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A Woman on a mission

Deepthi Velkur speaks to the Ultra-Marathoner, Gurmeet Soni Bhalla about how running has given a new dimension to her personality.

“If you don’t challenge yourself, you will never realize what you can become” – unknown.

This is such an apt quote to start this interview story with when talking about Gurmeet Soni Bhalla. A paediatrician, allergist, runner, certified scuba diver, traveller, mother to two teenagers ….and the list goes on. Gurmeet challenges herself every single day to be a newer version of herself.

She has been running since 2009 and has so far completed 20 FMs and 7 Ultras of varying distances from 50K to 90K. Her running dreams include completing marathons across all 7 continents (6 done, 1 to go!), running at the North Pole in 2020 and running injury-free for years to come.

In this interview, she shares her perspective on how running has added a new dimension to her personality – her travels, the friends she’s made from all over the world, the charity runs she does and of course inspiring others to take to running.

FM: You take your fitness very seriously, which is a good thing. How did you get into running?

Gurmeet: Yes, I take it very seriously for a very simple reason – I have a high-risk genetic pool. Hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are not uncommon in my family so staying healthy is a top priority for me. I try to keep my fitness regimen fairly fluid and interesting by trying new things – aerobics, Pilates, normal gym workouts.

Running happened to me out of nowhere to be honest – in 2009 someone asked me to participate in the SunFeast 10K race, I trained for it and ran reasonably well to find myself on the podium. Ever since then, I’ve been running!

FM: When did you graduate into long distance running?

Gurmeet: The transition from a recreational runner – 10K – 21K – 42K happened over a period of 9 months. After I started running in 2009, I got very interested in the sport and that along with a lot of hard work really propelled me to move into long distance running fairly quickly later that year.

FM: You juggle so many roles so successfully. How do you do it? 

Gurmeet: I rely on 3 key tools to keep me sane: (a) Effective time management, (b) Good support system at home and (c) The love and understanding of my family.

Long-distance running is very time consuming so I have to be good with time management. I begin my day early around 5 AM, finish my training run, get home to pack kids off to school, my husband and I walk our dogs and then I head to work.

For support, I invest in good house help so that I can be free to pursue my passion guilt-free and things still work at home.

Finally, the love and understanding of my family are paramount – without this, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

FM: A lot of runners swear by a running coach. Do you share that opinion and what are the benefits of having a coach?

Gurmeet: Yes, I definitely share that opinion. I think having a seasoned coach to mentor and guide you is advantageous and gives you an edge. It really hones your running skills and prevents you from making a lot of mistakes.

Back in 2009 when I started running, there were hardly any coaches. There was a running group called RFL (Runners For Life) who would organise weekly runs that helped runners meet, run and exchange notes. Most runners back then trained themselves either through the internet or running manuals. I remember training with my first coach in 2015. Today, there are several coaches out there to help new runners.

FM: Over nearly a decade of running, you have participated in various events across India and Internationally? Share your experience of running in these countries vs running in India?

Gurmeet: International races are very professionally organised – from running routes to hydration, aid stations to safety and comfort of runners, every aspect of the race is planned carefully. To top that, the crowd support you see abroad is fabulous, I mean the whole neighbourhood steps out to cheer the participants. At the Comrades event in South Africa for instance, you can see a wall of supporters that run for miles, cheering, offering food and beverages. This really helps when you trying to run 90K!

In India on the other hand, we are still learning. A lot of organizers are more concerned about making a quick buck that basic requirements such as properly constituted hydration fluids, decent toilets are often overlooked. Crowd support in India leaves much to be desired – I have seen hostile crowds on race routes who are enraged at being stopped to let runners pass by. Despite these pertinent issues we have in India some races such as the Mumbai Marathon or the TCS 10K are beautifully organised and match the standards of a world-class event.

FM: What was your experience of running a marathon in a land where it all began – The Athens Marathon?

Gurmeet: Athens Marathon is very special to me as this was my first full marathon in 2010. I wanted to run the historic route run by Pheidippides. That year was also the 2500 centenary of Athens Marathon. We were driven to the Marathon village where the Olympic flame gets lit before the start of the race with traditional pomp and show. The course was undulating hills and not very easy. It had superb crowd support and finishing in the ancient Olympic stadia was overwhelming for it felt great to experience the original route from marathon to Athens just like Pheidippides.

FM: You have your eyes set on completing a marathon in all 7 continents? How far have you come in achieving this goal you’ve set for yourself?

Gurmeet: It all started with my annual family vacations and marathons combined together. A few years later I realised that I had run on 5 continents and so the quest to finish the other 2 began. Antarctica was going to be the hardest since the race is a curated one and held once a year. It is usually booked a couple of years in advance. I was lucky to get an opening this year as someone dropped out. Now my focus is South America -the last one. I should be able to finish it in 2019.

FM: What are the benefits of having a partner who shares the same interest as you with respect to running?

Gurmeet: The benefits are immense! I often tell runners to get their partners into the same passion as yours. One of the reasons I have been able to run all over the world is because my husband had a similar interest in running. Also, it’s easier to train together as the partner understands the challenges of a marathon and how much training is needed. Half your battle is won when there is support on the home front.

FM: You do a lot of charity/fundraising through various runs for your foundation “Shishu Care Foundation”?  Have you been successful at it?

Gurmeet: I wish I could do more charity runs and raise money for organisations that need funds. Being a paediatrician, children’s causes are close to my heart. So far, we have been able to raise the funds that we set out for. However, it’s not easy to get people to loosen their purse strings on a regular basis.

FM: What does it take for someone to run an Ultra-marathon? Would you recommend that it is a must do for its sheer experience?

Gurmeet: Ultramarathons are a mind game. Physical training is just one part of it. One has to strategize and believe in one’s capabilities. I was not an ultrarunner but the lure of comrades marathon got me into training for a 90K race. I ran a couple of 50K and 60K races to train both physically and mentally for this big race. Training was hard but the day of the race was a cruise. I knew I could do it and I loved every minute on the course. Ultras may not be everyone’s drug, but, it was a natural progression for someone like me who likes to push boundaries and do more.

FM: Your most recent event was the 2018 Antarctic Ice Marathon? What made you register for the most challenging race of all time?

Gurmeet:Antarctica was always on my radar but it is not easy to run this marathon due to various logistics like it is a small race of 55 people and is held once a year. One has to really plan a couple of years in advance to find a spot in the race. I was certain I would run it one day and I am elated and grateful I could do it beside my husband.

FM: What was the experience like to run in the most extreme weather conditions and still managed to secure a third place?

Gurmeet: Antarctic Ice Marathon was an adventure of sorts! Even after running more than 25 marathons, I was nervous. This was completely out of my comfort zone. I worried about a lot of things from extreme temperatures to new gear, new shoes, new terrain, basically all commandants of racing were to be broken. I had to bank on my running capabilities alone. My husband and I shopped for a lot of polar clothing that we would wear on the race day.

After a long circuitous route of flying to Punta Arenas, the southernmost town of Chile, we were whisked away from civilization a day ahead since the weather and winds were getting turbulent for flying. When the plane touched down on the blue ice runway, icy cold winds welcomed us. We were not ready for such frigid temperatures. 24 hours daylight kept our spirits high but not for long as the weather started to turn bad with low visibility and snowfall which meant no firm ground to run on.

The group did a trial run with layers of new gear and realised that we were overdressed and hence were profusely sweating. This meant soon the sweat would freeze in sub-zero temperatures and we ran the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. After a couple of trials and errors with the gear, final race gear was decided. The challenges of the marathon were formidable because of underfoot conditions and snow and ice throughout the trek along with wind chill temperature of -20C.

There were participants from 14 countries and for a few Brave hearts, this was their first marathon. The race route was changed from 21K to 4 loops of 10.5K to keep things contained. We faced the harshest weather conditions in the last 9 years. The First loop was slow and steady on unknown terrain, the second loop was enjoyable as the whiteout landscape looked ethereal like running on clouds, third was tough as my body temperature started to drop, fourth was done half walking as the track had become uneven by now. My training for ultras helped me stay on track, I didn’t think about podium till about the last loop when I realised there were 3 women ahead of me. Despite the extreme cold I pushed and wasted no time at the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line with the tricolour in my hand I was told, I stood third. It was a very proud moment to be able to put my country on the podium.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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How to consistently click miles every week

With an insatiable appetite for running, Divya Vasishta has quite a story to tell. In this conversation with Deepthi Velkur, she explains what drives her passion.

“The mountains are calling and I must go” – John Muir (Naturalist and Preservationist).

Probably one of the most compelling quotes that says it all for many outdoor lovers and definitely apt for our guest today – Divya Vasishta.

Divya hails from Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, a scenic mountain town, so it’s no wonder that her runs always seem to take her to the hills.

She is by no means a career runner – running happened by accident 5 years ago and she juggles a busy corporate life (quality head with a US-based organization) with her undying passion for running and the mountains.

Her running timeline might be short but she has covered the spectrum – countless 10Ks, Half-Marathons, Full-Marathons, Trail Running and also Ultra runs.

We had ourselves a tête-à-tête and I was fascinated by her story. Read on and chances are you will be too.

FM: It’s been 5 years since you started running, what inspired you to pick up such a tough endurance sport?

Divya: I never liked running on a treadmill but I had to for a long time as I spent quite a few years in Canada and the severe winters made it hard to run outdoors. A few years later though, I moved to California famed for its gorgeous weather and scenery, I started to head out for my runs every day for about 30 mins.

After having spent 10 years out of the country, we decided to move back to Bangalore. It was definitely a huge change for me. The weekends seemed empty with nowhere to go camping, no hills to climb, no trails to walk on and I ended up running longer durations inside my housing layout.

Initially, it started out as an aimless activity until a friend suggested that I participate in a 10k run back in 2013 to begin with, which I did and the experience of the race was enthralling. That paved the way forward and I have never looked back since. For the first two years, the focus was to improve my timings and then later on, I focused on building and testing my endurance and this became a vicious cycle with no end.

No distance ever seemed enough for me initially. I was curious to see how much further I could go and fast forward 3 years, I have run a maximum distance of 100K in 14 hours 20 minutes in the Bangalore Ultra. I also completed the Khardung La Challenge in Leh (the world’s highest Ultra marathon at 17582 feet) a distance of 72K.

Since 2013, I have completed 13 Ultra events and countless half and full marathons. I always enjoyed runs that are challenging with a sole purpose of finishing them comfortably and maintaining a constant pace. I personally prefer the quieter and smaller events and always look forward to trying new routes with new organisers.

The first 2 years of my running life took me to different locales but it was always the hills that kept calling and brought me a kind of peace that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

Having discovered running in the hills, I have completed events in Ooty, Munnar, Manipur, Leh, Manali (Solang Sky running – being the toughest so far) as well as Shimla.  This year, I became the 3rdfemale runner from India to run the Everest marathon.

I haven’t limited myself just to running in the hills obviously – I enjoy running in California and completed the Big Sur marathon which is considered a beautiful run but very challenging owing to the weather conditions. I have also completed a 143.9K run during the 24-hour Bangalore stadium run last year.

FM: Fascinating and amazing to see what you have achieved in 5 years. Prior to 2013, what kind of sports where you in to?

Divya: I have always been an active and outdoorsy person. Back in school, I loved running on the tracks and tried my hand at different sports like field and track events, basketball, hockey and mini marathons. With college and the initial few years of working, these activities took a backseat. Post marriage, my partner and myself started going on short treks in our free time. Hitting the gym became a part of my daily routine. In 2006, step aerobics fascinated me and quickly became one of my favourite activity. We (my partner and myself) had done a few treks of which the Machu Picchu, few in Alaska and the Everest Base Camp clearly were my favourites. Between 2010-13, I appointed a personal trainer and he used to set up various routines for me and then it was only in 2013, that I started running.

FM: That explains the ease with which you have acclimatized yourself to ultra-running.  This is me being curious – how was your lifestyle prior and how has that changed since you started running?

Divya: In terms of routine, not much has changed in my life. I have always been disciplined in everything I do. Early rising, timely intake of food and hitting the bed early has been my routine for the longest time. Food habits have changed for the better. For instance, I used to eat a lot of processed food and that has completely stopped now. I prefer eating fresh home-cooked meals and drinking natural juices. 

FM: Managing your professional, personal as well passion for running takes a lot out of a person. How do you manage this and what do you do to unwind?

Divya: I really didn’t have to make a lot of compromises. I started running when I was well-settled at work. There was no need to commute to work daily and work related travel was manageable too and was a part of my routine life. Both my husband and myself are morning people. I just had to wake up a little earlier so I could clear up any work-related emails and then head out for my morning run. While travelling, it becomes a bit hard to manage my runs so I make sure to manage expectations during those days and plan my work and running accordingly. And I never forget to pack my running shoes wherever I go.

Running is relaxing for me, but a spa appointment for a deep tissue massage and foot reflexology is a reward for myself (smiles).

FM: To be able to clock 9455Km in such a short time is astounding. Did you imagine you would have achieved this in less than 5 years? Do you set at a yearly target for yourself?

Divya: I was never interested in numbers, like setting up a monthly or yearly target. What I do is set myself a mileage target of 60K every week and try to achieve it on most days. My tally seems very less in comparison to other Ultra runners. But I feel, if I run a lot (especially training runs), I’ll probably start disliking running so I run the tracks I enjoy. Sometimes a training run of 35K stresses me but at the same time I enjoy running a 100K event.

FM: Another mind-boggling statistic is the fact that you have a podium finish in greater than 50% of the events you have participated? What are the 3 key factors that help you achieve this?

Divya: You are right. Out of 55 events, I’ve had about 27 podiums wins. I would say – It just happened. Though I’ve had podiums in the open category too but most of them have been in 45+ age category, so being a veteran probably led to this and I see it as an advantage. I really don’t run with a competitive mind.

FM: Congratulations on finishing the Comrades marathon last year – such a fascinating run especially given its origins. What interested you in taking part in this event?

Divya: Curiosity, I think. I wanted to see why runners are so crazy about this run and I guess I did find my answer. It’s a run with an amazing aura. I finished the race which is approximately a 89KM run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. It is considered the World’s Largest and one of the oldest Ultra-marathons, which was first held in 1921. The race has very strict cut-off time of 12hours and I managed to finish it in 11 hrs and 42 minutes. 

FM: Obviously, your training program for this run would have been different from your normal training. Can you please share a few snippets into the differences?

Divya: One needs to be diligent and disciplined in preparing for any targeted run, especially a run as challenging as this with strict cut-off points. It only tends to increase the pressure which may lead to unnecessary stress.

My goal was just to finish the run within the cut-off time and with that in mind, I prepared my own training plan and stayed within my normal weekly mileage, with an exception of 2 or 3 weeks where I exceeded it. I also added hill runs to my routine, almost every weekend and most of the events I went to were in the hilly terrains which got me stepping out of my regular running route. Being the only female from Bangalore to participate in this event that year, I had to look for a group running this event. The drive to the location for the training runs was quite far from my place and that led me to start driving in India, which I dislike doing, especially during the dark, early morning hours. I don’t remember missing a single run as per my calendar.

FM: So, where is your next big run and what plans do you have for the next few months?

Divya: A 100 miler in a decent time for sure.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

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For the love of running

In conversation with Brijesh Gajera, co-founder of the Ashva Running Club, talks to Deepthi Velkur about his love for running. 

Why do we love to run? It’s tough, it hurts – yet more and more people every day are taking to the roads. I had a chance to talk with Brijesh Gajera and listening to him gave me an insight into the enormous pleasure running can bring – it is, after all, a natural thing to do.

Brijesh is a software engineer by profession and an outdoor enthusiast by passion. In his professional avatar, Brijesh works with Cisco India where he tackles next generation Enterprise Networking Solutions in the hope of building predictability, adaptability, and protection for businesses worldwide.

But, that’s just one side of him – a self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiast, Brijesh is a long-distance runner, cyclist, and trekker. He has participated in multiple marathons over the last 10 years, most notable of which is the prestigious Boston Marathon 2018. He has taken part in multi-day cycling tours in the Western Ghats in South India, Indian Himalayas, and Europe. He loves the Himalayas and keeps visiting them for hiking, cycling, and running which, he calls his annual pilgrimages.

As if that wasn’t enough, Brijesh enjoys mentoring and coaching amateur long-distance runners. He is the co-founder and one of the coaches of Ashva Running Club where he trains runners to help them achieve their goals – be it their first 5K/10K/Marathon or specific targets.

“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision” – Robyn Davidson.

Let’s read through Brijesh’s first steps as a runner and what influenced him to go from recreational runner to running club co-founder.

Was running a big part of your life growing up?

Actually, no. I used to do the occasional (not more than a couple of times a year maybe) run around the school ground with a friend of mine but that was to get a competitive high as both of us were the toppers in the class and running was our way of settling the debate of who is better J

From the moment I started following athletics in my high school years, I became a huge fan of Haile Gebrselassie. Actually, who is not a fan of his? I always admired his running and that was my regular connection to running in growing up years.

What was the trigger to pick up running and do it so well?

After I moved to Bangalore for work, I used to volunteer for an NGO called Parikrma. When the inaugural Bangalore 10K happened in the year 2008, Parikrma asked its volunteers to run in the event to show solidarity to their cause. I liked the idea and registered for the event. I truly enjoyed training for and running my first 10K. The joy of running took a hold on me. What was supposed to be a one-time affair became a lifetime passion after that event.

Soon 10K was followed by Half and Full Marathons. The haphazard training was replaced by a structured program and all my travel plans started revolving around running.

You have competed in several marathons over the years – did you always plan on it being competitive?

Well, nothing was planned as such and things happened on their own. I generally get driven by a goal or an idea – of experiencing a particular marathon, achieving a target time or volunteering for a cause. Once I choose to run an event, I plan my training and focus on it whole-heartedly.

In the early days of my running, my aim was to simply build endurance and run in various places. Once I was satisfied with my endurance level, I decided to target a particular finish time and worked on speed. When I was reasonably close to the Boston Marathon qualification, I decided to train for it.

In short, my competitive knack comes from the targets I set for myself.

How many races have you participated so far and which has been the most memorable one?

There are a plenty! I have lost the count, or rather never kept it. All my race medals go in an antique trunk in my living room. Roughly there are more than 25 marathon or longer distance races I have participated in till date.

Choosing the most memorable race from so many is quite a task! Of course, my first marathon always tops the list. It was an idyllic setting in Auroville and what I experienced and learned that day about human endurance, psychology and never-say-die spirit is irreplaceable.

Then there is Ladakh Marathon 2017 for the experience and love of mountains, the Boston Marathon 2018 for the weather and sea of runners, The Big Sur Marathon 2018 for the natural beauty and scores of Mumbai Marathons for the crowd support.

 

You are the co-founder and one of the coaches of the running group Ashva, how did this group come into being and how many runners do you have currently?

Somewhere along my personal running journey, I felt that I could share my experience with fellow runners and guide them. My dear friend, Murthy R K, also wanted to get into coaching runners around the same time. In fact, he was already coaching school kids by then. Together we decided to form “Ashva Running Club”.

It’s been more than 2 years now and we have about 75 runners in 3 different locations (Lalbagh, Whitefield, Kanakapura Road) in Bangalore. Apart from that, we also train people remotely.

Do you think joining a running club enriches a runner’s experience? If yes, why?

Totally. Joining a running group has helped my running immensely.

First of all, the camaraderie of a group is a great motivation to get up and go for a run. It helps one to be regular and disciplined. There is also what I call “Running Rituals”, the warm-up and cool-down, which are essentials for injury-free and enjoyable runs. If it is left to our choice, we may avoid these rituals at times and eventually omit it all together, but when you are part of a group, these are religiously followed.

In addition to that, a sensible group can also help you avoid the excesses – too much or too less of training.

Describe the training process that you follow at Ashva?

Everything revolves around the trainee, to begin with. Every person comes with a particular goal in mind and we try to understand the goal and help the person to be on a path to achieve it.

We focus on injury prevention, strengthening, and conditioning. We maintain a healthy mix of speed, tempo and long runs in our training program.

What we try to strive at Ashva is BALANCE, not just in your running in particular but in your life in general. Balance in your physical and mental states, balance in your professional and personal life, balance in your running and non-running worlds. We encourage and help people to achieve the balance of exercise, nutrition and rest. We, in fact, urge our runners to take breaks from running from time to time for rejuvenation.

We believe all these elements come together to build a healthy runner and human being.

How do keep your runners motivated?

By a mix of continuity and variety. The continuity keeps one connected, the variety keeps one excited. Running Rituals, I talked about earlier are a permanent part of our training. We do not compromise on them. We go to different locations to train to give them a different look and feel. We also encourage them to participate in new events and explore new places on their own.

What are the top three things you do to prevent running injury-free?

Warm-up and Cool-down: No two ways about this – it is a must every time you decide to take a run.

Yoga: We believe that yoga is a fun and engaging way to work on flexibility and strength and we have regular sessions of yoga in our training.

Cross-Training and Breaks: Cycling and Swimming are effective ways to avoid injuries and burn-out. And so are breaks – in fact, frequent and small breaks are rarely understood and a highly underrated device for injury-prevention!

You participated in the Mera Terah Run last year and completed 13 half-marathons in 13 days – can you please describe the emotions before, during and after this most challenging event?

I have been participating in the Mera Terah Run (MTR) for last 4 years, and it is going to be 5th this year.

Though the thought of running 13 marathons in 13 days in 13 different places with overnight travel sounds daunting, one thing we must understand is that running is just a medium for MTR to achieve their mission. The cause we choose for MTR is the utmost priority. Running is in fact lot of fun in MTR because there is no pressure to finish under a certain time, there is no finish line and medal or certificate per se and you get to meet so many different people and run with them that it feels like a festival.

Before the MTR starts, we spend a lot of time planning the logistics and coordinating with our friends in various places to make sure we have good experience traveling and running in those places. The last 3-4 runs of the whole campaign are slightly difficult given the accumulated fatigue of running and travel. But the group bonhomie and the collective purpose keep us all excited for the whole duration of the yatra as we call it.

Being a passionate traveler as well, I am sure you have run in some exotic locations – can you please name a few?

My heart always goes with the Himalayas, Pedong/Kalimpong in Darjeeling, Leh in Ladakh, Manali Solang in Himachal, Garhwal in Uttarakhand – these are my personal favorites. Another favorite is Western Ghats – Malnad, Mahabaleshwar, and Ooty.

Diu on West Coast of India also makes to my list. Outside India, I loved the Big Sur Marathon route a lot.

What are the future goals for Ashva and yourself?

We would like to see Ashva Running Club building a healthy and active community. I read somewhere once that running makes people smarter. If that is true, I would like to see our trainees achieve the balance and also be able to coach themselves eventually and help their fellow runners with their knowledge.

For myself, I would like to see Ashva achieve its goal J That is my biggest goal. Of course, I would like to continue running. As of now, I am focusing on training for a 90KM trail marathon early next year. I plan to focus on ultra-marathons for some time and also visit exotic places in the process.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.

 

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