An engineer by profession, Shilpi Sahu, is a long-distance runner by passion. Sahu grew up in Bihar and then went to IIT Kharagpur, now working in the tech city she prefers to cycle every day to work and back. Shilpi Sahu, a self-proclaimed eco-nut, speaks to us about her various passions including running and biking. Shilpi believes running during periods is a personal choice and should not be governed by menstrual taboos. Some edited snippets of our conversation with her.
Shilpi, what inspires you to run for these various causes?
The cause being my sanity. It keeps me sane. I run for no other cause. I am an eco-nut.
Tell us about your fitness and exercise routine.
I am a long distance runner. I generally run barefoot. Typically, I sign up for 3-4 full marathons, a couple of halves and a couple of 10K races every year. Most of the races are local in Bangalore or nearby, except the Mumbai marathon. Accordingly, I train for these with nearly 4-5 days of running in a week during the peak season.
As an active runner, tell us about your experience of running during your periods. What safety measures should women take up before and afterwards? And, how healthy running can be during menstruation?
I advocate using menstrual cups and cloth pads, period panties to manage periods, especially for physically active women.
They make periods less of a pain to manage and I am very cross with the world that I did not find about menstrual cups sooner (not until 2013). Apart from being super comfortable, rash free, they are eco-friendly. They are reusable and last up to 10 years, unlike disposable or sanitary pads and tampons that end up in the landfills or have to be burnt.
I think running during the period is a personal choice. For most women, there is no problem in running during periods if they feel like getting some exercise. The endorphins released during exercise can actually help in period pain.
Period is not a disease or a handicap for women. It is normal and natural and I hate disrupting my usual schedule during my period, although I may take it a bit easy if I feel uncomfortable.
The whole world is conspiring to stop you from running! But if it is there in the training plan, you go ahead and execute it be it rain or shine. Personally, it is a little difficult to give it all because running is only one of the interests I have. Apart from my full-time job as an engineer, I am also a trustee of an NGO that manages lakes in the neighbourhood. I am also fairly social and active in community life. So, sometimes running takes a back seat.
Why cycling? When did you discover the passion for cycling?
Cycling saves time. I don’t have the patience for Bangalore’s standstill traffic moving at snail’s pace and covering 100m in 10 minutes. After I realized that I was covering 10km in one hour in the car (back in 2011), the time I took roughly to run that much distance, I thought cycling that distance was definitely possible. I bought a cycle and cycled to work slowly one day. I started cycling 1-2 days a week and then more. I don’t go on any cycling trips, it’s just for fun. I am not really a passionate cyclist. I am passionate about not wasting my time behind the wheels.
Traffic is now much worse than 2011 and my cycle and cycling skills have evolved with it. I cycle every day, 22 km round trip to work and back, on the infamous Bellandur, ORR, Whitefield roads. I enjoy the weather and the lakes I pass through. Sometimes I run into people I know or knew and stop and chat for a while. In the winter months, I smell the divine Akash mallige flowering all over the city. There are bad things as well, like the garbage burning, pollution and rash driving. But where there is good, there will always be bad.
How running has become an incredible part of a Bengalurean’s lifestyle, especially women?
I cannot talk for all women, but, in general, runners run because they are addicted to the runners high. Women who run and are running for a long time, it is the same. Although many women start running to manage their weight or due to peer pressure. The ones who keep running do so because they really enjoy it.
Share some of your strategies and insights for the marathons you frequent.
We are all at amateur level in marathon running so, the scope for improvement is tremendous. I believe in growing organically as a runner, be consistent and improving slowly, taking breaks when required. People make the mistake of doing too much, losing patience and not listening to their body. The end up injured, mentally burnt out and hating long-distance running. During a race, I switch off my thoughts and I just run.
You are a research and development engineer. How do you balance work, family and running?
Everything is horribly mixed up into a hot mess. There is more than work, family and running in my life. There is also community work, but it works out because all things are equally important for me and I try to find some time for all of it even if in small doses.
What is your core passion and long term vision?
To keep doing everything I love. And stop doing what I don’t, so that I find more time for the passion I possess.
What are the ways to encourage women to get into running?
Convince them that they should put their health and welfare before that of their family at least for one hour a day. Most women are burdened with child care, managing home, work with little help from their spouses. This must change. It does not give them time to do things that they like or take care of themselves. Women themselves need to break free from their self-imposed high standards they set in managing home and family and need to accept that their health and happiness comes ahead of perfect order at home. Some disorder at home is okay. Kids and husband can learn to manage some work on their own. And yes, they can learn to fix their own meals and do their own chores.
What do you think we need to do to encourage sport among women in their late 30s?
Provide a good support system, both at work and at home. Also, we need to train their husbands to be an effective parent. It is infuriating, how little most Indian husbands contribute towards familial responsibilities and not feel guilty about it. As far as running is concerned, having running companions helps, and not just for women.
Do you think India is changing in terms of valuing its athletes?
No. If India is serious about improving the quality of athletes at international level, it needs to introduce better sports programs at school and university levels. This is currently non-existent. Secondly, our cities and towns have few places where adults and kids can exercise and play, and unfortunately, in the name of development, urban green areas are shrinking rapidly. This is the foundation of healthy and active living. If Indians remain as sedentary as now, we can get an Olympic medal only when speed math is included as one of the sports.
If India is serious about improving quality of athletes at international level, it needs to introduce better sports programs at school and university levels.
What would be your advice for the girls who aspire running as a profession?
It is a lot of hard work to be a professional athlete in a country that does not value sports (unless it is cricket of course). Girls who aspire to take up running as a profession should be confident of their capabilities and work really hard. And possibly have a backup source of income to support themselves and get good scientific coaching.