Things were very different when Amit Gulia stepped out for his first run in 2014. For starters, the motivation was the scrumptious breakfast on offer at the end of it.
“We were doctorate students and were always short on money. So this seemed like a good idea on a Sunday morning. Honestly, we never finished that run, our focus was the food,” Amit says, laughing.
A lot has changed since then. The 39-year-old is among the top ultra runners in the country today, having completed the daunting challenge of the Spartathlon in Greece, being the first Indian to run 222km at La Ultra - The High in Ladakh, and being the current national record holder for a 100-miler road race in India.
But where he truly stands out is the blistering pace at which he runs these mammoth distances. And his indefatigable spirit that has helped him bounce back from multiple setbacks over the years.
A fresh start
A short distance specialist at school, running was bundled away for academic pursuits over time. As a student, weekends usually featured late nights, until one morning, he decided to show up at Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh.
“I just happened to wake up early and went to meet a running group that trained close to my campus. Five hundred metres into that run, I thought my lungs were going to pop out,” Amit recalls.
“That day, I saw 50-year-olds run 15kms with ease. I was 27 at the time and realised that health had never been a priority. I decided to join them again only when I could run 5kms,” he says.
Amit started training at the college ground, setting modest goals. But at his first half marathon a few months later, he clocked a sub-2 hour run – a time most manage to achieve only through experience and systematic training. It surprised and motivated him in equal measure. His next run was an ultra marathon, simply out of curiosity.
A love for ultras
At the Bhatti Lakes Ultra in late 2015, he had little idea on how he would run the 80km. Pacing and nutrition were alien concepts, so he simply decided to tail a few experienced runners over the initial distance. But when he realised that their pace was stunting his progress, he decided to set off on his own.
“Most thought I would burn out as the heat picked up. But it helped me understand early on that running ultras was all a mind game. Once my body was fatigued, I was running on sheer mental strength and will power. It’s essentially you versus you,” Amit says.
For those who thought his performance to be a chance occurrence, winning the Shimla Ultra (70km) in June 2016 put things in perspective. It was also where he met his mentor, Vijay Pandey, who encouraged him to explore his potential further.
Once back home, Amit decided to set his life in order. The routine revolved around running, with an added focus on rest and recovery, and a strict diet that focussed on micronutrients. He gradually transformed into a mindful runner who had goals to attain.
Records and firsts
Over the last few years, Amit has hit new highs as a runner. But there have also been down phases to contend with on several occasions. His idea is to keep it simple, go back to the drawing board and put in the hours needed to be at his best once again.
It has helped him achieve new highs in the world of ultra running in India. At his first 24-hour stadium run in Bengaluru in August 2016, Amit set a new national record by logging 188.8km. It got him a spot on the Indian team for the 24-hour World Championship in Ireland, but he was unable to get a visa. Instead, he decided to run 222km at La Ultra - The High in Ladakh and became the first Indian to finish the race in August 2017.
“I was ill before the start and a weak body at that altitude is taxing. I also experienced hallucinations on the second night; it was really scary when I think about it even today. But it was a major milestone in my running career,” he says.
Through that race, he made the cut for the Spartathlon in September 2018 – a 246-km run from Athens to Sparta. But unseasonal downpour during the race sent his body into hypothermia and he eventually didn’t make the finish. He set aside the disappointment and started rebuilding once home. That December, he won his first 100 miler at the Border.
“It was a lot of structured training, understanding my calorie intake and the food that suited me on the run. The biggest transformation was that I could sustain the pace that I started off with for a longer period of time,” he says.
Most of 2019 was spent recovering from injuries, but contracting Covid-19 was a bigger setback as it kept him away from the sport for over a year. The first run in 2021 was brutal on the body.
“I felt like I had run 50km at the end of that 5km. I was unable to convince myself to run for long and had to build up gradually to regain form. A lot of people believed that I wasn’t the same runner anymore,” he says.
In search of a testing goal, Amit set his mind on the Border yet again. The social engagements were down to a trickle and he credits his wife, Gurjeet Kaur, for her unflinching support. There was a sense of relief when he blazed a trail at that race, setting a new course record of 17 hours 47 minutes and an improvement on his previous mark by close to two hours.
“Ultra running is like life – all days are not the same. There are ups and downs where at times, things don’t go as per plan. It prepares you mentally and makes you strong, knowing that you’ll recover from anything that comes your way,” he says.
Spartathlon at last
There was unfinished business on hand when he decided to line up at Spartathlon in June 2022. In preparation of the sweltering conditions in Greece, he put in long hours at training, even running under the afternoon sun during Chandigarh’s scorching summer months.
“People called me mad for running at a time of the day when you don’t see anyone on the street because of the heat,” he says.
Winning two races in the run-up to Spartathlon told him that his body was ready to take on the grind. There was also comfort in the company of two friends running alongside him. But he knew it was down to him to get to the finish this time around.
A heat stroke and dehydration on the run affected his progress, but he battled on despite the discomfort. At the point where he had dropped out in 2018, he was relieved when his mates caught up with him. The moment he kissed the statue of King Leonidas at the finish as per tradition, he knew he would be back at the race.
“It was immensely satisfying, the best moment of my life. But I realised I could have been a lot faster, so I hope to do the Spartathlon again in 2024," he says.
Besides focussing on his future goals, Amit is also working as head coach at SkechersGoRunClub Chandigarh these days, where he is training and mentoring many aspiring long distance athletes.
"Somewhere over these immense distances and long hours spent in solitude, there’s a spiritual connection that I experience. And I cannot get enough of it,” Amit says.