India’s Iron boy
How Saurabh Aggarwal survived Ironman triathlon, one of the most gruelling race
After pedalling a distance of 50 kilometres on his road bike, Saurabh Aggarwal turned pensive as he negotiated a lonely 20-km stretch. There were open fields on both sides of the road and a strong wind had kept the tiredness of the body away all afternoon, but there was not a single smiling face to cheer or shout a few encouraging words.
Giving up was just a decision his mind had to take. His body had been in motion for almost six hours, but it was in fine shape, even after swimming 3.8 km and cycling for so long. He had another 110 km to pedal followed by a 42-km run. Aggarwal had to devise a way to overcome his boredom and mental fatigue. “You are an Ironman. You can do it,” he muttered to himself repeatedly and remembered all the things he had done back in India to be in Kalmar, Sweden, to compete in an Ironman triathlon, one of the toughest human endurance races in the world. Thousands compete for the Ironman title every year, but only a few are bestowed with it. Aggarwal, an IIT graduate who quit his 9-5 job a few years ago to pursue a life of adventure, has now become one of a handful of Indians to have earned the Ironman tag.
Aggarwal, 25, stands 5-feet-11-inches tall and weighs a boyish 68 kilograms. He clearly remembers every detail of August 16, 2014. He had set three alarms for 3.30am. After a quick breakfast of muesli, milk and Nutella on bread, he packed a few sandwiches and energy bars and reached Kalmar Strait, in the Baltic Sea, his starting point.
The race began around 7.15am. A 3.8-km swim beckoned him and 2500 other participants. Those who completed the triathlon within 16 hours would be declared Ironmen that night. Like packed sardines, swimmers were jostling for space, and limbs were flying everywhere. Since his goggles got fogged up frequently, he lost his sense of direction and ended up covering half a kilometre more than the required 3.8 km. His swim took an hour and thirty-three minutes, and he was happy with his timing.
In the transition period of 7.5 minutes, Aggarwal changed his attire, and it was time for the second stage of the race. His companion in this would be his bicycle, a specialisedAllez Comp designed for road races that he had carried all the way from India. He would be trying to cover 180 km in around 8.5 hours, with a small break on the way.
“Every participant had to set their own target rate and work accordingly. Since I finished swimming early, I thought I had enough time to focus on cycling, which I considered my strength,” Aggarwal says. “My plan was to maintain an average speed of 26-28 km per hour.” Initially, that worked out fine, but as the weather changed, he found it difficult to pedal against the strong wind. “I realised that more intensive indoor training might have helped. With strong wind flow, it’s important to pedal, pushing your body to bend forward. But, in heavy Delhi traffic, I hardly found space to hone my skills.”
As he cycled, Aggarwal munched on a Nutella sandwich that he was carrying in his pouch. An unexpected rain left him drenched. He was feeling good about his progress, but an acute pain during the final stretch kept him worried. “Former athletes had told me that organs get blocked at times. I assumed that might be the case.” So, after completing his ride in 7.2 hours, he rushed to the nearest aid station. He was told that his body was over-hydrated and that his bladder was full.
The doubts he had during the cycle stretch had vanished and his adrenaline was pumping again by the time he was ready for the third stretch: the 42-km run. Having completed the swimming and cycling in under nine hours, he was well on track to complete the race in time. “I had an extra hour in hand, so I started running at an average pace of just over 11 km per hour.” He had to run in central Kalmar. The athletes had to cross the city centre four times, and that was where the maximum number of spectators had gathered. Printed in bold letters on his jersey was ‘India’, and every time Aggarwal crossed the centre, the crowd shouted, “Go India, go.” Aggarwal felt excited and energetic.
It was not just the crowd. Even fellow racers pitched in. A local runner motivated him by keeping pace with him, and they both ran together for around 10 km. “No words were exchanged, but it was like an unsaid coordination.” An unexpected pain in his left knee set him back. Aggarwal resorted to a combination of jogging and walking and his average speed dropped to around 8 km/h.
Finally, Aggarwal reached the blue carpet. Another 100 meters and he would be an Ironman. He quickly took out the Indian flag kept safely in his pocket. Holding the flag high in both his hands, he raced to the finish line. “That was an adrenaline-filled moment. I felt like Usain Bolt. I wanted to jump around with excitement. I forgot all about my pain. I can’t express in words how proud I felt carrying the flag.” His eyes light up as he remembers the moment. His Facebook account has a video capturing it.
Aggarwal had clocked 14 hours and 37 minutes. And, after a bit of self pampering — a foot massage, followed by a hot bath and his favourite food: pizza — he was back at the finish line to cheer on other participants. “That’s a [gesture of] respect shown to heroes. For a professional, such a race is an easy task. But, heroes are the ones who finish it in 16 hours despite their limitations.”
Standing there, near the finish line, he remembered his journey. Aggarwal is an IIT graduate who got bored with his job and decided to do something totally different. Within a year of determined training, he had realised his dream.
Today, he is a young entrepreneur who has co-founded an adventure club, Dimensions Explorers. He tailors and organises trips for adventure enthusiasts, corporate clients and schools. He has trained in adventure sports such as mountaineering, paragliding and skiing. “After joining a corporate job, I realisedI can do the things done there at any stage in my life. Right now I wanted adventure.”
Brought up in Faridabad, his family is in the garment business. “My family was a bit apprehensive about my decision to run the Ironman triathlon and thought I would change my mind one day. But, soon, they realised I really wanted to go for the race. They supported me.”
What next? “Mount Everest,” comes his reply. Aggarwal has a simple philosophy. “Live your life, fulfill all your wishes. It’s all that matters.”