You’ve heard of marathons, right? And you probably know at least one person who has run a marathon or is training for one. Sounds pretty crazy, to run 26.2 miles. Marathoners are a strange bunch. A popular question is, “How can you run for that long?” To those who think it unfathomable to cover the marathon distance on foot, prepare to have your mind blown.
Enter ultrarunning. Ultrarunning, which is the sport of running distances longer than a marathon, is quite popular. The most popular distance might just be the 100-miler. One. Hundred. Miles. No, really, one hundred miles, on foot. Even I, a seasoned marathoner, am astounded by the fact that the human body and mind can persevere through such a great distance. The popularity in 100-mile races, and ultrarunning in general, just speaks to the reality that we are all powerful; for some of us, that potential is greatly untapped, but we are capable to dreaming big and finding success. For inspiration, I highly suggest picking up a copy of “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall.
I recently had the opportunity to personally meet one such ultrarunner. And he’s not just any ultrarunner. No, this athlete just completed the highly-esteemed Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. Before I describe the Grand Slam, let me introduce this amazing athlete. Vishal Sahni is an engineer and patent attorney at the USPTO, and just happens to be a very passionate athlete who has perfected the art of mind over matter, because “if you want [something] bad enough, it’s amazing what the body can do.” Like that of most people of South Asian descent, his upbringing emphasized academics, not athletics. He didn’t have soccer lessons as a kid, play football as a teen, or run cross-country in high school. It wasn’t until he went to college that he became interested in running (modest distances back then).
Fast-forward a few years, and now he is an ultrarunning champ! His family has learned to gain an appreciation for his passion, and has even helped crewing him at races. He is one of only 234 people in the entire world, and the first Indian, to have earned the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning award. Ok, you ask, so what exactly is this Grand Slam, already?! If you’re standing up, sit down.
The Grand Slam consists of running not just one 100-mile footrace, but four such races, all within a summer of one calendar year. These four races are among the oldest 100-mile trail runs in the US and consist of:
- Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run
- Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run
- Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
- Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run
Western States, Vermont, and Leadville all have 30-hour cutoffs, while Wasatch, inarguably the most difficult, has a 36-hour cutoff. He finished Vermont in just under 24 hours, but he finished all of them well under the cutoff time.
If these achievements don’t already sound amazing, here’s more. All four of these races were within an 11-week period. And these races aren’t nice and smooth, with steady elevation and predictable weather. As if 100 miles isn’t difficult enough, these trail races consist of challenges such as high altitude (almost all of Leadville is run above 10,000 feet), large cumulative elevation gains (Wasatch has 26,882 feet of total climbing), extreme temperature fluctuations (from ice and snow to 100+ degree heat), and technical routes (roots and rocks, so watch your feet!).
While he might take a few minutes break at an aid station (located 8-10 miles apart), he is essentially running continuously for an entire day. He doesn’t sleep, though he gets fatigued (who wouldn’t??) and has even hallucinated. One of the main reasons he doesn’t sleep during the race is because of the multitude of unknown factors. How will his body feel once he gets up? Did he just sleep through a window of good weather? Does he still have a cushion of time before the cutoff? For these and other reasons, he keeps going, but is continuously in check with his body to avoid injury. That’s not to say he’s never encountered an injury.
Just this past April while on a practice run on a trail, he fell and hurt himself. By this point, since he’d gotten in the lottery for Western States (there’s only about a 15% chance of even getting in to the race), he’d decided 2012 would be his year to Slam. His first thought, upon hearing from the doctor that he had, in fact, fractured his shoulder, was, “Oh my God, am I not going to be able to Slam?” Fortunately he did, and he feels that the first 100 of the Slam, in June, was his biggest accomplishment, because he could have easily used his shoulder injury as a reason to quit, but he didn’t. He persevered.
All in all, he has raced ten 100-milers!
As you can imagine, this feat is not for the faint of heart. But Vishal has done it, and done it proudly. This accomplished athlete knows that the only barriers are the ones you set for yourself, so he aims high and shatters stereotypes, proving that Indians are just as capable of achieving athletic greatness as anyone else.
So what’s next for this Indian ultra-athlete? He has no plans yet for his next big challenge, but will seek out an opportunity as it arises. The rest us who are not yet (or ever!) at this caliber can still learn from Vishal’s example- aim high, dream big, persevere, and you will find success.