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The story of Sufiya, India's record breaking long distance runner

Earlier in April, long distance runner Sufiya completed a 110-day run along the Golden Quadrilateral highway network

Sufiya during her 'Run For Hope' run along the Golden Quadrilateral.
Sufiya during her 'Run For Hope' run along the Golden Quadrilateral. (Courtesy: Sufiya)

Around a year ago, Sufiya, 35, had hit the road for her most ambitious run yet. Her aim was to run along the Golden Quadrilateral highway network across India: a total length of about 6,002km. A few months before starting out, she had put in the hours at training and by March 22 last year, she had completed about a third of the distance.

As she approached Visakhapatnam, the covid-19 national lockdown was announced. Sufiya took it easy for a couple of days, hoping that the situation would improve. But it wasn’t just the end of her run. For the next two months, she found herself stranded on the outskirts of Peth Sangvi in Latur district, living in a tent in the middle of a field.

Her effort had come to an abrupt end, but there was little time for disappointment, given the unfinished business on hand. With lenient restrictions in place around her temporary camp, she made the most of the opportunity to continue training. Once back home in New Delhi on June 1, she geared up for her second attempt on December 16.

Nearly four months later, in the wee hours of the morning on April 6, Sufiya made her way back to the starting point at India Gate, having finally finished her epic run. It had taken her 110 days, 23 hours and 24 minutes. There were no aches or sore points, nor did she want to rest. In that moment, all that she experienced was this longing to set out on the road yet again.

Sufiya after finishing her run at India Gate in early April.
Sufiya after finishing her run at India Gate in early April. (Courtesy: Facebook/Sufiya Khan)

“It was a strange feeling to know that I didn’t have to run anymore. My body was ready to go the distance once again,” Sufiya says.

While growing up, Sufiya had never been a running enthusiast or into sports. Following her graduation, Sufiya pursued a diploma in aviation and took up her first job as ground staff at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. It was only four years ago that Sufiya took up running. The graveyard shift in the aviation industry had unsettled her and she felt an urgent need to reclaim her life.

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“It gradually became a passion. I started running marathons and then ultras. Running was a great medium to explore a place and spread your message. Besides, I was very curious to know my limits and how far I could go, especially in testing circumstances,” she says.

In 2018, she ran the Golden Triangle, Delhi-Jaipur-Agra-Delhi, which adds up to about 720km, in 16 days. The next year, she pulled off a distance of 4,000km from Srinagar in Kashmir to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu in 87 days, 2 hours 17 minutes. This set a record for the fastest time by a female runner in the “Kashmir to Kanyakumari” category, according to Guinness World Records. That run made her realise that she was built to endure multiple days of suffering. Her ability and the possibilities it opened up excited her.

Sufiya with her Guinness World Records plaque in 2019.
Sufiya with her Guinness World Records plaque in 2019. (Courtesy: Facebook/Sufiya Khan)

“I would break up the daily distance of 50km into two, resting in the afternoon to see out the heat, before starting again to run the final 15km. This time around, I decided to start early and finish it in one go, which gave me enough time to rest and recover. I would normally tend to push myself when I found the going tough, but I realised it was best to take a short break and start again,” she says.

“The sections with elevation gain were a challenge for me the last time around, so I specifically trained for it on flyovers, since we don’t have much elevation around Delhi,” she adds.

While most distance runners take on heavy mileage as part of their routine, Sufiya approached it differently. She focused on core workouts and strength training on most days of the week, alongside 5km of running, followed by yoga and pranayam sessions. On training days when a long run was scheduled, she would cover distances between 30-50km. Once in a while, she would practice Kathak, having trained as a dancer for three years at the Akhil Bhartiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal in Navi Mumbai. She swears that Kathak “is a workout in itself”.

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“It is not possible to train for the distance as such, you figure out a lot of things during the run. What is more important is to be mentally strong. You are going to get tired at some point. That’s when the mind runs the body. It will decide the distance that you can pull off,” Sufiya says.

Alongside a one-man crew comprising her husband Vikas, Sufiya set out on her first leg towards Mumbai. She focused on achieving her daily target of 60km, rather than thinking about the larger distance. To give her body some respite, she would run 42km once a week.

Starting at 4.30 each morning, the freezing pre-dawn temperatures would unsettle her, especially while running through the countryside. During the first few days, she experienced pain and fatigue, but she soon found her rhythm to reach her daily distance goal by the afternoon.

Things were on track until a swollen ankle hampered her progress around eight days into the run. It soon became impossible to even lift her left leg. She turned back to Ajmer, her hometown, for four days of recovery under her mother’s care.

Once back on the road, she walked most of the next two days, gradually picking up the pace. The following on social media cheered her on when she presented live updates. Those she met on the road brought her relief during the difficult moments.

“I met a gentleman close to the Gujarat border who looked troubled. He just didn’t understand what I was up to. He asked Vikas - what mistake has madam made that you are making her run so much while you sit in the car?” she says, laughing.

While on the run, she would tuck into dates, fruits and rice cakes with butter. At meal time, she would eat anything on offer at the dhabas on the road. She fuelled her run with a protein supplement and another for muscle recovery. Vikas would tend to her dietary requirements and gave her massages at the end of the day’s run, besides booking hotels on the move to spend the night.

On good days, Sufiya would be craving to complete a few extra kilometres before rest. But things often got rough when she least expected it. One day, while on the road to Bengaluru, she ate some Chinese food, only to be struck down with food poisoning. The discomfort was apparent a day later, forcing her to spend the afternoon on antibiotic intravenous drips before continuing her run in the evening.

While in Kolkata, Sufiya needed a session of dry needling to alleviate her sore muscles. However, she felt ready to take on the final leg to New Delhi. She was now feeling entirely at home on the road, and her goal was well within sight. Three days before the finish, she pulled off a mammoth 100km run from Agra to Mathura via Bharatpur. By the end of the day, she was sobbing uncontrollably, reflecting on her journey. Her run would be over soon.

With just the equivalent distance of a half marathon left on her final day, Sufiya picked up the pace and led a team of runners who wished to welcome her home. After a brief celebration at the finish line, she was off to her favourite restaurant in Old Delhi, gorging on nihari roti. Once home, she drifted into deep sleep, dreaming up her next project in the days ahead.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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