In January, Nupur Singh received a call quite out of the blue. It was from the organisers of the Eco Trail Al Ula, inviting her to run the 80km race in Saudi Arabia in March. A lack of time to prepare was the least of Singh’s problems. The 35-year-old had endured a difficult 2022 running had taken a backseat and her head was muddled. However, she grabbed the opportunity as a way to get the break that she was looking for.
Sixty three runners lined up at the start line at the Al Ula on 18 March; only 31 finished within the cutoff of 12 hours and 30 minutes. Singh’s timing of 9 hours, 19 minutes helped her finish in ninth position overall and second among women runners. The big smile she sported at the finish conveyed her mixed emotions, somewhere between exhilaration and relief.
Until three years ago, Singh ran mostly for fun. In 2016, she had quit her career as an architect in New Delhi and moved to Bir in Himachal Pradesh. She wanted to become a race organizer, and in March that year, she co-founded The Hell Race, offering some of the toughest ultra marathons and trail races across the country.
“It was a big decision, but architecture gave me the flexibility that if things didn’t work out, I could resume my practice. My family had always backed me, yet they couldn’t wrap their heads around why I would give up a stable job to pursue this running business,” Singh says. Over the next three years, she hiked many mountain trails for route recces. This helped her maintain a high level of fitness that allowed her to run some of the races that she organised.
“I played every sport on offer at boarding school in Indore and was into cycling and running while working in Delhi. Once in the mountains, I was used to being on my feet for long hours, so it helped build a base of sorts to endure long distances,” she says. “Even when organising races, it never felt like a job. It allowed me to be close to nature, a great experience,” she adds.
But in 2018, she decided to quit the company. The next few months were hard for her mental and physical wellbeing. Singh was distraught, had gained weight and everything around running and the outdoors was put on hold. “You come to the mountains with so many dreams, only to realise that nothing is working out. I felt like I was wasting time and questioned all my decisions,” she says.
It was only in 2019 that she first considered running professionally. Singh was in search of a push to reclaim her life and shifted base from Bir to Kothi near Manali. In June, she ran 42km at the Sinhagad Epic Trail to get a feel of the trails again. Once back home, she switched to a plant-based diet and took on a regimented training routine under coach Sandeep Kumar. While running in the wilderness, Singh found solace and soon signed up for her first race in October that year, the 60km Solang Sky Ultra. She finished the race in top spot.
“When you cross that start line, there are so many uncertainties. You can either win the race or take a fall somewhere and get injured. Then again, the challenges are fun because you are amid nature. So it’s difficult and at the same time, really beautiful,” Singh says. “You never know what you are capable of achieving. But once you start pushing, you just keep raising the bar higher and higher,” she adds.
Other races followed. She ran the IAU 100km Asia & Oceania Championship in Jordan in November that year and finished as the second-fastest Indian. Over the next three months, she won the women’s race at the SRT Ultra Marathon near Pune, the Vadodara Marathon and the Tata Ultra Marathon in Lonavala. Things seemed to be on track for Singh when covid-19 struck, bringing all the good work to a grinding halt. But things only got worse for her here on.
In March 2020, her father was diagnosed with cancer, forcing Singh to move back to her hometown of Lalitpur. She continued training over a 100 metre-loop in her backyard and worked on strengthening her core. Once lockdown was eased, she started organising races as well. The training seemed to be on track again when she clocked her personal best of 3 hours 3 minutes at the New Delhi Marathon. But the second pandemic wave in 2021 resulted in a personal tragedy. Her parents contracted the virus and passed away. “It was really difficult, still is at times. But running has helped a lot. It takes your mind off things, since you have goals to focus on,” she says.
She too contracted covid, and was off training for five months, waiting for her body to recover. Through all of last year, she ran just two races. But the race in Saudi Arabia was the perfect impetus to begin work again. The grind was brutal, but she gradually started building on the distances.“I realised that things were going to be very different and whatever I did here on should be for the right reasons,” she says.
The desert course in Saudi Arabia was a mix of paved trail and deep sand at the start, followed by a canyon section featuring technical climbs, eventually dropping to a dirt track through date plantations until the finish line. There were a few renowned athletes whom she recognised at the start, but Singh had her mind set on running her own race and targeted a sub-10 hour finish.
It turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster. There were moments when she welled up as she remembered her parents; in the next, she would be filled with joy from the experience of running in the wilderness again. Getting to the finish line reaffirmed her belief in just what she was capable of. A week later, she followed it up with a second-placed finish in the elite category of the New Delhi Marathon. Singh is now convinced of one thing: running is the cure.
Shail Desai is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.