How many South Asian runners can you name?
Aiming to be the first South Asian to complete the Triple Crown of 200-mile races, Aum Gandhi is running those incredible distances to find his tribe, but also for his own mental health
Welcome to Running Sucks, a newsletter where I speak to interesting people who are expanding running culture. Subscribe for free to receive a new story in your inbox every week.
The largest face on the Runner’s World Runners of the Year cover, Aum Gandhi is a Californian endurance runner with a heady goal of running six ultramarathons in 2024, including the Triple Crown of 200s - Tahoe, Bigfoot, and Moab.
Born in Norwalk in L.A., after his family moved from India in the ‘90s, Aum is a runner of South Asian descent - like me. If all goes to plan, he could be celebrating being the first runner of his/our ethnic background to complete that Triple Crown.
Things like this are significant for me because when I moved to Los Angeles from London, I noticed a tangible change in racial demographics. I just felt like I could see fewer people like me around. Feelings don’t really matter, however, so I looked up some undeniable stats.
There are the numbers. In London (and in the UK), I was a part of the largest non-white minority. Now? I’m a small part of one of the smallest non-white minorities in the US. While I moved to a more ethnically diverse city, I actually became more of a minority. Poor me!
No, that’s not the point of this. We’re here for that opening gambit: Aum Gandhi could be the first South Asian runner to complete the hallowed Triple Crown of 200-mile ultra races. As advanced, internationally connected, and cultured our modern society is, we’re still encountering these firsts.
How many South Asians play in America’s Major League sports, for instance? Kumar Rocker in MLB. Last year, I wrote about Quinn Sullivan being the only Bangladeshi player in MLS. Who else is there? Who else could be?
Having been a serious main character on that Runner’s World cover, Aum knows that representation is key to more participation.
“The more time I've had to think about it, the more significance I’ve attached to it. For my mom to see me on the cover of an actual magazine that you can get in airports and bookstores was huge for her because it's not something that is visualized very much in the South Asian community.”
The old stereotype is that second generation Asian immigrant children have to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. There’s truth in it. A career in finance or as an engineer, as Aum was, also fits.
“I think that comes from their perception of what The American Dream and stability is. That job can set you for life. You can retire.”
Quite simply, our parents wanted a better life for us than what they had. They moved to a foreign country for a better life. Prestigious, multi-year-degree, white-collar jobs encapsulated that ideal, so when Aum left that life as an aviation engineer behind to join the unpredictable field of endurance sports as 1) a professional runner and 2) a publishing entrepreneur with Run Tri Bike magazine, it was a tough sell.
“It took a year for my parents to realize that this was an actual tangible career.”
It was similar for me. I spent my 20s as a music journalist and while that career path depleted rather than boosted my retirement fund, writing cover stories, rock star exposes, and books about heavy metal fulfilled my worldly desires more than it could for my parents. I’m not the kind of person that they were ever able to point in a more sensible direction, of course.
Embracing his position as a potential inspiration to future generations - kids who might be able to see a path for themselves in the work Aum is doing - he is thoughtful in his delivery.
“As you show people in your community that there is another way - an unconventional way - then others like you stand by you. The next thing you know, you’ve found a tribe.”
Aum Gandhi talks of running culture in terms of community, but also as movement of your body. He says that humans are meant to move, rather than sit in offices. In the immigrant community however, there is that often-true stereotype of parents pushing their children into sedentary desk-job lives.
“I grew up in a family where the males have a diabetic history. My dad is a diabetic, my grandpa's a diabetic. I had prediabetes by the time I was 18.”
Studies have shown everything from diabetes being 3.4 times more prevalent in South Asians than in Whites to a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease due to adaptation to famine-related starvation - linked to the widespread colonialism on the Asian Subcontinent. It’s complex and historic, in terms of both genetics and mindset.
“I’ve heard things my whole life from the community that if you're rich then you have a big belly, and if you're poor then you’re skinny, or lifting weights will make you dumb. They don’t really see the value in fitness.”
“I think that the perception of exercise does have to change within the South Asian community, at least from my lens.”
Aum goes on to talk about being an “obese, unhealthy kid” who was eating to cope with undiagnosed, misunderstood mental health problems. That prediabetes diagnosis was a wake-up call. Through exercise and uninformed, unhealthy dieting Aum went on to lose 90 lbs (40 kg).
His family was making backhanded comments throughout that process. Getting healthy just wasn’t a normal thing to do - either physically or mentally.
“The perception of depression and anxiety was also very different. My mom would always say, ‘Why are you taking stress? Just stop taking stress?’”
Now 29, Aum took up running just 5 years ago. Juggling a high-pressure engineering job, as well as financial and relationship problems, he chose a different coping mechanism. He stopped taking stress.
“One evening, I just decided I was gonna go run a quarter of a mile. When I was 18, I was exercising as a means to lose weight. But that night - that moment - I took exercise and running as a means for coping with my mental health, and that was a significant shift.”
The pandemic was a fast-track moment to getting into the world of ultras. That was where Aum had time to find his place in the running world.
What do you do to make running suck less?
“The biggest one is gratitude. When you reframe your mindset from, ‘I have to go out and do this run,’ to. ‘I get to go out and do another run,’ it changes everything.”
“I can't say it's all sunshine and rainbows. There are definitely more days than not where I just stare at my running shoes at 4am, thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I cannot think of a single run that I've regretted… once I've gotten through those first 10 minutes.”
He not only started to test his resilience by searching for his limits and solutions for those moments, but he also began to understand how he could give back to his community.
How do you determine a successful run?
“Am I pushing myself while making sound decisions for my safety? Am I lifting others up? I would rather fail a race and uphold my moral standard of lifting others up and not stepping over other people.”
If historic, generational trauma and tradition has changed the genetic and behavioral makeup of South Asians around the world, it can be changed again.
How? As a society, we have come to understand that representation matters, and Aum’s visibility in endurance sports and willingness to discuss medical matters openly is crucial to showing both natives and the diaspora another way to live.
There will come a time when there will be no more firsts in terms of minority races or genders participating in an activity or achieving a goal. Until then, there’s work to do.
People like Aum Gandhi are here to do it.
Ways to make running suck less covered today
Don’t compromise your values
Run to help your mental health
Be grateful to be able to run
Find your tribe
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
You wanted more me,
So I’ve written about me
(Via someone else).
100% of this publication is a reflection of my views, lived experiences, and curiosities, but I’ll always do it via a different, far cooler person. Sorryyyyyy x
WIN - Congratulations to Gilly for winning this week’s $50 Janji gift card on her 3rd entry of the year. I think it’s a nice perk for subscribing, anyway. Click here to enter. 12 entries last week. Good odds.
UPGRADE - All you have to do is share an article with a friend and tell them to subscribe to upgrade your subscription for free. It’ll make me happy. You can also pay to upgrade. That’ll help me pay my mortgage. Either is good! Neither is also good. No worries!
PODCAST - You can find audio of me reading Running Sucks articles wherever you find podcasts, but here’s the Spotify link. Maybe something to listen to on a run?
INTERVIEW - I had a chat withfor Running Tales. Give it a listen!
IG - Follow me on Instagram for stuff like cheer station content and increasingly pathetic Reels.
Links & Further Reading
The Triple Crown of 200s [UltraSignup]
A couple of recent trail runner interviews:
And here’s my interview from early last year with Quinn Sullivan, the only MLS player of Bangladeshi heritage:
Running Sucks is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.