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Defy Expectations: Sonia Ahuja’s Journey

Sonia Ahuja continues to defy expectations
Sonia Ahuja
Year started: 2018
Next race: UTMB 100
Favorite gear:

Bandana (I Can’t Even Run Without Bandana)


When Sonia Ahuja first learned about the legendary Badwater 135 ultramarathon, she did not see any Indian women’s names on the finisher list. That planted the seed of inspiration that drove her to sign up. This would put her on a journey to defy expectations, both her own and that of an entire nation.

Humble Beginnings

“When I saw that, I remember asking that question to somebody, why has no Indian woman run something like that? I was so naive back then,” Ahuja said. “But when I didn’t see it, I said, maybe I should be the one who gets into it so that at least we can put our flag with a female on that list.” Her journey into ultramarathons comes from humble beginnings. Ahuja came from India in 1999 to work in tech. 

Severe Anxiety and Depression

Her journey to ultra running started as a way to manage crippling anxiety, depression and physical health issues she experienced while working as a corporate executive and new mother. Like other Indian women, Ahuja also carried the weight of expectations. “I was going through significant depression, anxiety. It’s like a midlife crisis,” Ahuja explains. “I had severe anxiety and depression. I was going through almost what I would now call depression.”

Mental Clarity 

Running provided an outlet and sense of mental clarity. “When I saw that, how it was impacting how I thought about things, I was like, wow, this is so powerful,” she said. “Suddenly everything is, like, almost what doctors couldn’t resolve. For a year, I was seeing specialists and doing therapy. Nobody could really help figure it out, other than people saying you’re fatigued and need rest.” After completing several marathons, Ahuja realized she never felt truly pushed to her limits. That inspired her to take on longer, more extreme challenges. 

Her First 100-Mile Race

Ahuja signed up for her first 100-mile race in 2020 during the COVID lockdowns. “I remember one day I was just doing research after a marathon, because I had signed up for my first 100 miler during COVID as I had more time,” she explained. “But then when I saw [the Badwater video of Bob Becker crawling], I read the description. Every aspect of Badwater 135 resonated with me in terms of resilience.” The infamous 135-mile race in Death Valley in July took runners from Badwater Basin to the Whitney Portal. 


The Secret Goal 

After taking on several ultra races and performing well, including a podium finish at the Brazil 135, Ahuja was selected for the 2023 edition of the event. Ahuja intensely trained and strategized over the following months, setting the secret goal of trying to finish Badwater under 24 hours even though her idea seemed like a huge leap of faith. “Part of me was saying, I’m crazy and this is going to be such a surprise that people will say, what were you thinking?”

A Brutal Lesson

She nearly accomplished the improbable feat, reaching the final 13 miles in position for a sub-24 finish. However, in a brutal lesson against the harsh elements of death valley, her legs locked up after a crew stop, forcing her to death march the final agonizing miles. Still, her grit paid off with a 2nd place female podium finish. “Those last 13 miles were torture, but it was the biggest lesson learned, I would say,” Ahuja stated. “You could be a mile away and you can’t be sure, in other words, what’s going to happen?”

Changing Cultural Perceptions 

Beyond achieving personal athletic milestones, a driving motivation for Ahuja is changing cultural perceptions, especially among South Asian women, around what is possible with dedication and passion. “I was so happy, And this was completely unintended consequences,” she said. “I got so many messages from Indian females after Badwater saying, we didn’t even think this was possible an Indian woman can actually run the way you ran.”

Inspire Others to Pursue New Frontiers

Ahuja hopes her story can inspire others to pursue new frontiers and break through limitations, whether self-imposed or societally ingrained. “When they asked me, we didn’t even think, I said, why would you think it was not possible? There is nothing unique about us that’s like our strength.” Ahuja continues to defy expectations by performing at a high level, both for herself and for south asian women.