While growing up in Satara, Priyanka Mohite, 27, spent her weekends exploring the Sahyadris on the outskirts of the Maharashtrian town. The climbing bug had bitten her hard; when it came to choosing between the final examination to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in biotechnology and the opportunity to attempt Mt Everest in 2013, she elected to climb to the top of the highest mountain in the world and appeared for the exam later that year.
But, before she scaled Lhotse and Makalu (both located on the border of Nepal and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, she graduated with a master’s degree in the same subject and joined contract research and manufacturing firm Syngene International. “After Everest, I thought I would continue climbing mountains for the next few years. But my mentors advised me to finish my education and find a job before attempting another big mountain. So I picked my next climb only after I started working,” Mohite recalls.
Women like her, who cannot dedicate all their time to their passions, have only managed to strike the fine balance between chasing the highs of endurance sports and pursuing a full-time career after years of practice.
Solonie Singh Pathania, 33, and Anjali Saraogi, 46, too, decided to test themselves in the outdoors a little later in life.
As a child, Pathania had moved around the country due to her father’s Army postings, but her involvement in sports remained a constant throughout her school life. “I had an accident while in college which led to knee surgery in 2007. I used it as an excuse to not exercise, but a few years hence, I realised that my health had taken a backseat. So I started running in 2014. Soon after, I participated in a triathlon in my hometown of Pune and fell in love with the multisport race, as I enjoyed the thrill of taking on three disciplines one after the other. Each one is challenging in its own way. I’ve always focused on increasing the distances gradually, so the growth happened very organically,” she says.
By then, she had also accepted a marketing role at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan after graduating with an MBA from the Symbiosis Institute of Business Management in Pune. A tight 9-to-6 schedule, in addition to travelling for the job, meant that she had to utilise the hours outside of work to include the gruelling training regime in her routine. After finishing an Ironman 70.3 (a half-distance triathlon consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run) in Hawaii in 2016, she doubled her training hours and the distances. In a year’s time, she became the third Indian woman to go the full distance at Ironman Kalmar in Sweden.
“I never let my work suffer because of my passion.
I know that triathlons cannot be my full-time profession because I started training too late. Besides, something’s got to pay for my participation in the races,” Pathania says. “Everyone knew I was training, and my boss was kind enough to allow me naps on the days when I was exhausted. But socialising and late nights had to be sacrificed in order to make use of the early hours to train, especially on weekends when there’s no work and I have more time,” she adds.
Saraogi can afford to be more flexible with her work hours, given that she runs her own medical diagnostic centre in Kolkata. On the insistence of her daughter, Mamta, she signed up for a local race around five years ago, when she was 41, and hasn’t stopped running since. These days, she’s even helping her co-workers take ‘baby steps’ towards racing, starting with a 10-kilometre run. “My daughter was 17 when I started running. It did rob us of some mother-daughter time. But she understands what I do and is very supportive,” she says.
Foot races longer than the 42.195-kilometre marathon distance qualify as ultrarunning, and the athlete realised that she found solace in the long hours spent on the course by herself. The races themselves were the easy part; the real task was to be disciplined about training while keeping the body healthy. “You need to be very strong mentally which, I feel, translates to physical strength that helps you overcome difficult moments during the competition,” analyses the runner, who finished among the top three women at the Tata Mumbai Marathon in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Last month, she represented India at the 2019 IAU [International Association of Ultrarunners] 100 km Asia and Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan, where she came back with a silver in the team event and also set a new national record. The world of ultramarathons demands a weekly training routine covering anything between 100 to 160 kilometres, which meant that she had to limit her work hours. “My business would have been much more successful had I spent more energy on it in the last few years. That said, I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice because running has given me so much. I’ve made peace with the fact that you cannot have it all,” she asserts.
The effort put in at work comes with its perks for Mohite. Her employer sponsored a part of her Makalu climb, and on May 15 this year, she became the first Indian woman to get to the top of the fifth-highest mountain among the 8,000ers. “I try to balance both. I work in a lab, so it’s never tiring physically. But it’s quite exhausting mentally since I’m usually conducting experiments with the aim of generating antibodies which requires hours of monitoring and troubleshooting.”
Initially, it was a battle to step up to the rampant gender discrimination that came their way. Mohite recalls detractors who doubted her ability to climb. And Saraogi once dealt with a race organiser who refused to hand her a bib for a half-marathon, insisting that she wouldn’t be able to do it. “I had to literally fight with him before he gave it to me,” she recalls.
Pathania believes that the stereotype about women not being able to play these kind of sports still exists, despite reports suggesting that women tend to do better than men when it comes to endurance. “When I started out, I had to look up how my body might react to long training hours on the internet due to the lack of female triathletes in the country with whom I could compare notes. It’s only through experience and trial and error that I’ve gathered the information I require,” she reveals.
But the joy of competing in the outdoors is unparalleled and makes all the travails worth it. And while most extreme athletes may swear that they’ll never attempt such a challenge again, they cannot help but rise to the next one to test themselves.
Pathania articulates this contradiction, “I’m pushing myself to my limits in beautiful countries, and during each race, I say I’m never doing it again. There’s a lot of anxiety at the start, you hit the wall after a while. But as you near the finish, the excitement takes over, and you’re imagining all the things that you will do to celebrate.”
Not for long though. Come morning, it’s back to the grind.
TESTING NEW GROUNDS
After finding success in India, it was a natural progression for the three sportswomen to challenge themselves abroad. And alongside the competitions came the chance to explore new destinations. The trio recall their favourite cities and what made the trips there memorable.
“For all my climbs in Nepal, I first have to land in Kathmandu. The Thamel district of the capital city is where I feel at home today. Before each expedition, I spend a few days there, sorting out the permits and attending to last-minute shopping, besides luxuriating in material comforts before I head out to the mountains. Of course, nothing quite beats the time spent in the world of ice and snow in the middle of nowhere. But the effort of climbing the big mountains does take a physical toll on the body, and afterwards it craves some well-deserved rest and recovery. As a result, I also spend a few days in Thamel before returning home after each expedition. The terrace restaurants and cafes are a great place to put your feet up in after months of hectic training. There’s nothing quite like tucking into wholesome meals after spending months at the base camp of a mountain. When I have some time, I enjoy visiting the stupa at Boudhanath, which I find really peaceful, or watching the antics of the monkeys at the Swayambhunath temple. It’s a good time to reflect on the weeks spent chasing my last project and figure out what I would like to target next.”
SOLONIE SINGH PATHANIA
“My first international experience took me to Hawaii in 2016. It was blazing hot, and the conditions really tested my abilities. But I came back with the satisfaction of having finished my first 70.3 Ironman. When I decided to go race in Sweden in August the following year, I realised that the weather would be quite the opposite. It turned out to be a splendid summer in Kalmar, with temperatures hovering around 10 degree Celsius. Even before I lined up at the start, I knew how I wanted to celebrate after. Having arrived a few days before the event, I couldn’t help but notice the cute little boutique ice-cream parlours that dotted the town. Now ice cream is a strict no-no when it comes to triathlons, and it had taken a massive effort to refrain from indulging in it before the competition. I had a comfortable race and the joy of finishing my first full Ironman deserved an apt celebration — I went to the shop closest to the finishing line and stuffed my mouth with bucketfuls of ice cream.”
“I was really excited when I signed up for the Berlin Marathon this year. But in the run-up to the race, I had to deal with a stress fracture that laid me low. As a result, I had just two to three weeks to train for the run and was certain that targeting my personal best of three hours and 14 minutes, which I managed in the Boston Marathon, made little sense, given the lack of practice. So, I decided to make the most of the trip and take it easy. Today, when I think about the Berlin Marathon, I think of a big mug of beer! From the moment I landed in the city, I set about trying all kinds of beers and indulged in cheese to go with it. When I lined up at the start line, I decided to simply enjoy the run. But by the end of it, I was elated with what I had pulled off — I had managed to do it just nine minutes over my personal best. There was only one way to celebrate, and I guzzled beer for the next few days. And by the end of the trip, I had also found a new favourite in dark beer.”