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Shibani Gharat: Long-distance runner

DC | ROHINI NAIR
Published Oct 12, 2014, 8:01 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 10:05 pm IST
She is not just a taekwondo champ but a marathon specialist of sorts, who successfully completed the ardous Khardung La Challenge
Shibani Gharat
 Shibani Gharat

Mumbai girl Shibani Gharat was a taekwondo champ during her college years. But when she started working as a TV journalist later, she found that putting in the six hours of training required for the sport (three hours of fitness training and three hours of actual match practise) was challenging. As someone who always had a “tremendous amount of energy” (as she describes herself), Shibani felt the need to channel it in a new direction. She loved to run and would routinely put in a 5 km run most mornings during her taekwondo days — to run greater distances seemed like the most natural step. And so it is that Shibani began running marathons and ultra marathons, among the most demanding of endurance sports there is.

On September 14, Shibani became the first non-Ladakhi woman in India to complete the Khardung La Challenge — an ultra marathon that takes place at the Khardung La pass, which at 18,380 feet above sea level,is the highest motorable road in the world. “After running the Standrad Chartered Mumbai Marathon this year, I was wondering what to attempt next when Dharmendra Kumar, a runner friend from Bengaluru, told me about the Khardung La Challenge, which he had completed last year,” says Shibani.

 

She started the 72-km run at 3 am in the morning, and says, “The terrain changes every 10 km Four km from the Pass, the snow was so thick. And at 18,000 feet above sea level, even if you jog on the spot for a couple of minutes, you feel exhausted! But the minute I crossed the Pass, it was euphoric.”

Marathons are challenging enough, so what makes a person deliberately seek out ultra marathons that stretch your strength and endurance to the limit over hours — and sometimes even days? Shibani says it’s her love for travelling combined with her passion for running that makes ultra marathons an experience she seeks. “Ultras form a nice intersection between both because you get to explore a whole terrain by foot,” she explains. “Then again, there are trail runs and on-the-road runs, such as the ones that happen in cities.

With trial runs, you get to experience such different surface conditions. These ultras take you beyond the city atmosphere. For instance, last year, I did a 100-km run through the Nilgiris — the trail took me through tea plantations and I even encountered a couple of wild animals! In an ultra, beyond a certain point, you’re not running with your body; it’s your mind that takes over.”

Shibani recounts how, at the Khardung La Challenge, there is a tower that you can see in the distance from the start of the trail. Runners frequently look to it as a milestone, gauging how much further they have to go by their distance from it. “The tower seems so close, but it really isn’t. You can run for 2-3 hours and still not reach it. But you keep telling yourself, just a little more and I’ll be there it’s like life, in a way. You’re always looking for that silver lining, it keeps you going,” Shibani says.

It’s tempting to think of Shibani as an intensely focused individual, who’s always got her goals firmly in sight. But she offers a surprisingly different analysis: “For any ultra-marathoner, what’s most important is taking the next 10 steps,” Shibani says. “It’s like the answer to that question — ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ Bit by bit. Sometimes, a goal can seem overwhelming, so you just focus on what you can do. And I know that if I do that, sooner or later, I will reach my goal.”

There are many more ultra marathons Shibani wants to attempt: The 42-km North Pole run that takes place entirely on snow, the Badwater ultra marathon in the US that only  one Indian has finished so far, and the Four Deserts Race that a little over 100 people in the world have finished.

How does she maintain the discipline that’s necessary for training every day? “You know what they say — if you do something for 21 days, it becomes a habit,” Shibani says. “I’m not training much after Khardung La, but my eyes still open at 5.30 am, even if I’ve slept at 2 am. The best way to motivate yourself is to register for a marathon. Automatically, you watch your food habits and know you have to go for a run.”

What also keeps Shibani going is the “unmatched feeling of devouring breakfast after finishing a run”! “Every marathon, after I finish 5-10 km, I ask ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I putting my body through this torture?’” she admits. “But once I cross the finish line, I ask myself — ‘When am I doing this next?’”

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