Nishad Singh should never have been a runner. Asthmatic and naturally slow, 15-year-old Singh bitterly resented timed runs in middle school; the last thing on Singh’s list of aspirations should have been a masochistic slog through 100 miles. But Singh certainly seems drawn to the counterintuitive—after attempting and completing the Silicon Valley half marathon at the age of 12, he proceeded to join the Crystal Springs Uplands cross-country team and succeed in running 50 miles. Singh now prepares for his biggest challenge yet: the “Run de Vous” ultra marathon, 100 miles set in San Martin around a two mile loop on August 20-21, 2011. If he succeeds, Nishad will become only the second under-16 runner in the U.S., not to mention the first one of Indian origin, to complete a 100-mile foot race.
“It’s definitely a daunting task,” said Singh. “Especially when donors are waiting to see how you’ll do. Personal confidence plays a big role, too—I really want to do well for myself.”
This race, which can be likened to running four marathons back-to-back, will pose a myriad of intense physical and emotional tests involved with keeping the body in motion for more than 24 hours. Training for a 100-miler involves running no less than 30 miles a week, with a prolonged, 10-or-over mile run every two weeks. These runs are designed to accustom one’s muscle to continuous movement while preparing the mental state for the inevitable cramping and exhaustion, not to mention the emotional upheaval that one must overcome to complete the race. Although Singh has been training tirelessly with shorter runs, the crippling heat, coupled with bouts of dehydration, fatigue, and, in Singh’s case, asthma, will ensure the most trying day Singh has ever had.
Asthma, which directly impacts breathing, can keep most sufferers from any activity that involves exertion. Running with asthma requires intense discipline and meticulous preparation. Even a regular marathon would be a challenge for an asthmatic, let alone an ultra-endurance effort like the 100-miler.
Singh attributes much of his success to family inspiration. His coach and family friend, Rajeev Patel, is an accomplished runner; his mother, Anu Singh, caught the running bug from Patel after supporting him through a 100-miler and proceeded to run her first marathon in 2003. She continued her running career with marathons of varying length—50k, 50 miles, etc. As an active member of Asha For Education, a charity that helps raise money for children living in Kolkata slums and red light districts, Anu Singh provided the link between running and philanthropy, thus galvanizing her son’s mission to utilize the sport as a healthy and charitable outlet. She undertook the 2009 Lean Horse 100 mile race with the support of her coach, friends, and, surprisingly, Nishad, whose running career had not yet taken off.
“The race was crippling,” she said. “Nishad saw me at some of my lowest times—plus, it was long, hot, and boring. He stayed with me the whole time and even ran with me at the end, seeing me just collapse when it was over.”
Despite the clear challenges that an ultra-marathon posed, Nishad told his mom a few days later that he, too, wanted to run a 100-miler.
“I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” Singh recalled. “And he did! That’s the thing with Nishad—not only is he determined to do things right, but he’s thorough about it as well. I’m so proud of him.”
Singh’s unusual honesty about himself and his aspirations have allowed him to use his initial drawbacks to fully assess his capabilities. His brief forays into T-ball and AYSO soccer he admits to having been “slight disasters,” partly due to his asthma, which he described as “debilitating.”
“But I wanted to give being athletic a shot,” Singh said, “Even though my asthma got really bad sometimes, I know I was using it as a crutch, and that it was holding me back from things I could love.”
As he succinctly puts it in the blog he maintains, “1) I love running 2) I can’t run fast. I decided I would run—run slow but run longer. Thus the endurance athlete in me was born!”
His blog, titled “Ad Astra” or “to the stars,” documents his desire to give greater significance to his passion by running for a cause. Whether he’s writing about strategies for maintaining pace, systematic cramping, the power of an Oreo mid-race, or even his desperate hunt for a port-a-pottie, Singh gives voice to a mission that he emphasizes, “anyone can do. It takes minutes to email a foundation and tell them you’re interested. Doing what you love is great, but doing it for something bigger than just a personal passion is incredible.”
Over the course of about four years, Singh has built up a considerable running resume—one that includes running a 50k and the Ruth Anderson 50-mile race. Now, his latest goal of running 100 miles dwarfs his middle school objective—to “get fitter.” This race, created by Singh’s coach, will help him to raise money for his school’s scholarship program, another charitable cause that he says will “make it easier for deserving kids to attend Crystal Springs.” And for Singh, it’s no chore.
“I really love to run—I love the way it makes me feel. This isn’t running the mile, where it’s all nerves and hurt. It’s fun and it feels good—especially when you know you’re doing a favor for yourself.”
Nishad Singh completed the gruelling race in 28 hours and 48 minutes. After hurting his ankle at the 45-mile mark, Nishad ran the next 20 miles in his socks before switching to open-toed sandals. He is recovering well and “eating continuously,” says mom Anu, who adds, “I envy him. He is almost back to normal in just two days.”
Uttara Sivaram is freelance writer and will be a freshman at Stanford University this fall.