The Indian ultra-running season is upon us. Many of you are probably training for various ultra-marathons across the country to test the limits of your training and endurance. Endurance running appeals to so many runners because it requires a special confluence of the mind, body and the spirit to be able to run such punishing distances.
Now, imagine running one of the toughest foot races in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. We spoke to someone who has lived that incredible experience – Mumbai based endurance athlete, Girish Mallya. Girish is the first Indian to successfully finish the Marathon de Sables (The Marathon of Sands) in 2013. The MdS, a 6-day 251 km race held in the Sahara desert every year, is regarded as one of the toughest foot races in the world.
Girish shares his insights on training for a grueling event like MdS, the challenges of raising sponsorship for expensive international events, and looks back on how the MdS has changed his life.
Over to you, Girish.
On training for the MdS
I started running around 23 years ago, when I was in the 10th grade. Back then, I used to run in Colaba, one of the few mud tracks in the city. During my post-grad in Manipal, I started running in 5Ks and 10Ks.
I started serious training 6 months before the first SCMM in 2004. After some more major events, I progressed to endurance running and participated in the first Bangalore Ultra, which was the first ultra-marathon in India. I went on to do the Great Tibetan Marathon in Ladakh, which was extremely well organized, with lots of international participants. Some runners at the Tibetan marathon told me I had the potential to compete in the MdS, arguably one of the toughest multi-stage races in the world. Multi stage races are self-supported and self- sustaining, where there is no support crew, and you have to carry your own food and water for 5-6 days. The organizers provide you with a tent and rationed water (about 10-12 liters a day).
Initially, I had no clue how to go about it, because back then, there were no races in India that could prepare you for something like the MdS. I approached it by breaking down the race to multiple parts. I realized that I needed to carry a backpack of about 10 Kg, so I started running with a back pack. I have now been running with one for 5 years. Even for all my regular marathons, I started carrying a backpack, so it became second nature. I needed to do one stage which was an overnight stage, where you have to run through the night. You need to be alert and aware for this stage. I took to endurance cycling to prepare myself for this, doing 200-300 km rides in a week.
I needed to cross train to remain injury free, but I hate gymming, so cycling took care of cross-training and prepared me for the overnight stage. The next step was to simulate running continuously, because with something like MDS, you are doing the average of a marathon every day. I started doing self-organized races, running 20 km a day for 15 days consecutively. This keeps you free from injury. Some days you don’t do as well, and on some days you are sore – but you are still doing the distance. I was juggling this training schedule with my regular 9-5 job.
Bangalore Ultra was a good testing ground for me. One of the organizers of the Bangalore Ultra was also an organizer for the MdS. He was very familiar with the format and with his help, I knew exactly what I needed to be prepared for. From first hearing about the MdS, to finishing it in 2013, the whole process took 5 years.
On securing sponsorship for the MdS
Getting sponsors was almost as tough as doing the race itself. I work in the magazine publishing. I was familiar with the process of marketing and pitching to clients; in this case, I had to pitch myself as a brand and give them a deliverable. It is very difficult in India to get the backing for something niche like this. My understanding of the media industry helped. What the sponsor is looking for is coverage, and it is crucial to have an understanding of what your pitch is
A regular, mainstream sportsperson would need a talent management company to help them. I was lucky that I was from the industry and knew my way around this process. Otherwise, I don’t recommend that anyone do this for themselves- it’s too strenuous and demanding. Negotiations get stretched and the process is never finished until the money actually comes in. Time is crucial to athletes, and it can take a while for sponsorship efforts to show results.
Getting sponsorship for the Ironman Triathlon was a lot easier because I have now established my credentials as a sportsperson. On the whole, it has not gotten easier for runners to get sponsorship even now. Getting cash sponsorship is difficult; people are more willing to sponsor gear, food supplements etc. Getting your airfare and registration fees covered is where the real challenge lies.
I get this done by pitching a deliverable to corporate sponsors. I don’t want charity. Crowdsourcing doesn’t work for me. Running is an indulgence for me – an expensive one at that- and, you can’t expect someone else to bankroll it. I was prepared to dip into my personal savings too, because I had to prepare for the eventuality that I wouldn’t find a sponsor.
I had social media contacts that connected me to the decision makers for various brands. I wrote to sports foundations and corporates. I realized that each brand had a different outlook. You can’t give a cookie-cutter deliverable to every brand because they have different goals. I do activation events for Puma. As a running expert, I talk to runners, advise them on gear, answer questions and write blogs. With Apollo Tyres, I had to highlight their branding. I consult for Sportizen. It helps a lot if you are a good public speaker and you can communicate well. They want you to share your experiences with their influence groups. I know I am not Yuvraj Singh. People aren’t going to buy a Tshirt if I wear it. What they get from an athlete like me is different. My job is to give them an experience that is personal, interactive and intimate.
On how life has changed post-MdS
Running in the Sahara desert was awe-inspiring, but very tough. The temperature during MdS ranges from 35-40 °C, with only 15% humidity. There’s very limited water – do I put it on my head to cool off or do I drink it? You lose around 6000 calories a day, but you are eating only 2000 calories. You are perpetually thirsty and perpetually hungry, but you need to be disciplined and conserve resources.
You come to appreciate what being hungry really feels like. There is no internet access except to send one email, and no access to technology. You have to sleep in a tent in the desert – I trained for this by sleeping on the floor for two years.
At MDS, there was absolute equality. In terms of gender, religion, language, race – everybody was a runner and everyone was an equal. Someone’s baggage didn’t show up and everyone contributed towards giving the person a makeshift kit. I met an ex-Olympian. I met someone who had won the ‘Race Across America’ thrice. I met exceptionally gifted athletes. MdS gave me a lot of amazing stories and friendships to last me a lifetime.
Post-MdS, I realized that I could do anything that I dreamt of. I realized that training for an event like this doesn’t mean one has to make massive sacrifices like cutting down on socializing with friends. My approach was to take longer, incorporate training into my daily life, and bring about lifestyle changes like running to or from work twice a week. I changed my commuting time instead of sacrificing time with friends, family or reading. I used my commuting time to run or cycle. Now, running or cycling to work feels effortless. MdS was about these small lifestyle changes that will stay with me forever.
Doing something that’s hard for one day is no big deal. Training yourself to do something over and over again is what endurance sport is all about.