One man’s journey from adversity to a marathon milestone

When was the last time you met someone whose life had been transformed not once but twice? It happened to Sunil Robert, Chief Marketing Officer at Digitate, a Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) venture, after a twist of fate that changed everything was turned on its head by a meeting with an inspirational leader.

The Virgin Money London Marathon takes place on 28 April this year. Sunil Robert will be travelling from Silicon Valley to take part. It won’t be his first marathon. In fact, it will be his eighth, and his fifth in the Abbott World Marathon Majors circuit; he’s run Boston, New York, Chicago and Berlin. After London, his next target will be Tokyo, whereupon he’ll join an elite group: the recipients of the Abbott Six Star Medal.

Only a small proportion of marathon runners have completed all six. For someone poised to join such an exclusive club, Sunil is perhaps not how you would picture an elite runner. As a younger man, he was very active and loved sports, particularly cricket. However, aged just 30, a motorcycle accident put an abrupt end to that side of his life. “The accident left me with a broken right knee,” he says. “I was told to forget sports and that the best I could hope for was to walk with the aid of a cane. It was devastating for me.” 

A Steep Hill to Climb

That accident was followed by 10 years of a sedentary lifestyle and a growing sense of despair. But then one day Sunil, who was working at TCS at the time, attended a talk given by the company’s chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran: a dedicated runner and an Abbott Six Star Medal holder, who at the time had recently been appointed as CEO.

“Someone in the audience asked him about his running and how he could balance that with the needs of managing an enormous business,” recalls Sunil. “He said that if you want to be an effective leader, you have to be in control of your health. It felt like a light had been turned on for me, the point where everything started to change. I thought to myself, if a busy man like this can make time for running then so can I.”

But with his damaged knee, which had left him with only around 30% of normal load-bearing strength in his right leg, being able to run at all, never mind for 26 miles, was a huge ambition for Sunil. “I had become a bit of a couch potato,” he admits. “It took me three or four years to get to the point where I could throw away the cane and even longer to overcome the pronounced limp I was stuck with.”

Filled with a newfound drive to overcome adversity, Sunil set about a training programme that took the inspiration he found in Natarajan Chandrasekaran and used it to power him toward marathon running. It’s an incredible achievement, but Sunil remains humble and unassuming.

Getting there – step by step

“I have no illusions about my fitness,” he says. “But as long as I can keep putting one foot in front of another, I know I’ll get there. I believe you have to live your life like a marathon – I know that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to, and the running is a physical manifestation of this.”

Sunil has been instrumental in setting up a running club at TCS New Jersey, which has around 60 members. The group dynamic and sense of camaraderie keep everyone going, as they encourage one another to do their best. And it’s given him the opportunity to share training tips and advice with less experienced runners.

“I’ve used training apps to help with my preparations for marathons,” he explains. “And although these days I’m so familiar with what works and what doesn’t work for me, and what kind of training programme I need to follow, I think apps can be hugely beneficial.

“Novice runners and complete beginners can really get a lot of value out of virtual training aids. You can see what you should be aiming to get done week by week, and you can measure your progress. But they’re great for anyone who needs to fit training into a busy life, too.”

As a youngster, Sunil Robert dreamed of travelling the world and hoped one day he could provide the kind of inspiration to others that he had received himself. He’s come a long way – 26 miles at a time – to turn those dreams into reality, and readily acknowledges that doing so calls for hard work and determination.

“Improving yourself is a long-term process,” he says. “Even if your life feels like it’s in the gutter, your dreams can be in the stars.”Support your friends, family or favourite elite runners using the hashtag #ThisRun and track their progress using the 2019 Official Virgin Money London Marathon app, powered by Tata Consultancy Services. The app also provides an interactive course map and allows you to make donations to the runners’ chosen charity.