Madhusmita Jena recently made headlines for her extraordinary achievement at the Manchester Marathon over the weekend. What set her apart was not just her impressive speed and endurance but also her attire – she ran the entire marathon dressed in a traditional Indian saree.
Speaking with iGlobal, Jena shares that her decision to run the marathon in a saree was a conscious choice to promote Indian culture and raise awareness about diversity in sports for women. She wanted to challenge stereotypes and showcase the versatility and strength of women, even in traditional attire.
On race day, Jena stood out from the crowd of runners with her brightly coloured Sambalpuri saree, which is the traditional handloom weave of the Northeast Indian state of Odisha.
She crossed the finish line in an impressive 4 hours and 42 minutes, completing the 26.2-mile race (42km) route in her saree and was greeted with resounding applause and admiration from the crowd.
An avid marathon runner, Jena started with the Dubai Marathon back in 2009 and has also completed the 100k Marathon in Egypt, among many others. Here, she reflects upon her journey, inspiration and the latest saree milestone with iGlobal.
How do you feel about the positive response to your achievement?
I've enjoyed running so much over the past 14 years. It's made a huge difference to my physical and mental health. Over the years, after constantly competing for Boston qualifying or podium finishes, I wanted to do something different. So, I took the opportunity to showcase my culture and show people that running is for everyone, regardless of gender, age, culture, religion etc.
I didn't expect my run to gain so much media attention. I'm completely surprised and overwhelmed by the response, and I hope it means that people will feel more able to take up running. I also hope people will be more accepting of cultures and ethnicity and not a certain archetype of who can exercise and participate in sports.
What inspired you to run the Manchester Marathon in a saree?
I wanted to showcase Indian culture, specifically Odiya, as that's my roots. And it's also to show my friends who aren't allowed to wear shorts that you can run in anything, in sarees, salwar suits or any attire really. I want to encourage more people to go out and run.
Also, it was a new challenge for me; I wanted to see if I could complete the marathon in a saree or not.
Please tell us about your Indian heritage, life and journey.
I was born and raised in the UK. My parents are originally from Odisha. I also got married in Odisha. I've always loved wearing sarees and Indian clothes. I'm a mother of two children; my oldest is 15 now, and the younger one is 12. I started running after my first son was born simply to get some me-time, some headspace. But after my first marathon (Dubai Marathon), it became my passion.
I've run 37 full marathons so far, and this is my first time with a saree. I'm also a Special Needs teacher in high school, so I teach children with special educational needs.
How did it feel when you crossed that finishing line in a saree?
It was definitely a challenging task, but it was enjoyable. The crowd absolutely loved it. There was a lot of cheering going on; people were coming up to me saying – "such a beautiful saree", and "How're you doing it!" It actually felt amazing as people on the streets and the crowd were cheering for me! They were saying - "look at that saree runner" and even the runners would stop to say "Well done".
But it was hard. It was very windy, I was holding the pleats in my hand, so I didn't trip. That slowed me down a lot, but it was definitely worth it.
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How do you prepare for a marathon? Was there additional preparation this time with a saree?
Normally, one takes at least six months of training, and three months building up to this training, you tend to do longer runs and start building up the mileage. I don't run more than three or four times a week just because everybody is different, and I tend to get tired and burnt out.
Besides, it's just not possible with children and working full time. As I'm in my 40s, I've realised that it's necessary to strength train to just make sure you don't get injured so lifting weights and just to keep the muscles strong.
For the Manchester Marathon, I wore a long-sleeved top and not a traditional blouse, as I get cold too easily.
What is your advice for aspiring runners who want to challenge norms and pursue their passions like you?
As a runner, I want to say that there's no age bar. I am 43. And I started running when I was 29. So, it can be done at any time. It's just about kind of starting slowly, not getting too carried away or adding too much mileage too quickly.
And for those who want to run in a saree, I'd say start running in a track or trousers first, get used to the emotion of running before and then attempt it with a saree for a shorter distance first.
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What are your future plans in terms of running?
I have qualified for a place in Chicago Marathon this year. It's in October. I'll definitely be running in shorts as I'm aiming to complete it faster, within 3 hours and 30 mins. So that's my next target. I'll take a bit break now to rest and start training for the Chicago Marathon in about June.