Sumedha Mahajan, 31, has suffered from asthma since she was born. What sets her apart from the thousands with the condition in the country is her single-minded determination to become a long distance runner.
In April 2012 Mahajan ran 1,500 kilometres - from Delhi to Mumbai. “Before my first run, my husband asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to run. So I ran,” she says.
Later the same year, in December, she ran for 24 hours in Gurgaon on a six-kilometre loop hosted by Running And Living, stopping only to relieve herself. Running And Living organises runs across India and links runners.
Doctors have advised her against running. Her mother and sister told her “it was time to run after a baby, not marathons in cities,” asking her to focus on family planning instead of the racetrack. But Mahajan stuck to her resolve, saying that she could keep her asthma attacks under control by keeping her body fit.
“When I started out, I could not run for more than 50 metres!” she says. “It took me 45 days to complete 2-3 kilometres. Of course I took time to develop my endurance, like any person.” Mahajan listens to metal or hard rock music when running to cope with exhaustion. “I’d get bored,” she says, laughing.
“And I never time myself. I feel that the pressure of timing takes the fun out of running. Or you end up disappointed if you haven’t met your expectations. I’ve always been happy after I’ve finished a run - two kilometres or 20!”
Mahajan started running in 2010 and took three months to hit the 10-km mark. She would take loops of a seven-kilometre park in Greater Kailash and eventually hit 25 rounds. A lawn tennis player since her childhood, she could no longer keep up the sport to stay fit because her job took her all over the country: “I could not afford a membership in sports clubs everywhere just to play tennis. But one can run anywhere at any time,” she says.
In January 2011, she ran her first marathon and finished 15th in her category across the 42-kilometre run. She followed this feat up with an endurance marathon in May in Borneo, Malaysia. Later in November, Mahajan ran 75 kilometres in the Bangalore Ultra Marathon.
“Asthma is not something you can cure. And even after taking so many precautions – eating healthy, working out, I am prone to attacks,” she says, admitting she suffered an attack just a couple of months ago. “The effects linger on for weeks or months – dry coughing, breathlessness or wheezy breathing, sleepless nights, runny nose and so on.”
The worst feeling she says when she sees pity in people’s eyes. “Sometimes I want to scream out to people about how much I have run,” she says. “I’ve been able to cover distances in spite of weak lungs and a low immunity system. But I’ve realised your achievements are only your own.”
Mahajan has a slim frame, but she says that most asthma patients she has met are on the heavier side because they don’t exercise, or give up too easily. “Exercise never does anything bad to you. You are challenging the natural form of your body: you’re telling yourself you’re better than your present state, and really you are!” she says. Mahajan, who also suffers from a slip disc, says that people tend to use their disadvantages as a crutch.
“They think it is the end of their lives. You should be determined to change your life,” says Mahajan. Asthmatic patients, according to her, cannot warm up easily and need to go through high intensity training to develop their lung capacity.
Mahajan was always underprepared for her runs. “Other runners go through cross-training and strength training. They carry foot gels, wear fancy watches that clock different things about their runs and carry special bottles to drink from,” she says, adding that she’s only bought her first running watch this year.
She says that this was intimidating at first, but feels that her method of not complicating matters overpowers everything.
According to her cross training and strength training is overrated. “I think people should do what they feel they good about: like some people like just walking, playing sports, running,” she says.
After a year of rest due to her slip-disc injury, Mahajan is now preparing for another marathon in January which will also be a comeback for her. The year has been a fruitful one despite her injuries: she has written a book – 'Miles To Run Before I Sleep' that recounts her experiences as an asthmatic runner. It’s not easy to push aside the usual doubts that crowd any runner’s mind on return, says Mahajan. "But failure has many excuses. It’s åçsuccess that has none."