Breaking into the iron league

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on March 10, 2018

Solonie Singh Pathania

Solonie Singh Pathania successfully finished one of the toughest endurance races in the world. Neither tough work deadlines nor back-breaking training regimen deterred her

Solonie Singh Pathania may just be 30, but she has no time for late-night parties and scrumptious dinners with friends. Every minute of her day is strictly accounted for. She’s either running, swimming, cycling or meeting crazy deadlines at the KPO Consultancy she works for in Pune. Last month, her sacrifices paid off. She successfully completed what is considered the toughest endurance race in the world — the Ironman Triathlon. For the uninitiated, the race includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile marathon run. As is evident, this challenge isn’t for the faint-hearted. “I’d say it’s 70 per cent a mental battle. Even after years of physical training, your mind gives up way before your body does,” says Pathania.

Looking back at the gruelling race that lasted 13 hours and 49 minutes, Pathania remembers several moments when her body told her to stop but her head instructed to keep going. From unexpected menstrual cramps to the freezing waters of Kalmar in Sweden, the roadblocks were plenty. “But then I stopped for a few minutes, got off the bike and told myself that I’ve worked two years for this. One period can’t really cut it for me. To divert my attention from the terrible cramps, I concentrated on what I’d do after the race was over, and whether my sister was waiting for me at the finish line. This might sound funny but I started singing ‘Hall of Fame’ in my head. It has lyrics like ‘do it for your country’, ‘do it for your pride’, and ‘even smile through hell’. That was playing in loop in my head,” recalls Pathania.

Last year Pathania successfully completed the half Ironman. As the name suggests, that race was half as difficult as the one she undertook, but getting through that gave her the confidence to aim for the big one. “I was intimidated when I arrived in Sweden. You see these athletes from around the world and you are making mental notes of what you need to go back and google. They had the best equipment and gear. Every bike I saw was a head turner,” she says, but quickly adds, “Having said that, I overtook a lot of them in my ordinary bicycle.” However, Pathania doesn’t see herself participating in another Ironman at least for a year. The financial investment on each race is steep. “We train for three sports at a time so you need equipment for all of them. And considering the amount of time we train, we wear down our equipment fast. Also, registering for the race and paying for the flight and stay is expensive,” she adds.

However, the triathlon offered many takeaways. While Pathania was the only woman competitor from India, she came across a large number of them at Sweden. “I met this woman who was 40-plus, had two kids and a family to look after. She was amongst the top three finishers in her category and has taken part in around 20 races. I was amazed,” she says. Pathania became the third Indian woman to have completed the Ironman.

She has bittersweet feelings about being hailed as the ‘female Ironman winner’. “As happy as I am about this attention, it also saddens me because it has become a gender thing. I’m making headlines because a woman has done this.” Multiple reasons explain the lack of participation of women in these sporting events, she says. In some cases they don’t get enough support from home and often they lack the self belief. Dr Kaustubh Radkar, Pathania’s coach since 2014 and 15-time Ironman winner, says women often have fears of osteoporosis, and calcium deficiency is another factor. But the good news is that 70 per cent of the next batch of athletes he’s training are women.

“Women often ask me, ‘How do you do this with periods? We don’t even go to work when we are menstruating.’ That mindset needs to change,” says Pathania. “Then there are others who tell me, ‘I wish I could do it’. And I think they totally can.” There’s no better example than Pathania herself. She admits that between her back-breaking training and demanding office hours, the only sensation she felt at times was exhaustion. “I remember the day I had a very heavy training session and a crazy day at work. I was driving back home at 10 pm in the Pune traffic and there was this man honking incessantly at the back. As comical as this sounds, I started crying. I guess athletes are prone to such emotional outbursts,” she says.

On the upside, training for an endurance race has made her a better person and a more competent employee. “At work, people see my discipline and they respect me more for it. I have to be in office for nine hours but there are days when I have to tell my boss that I’m tired after the vigorous training, but I’ll finish my work in seven hours. I’ve not let them down so far,” she says.

In fact, Pathania was running a race on the day her CEO from the US was visiting. She ran 21 kms and then sprinted straight into the meeting. Is this too heavy a price to pay for a passion? “There are times when you feel bad about missing out on a lot of fun things. You feel a little low, but you bounce back. When I look back at the race, I can’t believe I did it. It was a magical day.”

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Published on September 30, 2016
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