In conversation with India's first Spartathlon runner, Kieren D'Souza
The 23-year-old from Nagpur has become the first ever Indian to qualify in - and complete the Spartathlon, the world's longest marathon.
Runner Kieren D’Souza isn't like your average runner. Many all over the country have competed in mini, half- and full marathons, and completed them successfully. A number of people have done this multiple times, even on a regular basis.
But Kieren D’Souza silently set a number of records en route to today’s finish of the Spartathlon, in Athens, Greece.
Now, he has become the first ever Indian to not only participate in the Spartathlon, but finish it.
What is the Spartathlon?
The world’s longest marathon, the Spartathlon, run over a staggering 246 kilometres and named for the city of Sparta, is run between the capital, Athens, and the city. The event itself is steeped in tradition; it aims to have runners retrace the steps of a Greek messenger named Pheidippides, who is said to have run from the town of Marathon to Athens to inform the Greeks of a victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
Founded in 1983 and supported by the Hellenic Amateur Athletics Association, the marathon has been run ever since.
Runners must have a 7:00 am start at the foot of the Acropolis, the temple to Greek goddess Athena, and head through coastlines, mountainous terrain – and a highway!
Qualification is tight!
Even qualifying for the Spartathlon is not an easy task – runners must have fulfilled one of three different categories to be eligible to participate.
- He/she should have finished a race of at least 100 km in less than 10 hours, 30 minutes.
- The runner should already have competed in an event of more than 200 kilometers (120 mi) and has completed the race in less than 29 hours and 30 minutes
- If the runner has already competed in Spartathlon and has reached the checkpoint "Nestani" (172 km) in less than 24 hours, 30 minutes.
Kieren D’Souza became, earlier hthis year, the first Indian in history to qualify for the event. Even more impressive is the fact that of nearly four hundred runners at the event, he is one of only six runners at the marathon under the age of 25.
A decorated runner even prior to the event, D’Souza recently ran the 111 km La Ultra, the toughest ultramarathon in India, in Leh, where he had been training for a month before the event.
Held in August, that event saw young D’Souza set a course record of 15 hours 30 minutes; the time was2 hours 27 minutes faster than the previous one.
For the 23-year-old from Nagpur, running is like a ritual, like meditation, and something that calms him down.
Kieren discusses his experience
“I have always loved sport,” he says, “so fitness is not ‘new’ to me. This is what I have always been passionate about. But I didn’t really get into running specifically until early in college,” he says.
It was not an instant love for the marathon that D’Souza found, he says. “Initially, after running the 12k, I didn't really enjoy it.” But that run had lit a fire for D’Souza, who quickly took to the sport despite his initial misgivings.
“And I am pursuing it, training entirely by myself," D’Souza tells me, having eschewed an individual trainer and team.
“But it has not been easy. As with many sports, one must find sponsors. And as running is not as heavily noticed in India as so many other sports, they are not as easy to come by. It is definitely challenging to locate those sponsors, but many people in India are now waking up to ultramarathons, not only in terms of participation but also noticing the marathons themselves.”
Equipment can also be expensive, something D’Souza has experienced firsthand. “Yes, you need a good pair of shoes to give you support, to fit you properly so you can optimize your run. Those can be quite expensive, and I started off with a less than ideal pair myself, but I managed. The apparatus you use is important, yes, but your will is what is paramount.”
That will pushes D’Souza to keep running every day. Many runners sometimes find themselves low on motivation to keep going, but D’Souza has managed to fight that lull. “Yes, like any runner I have those days when I don’t want to get out of bed, but I can overcome it. I keep my shoes out where I can see them, and so I wake up and see them and get motivated to keep running!”
But it’s also important, he says, to not over-exert or push oneself. “Sometimes, you’re just not feeling up to it. Then, if you don’t feel like running in the morning, you can go in the evening.” D’Souza has done that – and run at every possible time! “I’ve gone for 7 p.m. runs, and I’ve also been for 4 a.m. ones, where there is nobody on the roads.”
It is not easy to train on the terrain he has, the runner says. “I shifted base to Bengaluru for a while, and I've run on a number of surfaces. Sometimes it’ll be in the park, but a lot of times, it’s on the road. Even pavements, through traffic, all of it.”
“The up-and-down, uneven terrain, makes it difficult, but it also makes the run fun. The only aspect of that I have to be careful about is avoiding potholes and stones, as those could cause me serious injury. Yes, it is definitely challenging but it makes the run exciting, and it keeps my mind active, looking out for the changes in terrain as I run.”
The experience is a calming one for him, nonetheless. “It’s exerting, but it is one of the most relaxing activities too,” he says. “It puts you in a positive frame of mind, gives you energy and self-belief to keep going.”
That is something the young runner no doubt has. “I keep telling myself I can do this,” he says, “and I do not let myself lose the belief in myself, that will to win.”
With a strict training regime, he must also have a strict diet. “I eat very healthily,” D’Souza says, “but not obsessively. You need good carbs to release energy when you run, and I’ll have pasta, bread etc. to fuel my runs. I incorporate a lot of vegetables and protein into my diet, too, but I don’t obsessively count calories. That can be bad, too.”
And he says he does not ‘ban’ himself from any foods. “Obviously, I keep the junk food intake to a minimum, but tomorrow, if I feel like having some fries, or chips, I will go ahead and eat them. You need to relax your mind and let yourself go once in a while just as much for your health, and I strongly believe moderation, and healthy eating will help that.”
D’Souza has had injuries in the past, and while advised by a doctor, did not have a coach to help him through it as many professional athletes do. “That would have been ideal, but I am self-taught for the most part.”
It is perhaps that fact that makes D’Souza's finish even more impressive; that he has done it on the back of sheer perseverance and love for a sport.