An architect's journey from the sole to her soul

Parul Sheth is an architect and an accomplished marathon runner,  who started training with former national marathon champion Savio D Souza, and graduated from a being non-runner to a marathoner. Her journey with the strides began in the 2005 edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. She achieved her personal best in the 2015 edition of the Mumbai Marathon.  Also a mother of two, Sheth manages to juggle her time between being a full time architect, a mother, a runner and an author. In this interview with Swetha Amit, Parul talks about her book The Running Soul, her journey as a runner and how she keeps herself constantly motivated.

Parul ShethThere is a story behind every runner. What inspired you to lace up and get into the stride?
I was going through a rough patch in my life at that time as I was suffering from a personal loss. Each day was becoming monotonous, dull and repetitive as nothing was really going for me. At that juncture, the Mumbai marathon came about. Since I always was the kind who liked to try out new things, I decided to give this a shot as it seemed like a good change. In fact I used to be regular at the gym and was quite committed as far as fitness was concerned. However due to my loss, I had taken a break for 4-5 months.

I started training along with two of my friends. But I missed running the first race as I didn't take it seriously in the initial stage and ended up going out for a long weekend instead.  However I trained hard for the next edition and ended up running my first half marathon in 2005. At that point in time, I didn't look at it as a conscious effort for therapy. It was just something I did in my quest to get back to fitness. Little did I realize how much running would be crucial in my healing process and how it would transform my life forever.

Any set back or a tragedy can turn anyones world upside down and result in losing their purpose in life. How did you manage to revive this purpose while many would have crumbled?
At that point in time it was a huge loss for me and I was left feeling helpless, not knowing what to do. My anchor was gone and I had become very negative about life. However as a person, I was not somebody who would get bogged down easily and shed tears.

Instead, I would try and see what could be the next best possible step. So with a lot of support, I decided that I needed to pick up the threads and get my routine life in order which included taking care of my kids, getting a job and regaining my fitness. Initially it was difficult but later things began to settle down slowly.  This practical approach towards life prevented me from wallowing in self-pity. In fact I didn't want any sympathy at all. All of us have our own issues and the way we deal with them is what makes us the people that we are today.

You have several marathons to your credit both in Mumbai and other cities. Which factor is more advantageous to pump up those strides - familiarity of a known terrain or the novelty of running a new trail?
I think every race is different and I have run each of them with a different purpose. For instance the Delhi marathon in 2014, where I got my best timing was a trial run for me to see if I could keep that distance and speed for the full marathon in Mumbai. It was a great run and I really enjoyed the Delhi weather.

The Satara Hill marathon in 2014 was to get over my phobia of hill running. I began running on smaller hills in Hyderabad last year which had a lot of flyovers. This year I decided to conquer the Ghats and that's how Satara happened. In fact when I was running downhill, the view was so breathtakingly beautiful that it blew me away. Running a new trail is challenging yet fun.

In Mumbai on the other hand, you know these roads really well and hence can pace yourself accordingly in a race.  For instance you are familiar with the turns, the slope in Peddar road and have a fair idea about the humidity factor. All this helps you plan your race and this familiarity factor definitely gives you a psychological edge on the race day. While some races are for the fun and enjoyment aspect, others are serious races where you want to achieve your personal best.

Parul ShethHow was the leap from running a half marathon to running the gigantic full marathon, which is double the distance?
It was intimidating for me initially. If you tell anyone running a 21km to start running 42km, it's like telling a first standard kid to give the 10th standard exams. In a school system, you gradually go step by step to get to the highest level. So after doing several half marathons, I was ready to move on to the full marathon.

I think runners know from within when they are ready to challenge themselves further either with the distance or the pace. I realize that as a runner that I was not getting any faster as after doing three - four races I was still getting a similar timing. I realized that I had maximised my speed and that I should now look at maximising my distance and migrate to 42km. Tomorrow if I see myself plateauing a marathon then I will try and run an ultramarathon. Either ways I will keep challenging myself.

You have mentioned as to how each race is different from the other and how every run imparts some important lessons. So which has been the most influential and unforgettable race you have run so far? And how has it changed your life?
The most unforgettable race was my full marathon last year in 2014 when I clocked it in 4 hours and 9 minutes which was my personal best so far. Now I realize that it's not really about the best timing but it's all about how I learnt about the measure of success in my life.  I learnt how to give my best by having a goal and a plan. My plan was to achieve my goal and there was this whole system of training which followed suite. This included all those hill sprints and tempo runs as a part of my training schedule.

I initially started with a goal of 4 hours 20 minutes and wanted to cut 10 minutes of my time from there. But as I started my training with my tempo run, I found that my fast finishes were happening quite easily and therefore upped the pace. Eventually I realised that I could push more. So for me, this has been a life changing experience where you can set a goal and achieve it when you put in hard work.  Success is all about giving your best in a marathon. I need to run each race at that optimum speed where I feel dead and that I will not be able to push more. I have to feel completely spent and that's when you realize that you have given it your best.

Sometimes the joy of running is lost in the stress to get a good timing. So how does one attain a fine balance between enjoying the run and not faring too badly with regards to clocking the race?
It's hard to attain that fine balance. So you need to identify your goals and prioritise accordingly. If your goal is to clock your personal best, then certain sacrifices have to be made. You need to focus on that goal and give up the fun part of the race. 

For instance, my friends had called me to run the Goa Marathon in December for fun which was to be followed with some celebration on Sunday night. I didn't opt for it as I would have lost a few days of training that way. It was too close to the Mumbai marathon which was very important to me. I could not afford to lose training at that point in time. So you need to prioritise the races that are important to you and those which are just fun runs.

How different is it from training all by yourself to training in a group? Since you have emphasized a lot on the 'me time' aspect, doesn't this get robbed off while training in a group?
Even when you are training as a group, at some point you tend to get into your own zone and there will be points when you end up running in your own space. Also there will be that one odd day when you couldn't make it with the group and those are the days when you find yourself running alone.  Sometimes when I feel the need for the 'me time', I just go for a run on my own.

What is your training schedule and diet like? Do you have ever have a lean period in your training?
My normal diet is the regular healthy food which includes, roti, vegetables, pulses, and low GI carbs like oats, bajra and jowar. During the training period, it becomes more protein based. Since I am a vegetarian, I rely on pulses, tofu, paneer (cottage cheese) and sprouts for protein. Right now post the big Mumbai marathon, I am going easy on my diet and indulging in a few sweets which I otherwise stay away from for the entire training period.

As per my training schedule, I run five days a week. On Tuesdays its interval training, Wednesdays its easy running, Thursdays it's the tempo run. On Saturdays we run 10-12 km to tire our legs for the run on Sunday. The reason for this is that during the marathon, post the 32km is when the 42km actually starts. The last 10km is the most important stretch in the race and that's what actually determines your timing. You either make it or break it at this stretch. So my entire training is geared towards this last 10 km. So if I do about 10 km on Saturday and do a 30km on Sunday, I am actually doing the marathon distance which helps me on the D day.

As far as the lean period is concerned, it is mostly in the month of May because of the weather, the holidays and also the fact that the mind and body need rest. We even run in the monsoons which I personally feel is the best time to run in Mumbai.

Running after a point tends to become monotonous for many people. So how do you keep yourself constantly motivated and challenged?
Running is considered monotonous because it's a repetitive activity. However what goes on in your brain during those runs can never be monotonous as each time you are looking at different things. It could be the view one time, the people around you the other time. So it's all about the way you interact with your surroundings each time that you run, which makes it interesting.

It could be a smile, a wave or a nod at fellow runners or people walking on the road. I personally don't believe that it is monotonous because if you end up running that particular 2km stretch million times, you are bound to notice something new every day whether it's that stone which has caught your eye or the new speed breaker which has been laid, etc. You also need to keep setting goals for yourself at every stage as mentioned before to avoid reaching that plateau.  Achieving those goals that you set for yourself can keep you constantly challenged.

Many women especially after embracing motherhood tend to lose focus and zest for a lot of things stating the 'lack of time' reason. What would be your advice to them?
I think this 'lack of time 'is the world's biggest excuse cited by many people. If you look at CEOs and all the high profile businessmen, they manage to make time for everything. While motherhood is important and I respect that, one needs to identify what is important to them. If it's important, then they will make time for it somehow or the other. It's all about prioritising ultimately. Motherhood can fulfil you up to a certain point, but one needs to find their goals in the process which will actually make them a more complete person.

Lastly, what are your future plans? Do you plan to write another book?
I would like to run a race abroad and do some international marathons. And yes, hopefully another book is on the cards soon.

(See: Book excerpt: The Running Soul)