May 25, 2016

Exclusive: Interview with India’s first male Ultraman

Arunaabh Shah completed Ultraman Australia earlier this month, becoming India’s first male Ultraman and the country's second Ultraman overall, the first being female triathlete Anu Vaidyanathan.


Yogesh Kumar

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In this exclusive interview, he talks about his training routine, managing the work-training balance and his inspirations.

New Delhi’s Arunaabh Shah completed Ultraman Australia, an endurance event that took place from 14 – 16 May, becoming India’s first male Ultraman, and the second Ultraman overall, the first being female athlete Anu Vaidyanathan.

The Ultraman
The Ultraman is a 515km endurance challenge including 10km open-water swim, 421 km cross-country bike ride, and 84km ultra-marathon run. It’s a three-day event and each day has a time limit of 12 hours. Day one is 10km swim + 140km bike, day two is 280.1km bike, and day 3 is 84.3km run.

Arunaabh not only completed the events within the stipulated time but the 25-year old also became the youngest ever to finish Ultraman Australia. He took a total of 32 hours, 16 minutes and 57 seconds to finish it.

Arunaabh has an impressive athletic profile. A sub-3 full marathon finisher, he completed his first Full Ironman triathlon at Mallorca, Spain last year in September and Half Ironman triathlon in Taiwan. He also took the personal and self-supported successful endeavor of doing seven Half Iron distance triathlons in seven consecutive days. A national-level pro swimmer, he has several personal bests in other sports as well like a 100km ultra-marathon in 15 hours and 16 minutes given he took up running just four years ago.

The Outdoor Journal got in touch with Arunaabh Shah to know more about his life, training routine and how he balances his day to day chores with his training.

TOJ: How did you come into ultra endurance races? When did it all begin?

Arunaabh: I got into running in 2012 and had done a couple of Half Marathons. Arun Bhardwaj, a well-known ultrarunner in India, called me up out of the blue and asked me if I was interested in running a 50km ultra at Bhatti Lakes Ultra 2013. My longest run when I was standing at the start line was 25kms. I did pretty well, finishing 3rd overall after losing 15 minutes to a time penalty and was hooked to the experience.

TOJ: How do you manage to find balance between your job, family and training?

Arunaabh: The job and commute take up about 12 hours of my day and those hours are fixed. Things have to be worked around in the remaining 12 hours.  So planning big sessions on weekdays involve sacrifices in terms on sleep. Weekends are reserved for the longer workouts and the remaining time is spent recovering.
My family is very supportive with my training. Be it my parents or my girlfriend, they know the time I would be out training and they accept the fact. I try my best to give back to my family on my off-days. They are very independent themselves and I am in a long-distance relationship, so yeah, dates don’t really eat up my time. (laughs)

Running at Bhati Lakes Ultra.
Running at Bhati Lakes Ultra.

TOJ: What has sports and Ultraman in particular taught you?

Arunaabh: Sports have taught me respect and humility. In Ultraman, these values were deeply reinforced. Ultraman is based on three principles: Aloha (Love), Ohana (Family) and Kokua (Help), all three of which were evident throughout the event. The love and support of the organizers, my crew, other athletes and their crews and family members was something I haven’t felt in races before. The Spanish crews made the environment really cheerful.

They were honest, genuine people who loved the sport. There were athletically gifted people (Race winners – Arnaud Selukov and Chloe Lane, Tim Franklin and Juan Bautista Arroyo) and pure inspirations (Andre Kallich and Darryl Allen ). Every single one of Ultraman athletes and their crew were achievers in their own right. I met Craig Alexander, Pete Jacobs, Scott Molina and Dave Orowitz who left me in awe. They are legends in endurance sports races and greatly known worldwide.

Crossing the finish line at Ultraman Australia on Day 3.
Crossing the finish line at Ultraman Australia on Day 3. Image © Craig Percival

One thing everyone had in common was humility. No one thought they were above the sport, no one was arrogant. Everyone respected others individuality.
Even off the field, I was lucky enough to live at a local woman’s house. I booked her place from an app and she had no idea who I was and was just amazed at what I was going to do. She sensed I was alone and contacted the race organizers on day one to find me some company.

Above all, I met Narinder Sandhu & his wife who owned this Indian Restaurant called Curry Junction. I accidentally stumbled into his restaurant on my second Day in Noosa and he being a sportsman himself, offered me dinner and lunches.
Coming back from this race, I just learnt what kindness and humility means and what love really is.

My crew selflessly gave their 100% support during the race and that’s what I want to do in life. Everybody tries to help you in their own possible way.

TOJ: Ultras can be lonely. What was going through your mind during Ultraman?

Arunaabh: The mind goes through some crazy dark places, especially during such a long-distance race. You are bound to feel the highs and the lows. Those 10kms in the water were bad. I hardly had done any training, my wetsuit was chaffing badly and I felt like my shoulders were falling apart. Several thoughts cross your mind.

On the bike on Day One and Two, the words of support from Matthew McIntyre, seeing Krista Page ride on after a horrific crash on day one, seeing Andre Kallich embody the “Never Give Up” spirit kept me going.

I was down many times, mentally. But my crew kept up the chatter and the inspiration just kept flowing. Whether it was the bike crash on the day one or the extreme bonk on day two at 176th km mark, I kept thinking why I was there. I was the ambassador for my country there and I wasn’t going to let it down.

Day three was better than the previous two days, especially running with Craig “Crowie” Alexander for a good 25km distance. I had made up my mind to run for the 1st 50kms and had a decent pace too, managed to get the 1st 50kms in five hours. Post that, there was a lot of turmoil, pain and misery. My coach paced me for the last 20kms and my crew kept the positivity up. The other crews treated me like family. I tried not to look at my Garmin and let the distance left affect me mentally.

I was lucky not to get any blisters despite the whole double marathon. The Adidas shoes worked well for me. Of all the days, running through the last 500 meters on sand was the toughest. Who puts sand at the end of a double marathon?

But I had the Indian Flag flying above my head in my hands and the mind was full of elation on the realization of a dream.

TOJ: Explain your training schedule briefly.

Arunaabh: As I was recovering from a knee injury for three months, the focus was to build strength, through gym workouts and run at a pace which didn’t have too adverse an effect on the knees.

Swimming was a part of the schedule, but there were pool closures and lack of access to swim, so I was able to get only three swims before Ultraman.

My training plan was created by Deepak Raj (of Trianewlife coaching). As access to road riding in Delhi is risky and full of pollution, the aim was to get more than 80% of actual volume on the bike trainer. Long rides as long as 8 hours were done on the trainer at home. Running on those tired legs was the main idea we worked around. Some double runs after a long riding day helped prepare for the race. Weekdays too were full of rides and runs anywhere from two to four hours long. We tried to get at least 20-22 hours of training a week.

Arunaabh finished his Ironman Mallorca in 13:01:18.
Arunaabh finished his Ironman Mallorca in 13:01:18.

TOJ: What was your diet and nutrition plan?

Arunaabh: I was lucky enough to be suggested a book called Racing Weight by Subramani Venkatesh who is India’s fastest Ironman. The book and his knowledge about race nutrition helped me immensely.

My diet is mainly 6 small meals a day starting on a carbohydrate rich diet and ending on protein rich meal. Race nutrition wise, I used Fast&Up products, especially ‘Reload’ during the race and training. I was suffering from shin splints and so had incorporated some supplements like multi-vitamins capsules and Vitamin D.

TOJ: What challenges did you face in your training in Delhi and how did you overcome them?

Arunaabh: Pollution is the main culprit. The only way to overcome it on the run was to train in a 500-meter loop at a stadium near my home. With no better option, I have to run for about 3 hours on a single loop. Heat was another issue but there was no way around it. I just had to suffer through it. On the outdoors rides, the traffic was scary and I was lucky not to have any crashes despite having many close shaves.

Arunaabh at Ironman Mallorca finish line.
Arunaabh at Ironman Mallorca finish line.

TOJ: How did you manage your low days during training?

Arunaabh: I believe in the fact that no matter how low you are feeling, if you manage to reach your workout goals, you feel happy at the end of it. I chased that feeling in every workout. Monotony was my constant company, given I ran in a 500 meter loop and sat on the trainer for 8 hours at a stretch. Movies helped on the trainer and music on the run. If nothing else helped, thinking about the finish line helped me get through the workout.
It’s always about getting things done, and that’s what I tried to achieve with every session.

TOJ: What changes have you seen in yourself before Ironman Mallorca and after Ultraman? Explain in terms of physical and psychological gains.

Arunaabh: After Ironman, I had a very dark phase. I did seven half Iron distance triathlons in seven consecutive days without proper recovery and suffered badly in pollution outside.
I had no strength and suffered constantly from a hamstring injury and subsequently, a knee injury which put me off the road for three months.
It was during those three months that I suffered from depression, anxiety and restlessness. I wasn’t able to sleep and wasn’t able to vent out my frustration for the lack of training.

I had two DNFs (Did Not Finish) in Mumbai and Delhi marathons and I couldn’t find any sponsor.

Arunaabh began running in 2012 and has progressed massively in the sport.
Arunaabh began running in 2012 and has progressed massively in the sport.

The learning was great. I learnt the importance of strength workouts, meditation and learnt how to keep an emotions journal. I learnt the importance of training slow for more gains. I learnt the importance of counting the workouts in terms of hours and not in terms of distance.

Above all, I have learnt the importance of self-belief and accepting life for what it is and doing the best at every moment.

TOJ: Who are your role models?

Arunaabh: There are many but I’d like to list few important ones here like Rafael Nadal, Craig Alexander, Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps, my parents and my coach.

TOJ: How do you think that you can change the face of endurance races in a country like India which has very few or almost no role model to look up to from the past?

Arunaabh: I am glad that I could become the first Indian male to do the Ultraman. The responsibility that comes with it is immense. I hope that this achievement will be able to create an awareness of the sport and people can see that the boundaries of triathlon can be stretched this far. I also want people to understand that it is not about the medal or the title. I know the outcomes of pushing metal and physical boundaries are greater than them. It helps in a holistic improvement of your life. I want other to achieve their fitness dreams and supporting them in my every possible way.

TOJ: Now what’s next on your mind?

Arunaabh: I’d like to do Ironman Vichy (in August 2016) and amend my misses at Ironman Mallorca last year and finish it with a timing of a sub-11 hour. Then participate in the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii (in November 2016). It will all depend upon the support of my sponsors. It costs a lot to travel and participate in such races. However, I believe that things just always work out if you keep beating at it.

Images © Arunaabh Shah