“If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy” – Dale Carnegie.
In this article, she talks about how she finds the time and motivation to constantly keep trying new things, her inspirations and her experience of completing the Ironman challenge.
FM: Where did your interest in cycling stem from?
Anjali: Being a working mom to two little girls and managing an export business that had a lot of travel, left me very little time to stay active. Swimming at night was my only form of exercise. To de-stress, I loved taking short getaways and in 2002, I planned a month’s trek to Kailash Maansarovar. That decision turned out to be a life-changer for me.
In preparation for the Kailash trek, I used to go hiking to Sinhagad fort (which I continue to this day) and there I met with a lot of fitness enthusiasts from Pune among them being 2 older cyclists. They shared with me captivating stories of their rides covering hundreds of kilometers and invited me to join them on their latest adventure – ‘Goa to Cochin – 800KM in a week’. I readily accepted.
I started training on my daughter’s basic cycle and in a month graduated to a geared cycle. I trained well and in December 2005, we set off. I loved every bit of it and have been hooked ever since.
FM: You were part of the Maharashtra cycling team and won various events across the country. When did the shift to competitive cycling happen?
Anjali: At Sinhagad, I met with a great senior cyclist who used to be a racer and that meeting encouraged me to give racing a shot. I then started training on a road bike and I was lucky to get selected for the Maharashtra State Cycling team. In 2006, I represented my state at the National Championship in road racing as well as in mountain biking. That’s how I got into competitive cycling.
FM: Around this time, you picked up running as well and transitioned slowly into HM’s and adventure racing and did well there too? How do you do this?
Anjali: My weekly hikes to Sinhagad fort played a part again. I met with interesting folks that inspired me to try out something new and this time it was running. My training partner Elle and my dog accompanied me on many of my trail runs. I trained well with her. Several months later, I ran the 2007 Mumbai HM and achieved a podium finish in my age category (40+ years).
Seemingly comfortable with cycling and running, the heart yearned again for something new and I was introduced to adventure racing. Pune has a team race organised by NEF Enduro3, India’s first and only multi-disciplinary adventure race and it involves trekking, cycling, mountain biking, river crossing, rifle shooting and the most exciting of them all – rappelling. Now, I had a fear of heights and to rappel down a cliff was terrifying for me. Getting over my fear, I went on to win the open enduro3 race in Feb 2012. I used to go on skiing trips during my yearly break in the mountains and made trekking a weekly routine. All of this helped improve my fitness levels to a large extent.
FM: With all this going on, you also did long-distance endurance cycling events? How do you fit all this into your busy life?
Anjali: Fitness is a journey. Just get inspired and you are on a roll.
I was wondering how I should build my endurance and that’s when the thought of long-distance cycling and full marathons came to mind. Cycling tours such as the Tour Of Nilgiris (TFN) seemed like a good place to start and in December 2012, I went on one and won a podium finish.
Long-distance cycling really helped build my endurance and I continue my yearly tour which is a Tour of TamilNadu. To build endurance further, I did BRMs which are long- distance endurance cycling events and I am a 3-time Super Randonneur. Having worked on my endurance, I now wanted to attempt running a full marathon and in 2016, did my maiden marathon and won a podium finish.
FM: Does each of them require the same training program or do you go about tweaking the training plan basis for the upcoming event?
Anjali: The training for speed racing and endurance racing is different. I actually enjoy the constant tweaking in my training which is dependent on the upcoming race. Along with short races, I was able to train for endurance events too.
FM: What was the motivation for you wanting to do the Ironman challenge someday?
Anjali: Well, in my fitness journey, I have always found people who have inspired me to do something more. It was in 2010 on a bike ride, when I met with Kaustubh Radkar, a 20-time Ironman veteran from Pune. He told me all about the Ironman challenge and while I thought I could never ever do it, it definitely piqued my interest.
Eventually, I did 2 half-Ironman distance challenges in India (Hyderabad – 2015 and Pune – 2017). At both events, I turned out a winner and that really helped build my confidence. With my new found confidence and assistance from Kaustubh, I started preparing for the Ironman challenge in August 2017 at Vichy, France.
FM: For your 50th birthday, you gave yourself an amazing birthday present – taking part in your first Ironman challenge. Please take us through the experience from start to finish?
Anjali: NEVER give up on your bucket list…and the IRONMAN was one of those things for me. I knew I could have tried it earlier, but doing it when I was 50, was the plan. For my 50th birthday, I wanted to celebrate it by completing the Ironman challenge at Vichy, France on 27 August 2017.
My family too had the confidence in me and so Nitin (my husband) planned for a holiday in France, so my wish of doing the IRONMAN would come true!
A week before the race
Like most athletes, I also tapered down my training before the race. After a comfortable flight into Paris, we loaded my MERIDA bike (sponsored) carefully into the camper for the road trip to Vichy, this pretty French town that was hosting the mighty IRONMAN race. With Nitin driving and Pooja my elder daughter navigating, all I had to do was put my feet up and enjoy the picturesque French countryside. The campsite was lovely, not far from the race start venue.
I ate and rested well – it was salmon and meat for protein, French baguettes for carb loading and some berries. Being in the spa town of Vichy, there was no better way to relax than in a spa. At times, I would stroll by the river to see how the swim looks and walk along bridges and parks to check the run route.
The day before the race, I kept my gear ready and was feeling strong and confident.
My loved ones were super supportive, patient with my training and have been extremely understanding as well. Friends too wished me well and prayed for a smooth race.
The IRONMAN comprises of a 3.8KM swim, 180KM bike ride and 42.2KM run which had to be done within a cut-off time of 16 hours.
The swim leg was challenging – the water was cold, it was very windy and that made the water choppy but I managed to finish it in 2hrs and 6 mins.
Now came the cycle leg – The roads were not smooth which made it difficult but riding through the countryside was lovely. The local crowd was supportive and wonderful. It was a steady ride and I finished the distance in 7 hours and 13 mins.
The final element was the 42.2KM run where we had to run along the banks of the river going through parks and cafes. It was a total of 4 loops. My family was there to cheer me on and it was a great feeling that they were waiting for me at the finish line. I took 5hrs and 9 mins to complete the run.
In total, I took 14 hrs and 52 mins. Crossing the finish line brought a sense of relief and achievement and when they announced “Anjali Bhalinge – You are an Ironman’, I was ecstatic. If I could do the Ironman challenge at 50, there are so many fitness enthusiasts who could think of doing it too.
FM: To complete the Ironman challenge requires you to excel at all three disciplines. How did you train for the event?
Anjali: It took 3 months of disciplined training and Kaustubh Radkar’s guidance to prepare me for the race. My training included all 3 elements – swimming, cycling and running with proper nutrition and equipment. I also did brick training – cycle + run which was an important component of my training.
I had several people who helped me train and provided me with the right nutrition, gear and support I needed to take on this massive challenge.
My main aim always is ‘train hard so that the race is easy’.
FM: Your family have always been supportive, haven’t they? Did you face a challenge balancing your passion and your home front?
Anjali: My family has always been my backbone and they have supported me to pursue my passion. To be honest, it was actually not so tough – the kids were grown up and I had time to chase my dreams.
FM: What challenges/advantages do you see for yourself being on the other side of 50?
Anjali: The most important is recovery after workouts. Proper nutrition and rest is important too.
FM: What according to you is required to stay strong during a race?
Anjali: The most important thing would be mental strength – be positive from the start and never give up when fatigue starts setting in. Equally important is nutrition during the race, to keep energy levels high. And always remember that pain is temporary!
FM: What goals have you set for yourself in the coming years?
Anjali: Maybe ultra-running or ultra-cycling would be the obvious thing, but I want to try mountaineering and have been thinking of doing a basic mountaineering course. Unfortunately, the good mountaineering institutes in India have an upper age limit to apply for the course and I am above that now. Yet, very optimistically, I approached the Nehru Institute of mountaineering and requested them to consider applicants like me on the basis of fitness and not age and to my surprise, they accepted my request and they now have one course which has the upper age limit of 55. Now I have been accepted in this course and I am eager to try out this new fitness adventure.