My Story: I Had Given Up On Most Of My Previous Races But This Time I Wanted To Handle It In A Better Way

Image Credits: Raghul Sankaranarayanan

My Story: 'I Had Given Up On Most Of My Previous Races But This Time I Wanted To Handle It In A Better Way'

Raghul Sankaranarayanan is a Chennai-based Ironman Triathlete. He recently took part in Ironman South Africa and got 68th rank out of nearly 800 participants, which made him qualify for World Championships, which takes place annually.

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The year 2020 was quite challenging in terms of training. The strict lockdown left us with almost no training except for indoor cycling. I didn't have a treadmill, which meant no running and swimming. After 3-4 months, I gradually picked up on my fitness when we were allowed to run. Resuming swim fitness was still a challenge as swimming pools opened in February 2021, but another stint of lockdown loomed up by the end of May last year.

Also, I was infected by the Delta variant of COVID-19, which meant all the years of training and fitness down the drain. The muscle pain for a few days was unbearable, especially in my lower back. One of the nights, I recollect not being able to sleep and didn't want to wake up the following day. The mental battle through so much pain was terrifying. Six consecutive sleepless nights and the pain, but fortunately, I was fit when COVID attacked me. Had it been any other person, the heart rate would have gone through the roof and oxygen saturation below 92%, which could have proved disastrous.

After two weeks of rest, it was the end of May, and we were in another strict lockdown. I remember sitting on my indoor cycle with 50 to 65% of my usual power output, and my heart rate hit the ceiling. I was shocked to see the impact that COVID had on me. I weighed myself and figured that I had lost around 5.5 kg muscle because I had lost appetite for 3-4 weeks during and post COVID. There was a visible change in my appearance, and I appeared skinny.

Preparing For Ironman South Africa

My race in Ironman South Africa was just 8-9 months away. My coach Lucie Zelenkova agreed to build me up to the race in the given time. I could see my endurance and intensity were totally out of the window during the initial two months. I wasn't ready for 1/5th of the distance of an Ironman. Swimming pools had opened by then. I was willing to train, and my mental strength gradually started building up. By the time it was November, I had built up a bit of endurance.

The start of the year 2022 brought a lot of confidence back in me with the usual mileage of 20 weekly training hours. I picked up both intensity and endurance and was ready to race my 8th Ironman on April 3, 2022.

I reached the race venue on March 31. The windy city – Port Elizabeth by the Indian Ocean – was unusually calm. The weather was a dream for any athlete during an Ironman race. The seawater temperature was 20 degrees Celsius until April 3, slightly cold but within the permissible limit.

However, on April 3 morning, the weather turned a bit eerily calm, and it wasn't the usual Port Elizabeth. The seawater temperature dipped to 16 degrees Celsius, just 45 minutes before the race could start. Within no time, the clouds opened up, and the rain started pouring with gusty winds.

The race start was postponed, whereas the swim was cancelled, which means the athletes had to stand in the weather unprotected – cold and wet.

Pedalling As Powerful As I Could

The race was a 180 km cycling and a 42.2 km run. I got a space to sit in the transition tent protected while the people started queuing with their cycles, ready to start in the rain. I was trembling in the cold and wasn't prepared to start. After hesitating for nearly 20 minutes, I checked outside the tent to find none of the athletes' insight. I ran out hastily, grabbing my bike and starting as the last athlete. For the first few kilometres, I hardly saw fellow participants cycling on the course. I started overtaking the triathletes one by one. The downhills were dangerous with crosswinds, and the fear of slipping on the wet roads was relatively high. The legs were warm, but not the body. The helmet visor was getting misty and wet. Hydrating with electrolytes was very important, but the cold atmosphere led to a lot of urine excretion. Heavy winds mean difficulty in cycling fast, and my speed wasn't what I expected, but I held my nerve. I was pedalling as powerful as I could over the distance.

Every Ironman is a battle between the mind and the body. During my previous races, I had given up, but in this one, I didn't. My lower back was screaming while riding, and all the elevation and winds were making it all the more difficult for my legs. I tried to concentrate more on the pain and handle it better than in all my previous experiences. I missed grabbing a bottle of water or fluids at the last aid station on a 160 km ride. That meant no water until the end of the race and up to a 2 km run. I just managed with the gels and salt capsules I had. The last 20 km was fast with aiding tailwinds.

Entering the transition to run, I did not feel bad but had a dry mouth. It was smooth, and I had a flying start. The runners had to pick the hydration or food up and stretch further to reach the tables. Tired from 180 km riding, we had to stretch our bodies unpleasantly, and I cramped at 4 km. It was a shock wave, and I just came to an abrupt stop. A lot of things were running through my mind – "Is this the end of the race?", "Am I going to finish slower than all my previous performances?", "Will I get anywhere closer to my dream of qualifying for the World Championships?".

I gathered myself up in a two-minute halt, within which I massaged my cramps and resumed running. I wasn't willing to give up and kept running at a good pace to keep my target.

Determination To Keep Progressing

Until the first half marathon, I could maintain a good pace but another dead halt. This time both my legs got fully locked, and I had to lean on a barricade for support. It took me more than three minutes to gain myself back. But one thing in my mind was constant. I wanted to focus on the run. I had lost focus somewhere in the middle of the race and lost the entire opportunity all the years. This time I was determined to keep progressing. It was definitely a slow finish to what I trained for.

By the end of the race, I was mentally broken overall due to a slow timing, but my coach reassured me that the performance was better as she compared the entire day's results. All of the triathletes had a rough day due to the challenging weather. My rank was an overall 68th out of nearly 800 participants by the end of the day.

Selected For World Championships

Qualifying for World Championships has a few routes. One is to get an honorary slot for having finished more than 12 ironman competitions. Another way is to raise money for some charity cause and get a place to participate. Above all is the tougher route, finishing in the top few ranks in an ironman competition.

I drew inspiration from Subramani Venkatesh, the only Indian to have qualified by rankings. The two other Indian athletes, Deepak Raj and Kaustubh Radkar had participated in the World Championships but by gaining the honorary slot for finishing more than 12 ironman competitions.

I returned home slightly unhappy with my performance, but a few days later, to my surprise, I received an email stating that I qualified for World Championships, which happens annually in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. From the year 1978 – the birth of triathlon – none from India has qualified by rankings, and I was ecstatic about the qualification. I couldn't digest the fact, but it was true. Yes, I am going to race among the best athletes in the world.

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