What's the hardest you've pushed your body?
That time you had to huff up twelve flights of stairs because of an out of order elevator doesn't count. Maybe planks till you couldn't feel your arms or limbs? Treadmill runs till you nearly blacked out? Even a full marathon, perhaps?
Supreme fitness nuts take it several notches higher with the Ironman triathlon - 3.9 km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.1km run - which started out as a challenge among a group of NAVY SEALs to settle the debate on whether running or swimming made for the more grueling physical activity. It is widely considered to be the toughest single-day sporting event on the planet.
There is, however, still another level of crazy.
The EPIC5 Endurance Challenge - or five Ironman-length triathlons across five Hawaiian islands in five consecutive days. So everyday participants have to swim (3.9km), cycle (180km) and run (42.1km), then hop on to a plane, reach the next island and do it all over again. Five times.
This year, India's Gaurav Makkar, 39, became the first-ever from the country to finish the EPIC5 Challenge. Since its inception in 2010, only 41 participants have completed the race out of roughly twice the number who've attempted it. In the May edition this year, five athletes from around the world were invited to participate. Two of them sustained injuries and pulled out a week before the event and Makkar was among the remaining three who completed the race.
A "gym nut" who warmed up to half marathons in 2013, Makkar first heard of the Ironman triathlon during one of his runs. He looked it up on the internet and was fascinated by what he saw. He hadn't even kicked around in a paddle pool as a kid and yet, here he was thinking of swimming close to four kilometers in open waters. He took up swimming lessons in 2015 and attempted his first Ironman triathlon later that year. It was also the year he ran his first full marathon.
Four years into endurance sport and Makkar's already a four-time Ironman and two-time Ultraman (10k open-ocean swim, 421km bike ride and 84km ultra-marathon run on a Hawaiian island). Until the EPIC5 challenge happened, he didn't know he had any more gears left in him.
"It sounded impossible. Then I thought if something feels impossible it must be a lot more crazy than all the things I've done so far, put together," Makkar says, "But one week before the race, I could feel the fear creep in. It was the first race in my life that I was literally scared. S**t scared. There was no motivation in me, no energy, and none of the usual pre-race highs. I was secretly wishing I'd pick up a minor injury and use that as an excuse to take the first flight back home."
For an endurance race of this kind, you've got to have a plan. If you have to traverse across the Hawaiian archipelago and harbor any hopes of finishing the race you have to know how to start and how to sustain.
Makkar and his team had one - to build up for the five days and start slow. Kaua'i (Remember the lush rainforests in Jurassic Park? That's the one) - with its emerald valleys, towering waterfalls and stunning landscape - was the first island they were expected to swim, bike through, and run across. "The beauty around me was just breathtaking but I couldn't enjoy it," says Makkar, "I was jetlagged, homesick and having second thoughts of staying on in the race."
It's only when he tore off his cycling bibs and cleats and slid into his running shoes that he could feel a change. "It's maybe because I really love running. Also, when all these thoughts of giving up and going home were thrashing against my mind, I knew I wouldn't act on it. I knew I wouldn't quit."
For this rarified breed of athlete belonging to the ultra-endurance world, in competition-mode, everything is weighed - even emotions. "It's all about energy conservation," says Makkar, "Every time you're anxious, tear up or get angry, you're losing a small part. That's energy lost. So it's very important to stay calm and unaffected. Of course, feelings like waiting to meet your family back home can be converted into positive energy to push you through the race, to the finish line."
The other part is nutrition and keeping the stomach free of surprises. "You have to know what your body can absorb faster," says Makkar, "You can't rely entirely on artificial liquid nutrition and gels, there has to be real food. For me it was sticky rice and boiled chicken with salt. I also had caffeine with red bull diluted in lot of water and cube loads of ice especially on my bike. When you're tired and have your head down through the ride, you can fall asleep."
He still had three more flights, four more days, four more islands and 352 kilometers until the finish line. The hack, Makkar says, partly lies in constantly tricking the brain. "So at the end of the first day I tell myself 'Ok that's one day down, that leaves me four days more to deal with'. Then I tell myself that I don't need to think of the last day yet, so technically just three days more. So every time your brain is resisting this physical and mental onslaught you're goading it and telling it that it's no big deal. That it just needs to hold out a little while longer."
"It was the last day. I had nothing to hold back. I ended up running my fastest marathon of 4:30. Everyone was thinking why is this guy not stopping or walking, why is he running like crazy?" Gaurav Makkar
From the calm waters of O'ahu and its challenging run on rolling hills and the pool swim in Moloka'i, biking through its wide, empty streets, Makkar reached the penultimate pitstop -- Maui on Day 4. "Since the landscape is different every day, the brain buys into the tricks. You can tell it this is new. You're also looking forward to it. The swim in Maui was the toughest. Waters were choppy and had high currents so we had to do three loops instead of the usual swim. Biking was not easy either. It was hot, humid and with a lot of headwinds. But all the while I was just telling myself, 'Just one more day'."
The race was to culminate at the Kona island, home to the Ironman world championship. "It was the last day. I had nothing to hold back. I ended up running my fastest marathon of 4:30. Everyone was thinking why is this guy not stopping or walking, why is he running like crazy?" Half an hour past midnight, Makkar felt the tape across his chest in the finish line, hugged his team, popped open a bottle of champagne, face-timed his family back in India and managed two exhilarated words, which in the Indian context sums up completion: "Ho gaya."
The next finisher - Brian P Fredley (from USA), completed the race little over two hours after Makkar and the final triathlete in the fray and only the fourth woman to complete the EPIC5 endurance challenge, Suzy MuCulloch Serpico, also from USA, finished around dawn, roughly four hours after the Indian. But no one's counting the time in these manic, otherworldly challenges. There aren't winners or losers.
Makkar, who runs a business in Gurugram, south west of the Indian capital city of New Delhi, now has stronger ambitions - to make the Boston Marathon qualifying cut-off of 2:55 and attempt the Epic Deca (yes, that's right, x2 of Epic5 Challenge) - and a brand new outlook on life.
"Nothing scares me anymore. I know every daunting target, every mind-boggling number can be broken down into small, manageable chunks. Now I know I can push my body and mind to do anything. There are no limits."