“One who sleeps by 9 pm, wakes up at 4 am, has two meals a day, says no to sugar in any form, has a resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute, runs five days a week with two days of strength training and one of rest — no Netflix, no Amazon Prime, no TV and climbs stairs.” Probably this would sound like a riot act, but this is the Twitter thread of 47-year-old Shajan Samuel, who had once weighed 94 kg with an indulgent and reckless lifestyle that literally left him breathless. So, he decided to run for his life. And today, at 68 kg he is an ultramarathoner, who has done 18 traditional marathons (42.2 km), 220 km once, 161 km thrice, 100 km six times and 50 km innumerable times. He has just turned brand ambassador for the Fit India movement.
Having toggled between edtech, a film production house and now a channel business head, this Pune-based professional, says he melted his work stress with food. “I travelled frequently on business and wasn’t mindful of all the food I was eating outside. Travelling across Kerala once, I gorged on Malabar parotas and deep-fried chicken daily. I had a passive lifestyle – eating, working and sleeping. Eating junk food, having aerated drinks, not exercising and wearing XXL clothes became the routine in my 30s. I didn’t even get a medical checkup done though I became obese and was clearly suffering from an emotional eating disorder,” says Samuel. By the time he was 39, he realised he couldn’t outrun a bad diet when he gasped for breath doing a 100-metre run, which he had taken up as minimal physical activity despite his weight. “Slowly, running became my mojo and with an equal focus on diet, nutrition and strength, I became an ultramarathon runner at the age of 42. I have completed 12/24/36 hour stadium runs, done the Singapore and Berlin marathons and on June 11, completed the ultimate human race in South Africa – the Comrades marathon, covering 87.7 km in 11.17 hours,” says Samuel.
Soon, life was not just about logging in milestones, it was about testing the limits of his endurance. In 2018, he completed three 100-mile runs back-to-back in a span of six months, with a best trail time of 28 hours. “I found that the human body has finite capacities, but the mind has infinite capacities. Sometimes a run can be very boring and lonely and you want to quit. It is like you are in a bubble but then there is the ecstasy of self-discovery,” says Samuel, who ran 650 km inside his house during the Covid pandemic. “I realised my body, not a BMW, is my status symbol. For long runs I rely on liquids, gels, bananas, water and oranges. Before a 100 km I will stack my fluid diet and carb load. In normal times, two meals a day are good enough for me,” he adds.
Dr Jayashree Todkar, bariatric surgeon and former Secretary, Obesity Surgery Society, says that when the body’s metabolic system is at a certain optimum level, then it responds to the voluntary efforts taken by the individual to bring his/her excess weight under control. “Obesity can be simple or complex. Ninety per cent of cases in India are unfortunately complex and associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, fatty liver, heart disease and so on. This adamant kind of obesity fails to respond to only external measures like diet and exercise,” says she. But Samuel, she says, was lucky to have fairly normal metabolism and was able to process calories to energy despite his excesses. Others may need medical interventions other than just diet or exercise.
But Samuel doesn’t consider himself blessed, he keeps working hard on his body, going for regular medical check-ups to map for any conditions that may emerge after his years of irresponsible living. He has had no sugar for the last nine years. “I used to gorge on pastries, cakes, ice cream and mishti doi. I began by reducing my sugar intake to 20 grams per day. Then I started drinking black coffee and stopped eating sweets. Refined and processed sugar can have long-term consequences and reduce energy levels significantly,” he says. His two measured meals are packed with salads, multi grain bread, grilled fish or chicken, apples and at times dry fruits. He wanted to avoid overeating after returning from work and thought sleeping early would be the best way to mitigate it. “I sleep by 9 pm, wake up at 4 am. Waking up early gives me the advantage of finishing my workouts before the mad chaos of the world sets in. Since I am a road runner, early morning traffic is generally less. Also the body and mind are receptive in the morning, and we can get optimal performance. Sleep is the most underrated pillar of good health and most important, so I don’t compromise on my sleep,” reasons Samuel.
He has an enviable resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute. “A low heart rate indicates superior level of cardiovascular capabilities. I follow a structured training calendar and use a lot of data to monitor my progress. There is a specific app in which I key in my training plan and execute it accordingly. I did 80 per cent of my training in the aerobic heart rate zone, which is a heart rate between 70 and 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate. This means I was always preparing at threshold levels. Adequate sleep, hydration, nutrition and strength training made my running more efficient. This has also controlled my stress levels; now I can just stay in the moment and not be deterred by the outcome. This also helps in improving heart rate,” he says.
The biggest competition to sleep, according to Samuel, comes from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. “I don’t have a television at home. Sleep is the reward for hard work and is non-negotiable for me. Also watching web series can be addictive, so I made that trade-off to be an ultramarathoner,” says Samuel. But he has more doable things in his arsenal. “I avoid taking lifts and climb stairs, which burns a higher number of calories and is a very good substitute for hill training. My best is climbing 750 stairs in 3.03 hours,” says Samuel, for whom benchmarking is not just a feat but a pledge to live healthy.