From Man to Ironman: The Gaurav Makkar Story

Gaurav Makkar storming towards the finish line
Gaurav Makkar storming towards the finish line

Indian sport has revolved around cricket’s meteoric rise into a nationwide phenomenon since the unforgettable 1983 World Cup triumph, hockey’s historical affiliation with the country and football’s recent rise leading to major hosting honors such as the Men’s Under-17 World Cup in 2018.

In the midst of this persistent conversation among Indians that is centered around success, nostalgia and hope, the concept of multisport racing still seems rather foreign in the country. Moreover, sporting heroes such as triathlete Gaurav Makkar stick out like a sore thumb.

However, the sheer magnitude of Makkar’s accomplishments at both national and international stages force one to sit up and take notice of a true superhuman athlete.

In 2018, he became only the second person from Gurgaon to complete the Ultraman Florida, a 515 km race that consists of a 10 km swim, a 421 km bicycle ride and an 84 km double marathon run.

Not only did Makkar outperform the previous year’s city representative, Abhishek Mishra, he also finished at a commendable 22nd position which is one of the best finishes by an Indian triathlete to this day. The seasoned competitor made history later that year by becoming India’s first triathlete to complete the Ultraman World Championship.

Despite his roaring successes in competitions that were unanimously heralded in the triathlon community, Makkar refused to rest on his laurels.

Instead, he competed alongside 38 of the world’s standout triathletes and in the Epic 5 Endurance Challenge in May 2019 which involved a 3.8 km swim, 180 km cycling and a 42.2 km run for 5 days in Hawaii.

By finishing the race, he further sealed his iconic status by becoming the first Indian athlete to finish the pinnacle of endurance triathlons.

Sportskeeda spoke to Gaurav Makkar to find out more about the story of India’s flagbearer of multisport racing. Here are the excerpts:

A beaming Makkar on Day 4 of the Epic 5 Endurance Challenge
A beaming Makkar on Day 4 of the Epic 5 Endurance Challenge

A triathlon is one of the most physically demanding sporting events to ever be conceived. Did you always have an athletic background that set the ball rolling for your future career as a triathlete?

No, but I had always been physically active in some way or another. While I was in school, I used to do roller-skating. I never really took it seriously, but I was always involved. All my life, I’ve been a ‘gymmer’ and that is where my passion (for athletics) comes from. So, if somebody were to relate Gaurav Makkar to something, fitness would be the first word.

I cannot remember a time in my life where I had not been to the gym for a really long time. It has mostly been on and off because I was not competing, preparing or training for any specific sport. But yes, I was fond of weightlifting, a little bit of cardio and staying fit.

It was only recently in 2015 that you entered the world of triathlons, fulfilling the incredible milestone of finishing your first Ironman event. How challenging was the initial transition into multisport racing for you?

I did not know how to swim back then. That was the biggest challenge and getting involved in an open water swim was another huge task for me. I had to learn how to swim at 35, right before my race.

Swimming was a big concern for me and I enrolled myself in lessons with our society coach in the small pool in our condo.

He only used to teach kids. We created a special batch with a few more guys and within a month’s time, I was able to swim in the pool. Even then, my open water exposure was very limited.

Swimming in a 4 ft pool to 10 ft of open water is a much different challenge. There are hundreds of coaches who can teach you how to swim in a pool but somebody who could give me an open water experience and make me feel comfortable were very few.

I found some good swimmers who wanted to help me. In a lake in Faridabad which had a bad reputation of people dying, we were firm about using all the safety equipment because we just had to get this done.

Just 3 days before your debut Ironman triathlon, you suffered a bicycle crash that resulted in 40 stitches on your face and inside your mouth along with injuries to your wrist and back. Yet, you decided to participate in the event. According to you, how much of a role does mental toughness play towards thriving in such high-pressure situations?

When you train for such sports, you train in certain zones. When I trained, I knew there would be times in the race that are your low points, where you can really get frustrated and you really want to come out of the race.

In the middle of the race, the blood supply to your brain starts getting slower because of the physical demands, it affects your thinking process and makes you weaker.

When you train, you know these are the red flags and as soon as you hit these red flags, you know what to do. That’s where you reset yourself immediately instead of thinking about those negative thoughts that will either slow you down or that will tell you to quit.

You should start thinking why you are here (in the race), visualize the finish line and for me, that helps. So, you need to train yourself to be mentally tough.

Discipline is key to the success of any sportsperson, especially triathletes as their races are entirely endurance-based. What kind of a training regimen do you follow to be best prepared for a triathlon?

I periodize my training based on the event calendar. Periodization will include base training that will last for anything between two to six months, depending upon how much time I have for the race. You work on your aerobics, techniques and areas where you can improve. This sets the tone for the next phase which is the buildup phase.

The buildup phase also lasts for 6 to 10 weeks. After this comes the peak race training. During the peak stage, firstly you try and maintain the fitness that you have in the previous months. Secondly, you try to get faster and train to reach the peak of your fitness.

Often, triathlons are only associated with the physical side of triathletes. Do you create a strategy that determines your approach in the races?

This happens during the peak training in the last month and a half before the race, depending on how fast you have become, if your timing has become better and your heart rate zones and your power numbers matter.

I have a coach in the US and we do all the analysis for all the months (of training) and before the race, we strategize how we are going to approach each part of the race separately, break it down based on the numbers, feeling climate and on what we want to achieve from that race.

It is very well-defined and I try to stick to the plan to the tee because if it is theoretically correct, the chances are very high that on the race day, everything will fall in place except for some factors that are not in your control.

All this perseverance paid off as you became only the second person from Gurgaon to complete the Ultraman Challenge, a 515 km race which includes a 10 km swim, a 421 km bike ride and an 84 km bicycle ride spread over 3 days. What were the extent of the physical challenges you had to face throughout the competition?

It is totally different to train in your hometown to training abroad where you have to settle into a new place. Usually, I have to take long flights which means long breaks from your training and other things like jet lags are never positives on the first day when you arrive.

We (Makkar and his coach) do consider these things will happen and try to simulate the weather we are going to face there. We try and train at the time where we get most of the typical climate.

For example, most of my runs happen only in the afternoon from 11 to 4 so that I know how badly would I would suffer on the race day because 84 kms means you’re going to get exposed to full daylight. Whatever time the race starts, you have to be running at your peak distance at peak heat.

Your experience in the Ultraman Challenge led to achieve new heights as you also became the first Indian triathlete to complete the Epic 5 Endurance Challenge which involves a 3.8 km swim, 180 km cycling and a 42.2 km run for 5 days. How does it feel to represent your country at such major competitions?

It is a very proud moment and this also becomes one of the motivating reasons for me when I feel a low point in the race. This is one of the moments when you give yourself a self-talk on why I’m here. When you’re the only one representing your country and you’re all over social media and the triathlon community, it brings a bit of pressure because I do not want to let my country down.

I don’t want people to say that “an Indian came and he did not finish the race”. It is a bit of pressure and also fun for me when you know people are looking at you and you are opening the doors for them to look at these events positively and give them the hope that they can also compete one day.

While training relentlessly for such grueling races, what techniques do you use to recover?

If triathletes have to excel in the three legs, running, swimming and cycling, the fourth leg is equally important, i.e., recovery. You get stronger only when you’re recovering between your training sessions. Recovery can include anything, starting from complete rest to a regular physiotherapy session, eating correctly and also active recovery.

If you aren’t recovered well, you can’t give 100 per cent in your next workout. Especially when you’re taking about the Ultraman Challenge and the Epic 5 Endurance Challenge, you have got to be recovering really fast from the previous day’s efforts so that you are ready next day. You can do this by figuring out what your nutrition intake, hydration levels and calorie intake is also.

With the Epic 5 races, I started my recovery just before finishing the last 10 km of the run. I had my planned my days in such a way that after you’ve done the 32 kilometers, the running in the last 10 kilometers can be a little slower so you can start recovery while running itself.

You start getting back into the normal zone, eating solid food and a recovery drink while on the go so that you don’t waste time when you finish the race. If you wait t recover after the race with the recovery meal and everything, you’ll waste two more hours which means you’re cutting more time from your rest time. Recovery is a bigger subject than training because without recovery, you cannot train the next day.

Lastly, what tips would you give to any aspiring triathletes?

Firstly, choose your races and distances based on your experiences. Don’t get carried away. I have seen people talking about Ironman all the time when they haven’t even started cycling properly or completing shorter distance races.

Also, break down your goals into smaller goals. I always tell people to train for the Olympics, then to go for a sprint distance and then half-distances and to give yourself a time period for a year or a year and a half to take this journey in a clearer way.

This will also make them less prone to injuries because a lot of times, people who just go all out in their fitness regime get burnt out and have unsuccessful races.

I also tell young athletes that I am training to break their races down into smaller goals and then aim for bigger distances. It’s a process getting into ultra-distances so don’t try to cut that process short. This does more harm than any good. Enjoy each and every distance.

Edited by Alan John
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