Yes, he raced about 70 miles- first water, then on cycle, then on his own feet – in quick and seamless laps. Yes, he did it in extreme heat and inhospitable contours. Yes he did it in about eight hours. But that’s not what makes him a true Ironman. There’s a twist in this story- like every real hero encounters. Saddle up and read on.
The climax scene of Aamir Khan’s Blockbuster ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander’ always raises gooseflesh on that ultimate line which his brother shouts from the wings- ‘Sanju!!! Change your gears’.
It seems like a simple task. What does it take to change gears after all? But since we have watched Sanju battling delay after delay, being pulled aside the race-track for sudden fights with the bad boys, having fallen from his cycle on a hill rock, all drained and exhausted- we know what it means for him to change that gear.
His eyes are fixed on the finishing line. He has to time it perfectly or lose it all – his family’s hope, his champion brother’s dream and his own battle. He is peddling ruthlessly, vigorously and against all his exhaustion. Will he change the gear?
A contender today- a novice yesterday- A champ tomorrow
What made Sanju’s penultimate moment interesting and thrilling was the fact that he had absolutely no interest, or practice, in cycling just a few days back. While his rivals had been practising with the best coaches and equipment all through the year- he was not even on a cycle seat. He had to build up all those skills, all that stamina and all that willpower in the last few days running up to the race.
In India’s CIO fraternity, there is a similar hero who has emerged in the last Ironman race held in Goa towards the end of 2022. He faced the same irony in the Ironman. Not only did he prepare for, excel in and rise up to all the extreme needs of this high-octave triathlon. He did it while knowing that – wait for it, the twist comes now- he cannot swim!
Yes, Chandresh Dedhia, a veteran CIO, who has served across many verticals and has led many high-stake IT projects spanning about 20 years – decided to take this challenge- when he was barely prepared for a athletic Mount Everest of this proportion.
Ironman is not a jog in the park. One has to swim in a real ocean against all tides and for long. Then hop on to cycle to finish an arduous lap. Then jump on the ground to finish with the final race – on a tough run. For 130 excruciating kilometers, in horrible heat and without any interludes.
When Chandresh decided to take up this challenge, there was no need for him to sign for all this. He was happy and super-busy in his work. He was not a regular sports or fitness freak. And to top it all, he did not even know how to swim. Something that was the basic skill needed for an important, and the first, part of the triathlon.
So why did he step on to this mountain? With no shoes to start with?
You don’t conquer the Everest – You conquer yourself
Reflecting on what started this bet on the impossible, he goes back to his first brush with fitness in a space where most people are trapped in sedentary lifestyles and workaholic routines. “I had started a light-weight fitness routine since 2006. After gymming for some-time, I chose the more-meditative, and equally-strenuous, fitness route of running. I had found it quite helpful and non-intrusive on my regular work schedule. On one such morning jog in 2019, I came across someone who was preparing for the Ironman. I don’t why but that word, and its description, shuffled something inside me. I had a strange calling in my gut. Should I try it?”
By the time the day got over, his question had changed to an affirmation. “I should try it.” He knew that if he did not attempt it then – when his health and age were going to be enablers – it would be hard to do it later on. He decided to start training for the big challenge. He registered for the January 2020 Ironman.
But then, the pandemic happened. And all his plans and aspirations had to be shelved. As soon as he got a window open in 2022, he began to find the track and means to get back to training. The registration would be carried forward. He would race this very year- he decided. And the very next day, he jumped deep into an extreme training schedule.
He was running for many years now. But he had to improve his stamina and muscles for a race-level run. However, the real battle was something else- to first learn how to swim. He tried a couple of options before finally finding a good coach in Mumbai. Between July and mid-September, he was already confident enough to swim.
But he was not able to tread in water and he was also not equipped to swim in ocean. So he took a workshop in Goa while he also kept training to extend his swimming length and endurance.
When Chandresh looks back at those days when he broke his own thresholds, he tells with pride. “I learnt swimming in 2 months flat and at the end of the training, I did close to 2 kilometers of swimming almost on alternate days for a month. I also did 2 days of open sea swimming training in Goa a month before the event to learn the nuances of open sea swimming, as it is very different from swimming in a pool.”
There was another twist in this challenge that he was fighting. The aspect of mastering navigation while swimming. “Open sea swimmers need to navigate using landmarks, buoys, or other reference points to stay on course, any deviation can lead to more distance and time. In pool swimming, navigation is simplified as swimmers follow designated lanes with clear markings.” He explains.
Also, in open sea swimming, swimmers encounter various water conditions including waves, currents, tides, and temperature fluctuations, which can add an element of unpredictability and challenge. “Pool swimming, on the other hand, provides a consistent and controlled water environment. You need to keep sighting on the buoy during your turns and sighting the finish line is critical. Learning how to enter and exit the ocean matters, as the waves can really disturb your timings and energy.” Chandresh also underlines the aspect of safety which could not be missed while aiming for speed. “Open sea swimming requires swimmers to be mindful of safety measures such as wearing appropriate buoyancy aids, considering weather conditions, and being aware of potential marine life. Pool swimming provides a controlled environment with lifeguards and safety equipment readily available.”
The first day in that open sea workshop, he swam for some time and then found himself drowning. Splashing his hands all over and crying for help, he looked at his coach. He was nearby but Chandresh suddenly understood that he wanted him to find his own fuel and confidence from inside. He did exactly that. “I fought the fear. I tried and tried. And when I came out, the coach told me – good, now come back tomorrow morning.”
That was the decisive moment of his winning or losing. There, on that shore aside a tough sea in Goa. Not on the final race-day. Chandresh could have easily given up and slept happily in the hotel. After all, he was a fresh swimmer. And swimming for a race, specially in an ocean, also meant that he had to learn how to navigate without the comfort of the boundary of a pool. He had to learn not just to how to swim in these unpredictable waters, but also to swim without bumping into other racers and while navigating smartly for the race – find directions, find the exit points etc.
Chandresh decided to get up. To win. He went back the next morning. And learnt everything.
When he came back to Mumbai, he put in all the oil he had – from the deepest reserves of his mental and physical tanks. Now it was about 16 hours of rigorous work-out every week- including running, cycling and swimming. All this was happening when he was also meeting hectic commitments at work and family.
With an initial training time per week of 8 hours per week, he was soon sweating it out to the hilt. On weekdays he used to do 60-90 minutes of training and on weekends it used to be around 3-4 hours of training every week. “Monday was my rest day. I do a lot of brick workouts where I used to do Run+ Swim, Swim+Cycling, Cycling+Running etc.” he recalls.
He added one more nail in his already-painful shoe. “I could anticipate that the real temperature at the day of the race would be very high and uncomfortable. So instead of running in easy and cool hours of the morning, I did my running practice between 12 pm and 2.30 pm in hot noons.” He would do his cycling before office would start. And complete the swimming sprints after the day got over. Just like a big IT project, this challenge was also planned, timed and executed like a seasoned CIO. With a clear map. With timelines. With a practical strategy.
The Avalanche Near The Peak’s Tip
The big day came. The day when he will have to push his limits to accomplish 1.9 kilometers of Swimming, 90 kilometers of Cycling, 21.1 kilometers of Running. All this at a cutoff time of 1 hour and 10 minutes from individual start time for swim course, 5 hours and 30 minutes from the individual start time for cycling course and 8 hours and 30 minutes from the individual start time for run course.
With all his family members cheering for him and all his well-wishers watching eagerly – Chandresh stepped into the ocean- for the first part of the race. The first lap of 1.9 kilometers was done in 53 minutes- thanks to all the practice and hard work done beforehand. Here was a CIO who had not even stepped into water a few months back. And today he was moving forward effortlessly fighting strong waves in an ocean. Against a stop-watch.
However, a movie and a real-life story is dull without some last-minute hiccups. When he came out of the water, the ‘Sanju’ moment happened. He realized that the ‘tracking chip’ had fallen in the water. The organizers, understandably, refused to let him move on to the next part. The negotiator and problem-solver in Chandresh sprang up. The chip that was missing had already malfunctioned. The organisers realized that. He also told the organizers about his smartwatch that had kept the score well so far. Its GPS and navigation was top-notch and it was also tamper-proof. He also showed the video recording that his wife has been continuously taking.
Precious time was wasted in this persuasion and decision-making while other racers were already ahead of him- just like it happened in the movie. But after a while the organizers gave him a nod. Chandresh immediately revved up his cycling lap. And soon, after peddling for some hard kilometers, he was running together with the finishers. He had completed 90 kilometers cycling in 4 hours 8 minutes flat!
Now it was time to run. The first kilometer here was a surprise. His muscles were toned for cycling. So his thighs and calves were stiff. And the heat (at 38 degrees) was becoming excruciating with every next step. “I was sweating profusely. But I could not give up now.”
Just into the last 4-5 kilometers, he started looking at runners who were walking towards the sidewalk. He saw them sitting down. Panting and giving up.
That was the ‘change your gear’ epiphany for Chandresh. “Would I waste all my hard training hours? Would I disappoint my family who had sacrificed my time for this race? Would I disappoint myself?”
He did not. He changed his entire grit into the top gear and pushed himself for the last 400 metres like a true champion. When he touched the finishing line, covering the running laps in 3 hours 2 minutes, he felt something completely-new and powerful and strange – like he had never felt before.
He had conquered the Everest- winning past his own cliffs and limits.
The Sikander was smiling. And the very next minute his wife, daughter and friends rushed towards him – with a pride that nothing else could earn.
After all, he had finished the IronMan – a tough challenge of 70.3 miles (113kilometers). In 8 hours 14 minutes! Approx 1200 people started the race and less than 600 were able to complete. One of them was Chandresh Dedhia.
When his eleven-year son came up to him, he said ‘Dad I am also going to do this- the very next year’.
And he did it. His first under-13 Triathlon in Pune.
Could anything else- a Netflix series, a batch-mate, a book- have inspired his son the way Chandresh’s own courage did? Chances are – no.
That’s all that matters. Chandresh knows it well when he says- “The trick is to start small, to stay consistent and to listen to your own body.”
And to not give up when everything feels broken inside you.
In short- To change the gear.