A Master’s degree in law led to many firsts for Captain Avinash Chimanka (Retd). Until then, his only exposure to the world of sports was during the track and field events back at school in Cuttack. Once he moved to Delhi, he took on distance cycling as part of 200-300km brevets and towards the end of 2012, clocked a sub-two-hour timing at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon.
But once back home in 2013, he realised that the amateur sporting culture was missing around him. On a whim, he co-founded the Cuttack Cyclists club with Sanjog Sahu to ride alongside like-minded folks. And a few months later, he organised his first running event that featured everything from bibs to certificates and medals.
For the next six years, he served the Indian Army, where he continued chasing his personal running goals. On his release in 2019, he returned to Cuttack, where he continued to grow what he had started.
Today, Avinash dons many hats – that of a determined ultra-runner, a passionate promoter of running and cycling, and a dedicated coach to those who dream of chasing their goals, just like him.
On the first few practice runs in 2012, Avinash realised that he had maintained a good level of fitness. The focus back then was on duration, rather than distance or speed. But the fact that he could run effortlessly for over an hour encouraged him to sign up for a half marathon, rather than attempt shorter distances as a first race.
“I not only had the ability to run, but I could also run faster than others. It was a big deal to clock one hour 51 minutes during my first half marathon, really encouraging,” Avinash says.
Even after he joined the legal wing of the Indian Army, Avinash continued training during his postings in Leh and Chandigarh. A longer stint in Shimla handed him the opportunity to target specific races. It was also where he found a training partner in Parul Singhal.
“Even back then, he had a very professional approach towards any event. His goals were clear and he had a solid plan to get there. It was all very calculated – everything from the speed to train at and the kind of nutrition that was needed to fuel the runs,” Parul says.
It was only in 2016 that Avinash could run his next timed event. But the Army life had made him stronger. Besides, he knew what a half marathon had in store and he pulled it off with ease. Just a year later, he finished second on the podium at the Tuffman Shimla Ultra (30km).
“I still wasn’t following a systematic training routine, though I was quite consistent. My aim was never to be just a finisher – the podium was always my target and this was a good start,” he says.
After soaking in the experience of running half marathons around the country and another one in Malaysia, Avinash looked to attempt his first marathon. In August 2018, he clocked 4 hours 11 minutes at the Hyderabad Marathon. He considers it to be his toughest run till date.
“It was an entirely different game, more so in Hyderabad where the weather and elevation make it extremely difficult. I blazed through the first half, but walked-ran the rest of it,” he recalls.
However, there was something about going the distance that had his attention. He started reading about ultra-running and attempted his first run – 60km at the Kolkata Ultra – in December 2018.
“It was the first time I had planned and strategized a run and managed to finish sixth. I realised that if I trained well, I could certainly do better. That was the turning point in my running journey,” he says.
While he continued running the shorter races, his long-term goals were solely focussed on running ultra-marathons. In January 2019, he started training under running coach, Nivedita Samanta. By September, Avinash’s tenure with the Short Service Commission of the Indian Army came to an end. He realised it was time to focus on some solid objectives.
Avinash jumped into a dedicated six-day workout routine and would train thrice a day. It featured everything from slow-easy and medium-long runs, speed workouts, long runs, cross training, strength workouts and yoga sessions. He would log big distances over the weekend, while most Mondays were dedicated to recovery. The day would start out with stretches and yoga, afternoons were for strength and mobility workouts, and most runs were scheduled for the evening.
The training seemed to be on point when he took top spot during his first 100km at the Border Ultra in December 2019. Two years later, he attempted a 100-miler at the same event and this time around, finished second.
“I had about seven months to train for the 100km and my coach said it would be difficult, yet not impossible. When I finished, there was this sense of achievement as I was still on my feet,” he says.
To prepare for the 100-miler, he ran 70-100km every month under different conditions around the country.
“A few didn’t take me seriously before the 100-miler. In fact, they didn’t even expect me to finish. Those two runs have been milestones in my running journey,” he says.
Just three months later in March 2022, Avinash ran his second 100 miler at the Indian Backyard Ultra where he clinched third position. But alongside his personal achievements, his ambition was also to grow the nascent running scene in Odisha.
Today, he manages the Tamasha Project through which they organise running and cycling events, besides any other activity that has a fun and fitness element to it. As a trained mountaineer, he’s taken people hiking and organised recreational camps where participants can experience running, swimming and kayaking.
The Cuttack Cyclists community is 500-rider-strong today, even as the Cuttack Runners platform launched by him continues to grow through weekly bootcamps that are complemented with strength training and yoga sessions. Last year, they organised Run Cuttack Run in August, besides the first timed half-marathon in December.
“It’s my way of giving back to the community. The idea is to expose others to the outdoors rather than just talk about it, because only then will they take their first step and know what it’s all about,” he says.
He has also started grooming other ultra-runners through his platform, Run with Shera. One of his four students, Ravi Purohit, reached out to him in 2021, and has made great gains ever since.
“At the Dandeli Ultra, I ran 75km and clocked around 13 hours. After that race, I started training with Avinash while targeting 100km. In October 2022, I pulled off that distance in 13 hours 30 minutes. It’s a remarkable improvement,” Ravi says.
Ravi also attempted his second Tata Mumbai Marathon in January 2023. While he clocked five hours in 2019, this time around, he managed to finish in 3 hours 50 minutes, having been coached by Avinash.
“His goal-oriented training makes a huge difference. For 100km runs, it’s more slow and steady running and greater mileage each week, while for marathons, it’s more speed workouts. He insists on never running more than 60-70% of the total distance that I’m targeting. The biggest difference is the mental approach to running – I am much stronger today,” Ravi adds.
While Avinash has enjoyed donning the role of a coach, he insists that the learning has been both ways.
“It takes a lot to graduate to 100km. Ravi is really disciplined and follows every plan minutely. So when he ran 100km, I was glad to have trained someone who finished it with a smile and without getting injured. Training runners like him has been a dream come true,” Avinash says.
In June 2023, Avinash has his mind set on running the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. As part of his preparation, he is working on his fitness training through the Red Bull January Jumpstart campaign with a plan to run the Kolkata Full Marathon in February and 60km at the Ooty Ultra in April.
“If you train systematically and remain injury-free, you do aspire to get faster. But it’s all relative as you don’t know what will happen on race day. The dream is to be the best ultra-runner in the country someday,” he says.