With a best time of 3:26:25 at the Tokyo Marathon in 2016, the Gurugram-based mother of two is fast gaining a reputation. Actually, it is her obsessive pursuit of speed over the 42km distance that is setting the 37-year-old apart.
That her literature and law studies have taken a backseat to sport seems but a small matter to this articulate runner. Her quest for improvement is such that she is quite unaware of the fact that she could be in lists that feature India’s fastest women marathoners – mostly professional athletes who have trained with expert coaches at National camps.
She ran six marathons in 2016, including the Tokyo and Boston marathons, and had podium finishes in Bengaluru and Chennai. Her goal is not even running each of the world’s iconic marathons. It is something loftier. “I want to improve my time and not rest on the laurels,” she says, with a twinkle in her eyes. “I have always wanted to be the best at whatever I do.”
Her transition from a casual half marathoner to serious runner was encouraged by a good run in the Amsterdam Marathon, where she ran the half marathon in 1:50:47, a good 20 minutes faster than her time in Delhi. However, it forced her to sacrifice her cycling pursuits – she won the gruelling Tour of Nilgiris in 2012 in December, three months after her half marathon debut in Delhi.
Less than three weeks after winning the cycling event, she was competing in half marathon at the Mumbai Marathon. Having lopped more than 10 minutes from her time in Delhi, she knew she was hooked to running. She decided to train more seriously and run more half marathons. Some of her friends suggested that she attempt the longer distance in Mumbai but destiny had other ideas.
She lucked out at the Berlin Marathon lottery and made her marathon debut in the iconic race in September 2014. She clocked 3:51:52 and convinced herself to take up distance running more seriously. After all, she had trained only three months, with some support from mentor Purnendu Nath, but had managed to realise her goal of running a sub-four-hour marathon in first attempt.
She attaches importance to every bit of improvement that she can manage with her running. “I also realise that it can’t be done randomly anymore. And, I know that improvements will not happen without adopting a scientific approach,” she says, realising that she cannot be running so many events in a year. “Part of that approach is to manage the training and the number of competitions.”
Her urge to keep adding layers of knowledge drives her to unchartered territories. She undertook the two-week Kenya Experience – a fully coached and tour guided training camp – at Iten last year. She learnt new things, adding Hill Sprints to her repertoire in training, and came back with a greater understanding of the need to mix distances and speeds so that the body keeps learning.
Last year, she was disappointed with herself for having run in new shoes. Over the last five or six kilometers, when the course had the athletes going downhill, her big toes started hurting and she had to endure excruciating pain while finishing second in 3:39:11. She says the desire to be a good example to her children drove her to complete the course.
Talk of her two children brings her focus on how running has helped her in parenting. “I realise the importance of balance; I have learnt patience when seeking improvement in performance; above all, I now deal with everything else positively – not even getting irritated by my son’s pranks. Yes, the endorphins released during a run make me function better as a person,” she reasons.
The cheerful Shailja Singh Sridhar doesn’t hesitate a moment in admitting that the longer, harder runs demand greater mental strength than just physical endurance. “The track workout and interval runs are more about explosive energy. It is on those tempo runs that one has to be mentally strong. I hear my inner voice telling me not to give up before the target distance is achieved,” she says.
“I am yet to decide if I will run Boston this year,” she says, smilingly, towards the end of the conversation. Of course, she has already been there and is focused on finding ways to get better, faster. Truth to tell, Shailja’s obsessive pursuit of running is simply inspiring.