In May this year, 45-year-old Sridhar Venkatesh chugged through the mountainous, partly wooded terrain of the Rinjani volcano trail in Lombok, Indonesia. It was supposed to be a 36-hour non-stop ultra-marathon with participants carrying their own equipment and food. The route followed a winding 100-kilometre path starting with a summit of the 10,748-foot volcano amidst the clouds and then over three smaller peaks. As his shoes padded on the soft alluvial soil, Venkatesh, was troubled by the height, but the cool air and the overpowering pleasure of why he kept doing this, hit him nonetheless.
“I chose Rinjani because it combined a trail run with altitude and I wanted to get more experience with both,” he says. “A big incentive was not just taking on the challenge, but to experience running in different terrains and under different conditions.” Though he didn’t make it to the half-way mark in time, and, as a result didn’t finish the race, he is determined to run it again. “I really loved it,” he says. It’s one of eight marathons that Venkatesh, founder of the tech start-up Indix, has travelled for in the past decade—including Korea, Cambodia, Italy and Sri Lanka. Usually once a year, he takes off to do a marathon or a trail run in a different part of the world.
It all started in 2007, when the San Diego-born-and-bred Venkatesh, moved to Chennai with his wife and three sons, for work. Those were still early years for the marathon culture in India, and he ended up with a group of friends who decided they would do a marathon every year. As people started to move out of Chennai, planning to run marathons in cities that friends had moved to became a natural choice. They’d pick a place, pick a date and train towards that goal together even though they were scattered across locations. “It was a way to keep in touch and keep the spirit going,” he says. And so the families would meet, run and spend time together. Though Venkatesh had always run and swum, the calcifying of running as a group activity propelled him towards more serious running challenges: the ultra-marathons or foot races longer than the usual 42-kilometre length.
Last year he ran the Marathon des Sables, a 250-kilometre multi-stage race through the Moroccan desert, often described as the toughest foot race on earth. Running through the dusty, unforgiving sands in 40°C-plus daytime temperatures was enervating, but a completely different way of experiencing the country. “City marathons tend to be road races, but I like looking for something that I can’t do at home,” he says. This one too was “self-supported” which meant runners had to carry their own packs for the duration of the week-long run: sleeping bag, gear, food. They’d pitch up for the night in tents set up for them by the organisers. They even had to endure a sandstorm, aside from garden variety muscle pains.
“When you are running for seven days with the same group and suffering with them, you tend to get very close very quickly,” he says, of his first experience of a self-supported race. And over time, running different races across the world fosters a sense of community. “You see a lot of the same people, it’s very collegial.” He has next set his sights on running the Grand to Grand Ultra in the U.S.—from the edge of the Grand Canyon to the top of the Grand Summit from Utah through Arizona. With a route that winds through dunes and tablelands, it promises the kind of diverse terrain that Venkatesh is in keen pursuit of.
Though his usual routine in Chennai is just training by running along the highway, this sort of “marathon tourism” through forests, hills and deserts sharpens the pleasures to be had from hitting sole to road.
And in India, Auroville ranks amongst his favourite places to run. “It’s wooded and the people are really friendly and there’s a nice energy to the place,” he says. Venkatesh’s passion for open-water swimming, surfing and the outdoors in general, has tended to determine his and the family’s holiday choices. “Our travel is pretty active and we aren’t big on sightseeing or going to museums,” he says.
Travelling through a new city is one thing, but really tapping into a city’s soul is quite another. And for Venkatesh, running—whether in a marathon or simply on the pavement—is one way of thrusting oneself towards discovering its beating heart. “Even if I’m travelling for work, just to be able to run through a place in the morning is special,” he says. “When it’s 5 a.m. in a new city and you go for a run, and see the city waking up, it’s a different way of looking at a place.”