To bring in a milestone birthday, most people are likely to throw a party or splurge on something impractical, but Milind Soman decided to run a gruelling long-distance triathlon. “I was looking for something to make my 50th year memorable and of course it had to be a challenge,” says the model-turned-actor. The challenge here, to be specific, is the Ironman race, regarded by many as the toughest day-long sporting event in the world. It includes a 3.86 km swim, a 180.25 km bicycle ride, and a 42.2 km marathon run, which need to be completed in 17 hours without a break.
Soman finished the event held in Zurich last month with more than an hour to spare on the clock. He was one of four Indians who completed that race successfully but Soman’s age and celebrity has made him grab headlines. To those who have followed the annual Mumbai marathon, his latest feat does not come as a surprise. The actor has been a regular there right since 2004, even running barefoot for the last few years. Curiously, he has no fixed fitness routine. After running his first marathon, he says he simply set a long-term goal to maintain a level of fitness with which he could run a marathon at any time without having to specifically train for it.
These days, Soman is commonly seen in the Old Spice commercials. There, as well as in photographs, he looks to be in just as good shape as he was when he famously stepped sans shirt out of a wooden crate in singer Alisha Chinai’s pop video “Made in India”. Time may have added some salt to the pepper of his hair but the smooth, chiselled abs from the mid-1990s have survived. Whatever age you are, the challenges are the same, says Soman. “It helps to remember that at 50 you are emotionally and mentally much stronger than you were at 30. This is 90 per cent of the battle.”
If you hope to achieve Ironman-level fitness at a later stage in life, it is important to understand your current level of fitness and slowly build from there, observes the actor. An active lifestyle is the key to good health, in his opinion. His commitments as a celebrity make it harder to manage the time to train and prepare. So Soman prefers to create more flexible training programs. Instead of the 35 hours he was asked to set aside per week in preparation for the Ironman triathlon, he devised his own schedule of 14-15 hours per week. It took him 80 days to master his skills in cycling, swimming and running. He had to work hardest on the cycling component, having taken to it only this year. Pune-based Ironman trainer Kaustubh Radkar helped out by planning long rides and bike-heavy workouts.
For Soman, endurance sport is all about exploring the potential of body, mind and will. Some years ago, he began reading about people who ran barefoot including Shivnath Singh, the fastest ever Indian marathon runner, and Abebe Bikila, the first East African man to win a gold medal at the Olympics. In 2011, Soman quit his conventional disgust of putting naked feet on filthy roads and attempted running barefoot. “It was refreshing and almost effortless. It is not about the feet and legs anymore, but about the synchronous movement of the entire body, like a martial art movement, or a waltz.”
According to Soman, India has had no culture of fitness or sport for recreation and health. But he finds awareness and interest in the area has grown in recent years, with the increasing popularity of marathons and information in the media about the importance of an active lifestyle. In a time of fad diets and fickle exercise trends, Soman offers a bit of old-school advice that finally reveals his age. “Listen to your body. It is your best trainer.”
Man of steel
After five years and several successful attempts at the title, he began training other athletes for it. A sports scholarship took him to USA where he began studying exercises science and sports medicine. In such demanding events, not being completely physically ready is a nightmare, he says. “Ironman is such an unforgiving race that you will regret each missed workout during the actual race.” For most who aim for the title, swimming is usually their weakest area, according to the expert, who has also been a national swimming champion from 1995 to 2001.
Personally, Radkar likes to train three to six months for big races. Good old discipline and hard work are key components of training. Then come race-day nutrition and mental toughness. It is a good idea, he adds, to try a half Ironman to see what sort of shape you are in before deciding to compete. He now has plans to get at least 100 Indians to cross the finish line by 2020.
Radkar’s most challenging race ever came earlier this year in South Africa. “I really had to dig deep to get through the day.” Although second out of the water, he had consumed too much sea water which returned to haunt him in the form of frequent vomit throughout the bike section. The course itself was hilly, with headwinds and 30 degree temperatures, and finally a broken bike.
But that’s the beauty of Ironman, he notes. “You have to solve problems and stay in the moment.” He finished that race in just 13 hours and 32 minutes.