She ran 169km in the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Belfast, much of it with an irksome umbilical hernia. She did not reach out for the painkiller that she had tucked away in a pocket before the start. And when Aparna Choudhary insists she is not satisfied at the end of the 24-hour run, you know you have met someone whose expectations from herself are high.
Now recovering from a surgery to tackle the hernia, she is able to run for four hours without an issue. “I hope and believe I have recovered,” she says, eager to resume her longer runs. For it is on these long runs that she says she breaks away from the whole world and goes inwards. “Running has helped me be tough and avoid a mundane life,” she says, having run in the mountains and plains, desert and trails across the country when she imagines herself as the daring heroine of a fiery story.
“I have never been skeptical of running long distances and have always considered these distances doable,” says the 38-year-old. “It is about pushing beyond physical boundaries, getting tired to the bones and running on the capacity of the mind. If I tell myself that I can run another kilometer, the body can. But if the mind says the body can’t move an inch further, it just won’t.”
From November 2010 when she ran the Bangalore Ultra, she has been hooked to distance running. “I decided to stick with the ultras when I realised I could run longer for same expenses! Frankly, the shorter runs did not give me a kick. Since I do these distances in training, it did not make sense for me to travel to some place only to get my name on the finishers’ lists,” she says.
Curiously, when she registered for the Bangalore Ultra, she had never run a marathon. “The longest I had run was an 18-miler in New Jersey,” she says. She returned from the United States in November 2009 and was intrigued by a photograph of Japanese Yasuhiro Honda running in the Bangalore Ultra.
“It was how I discovered that races of long distances happen in India. I kept waiting for announcements of the next edition, running 10km every day on a treadmill,” she recalls. “When I signed up for the 2010 race, I didn’t know how to train. I was pretty naïve. When I got there, I wondered for a moment if I was in the wrong place.
“I discovered that there were only three other women runners; Dubai-based Australian Cath Todd, Briton Emma Rogan and the Garden City’s Nischal Pai, who had signed up for the 100km event. I didn’t finish 100km since I had booked a flight and needed to head to the airport after going past 75k, my longest distance,” she recalls.
She says she cannot explain how thrilled and proud she was to represent India along with Meenal Kotak. “I could never have imagined that in 2010,” she confesses, quickly pointing out that she is not surprised that she runs really long distances. “Running has helped me become aware of what is out there in the world. And helped me become aware of my own skills to accomplish that.”
One of those traits that she discovered was her ability to persevere. “I don’t know if the ability to go on for long distances comes from an existing stubbornness or whether running has given me that. That characteristic has been honed over a number of years but I didn’t know it existed in me to that extent,” she says.
The other characteristic that she speaks of as a gift of running is her increased awareness of some of her capabilities as a human being. “I have faced hardships and kept at it, aware that I could go past the rough patch,” she says. Yet, she has learnt to not make it a matter of prestige. For her, it is okay to not complete a race at the risk of breaking her neck or causing bodily harm.
“Yes, even when I believe in going against all odds, I cannot be silly to pursue it by taking undue risks. I remember that in an ultra-run, I gave up some 20 kilometers from the finish because I knew my body could not cope with it,” Aparna Choudhary recalls. “It does not make sense to make it a prestige issue.”
Then again, there have been events where she has regretted a DNF – Did Not Finish – result. She recalls quitting the Run of Kutch 2017 with 60km left in the 160km race. “I decided to rest a bit and erred when someone asked me if I wanted to continue. I said ‘No’ and got into a jeep to the nearest tent. When I changed my mind, I was told I would miss the cut-off time.”
Aparna Choudhary insists that the physical pains can be dealt with easier than the aches caused by not doing the distance or time she has planned. “I feel a shame when that happens. You can loosen the shoe laces or cut the tongue of the shoes to ease the foot pain. But when I don’t meet the standards I set for myself when running, the aches are tough indeed,” she says.
Surprisingly, she speaks of herself as being a lazy person. “It is one of the seven sins I suffer from. But running is one place where there is no laziness. The lethargy vanishes. I am a different person when running. Aren’t running and laziness extreme contrasts?” she asks, pointing out that this is not the only dichotomy in her personality.
“Away from running, I am quite a private person. I love the running space when I am all by myself. But I can still be myself in this community where I can be helpful to fellow runners and get them back on track even if it means one spends half an hour getting someone to overcome cramps and doubts,” she says.
Her modesty stops her from seeing herself as an inspiration. “Most people do not know me when I go to some races. The young guns are extremely good. But I don’t have to make my presence felt by being loud about my running. But in case, even one person has taken to running or think they can do a distance because of me, I will feel special,” she says.