Sufiya Sufi Runs Around the World

If you look up the name Sufiya Sufi, you’ll find she calls herself a “humanity first” ultrarunner. You’ll also discover that she’s set five running Guinness World Records in five years’ time — with no prior experience as a runner. After 10 years of working in aviation, she made the bold move to chase her running dreams and see the world at the same time.

Based out of Manali, India, a Himalayan resort town in India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state, the 38-year-old athlete specializes in chasing some of the longest world records in running, ranging from 200 kilometers across Qatar to her newest project, a 40,075-kilometer or longer route circumnavigating the world. With a small support crew, that generally consists only of her fiancé, she has tackled some of the longest routes in India and is not even close to running out of ideas on what to do next.

Sufiya Sufi - training in Ladakh, India

Sufiya Sufi training in Ladakh, India, at 17,000 feet. All photos courtesy of Sufiya Sufi.

Childhood Years

Sufi grew up in Ajmer in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan as a middle child with two brothers. The family lost their father when Sufi was a teenager, and the three children were raised by their mother.

While Sufi didn’t participate in sports during her childhood, she became a classical dancer and stage performer during her college years, earning a Bachelor of Arts at Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati University, Ajmer in Rajasthan. After college, she moved to Delhi, India’s capital territory and a huge metropolitan area in the northern portion of the country, to complete a diploma course in aviation before entering the aviation industry for 10 years.

A Stressful Aviation Career

Sufi started running for fitness in 2017 while working at the airport, where she did ground operations, check-ins, and boarding. In describing that period of her life, Sufi says, “That was a time when I was feeling frustrated with my job and bored. Because I worked the night shift for almost 10 years, I had health issues.” She knew she had to make a change. “I thought, I should do something for my health. I started running in the park to take care of myself.”

She first went out on a three-kilometer path in a nearby park. It was the first time in her entire life that she’d gone on a run. Not long after, she ran the 2017 Delhi Half Marathon. It wasn’t long until she increased her distance again. “After that race, I thought, I should start doing marathons, because I felt good after doing the half marathon.”

She was intrigued to see what she could do with her running. “When I talk about pushing limits, it was a good way to check my limits, and I pushed myself.” She ran the Noida Grand Marathon in Delhi and, afterward, a 50-kilometer event in 2018.

In the same period of time, her partner Vikas Saroha started cycling for fitness as a way to cope after he lost his father. They’d met in 2016 when they were both employees at the airport. Less than two years after that first run, at age 33, Sufi left her job in aviation. At the time, she’d been promoted to a position as the Duty Officer in Aviation at the airport’s departure zone, but the job didn’t accommodate her increasing interest in long-distance running.

“I left the job because I was thinking of longer expeditions. I needed long leaves, and my boss was not ready to give me long leaves, so I had to leave the job,” she explains.

Sufiya Sufi - aviation career

Before there was running, there was work in the aviation industry. Sufiya Sufi in the center.

Her First Expedition

In 2018, Sufi started planning her first expedition: a 702-kilometer road run on a route called the Golden Triangle that connects the Indian cities of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra.

There were many reasons Sufi decided to start going on expeditions, including wanting to do more with her life than work at the airport. “There was frustration in me when I was working in an office. I thought running would be the best way to check my limits or spread a cause or message.”

She didn’t have a template or role model to base her trips on. “There were many things going in my mind, saying I should do an expedition, which is new in India. I started and wanted to experiment with expeditions — it seemed adventurous and like mountaineering. I said, ‘I should do this.’”

She set an Indian national record on the route, becoming the fastest finisher on foot in 16 days, one hour, 17 minutes.

Vikas Saroha: Fiancé and Team Leader

Saroha, Sufi’s partner, has been her biggest supporter from the start. He inspired her to run the Golden Triangle after he’d cycled the route earlier. Saroha also takes care of all of the logistical details of the expeditions. “He does all of the route creation and planning for my expeditions. He does the same routes on a bike,” Sufi explains of the partnership.

With similar motivations as Sufi, Saroha also quit his aviation job in 2019. Now, he’s Sufi’s crew leader for her expeditions and does all of the organizing, and he provides her with a nutrition and hydration plan. Saroha also studied to become a coach and took over Sufi’s training as well.

Sufi says, “Vikas comes up with ideas. I just run. I look at the plan, and he tells me the next challenge. He’s a big support for me.”

Her training plan incorporates strength training, yoga, and pranayama breath work, which helps with her mental focus. Typically, she does one long run on Saturday or Sunday. Her weight training focuses on knee and glute reinforcement, and she also does bodyweight workouts and takes a rest day every Monday.

The pair live with a street dog named Tiger.

Five Back-to-Back Guinness World Records

The year following the Golden Triangle run, Sufi set a record for the fastest time completed by a female runner traveling from the Kashmir region to the city of Kanyakumari. The route goes from the northern tip to the southern end of India.

This 2019 record-setting run was also Sufi’s first Guinness World Record achievement. She covered nearly 4,000 kilometers in 87 days, two hours, and 17 minutes.

Sufi was only getting started. Next, she set a second Guinness World Record on the Indian Golden Quadrilateral road network. The 6,002-kilometer network of national highways links the Indian cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. Then 35 years old, she completed the feat in April 2021 in 110 days, 23 hours, and 24 minutes.

For her next run in 2021, she headed to the mountains. “I was doing only road running at that time. Then I thought I should do something more challenging,” she says.

Her third Guinness World Record was what she named the Himalayan Ultra Run Expedition. She covered 485 kilometers between the high-altitude towns of Manali and Leh, India, becoming the first female athlete to complete the route. The mountainous terrain provided a greater challenge for her — which was the goal — by reaching an altitude of 17,480 feet and gaining a cumulative 26,902 feet of elevation. She finished on October 1, 2021, in 156 hours.

In January 2023, Sufi ran across the country of Qatar from south to north in a distance of 200 kilometers. She finished the effort in 30 hours and 31 minutes and set a fourth Guinness World Record.

Later that year, Sufi set her fifth Guinness World Record by resetting the record for running from Manali to Leh in India. This time, she completed the route in 98 hours. She decided to return because she “wanted to go under 100 hours.” She says, “When I did that record in 2021, I did not think my preparation was good, and I thought I could do better. That was my best experience.”

Sufiya Sufi - running across Qatar

Sufiya Sufi finishes running 200 kilometers across Qatar.

Motivations

Before 2017, Sufi did not have a sports background and hardly took on challenges, mentally or physically. When she started setting running goals, she says, “No one was believing in me.” But she believed in herself. “I think the positive mindset keeps you going and pushes you to take more challenges.”

Sufi believes that mindset is a very strong tool. “Being a positive thinker is important. Your body and mind get into it, and you want to challenge yourself more, and that’s what I’m doing.”

She’s most intrigued by creating her own expeditions and routes. “I’m believing my own race — I don’t believe in competition. This is the best way for me to check my limits.” The expedition runs also provide a good way to see new places. “I love traveling, and it’s the best way to travel the world. I covered all of India on foot. It’s my passion. Once you do one expedition and another, you get strength and confidence to do other challenges.”

The statement “know no limits” could not be truer for Sufi.

For 2024, she’s planning an expedition across the United Arab Emirates. She aims to complete the 700-kilometer distance in seven days, checking off 100 kilometers daily. Her plan is to complete the run in November or December.

She’s also going to do an International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) 24-hour stadium run competition in Bengaluru, India, to try to qualify for the 2025 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in France.

In December, she’ll return to run Qatar again. Her previous record was broken by six minutes, and she’d like to get the title back.

In the Pipeline: Running Around the World

Starting in 2025, Sufi is planning to run around the world with the goal of covering 40,075 kilometers, which is the circumference of the earth. She’ll start and finish in India, and the route sews together about 20 countries including Australia, several across Europe, the United States, India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Canada. She aims to set another Guinness World Record for this effort.

“India is the biggest distance I’ve covered, and I have covered a whole country. I did the whole thing on foot. I thought, I should go out of the country and go to other countries. The idea is to explore.”

“No one has done that route, but I want to do this. Vikas will be with me,” she says. “When I’m running expeditions, he supports me in a vehicle. Most of the time, he does it alone. He’s not doing anything else, because he’s supporting and managing me, so he’s busy, so he’s not doing any endurance goals for his cycling,” she explains.

They will need special visas to enter and stay in each country for the time it takes to run across it, in addition to sorting out all of the other logistics. The planning will occupy all of 2024.

Sufiya Sufi - training in Ladakh, India

Sufiya Sufi during a training run in Ladakh, India.

The Future

“Ultrarunning is a new sport in India and does not have recognition,” said Sufi. As a result, she struggles to find sponsorship support. Sometimes she does crowdfunding to support her expeditions. She is currently working to find a nutrition sponsor to help her with her runs.

She feels that even after she does her around-the-world run, she’ll be nowhere near close to tapping out of her idea pool, either.

“Initially, I did not think I would run that far. After completing six expeditions, I still think it’s just the beginning, and I want to continue,” she says.

For now, there is a wedding on the horizon for her and Saroha after she runs across Qatar a second time. But other life goals? Right now, she’s mostly thinking about that big run around the world.

Call for Comments

  • Have you followed Sufiya Sufi’s record-setting running?
  • Do you use running as a way to see the world?
  • If there was one country in the world you could run across, which would it be?


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