This year, July 1 marked a remarkable event not just in Indian sports and athletics, but even for the women of this country. From time immemorial, we've grown up hearing "sports is for men", "what kind of a man are you if you're not athletic?", "a woman who's interested in sports is probably faking it" — and so on. And women have always been questioned for their interest in sports, or simply cast in a stereotypical assumption that marathons or athletics is not their thing.
Anju Khosla decided to break this stereotype for good, and did so by completing the Ironman Triathlon, the world's toughest triathlon, in Austria at the age of 52, to become the oldest Indian woman to achieve this feat! With a final timing of 15 hours and 54 minutes, she completed a 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike ride and a 42 km run — competing with nearly 3,000 full-time and professional athletes from across the world. Well, we lost breath just imagining that.
We caught up with Anju to know more about her, her future aspirations, and what made her compete in and successfully complete, the toughest one-day sporting event in the world...
Cosmo: How did you get to know about the Ironman Triathlon and what inspired you to participate in this extremely difficult sporting event?
Anju: I got married into a very sporty family. On our honeymoon, my husband was appalled that I didn’t possess running shoes. So a pair of white Bata sneakers costing Rs 99.99(!) soon adorned my henna-decorated feet and off I was for my first jog! I took to cycling about 10 years ago, when I realised that long distance running was a bit arduous for me and golfing, on the other hand, a bit slow. And then I read an article titled "India’s first Ironman is a woman" — an ode to Anu Vaidyanathan who completed the Ironman in 2006. With this, began my triathlon journey, in 2013.
C: What was your training schedule like? Any tips you’d like to share for aspirants?
A: The first thing I did after registering for the Austria Ironman was to enrol with a coach, without whom I dare say, this journey would not have been possible. Kaustubh Radkar is an Ironman certified coach, having himself completed the Ironman challenge 21 times over! I followed his scientific training plan to the T. Each weekday entailed an hour or two of cardio training in the morning — be it swimming, cycling or running. Evenings were dedicated to strength training sessions. Weekends would be long workout days, reaching up to 8 hours of cycling and brick workouts. I took to Yoga, not only to increase my flexibility, but also enhance my lung power. And then there was meditation, to soothe and calm my mind. It was all inclusive.
On that note, an integral part of the training was to get my body to derive energy from natural foods in an efficient manner. I spent endless hours educating myself on nutrition, which is rightfully termed the fourth arm of a triathlon.
C: There must be some difficult days while training, how did you specifically deal with those lows and push yourself?
A: One of the biggest challenges that came my way was to put my head down and train each day for 9 months (yes, every single day!) till the final race day. Not a day went by without my morning alarm ringing at 4:30am as I needed to put in maximum number of miles on the bike before the morning rush-hour traffic swarmed the road. Not to mention that the long training sessions also meant sweating it out when the mercury was hitting 40 degrees!
Training in the winters had its own challenges — not just limited to pushing myself out of the warm quilt, like battling the morning fog and the pollution. Needless to say, I needed to muster all my courage to jump into the swimming pool, even though it was supposedly heated. My mind had to literally tell my aching muscles to "shut up". At times when I wanted to give up, I would think of all the long hours of hard work which I had already put in. I would visualise myself at the finishing line in Austria and trust me, that helped banish the negative thoughts.
C: How did people react when you told them you’re competing? Were any eyebrows raised at your aspiration, any stereotypical comments — especially related to your age? How did you deal with it?
A: All that really mattered to me was my family support, which I received aplenty. Having said that, there were a few genuine concerns from well wishers who wondered if it was wise to put my body through all the bashing. There were others who were amazed by my attempt — for them, just the fact that I was attempting such a feat made me a winner.
And for the people who raised their eyebrows, I didn’t really get into a debate with them. When one is on such an arduous journey, one only wants to be positive. There are many moments when you doubt yourself, and there is really no room to entertain negative comments. One just has to step up and step out!
C: Is there any particular sportsperson who you look up to? Who and why?
A: I am a big fan of my brother-in-law, Gagan Khosla. He has been the kingpin of all the sporting adventures of our family. For his 60th birthday, he cycled from Leh to Kanyakumari in 27 days, entering the record books as the oldest Indian to do so. He has always proposed the seemingly impossible and I really didn't need to look to far for inspiration.
C: Walk us through the day of the triathlon. How did you overcome any difficulties you faced while competing?
A: No surprise there, but I didn’t get much sleep on the eve of the event. My mind was so anxious and I kept on going though the drill of the event mentally. Finally at 3:30am, I jumped out of bed and went straight to the kitchen to whip up a small breakfast of yogurt, avocados and a toast with peanut butter. I reached the event venue at 5am, did a final bike check up and got my race nutrition ready. A quick warm up in the waters and I was ready to go — no apprehension, only excitement. I told myself I had trained long and hard for this day, and I was going to enjoy it!
The swim in the crystal clear waters of Wörthersee was a pleasure. I am a breaststroke swimmer, which is very unconventional for a long distance triathlon. But on that day, I swam my best. After one and a half hour in the water, I came out feeling quite ready for the bike. An important thing to note in an endurance event is to pace yourself well and not get burnt out — one has to conserve the energy till the last km.
The bike course was much more challenging than I had expected. Having trained on the flat roads of Delhi, I found myself in a difficult spot pushing the pedals on the uphills. To add to my woes, the downhills were technical and needed skill to maneuver, not to mention the play of the crosswinds. Looking back, I now realise, what one perceives to be one’s strength can easily become a weakness. Cycling, which I was most confident about, almost became my Waterloo on race day!
I started my run ten hours after hitting the water and I was still feeling strong. My sports watch had blinked off which was a problem for me, as I was relying on it to pace myself over the 42 kms. My strategy was to run-walk and keep my heart rate under check, but now, I had to just listen to my body to see me through. My stomach had also started playing up, with all the energy gels and energy drinks that I had consumed. I had read that gastric distress was quite common in such events but one had to be careful about not losing electrolytes. Caution stepped in and I slowed down my pace. Brain fog was setting in and an imbalanced step landed me with a twinge in my ankle. A quick mental mathematics and I knew that even with a conservative pace, I could make it to the finish line. Should I risk a run or play safe ? I decided on the latter and briskly walked the last 15 kms.
Nearing the finish line, the atmosphere was pulsating — a heady mix of music, cheerleaders and the compère felicitating the finishers. When I stepped onto the iconic red mat, the resounding words "Anju, you are an Ironman" were music to my ears! It was all so worth that moment with all pains, trials and tribulations forgotten.
C: How do you feel, after becoming the oldest Indian woman, to complete what is known to be the toughest one-day sporting event in the world?
A: I feel ecstatic at having completed what I set out to achieve. I have conquered fear and that is a feeling I want to hold onto forever. And I definitely don’t feel old — this is just the start of my new journey.
C: Are there any future sporting events you’re looking to participate in?
A: The canvas is yet to be painted with different colours — I don’t see myself stopping yet.
C: You’ve proven that age is no constraint, but what keeps you so passionate?
It’s that spark of madness...which I won’t let the wind blow away!