379 KM In 72 Hours: Meenal Kotak Makes Ultramarathon Record For India

In an interview with SheThePeople, Meenal Kotak reflects on her journey as an Ultra Runner, the latest 74-hour running record, a previous 24-hour record, how she copes with pressure, and what keeps her going.

Bhana Bisht
23 Jun 2023 Updated On Aug 30, 2023 15:04 IST
Meenal Kotak
Ultrarunner Meenal Kotak has done it again. This time, she created a multiday record for India at the ultramarathon held in Milwaukee city of Wisconsin state in the United States. 

The Milwaukee multiday event had hundreds of global athletes gather for the ultramarathon competition that lasted for almost an entire week. The event, which spread across 12, 24, 48, 72 and 144-hour categories, had Kotak participating in the 72-hour category. Finishing 379 Km in 72 hours, she now stands first amongst women athletes in the Milwaukee event.

One of India's top Ultra Runners, Meenal Kotak's journey began at the finish line of her first race. While many are aware of her impeccable journey, it's often hard to fathom what goes behind her athletic capability.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Meenal Kotak reflects on her journey as an Ultra Runner, the latest 74-hour running record, a previous 24-hour record, how she copes with pressure, and what keeps her going.


Meenal Kotak Ultramarathon Record

In 2014, a treadmill run made Meenal Kotak realise her running capability and impeccable stamina, and with the help of the right people who recognised her strength, she ran the Delhi Half Marathon soon after. At 34, holding no previous professional running experience, Kotak set out on a track that changed the course of her life. 

Today, almost a decade later, clocking mile after mile, she finished a 72-hour run covering 379 Km in the United States. Multiday racing can also be subjugated as a health contest, says Kotak, who has been tracking these races for the past three years now. She emphasises greatly on the power of the mind at play here. “You really have to work on your mind because these races hold a high-stake challenge.”


Kotak explains that Multiday races are way different from 24-hour races and that a lot of planning goes into it because an athlete runs for days here, hence requiring greater motivation and support than ever. “This pushed me to start thinking, training and planning for the first three days of the race. It was different because, for Multiday, you can’t just plan for only running; there are a lot of other factors that need to be planned, such as food and nutrition. From planning an hour or two of sleep in an interval to changing clothes so we don’t end up with blisters, we need to take heed of these factors right from the time we start training.”

What makes Kotak’s record special for the country is that no woman from India has ever ventured into the Multiday marathon until now. This is something that remained in Kotak’s mind for the past few years. She says, “I feel proud at the moment. I never thought I would be the first Indian woman to do it. It’s humbling. I feel elated that we have taken a step forward, to go into dimensions we didn’t before and test the human limits.”

The race ended, and the journey started


In 2015, when Kotak got a hold of her running capability, she decided to aim at ultra-running. Her ambition also stemmed from the fact that India had a dearth of ultra-female runners at the time, and she wanted to change the narrative. For a Chartered Accountant like Kotak to come out on track and eventually represent, her country was a dream that she dreamt along the way as she surpassed records.

"I was surprised to see so many people running in Delhi. However, learning that there were very few female ultra runners piqued my interest. I wanted to tap that and create that space where women, too, could represent India for longer marathons. I started working on my pace and strategy. I worked on running longer rather than running faster," she recalls.

In 2017, she started representing India in major championships in the 24-hour-run category. The Athletics Federation of India recognised her capability and called her soon after. They checked her records, and that was it. Kotak represented India for the first time in Belfast in 2017, following which she participated in the Asian Championship in 2018.


"Learning that there were very few female ultra runners piqued my interest. I wanted to tap that and create that space where women, too, could represent India for longer marathons."

Injury and mental health toll

Shortly before she was to represent the country in the world championship in 2019, she faced a challenging situation in the form of a gruesome injury. Kotak's injury did not just physically strain her. It also affected her mentally. She shares, "It took a toll mentally. I went into depression because of several factors, and the fact that I was on bed rest at a time when I was at the peak of my career devastated me. But I knew I would bounce back one day, and although that pressure was a lot, I came through eventually."


Kotak was in bed for eight-ten months. Her injury aggravated to the point that even a small task like sipping tea became difficult for her physically. It was during the pandemic when everything aligned, and she started getting better. Her challenging training post-recovery fuelled her dream of returning to the Indian team. "I started getting better. I started walking on my own and took to a small target of completing a five km walk initially whilst slowly developing pace," she recalls.

She started running again and completed a three 12-hour running schedule in 2022 alone. 2023, however, proved to be monumental for her as she entered the stadium with a 24-hour run vision. For Kotak to bounce back into the grid after four years was a dream she worked tremendously hard for, and it showed at the end of the finish line.

The 24-hour run record


For Gurgaon-based Meenal Kotak, running in Chandigarh recently felt like a new beginning. She was on a 24-hour run after a four-year gap, and the effort, training and courage it took for her to reach the start line is a story that serves as an inspiration to all athletes, old and new. She previously held a national I national record of 175.6 km in 2017, which was broken. The current national record for women stands at 204 km.

This time around, Kotak covered a whopping 187 km in 24 hours in Chandigarh. "Entering the stadium was way different this time. Everything had changed. I had to start as a beginner, at least in the eyes of those who didn't know me at all. In that sense, there wasn't external pressure. I knew I had to do it for myself."

It was a fresh start for Kotak. "I was slowly building pace the first 5-6 hours, but when others started slowing down post-six-hours, I started running and picked up the pace," she recalls.

Kotak's journey from the start to the finish line in her latest run speaks volumes about the sync that is required between physical and mental capability. "Everything has to be in sync when you're running," she adds, explaining how even meals have to be designed in a way that every hour a runner is fed with a certain amount of calories, which is far from easy.

To take up running at an intensity like Kotak's, it's integral that one has a crucial support system, and she expresses gratitude for hers. "My spouse, Sachin, is my crew for most races. Despite working in a high pressured full-time job, he makes it a point to be present at most of my major runnings. From making sure to track my to taking care of what I eat during the race, to tracking my calorie intake by the hour, he is all there," she tells us.

187 Km In 24 Hours: Meet Meenal Kotak, One Of India's Top Ultra Runners

The pressure of expectations

Kotak's running routine is well-planned, but it includes a lot of discipline. On weekends, when the world is out planning a party, she gears up for a ten-hour run training. She briefly explains, "On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, there's a three-hour run; Friday is an off, and then Saturday amounts to an eight-hour run, subsequently increasing the duration for Sunday with a ten-hour run."

When asked if there's still the pressure of expectations she has to deal with, she responds, "I've seen the highs and lows that come with such an intense sport. All sports have that. And then to see people make snarky comments on sportspersons, whether it's cricketers during intense finishes or any other players across sports, it's annoying and disturbing. It'll always be hard for people on the outside to fathom what it takes for athletes to reach the start line. In terms of pressure, I don't carry any with respect to expectations; I did earlier, not anymore."

Advice to aspiring runners

Citing the example of a young boy from the film Eddie The Eagle, who dreams of representing his country in the Olympics and works towards finding his strength in a sport that would enable him to play at the world's largest sporting event, Kotak advises aspiring runners to find their own strengths. But, she adds, at the same time, maintaining discipline along the way is critical. "Being persistent is the key to getting there, and discipline makes you achieve that, so it's integral to keep that in mind while attempting any sport," she signs off.

Suggested reading: Meet Pakistan's Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Who Disguised As A Boy To Play Squash

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