During her first 24-hour stadium run in 2018, Apoorva Chaudhary realised that running is not an individual sport after all. Having run for 15 hours by then, she was tiring. Over the next one hour, every time she saw someone resting next to the track or someone quitting the race, she felt further demotivated. It was then that other runners came to her help, cheering, shouting words of encouragement, handling her nutrition needs so that she could just focus on running. What she did not know then was that her tired legs would set the national record in the next 9 hours: completing 176.8km in the women’s 24-hour event of the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held under the aegis of Athletics Federation of India.
“By that point I had blanked out. But I decided to just look at the legs of the runner in front of me. If I overtook him/her, I would just find a new set of legs to look at and follow. That is the only way I managed to keep going,” says the 31-year-old Chaudhary. Hitting a wall like she did is common in all long distance races. But it can be much more difficult to overcome when you are running an ultramarathon. Technically, anything above 50km is considered an ultramarathon, but the total distance can go up by many hundreds of kilometres. The only way to train for that wall then is to prepare your mind for it. Chaudhary did just that, training for long hours and pushing herself to keep going, even if at a slower pace, so that her mind would keep her moving even when her body had given up.
For Manali-based ultrarunner Nupur Singh, spending more time on tired legs is the best way to train. Singh holds the unique status of having been on the podium for both “a regular” 42.2km marathon (Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020) and a 100km ultra (Asia Oceania Championship 2019). She is a regular in the ultra circuit now, having picked up racing professionally two years ago. “I have realized that if I am not pushing for speed, I have no problem going for longer distances,” says Singh.
This may be the reason why women are often thought to be better at longer endurance events than men. Scientifically speaking, men have bigger muscles and greater maximal capacity (including strength and aerobic power). This lets them go really fast in short distance events such as sprints, a 10km, even a marathon. But as the distance increases, you cannot just depend on your muscle power. Women have a greater distribution of slow twitch muscle fibres which are less susceptible to fatigue. The estrogen hormone has a role to play as well. Various studies have found a beneficial correlation between the hormone and endurance, including storage of glycogen in muscles, free fatty acid availability, ability to burn fat, and oxidative capacity. As a matter of fact, a 2020 study called The State of UltraRunning, conducted by running shoe review site RunRepeat in collaboration with the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), found that when people race beyond 195 miles (about 313km), “the average pace of a woman is slightly faster than the average pace of a man, at 17:19 min/mile for women, and 17:25 min/mile for men.”
But there is more to it than just the science. Marathons are a mental game, and ultras are even more so. A now-famous anecdote in the ultra running community is of Courtney Dauwalter hallucinating during her attempt to set the women's world record at the Desert Solstice competition in Phoenix, USA in 2018. Daulwalter saw live puppets playing on a swing set on the side of the trail while trees and rocks turned into faces. She pushed on through her hallucinations, and broke the women’s course record by an astounding margin of over 18 hours.
Indian ultramarathons are not that arduous yet. But the challenges of facing your demons remain. Delhi-based Sufiya Khan, who recently entered the record books by becoming the first woman to run Manali to Leh, believes it is 90% a mind game. She should know. She completed the Manali to Leh run in just 6 days and 12 hours. And it isn’t the first time either. Earlier, Khan had run Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari (2019) and covered the Golden quadrilateral highway network (2020). “It is very important to have a stable mind in an ultra distance event. There is no excuse of being a man or woman in that case, “the wall” can hit anyone. But I always remind myself Jo start kiya hai usko finish karna hi chahiye. Abh race mein ho ya zindagi mein (whatever you have started, you must finish—in a race or in life),” she says.
Running coach Ravinder Singh, who also organizes events like the Shivalik Ultra Run, says that the trail never discriminates between a man or a woman. The latter, he believes, possibly build up more mental power by just going through everyday obstacles. “Very few runners in India are professionally just dedicated to it. Most have a separate profession. Even if not that, they are balancing family, figuring out a time and route where it is safe to run alone, run long distances for hours to even train for an ultra running event. That does add a certain sense of perseverance to their spirit,” he says. Singh however points out that these challenges, which make runners into stronger competitors, also stop many women from running. “In any race, irrespective of distance, the number of participants for men and women would have a roughly 70:30 ratio. For ultras maybe the ratio would get even more skewed,” he adds.
But no one can predict who will win a really long distance ultra race, believes ultra runner and professional child psychologist, Hemant Singh Beniwal. He names multiple events where the gap between men’s and women’s finish times is not that large, and the ones where the women have outperformed men. He puts it down to the mental strength of the runner.
“Speed is different. But endurance running needs pain tolerance ability over a long, long time. You need to be able to handle the emotions which will surely come over you if you are running 16-17 hours, or 24 hours,” says Beniwal.
Along with that comes a runner’s nutrition needs for an ultra. Men can store more glycogen in their muscles than women, which can be quickly released as fuel for speed. But this can only work for so far. Many scientists believe (though it has not been conclusively proven yet) that estrogen helps women burn fat faster. So when you are running on reserve power, and cannot refuel your body, this comes in handy. Be it evolution science, or just sheer grit, women certainly are making their mark in the ultra running space. It is only a matter of time when the numbers show that too.