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Beating The Odds
Meet four-time Ironman 70.3 participant Neil D’silva, a former drug user-turned-triathlete who turned his back on addiction in favour of the high that comes with crossing finish lines at endurance races.
Eight years ago, Neil D’silva would have never imagined competing in, let alone completing, four international Half Ironman events. The year was 2012, and he had begun to experiment with soft drugs, quickly progressing to harder substances, in college. Two months at rehab helped him get his act together. But it wasn’t long before he succumbed to his old habits; he had started using again even as he worked a full-time job. Only this time around, he had become adept at hiding all the telltale signs of a user, resorting to drug use only on weekends.
When you talk to Neil, you realize that there were several times during this period that saw him attempt to replace one high with another. For instance, in 2014, when Neil joined a gym for strength training, he started to run regularly on the treadmill before he was introduced to running in the outdoors by a family friend. By this time, having acquired a liking for longer runs, he was running 7 kms thrice a week and had joined running groups.
But he was still using and it took a drug-fuelled night out at a friend’s party in March 2015 to really get Neil to introspect. He had consumed far more than usual and felt the urgency to slow things down. The next day proved to be even more of a life-changer. “I knew that I really liked to run and was at least half decent at it. I imagined how much better I would be if I didn’t do drugs any more. It was an overnight decision to not look back,” says Neil, 26, who quit smoking cigarettes a week later.
If restraint brought about a slew of transformative experiences for Neil, it also set the ball rolling for a whole new set of milestones that were to follow. In August 2015, only a few months into his recovery period, Neil ran his first half marathon in Hyderabad. Then came a running injury, which required some downtime and meant that he had to find a transient outlet for his new-found energy. He started cycling to pack in a bit of cross-training and eventually participated in a 200-km cycling event in March 2016. It wasn’t a race, says Neil, who finished first and admits that it made him realize that he was good at cycling too.
It was around this time that Ironman became a buzzword in Indian households, thanks to Milind Soman. Neil considered participating in this endurance race and began working on his swimming techniques with guidance from a friend from his running group. In November 2016, Neil participated in his first Ironman 70.3 in Xiamen, China. Finishing at 5:50:30, Neil had found a new high. He had successfully transformed a detrimental addiction into an enviable obsession.
We speak to this Ironman Certified Coach, Ironman All World Athlete Silver 2018, and Tri Coach at Yoska about how he rode the highs and lows to arrive at his passion for triathlons.
How did you motivate yourself to stay on track as a recovering addict?
Once I started running, there was no looking back. This was the new high I was getting. There’s a lot of dopamine produced in your brain when you run. It’s a natural high and you don’t need to do drugs.
You improved your time at every Ironman event you participated in after China. Tell us more.
The following year after China, I qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee in September 2017. I bettered my China time by about 4 minutes in this race, which had an elevation gain of 1,100m on the bike course, 300m on the run, and a 900m upstream swim. After that, I did a race in Sri Lanka in Feb 2018 and I bettered by time by about 30 minutes. The latest was in Turkey, in October 2018, in which I did a time of 4.39 which was about another 35 minutes’ improvement from my Sri Lanka race. The most challenging of the lot was the one in Sri Lanka because the temperatures were 33-35 degrees in the bike and run leg of the race. It was also windy which makes it difficult to cycle.
What would your weekly training for such an event would involve?
I do bike rides, four runs and four swims per week. I also do two additional strength training sessions per week — one upper body and one lower body circuit per week. Mondays are rest days, but I also do a recovery workout — an easy bike ride — on this day. Honestly speaking, I’ve been training continuously for the last three years. The only break I’ve taken has been after the races, which has been a week or ten days at the most when I was travelling.
What do you enjoy about the entire process of training and participating in competitive events such as Ironman? And what are the challenges?
It’s become a lifestyle for me. Not doing some kind of a fitness activity or training hard would seem unnatural now. I’ve reached that point. Riding your bike or running really fast gives me a thrill and really motivates me. The challenging thing about training is riding on Indian roads because they aren’t really meant for the kind of cycle that I ride. The challenging part really is to drive outside city limits early in the morning to ride on t he highway. On a daily basis, I do indoor rides, but on weekends I ride outside the city or on the highway.
Is there anything that you learned, or continue to learn, from participating in triathlons?
From competitive events and training, I’ve learned that consistency is important. It’s become my general rule in life. To improve at anything, you need to be consistent in your efforts. There are no shortcuts to success, so you have to take the hard way out. You have to do the right things and train the right way and work hard towards your goal.
What advice would you give someone who’s currently struggling with an unhealthy lifestyle or addiction?
Everyone should make some time in the day to do some kind of fitness activity as it not only helps you stay physically fit, but it also keeps you mentally sharp. A person who works out always appears fresher than a person who doesn’t. You just need to imagine how much better your future would be if you did some kind of a physical activity.
What are your fitness goals as of now?
Just bettering my previous race timing.