Time is often the most precious commodity in our lives. In this article, Hetal Sonpal talks to Deepthi Velkur on how he manages to find time for his passion, ‘running’.
A dynamic and accomplished business leader with over 20+ years in the IT industry, Hetal Sonpal moves effortlessly from being an angel investor to an advisor for start-ups to an accomplished runner in his own right.
He is also a “Mentor of Change” for Niti Ayog and mentors school children on Innovation programs. He is a motivational speaker and has given speeches at numerous B-schools across the country.
His running journey has seen him complete 14 half-marathons, 4 full-marathons, a 50K Malnad Ultra Trail run and he is a certified Half IRONMAN.
In this conversation, he talks about what motivated him to start running leading up to his Half IRONMAN journey.
With a portfolio of more than 20 start-up companies, I’m sure you’re a very busy man. Yet, you find the time to run – how do you manage that?
“Always find time for the things that make you feel happy to be alive”. I heard this line several years ago and it stuck with me. I think regardless of how busy your life gets when you are passionate about something you automatically make time for it.
For me running is a passion and I rearrange other things I do like another sport, yoga, walking or social commitments to make time for a run.
When I started running 5 years ago, it was the ‘something new’ in my life, an activity to meet and engage with more people. In a matter of 6-8 months, that quickly turned into a serious activity with 3-4 runs a week. Over the past 2 years, I have made some changes to the way I run and train so that I focus on my targeted events for the year.
As you said, you set yearly targets for yourself? What’s the strategy you put in place to plan and achieve these targets?
In general, I target 5-6 events a year. ADHM and TMM are 2 regulars in my yearly race calendar. For the others, I generally try and look for that something new, something unique in an event and if it appeals to me, I add it.
This year, for instance, I did the 50K Malnad Ultra Trail run because going beyond the 42K appealed to me and the fact that it is such a challenging trail run made it a must do for me. I also competed in the Surat night marathon because I had never done a night marathon before.
My plans revolve around the targets I have set for myself that year. For easy runs, I set a time target and for the more challenging ones (e.g.: the Malnad Ultra), I set a target of finishing strong and within the cut-off time.
Can you please take us through the training plan that helps you week on week prepare for these runs?
I like keeping things simple.
Monday through Saturday, I spend 1-1.5 hours in the gym. This includes a combination of 20-25 mins of cardio, 40-50 mins of core, weights and strength training. Sunday is dedicated for long runs and the distance varies depending on the event I am preparing for.
I typically follow a 1-month preparation cycle for a Full Marathon and a minimum of 2 weeks for a half marathon.
Your job demands you to travel quite often, how do you fit running into your busy schedule?
A perennial problem with most runners. It is true that my travel schedules do affect my practice but at the same time, it offers me an opportunity to run in a different city under different conditions. It also gives me a chance to meet with other running groups and that helps my networking as well.
I would say that a day trip is more disruptive but if I am staying over, then I can include a run.
Speaking of running groups, you were part of the Gurgaon Road Runners (GRR). How did that help you?
I got to know of the Gurgaon Road Runners(GRR) through their FB page. I was preparing for my first ADHM (Airtel Delhi Half Marathon) in 2013 and they had planned a recce run the weekend before the run. I joined the recce run and GRR helped me a lot in training for my first event- the ADHM. The group was new, so it was easy to fit in and make friends. Siddharth (founder of GRR) is an avid runner and also one of the most disciplined coaches in Gurgaon and his simple approach to running appealed to me.
I was with GRR for about a year to develop my rhythm and technique and after that joined them occasionally for a practice run or a party.
Your first HM run was the ADHM? How did you fare?
The memory of that run is so vivid in my head. I wasn’t nervous but unsure of how I was going to do it. I remember thinking “Don’t stop, just keep running” – I ran the race non-stop. I did not even have a sip of water which lead to dehydration and that affected my overall pace.
I did a 2hr22min run in my first HM which was quite impressive and got me thinking that I could do better. That thinking was vindicated when I ran my 2ndHM (Corbett run, 2014) in 2hr 05min.
You have come a long way – from the 2013 ADHM to the Half IRONMAN in 2018. How did you train for something like the Half IRONMAN?
Well, truth be told I only signed up for the event because my friends cajoled me into it. With 3 activities that have their own training needs and demands, an event such as this really puts to test your mental readiness, physical strength as well as endurance. I set myself a training period of 1-month for this event.
In the first part of my training, I focused on cycling. I rented a bike and did a 100K ride with a cycling group from Gurgaon. The total time of 5hr45min was within my expected range and I was ecstatic.
My next objective was swimming. Considering the cold Delhi winters, finding an indoor heated pool was a challenge. Luckily, I managed to find a place, Fitso at the Sun City School in Gurgaon. Despite the water not being as warm as I would have liked, I dived in and finished my target of 55 – 60 laps. I made a huge mistake though – I rode back home with wet socks in chilly weather, resulted in me catching a cold that lasted for more than 2.5 months.
That mistake ruined my plan of doing a swim + cycle the subsequent weekend. As a consolation, I managed a 60 km ride to India Gate and back with two of my cycling buddies. I further accentuated the cold and was down with fever the next day.
The night before the event, I had a tough decision to make. Go ahead despite not being in great shape or withdraw from the event.
With mild fever and severe cold, having to do 38 laps at the Talkatora stadium pool in New Delhi on a cold winter morning was a detterent but I decided to go ahead and give it my best.
Take us through your experience of the event itself?
The Half IRONMAN and IRONMAN are often considered one of the toughest cross-training events in the world with a strict cut-off time of 9 hours. The Half IRONMAN event includes 1.5K swimming, 90K cycling, and 21K running.
On the day of the event, Feb 17th2018, I woke up at 3:30 AM. I got my swimming, running and cycling gear in place and headed to the venue where the event was to begin at 6 AM.
Despite being unwell, the swimming leg of the event went really well for me. I bested my estimated time by 5 mins.
Next was the bike ride which I was quite positive about. We had 9 rounds of 10k each to be cycled. I was into my 7thround when I suddenly heard a loud noise and realised that my rear tyre was flat. Unlike pro cyclists who have support gear on them, I had none. I had to drag my bike to the start/end point. The event support crew were super-efficient and had me back on the road in a few minutes.
I thought my troubles were over but I was mistaken. 10 metres into the 8thround, my rear tyre gave way again. I went back and the support crew (surprised as they were!) quickly changed the tube again.
I was mid-way into the final round and while I was rueing the hour plus the time lost due to the flat tyre is when I felt that the rear tyre was short of air. I stopped to take a look and ‘lo and behold’ – I had a flat again! (This was quite baffling to the organizers as they acknowledged that amongst 430 participants, I was the only one who had a flat tyre that day- and imagine, having three of them !!)
It left me crestfallen and was on the verge of giving up. Despite the persistent health issue and the risk of further complicating my cold, I had decided to participate, so having to quit due to a tyre issue, left me flabbergasted.
While dragging my bike for the last 5K, I was just thinking of three words – “Just have faith in yourself ”. I completed the cycling leg and quickly changed for the running leg. As a half-marathoner, my best timing was 1hr50min so having to complete it in 3 hours would be easy. However, with all the energy spent over the past 6 hours, I knew this was going to be challenging. Gathering all my courage and remaining scraps of energy, I ran like a man on a mission and crossed the finish line in a total time of 8hr45mins (within the cut-off time). I did it. I finally became a certified “Half IRONMAN”.
In the End, I would only say this – In a world of opportunities, it is the one who seeks the hardest, gets the best!
What is the next big race your focusing on in 2019?
TMM in Jan 2019, Mumbai. have not planned beyond that, as of now!