A month after his son took second place in the amateur men’s category at the Mumbai marathon in January this year, Subedar Major Ahamed Baig still isn’t done sharing the news. “Dad was just really happy. He was calling everyone and messaging them. Just spreading the news that his son has finished so well. Even now since the race, he’s actively doing that,” grins Nihal.
It’s not unusual for parents to take pride in their children’s accomplishments, and Nihal has had a few of them in recent weeks. Before winning the Mumbai marathon silver, which came with a new personal best of 2.28.17, he stood first at the Ironman 70.3 Goa (triathlon) in October last year in 4:29:45, which incidentally was a historic first for an Indian in that event. At the Goa race, competitors marvelled at his relentlessness over the 1km swim, 90km cycle and 21.3km run. Indeed, the 29-year-old from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, is now seen as one of India’s best endurance athletes.
Just a few years ago, though, the senior Baig had his doubts over Nihal’s sporting ambitions. He wasn’t the only one either. “There were plenty of people who went ‘kya kar raha hai tu?”(what are you doing?). The thinking was: running is fine but what about your career? I actually had that same conversation with my father as well. When I look back, I can understand his concerns,” recalls Nihal.
The itch to run
Back in 2017, most would have thought Nihal had a promising corporate career clearly mapped out. He had graduated and then done a masters in aeronautical engineering from IIT Bombay, one of India’s most prestigious technical institutes. And he held a coveted job as a risk management analyst at Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI), a top investment finance company. Everything seemed perfect.
Yet something gnawed at Nihal. “I knew I had to run again,” he recalls thinking.
Nihal didn’t always dream of athletics. In fact, his interest in sport only seriously started when he first entered the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. The son of an army man, Nihal grew up in Guntur. The focus for the most part was studies. “I was competitive but that was something you’d mostly see in the classroom. I always wanted to be top of the class. I honestly didn’t think a great deal about sports in school. I mean, I took part in the school athletics meets in 100, 200m but even then I wasn’t the fastest in the class,” he recalls.
At IIT, though, undergraduates are expected to do one of three extra curricular activities – sports, social service or the NCC – and Baig decided to chose the first option. “I actually wanted to be a sprinter at first. But I realised right away that you need to be god-gifted to be that kind of sprinter. I wasn’t that guy. Then I tried other distances 800m, 1500m and 5000m and I realised I’m pretty good at it,” he says.
The nature of middle and long-distance running suited Nihal just fine. “I might not be the most talented but I can work really hard. To be a good runner over those distances, you need a combination of hard work and consistency and I could do that even in college. And when I did that, I realised I was one of the fastest middle-distance runners in my college,” says Nihal, who would go on to win multiple gold medals in the inter-IIT athletics meets.
Baig’s newly discovered enthusiasm for running didn’t interfere with his studies. In his first year, he won the undergraduate research award at IIT Bombay, and went on to graduate with a 8.0 GPA. “When I worked out, it didn’t hamper my studies as much because, I guess, I’ve always been a sharp student. I used to grasp things really quickly. I’d spend a few hours and grasp those theories. It wasn’t an issue managing grades and sports. In general, the atmosphere in IIT is something where you are expected to do something or the other throughout the day. For me it was research or sports. I used to be really tired after some workouts but I never felt that it hampered me in any way,” he says.
By the time he graduated, Nihal was a competent runner. And he thought that was the end of that road for him. “Once I graduated and started working, I didn’t have the intention to pursue sports seriously. It was still important but I just thought I have to stay fit and focus on my work. I did that for the first year of my job. I also knew I couldn’t do the track events any more so I thought I’d keep my fitness up and maybe run a half-marathon. I also got a cycle because I always had this desire to commute to office on a cycle. Because I had a good cardio from running, I figured I could replicate that fitness,” he says.
He got into running half-marathons too. He didn’t have any great success at first – he clocked an hour and 40 minutes in his first race. Far from being discouraged, the modest timing motivated him. “I thought let me try and see if I can run in 1 hour and thirty minutes. That became one hour and twenty minutes,” he says.
Indeed the itch to do more never went away. “I was getting better and I was fit but I felt one day I need to challenge myself a little more. I had covered all these distances but that competitiveness to push myself hadn’t gone. It never left me. I was still in touch with that. I felt I should push myself and [see] how far I can go. Gradually, I kept trying more and more. Around 2017, I thought maybe (I should) give a try in triathlon. That’s when I started learning swimming. I didn’t know swimming at this point. I started swimming in late 2016-2017, that’s how I ended up competing in the triathlon as well,” he recalls.
But while Nihal had realised he wanted to chase his passion, there was concern from those close to him. “I had that conversation with my dad. He wasn’t very sure. But once I told him how serious I was and how this was what I wanted to do, he backed me completely,” says Nihal.
With his family in his corner, Nihal’s next task was balancing his job with sporting goals. “I took my time trying to understand how to work around my job. It was only after I did an hour-and-twenty-minute half-marathon did I feel I could balance my training and work and compete seriously,” he says. Having multitasked in college, Nihal says he is able to do so once again.
“Right now I’m managing it pretty well. Things fell in place after I started prioritising my workouts. I do my workouts and then go to the office,” he says.
Working from home
The fact that he has made sports his priority has narrowed his choices at work somewhat. “I’ve worked at my company from the start. My team and my manager are really understanding and know I like to focus on my sports. They’ve just started asking people to come to office but I asked my manager if it’s O.K. to work from home. I go once a month to my office in Mumbai but I don’t have to go twice a week like some of the other employees. I’ve never felt like leaving the job because I have to get accustomed to the new environment and role and that might affect my training. But I’m pretty happy with my job,” he says.
One major concession Nihal has got from his office is the ability to work remotely from Pune since that’s where he trains. “In Pune, I have a lot of time in the morning. I log in around 12pm. I have enough time to do my workouts in the morning, have a good meal, do stretching and recovery. It’s usually morning workouts and in the evening, I do cross training or strength training. It’s all at home. I do a lot of mobility and strength sessions, body weight at home. If I’m training for marathon, I’m training every day but in a triathlon, it is 12 sessions a week plus 3-4 strength sessions and a lot of mobility and stretching each day,” he says.
While Nihal moved to Pune in order to train alongside a strong community of triathletes and runners there, he is mostly self-coached. “I’ve always been someone who has been very analytical. So I see what works for me and how I react to things. I’ve been doing trial and error. I listen to my body. I see how my body responds to stress and modify my workouts accordingly. It’s going really well for the most part,” he says.
‘Just like life’
The hours are gruelling and it’s not always easy to find the right balance between sport and passion. But over the years, Nihal has found himself steadily improving. And when all of it comes together in a race, it seems worth it for Nihal. “I really do enjoy racing. The thing I like most is when I am pushing [myself], and someone – especially a fellow athlete – cheers for you. That’s when I feel pumped up. You feel you are suffering but you are suffering together. There are days when running is pleasant and enjoyable and there are days when it’s hot and your mind is telling you to slow down and stop. You get those dull moments and you get those joyful moments as well. It is about 80 percent grinding, 10 percent dull moments and 10 percent joy. It’s just like life actually,” he says.
But it’s the 10 percent of joyful moments that keeps Nihal going. “After the race, there are times when you think ‘ arre yaar, I have to go back to office tomorrow. But there’s no way around it. I know for a fact that I need to pay for my passion. My (triathlon) bike, running shoes aren’t going to pay for themselves. and myself. There are a few times where the work isn’t as great as you want it to be but it’s all right. There are dull moments at work, but there are dull moments in training, in racing and in life. Most days I look forward to my work but there are a few days where I’m exhausted. [I make a choice]: ‘Do I need to log in right now or can I push it away by another half hour?’ If the work isn’t hectic, sometimes I do that. Even if I start late, I can complete the work on time. There are both moments. There are days where I look forward to it and there are days when I just want to rest,” he admits.
There is little rest though. Either at work or as an athlete. “There are moments of happiness when you finish a race. You feel joy but you know there are areas you have to improve on. Once I cross the finish line, the race is done and the numbers are out, you feel good on winning but you have to channelise that into training and see how far you can go,” he says.
For Nihal, that means improving even more. He plans on competing at the New Delhi Marathon in the end of February and improving his personal best. “I didn’t have a lot of time to train for the Mumbai marathon because I was still recovering from the Goa Ironman. I was actually in the lead group but developed cramps around the 35km mark which caused me to slow down. But I’ve been able to train a lot better for the New Delhi Marathon. I’ve had a few leaves from my office so I used them for my preparation. I’m really hoping to do another personal best in Delhi,” he says.
And then there are the Ironman World Championships in Finland in August this year which he qualified for by virtue of winning the Ironman 70.3 in Goa last year.
“I did a personal best of 4:29:45 in Goa but there were areas where I could have done better. I want to see if I can go closer to four hours. It’s a dream to go under four hours if possible. I would want to go sub-four hours at some point in my career,” he says.
A role model
While he has got personal goals, Nihal has become something of a role model for many in his work fraternity as well. “I have some college batch-mates who had stopped running after starting their jobs. A few of them have restarted (running). They say that they get motivated looking at my performances and achievements. It feels good that I’ve been able to get them on track as well,” he says.
Nihal is planning to double down on his athletic pursuits. “I’ve actually started coaching. I coach a lot of runners and triathletes. That helps me as well because I get to share my knowledge and learn from their habits and what issues they are facing. That’s actually something I want to do [in the] long term,” he says.
Indeed, Nihal says he can’t fathom returning to a regular office job.
“I’ve thought about it, and to be very honest, I can’t go into a regular 9-5 job. I still go to office once in a while just so I can keep in touch with regular people who might not share my passion. But I personally see myself staying connected to sports for a long time.
I want to keep competing for as long as I can. I’ve no idea how things will go but right now I don’t see a stopping point. Just the journey is interesting for me.”
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