By Clare Morin
One thing was strikingly clear during the pre-race day in the sunny town of San Pedro de Atacama: there was an extraordinary number of flags on view. There are no less than 37 nationalities taking part in this year’s Atacama Crossing, and among them are two racers who hail from India, a country that has been rarely represented in the 4 Desert series.
We meet the two pioneers, Michelle Kakade and Sumanth Cidambi, as they sit in the lobby of the hotel La Casa de Don Tomas. It’s 9am and both are filled with excitement at the prospect of moving into the desert.
Michelle is no newcomer to making history amid desert sands. The 42-year old made headlines last year when she was the first person from India to participate in, and complete, the Marathon des Sables. She says it was while out in the Sahara Desert that the idea of competing in a 4 Deserts race came to her. “I was wearing 4 Deserts gaiters there and someone asked which ones I had done,” she reminisces. “I got curious about these events and started finding out more.”
The housewife and mother of two from Pune first started running at the age of 35. She embarked on marathons and half-marathons, but says it was the ultramarathon that made a big impact on her, “My rankings improved,” she says. “I found that taking part increased my mental strength, and that has improved my results.”
Sumanth Cidambi also started running in his mid-30s. “At the time I weighed 106kg, and now I am 78kg,” explains the 40-year old. “I could not walk one kilometer without getting breathless. Through running, I have learned discipline, patience, and how to become a more self-contained person.”
Sumanth was born in Chennai, but has lived on various continents in the past 15 years. He currently lives in Hyderabad, where he is the CFO of a cooperative that provides support and improvements for the Human Development Index of India’s rural sector. The idea of a 4 Deserts race came to him one day through his email.
“About a year ago, a friend of mine sent an email asking if I would be interested in taking part in the 4 Deserts events,” he says. “I have run a few marathons before and got immediately interested. This is a birthday present for myself.”
When asked why they think there have been few competitors from India taking part in the 4 Deserts series, they point out that ultramarathons are still relatively unknown in the country. “Also, entries are pricey,” points out Michelle. “In India, a lot of sports are related with prize money, for example, tennis and cricket.”
“I’d say it’s mainly a lack of awareness, cost and a lack of infrastructure,” adds Sumanth. “I bought all my gear from RacingThePlanet's store because there are not many running shops in India. People see running more of a weight loss method than fulfillment,” he adds. “To me running is a very powerful drug.”
Both agree that their main mission now that they are here in Chile is to savor and enjoy the experience. “There is no time goal, says Sumanth. “The objective is to enjoy.” But they also share a deep desire to take this challenge further – and ultimately join the 4 Deserts Club. In doing so, they will no doubt inspire a new generation of Indian competitors to follow in their footsteps.