Iron Will

A triathlete discovers the challenges of training in India

Saurabh Aggarwal trains for about ten hours every day. Saumya Snehil
01 July, 2014

AS MIDNIGHT APPROACHED on 8 June, Saurabh Aggarwal donned knee-length tights, a jersey and a cycling helmet, and wheeled his imported bicycle out of his apartment building in Gurgaon. Soon he was pedalling south down National Highway 8, eyes peering through dust-resistant glasses as exhaust-spewing traffic rolled past. About two hours into his ride, Aggarwal was intercepted by three Jat teenagers in a jeep shouting, “Hey man! Where you from? Where you going?” They were dismayed to discover that Aggarwal was Indian, but delighted to hear he was preparing for the Ironman Kalmar, a gruelling triathlon due to take place in southern Sweden in August. They coerced the aspiring Ironman into taking a sip of the beer they were drinking. A good luck charm, they said.

Sitting in a three-bedroom apartment that he shares with his “support group”—five of his college mates—Aggarwal said he had experienced many such disturbances on the road. He rides 150 kilometres on NH8 every other night, in addition to regular sessions of running and swimming. All put together, he trains for about ten hours every day. The race in Sweden, like all Ironman events, is one of the toughest triathlons in the world, comprising a 3.86-kilometre swim, 180.2 kilometres of cycling and a 42.195-kilometre run, which must all be completed strictly within 17 hours. To make his challenge even harder, Aggarwal must prepare without access to appropriate training infrastructure. He tried running in municipal parks early in the day, but got tired of jostling for space with hordes of casual walkers and joggers. Now he runs on dusty Gurgaon roads at night, sometimes with enthusiastic dogs for company. Local swimming pools are also less than ideal. “You can’t complete a lap without bumping into a fat-ass,” Aggarwal said. “Thank god, I have found an isolated lake near Faridabad to practice my four-kilometer swim.”

Aggarwal began training for the Ironman Kalmar in Bangalore in August 2013, but a search for better facilities—bigger, multi-lane roads; good, uncrowded running tracks and swimming pools—led him to Pune, then Mumbai, and ultimately Gurgaon. All these cities, however, have left Aggarwal disappointed. “Urban planners have completely ignored the needs of athletes,” he said. “Try riding a bike long-distance on the road and you will feel like a second-class citizen, provided you are not crushed by a truck by the end of the day.”

Aggarwal, who is 25 years old, has gone out of his way to pursue his passion for endurance sports. While studying for a degree in chemical engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, he spent almost every vacation trekking in the Himalayas. He graduated and joined the online retail firm Flipkart in 2011, but his itch for sports lingered. In 2012, he quit his job and took a year to train as a paraglider, climber, skier, canoer, mountaineer, runner, rafter, swimmer and cyclist. His friends and family assumed he would soon return to the corporate world, but Aggarwal surprised them all. “I was in a dilemma about what to do next,” he recalled. Then, “I came across a video of Anu Vaidyanathan, the first Indian to complete [an] Ironman. She, too, was an engineer. She inspired me take the leap.” Unlike Vaidyanathan, however, who prepared for her first race while in the United States, Aggarwal has had to gear up for his Ironman debut here in India, with little by way of sponsors, peer groups or qualified local coaches. He currently trains under Deepak Raj, a certified coach and accomplished Ironman of Indian origin based in Australia.

Even after investing years of time and effort, Aggarwal’s triathlon dream may still fail for lack of funding. He had appealed to IIT alumni, and in 2013 received Rs 50,000 from Ashish Gupta, a graduate of IIT Kanpur and co-founder of the investment firm Helion Ventures. Aggarwal’s family have also been “very patient and supportive,” he said, and have been helping him financially since this January. But the money he has raised so far will not get him to Sweden for Ironman Kalmar. Now, a month from the race, Aggarwal’s last hope is his ongoing crowd-funding campaign to raise Rs 2.5 lakh on There, he said, he hopes well-wishers will offer him something more than just a sip of beer.

Harsh Snehanshu is the co-founder of YourQuote, a social writing app. He co-founded Cubbon Reads, a silent reading community, with chapters in over sixty cities worldwide. His writings have appeared in The Caravan, The Hindu, Tehelka and DNA.