The cheerful Chartered Accountant returned from Germany, armed with an MBA from the Mannheim Business School and wonderful memories of batch-mates from several nations, beer festivals, fast food, back-packing trips – and an irritant. Meenal Sukhija Kotak tipped the scales at 85kg and was developing health issues and a complex, unable to socialise.
With support from her husband Sachin, she decided to move base to New Delhi where she joined her father and brother’s mid-sized auditing firm and figured out a weight loss method. Several months of working out helped her get back in shape and, over five years, led her to the whole gamut of distance running, including in official India colours.
“I had never thought I would be representing India as there are runners who can possibly be better than me but have been unaware of their own potential,” she says, keeping her feet firmly grounded. Along with Aparna Choudhary, Meenal was one of the two women picked by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to compete in the Belfast 24-hour World Championship last year.
Sitting in the well-appointed drawing room in her duplex home in Vasant Kunj in New Delhi, you can make out that it is not false modesty with which the 37-year-old makes her point. “I am a bit like the main character in Eddie the Eagle. I am among the first movers in ultra-running space,” she says with a disarming smile. “There are many who do not know that they have it in them.
“The opportunity to represent India in the 24-hour World Championship came only after I had decided to run in the Sri Chinmoy 24-hour Race in Basel, Switzerland,” she says. Running along with her friend Mamta Jaiswal, Meenal logged 151.430 kms to claim a bronze medal, leaving German, Swiss and Czech runners behind despite advice to pull out of the race after six hours.
“We had prepared hard for the Basel run, logging in 200 kms a week. But after four hours, I started cramping. The pain was so much that could not even walk without hurting. I entered a medical tent for the first time. The physiotherapist released some pain with his skills but it came back when I returned to the track, forcing me to spend more time in the tent,” she recalls.
“The doctor came in and asked me to throw in the towel. I got up and started walking. I was determined not to get back to the medical tent until the raced ended. It took a while but the body got used to the pain and I was able to complete the 24 hours along with Mamta. I was left wondering how much farther I would have gone had the doctor told me that sooner!”
The more she runs, the deeper is her connect with herself. “I am more of an explorer now. I accept challenges and I don’t procrastinate anymore. I have discovered a lot about myself. Ultra-distance running teaches you to reduce the competitive streak. I am no longer the closed person I used to be,” she says, revealing that she does undertake a Social Media detox every now and then.
“One of the most important lessons I have learnt about running is that it does not help to follow your heart and not have a plan. Too much too soon can lead to injuries,” she says, having had to deal with a knee injury and bursitis. “I have slowed down and follow whatever my mentor Alfredo Miranda charts for me. I don’t have any fancy gadgets or apps on my mobile phone.”
This came after a knee injury and bursitis kept her away from running for short spells of time – within a year of taking to road running. She did not know what she was letting herself into when a friend, who watcher her run on the treadmill in the neighbourhood gym, suggested that she sign up for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in 2013.
For someone who had not run on the road until that event, which she completed inside two hours, Meenal quickly moved up to the full marathon, finishing the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon in 4:46:16 despite extreme heat and the several inclines of the fly-overs.
The 50km run in the Bhatti Lakes Ultra in just under six hours in the second week of October was followed by a win in the 75km Bangalore Ultra in 10:13.20 on November 9 but when she ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in 2:05:20 two weeks later, enduring pain, she understood that she had traversed from the conventional half-marathons and marathons to the ultras too soon.
She found Alfredo Miranda to guide her in making that total shift to ultras. She covered 89.6 kms in the Bangalore 12-hour Stadium Run. Meenal then ran 139 kms in 24 hours in the Bangalore Ultra 2015 – still a women’s record for the event. The Antarctic Marathon was the highlight of the following year along with running series which showed that her heart was in place.
Indeed, Meenal is among those who understand the difference between solitude and loneliness and picks loneliness as the feeling when she has to run alone. “I am so used to running with someone. First there was Jogi Sir (Joginder Chandna) and now Mamta (Jaiswal). I remember it got lonely in Belfast, especially in the night,” she says.
Of course, Aparna Choudhary was there in Belfast but Meenal points out that they are different runners. “Aparna is a strong runner and I admire her. I don’t run fast but I compensate that with shorter breaks. That is my edge over some other ultra-runners. I can go on for longer durations,” she says.
Returning to the 24-hour World Championship, she remembers that she would have broken into the 100-milers club had there not been slips-up on the part of the organisers. Despite believing that she had done a couple of loops more than would be necessary to get the 100 miles under her belt, she fell an agonising 600m short.
“Ultra-marathon running is the way to discover new limits and challenge the adversaries within you. I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful it feels after a long run, away from the mad world that we are trapped in. I am a different person after returning from a long run,” Meenal says.
She cites a particularly long run that she went on when having to decide between travelling to Basel to kick start her 24-hour run series in each continent or stay back and tend to her mother who was in need of a knee surgery. “The run helped me place mom first. It was after her surgery that my brother, a State-level skater, persuaded me to resume training for Basel,” she says.
“A decade ago, I would never have imagined running become such a part of my life. But if running is taken away from me, there would be a big void left to fill now. Come to think of it, if I skip training near the Nehru Park, the compassionate policemen on night patrol, who offer us warm cups of tea, ask me if everything has been okay,” she says.
She is a familiar face on the endurance circuit, making an exception to run the conventional marathon in Antarctica. “There is a 100-miler in that continent but I can’t train for that in Delhi. Even for the marathon, it took us several days of travel to get to the start line in the King George Island. No amount of training here can prepare you for the freezing temperatures and harsh winds.
“Having completed that run in under six hours, I requested the race organisers to let me run for 8km more so that I could have an ultra under my belt. But they would not have measured the course for 50km and I had to tell myself to be satisfied with bidding to run ultras in the other six continents,” she says.
Of course, her larger dream is to run the Self Transcendence 3100-mile Race (4989km) by the time she is 50. “There is a lot of work left before I can get an invite for that,” she says. To begin with, the ultra runs in four remaining continents beckon. Along the way, she will surely realise that 100-mile dream of hers.