Let me be ME

A computer engineer to a social sector professional, a lazy participant in school P.E., to an accidental triathlete to a full ironman finisher, one of a very few  Indian woman in the world to finish 140.6, a mother of two and wife of an aspiring Ironman, an Indian by heart and birth, here’s a big cheer to Indian-born, Singapore-raised, and now Texas-based, Charanya Ravikumar

The first half marathon

I was born in India and then immediately moved to Singapore. I completed my basic education in Singapore and moved to the U.S. for higher education.

I was the last bencher whenever it came to participate in any sports activity. I was way more into debates and drama than anything sporty!

When I came to the U.S. in 2001 for my undergrad, I got hooked to the American lifestyle pretty quickly and by the time I had realized it, I had already put on the “freshman 15 (pounds) and more! Staying or eating healthy was just not a priority.

After the completion of my professional education as I started working with Dell, the work environment made me conscious about my weight. 

I was grappling with the thought of shedding those extra pounds but couldn’t find a way out.

I came across Asha for Education, a non-profit that would  train running aspirants for half marathons and marathons in order to raise funds for kids back in India through its Strides of Hope program. I was always keen to contribute and create awareness of issues impacting kids and what better way than running!

“The marathon is not really about the marathon; it’s about the shared struggle. And it’s not only the marathon but the training.”

-Bill Buffum

I trained hard to reach my first half-marathon finish line in 2007, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the sense of community, and that finisher’s high made me immediately sign up for my first full marathon – the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC.

“When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time.”

Haile Gebrselassie

Discovering a new love!

Marine Corps Marathon which I also did in 2007, was a scintillating experience. The course runs along many of the iconic national monuments of Washington, D.C.The event focuses on strengthening community spirit, promoting good health and showcasing the organizational skills of the United States Marines. For these reasons, it has well earned its nickname as “The People’s Marathon.” There were Team Asha runners from across the country, and it was a great feeling to run together.

In due course, I did seven marathons, never repeating a course and using the run as a great way to explore a new city and collect some fancy medals as well. 

Around the same time, a friend had signed up for a Sprint Triathlon relay and wanted a swimmer. I was supposed to swim 800 meters, and I readily agreed. Swimming was a part of the school curriculum, so it was not a big deal. Well…not until I reached the race venue and got to know that the swim was in a lake and not in a  pool! 

Once I got into the water though, my nervousness dissipated and it ended up being a beautiful experience. I even bumped into a friendly turtle! 

While I waited for the race to get over, I got to experience the race environment. The energy, the adrenaline rush, and the camaraderie was palpable. I was as excited as a child would be going to Disneyland for the first time! 

“There is no one giant step that does it. It’s a lot of little steps”.

I started participating in sprint distance triathlons and did two-three races a year.

I had found my new love!

70.3 and the Full Ironman plunge

I was working at Dell, but the work didn’t excite me, so as soon as I could, I left my job and started volunteering for various causes. I also ended up pregnant at this time and before I knew it, my baby boy was six months old, and I was wholly engrossed in mom duties and also dealing with the postpartum phase.

I had made my own decision to leave work, take care of my baby and volunteer, but I was not happy. I felt like I was not doing anything meaningful and my postpartum body brought me back to my post-college days.

With no child care support, it was tricky to figure out how to start incorporating a workout routine. 

You will find out a way though if you put your heart to it.

I came across a club called Stroller Strides in the vicinity where the workouts took place around the baby’s stroller. I enjoyed those sessions, and it was a stepping stone back towards my fitness journey.

Meanwhile, I also started going for some spin classes and started getting back into form, slowly and steadily.

In Jan 2014, I learned about Ironman Galveston 70.3 coming up in April 2014, and enthusiastically I signed up for it.

I trained on my own as I wasn’t aware of proper training plans or other nuances. Managing training between nursing, and tending to the baby and household was a challenging task, but I managed to finish in 08.29hrs, just a minute below the cutoff!

If God invented marathons to keep people from doing anything more stupid, the Triathlon must have taken him completely by surprise.

P.Z. Pearce.

I decided I would train better and come back and do the same race next year, but I got pregnant instead and only managed to come back three years later in 2017!

I had a baby girl now and my older toddler boy to manage along with the training, and I also started working full-time! 

It takes a village to raise a child; well, mine took a vineyard(pun intended)

It was a herculean task to train while managing full-time work, taking care of the kiddos, and trying to have a semblance of a social life!

It was my first experience training with a coach and a structured training plan. I had a lot of inhibitions with interacting and communicating with my coach. I would feel guilty if I missed a workout. I also hesitated talking about issues like cramps and periods (not being able to talk openly about periods is not an issue in India alone but all over the globe).

I attempted the race again and improved by only 45 minutes. I had hoped to do a lot better!

Don’t think about the start of the race, think about the ending

Usain Bolt

But I had a fire in my belly. 

I wanted to improve. 

I wanted to emerge stronger. 

I wanted to be more than just a wife or mom or employee.

I decided to push myself toward the ultimate triathlete goal, I signed up for full Ironman.

Quitters don’t tri. Triathletes don’t quit- The full Ironman.

– I firmly belive in this quote

I knew that I wasn’t the strongest or fastest athlete, but I also knew that I was not a quitter.

A full Ironman requires total dedication and sincere hard work. I was ready to give it my all.

I needed guidance and a structured approach and a coach I was completely comfortable with. My friend Tim from my local Tri club was aspiring to be a coach, and I readily agreed to be his guinea pig. Tim’s plans were completely structured toward accommodating my crazy schedule, but at the same time planned well to move me from strength to strength toward my goal. I was completely comfortable discussing my shortcomings, and scope for improvement. I accomplished my training goals one week at a time.

With six months of dedicated training, I attempted my first full Ironman, Ironman Texas, in 2018 and finished in 15:56:58.

Neither the training nor the race was easy. Well, if it was easy, then why would I have attempted it?

On the race day after the cheering and hugs from the fellow participants and family, I headed for the swim course. As I started my swim, the next wave entered the water, and I was surrounded by a swarm of swimmers. One swimmer almost pulled out my timing chip, and I had to get into the treading water position to fix it, and in the process gulped a lot of the nasty water. I was very conscious all through the swim course about my loose timing chip and stopped many times to check on it. Almost midway, I could feel my stomach churning, but there was no way I was stopping.

I finished the swim in 1:37:04.

The bike course started fine, and I was on target as planned. My stomach was still churning, but nothing serious. Twenty minutes in, I took a sip of my electrolyte drink and immediately threw up. My stomach wasn’t accepting anything, and I kept throwing up. When I reached mile 62, I tried to have a jam and cheese sandwich and kept praying that I shouldn’t throw up anymore. Miraculously I didn’t. It was a significant relief. I was slowly regaining strength. I also found a photo of my kids my husband Vish had packed for me with the sandwich, and it surged me with instant energy.

I finished the bike course in 8:07:19, a whole hour more than I had planned for!

The 3-loop run course though was an absolute delight. I loved the crowd support, constant cheering, nutrition stations with fresh watermelon, and the overall positive energy. I loved seeing and high fiving my kids, husband, parents, coach, teammates, colleagues and friends who had all shown up at the race.

I felt like a rockstar.

I wasn’t tired but was enjoying every moment of the last lap. I was gliding and could feel the energy flow in me. As I approached the finish line, I saw Coach Tim and handed over my water belt to him, and he passed me the Indian flag.

I crossed the finish line holding the flag up, high and rising. I finished the run in 5:45:52

During my entire race, I wasn’t bothered about my overall finish time. I was careful about meeting the timing cutoffs of course, but I was committed right from the beginning to enjoying my race and giving it my best!

To be a triathlete means that one has adapted body and mind to endure a challenge that motivates yourself and all who know you.

The last 30 seconds were the most incredible moments I had ever experienced in my life, second only to giving birth to my 2 babies!

Inspiration and support?

Several incidents inspired me to take up this sport. 

Truly, Triathlon is not about the finish line but the guts to begin.

Memories go back to my first relay sprint triathlon where I was awestruck by the energetic environment. Volunteering once at Ironman Texas also made me see the grit and determination of the athletes.  Vish and I volunteered at one of the last water stops, and witnessed athletes of all ages, sizes and shapes making it to the finish line.

In a recent half-marathon, I  saw a group of women who were over 60 years old, holding hands and crossing the finish line. Their energy and joy were infectious and reminded again why I indulge in these sports. Training for a race and crossing the finish line with your buddies is just an exhilarating feeling – I will take this over partying any day!

With so much inspiration around us, it is easy to tap into your own potential and take that first step, be it towards going to the gym, signing up for a 5K, or even showing up at a Stroller Strides workout with your baby.

Once you motivate yourself to take that initial step, things will start to shape up and fall into place.

For any activity that involves a woman stepping out of the house, it is infinitely easier when there is complete buy-in from the family. Living abroad, there is no concept of “house-help” here. Everything has to be done on our own. Although daycare facilities and childcare at gyms are more readily available here than in India, the support and understanding from family is still a must.

When a person desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.

Paulo Coelho

I have been asked many times about the need to indulge in triathlons with a small baby or two small children, questioned about leaving my children alone with my husband while training  etc, but thankfully never from my own family. My husband Vish has always been 150% onboard with my goals from day one.

He understood my passion and my desire to do something for myself – in this case to participate in endurance sports.

He is a born athlete and an avid runner. He started to learn to swim after we met, motivated to do triathlons as well. He would have completed his first Ironman this year if not for COVID. We have run throughout our travels, including doing a half-marathon during our honeymoon!

Our kids are used to seeing one parent missing on weekend mornings and question us if we choose to sleep in. We love setting a great example for our kids, and they are excited to do their first kids triathlons down the road as well.

Dream

I have done the distances I’ve wanted to do, but I would love to continue becoming a stronger athlete.

I would love to participate in races all over the world, including India!

I also want to see more South Asian women participating in endurance sports.

It puzzles me that I see so few women who look like me at races despite living in a country that has top notch facilities for athletes – and have found that a lot of the barriers  that women in India face are present across the diaspora as well.

Down the line, when I can devote the time and effort, I would love to work with young girls and women and encourage them to take up endurance sports and see what they can all be capable of! Women can and should be able to do anything they decide to do!

A strong woman raises a strong family.

“You don’t have to be so tough that it doesn’t hurt; you just have to be tough enough not to quit.”

asserts Charanya

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