The way Amit Samarth describes it, participating in the Race Across America (RAAM) was an accident in his life. Samarth, who is a doctor by training as well as a serious endurance athlete from Nagpur, Maharasthra, was registered by his friends for the Deccan Cliff hanger, a 645 km race that starts from Pune city in Maharashtra and ends in the neighbouring state of Goa. On completing the race, he found that he had qualified for the RAAM.
Billed as one of the toughest ultra-distance races in the world, the RAAM is 3200 miles or 5000 kilometres long, spanning the entire breadth of the American continent, traversing deserts, mountain ranges, prairie and vast empty plains.
In June last year, Dr Samarth became the first Indian to successfully complete the RAAM on his maiden attempt, clocking a time of 11 days, 21 hours and 11 minutes. (Colonel Srinivas Gokunath, an army doctor from Maharashtra, also completed the race with Dr Samarth but it was his second attempt).
In an interview with Rang De, Dr Samarth talks about his passion for endurance sports, why securing finance for endurance athletes remains a challenge and his experience of taking part in one of the toughest races in the world.
Rang De: What inspired you to take up endurance sports? Were you always into athletics?
Dr Amit Samarth: In my college days, I was into body building. Before that, I was actually a chubby guy, a fat guy. You know, in the 11th and 12th standard you are only studying and because of that I put on a lot of weight. Just to lose that weight, I started to go to the gym.
In college, I took part in bodybuilding at the state level, representing Maharashtra. Then I got busy with studying medicine, got busy with the internship and the job and so I had to let go of that passion for training. I picked up training again when I took up martial arts in Hyderabad. I am a black belt in Taekwondo. Because of taekwondo, I used to run a lot, so I started running marathons, half-marathons etc.
How did cycling and RAAM happen?
I have been an endurance runner for quite some time. I then thought of taking part in the Ironman because it has three sports: running, swimming and cycling. And because of Ironman, I started cycling, back in 2011. And somehow when I tried some long distance cycling, I realised that I am good at it, where I can do this long cycling, where I can keep at it for almost more than 30 hours — 40 hours, nonstop.
Then some of my friends realised that I could qualify for something called Race Across America. At the RAAM, you only get 288 hours to cycle 5000 kilometres. You have to do it within twelve days. You are given a definite route, 54 checkpoints. My friends encouraged me, told me I could do something like this, then I trained for it for one and half years.
What was your training schedule like?
For RAAM, I used to cycle more than 1200–1400 kilometres in a week. Then I used to do some 20–30 kilometres of running. Three to four times a week I used to go swimming. Of course, some weeks I used to train more, some weeks I used to train less, to recover myself.
I also practiced cycling continuously for 24 hours, cycling through the night, because you have to practice sleep deprivation in this race.
You see, you have to cycle more than 220 to 450 kilometres a day. To do that, you have to be on the cycle or the bike for 20–21 hours at a stretch, which means one and half to two hours of sleep. That’s the only way you can race successfully.
Could you describe your diet through this period?
On the cycle, while riding, I stuck to a liquid diet. Apart from that while training, I used to eat at home, mostly healthy stuff. I used to eat a lot of oil and ghee, because my calorie requirement was huge. Apart from that, nothing special. Just home cooked food with a lot of protein: egg and chicken and meat.
I read an article where you mentioned that arranging the finances were a challenge. Could you speak a bit more about this?
Yeah it is a big challenge, because for the corporates, cycling is not a big sport in India. From their point of view, cricket is the only sport where they see a lot of branding and visibility happening. They [corporate sponsors] are not very eager to sponsor a cyclist. Before the race, nobody was convinced that a person from Nagpur can train himself to compete at the international level, because you see, Nagpur is a small town.
There are no big corporate houses from Nagpur and so getting an audience with the top management at a corporate house is very difficult for someone from a small town.
And for the cycling companies, Nagpur is not a big market for the high-end cycles, you know. They would rather sponsor somebody from Bengaluru or Mumbai.
Even after doing the RAAM, it is difficult for me to get sponsorship from corporates. That’s just how it is.
You are a doctor by training and a race like RAAM can be extremely harsh on the body. How did you reconcile this position, where you know the potential damage that can happen to the body from the race but you go ahead and do it anyway?
Actually RAAM is an extremely high-risk sport because you are pushing your body to its limits. You have to cycle almost 450 kilometres every day. The biggest challenge is sleep deprivation, when you are sleep deprived and you are doing this hard physical activity. Your mind will lose its orientation and its understanding.
You know… this is kind of like a suicide mission.. [laughs] where you take your friends and family along with you on this suicide mission.
Even if you see the commando training, the Special Protection Group (SPG) commandos are made to be sleepless for five days and five nights. Being sleepless for 12 days, you can imagine how your mind and body will behave in those situations.
Of course, after the race, you need two to three weeks to recover because it is a big mental drain. Your recovery depends on your food habits, how much you sleep and all that. But I am an extremely healthy guy, so there are no long-term effects.
Was there a moment in the race where you found the going tough?
There were points in the race, it was raining all night and I was cycling towards the rain. And when it rains in the USA, it becomes very cold at night and at the time my mind had lost its orientation. And West Virginia has a lot of hills also, very steep hills. And I was climbing the hills at the night, and a lot of gravel had come onto the road because of the water. And in Arizona I had dehydration problems. I had to take a longer break to recover at that point.
What are the best moments? Crossing the finish line has to be one but any other moments you remember?
Crossing the finish line… Of course that is one of the best moments in my life, not just for me but for all the crew members who supported me. And there are a lot of other moments, North America is an amazing continent.
You are cycling across the continent, you get to see these amazing vistas. Colorado is very beautiful and Arizona has its own beauty even though it is very harsh. Kansas is very beautiful, it is all flat with agricultural land all around. You actually appreciate the planet itself.
North America is such a huge continent and the kind of resources it has, you have to appreciate all those things. There is a clear night sky, you are cycling through a very big agricultural field, and you get to see a lot of shooting stars [laughs] all that is actually the experience of a lifetime.
What is the advice you would give for someone who wants to get into fitness and endurance sports?
The only advice I would give is that whatever people are pursuing, they should train properly for every race. For people who have run multiple marathons or ironmans, they exert themselves, they drain themselves out. So whatever it is they want to do, they have to train properly for six months and then have a lifetime habit of doing endurance sports rather than doing it for two or three years and you have injuries, you over exert yourself and you kind of feel bad because you no longer enjoy it.
Personally speaking how would you say endurance sports has changed your life?
Patience, I think, because you have to cycle long hours, you have to sit long hours, you have to sit on the bike and practice that patience. So it is actually a kind of meditation only. It definitely changes your mind, your mind set, makes you mentally very strong.
The tenacity and determination of Dr Amit Samarth is an inspiration to all of us here at Rang De. You can hear Dr Samarth speak at the ‘Human Race’, a fundraiser organised by Rang De on 1 July 2018 at Bengaluru. The proceeds from the event will be used to support Rang De’s borrowers in communities across India.