Until six years ago, Munish Dev led an ordinary life, tied to a government job and most comfortable within the confines of his office. Distance running was something he had last pursued as an interest back in school. He had never heard of the Spartathlon — a 246 km ultra-marathon held in Greece — let alone dream of running it someday.
After over two decades, running happened to him quite by chance. Since the day he donned his shoes, Dev, 39, found bliss on the open road. And in the company of a few like-minded friends, there was soon the added motivation to train hard and take on extreme challenges.
Once he ran his first ultra-marathon, he knew he wanted to do another. It soon became an integral part of his identity. Time and again, he would thrive on the thrill of competing in different kinds of races, which posed their own set of challenges.
His search for experiences eventually brought him to the starting line of the Spartathlon in Athens in September. This was his dream race, ever since he had heard of it. Yet the odds were stacked up against him.
His chest was heavy with congestion; he had doubts about his Achilles tendon that had just recovered from injury. But after 35 hours 30 minutes, Dev made it across the finish line to become only the second Indian to run the prestigious race.
Dev’s first brush with running was at the Sainik School Sujanpur Tira in Hamirpur. He was a regular on the basketball and handball courts, besides competing in track and field. But it was distance running that fascinated him.
“They would send us out at 5 am. Distances were always a big motivation for me. Whenever I would run those rounds, I always felt like I could do more of it,” Dev says.
Though he was good enough to compete at the state, all the sporting activity came to a grinding halt once he decided to pursue higher education. After joining the National Thermal Power Corporation, he ran the odd corporate relay in Delhi. But it wasn’t until his employment took him to Rihand National Thermal Power Corporation in Uttar Pradesh that Dev took to physical activity again through football and badminton.
“Even back then, running was never on my mind,” he says.
By the time he moved back to Delhi in 2016, the ultra running scene was booming. Once he found running mates in Praveen Sharma and Mandeep Doon, he decided to train and take on his first half marathon. His dormant running ability was sparked to life, as his timing dropped from 2 hours 13 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes over the 21-kilometre distance within a month.
On the insistence of friends, Dev decided to train for his first ultra-marathon. In January 2017, he ran a 56-kilometre run called Trailathon in the Aravallis.
“I wasn’t sure if I would finish. And I had no idea about hydration or gear or the blisters that you can expect on your feet and how one can protect them. It was all very new and I was in quite a state of panic at the time,” he says.
Alongside Sharma, Dev finished the race in 6 hours 30 minutes. It was evident here that his day would start with donning lycra shorts, rather than the formal office suit.
There were plenty of races to choose from and right from the start, Dev decided to mix up the distances, terrain and the challenge that each race posed. His next race was a 74-kilometre run from Dehradun to Dhanaulti, a qualifier for the 111-kilometre at La Ultra – The High in Ladakh.
“Ultra running is one sport where you always wonder how the person manages to do an 80km or 100km – what are these people made of, that they can pull off these massive distances. It was a lot about proving to myself what I was capable of,” he says.
After completing both races with ease, Dev decided to change his approach from participation to competition. To get started, he took on the challenge of running 333-kilometre in Ladakh – a race no Indian had attempted in the past. He signed up for his first 10-miler (160km) in Gujarat to gain an understanding of where he stood.
“It was a trail race, so I struggled with the terrain. I somehow pulled it off in 40 hours,” he says.
In August, he was back in Ladakh to run the 333-kilometre distance alongside Doon. A few called them “crazy” for even attempting the run. And nobody really expected them to finish. But Dev proved them wrong and became the first Indian to complete the race in 71 hours 30 minutes.
“That race taught me that as in life, running has phases. During the good ones, you are motivated and convinced that you’ll get to the finish. And then comes the bad phase where you’re struggling with all kinds of things. The idea is to handle this time very cautiously and just try and get through it, until you hit a good patch again,” he says.
“I also realised that the competition is always against yourself. These aren’t 100 metre races – rather, long efforts where it’ll get difficult to survive if you run at someone else’s pace. The learning just never ends in ultra running,” he says.
Around this time, Dev first heard of Spartathlon. The race that runs from Athens to Sparta follows the historic route that Pheidippides, a Greek soldier, took to deliver a message back in 490BCE. These days, the road race is best known for the stringent cutoffs in extreme day temperatures.
“I always wanted to do this race because it’s really fast and considered to be the most difficult. There are 75 checkpoints, with a cutoff of 36 hours to finish 246 kilometres. And the parameters to qualify for the race are as stringent,” he says.
One of the requirements is to finish a 100 miler in 21 hours. In 2019, Dev finished second in The Border 100 (160-kilometre) after clocking 18 hours 51 minutes. The same year, he ran the Brazil 135 (217-kilometre) in 46 hours 45 minutes, which was his first international race. He also took second spot in the Backyard Ultra in January 2020 after covering 268km in 40 hours. Covid-19 brought a temporary halt to training and competition. By December 2021, he knew he was ready after he achieved another qualifying mark for Spartathlon when he ran 207km in 24 hours.
But all the progress was stalled after he picked up an Achilles tendinitis injury in the right leg towards the end of March. It took three months to recover and by the time he was back on his feet, he had 80 days to the race.
“I had to train at a very slow pace and over short distances. Interval training was ruled out because it caused immense pain. I had to work on building strength in my calf muscle, so that I wouldn’t put load on my tendon. The shoes were changed to provide cushioning for the heel. My weekly mileage was just 20 kilometres at the start, which I gradually built up to 70 kilometres,” he says.
“It was very modest training as compared to what other runners would do as part of their preparation. I was banking a lot on experience,” he adds.
To make matters worse, he picked up an infection by the time he landed in Greece and was on antibiotics before the race. By the time he started out at 7 am on 30 September, he had made peace with the probability of dropping out at some point.
“It’s all a mental game. I kept small targets, counting down checkpoints as I ran past them. It gave me the confidence to keep going,” Dev says.
The day temperature hovered around 40 degree Celsius, the effort taxing in rolling terrain beyond 50 kilometres. But Dev maintained pace to make the cutoffs in good time. A hill climb at the 160-kilometre mark slowed him down considerably. He took a short 20-minute nap to recharge his energies and set off as the sun came out. The day’s heat forced Dev to dig deep. But by evening, he had done enough to make the finish with 30 minutes to spare.
“Challenges like these keep me motivated. And of course, it’s really satisfying when people look at the distance and say – arey, apne yeh bhi kar liya! (You managed to pull this off!),” he says.
The author is a freelance writer from Mumbai who thrives on narrating a good story. Views expressed are personal.