Sunil Chainani shares his 15-year running story with Deepthi Velkur and also talks about how he balances his work and passion.
Sunil Chainani, an ex-board member with Fabindia and a board member for several other companies juggles business strategies, investment decisions and board meetings with his passion for running and fitness. He takes some time out to talk to us about his 15-year running story.
FM: You have been a keen squash player for a while now, how did the switch to running happen?
Sunil: I played squash at National, State and club level for many years and totally loved the game. It was quite by accident that I took up running in my mid 40’s and I’m hooked. Once I started running longer distances, I found that running made my body a bit too stiff for a game like a squash. Given that I was well past my prime as a squash player, I decided to make the switch to running and give my best to each run and enjoy it at the same time.
FM: With nearly 15 years of running experience, I’m sure you’ve seen and learned a lot about the sport. Do you think a lot has changed since the time you started?
Sunil: When I started running there were very few runners, no coaches, no smartphones or apps. I trained alone in basic shoes, cotton t-shirts and limited knowledge on training techniques. We did not have a lot of marathon events, so we used to focus on the Mumbai marathon (my group had 70 runners at the 2008 event). I did my first Ultra in 2007 when the thought of anything above an FM was sheer madness and look at it today – we have 48-hour runs!
In 2011, I registered for the Comrades marathon and was the first Bengalurean to attempt this race – I had no coach, no guidance, trained mostly alone and I didn’t know the difference between the Comrades Up and Down run. When I survived the Comrades and got back home, I was treated like a hero for having finished the race but now we look at the colour of the medal.
Today, runners have a plethora of choices – coaches, events, running groups, technology. That’s the change.
All this change has brought about an increased number and superior quality of runners (especially among women). India today is making its presence felt in the running world – 4th largest contingent at Comrades 2019, team and individual medals at the Asia-Oceania 24-hour run recently. Other countries realize that we could soon be a major force in the running world. Hopefully, we will soon have a new national record at the Full Marathon.
I do have a word of advice though for new-age runners – enjoy your run and not just focus on equipment, timing, and personal bests. I run because of the joy I get and the friends I make, and often find that I do well at a race when I am not worried about the timing.
One area that needs to be addressed is the “cowboy” event managers who organize running events for commercial reasons with inadequate race management as this could lead to serious injuries and give the sport a bad name.
FM: You’ve had the experience of running on different terrains – which do you think is the most challenging one and why?
Sunil: As a marathon runner, you need to be prepared for all types of terrain and weather. Be it a trail run or a road run, each presents their own challenges and we need to prepare well. Road races tend to be faster while trail races are usually more scenic.
For me the heat and humidity are a challenge – I sweat a lot, lose a lot of salt and tend to cramp.
The key really is to battle through when your body is telling you to stop – this is where the mental toughness kicks in.
Preparation is paramount – check the route conditions, be prepared for weather changes and always have a fallback strategy in mind.
FM: A marathon never pans out exactly the way you plan it, no? What strategies do you put in place to overcome the challenges in a race?
Sunil: I have a 3-fold plan – break your race into segments – strategize each segment – have a fallback plan. It’s also important to understand how your body is performing that day.
For example, during my Comrades run I walked a fair bit due to cramps at halfway point all the time to check my watch to see that I was within cut off limits. On the other hand, during the 2018 Berlin marathon, I managed to stay run strong for most of the race and hence finished with a better than expected time.
Additionally, I try to stay positive through the race by shouting out to fellow runners as this keeps me in a good mood.
FM: With years of experience as a marathoner, what is your advice to amateur runners?
Sunil: There are some key points to keep in mind
- Train hard and sensibly
- Seek expert advice
- Stick to your plan during a run
- Choose your runs wisely.
- Never miss your stretching, strength and cross training sessions.
- Plan your hydration and nutrition
If you are relaxed and well trained, your PBs will automatically come by. Also, smile, cheer your fellow runners and thank the volunteers. Finally, know your stretch goals and don’t push yourself without proper training.
FM: You have done your fair share of ultra-marathons. What excites you about an ultra-marathon and which one is your favourite?
Sunil: I ran India’s first Ultra in Bangalore in 2007 – at a time when marathons were new to India and we did not know about what was needed to go beyond 42K. The tagline for the event was “It’s tough, are you?” which got me interested and I signed up. That got me hooked. I slowly moved up from 52K in 2007 to 75K in 2008, 100K in 2009 and then the 2011 Comrades.
The Comrades is my favourite Ultra – I went in with the fear that I won’t finish the race but despite bad cramps and bleeding toenails, my determination pulled me through. The joy of crossing the finish line will be an everlasting memory. I also like trail Ultras such as the Bangalore Ultra at Hessarghatta and Malnad.
FM: As an ultramarathoner over 60, your training program (physical and mental) will be different, wouldn’t it? Can you shed some light on your training, please?
Sunil: I believe age is a number and that should apply only to wine and cheese! I have had the good fortune to meet the legendary Fauja Singh, who ran his first marathon at 89 and still runs at the age of 104.
The key is to be regular and consistent with your training.
My grey hair has made me mentally stronger and hence I am often able to push through challenging times in a race. It also has made me wiser in my choice of races thus giving me adequate time for my body to recover.
My typical training week consists of 40-50 K of running, 2 days of cross training (1hour of cardio per session) and supplemented by strength work and stretching.
The 2 things you lose with age are speed and quick recovery from injury. You need more rest between races and need to supplement your running with adequate strength work and cross training.
FM: According to you, what are the three qualities a runner should possess to do well?
- Self-Discipline – to be regular with your training
- Determination – to be focused and mentally tough. This requires a strong mind and
- An ability to challenge oneself – to strive to achieve more and keep learning
FM: You have a rather demanding job being an Ex-board member of Fab India and a board member for several other companies. How do you make time for your running?
Sunil: Anyone who says they have no time to exercise is making a feeble excuse. When I travel, the first thing I pack is my exercise gear and will always find a way to either run or use the gym. Many years ago, very few hotels had gyms, so I carried my skipping rope and, in some cases, where skipping was not possible, I would choose a room on a high floor and run up and down multiple times.
We make too many excuses be it weather, time etc. People running in the London or Boston marathon have to train through winter months. In some countries like Africa and South America, it is often unsafe to run alone but yet these countries produce great athletes.
I personally believe good sportspersons also make much better managers at their workplace and the qualities that stand out are their discipline, focus, goal setting, training and ability to learn and challenge themselves.
Having said that, there is now a slow but visible change happening and I hope we will soon see more senior executives participating in marathons and other sports events.
FM: You were the Team leader for the Indian team at the 24-hour Asia & Oceania championships this year, please take us through your experience of the event? How did you lead the team to such a great finish?
Sunil: It was a great honour to be selected as the Team Leader for the Indian team for the World 100K in Croatia in September 2018 and the Asia-Oceania 24-hr run in Taipei in December 2018.
Our team went to Taipei with the hope of gaining valuable experience and the most optimistic expectation was that many of our 12 runners would achieve their PB timings. We were in a field of world-class runners from Japan and Australia and strong runners from Mongolia and Taiwan. 15 runners from these countries had a PB better than our top runner Ullas Narayana and 4 teams had totals which were significantly better than our total (for a team event the total of your 3 best runners is counted).
It was a very warm day and most runners suffered in the first 6 to 7 hours and despite a strong performance from Ullas, we were having a tough day. At the 12-hour mark while Ullas had moved to the 8th position almost all the other runners were heading for a below-par performance. Ullas continued to get stronger and at the 17-hour mark had moved into 4th position. At this stage, he built a significant lead over the top runners from Mongolia and Taiwan and this got our team within striking range of these 2 countries. I spoke with our 2nd and 3rd placed runners, Sunil Sharma and Meena about their chance to get us into medal contention. Both of them were in pain and taking long medical breaks, but they got spurred on by the challenge. By the 20th hour, our top 3 runners had brought us almost on par with the 3rd and 4th placed teams – we continued to push these 3 runners and they got stronger. By the 22nd hour, Ullas had moved into 3rd place and the team had also overtaken Mongolia and Taiwan to get into medal contention. Ullas, Sunil, and Meena ran very strong in the last 2 hours and we earned an individual and team bronze- India’s first-ever medals in international Ultra events. Ullas smashed his own national record with a world-class performance. I had goosebumps as I saw the Indian flag go up twice at the awards ceremony.
FM: Apart from juggling a challenging work role, family and your running commitments, what do you do to just relax?
Sunil: I make time for things I enjoy like travel, wildlife, music, good food, and wine. I try to plan a holiday after a marathon in a nice location and if I am travelling then I always carry my running shoes and enjoy exploring new cities running. For me, running is a great way to relax and unwind. Life is too short so make the most of it!