challenge. The most I had run up until then was a mere 12km. I started training for it and gradually ramped up the running distance. I finished the first half marathon of my life with a timing of 2 hours 21 minutes. This was the first landmark event in my running journey, and it gave me a lot of satisfaction. As it is with us runners, we keep on challenging ourselves and set new targets as soon as we have accomplished one.
I continued running and was growing in strength and confidence. I kept participating in one or two events every year and started dreaming of finishing a half marathon under 2 hours. After years of training and running regularly, I finally achieved this elusive target in 2014. This was the second landmark event in my journey.
I completed quite a few half marathons under 2 hours in the coming years. I hit a purple patch in June-July 2016 when I did 8 weeks of back to back bi-weekly 10K runs (all well under 1 hour) and a half marathon under 2 hours. This was also the time when I had started harbouring ambitions of running my first ever full marathon – and the aim was to achieve this feat at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon – another internationally renowned event – in January 2017. I started training for the full marathon with a vengeance. I remember, in August 2016, I returned from a running event and by afternoon, I was so sick that I could not even get up from my bed. I was diagnosed with Chikungunya. This took a toll on my body and it took me several weeks to recover. Fighting against the body and mind, I continued to train for the full marathon slowly and steadily.
Finally, the day came, in January 2017, and I was on my way to Mumbai for my first ever full marathon. It was a mega-event and I had a lot of doubts in my mind. To make matters worse, I had a nagging pain in my left ankle. The longest distance I had ever run until then was 29km and the stark contrast in the weather – a warm and humid Mumbai versus extremely dry and cold winter of Delhi – meant that I had to acclimatise to different conditions very quickly. Four hours, 41 minutes later, I stood across the finish line reminiscing about my surreal experience. A feeling that cannot be described in words – I had just completed my first full marathon. I lost a nail in the bargain, but it was a very small price to pay for the confidence I gained after this run. This run paved the way for the bigger and better things that would come into my running journey in the coming years. Incidentally, this remains my full marathon personal best time to date – and this was the third landmark in my running journey.
I recall I wrote to the makers of Tiger Balm after my full marathon, thanking them for their amazing product. I had applied heaps of the balm on my ankle before the run – and it worked like magic.
Twist in the Tale
While on my way back from Mumbai, I learnt of an event which was very popular among marathon and ultra runners. This was a trail run event organized in Delhi – the Bhatti Lakes Ultra. I got really excited with the idea of running on a trail. In my mind, I was clear what my next target would be.
I started collecting information on the Bhatti Lakes event and learnt that one needed to finish at least three full marathons in order to qualify for the event. And thus, started Mission Bhatti – with me registering for full marathon events in order to be eligible for the big trail run. The aim was to participate in the base category of the Ultra Marathon – 50K. While preparing for the big event, I also achieved my first podium finish at a running event in Dwarka, completing a full marathon in 4 hours 42 minutes, in the heat of April. I realized that I needed to do a few more full marathons to be able to qualify for the Bhatti event and continued to train for the same.
Until early 2019, I was a lone runner – I used to train and run alone, go to events on my own. It was a strange feeling, practically having no one to share the joy and ecstasy one experiences after crossing the finish line. Around that time, I joined a trainer, Bikash Yadav, who used to conduct parkour and fitness sessions at my condominium (I had moved to Gurgaon by then). This is when a pleasant twist came into my running journey – my transformation from being a lone runner to a team runner had begun. It was here that I came across an amazing set of people and became an integral part of a running family called Runners Unplugged (RU). I started training and running with this group and discovered the joy of running with a running buddy. I still remember finishing a full marathon together with my friend Sandeep Rai (IDBI Marathon February 2019) where we outpaced and outran the official 04:45 hours event pacer despite both of us having cramps. Running as a group helped all of us to start expanding our horizons and we started dreaming of longer distances. Throughout 2019, I ran at various events with the RU family – marathons, trail runs, informal and formal runs. I ran my first half marathon as an official event pacer at the Pinkathon 2019, where I paced my friend Ruchi Tiwari. Others in group started graduating to full marathons as well. One such event where we all ran a full marathon together was the Millennium City Marathon (MCM) in 2019. It was memorable as I paced my good friend Shipra Makhija to her first full marathon and we did it under 5:00 hours.
The Next Level
After a lot of deliberations, I decided to participate in the Bhatti Lakes Ultra 10th edition in November 2019 along with my running buddy Sandeep Rai. It was a very different kind of an event compared to the events I had been to until that time. It was my first ultra run. I was supported wholeheartedly by all my friends from RU and especially by our crew Abhishek Daga. I finished my 50km run in 06:32 hours and Sandeep Rai finished shortly after. For me, this would be the fourth landmark event in my running journey as I discovered my penchant for running on trails. This run also gave me the encouragement to go even further, push the limits. The seeds of thought of running a 100K, 160K or even more, had been sown.
I would like to highlight here one of my most enjoyable runs where I paced my friend, Shipra Makhija, at her first 50K ultra run at the Run for Her event in January 2020. We, as a runner – pacer pair, finished second, ahead of many well-known ultra-runners. Then in early February 2020, I completed my first 84K trail at the Trail A Thon Ultra Marathon at the Manger trail. I completed this event in 10 hours 51 minutes, securing the 3rd position in my category, leaving many experienced ultra runners behind. I was ecstatic and full of confidence. My dream of running a 100K or more was now at striking distance. I was eagerly awaiting the start of the 2020 running season and looking forward to my first century run. But destiny had other plans for me.
Quirk of Fate
March 2020 saw the advent of perhaps the worst pandemic ever in the history of mankind. I had registered for many events scheduled in 2020, including a 100K run at the Bhatti Lakes Ultra scheduled for November 2020. Slowly, all these events were either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Confined to the four walls of my apartment and having nothing much to do, I started toying with the idea of running inside my apartment. I started with a half marathon and after a couple of weeks, finished a full marathon, without stepping out of my house. I ran barefoot on the tiled surface of my apartment on a 20m track, taking U-turns every 20m. It was quite taxing on the ankles but was a unique experience. I also did several short runs going up and down the 14 floors of my building. With the pandemic far from being over, the idea of attempting a 100K run inside my apartment was germinating inside me; but owing to the ankle strain, I had to hold on to my instincts. The 100K mark still eluded me.
After the unlocking was started by the government, I started going out for occasional runs and did a few with my RU friends. The idea of 100K was back in my mind and I was hoping that the organizers of Bhatti Lakes Ultra would hold the event with controls and protocols. I started to train, running at different times of the day and under different conditions – early morning, late morning, on an empty stomach, on a full stomach, in the evenings and even midnight. I did multiple runs to train my body to be ready for a run at any time and in any condition – favourable or adverse. Having no clarity on the future of the Bhatti Lakes Ultra, I decided to attempt my 100K run on Sunday 25th October 2020, inside my condominium.
The Fifth Landmark
I don’t know whether it was the anxiety of the big event or was it the changing weather – I was having some discomfort in my stomach from Friday night and had a minor cold. I took some medicines and hoped that things would get better by Sunday morning, in time for the start. It was not to be, and on Saturday night, I could not sleep much due to the cold. I finally got up at 2:00am thinking whether I should cancel my run and try it when my health was better. After giving it a thought, I decided to take the plunge leaving the rest to fate. There was no looking back as far as I was concerned. I decided to start an hour early and was out on the ground at 3:30am. The official 100K cut-off time is usually 18 hours and my original plan was to complete the run in 14. I recalibrated the time keeping in view my health condition and was ready to go.
After an excruciating 16 hours 45 minutes 12 seconds, during which I went through a plethora of emotions, physical and mental strain and changing weather, I had a feeling that I have never had before, as I completed my last lap achieving my long time ambition of running a 100K run. I realised I had finally done it though the feeling took time to sink in. My family – wife Binny and daughter Ebbani – my friends from the Runners Unplugged family (many of whom accompanied me at different stages of the run), my neighbours and many residents of our condominium came out in my support and applauded as I took the last few steps. It was a memorable day for me made special by everyone present around me. Yes, this indeed was the fifth and the most recent landmark of my running journey. But I believed I had just begun my journey and was already planning my next rendezvous.
In the days that followed, I was inundated with hundreds of congratulatory messages from friends and family, fellow residents, runners, senior citizens and kids. Many people asked me why did I decide to run a 100K – was there a noble cause, was there something I wanted to prove. The answer is very simple – I ran a 100K because I wanted to. As an ultra runner (Yeah! I can call myself one now) I wanted to test and push my limits – and there was no point in waiting for another year to do a 100K. I didn’t want Covid-19 to spoil my future-plans to do a 100-Miler (160km) in 2021. I just didn’t want to wait.
Back in 2008, I started walking and running for health benefits – but that is not a prime concern anymore. That has now become a biproduct of running. I believe that feeling good about oneself and generally having a positive outlook are the other benefits and I find them quite alluring. The idea that one can start a seemingly impossible journey irrespective of one’s current situation, that one can reach the desired goal by working at it and by overcoming negativity, is, in my view, the key to success.
As I sign-off, I look forward to the next goal, the next landmark in my amazing and most eventful running journey. As it is with us runners, we keep on challenging ourselves and set new targets as soon as we have accomplished one.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Finisher Magazine editorial team.