Running the world's toughest foot race

Chennai-based Sridhar Venkatesh on running Marathon des Sables, the world’s toughest footrace

May 03, 2016 04:25 pm | Updated 06:57 pm IST - Chennai

Sridhar Venkatesh during Marathon des Sables

Sridhar Venkatesh during Marathon des Sables

When it’s sweltering in Chennai, you might just spot 44-year-old Sridhar Venkatesh’s lithe frame pounding the sands along his beachfront home on the ECR. One of a rising clan of adventurers who don’t want to simply run a marathon but also pit mind against muscle and conquer the last frontier — the human body, Sridhar is perhaps the only one from the city, if not from India, who participated and ranked in the Marathon des Sables held last month.

A gruelling 250-km ultramarathon spread over six days, the race was established by French concert promoter Patrick Bauer in 1986, two years after he had traversed the Sahara solo on foot. The distance each day is that of a standard 42.2 km marathon, and the race is open to men and women who take on the challenge of self sustenance (they run with their own food and supplies), temperatures that hover at 45 degree C during the day and 5 degree C at night, and difficult terrain — shifting sand dunes, stony river beds and rocky defiles.

When I meet Sridhar at his plush office at Taramani, the co-founder of product start-up company Indix says, “I grew up in California, and though I wasn’t part of a track-and-field team, ran my first full marathon in college, and did a couple of triathlons before I gave it up for brief sojourns in the pool. Then, 10 years ago, I went from intermittent bouts to the workout of a lifetime, when my friends and I decided to pick a marathon every year, run it together and celebrate it with a family vacation.” Sridhar, who has now run several marathons across Asia, decided to fixate on the Marathon des Sables because he “loved the idea of it,” and to paraphrase mountaineer George Mallory “because it’s there”.

Despite a hefty registration fee of USD 3,000 this year, not counting expenses on gear, the race drew 1,109 participants from nearly 50 countries, some as young as 17, some as old as 83. “Their achievements were intimidating, and this marathon was a convergence of their confidence. Some had done the MDS 18 times; still others had run across the Rocky Mountains, done the Badwater Ultramarathon. I just wanted to finish,” laughs Sridhar.

Training with an online coach, herself a 55-year-old marathoner attempting to run across the U.S., Sridhar ran 10 km every day, and a full marathon every weekend with a backpack, to make the grade. The Marathon des Sables (or marathon of the sands) begins after the participants are bussed five hours out of Ouarzazate, into the heart of the Moroccan Sahara.

“You sleep in Berber tents and are provided a predetermined quality of water. Asking for more earns you penalty points. Every gram matters when you have to run with your pack. Although you need a 2,000-calorie diet — I lived off oatmeal, peanut butter and powdered chips — you are too nauseous or exhausted to eat. And you have to wear gaiters over your shoes or you end up with blisters,” he says.

Sridhar, who finished 393rd, adds that although the ‘road book’ described the course, nothing prepared him for running up dunes through a headwind of 50 kmph. “This year was the sandiest course ever. On day one, we ran through the largest sand dune in Morocco. Every day, people would drop off the race, unable to meet the daily time cut-off. And yet, there were others who continued after popping blisters and getting IV fluids. By the fourth day, I had settled into a comfortable pace.”

"It's not uncommon to see people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s running and even winning ultra-marathons," he says. "For me, it was mostly about pushing my mind and body beyond my limits."

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