For most runners, a marathon marks the very pinnacle of fitness, achieved after months of hard training and blister plasters. For Arun Bhardwaj, it’s a light warm-up.
Bhardwaj, who runs when he’s not working as an upper division clerk in the Planning Commission, loves notching up the milestones. Just 41, he has already taken part in 17 ultra marathons. An ultra marathon (also called ultra distance) is defined as anything over the traditional marathon distance of 42. 195 km but can go up to over 500 km, run over a number of days.
Ultra marathons aren’t for the fainthearted. They are an ultimate test of human endurance (or, some would say, stupidity). Bhardwaj thinks nothing of running 210 km – roughly the distance between Agra and Delhi – in 31 hours and 20 minutes without a break. Most runners would spread that distance over a few days. “When you break a race over four days, you’re not pushing yourself. I like my tears the most during my ultras. In fact, I love them, ” he says.
How can a man, who was a puny 26 kilos when he was 14, run a 567-km sixday race (George Archer race in South Africa) and finish first? “The power of the mind is limitless. You can control everything you do and feel, ” says Bhardwaj, who recently turned down an offer of support and citizenship from Australia.
Running a marathon is no easy feat and most athletes take days to recover. But Bhardwaj pooh-poohs the notion of rest. “If marathoners need days to recover from running, they are not harnessing their mind properly. ”
Bhardwaj, the first Indian to win an ultra, wasn’t always superhuman. One of eight children, he was born in Baoli, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. He wasn’t an exceptional child and never participated in any sport at any level. At the age of 14, diagnosed with parotid tumours, he underwent four major surgeries – scars of which are still visible on his neck. By 17, he was up to about 35 kg.
The need for employment brought the soft-spoken man to the Capital where he joined the ranks of government servants at 23. Life was routine. At least till his daughter, Zola – named after the famous South African runner Zola Budd – was born in 1998. “I wanted to set an example for my child, ” he says simply. Most parents would point to a Mahatma Gandhi or even modern-day entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, but the five-foot-eight-inch Bhardwaj wanted to be a role model. “In India, people don’t like to lead by example, ” he says.
So in 2000 he decided to run the same distance that kanwariyas cross each year – 180 km. While these kanwariyas carry their pots of water, and walk barefoot in the hot sun for a few hours every day, Bhardwaj, with no special fitness preparation apart from running barefoot and without woollens in winter, completed the distance in 24 hours.
It may be difficult to believe but Bhardwaj is incredibly serious. “I had Zola written on my t-shirt and I was determined to show my daughter that whatever you put your mind to, you can do. ”
Interestingly, Bhardwaj was reading Budd’s biography just weeks before his daughter was born in 1998 and chose the name Zola for its uniqueness. He also wrote to Budd, applauding her tenacity and determination and promised to avenge her loss at the 1984 Olympics.
“She wrote back to me. I still have that hand-written letter and when I went to South Africa I met her and showed her the gold medal I’d won for the 567-km race. I’d won it for Zola, ” says the athlete, who has just bagged a sponsorship from Adidas.
After his debut run in 2000, which was from Hardiwar to Pura Mahadev in Baghpat, the races have gotten more arduous and more unbelievable. In 2003, he flew to New York to participate in the Self-Transcendence 6-Day Race, which covers 516 km. Arriving in NYC just 14 hours before the race, he had little time to prepare. “I didn’t have much time to acclimatise and hadn’t been eating properly because my participation was in doubt. While running, I experienced pain and went to the doctor. He measured my leg and found that one was 1 1/2 inches shorter than the other. My muscles in the back bunched up and the pelvis moved forward. I was advised not to run but I did and finished seventh. ”
Father of three, Bhardwaj, sleeps for just four hours daily and goes without sleep once a week to prepare for races that stretch across several days and nights. He needs no fancy protein drinks and sticks to the vegetarian fare that his wife Sangeeta serves him. During a race, he survives on bananas, honey and juices.
Unlike other runners, Bhardwaj runs without support handlers or ‘angels’ as they are called. “When you’re running, you’re like a baby. You need to get everything done for you. Your handlers will give you water, food, change your shoes. But I don’t have the money to take along handlers. So every minute that I use to drink water or change my shoes distracts me from the pain that I feel, ” he explains.
It’s the memory of his daughter not crying after having been in an accident that keeps Bhardwaj from being overcome by the dark shadows of pain. “She was little and her leg came in the spokes of the bicycle. She didn’t cry or scream. She just looked at me and said, ‘Quickly take me to the hospital. I’m trying to be brave, just like you taught me. ‘ That memory keeps me going every time I feel like I can’t go on. ”
After having run across the Thar Desert and in sub-zero temperatures in Moscow, among many other equally dangerous places, Bhardwaj has his eyes set on the Badwater Ultra Marathon from July 11-13. Tagged the challenge of the champions, Badwater is called the toughest foot race in the world and the field is by invitation only.
A 217-km course starting at 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8, 360 feet, the Badwater takes place in mid-July, when the weather conditions are most extreme and temperatures hover around 49?C, even in the shade. Consequently, very few people – even among ultra marathoners – are capable of finishing this gruelling race.
Bhardwaj simply recites his favourite quote: ‘When you believe then you can do it’. With a spirit that is as steely as his legs, Bhardwaj believes he can do anything, especially inspire you to run.
Do not make any drastic changes in your diet as that can unsettle your mind and body. Eat what you want, drink what you want. Homecooked food is always easier to digest. Have lots of water during and after the run. Stay away from refined sugar. Eat chocolates or organic jaggery because your body needs energy.
Put in your running in terms of minutes. Start with 10 minutes, 3-4 times a weeks. Running weakens the muscles so exercises like push-ups are essential. Once you finish running, stretch your legs as much as you can. Give yourself 2-3 years to run a marathon because that’s how long it takes for the body to settle.
Listen to your body. If you don’t feel running, don’t run. Don’t stretch it too much. Keep a steady pace while running.
Buy a great pair of shoes. They can save you from injury. Trainers should be worn-in for at least a month before a long-distance event to soften them slightly. A good pair of socks can prevent blisters and women should never run without a maximum support sports bra.
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EVEREST ULTRA From glaciers and forests to riverbeds, runners have to tackle them all
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