25/07/2015 10:49 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why I Run

Vinay Dahiya/Facebook

On 19th July, I participated in my first Ironman triathlon. It involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km bicycle ride and a 42km run, in that order. I completed it in 15 hours 19 min and I have never felt better or fitter in my whole life. In a few months, I turn 50.

When I'm training, I'm frequently asked: why suffer all this pain? Why do you need to push yourself so hard? The people who don't do this don't understand the tremendous high endurance sport gives you. Training for a race like Ironman requires your entire being and all your energies--physical, mental, emotional and spiritual--to come together. When that happens, there is no pain. It's just bliss.

I planned this as a way to celebrate my 50th year. I'm happy I could complete it. And I'm grateful for the support and affection that has been pouring in from everywhere, especially on social media. The attention this has received is way beyond what I could have imagined.

For those interested, this is perhaps a good time to recount my running life and my journey towards fitness and getting hooked to the high of seeking out greater challenges and facing them. That will also allow me to talk about the work that we are now doing in trying to inspire people--especially India's women--to come out and run and get regular exercise.

5 Hours in The Pool

My family moved from England to Mumbai when I was seven years old. We lived in Shivaji Park, close to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool. That is where I started swimming when I was ten years old. The same year, I won a silver medal at the national championship in my age group, and I was hooked!

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By the time I was 13, like in all Indian households, there was a thinking at home that I should focus now more on studies and stop doing sports. Thankfully, my mother was of the view that swimming was good for me and there was no reason why I should abandon it. With her encouragement, I was able to continue swimming competitively till the age of 23. I used to swim intensively, spending 3-5 hours in the pool training 5 days a week. Today, so many years later, I realize that this support and encouragement was the greatest gift my mother gave me-- that has made me the person I am.

Made In India

The body you see in the Made in India video is all from swimming. And that is how at the time in India, at the very point that the Indian fashion industry had started to bloom, I met people like Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahiliani and got into modelling rather serendipitously.

Once my modelling and acting career took off, I started travelling extensively and had no time to swim or do any kind of formal exercise. The life of an actor--and this is hard to imagine for people who don't work in films--involves a lot of waiting around. I'd say 80% of your time is spent waiting on film sets for things to get done.

I come from a family that did not encourage the drinking of tea or coffee and I never developed the habit either. But on the shooting set I started drinking tea because when you are waiting around endlessly and a steady supply of tea is always coming around, what else do you do? I ended up drinking sometimes as many as 30 cups of tea every day. Remember that each cup has at least two spoons of sugar in it.

Another thing that happened while having to wait around was that I started smoking. I never bought cigarettes but even so there was always somebody lighting up and it was easy to take one from them. I often ended up smoking as many as 30 a day. It's a tough habit to quit.

India Running

I was saved by the Mumbai Marathon. In 2004, the first Mumbai marathon was held. I always had this notion in my head that a man must run at least one marathon in his life. So I prepared for around 3 months and ran a half marathon that year, rather casually. I was not prepared for what happened that day. I got hooked to running. And after a three-year struggle, I was able to stop smoking.

So I ran the Mumbai Marathon every year after that. In 2009, after five years of running the half marathon every year, I graduated to the full marathon--42 kms. I completed it in 4hrs 50min.

At the time there was some public attention to the fact that I had completed a full marathon. A few months later, NDTV got in touch saying they were doing a Greenathon for environmental awareness and asking if I could participate. They had managed to raise money for a great cause and I was happy to do it. That year, I ran 60 kms in 24 hours. There was a lot of excitement.

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Then each year they would come back and we kept pushing the envelope. In 2010, I ran 100 kms in 24 hours. In 2011, I said give me two weeks, I'll run from Ahmedabad to Mumbai-that is 550 kms. In 2012, I decided to run from Delhi to Mumbai--1,500 kms--in a month.

That was a formidable challenge. We were running on an average 50 kms every day. By the 18th day, I was mentally exhausted.

Effort of this kind is basically an exercise in conquering your mind. Your body is a slave. It will do what your mind wants. Of course, the body must have the means--strength and nutrition--in good measure. But if you don't master your mind, the body can't come close to achieving its potential.

In the end I managed to overcome those challenges, and in 30 days we completed the distance, running an average of 50km a day. It was not just about me completing it. The point was to inspire with example--to show that, with the will, anyone could do it. I asked several people to make the attempt with me and the group had a railway employee, a tour operator, a former heart patient and even a young woman who worked for a bank. All of them managed to complete it in spectacular fashion.

Running in sarees

That year we started organizing the Pinkathon--a running event only for women. My thinking was quite simple. I was able to pursue sports because my mother thought swimming was beneficial. If a culture of regular exercise and fitness must take root in India, our women need to become aware about the benefits of fitness. They need to be able to get out and run, which doesn't happen enough due to various cultural reasons.

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We now organize The Pinkathon in eight cities. More than 10,000 women run at each of these events over the 3km, 5km, 10km and 21km distances. They run in running gear but also in sarees and salwar kameez and hijabs and whatever attire they deem fit and keeps them comfortable.

I don't like telling people they should get out and run and so on. I personally don't like being told what to do and I imagine that is how it must be for others. But when I run or swim or cycle and if it gets some attention and draws other people into it, it makes me very happy.

How Ironman happened

I hadn't heard about Ironman till last year. I was invited by a friend Lihas Trivedi, who was organizing a triathlon in Ahmedabad, to give away the prizes. The director of the event was Kimberly Shah--an American professional athlete who is married into a Gujarati family. She was the one who asked me why I did not try the Ironman.

She offered to train me for it and sent me a plan. It involved 35 hours of training a week for 3-4 months. There was no way I could find that kind of time. I couldn't start training regularly till April 2015 anyway. The event was on 19 July. And when I started training, I could only find 12.5 hours a week.

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I was ok with the swimming and running distances. I had never done any cycling and even now it's uncomfortable for me. Ironman rules require that you have to complete swimming and cycling combined in 10 hours. And during training I was unable to do 180 kms of cycling in less than 8 hours. That left a narrow margin. Besides, if you met with a puncture or a mechanical failure for your bike, you have to fix it yourself. During training, I tried fixing a puncture, which basically involves changing the tube. It took me 15 minutes. Two punctures and I would have been finished. In the actual event, I finished cycling in 7 hours 45 minutes and was really lucky to not have a puncture.

Now that I have done this, this marks a lifestyle change for me. My fitness goal is the ability to do an Ironman at any time. I do this because I love this feeling. Fitness to me is freedom. People think fitness means not eating this and doing things you don't like. To me, fitness is liberating.

What to eat

I have never followed a diet. The only thing I avoid is refined sugar. From what I read, I understand that refined sugar is terrible for you--it's poison. I watch my intake of non-vegetarian food, but I love eating fish and meat. We Maharashtrians eat a lot of ghee and butter. And I love the taste of ghee and I practically have it with every meal.

For those who want to start running, my advice would be to take it slow and easy. Be patient with yourself. Explore your body's responses. Learn to listen to your body. I took me five years to graduate from running half marathons to full marathons. Now there are large numbers of people in India taking up running and that's wonderful. But many are pushing themselves too hard, trying to run a marathon within the year they start running! Especially in middle age, it can be tricky for the body to get comfortable with that kind of intense effort.

Endurance sport teaches us one thing--that if you work at something you love, patiently, consistently and with focus, not only will you get where you want to get, but every moment you will be where you want to be.