Taher Merchant talks to Deepthi Velkur about how his quest to leading a healthier life led him towards running.
As parents and working professionals, we often neglect ourselves or things we love – don’t we?
“Carve out and claim the time to care for yourself and kindle your own fire” – Amy Ippoliti.
In talking with Taher, this quote came to mind and it fit his story perfectly – how he decided to make time for himself and things he loves, like spending time with his wife for instance or staying healthy.
In his quest for a healthier life, Taher decided to take up running on a whim and that progressively turned into an obsession. His incredible running journey has seen him achieve some amazing personal milestones like becoming the first Indian male to successfully complete the Tenzing Hillary Everest Extreme Ultra-marathon (in 2018).
Running milestones aside, he currently is an athlete for Fast & Up Nutrition, Puma and has been an ambassador for “Life is calling” in 2018.
FM: What kindled your interest to take up running?
Taher: Running was born of out a need to spend quality time with my wife, Soraya. We are both busy individuals and like most couples needed our “me” time. So, we decided to make that time while working towards a healthier lifestyle. Running was the first thing that came to mind and we started running in Rani Kittur Chennama stadium in Jayanagar. Once we began, I saw a marked improvement in my fitness, energy levels and realized that I truly enjoyed running. That’s when I figured that I wanted to be a serious runner and push myself to achieve something.
FM: Running a business takes a lot out of you. How do you find time for training and participate in various events?
Taher: It’s funny because most of my friends don’t believe that I work as I am always either running or training. Being a part of a family-owned business is a blessing – my dad is my backbone and has always supported my training and always steps in when I have to take a step back from work. I run a tight ship at work and have a fantastic team that runs the show when I am training and running around the globe. It’s important to make time for the things you love, and running is one of my great loves.
FM: When did your association with JJ’s (Jayanagar Jaguars) running club begin? How has joining this club helped you?
Taher: I ran a few marathons in 2014 and 2015 as an amateur and I realized that to further develop my running technique and endurance, I would need professional coaching – that led me to join Jayanagar Jaguars in 2016. Under Coach Pramod’s tutelage, I have been able to dramatically improve my running technique and endurance over several marathons.
FM: You were one of the first Indians to complete the gruelling Everest marathon – care to share your experience?
Taher: I realized that high-altitude running excited me – it was challenging and exhilarating. I felt connected with nature and everything around me – this was more than a runner’s high, it was my calling. I wanted to participate in one of the most difficult races in the world and wanted to be the first Indian man to finish it.
As I researched the Mt. Everest ultra-marathon, the reality of it hit me – it was going to be challenging, it required disciplined preparation and it would keep me away from my family. Truth be told, I was scared but I made it my mission, my ultimate goal, to run the Everest ultra-marathon in 2018.
I started training and my coach put me on a new training regimen – finishing 1111KM in 12 weeks. He was determined to push me – physically and mentally. This was an invaluable gift- it helped deeply condition my mind and body. I ran several marathons as part of my training, focusing on improving my endurance, pacing, strength and timing.
Initially, as I trained, I kept my mission a secret, from my friends and family. My concern stemmed from the feeling that everyone would try to dissuade me given the difficulty and risks of running such a challenging race. I finally broke the news to my coach, family and friends and on hearing the news were stunned but at the same time very supportive of my decision.
It was an 11-day trek to the Everest Base Camp which is the starting point of the race. The primary advice to the entire group by our trek guide was to take each day at a time, acclimatize, eat well, drink lots of liquids and sleep well. Our trek route was mapped out thoroughly to ensure that we’d be able to acclimatize to the weather, the incline, and stay safe and healthy.
Each day on the trek was memorable – I met friendly and curious locals while witnessing the ever-changing terrain and weather. As we ascended, the air became thinner and breathing also became quite challenging but we were sustained by healthy meals, balancing proteins and carbohydrates so that we replenish our bodies and energy levels.
On the morning of May 29th, we all gathered at the start line. With the temperature at sub-zero, the ultra-marathon had begun. I had one goal – run the race sans injuries. After Gorakshep, the terrain improved slightly and I felt much more confident and started running to get to the 23 km checkpoint. It was at this point that the race got really exciting and challenging for me as we’d now be running over several hills. We were given a Nepali support runner to help us navigate through the hills. 11 hours into the race, the skies got progressively darker and snow started falling. It was magical but the terrain started getting treacherous and I needed to make a big decision – do I risk running in the dark through the snow or should I find a safe refuge for the night, take a 4-hour penalty and resume my journey the next morning? I decided to take a break!
The next morning, I started running at 6 and pushed myself over the next 3 hrs. As I got closer to the finish line, I became quite emotional. I thought of my family who’d stood by me like a rock, my friends who kept motivating me and last but not least, the man who’d helped me push my body and mind this far, my coach Pramod Deshpande. I finally crossed the finish at 9.05am becoming the first Indian male to ever finish the Everest Extreme Ultra. My dream had become my reality.
Elated, joyful, relieved, my immediate priority was getting back home to my wife, kids and family. I just wanted to celebrate this moment with them.
FM: Nutrition plays a big role in every athlete’s life. How do you plan your nutrition?
Taher: Nutrition is the cornerstone for any athlete. I use Fast & Up products prior, during and post my workout. BCAA is something I swear by for recovery of my muscles. I have Ryan Fernando from Qua Nutrition on my team who plans my nutritional needs. My typical day consists of eating small meals throughout the day. A lot of greens, nuts and of course butter chicken and biryani once a week. My current intake is of about 2400 calories a day. Ryan is working to bringing it down to 2000 calories a day as it is a race requirement for a multi-day race I am taking part in soon.
FM: Marathons/Ultra-marathons do not always go as per plan. How do you strategize and finish strong in a race?
Taher: Ultra-marathon is a solo running sport. It is a fine balance between the mind and body. I make sure that I am mentally prepared because after a point the legs don’t do the job, the heart and head do it. I make sure that as I approach the mid-way mark I visualize the finish line. This motivates me and strengthens my resolve to finish the race.
FM: Your most recent event was the Ultra Tuffman Desert Championship, Jaisalmer. What was it like to be a part of this race?
Taher: The Tuffman Ultra was an event I was really looking forward to. I was excited to run in the desert on the dunes. The course was flat and easy with hot days and really cold nights. The race started at 5 pm at the Mirwana resort, Jaisalmer. We were instructed for safety reasons to run loops of 1km till 7 am the next morning. The initial 10kms were a breeze and I was just getting warmed up when I twisted my ankle, but I continued. Around the 25th Km, I picked up the pace and closed in on the man in the first position. I was thrilled and kept going at a constant pace when the unexpected happened. At the 38th Km, I twisted my ankle for the second time and the pain was immense. I slowed down and continued to walk knowing that I could complete this race even if I walked for the next 20 hrs. As I was walking on course, limping actually, I thought of the long term consequences of walking on a swollen ankle. It could gravely derail my race plans for the future. I had to take a call, a very difficult one. For the first time in seven years, I have had to pull out of a race. It took a while for it to sink it but I did what I believed was best for me on that day. We all have good days and bad days. I know I will bounce back stronger than ever. Overall it was a race in a beautiful destination with good support staff. I will try to go back in 2019 and conquer it.
FM: Which has been your best and worst race so far? Why?
Taher: The best race has undoubtedly been the Everest Ultra. I have taught me a lot as a runner. I don’t think I could ever have a bad or “worst” race because each race has had a purpose in teaching me more about myself, my limits and what I can achieve.
FM: You are constantly raising the bar for yourself with every run. What drives you?
Taher: It comes from within. Growing up, I was always taught that I was my toughest competition. I was fortunate enough to be in a home where there was no pressure to compete with anyone, but yourself. Being the best version of me was always a top priority. Whether it was business, or a hobby, at the end of the day, I always pushed myself to be the best I could be. With running, I achieved what most people around me thought was impossible with the support of my family. I was unhealthy and overweight when I began my running journey. Now, when I have reached what most people think is my pinnacle, I ask myself my favourite question – What next? and that keeps me going.
FM: If there was one quality which running imbibed in you, what would it be?
Taher: Discipline. No matter what you do, without discipline, nothing works. Overcoming so many obstacles showed me the power of faith. But most of all running has taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.
FM: What running goals do you have for the next few years?
Taher: I would like to take part in the UTMB (The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) someday. in April 2019, I will participate in one of the most difficult trail races in the world – The Marathon Des Sables, Morocco which is a self-supported 250km race across the Sahara Desert. In July 2019, I will participate in The DFBG Ultra Marathon in Poland and later this year, I will be participating in a mountain race called the Solang Sky Ultra.