Ironman World Championship 2022: Chennai athlete makes history

Raghul Sankaranarayanan, India’s fastest Ironman, is now the first athlete from the country to qualify through rankings for the Ironman World Championships

Raghul Sankaranarayanan, India’s fastest Ironman, is now the first athlete from the country to qualify through rankings for the Ironman World Championships

It was a cold, rainy April morning in Port Elizabeth, South Africa where 800 contestants waited for the Ironman race to begin. The start of the race was postponed and the swimming section of the race was cancelled due to inclement weather and the sea temperature, which had dipped to 16 degrees Celsius. The race was now whittled down to a 180 kilometre cycling leg and a 42.2 kilometre run.

Raghul Sankaranarayanan, India’s fastest Ironman triathlete, was amongst only eight Indians participating.

Every Ironman is a battle of the mind and body. The physical and mental strain put on the body while swimming 3.8 kilometre, cycling 180 kilometre and running 42.2 kilometre is brutal.

The pandemic, however, made this race additionally challenging for Raghul. “The strict lockdown left us with almost no training except for indoor cycling… In May, 2021 I was infected by the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus and all the years of training and fitness I had built went down the drain.”

He took two weeks off after recovery, and I started training again. “I remember sitting on my indoor cycle and doing about 50 to 65% of my usual power output when my heart rate hit the ceiling. I was shocked to see the impact that covid had on my general health and my cardiovascular system. I had lost around 5.5 kg of muscle mass.”

The South African race is etched clearly in Raghul’s mind. He recollects, “I was trembling with the cold and I wasn’t ready to start. After hesitating for 20 minutes, I checked outside the tent to find none of the other athletes in sight. I grabbed my bike and started out… For the first few kilometres I didn’t see any of the other athletes but after a few kilometres I started overtaking them.”

His late start ultimately did not matter, for he managed a feat that no Indian had before.

The athlete managed a feat that no Indian had before
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For context: there are a few routes to qualifying for the World Championships. One way is to get an honorary slot which is meant for athletes who have completed more than 12 Ironman races in their career, regardless of their rankings and placements in the races. Another route is to raise money for a charitable cause which could also get you a slot to participate provided the amount raised and the charity it was raised for met the guidelines set by the Ironman body.

While there are different routes to qualify, Raghul chose the toughest by finishing in the top few ranks in an international Ironman competition.

The athlete with his coach

The athlete with his coach
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Pedal power

The downhill sections were especially dangerous for cyclists with high cross winds and slippery wet roads. Raghul says, “My legs were warm but not the body. The visor on my helmet was getting misty. Heavy winds meant that cycling fast at my usual pace wasn’t possible but I just focussed and pedalled as powerfully as I could.”

Raghul says, “The high winds and rain made it very difficult to pedal and my lower back and legs started feeling the strain quite early into the race. I was however determined to turn in a good performance this time as this was the race that would decide whether I qualified for the annual Ironman World Championships to be held at Kailua Kona, Hawaii on October 8, 2022.”

Despite missing grabbing a bottle of water at the last aid station at the 160 kilometre mark, which meant his next drink would be only after the bike ride and two kilometres into the marathon run, Raghul managed to complete the cycling section with the aid of the salt capsules and gels. With this and a strong tailwind he put in his best timing for the last 20 kilometre of the cycling section.

When he began to run Raghul says he was feeling good. “The transition was smooth and I started running at a fast pace. Everything was going well till I started cramping at the fourth kilometre mark. This came as a shock to me and I just came to an abrupt stop. A lot of things were going through my mind. I asked myself “is this the end of the race?”. I had a salt capsule, massaged my cramps and after two minutes resumed running. I kept my focus for the next few kilometres. I wasn’t willing to give up. I just kept running to keep up with the target I had set for myself.” I waved at my coach Lucie Zelenkova who was there to support me.”

Raghul maintained a good pace till the halfway mark when he says his legs locked and he had to come to a dead halt. “I had to lean on a barricade for support and it took me more than three minutes to gather myself. There were many times in the past where I would lose focus around this part of the race but this time I was determined that I would run the fastest I could to complete the race.”

Raghul finished 68th amongst a field of 800 which was a creditable performance, though he is not happy with his timings. His coach Lucie Zelenkova, who represented the Czech Republic in the 2004 Athens Olympics and is a former winner of Ironman South Africa and Barcelona, was pleased however, and said that many athletes were also challenged by the harsh conditions of that day.

Championships beckon

The day after the race Raghul was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from the Ironman organisation saying that he had qualified for the annual World Championships. The Championships in Hawaii will be Raghul’s ninth Ironman in eight years.

A professional trainer for long distance runners, cyclists and triathletes, Raghul has trained over 400 athletes over the past seven years and also runs ‘RI Diet Fix’, a brand of meal smoothies. Right now, he is training for Hawai. “I was ecstatic when I received the email. From the year 1978, the year when the Ironman triathlon was born, to now, no one from India had ever qualified for the World Championships by virtue of rankings,” he says, adding “I am going to race with the cream of triathletes in the most prestigious Ironman race in the world.”