CHENNAI: The mercury touched a scorching 45 degrees C. There was sand as far as the eye could see, and amid the seemingly unending troughs and crests of the dunes came a sandstorm that clocked in at about 80 kmph. And yet, Sridhar Venkatesh powered on as he navigated what is touted to be the toughest footrace on Earth: the 250-km Marathon Des Sables through the searing sands of the Moroccan Sahara.
The Chennai-based co-founder of Indix, a product information marketplace, says this experience on the first day was the only one that dented his confidence – it was one of the toughest first days in the ultra-marathon’s 28-year history.
How did the 44-year-old hit upon the idea of running the race in the first place? “I liked the idea that it was spread over several days (six) and that it was self-sustaining – you have to carry your own food and manage it on your own. That’s what drew me to it,” he explains.
The other factor was the profile of his fellow runners – there were people who had run these kinds of marathons before, one who had scaled Mount Everest twice. “This psyched me out; I started thinking maybe this was too big a jump for me, as I wasn’t particularly athletic,” he adds.
But within a few days of training, he got a boost of confidence. “On the 4th and 5th day, we had to run 84 km. By then, I felt strong as my placement for the day was 265th position (out of 1,100 participants) – ahead of several elite runners. I knew that this was attainable…something within the realm of things I can do,” he explains.
Life in the desert was tough, of course. The part of Morocco where the race took place was sparsely inhabited – even the natives, called Berbers, are nomadic people. And the course of the race changes every year. Armed with a compass, a guidebook and a backpack, runners mostly don’t see any outsiders during the course of the entire ultra-marathon.
The experience is a management course in survival – you’re given 12 litres of water (to use as you see fit) and a tent that opens on two sides. Runners need to manage their own food. “I used to have oatmeal in the morning, energy bars while I was running. And with no stove, we had to keep a packet of dehydrated food out in the sun and it gets warm enough,” chuckles Sridhar.
And his biggest takeaway? “Sometimes, you’re worried about a big change coming... But when you’re ripped out into a new environment, you adapt to it and it almost becomes like that is the new normal!”