April 27, 2015 — Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to interview a colleague for a feature story in our company newsletter. Her name is Aparna Choudhury, and she worked at the office in Pune, India. She has since left the company, but I believe she’d be happy to know I decided to share her story with a wider audience.
Aparna trains as a long distance marathon runner, and is one of the few women in all of India, and the world, who has tackled this challenge. She’s also been the subject of a documentary film, which she discusses in the interview below:
Aparna’s story is special because she’s strong and inspirational, but also because shares her story with women across her country to empower them. She does this, she explained during the interview, because even though women have equal rights and have held high offices including president and prime minister, there can be challenges for women in India. Here is part of my conversation with Aparna:
Aparna, you hold a special record for female runners in India. Can you tell me about that?
I have two records currently: the first Indian woman to do a 100-mile run (Bhatti Lakes, Faridabad, India, October 2011) and a 135-mile run (Uttarkashi, India, September 2012).
The first record happened by accident. I was supposed to crew for another runner who failed to call back until the last moment, so I got tired of waiting and decided to participate myself. There were seven participants and I was one of the four finishers. For the 135-mile run, we were three participants at the start line, and two finished including me. (Pictured above: Aparna taking a break during one of her marathons.)
Those long distances would take several hours by car. How long does it take to complete a 135-mile marathon by foot?
It takes forever. Actually, it took 45 hours and 27 minutes to finish. Breaks are few, but the clock still ticks during rest periods. It began raining during my event and for reasons that are still not clear, I crawled under a Jeep to nap. The water started running under the car though, so I got up. Even eating is done while walking so as not to use up time. Once the miles start adding up, the number of breaks increase as the body starts looking for the smallest of excuses to sit down. Sometimes the mind knows that you’re just wasting time, but the body refuses to get up.
You’ve also been featured in a documentary about female long distance runners. How did that come about?
I ran in a 222km run (approximately 138 miles) in Leh, Ladakh (India), which was at an altitude of 11000-17700 feet. The race is by invitation only, and I was the first Indian to be invited. The field consisted of seven participants, including two women. I met Rebecca Byerly, a journalist and runner, and the other woman during this race. She explained she was filming a documentary and the idea was to capture two essential ingredients: Women and Mountains, and display the stories to high school students in the U.S. (Pictured above: Aparna with Rebecca Byerly).
Rebecca and I were disqualified from the race because of not clearing the cut-off set for first 48kms, as we took six minutes extra to reach the checkpoint. I decided to carry on and finish the race on my own as it didn’t make sense for me to go all the way to Leh and not finish. I knew I was capable of doing the full 222kms at that height. In the end, it added another flavor to the documentary, as it now also displays how to keep on going despite all odds.
The documentary, ‘Women of the Mountain’ is a feature-length film told through six women: three who run the world’s longest ultra-marathons through the world’s highest mountain ranges, and three who live in those rugged terrains. From the Himalayas to the Alps to the Sierra Nevada, it tells the stories of resilient women from around the world, and shows how they rise above the challenges of age, culture, gender or any parameters society sets for them.
What motivates a person to be a long distance runner?
A curiosity to go that extra mile to see if it’s doable, to explore new places and to keep fit.
What was the longest marathon you’ve ever participated in?
It was a single stage event, the La Ultra 2013, a multi-day run spread across six days. The 330kms (approximately 205 miles) from Dandi to Sabarmati, Gujarat, India traced Gandhi’s footsteps in his ‘Salt March’, where he had walked in a non-violent protest against the British rule.
Describe the process of training for a marathon?
I tend to run regularly, and cover 40-45 miles per week when not training for an ultra. During my training months, I increase the weekly mileage to at least 80% of the race distance. What I have observed is ultras are more mental than physical, so I try to prepare myself in that aspect more. I run continuous loops of 5kms to prepare myself mentally for the long hours and monotony. (Pictured above: cooling off during the run).
What do you think about when you run?
Mostly its random thoughts, funny conversations or scenes from movies. Sometimes I start day dreaming and build hypothetical situations where I’m always the hero. In the beginning, I think about the distance and keep on calculating the pace in my mind. Towards the middle, I think I won’t ever do another long distance race again and towards the end, I think of the food and bed that awaits me.
Athletes are typically superstitious. Do you have any rituals that you follow?
No rituals, but I have a green long-sleeved t-shirt that I carry with me on all my ultra runs.
Who is your role model and how does he or she inspire you?
Bruce Lee. I have also trained in Taekwondo and have achieved the red belt with black stripe, which is one short of the black belt. Bruce Lee inspires me the most for various reasons, the most important being he followed a philosophy of lifelong learning and not putting limits on anything. I try to emulate him.