Breaking barriers: India's Ironman Amit Samarth talks about finishing Race Across America and Trans-Siberian Race

It was when Amit Samarth was studying medicine at the Indira Gandhi Medical College, the fitness bug bit him. He knew that he was out of shape so Amit joined a gym and eventually lost 25 kgs. The challenge to reduce body weight was first among many ordeals he had undertaken in due course of his life. In 2016, Amit finished his first full Ironman Triathlon –  a race consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, raced in that order, without a break. In 2017, Amit finished Race Across America (RAAM) – a 5,000 kms ultra-distance road cycling race from the west coast to the east coast of the United States of America.

This year in August, the Nagpur-based Amit broke the ultimate barrier when he became the first Asian to compete and finish the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Race, a gruelling 9,100 kms cycling race that starts from Moscow and ends in Vladivostok, covered in 15 stages and should be completed over the course of 25 days. The Trans-Siberian Race is the ultimate test of human's endurance levels.

In a free-wheeling chat with Firstpost, Amit talks about finishing the most difficult race on the planet, his love for endurance sports, future challenges and more.

Dr Amit, you said competing and finishing RAAM is a life-changing experience. Why did you feel like that?

Race Across America is a 5,000 km bike race and when I did that race, I was a rookie. I was doing something like that for the first time. I cycled 5,000 km across the continent of North America under 12 days. There’s a physical as well as the mental aspect to it. It's life changing because your mental boundaries expand and that’s why after finishing the RAAM, I thought about doing the Trans-Siberian Extreme. I got in touch with the race organisers, explored more about this race and started training. Trans-Siberian is just amazing, it’s very very hard, you know. It’s 9,100 km bike race but after doing that and RAAM, you feel like ‘oh I can do anything now’. You can achieve any goal, you get that kind of confidence in your life.

Amit Samarth competing in the third stage of the Trans-Siberian Extreme. Image Courtesy: Denis Klero/Red Bull.

Amit Samarth competing in the third stage of the Trans-Siberian Extreme. Image Courtesy: Denis Klero/Red Bull.

We know that RAAM and Trans-Siberian Extreme are physically very demanding and exhausting. But what about the mental strength aspect? How do you develop that?

See, there’s a physical training, but you can never ride 9,100 km in your training. My maximum distance in my training was 300-320 kms in one time, so there’s a limitation to your physical training. But when you do the actual race, you depend on your mind to do those extra kilometres which you’ve never done in your training. How do I develop the mental strength? Well, when you are training, you also visualise the race in your mind. There’s a lot of visualisation that goes in your mind like how to get go about in difficult times. These things develop a mindset to do such things and you build it up. You build it up physically and mentally, and you get into a zone. Then when you get into the race, you release all that energy into the race. That’s how I do it.

Trans-Siberian Extreme is a 9,100 kms race and it takes massive effort to finish it. Did you ever feel like quitting during the race? Was there ever a crisis period during the race for you?

Actually, I had more problems during RAAM than Trans-Siberian Extreme. I got dehydrated once during RAAM in Arizona, then I had fever also. In Trans-Siberian, I didn’t many health problems, but after the third stage, I was very sore. I felt like I couldn’t continue, but eventually, I recovered. I used to go and start the race in every stage and you have other riders also so you get motivated. If these guys are doing it then I should also be able to finish it. I used to take it stage-by-stage, not thinking much about what I have done already, you know, only think about the next couple of hours.

So, you never thought about quitting?

Yes, I have had those kinds of thoughts. But there were also expectations back home, a lot of people were following me. A lot of endurance cyclists in India were following the race. They were excited because, for the first time, an Indian is trying to finish the race so that was also my motivation. I used to post my video after every stage, and a lot of people used to comment. So that was my big motivation.

In Trans-Siberian Extreme, how many hours you used to ride in a day?

See, it depends on stages. Every stage has a cut-off time. If a stage is just 350-380 kms then you take small breaks. In Trans-Siberian definition, 350 to 400 kms stage is short. Long stages are 650-700 kms. The tenth stage is 1,054 kms, the 13th stage is 1364 kms so here, the definition of cycling totally changes. It expands to a totally different level altogether.

Does age play any role in such gruelling competitions? You are 38 so did you ever feel the age factor while doing these extremely tough endurance races?

This is the best age to do such things. Because, this is not a boys’ race. If you look at endurance sports, the best athletes are after 35. The prime of any endurance athlete is 35 to 45 years. You need a matured body and a matured mind. A person who has seen the world, who has gone through a lot of training.

After finishing RAAM, you participated in Trans-Siberian Extreme, which is almost twice the distance. Tell me about your training methods and did you stick to the same modules or did you make any changes?

I got to learn a lot from RAAM so actually, I trained less for Trans-Siberian Extreme when to RAAM. I did a lot of quality training for Trans-Siberian rather than a lot of junk training. I had specific training days, including a lot of rest in between to recover my body. Rest was a part of my training, you cannot train every day because if you do that, your body’s performance will go down. I was a far better rider during Trans-Siberian as compared to RAAM.

There endurance races can become very lonesome. We are talking about covering 9000 kms over a period of many days in places like Siberia. How did you cope with loneliness? 

See, I have always been a solo sports guy so I can handle the loneliness. Maybe other riders cannot handle loneliness. Siberia is all jungle; sparsely populated area and some city will come after 300 or 400 kms. Siberian mid-highlands are all hills and when you’re on top of the hill, you’ll see the road going hundreds of kilometres. It’s mentally breaking, and that’s why I call this as a ghost riding.

"I have always been a solo sport guy so I can handle the loneliness." Image Courtesy: Pavel Sukhorukov/Red Bull.

"I have always been a solo sport guy so I can handle the loneliness." Image Courtesy: Pavel Sukhorukov/Red Bull.

For us, outsiders, it's like willingly putting your body through torture, considering the difficulty of such races and the extreme conditions in play. Why do you do it?

Yes, it is a torture. I would rate Trans-Siberian Extreme as the most difficult race on the planet. So, when I did the RAAM, I thought why not I try this, and I like taking on challenges. After RAAM, I had the momentum. I already finished the 5000 kms so I quickly took this opportunity and finished Trans-Siberian race. You know, in all these races, you actually suffer a lot, but when you do it, you have a lifelong story to tell. If you run a marathon, what story do you have? Thousands of people do it. The Trans-Siberian Extreme, I have a story to tell you, to school children, it also inspires others to think beyond, break their barriers. For me also, everything is also like breaking a barrier.

How many crew members accompanied you during the race?

I had a two-member crew with me, their names are Dev and Chetan. They were there with me throughout the race. The organisers provided us with a car and driver along with other help like physios and medical teams. Trans-Siberian is the most amazing race organised ever. We were only six riders, but for six riders, they had an 80-member team. Last year, there were 10 riders and only four finished. This year, we had only six riders and four finished so we had a better success rate.

What about funding part when it comes to participating in these races? How difficult it is to find sponsors?

It is difficult to find funding for something like this because this is not cricket. But endurance sports are also growing and this time I was able to find sponsors. RAAM also played a big part because I had a success story to tell to my sponsors. For Trans-Siberian race, I was partly sponsored by corporates and the rest was crowd-funded.

Now that you have finished the most difficult race on the planet. What's in store for future? What kind of challenges are you setting up for yourself?

After the Trans-Siberian race, I took almost one-month off. I was not doing much training because I needed my body to give recovery time. Now that I have started training again, I can feel my eagerness is back. Mentally also, you get recharged to train more. I might do RAAM again, but I would try to be among top three guys to finish the race. Of course, I would also like to do Trans-Siberian again. For Trans-Siberian, I was all self-coached. Right now, I’m at a level where I don’t need a coach but an advisor will be helpful, because you need somebody to push you. Maybe, I’ll hire one in future but it all depends on sponsors.


Updated Date: Oct 22, 2018 14:45 PM

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