Dr Arun Nayak dons several hats: he’s an orthodontist, postgraduate teacher, photographer, wildlife and trekking enthusiast, endurance runner, and a die-hard animal lover. This September, he combines two of his passions in a formidable challenge — the 71km Khardungla Run in the high-altitude, unforgiving terrain of Ladakh. Dr Nayak hopes to raise funds for the Welfare of Stray Dogs organization in Mumbai through his efforts. In a two-part interview with FirstRun, he discusses his running story, the challenges involved in the Khardungla Run and how he is training for it.

How and when did you get involved with running?
Distance running happened to me five years ago, at a time when I developed symptoms of a Slipped Disc in my spine’s lumbosacral region, largely due to bad posture and an overworked lifestyle. I lost muscle strength in my foot and calves, sensation in my toes, and developed a distinct limping gait. Finally after an operation in 2009, I was advised exercises and regular walking to regain my core muscles. Just walking turned out to be quite boring and I slowly started jogging. The competitive streak in me urged me to increase my distance over a period of time.

With the motivation to get better and fitter, I decided to run the Mumbai half marathon in the 2010 SCMM. By adopting a run-walk strategy, I completed it in 2 hr 58 min. The energy of the day, the untiring cheers of the onlookers, the crisp morning, and the sight of the galloping runners formed a perfect setting to carry me through the run. I also had a huge leap of confidence when I bumped into my Surgeon at the halfway mark! I continued my exercises and with more self-training I even broke the revered 2-hr mark over the next few editions.

Any favorite running memories?
I had participated in the first edition of the Oxfam 100 km trail walker in Mumbai in 2013. It was a tough terrain meant for hiking and the challenge was not only to cover the formidable distance but also manage the heat, plan our nutrition, walk with blisters and handle team tempers. We stood third as a team. In 2014, the same team did the 50 km edition and decided to run as and when we could on the trail. We stood first this time. Besides this, one of the other toughest distances I covered was the NEF Mountain triathlon. After an open water swim, the challenges we had to cycle over narrow, slippery gravel and then run midday on a tough trekking route in the Sahyadris.

However, my most enjoyable recent memory is a 48 km run on a rainy day on the Lonavala-Aamby Valley route. There were hordes of overnight party troupes driving back in the early hours of the dark morning. The first 10 kms were so much fun, there wasn’t even a hint of duress!

From city to the hills
From city to the hills

You’re taking on the legendary Khardungla Challenge this September 13. Tell us about some of the challenges involved.
I have been a keen trekker for the past 6 years, and was part of the Chadar trek, where temperatures hover in the range of -25 degrees celsius! I vaguely remember seeing the Ladakh Marathon stall at the Expo of SCMM 2015 and after dissecting their website, I decided that with good training I could be ready for it. I love running hills and this 71km high-altitude challenge would test that to the hilt. Add to that, the prospect of seeing the Karakoram and the Stok range while running! What more can a dreary Mumbai runner want?

The challenges at Khardungla are aplenty: 3 am start, possibility of snow, running in multiple layers, planning logistics, nutrition, the 32-kms 4200 ft of nonstop ascent, and above it all, the rare air. I distinctly remember my last time at Khardungla—I had a splitting headache. Two months later, I might be running with one!

You’re a keen wildlife enthusiast and have taken up many races in support of animal causes.
Risking sacrilege, I can say that I love animals more than humans. I have raised charity for various causes through the Oxfam trail walker previously, but the cause of stray dogs is particularly close to me. Welfare of Stray Dogs is a non-profit trust working to eradicate rabies in Mumbai, to reduce the stray dog population through humane, effective methods, to educate the public about rabies prevention and other stray dog issues and to promote the adoption of stray dogs.

My wife and her family have been regular donors to WSD for years and since this was a massive challenge, I wanted to dedicate it to the cause of raising funds for them. Over the years, WSD has sterilized and immunized lakhs of stray dogs and have found loving homes for hundreds of them.

Could you give us a glimpse into your daily/weekly running routine?
My focus for the Khardungla training in on two accounts: mental and physical.

With my experience at the Oxfam run, I know that I can cover the Khardungla distance within the 14 hr limit. I personally love downhill running, so my primary challenge is getting to the top. The euphoria on reaching the summit coupled with regular breaks on the way down should help me get back to Leh. I am also doing the 10-day Stok Kangri trek (20000ft) to acclimatize myself prior to the race. So hopefully, if I feel like a Ladakhi local by the end of it, my lungs shouldn’t be screaming during race day.

My running routine isn’t very different from my marathon training. I typically do 2 short runs of one hour each on weekdays and a long run on Sundays. For this event, I will be walking a lot and so my focus for long runs has been on time rather than distance. I have also added a generous dose of stair climbing to my routine, either standalone, or combined with running. I live in a 5o-storey tower, so sometimes, I change my short run into a stair climbing session, and my long run into a stair climbing-plus-run session. I used to cycle occasionally in summer but don’t risk it too often on Mumbai roads in the monsoon. Right from the onset, I have believed that if my training could last through this hot sweaty Mumbai summer injury free, I should be able manage to finish the Khardungla challenge!

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