“FITNESS IS A DELICIOUS butter cookie served with a cup of sweat.” Not exactly how your January gym-goer would refer to fitness, but it’s this unconventional, borderline-romantic passion that defines Mayank Vaid, a Hong Kong-based lawyer who casually signed up for his first half-marathon without consulting his wife, Theresa (he goes to the extent of asking me not to tell her about it). Within two years of training, he has pulled off
Ultraman Australia, with a ridiculous timing of 26:04:01, finishing 12th overall, and faster than any other Indian on the planet. The triathlete is now gearing up for his toughest challenge, Run the Rann — a single stage, GPS-navigated desert quadruple (161 km) marathon — this month.
Vaid’s tryst with endurance sport might come across as a chanced-upon affair; it was anything but. While growing up in India, he moved 13 schools in the space of 12 years, with his late father — himself a long-distance runner — who served first in the Indian army, and later in the Border Security Force (BSF). “It was like a permanent state of transit,” he recalls. “But, it was all a part of the larger package that felt more like fun than hardship. I think most of my family’s early life went living day-by-day. My father loved adventurous and challenging jobs. My mother fully supported him — always. For a number of years, my mother lived in fear of losing my father to a bullet or a landmine. She seemed to accept this fate.”
Vaid recalls an incident from when they were posted in Kashmir. On the way to school, his father had to leave him behind in a parked car, to rush to a combat scenario nearby. He remembers the heavy gunfire, and how he was unsure if his father would return. “There was so much ambiguity and uncertainty in the early years; I might have learnt a lot there. I think I might have survived that burning ladder of ambiguity and transformed that weakness into a strength.” While growing up, anything that kept him indoors was frowned upon by his mother. From horse-riding to golf, skiing, fishing and gymnastics: any excuse to stay outdoors was accepted.
“Whether it was the low-wire entanglement, Tarzan assault course, traverse ropes, frame cargoes, ramps, rigs etc, it was all about having fun. We got to test-fire small and medium weapons and heavy machine guns at the firing range in Tekanpur [in Gwalior]. My father very boldly called this the University of Life,” he says.
Though Vaid had a hyperactive childhood, he had grown to a comfortable 87 kg while climbing the corporate ladder (he is an intellectual property director with Louis Vuitton, Asia-Pacific). After many years of “destroying my lungs” and “drinking myself to death,” he ran into his neighbour, David Gething, who had just returned from sweeping the World Marathon Challenge (7 Marathons in 7 Continents in 7 Days) in 2015. A casual one-two ended with Vaid agreeing to sign up for the Pyongyang half-marathon, scheduled to take place a few weeks later.
“You hang out with the right guys, the best guys, you get better,” Vaid says. “I get great motivation to get out of my bed every day. I get out of my bed and out of my house, and say to myself, ‘I want to be like these guys. I want to be better than yesterday. I want to be better than [this] morning.’ Fitness follows.” Gething continues to be an inspiration to Vaid, not only on their runs but also when they swim together. The duo is often joined by another inspirational athlete, Richard Hall, a Briton who works as a lawyer in the financial industry. “Richard has been to Ironman World Championships – Kona, clocking amazing course times in the Mecca of Ironman racing, more often than most people may have raced in their whole lives,” says Vaid.
Having given up most wines and spirits, quitting smoking, deciding to eat only homebaked breads and desserts and turning vegetarian, Vaid obviously follows a strict routine to keep up with the demands of his sport. He wakes up at 4 am and heads out for a couple of hours of workout, after checking mails and so forth. Another hour or so of swimming in the sea, or a core workout, is followed by office. He takes out time for a swim in the pool during his lunch break, in case there are no networking luncheons. He spends some time with his family before the lights go out at 8.30 pm. Weekends are usually busier, with longer training hours. Nigel Gray, Vaid’s Torontobased triathlon coach, says, “I feel that anyone can achieve great things if they have the passion for it, and then put in the commitment. This is where Vaid has been amazing. He has a great passion for the sport, that’s for sure, but it’s his commitment that has allowed him to achieve what he has in such a short period of time. Anyone can do this, but most struggle to truly be committed.” The medals — the Ultraman, the Ironman and various 70.3 Ironman races around Asia and Oceania, in the Vaid’s cabinet only intensify the applause. He also weighs 73 kg today.
Vaid, however, accepts that it is difficult to strike a balance between his personal, professional and athletic commitments. Whenever he wavers, his wife helps balance out the weights. “Theresa supports me a lot. We have a very limited social life, and we are very happy with the way it is. It promises quality and strong bonds with a small group of friends,” he says. “My family often comes with me to races, and some of our best family holidays have been centred [on] a race I’m doing. I also hope that my training and racing give my children a positive role model, and show them what can be done with some determination and hard work. I’m not a natural athlete, and I came to this late in life, but I’ve still been able to achieve [something].”
Run the Rann will invoke pangs of nostalgia for Vaid from the time his father worked in Rajasthan and Gujarat for the BSF, which also happens to be key sponsor of the race. He has been doing up to 150 km of running per week in preparation for the event. Vaid admits he has had to adopt a completely different approach to training for this long ultramarathon, especially psychologically. A real-life example of the tortoise and the hare, the race has shifted his attention from speed and timings to endurance and durability. It’s a steep mountain to climb and a dress rehearsal to the Enduroman challenge that Vaid, along with Gething, aspires to take on in June this year. Only 24 athletes have ever completed it. “I have to admit that I still have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, commitment and time. But, with the support and encouragement I receive from my family and friends, I think it can be done.”