Read Roshni Rai’s inspiring and invigorating tale of how she became one of the country’s handful of ultra marathon runners despite not having been an athlete in school
My name is Roshni Rai. I come from a small village known as Pedong in the district of Darjeeling. My village is hemmed in by the awe-inspiring mountains of the Himalayas. I grew up among the tall deodars, revelled in the enchanting sight of rhododendrons, and paid daily homage to the majestic Mount Kanchanjunga. I was fortunate to belong to a close-knit family with loving parents. I have one older and younger brother and an adopted sister. Life was blissful.
And then I fell in love. He was from an another community. My mother had warned me right from the start that his family would not accept me, and that I was not to come crying to her when he broke it up. When my boyfriend’s family announced his marriage to someone else, life as I knew it came to an end. I was broken-hearted. Externally, I pretended that it had not affected me, and put on a brave face, but every day I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into depression.
One cold winter morning, I woke up at 4 am, grief stricken. On an impulse, I went out into the freezing cold and began to run. I was crying and running, crying and running, until after a while, the crying stopped. I went back home and noticed that for the first time in days, I felt hungry. That night I went to bed tired and had a good night’s sleep. The next morning, I woke up early, put on my running shoes and sped through the silent sleeping streets. I literally ran my way to healing.
In the meanwhile, I was also working in the Kalimpong court as a lawyer. Like most people, I had no clue as to what my calling was. But in school, I had been a keen debater and was good at elocution too. People told me I would be a good lawyer, and I took them at their word. But my work was going nowhere, and it was still hard to face people after the heartbreak.
What better place to lose myself than in the populous city of Mumbai? So I wrenched myself away from my beautiful, verdant slice of paradise and made my way to Mumbai in 2004; not the prettiest of places, but everyone’s city of dreams. In my case, Mumbai taught me first to dream and then to realise that dream.
With no better idea suggesting itself, I got admission in Mumbai University to do my LLM (Masters in Law), which I completed in 2006. During those two years I was also working in a legal firm, and found no time to pursue running. With my masters behind me, I had time on my hands and began to notice the advertisements and notices about the Mumbai Marathon which takes place in January every year.
Thinking back on those months of running in 2003, I thought the marathon would be a breeze. In January of 2007, I signed up for the Mumbai Half Marathon, which is of 21 km. Alas, the going was more gruelling than I anticipated. I injured my knee and was bedridden for a week. I decided to swear off marathons for life, but my destiny was not deterred.
In 2008, I joined Colgate-Palmolive (India) Limited as a legal executive. And that was the turning point in my life. No, I was not destined to be a legal luminary. The Supreme Court or landmark judgements were not meant for me. Instead, I was introduced to the Colgate’s Runners Club and I met my coach Daniel Vaz.
Under his dedicated tutelage and expert guidance, I became a transformed runner. So far, I have run 48 races, which includes 10 km races, half marathons (21 km), marathons (42 km), ultra marathons (anything above 42 kms) of 50 km, 75 km, 89 km and 100 km all across India. I have run four International marathons in South Africa, UK, Czech Republic and Nepal. When I started, I was one among just two or three women to run ultra marathons, though now there are many more.
Coach Daniel used to give all the runners a personalised training schedule, which helped me to run even ultra marathons of up to 100 km without injury. In 2009, I got to know about the Comrades Marathon of 89 km in South Africa, after reading runner Amit Sheth’s blog. Sheth was declared DNF (Did not finish) because he could not finish the distance of 89 km within the time slot of 12 hrs. The marathon was an exacting one. If participants did not complete 21 kms in three hours, 50 kms in six hours, or the full marathon in 12 hours they were pulled out.
Later, I learnt that Comrades Marathon was started by an army ambulance driver, Vic Clapham, in 1921 in memory of his fallen comrades in World War I. I was inspired to run it as my tribute to all the Gorkha martyrs who have sacrificed their lives to safeguard Mother India. I shared my dream with my coach, who put me through rigorous training from 2009 and in 2012, I completed the Comrades Marathon of 89 km in 11 hours and 50 minutes. My parents had also come to watch me, and they had brought India’s flag with them. I had the honour of running with India’s flag flying high in my hands and shouting ‘Jai Gorkha, Jai Hind’.
Running has enriched me in innumerable ways. It has taught me grit and determination. At the end of 30 kms, one is tired. It is mental strength that fuels the rest of the run. It is also meditation in movement. Once you get into the flow, the bliss continues, unbroken. It has also built up my health. I cannot remember the last time I fell ill, and it has kept me looking young. At 36, I am often asked which college I study in! Every day, I run at least 8 to 10 kms. The days I skip this daily practice, my mood dips and leaves me grumpy and dissatisfied.
The ultimate dream
Today, I am the founder of ‘Run with Roshni Foundation’ through which we are supporting underprivileged Gorkha runners from Darjeeling to run marathons in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Shillong, Bangalore, and Sikkim since the year 2012. From 2015, we have started a marathon in Kalimpong. Last year there were 50 runners. This year we had 110. The best three boys and girls are then chosen to participate in the Mumbai marathon. Most of my runners come between the 9th to the 20th ranks.
Despite being a non athlete during my school days, I could graduate from running 10 km to 100 km because of my Gorkha genes. Gorkhas are physically very strong because of the mountainous terrain in which we grow up. If Gorkha children get proper guidance from the right age, they have the potential to become world class runners and compete with the Kenyans and Ethiopians.
My vision for ‘Run with Roshni Foundation’ is to create a team of Gorkha runners, who will win the Olympic Marathon for India. So far, there has been no Olympic champion from the Gorkha community. Even though there is no evidence to support my statement that Gorkhas have the potential to become world class runners, I am convinced of it. And I am confident that this very conviction will manifest that reality.
I believe that this will help to eliminate the identity crisis faced by Indian Gorkhas. Gorkhas all over India have to keep explaining that we are not migrants from Nepal though Nepali is already a recognised language under the constitution of India, and is one of the languages mentioned in our currency. Whenever I say that my mother tongue is Nepali, people think I am from Nepal. They do not know that Darjeeling was part of Nepal, which was annexed to India along with our ancestors by British.
So through running, we are empowering Gorkhas and enlightening non Gorkhas on the fact that we are Indians. In every marathon we participate, my team wears T-shirts with the slogan: We are Gorkhas proud to be Indian. Jai Gorkha, Jai Hind!
Along the way, I even wrote a book, From the Mountain to the Ocean, which outlines my journey as a non runner from a small village of the hills in Darjeeling to an ultra marathon runner in the ocean city of Mumbai. My book was published in Mumbai and it has been released in almost 18 cities so far. Soon after coming to Mumbai, I had developed writers scram, which meant I was unable to write. This is an incurable condition. Despite that, here I am with a book to my credit!
Looking back, I marvel at how my life has unfolded. That an ordinary girl from Darjeeling should have shaped up into a skilled runner with a lofty vision and mission that makes her a force for the good for her community, seems like a dream. How did all this happen? I believe that along the way, not only did my feet develop a tensile strength, but so did my personality. Nothing stopped me from running – literally and metaphorically.
I have had many breakdowns in my life but eventually those breakdowns became blessings in disguise. I have realised that the Divine Force was always available to guide me, but I had to develop the courage to listen to it, deep inside me. I no longer think of myself as small. I have experienced personally that each of us has immense potential within to make a difference. However, we need to have integrity in our thought, word and action.
I am moving back to Pedong in Darjeeling from Mumbai by the end of 2016, in order to contribute to my community by conducting soft skill development workshops such as communication, self-confidence, time management and goal setting.
In some ways, my life is coming full circle. But in other ways, it is expanding and growing. I gladly surrender myself to its mysterious and compelling flow, for I know that only through surrender will my destiny realise its full grandeur.
About Roshani: Roshni Rai is an advocate, ultra marathon runner, author and the founder of ‘Run with Roshni Foundation’. She is the Goodwill Ambassador of Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon from India.