Anjali Saraogi, 42- On Conquering the Oldest Marathon in the World
At 42, Anjali Saraogi broke all age conventions by running in the Comrades Marathon, the oldest marathon event. From being a chubby kid to now being the champion at South Africa’s annual event, this is Anjali Saraogi’s never before told inspiring story.
Race Day- Comrades Ultra Marathon, Durban, South Africa, 2017
“On the race day, I set myself a target of 8 hours 30 minutes based on my training timing of my last practice run. For practice, I had run three local marathons on terrains similar to that of Comrades. That day I was running in a group and most of the runners were from South Africa.”
“It was a Sunday and I had just told my daughter that I wanted to participate in Airtel’s half marathon. She just said, “Yes, you should. You will win”. Bear in mind, I had no formal prior training. But those words coming from my daughter were motivating enough for me to take the plunge. Within that same week, I got myself registered. I believe that losing doesn’t mean that you start feeling ashamed of yourself. I was not running to win; I wanted to run for myself and know that at least I tried.”
Anjali Saraogi ran in Airtel’s half marathon, Kolkata in the November of 2015. “I had never run a marathon in my life and this was my very first.” Talk about age being no bar.
She says, “At that time I had no clue as to what a marathon and a half marathon are. I just had in mind that I wanted to run”.
“My daughter was born 17 years ago. To lose post-pregnancy weight, I started yoga and jogging 5 kms every day. I had never been to a gym and didn’t even have any dry-fit clothing; I wore my daughter’s golf dry-fit collared t-shirt on the marathon day.”
“The marathon was surprisingly not very draining. But yes, when I finished the race, I experienced intense pain due to cramps. I hadn’t had a single energy gel or any kind of salt intake throughout the run. Ideally, one should have the gel every 45 minutes while running. But for me, luckily, there was a hawker on the street with a food cart. I took some salt from him. But in 1:55:00, I had completed my very first marathon and even secured a podium position.”
This unexpected win was not the only thing that she took away from this event. She says, “The major take away was the realization that I enjoyed running long distances. But now I knew that in order to prepare for a half marathon, one needed to practice 15k run”.
Back to Race Day- Comrades Ultra Marathon, Durban, South Africa, 2017
“Around 11 am, it became very hot and sunny. There were no trees along the way so we were all running under the hot, scathing sun. Even the landscape was bereft of any tree cover. My body was fatigued and tired. I desperately needed some water. They had water at every 2.5 kms. But right then, there was no water in sight. Somewhere around the 70th km, the fatigue almost overcame me; I was heavily dehydrated. On top of that, to reach the next water stall, I still had 12-13 minutes of running to do.”
Anjali was always a bright kid who ranked 1st in her class and went on to secure scholarship in college. At the same time she firmly believed that there are no shortcuts to success. This philosophy of hers has carried her forward in life. But what bogged her down during those early childhood days was her weight. Because of this she always felt a little less confident in trying new things, especially sports. She recalls, “I always wanted to take part in races and other events. But I thought people would laugh at me. So I suppressed my desire to run and won’t even go out to the ground for the try-outs”.
Anjali says, “My timing was so good in the Airtel event that me and my husband thought it might be a fluke. So we went for a marathon to Goa after 2 weeks, where I again achieved a timing of- 1:44:07; even lesser than the previous one of 1:55:00”.
“It was just after 2016’s Standard Chartered event. I had come 2nd, which had now cemented my confidence.”
“I was doing lunges with weight more than what I could handle. Due to this, all the pressure fell on my ‘obturator externus’- a flat, triangular muscle near the pelvis.” She tell us, “Following that incident, a lot of doctors told me that I will never be able to run again. When I went to the physical trainers, they also had the same thing to say. But I believed in myself and just knew that this is not how it could end. So I did extensive physiotherapy and rehab. In next 3.5 months, I was up and running, gearing for the Chicago marathon.
“With still 12-13 minutes remaining until the next water stop, I was trying my best and brought about all the remaining strength left in my body. But the situation was becoming direr by the second. In that moment, it became absolutely clear to me that if I didn’t have water immediately, I would collapse. Then, a miracle happened.”
Preparing for the Comrades
Anjali tells us, “I had just finished the Standard Chartered Full Marathon, January 2017 in Mumbai where I came first (3:29:08). I immediately signed up for the Comrades, which is an Ultra marathon event.
“I would run once a day in the morning and did the strength exercises in the later half of the day. Yoga was also a part of my program. February was grueling. April was even tougher as the mileage target that I had to achieve was very high. But I was pushing my limits everyday. I needed to run three 60 km runs as per the program, preferably on a hilly terrain because the Comrades marathon is run over five major and some small hills. The terrain has a lot of elevation. Since I live in Kolkata, we don’t have such terrain. Hence, I started running on flyovers at 2 or 3 am in the night when there was no traffic. It was dangerous but my husband would accompany me in the car.”
“Then, in that moment, a miracle happened. There was this South African runner holding on to his water sachet from the last water point. My gaze incidentally fell on it and he saw me looking. Water was the most important commodity for all of us at that point. But I continued running as I didn’t have the heart to ask. But then I looked at him again. At that point, without speaking anything, he gave it to me. I could see in his eyes that he didn’t exactly want to share it at this crucial juncture but I think he was kind enough. I was so grateful for this. I honestly don’t know how many of us could have done what he did at that point.”
“People ask me what was going on in my mind during that race. I tell them- I only kept thinking about my energy gel, water and food. I was counting every kilometer; for me that run had become the fight for survival.”
“At 2:08 pm, I reached the finish line- completing the marathon in 8:38:23. Months of training had boosted my stamina of which even I was surprised. Completing it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. But most of all, I was thankful to my family- my daughter and my husband- who had unconditionally supported me all this while. And I was thankful to that gentleman runner who made it possible for me to keep going.”
Anjali adds a last note saying, “Now I know that it is a myth. You don’t have to have an athletic body to run. Of course, I realized this much later. I feel there are a lot of people who can identify with me; who want to do something but lack the confidence. To all those people, I want to say that there is no harm in trying. The most important thing is to have faith in yourself and not to worry about other people. There is so much that I could have done at 20 if only I knew what I know now. But better be late than sorry. Today, running has invigorated my confidence to a new level. It has taught me to be more patient and to rigorously keep working towards my goals".
At Comrades, Anjali Saraogi holds the second best timing among all Indians till date, and that too at the age of 43.