Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a 58-year-old Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and extreme ultra-marathoner who was born in Fiji to Indo-Nepalese parents. To celebrate her 50th birthday in 2008, she commemorated by running marathons and ultra-marathons on all seven continents—including the Mount Everest Marathon, the Amsterdam 100, the Antarctica 100 and the Geographic North Pole Marathon at temperature below -40 degrees. She was the second female, and first Canadian, to run in the Antarctica 100, where she’s held the Female World Record for four years, and she was the Overall Female Winner of the 2009 North Pole Marathon.
Today she continues her passion for running in extreme places, including two 250 km self-supported stage races in the Gobi Desert and in Madagascar. Pushpa has completed over 100 marathons and ultra-marathons.
About her presentation:
At age 50, Dr. Chandra began her journey to complete a marathon on Mount Everest. In the process, she fell quite ill and it empowered her to push herself even further— to run marathons and ultras on all seven continents in that same year.
“While I consider myself a talented runner, I realized that my passion developed when I was 5 or 6 years old. I used to run to school for 8 km each way instead of taking the bus, and I’d use that bus money to buy treats. So running became a very rewarding experience for me,” says Dr. Chandra. “I hope that a person out there can take something away from my presentation that will then belong to them. Regardless of adversities, it’s not about falling, it’s about how you can get up and go again.”
Interview by Brian Peech
What can the audience expect from your presentation at MULTIPLICITY?
My presentation is going to be a reflection—from the top of the world, to the bottom of the world. At age 50, I began my journey to do a marathon on Mount Everest. It’s in the Guinness Book as being the highest marathon in the world, starting at base camp on down to Namche. In the process of that race, I got really sick, and it empowered me to push myself further. I’m going to talk about running on seven continents. I went on to run marathons on all the continents in that same year. So I did Antarctica, where I beat the world record by 3 hours, 20 minutes. I was only the second female in the world to do the 100K in Antarctica, and then I did the North Pole, Madagascar, and Africa.
You did all this at 50?
Basically, while I was still 50, I did what we call the North Pole Grand Slam. I was the first Canadian to run in both Poles. And I’m almost always the oldest runner in all of these races that I do. So the presentation is about my journey. The presentation is only 8 minutes, so I have to somehow wrap up 58 years into 8 minutes. I’ve now run well over 100 marathons, but I think at 50 there was bit of enlightenment. I started to feel very different about myself—it was a big shift, facing all these adversities [of aging], and having the self-empowerment to find myself another adventure.
What sparked this running bug?
In one of my races, I had a flashback. While I consider myself a talented runner, I realized that my passion developed when I was 5 or 6 years old. I used to run to school for 8K, instead of taking the bus. I’d use that bus money to buy treats. So running became a very rewarding experience for me. I didn’t remember that until I was in my 40s and asking myself, “Where did this running come from?” So back then it was a monetary reward, but now it’s so much more.
“While I was still 50, I did what we call the North Pole Grand Slam. I was the first Canadian to run in both Poles. And I’m almost always the oldest runner in all of these races that I do. So the presentation is about my journey.”
A lot of your running has either an educational campaign or a philanthropic angle behind it now. Tell us about that.
I usually raise money and awareness for women and children’s health. And often it’s about education when I talk about health. I am focusing more now on working with Plan International. I’m becoming a little bit more focused on dowry killing. When a girl gets married and her family has to pay a dowry, if they don’t get enough dowry the girl gets killed after the wedding. So I want to bring awareness to this. It’s something that has really bothered me for a very long time. I haven’t quite pursued it yet, but that’s something I want to work with through the Plan. The Plan is charitable organization that already has the systems in place. So you decide where you want your money to go within the categories of work that they do.
Did running lead you into the field of sports medicine?
Yes, for sure. I started running at a very young age, and through nursing school, I started having problems with my body. And I had to overcome that. I couldn’t stop. I knew that wasn’t a solution; I couldn’t throw the baby away with the bathwater. So I started paying a lot of attention to myself, and began to teach myself alternative medicine while I was working as a nurse. I was the subject, and I wanted to really push myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me that I couldn’t do something. Even through injury, I knew there was always a solution to every problem. And as I was going through medical school, I naturally channeled myself into Sports Medicine.
How much of healing an injury, or endurance racing, is a mental game?
Healing all starts with the mind. Nobody can tell you to stop running. What you have to do is find the solution to the problem. So it’s absolutely a matter of the mind. Quitting is not an option; it’s the lazy man’s way. When I did the Madagascar race about a year and a half ago, I had hardly trained, but I know my mind, and I felt if I could put my mind to it, my body would follow. My body is a slave to my mind.
“Lots of times I’ve come down on a horse, with oxygen tanks and then gone back to finish the race a few days later.”
What are some of the mental challenges you face during races?
For me I’ve got to put a lot of mind work in it. I’ve got to think about sleeping in a tent with 10 guys and the foot smell is so bad that I’ll be awake all night, unless I stuff something in my nose. Then somehow I’ve got to sleep and get up the next day, eat dehydrated food and run another marathon—doing what we do in stage races. It’s a lot of mental games I’ve got to play. There’s been lots of times I didn’t think I would make it; I thought I would be dead if I continued. Lots of times I’ve come down on a horse, with oxygen tanks and then gone back to finish the race a few days later.
To what do you attribute your ability to run these grueling races at an advanced age?
That’s a really good question. A very common question is what motivates me or what inspires me. Running in itself is very inspirational, but it’s like I push myself, like any athlete out there, and when I look back, there’s something in the mind that is so powerful, that only belongs to that mind. And it becomes an imprint in your DNA. You believe in yourself so much, that any little doubts you had, you overcame. And it’s really a path to a higher self. And then you start capturing that in a visual way, and you start speaking to that. I engage in dialogue with myself during these races, I’m so proud of myself.
What’s your best advice for keeping injury free?
It depends on the injuries. A lot of times it’s the knees, or the feet or heels, and for trail runners, a lot of times its with the ankles. So pay attention to when the body is tired. When it’s tired, that’s when you’re most vulnerable to injury. If you’re fatigued, don’t go out and train again. I’ve done this before, overusing an injured body. Ninety percent of injuries I see are from overuse.
“It’s a hunger for spirituality. It’s a hunger to fuel the spirit. It’s not really physical anymore. People want to be fed their food, which is being in nature with exercise. And you can’t just say no to that.”
Often adventurers, or endurance athletes, are so hardwired to push their limits, how do you slow them down. Like, check yourself before you wreck yourself.
It’s very common for athletes to just not stop. They are on the autopilot program, and like you say, they’re hardwired to push themselves. So, I make them think of their training as a quality workout. If they really want to go, and lots of times they just can’t stop, I try to give them an alternative, one that’s actually going to help strengthen them, so that they have a higher quality workout. I always ask them, “What is your worry? Is your worry that you need to get outside and smell the fresh air? Is that what’s important to you? Or are you afraid that you’re going to lose your endurance or technique?” Then it’s about finding alternatives that address these concerns, maybe it’s moving over to a stationary bike where there’s lower impact. It’s about cross-training without putting strain on an injured area and at the same time finding ways to strengthen it. It can be as simple as going outside to walk up a hill. You need to find something that is complementary, that you will enjoy. In the end a patient needs to understand that this is a long-term game. You don’t want to be 50 and have this chronic strain that becomes arthritic, because then you won’t be able to do what you love. You have to think big picture.
That might be the hardest part.
It’s a hunger for spirituality. It’s a hunger to fuel the spirit. It’s not really physical anymore. People want to be fed their food, which is being in nature with exercise. And you can’t just say no to that.
You do many speaking engagements, but how do you feel about speaking at MULTIPLICITY this year and what do you hope the audience takes away from it?
This is probably a little tougher crowd than I’m used to. Mostly because it’s Whistler, you know, and everyone has seen everything [laughs]. But I feel comfortable. I still feel there’s a ‘wow factor’ to my journey. I’m very proud to be 58 and embarking on these races. Most of them are stage races; I’m always the oldest woman, and usually the oldest of all. I feel really strong, and all of these experiences, they make me feel so, so proud, like there’s nothing I can’t do if I want to do it. So I hope people feel inspired and self-motivated. I hope that a person out there can take something away that will then belong to them. Regardless of adversities, it’s not about falling, it’s about how you can get up and go again.
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