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Rajpaul Pannu's journey from overweight, sedentary teen to top runner

(Photo by Ray Jackson, Jr.)

Rajpaul Pannu first gained attention when he debuted at the marathon distance with a top 20 finish in 2:17:06 at the California International Marathon in 2017. This past November, he recorded another impressive debut, this time at his first ultra marathon.

Pannu finished in sixth place at the competitive JFK 50 in 6:00:24. Consider not only that he essentially doubled the marathon distance but he ran the last 43 miles — longer than he had previously — after spraining his ankle around Mile 7 on the Appalachian Trail.

“I had to take a leap off of a log or something and I couldn't see my footing as to where I was going to land. When I landed, I felt the jolt in my right foot,” says Pannu, who opted to wear the Hoka One One Carbon X road shoes in the mixed trail-road race. “Suddenly I got hit with adrenaline. But when it happened, my heart just broke and I was just like, ‘Oh crap, I'm done.’”

A flurry of emotions hit Pannu as he paused and tried to process what happened. He was upset, fearing that all his training would be going to waste. After a minute or so, he regrouped.

“I had to process things very quickly because I had to make a choice in the middle of a race,” he explains. “But after I processed that, I initially decided that I was going to drop out and find the first aid station, which was around Mile 10. But limping for three miles can take a long time.”

So Pannu started walking, then began to jog, and after a few minutes he picked up the pace.

“I just kept doing it throughout the entire portion of the trail. Runners were passing me by. I must have been in 40th place or something at that time. But around Mile 11 or 12, it kind of just started to come to me, especially when I passed the aid station. And I told myself, if I can get out of this trail unharmed, I can finish this race.”

He did walk some portions but emerged from the 15-plus miles of the trail around 2:14. “I was stubborn in that sense.”

Call it stubbornness, or call it drive. It’s something inside Pannu that has helped him emerge from a quiet, overweight, junk-food eating teenager to a high-performing runner.

Cookie dough for breakfast

Pannu, who is Punjabi, is a first-generation American, born in Lancaster, Calif., outside Los Angeles. His parents are from Northern India.

When he was in 10th grade, Pannu was inactive, was 5-foot-8 and weighed nearly 200 pounds.

“I was just flat-out unhealthy and I had a terrible lifestyle at that time and no real self-esteem. I was eating cookie dough for breakfast and three cans of soft drinks a day.”

One night his mother expressed concern that Pannu may follow in the footsteps of his father, who died of heart disease at age 40.

“He was sedentary, and he didn't have the greatest lifestyle either.”

On New Year's Eve in 2006, Pannu grabbed a Sharpie, tore off the back of a cereal box and wrote a list of goals. Among them: lose 40 or 45 pounds and run the mile in under 6:20.

Within a couple of months, he dropped 40-something pounds and finished a mile in 6:08.

Pannu used the Internet to research a healthy diet. But back in 2007, the nutritional information wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. He ate Weight Watchers frozen meals “because they were advertised to be healthy but the reality was I was restricting calories.”

Now Pannu is 6-foot-tall and his race weight is around 153 pounds. He follows a pescatarian diet, but occasionally eats meat in social settings. He focuses on grains, veggies, fruits, salmon and eggs.

A path to college

As Pannu put the brakes on unhealthy habits, he accelerated his efforts to become a strong runner.

“I grew up without a father figure, and I believe at that time my first set of affirmations from a male figure as a teenager was from my high school track coach,” he says. “From my lens, I viewed him as a father figure. I honestly just wanted to make him proud.”

Boosting Pannu’s drive was his early success, including running a 4:43 mile in his first year of track.

“I just saw a path to getting a college scholarship. It was my opportunity to get a college education at a discounted rate. And it was also the first thing which I felt like I was just really good at.”

Pannu admits that he had not been a great student.

“All of those things just fueled that burning desire and helped improve my self-esteem,” he says. “And running and competing in high school cross country and track with the understanding that if I want to go to college and get that scholarship, it really motivated me to do well outside of running and create that work ethic.”

After his late start to running Pannu initially didn’t receive any Division I offers. After running in junior college, he accepted a scholarship to St. Mary’s College in the Bay area. He received all-region and all-conference honors in a competitive area.

“I felt like I exceeded my expectations as a cross country runner. And track, I just couldn't quite put it together for some reason. But all in all, it was a very positive experience.”

Teaching, learning, mentoring

After graduating college in 2014, Pannu dealt with a series of injuries. “It was a learning experience as to what my body is going through and what I can do to accommodate the injury and try to better myself physically.”

At that time he was also coaching a junior college team and began to understand the progression of a runner. Additionally, he reconnected with his college coach, Marty Kinsey, and they developed a year-long plan, which led to the 2:17 at CIM.

Pannu is working remotely, teaching high school math online for freshman and sophomores in California. It’s a way he gives back.

“I am teaching at a predominantly brown and black community,” he says. “That was the type of community that I grew up in. And I wasn't a kid too long ago myself. So if I can relate to the kids that I work with, and I feel like I can have very genuine conversations about the struggles and the areas for growth, just growing up and going through a community like that.”

What’s ahead

Pannu is a member of the Hoka Aggies, a club based out in San Luis Obispo in Southern California. He brushes aside his results, saying he has ”a lot to prove in the marathon distance, as well as the ultra marathon distance.”

JFK was “a good debut, given that I'm very green,” he says, noting that he only began trail running in July. “I'm inexperienced on the trails and, and just coming in, I had certain goals and I actually did accomplish them, but there's just so much room for growth.”

He’s looking to target races from the marathon distance to 50 miles. “I really, really enjoyed my experience at JFK. The people are awesome. The community is awesome. I just want to be a part of it as well.”

For now Pannu is looking forward to running more ultras and betting to know more runners in the community.

It’s been a long journey from the couch-dwelling, junk-food eating teenager.

“Endurance running is just a really awesome metaphor for keep going, despite what circumstances arise, despite what you may endure, you just have to keep going and take it one step at a time. And that step should be quickly calculated without much hesitancy. And when you take that step, you take it with confidence when you move forward. That's what I've learned.”

Speed drill

Name: Rajpaul Singh Pannu

Hometown: Lancaster, Calif.

Number of years running: 13

How many miles a week do you typically run: I built up to 115 in prep for JFK

Point of pride: It feels good representing the Indian community as a runner on the starting line.

Favorite race distance: The marathon; it's a perfect medium of strength and speed.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal with almond butter, honey and a cup of coffee

Favorite piece of gear: The Hoka One One Rocket X

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Tumultus Validus," Latin for a powerful uprising. I've used that since high school (could possibly be misinterpreting it).

Where can other runners connect or follow you: @LightningRaj on Instagram.


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