In September 2016, Amit Samarth decided to take on a distance he had never ridden before on his bicycle. Starting off from Nagpur, the route ran through Hyderabad-Bengaluru-Hubli-Belgaum-Kolhapur-Satara-Pune, before finishing in Nagpur again.
It added up to a staggering 2,600 kms in all, which is just half of what he hoped to attempt a few months later during the Race Across America (RAAM), an endurance race that runs a humungous 5,000 kms from the west coast to the east coast of the United States of America. However, the Nagpur-to-Nagpur circuit he was undertaking was no race, nor was it a planned ride as part of his training routine.
“There was a lot at stake during that ride,” Samarth recalls on a rainy morning at his home in Nagpur.
Just nine months before the RAAM, Samarth had finally found a supporter in industrialist Jeetendra Nayak, who believed in his dream of completing the race. Nayak was now selling Samarth’s vision to his inner circle in a bid to get them on board as well. But before committing to the project, most people had one simple question – how far could Samarth actually ride?
So, Samarth readied for the round circuit starting from Nagpur to convince them. When he finally finished, he had clocked an incredulous five days and five hours on the bike to cover the mammoth distance.
“I slept just two nights, the other three I went non-stop. Just because I could do a few hundred kilometres, didn’t mean I could go the 5,000 km at RAAM. After this ride though, people were confident and started believing in me,” he says, smiling.
Life didn't change overnight for Samarth after that ride. But he knew that he was one step closer to achieving his goal.
Academics and work life
While growing up, Samarth was highly focussed on getting good grades. “When you have ten doctors in your family and are good at botany and the sciences, medicine becomes a natural career option,” Samarth says.
But the focus on education left little time for exercise. So after joining Indira Gandhi Medical College, and realising he wasn’t in the best shape, he decided to join a gym.
“I lost 25 kgs and became lean. At the same time, I was studying a lot of biochemistry and physiology during my first year of medicine; so I applied those principles to my training and food habits as well,” he recalls.
Before long, Samarth became serious about body sculpting and participated in competitions, even winning the Vidharba Shree. However, after five years of intense working out, the focus had to be shifted to his career. The gym gloves were packed away, and a doctor’s coat took over.
Professional life took Samarth to many cities across India. A job with a corporate also landed him in Bangladesh, where he was exposed to the subject of public health. To gain a better understanding of it, he decided to pursue a Masters in Public Health from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
On his return to India, Samarth got a job in Hyderabad and gained a small circle of friends. Through his friends, he witnessed a group training in taekwondo and was amazed at their approach to fitness.
“They were not really muscular – more strong and agile – and I wanted to be like them. I learnt a lot under Jayant Reddy and Mohammed Malik sir,” Samarth says.
It was Malik who introduced Samarth to running as part of the workout. Gradually, Samarth started going the distance, routinely finishing in top-five positions at various races around the country. Long distance running soon led to triathlons, and Samarth got sucked right in. There was just one catch – he didn’t know how to swim.
“I had a mental block when it came to the water – I was really afraid. I could run for hours; yet when it came to swimming just 25 metres, it was a struggle. During my first half Ironman in Phuket, the water was unusually choppy – there were huge waves around me. The first 200 metres were horrible, and it took me an hour to finish the 2-km swim,” he says.
“I covered up in cycling and running though, and at the finish line, I knew I wanted to do more of these. I’ve done 11 half Ironmans since,” he adds.
The work-training balance was ideal in Hyderabad, but when better opportunities came calling, Samarth relocated to Thanjavur and then Hubli; each shift leaving him less time to train and compete. Over time, he realised that his goals were different, and quit his well-paying job to shift back to Nagpur.
Back to training
The comfort of home pushed Samarth back into training after almost two years. To spread the word on fitness, he started organising runs and duathlons under the Prohealth Foundation banner that he had set up a few years ago. Around the same time, he started indulging in brevets (long-distance cycling of 200kms or more). After routinely finishing 200-km routes in seven hours, his name became well-known in the cycling circuit.
His racing career started when a friend signed him up for the 2015 Deccan Cliffhanger, a 600-km cycling race between Pune and Goa, which is also a qualifier for RAAM. Samarth learnt about his registration just weeks before the race.
“My first step into ultra-cycling was by sheer accident. I had no idea what to expect, didn’t have a clue about strategy or crewing,” Samarth laughs.
“The adventure was what attracted me to it; riding on highways, climbing at night and dealing with the afternoon heat. I finished in fifth place, though I could have bagged the third spot had we not got lost en route,” he recalls.
After the Deccan Cliffhanger, Samarth met RAAM race director Fred Boethling. Hearing more about the race and researching further, Samarth realised it would be impossible to complete RAAM alone.
“RAAM is a community project, not one man’s job. Besides, I didn’t have a full-time job or savings, since participation demanded around Rs 80 lakh. So I decided to put it on the backburner at that time,” he says.
However, on the suggestion of a friend, Samarth decided to crew cycling legend Seana Hogan, an eight-time RAAM finisher.
“It was a great learning experience – how the race was supposed to be done and if I even wanted to do it,” he says.
Once he had made up his mind, Samarth created a pool of supporters to back him emotionally and financially. While preparing for RAAM, he finished his first full Ironman in Busselton, Australia, and also pulled off a 1,000-km brevet from New Delhi to Wagah border and back. Once he finished the 2,600-km ride from Nagpur, he knew he could take on RAAM the next year.
One in one
Two months before participating in RAAM, which was scheduled for June 2017, Samarth moved to the USA to get a feel of the riding conditions. After training for a month in Boulder, he moved to West Virginia to tackle a 450-km hill stretch that would come late in the race. Samarth was well prepared in the days before the race.
“They say getting to the starting point of RAAM is a massive feat in itself. If you’ve trained at a level that brings you there, you are already a hero. For me though, it was a do-or-die situation. My mother too told me that I had to get this race done since I had a huge responsibility towards those who had backed me,” he says.
However, just a few days into the race Samarth faced his first major obstacle in the deserts of Arizona.
“Though Nagpur is a hot place, this was different. The moment you perspire, it evaporates in an instant, leaving you severely dehydrated. I tried to ride again after a break, but I could barely go 500 metres. I lost almost 45 minutes in recovery,” he says.
To make matters worse, Samarth erred by drinking ice cold water that left him with a sore throat and fever. For the next couple of days, he continued biking by using antibiotics to keep the fever in check. But before he recovered from the illness, he was met with a storm in West Virginia and had to ride in a heavy downpour for 12 hours.
“The effort really drained him. To add to it, he was sleep deprived. He really started feeling it. At one point, he just stopped and said he needed to sleep. What I realised during those last few days was that he was shutting down at night – in a complete daze and distressed – but as the sun came out, he was good to go. So I ensured he got his rest at night, which eventually helped him pull through,” says Nayak.
However, more trouble followed towards the end of the race as Samarth was completely disoriented.
“He had to deal with a sinking feeling and kept blabbering: ‘The race will be over soon. What will we do after this’. We had to cajole and distract him to get him over the finish line,” Nayak adds.
When he finally completed the race, Samarth became the first Indian to finish RAAM on the first attempt in 11 days 21 hours. He was just three hours behind compatriot Srinivas Gokulnath, who finished RAAM on his second try.
“You get many accolades when you finish RAAM, but I believe that it is just the beginning. RAAM has a massive impact on your mind – you will never be the same person again. It’s life-changing,” Samarth says.
The biggest challenge
Samarth was not just looking to achieve personal goals by completing RAAM. He also wanted to give his city mates from Nagpur an inspiring story they could relate to and emulate.
With a major milestone achieved, he decided to focus on a different challenge. The moment he heard of the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, Samarth knew he had found a race that would test his limits. The 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme is a gruelling 9,100-km stage race that starts on 24th July in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok on 17th August.
Having resumed his training routine, Samarth completed another three half Ironmans while also winning the 2017 Deccan Cliffhanger.
“I’ve done 5,000 kms just a year ago, so the endurance and muscle memory is there. For this race, I focussed a lot on speed, hill climbing, strength training and recovery,” Samarth says.
To train for the climbs at the Trans-Siberian Extreme – a mind-numbing cumulative ascent of 79,000 metres – Samarth regularly took on the hills around Nagpur and rode 600 kms in June between Leh and Drass on a route recce for the Great Himalayan Ultra.
“Before RAAM, his sole focus was to simply finish the distance he had planned on riding, and he did it through sheer willpower. There was no meticulous planning involved since we didn’t have any previous race to compare his rides with. So it was simply a lot of trial and error,” says Devnath Pillai, who has been crewing Samarth since 2015 and is part of his two-man team in Russia, alongside Chetan Thate.
“For this race, I saw that he wasn’t [training with] the extraordinary long distances he had done before. He instead chose to maintain a particular speed over a certain distance and finish it off in a given time. Precision training with a focus on nutrition has been the key,” Pillai adds.
Besides a physio and a community of fitness enthusiasts, the 38-year-old Samarth has no professional help. His mother Vijaya and wife Mukul are his biggest supporters, rising at odd hours to cater to his training regime and diet.
While the funding for RAAM came mostly through individual sponsors, a number of corporates have stepped in to back him for the Trans-Siberian Extreme; which speaks volumes of their confidence in his abilities.
“My success is Nagpur’s success, so the idea is always to do my best. After many years, I finally feel confident in what I am capable of. If I can motivate people by crossing the finish line in Russia, I’ll give it everything to make it possible,” he says.
No Indian has attempted the Trans-Siberian Extreme before, and Samarth hasn’t covered such a monstrous distance in the past. But each time there was a new challenge, he jumped right in to give it his best shot. For Samarth, the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme should be no different.