When triathlete Gaël Couturier moved to India from Paris, he discovered a wild triathlon frontier where everyday athletes become veritable celebrities, and communities come alive for those who dare to tri. The experience forever changed the former French Runner’s World editor-in-chief.
I first met Ingit Anand when he picked me up from my office in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in early 2014. I had just moved there, to India’s second-most populous city, to set up trail runs and mountain bike races after spending two years in Delhi running an adventure magazine called The Outdoor Journal. Two exhausting years in a place where I could only cycle in gyms because traffic was deadly, and running was tough in parks full of stray dogs, sacred cows, and deadly snakes. My TT bike needed some exercise. I needed a friend. Ingit wanted some inspiration and guidance in a sport that had just recently captured his imagination.
I had registered for Ironman Malaysia, my 10th Ironman, and I needed some guidance on where to train in the city. Ingit, the friend of an office mate, was only dreaming of triathlon at the time. He had never done one. He was a promising construction engineer in his early 30s, struggling with his parents’ choice of a spouse for him. Ingit picked me up to show me around the best local public pools in town. While winding through rush hour in his car, he engaged me passionately about what I had taken for granted my whole life in the West: disciplined swimmers in warm-water covered pools, bike lanes on well-paved roads, lighting in the street at night, safe trails in the woods, no snakes, no leopards, no scorpions, no cheeky monkeys, no sacred cows resting in the middle of any road or trail, and no 113-degree temperatures outside or 90-percent humidity.
Like many other aspiring triathletes all over the world, he had watched YouTube videos, and was following Facebook groups and Instagram accounts. He’d been inspired by the Ironman brand, the name “Ironman” and all the marketing behind it. He was now dying to learn how to swim, bike, and run, and to finally register for an Ironman race.
I’d moved to India from Paris two years earlier for a job. I had been editing Runner’s World France, when a buyout drastically changed the office culture. The only alternative for me at the time was a job offer in India. I had briefly lived in Mexico for a few years in the ‘80s as an expat kid, and the experience left me with a passion for adventure and exploration, whether it’s on a plane, on a bike or by foot. But India? I had never dreamed about this place. Committing to my new life in this foreign country was a big decision. I’d be leaving behind romantic interests, among other things. It was a leap of faith. I landed in Delhi without ever having looked at a Lonely Planet, with my English Bulldog, Key Lime Pie, in my arms and my Cannondale Slice in my bike box.
Ingit and I made a deal that night at the pool: I was going to teach him how to swim, he would introduce me to the local community of endurance athletes, and they would show me where they ran, where they biked. At the time, I had no idea how much the country, its people, and its unpredictable wildlife would impact my triathlon world forever.
When Ingit and I got to the government-run pool that first evening, we found eight lanes of Olympic-sized glory amid rusted, run down locker rooms. It’s a gem, and it’s mind-blowing that in a city of 8.6 million people, we often got to swim by ourselves on weekdays. To this day, swimming is not a hugely popular activity in India. In the winter, at night, I would hit the water by myself with my wetsuit on; the pool was never heated. It had lanes, yes, but they were just beautifully painted on the bottom. Nothing physical separated the swimmers on the surface. On warmer weekends, we’d have to dodge older people floating in the middle, kids jumping everywhere, and students of all ages learning to doggy paddle.
At one of those evening swim sessions, Ingit introduced me to a dear friend of his, Anand Marar. They had been schoolmates and shared that attraction to triathlon and the Ironman brand in particular. As I quickly came to understand, the label was everything to them.
“The general belief among Indians five to six years ago, was that it was impossible for them to even participate in those types of endurance events,” Anand told me recently. “Indian society revolves entirely around family, relatives, friends, communities. Inside those tight circles, triathletes are looking to build a reputation for themselves: They want to stand out, be seen as being on top of their own people. Doing things outside of the box, like participating in an Ironman race, is a great way to get noticed. Indian triathletes want to show they can achieve what other Indians don’t or can’t, or can only dream of, or have not even heard of. Because even if you don’t know what a triathlon is, or an Ironman triathlon for that matter, being called an Ironman can only be something positive and rare.”
My two new friends were no different from other young people across India who had become enamored with our Western triathlon culture. It was easier to become an Ironman finisher than a professional cricket champion, or a successful Bollywood actor, but the feat carried a huge amount of cachet.
Ironman was one of the new tickets to success, and the few Indian friends I had who achieved it were often considered heroes. At the time, I would laugh at my friends’ obsession with becoming the first Ironmen in their city, especially given their lack of passion for the sport and its lifestyle in the beginning. They really wanted the bragging rights. It seemed like to them, becoming an Ironman was better than, say, saving lives as an ER doctor.
Ingit and Anand came with me to Langkawi for Ironman Malaysia in November 2016. Both of them crossed the finish line and, upon their return to India, instantly became celebrities in Ahmedabad. They were the first in their hometown to cover 140.6 miles. Friends and relatives were impressed. Media outlets wrote many stories about them. Often, it was clear to me, as often happens when mainstream media covers our sport, the journalists mostly had no clue what they were writing about. The only thing that mattered for everyone was that two children of this town were now officially, worldly recognized as “Ironmen.”
But there was more to it than that. As they trained, I watched them transform. Sure, I gave them a hard time about their relentless bragging, but I also learned to respect them. Training in India is hard. Incredibly hard. Traffic, animals—crazy stories are endless. I’ve personally been a few inches away from a deadly pit viper or a six-foot cobra’s bite several times, day and night. Ingit, Anand, and I—and everyone who’s ever run in the streets in India—have been attacked by stray dogs right outside our homes, to the point where we would never leave the front door without a hefty wooden stick or grenade-sized stone in hand. Once while running freely in the countryside, local armed rangers yelled at me to go to them because villagers had recently spotted a hungry family of panthers hunting them.
We also all had to ride our bikes at 4 a.m. to avoid deadly Ahmedabad traffic. Such are the daily struggles, surprises, and madnesses any triathlete training in India must face. For some, even if they started out doing it for bragging rights, something more kept them going. Those two guys, like other triathletes across India, were pioneers. They were setting the stage for the next generations to come, making something of themselves nobody thought possible.
Indian kids grow up playing cricket. Cricket, cricket, and cricket. Everybody in India has played and follows cricket. Cricket is more than a national sport, it is a religion. Then, for more upper-class kids, come other organized sports such as soccer, squash or tennis, or running. Swimming? Forget about it. So while India experienced a huge running boom over the past decade, bringing millions to footraces of all distances (all promoted as “marathons”), triathlon–and particularly Ironman—was the ticket to stardom; swimming 2.4 miles was like transforming oneself into Poseidon.
During my years of training and living in India, I met with other local triathletes all around the country whose journeys reminded me of Ingit and Anand’s. Amarpal Kohli, from the small town of Ichalkaranji, not far from Mumbai, was also fêted like a war hero when he returned home from Ironman Malaysia in 2016. Through competing in that race, Amarpal went from being a regular, working middle-class guy to a local celebrity. It is true that he trained relentlessly and probably had to face criticism and doubt from even his closest entourage, some outraged that he could dream so big. But Amarpal stuck to his plan and did it anyway. He finished Ironman Langkawi in 15:59:12, and returned home a victorious emperor.
“His people, in his community, saw his victory as their own,” Anand explained. “It was clearly impossible. But he did it. And so have they.”
Praveen Kumar has a similar story of earning glory and recognition from his community through triathlon. I also met him in Langkawi in 2016. As a MARCOS, a.k.a. Indian Marine Commando, Praveen stormed the TAJ Hotel in Mumbai during the 2008 terrorist attacks. While he engaged several Pakistani terrorists in a dark room, his grenade misfired and gave away his position. He was shot several times, including in the face. Discharged from the military without many honors, he found more recognition from his country as an Ironman racer than he did as a soldier.
The Malaysia experience proved so powerful for my friend Ingit that he now seeks to help others follow in his footsteps. Along with friends of his, he created his own event in Gujarat in 2018 and simply named it the International Triathlon Championship. It’s a local event in Gandhinagar with sprint-, Olympic-, and half-iron distances. Athletes swim in our pool, the one with no lane lines, and bike and run on mostly open streets. The event, taking place for its third consecutive year this February, welcomed 340 participants last year. Ingit also became a certified Ironman coach: “I found my passion in Ironman,” he said.
Anand, an independent businessman, is a proud father of a budding young cyclist. Anand’s Ironman journey was recently documented in a short film that placed 50th out of 800 at the India Film Project, an annual national competition; the long-distance tri fascination clearly reaches beyond aspiring triathlete-stars.
The first M-dot-branded race came to India last October. While Ironman 70.3 Goa had its hiccups, including a swim course that was too shallow to swim in some areas, and a bike course too narrow to pass or patrol, the crowd’s enthusiasm was unparalleled. As 1,000 athletes lined up for the race start on Goa’s beachfront, a chant began. Soon after, all of the Indian athletes joined in. “I’ve never heard anything like it,” said Geoff Meyer, Ironman’s Managing Director of Asia. “It was hypnotic and continued until they were all in the water. It definitely shut up our commentators, which is a rare thing. Something I won’t forget.”
Non-M-dot races were almost non-existent back in 2014, but now they are growing like weeds. Safety remains a chief concern, particularly on bike and run courses because those often remain open to crazy Indian traffic. The quality of public infrastructure is still a significant problem in India, including road conditions as well as driver awareness. But in some places—major cities like Delhi, Mumbai—or even Ahmedabad, changes are real.
The culture of elitist sports clubs inherited from the British colonial era is in decline, at times opening up brilliant facilities with beautiful running tracks and Olympic distance pools to more athletes. Full carbon bikes—a self-imported rarity five years ago—can now be found in or ordered from a growing number of bike shops all around the country.
Like in America, Europe, or Australia, social media is the leading source for triathletes looking to find friends and train in groups. Official triathlon clubs are still tough to find, but experienced Ironman-finishers-turned-coaches like Ingit or others manage to gather curious athletes around them and drive the triathlon movement across the country. There’s even at least one athlete gunning to be the first Indian pro on the Ironman circuit. Pankaj Ravalu, 22, started racing at 18 for weight loss, and now a regional construction company supports him as a full-time athlete. Sponsoring a cricketer is too expensive for them, so they have chosen to go with one of the best and most dedicated athletes in the country in the fastest growing, most brag-worthy sport of all in India these days: triathlon.
As for me, my three years of training as a triathlete in India were the most intense and meaningful of my entire life. They built me stronger, more driven, more fearless. They gave me purpose. Not only in sports but in life. Of course, I didn’t understand everything about India. But I love what I know and what I’ve seen. India will always feel like a second home to me because I have my triathlon brothers there. They welcomed me into their country, into their communities. They showed me so much heart, and guts. Both for the strongest shot of adrenaline you’ve ever had and for finding inner peace among natural and architectural beauty, I truly believe everyone should go swim, bike, and run in India.
Perhaps Ironman’s Myers summed it up best: “Indian athletes are a breath of fresh air for the sport. With most of them, it’s like being back in the ‘80s, when the sport was so new, and we were all excited and experiencing it for the first time. They openly express pure joy for the sport and their hunger for knowledge is like no other. This is only the start, as this level of excitement will spread.”
Triathlon in India: A Brief Timeline
2013: “In 2013, it took me several months to find my first Indian clients as a coach,” says Deepak Raj, race director of Ironman 70.3 Goa and a 20-time Ironman finisher. “Most of the time I had to explain what triathlon was. Today, out of 1,000 athletes in Goa, more than 800 were Indians.”
2014: Not more than 10 Indians had finished a full iron-distance triathlon, and less than 50 had competed in Ironman-branded events globally. In 2019, there were over 2000.
2016: Ironman Malaysia in Langkawi welcomed 25 Indian participants. There were 65 in 2018. Ironman Kazakhstan, due to take place on August 23, 2020, will see a record number of Indian regis- trations for a single Ironman race. Social media is driving the event’s popularity in India, and as of this writing, hundreds of Indians are already registered, far more than local Kazakhs.
2019: Ironman Goa 70.3 launched in October, the first M-dot-branded event in the country. Of the top 10 overall, six were Indians; the podium was entirely Indian. The winner, Bishworjit Saikhom, finished in 4:42.