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Indian-born runner finds joy on trails and race directing

(Photos by Janzow Photography,

By Henry Howard

Shalini Bhajjan needed a mental reset after having her third child and feeling a bit off.

“I just casually started running out my front door,” says Bhajjan, who ran competitively in high school before focusing her attention elsewhere. “I needed a break from the kids and life was happening all too quickly.”

She ran two or three times weekly consistently. Then winter came to St. Louis.

“I was on the treadmill and hated it,” Bhajjan explains. “I started looking for people. I knew there had to be people running through winter.”

After connecting with some triathletes, she did her first trail run, a nine-miler. That resulted in a stress fracture so

Bhajjan focused on indoor cycling and completed a couple of century rides. Then running summoned her again and she knocked off a half marathon in 2011 and a marathon the following year. Her finish line experience was different than most other first-timers.

“I remember finishing and it was a very anti-climactic experience,” she recalled. “I stood at the finish and I thought, ‘This is it?’ There was no ‘Oh my God, I feel so f---ing great.’ It was a bit of a letdown in some ways.”

That experience led her to longer adventures, finding deeper meaning and launching her race directing business.

Finding ultra

After the marathon, she found runners around the Wisconsin-Illinois border who did 100-mile races.

“I became friends with a few of the guys out there and that’s how I got into trail running, heavy into trail running, and then ultras,” she says. “After running the road marathon, I was done with that. I just wanted to see how much further I could go.”

Bhajjan didn’t waste any time. In eight months, she ran three 50Ks, a 50-miler, a 100K, and a 100-miler. In January 2014, she crossed her first 50K finish line at Frozen Gnome, a vastly different experience than her debut marathon.

“The biggest thing with ultras that I find, you could be anybody and nobody, but when you're at the finish or even at the start line, you're somebody,” she says. “You belong. There's that feeling of belonging to something, or just being a very, very small thread in this fabric that is ultra running. That component of feeling like I belong here just wasn't there (at the marathon). I think that's what drives people to ultra running.”

It did not take Bhajjan long to embrace the community.

“That was a huge year of not just running,” she explains. “I also was introduced to the ultra running community. After my first 50K, I wondered about other people running long distances here in St. Louis.”

With a desire to run long distances on trails with friends, she created Terrain Trail Runners.

It started out slow, sometimes only a few people showed up for a long weekend run. But, just like in ultra running, patience paid off. She now directs 11 trail races annually around St. Louis.

“The community at large here in St. Louis has substantially grown, and I am super proud,” she says. “It's exciting to see that I'm kind of at the head of it, especially as a female race director in a sport where it's very male-dominated. I take pride in it.”

‘A mid-life crisis’

With a background in design and merchandising, race directing was never on her radar.

“I always look at it as a mid-life crisis,” she says. “At some point in life, you have to make a choice. You either accept what society has thrown at you, and you keep doing what you're doing and just make peace with that, or you just go do something that's satisfying."

Her first race directing experience was a Fat Ass.

“I remember that rush and the energy from runners and people,” she recalls. “And most importantly, the finish line. Knowing, not just the physical, but the mental tug of war you go through to get to that finish line. And to be able to put something out there for somebody to challenge themselves and see that journey through. As a race director, I can't compare it to anything else. I get to be a part of that journey, that challenge that they were able to accomplish. That is addictive.”

As much as race directing is her passion, it can be like any other job.

“It's a grind. There are days that I don't like it. But then, suddenly you're standing at the start of a race. And that nervous energy, just everything that feeds your soul. I can't even compare it to anything else.”

As a runner herself, Bhajjan’s racing has evolved from pushing the distance to finding what's harder or scarier. “I don't know if I can finish this, but I'm going to go and see what happens."

She did not hesitate when asked which was harder: running an ultra or race directing one.

“Race directing is definitely more challenging. I have a much, much clearer perspective and understanding of running because of what I do as a race director.”

Boosting sustainability, other runners

She has always incorporated sustainability and zero waste into her races. This year, her big push was to partner with Forest ReLeaf, an organization that plants trees. Her race participants can opt to plant a tree instead of receiving a race shirt.

“We're going to be doing a planting day in the fall at one of the local parks,” she says. “I would take the money that we get from swag opt out, add to it and donate.”

As a mother, ultra runner and race director, you might think Bhajjan doesn’t have time for anything else.


She has volunteered the past few years at Hardrock, runs an aid station at Ozark Trail 100 and helps out with others. “At shorter distance events there is no lack of support. But for 100-mile races that go into the night, it's challenging to corral volunteer support. I see that struggle when I'm looking for volunteers for my 100-mile race."

As a race director and runner, she appreciates the selfless dedication of volunteers.

“Hardrock's been one of those projects where I had been wanting to do it for years and years and years,” she explains. “Then finally my time became my own, and I was able to be there. I would like to run it. And it feeds into that. Every time I'm out there I feel like I really just want to run this.”

Never stop growing

Bhajjan has come a long way since lacing up the running shoes as an adult. Her life was evolved into a mix of running, directing and volunteering at races. She’s not slowing down any time soon.

“There's a lot of resilience that's needed,” she says. “Patience — I'm still learning. You have to be patient. It's a process. Running and race directing, you can't just go through a checklist of things and it all works out.”

Just like in life, ultra running presents challenges.

“It's more like romancing, where you take your time,” Bhajjan says. “You feed into that, especially when you're running 100 miles. You're romancing the trails all day, all freaking night, sometimes the next day. It gives you a lot of discipline. Your brain needs to stay targeted. You have to stay on the ball.”

She draws a parallel between problem solving as a runner and as a race director.

“You can't just panic. You can't lose your shit, because you have to stay in the moment, and troubleshoot stuff. And shit goes wrong. It doesn't matter what you're racing, how much you've raced, or how many times I've race directed something. There's always something. Even with all the running and nine years of race directing, I'm constantly changing. I'm constantly learning, and I am trying to get better. I don't ever see that process coming to fulfillment. It'll just build. I'll keep morphing. I'll keep changing, as will the work I do.”

Speed drill

Name: Shalini Bhajjan

Hometown: “Born and brought up in Delhi, India, but I call Eureka, Missouri, home for now.”

Number of years running: “Not enough! About a decade of distance running.”

How many miles a week do you typically run: 40 to 45 miles on average.

Point of pride: Creating Terrain Trail Runners, STL and race directing

Favorite race distance: “100 miles. For me it's a distance where your entire life can be condensed, reviewed and on some level understood. Each time I run a 100 miles, I come out with a better understanding of who I am, ready to troubleshoot yet again!”

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “I'm not too picky! Always a banana first then whatever is available on the fly.”

Favorite piece of gear: “Don't think I have one in particular. Other than getting too attached to a pair of running shoes!”

Who inspires you: “Most people I know and/or have met through the ultra running community have bits and pieces that one can look say, ‘I want to be like her/him when I grow up.’ How's that for a lame answer?”

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: This changes with where I am emotionally during my run/race but I can always start with The Rolling Stones, “You Can't Always Get What You Want.”

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I don't know if I have one in particular that's my go to but before the start of every race as I'm internalizing I tell myself, ‘Whatever the day brings, roll with it!’”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Facebook: Shalini Bhajjan


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