Kiran Gandhi had trained for a year in preparation for her first marathon this past April, but as race day approached, she realized she was going to be on her period on the day of the 26.2-mile run in London. The 26-year-old, who recently wrapped up a concert tour as a drummer for M.I.A. and got her MBA from Harvard Business School, almost backed out of the marathon, but then decided to run—free-bleeding the whole way through and finishing in 4:49:11. Gandhi wrote about her experience on her personal site and on Medium, and she spoke to Cosmopolitan.com about what it was like to run free.
You wrote that you had never run while you were on your period before this. How did you manage to avoid it when you had trained for the marathon for a full year?
It's very painful whenever I get my period. Usually, I'm out for a day. I take a lot of medicine and maybe will go to class and hope for the best. But it's extremely painful and sometimes I even miss class. For that reason, the running has never proven to be a good idea. I made sure to train right before or a couple days after but absolutely not on the first or second day of my period.
Can you describe what the pain is like when you're on the first day of your period?
I can't believe we're doing this! Okay, it's good! On the first day, I definitely feel nauseous. I feel extreme pain in my stomach. It feels very debilitating. It's as if someone put a knife in my guts. It feels very intense, very sharp. It's usually right in the morning, so I wake up to it. I make sure I have Midol near me. I always have to eat a lot because if I don't eat and take the medicine, it makes me feel nauseous. Because everybody else is going through it and doesn't seems to be talking about it and seems to be doing fine, you think that you're the weak link. You just kind of suck it up. But that's the pain that I feel.
So it must have been really nerve-racking when you realized you were about to get your period on the day of your marathon.
It was. It was really scary. I though, Aw, man, I'm probably not going to be able to run it because I haven't ever and I don't want to hurt myself. I didn't really have good information about what happens when you run on your period. For example, they tell you that for men, their nipples will bleed because of the chafing between their shirts and their skin. I worried that a tampon might have the same effect. Granted, that might have been ignorant because people run completely fine, but 26 miles is different than just, like, three or four.
As you were debating what you were going to do, did you consult with other runners, your friends that you ran with?
Two heroes of mine — two she-roes — were running it with me, Meredith and Ana. Both of them had done a marathon before. They were just so positive. It was the emotional support that worked more than literal advice as to what to do. Both of them were like, "It's going to be fine, don't even worry about it, we're going to figure it out. Once you start running, you won't even think about that. The excitement of the race will keep your mind off it."
Last year, Ana had run expecting to get her period. She actually put a little tampon inside her bra just in case she got her period. By doing that, to this day, she has a little scar on her breast because the tampon caused her to chafe. That also made me not want to run with a tampon.
Were your cramps as bad during the marathon? People say that exercise is supposed to help.
I've never experienced that. Exercise would cause me even more severe pain. That's why I was scared.
So you ran through the pain?
The actual marathon day, I remember being in pain. It's that plus the anxiety — butterflies in my stomach before running. I took Midol, which helped. I was trying to be in the moment, and Ana and Meredith were so hyped. Those are the things that allowed the pain to subside and for me to just run. And feel fucking empowered to run bleeding on a marathon course. Once I started bleeding, I felt kind of like, Yeah! Fuck you! I felt very empowered by that. I did.
It's interesting that you were wearing pants that showed the blood. Had you opted to go with black pants, it maybe wouldn't have shown quite as much—
[Laughs.] I'm funny that way. I really loved that those pants matched my shirt. I felt really superstitious about the whole thing: I had planned this outfit; we were running for breast cancer so I really wanted to represent that from head to toe. I wanted to be bright. I feel good in bright clothing; it felt really celebratory. If I were to bleed through, I really wholeheartedly believe that at least on a marathon course, no one can say anything.
People go to the bathroom while they're running—why should bleeding freely be any different?
It's more about owning your own comfort level and being confident in your own skin to do what you need to do to accomplish something. Really making it about yourself instead of about other people. For me, it was a bit of a metaphor. I was like, Running a marathon is a very, very big stretch for me. I need to do whatever it takes to get myself to the end of that line. We were running for a greater cause, we were running for breast cancer. When you have that much support, you want to do a good job. That was really part of it — I'm with two of the best, most important women in my life. They stayed with me the whole time. I just wanted it to not matter. But it does matter in our society, right? If it didn't, everyone would be bleeding freely all the time, but instead we have to cover it up.
Someone actually said something to you during the marathon, right?
So this one older lady ran up by me and she said, "You have your period!" She looked very disgusted when she was informing me about that. [Laughs.] And I just say with a thumbs up, "No way! Didn't realize that. Thank you."
But there was this moment where it's mile nine and by this point, I'm showing. It's very clear that I have it. I know that I'm about to go see my dad and brother who are supposed to be positioned at the 9-mile mark with the rest of the breast cancer cheer point. I feel very awkward because I don't want them to feel awkward. I don't want it to be a thing. Your dad and brother are different than an audience of people you don't know. But with them, I remember trying to pull my shirt down and they didn't give an eff. They did not care. They just scooped me up into their arms, my dad was trying to take photos. It was a super-wonderful moment. That really was a turning point for me as well. It made me emotional.
When push comes to shove, all this cleaning that we do, all this shame that women feel, it doesn't matter. They were my family, that's their blood too. On a spiritual level, that's amazing. That connects men and women in a very amazing way. Instead of men getting grossed out by it or women being grossed out by their own bodies, we should move away from that.
Have you ever free-bled through your period before, or was this a first?
I remember in middle school, that was everyone's biggest fear. I went to Chapin, which is an all girls' private school on the Upper East Side in New York City, and there was solidarity, man. If you had your period and it showed through, they'd come and tell you: "Yo, you need to go change your shorts." That's where a lot of my confidence comes from about my own body as opposed to constantly having to hide or clean up what's going on for somebody else's comfort.
Now that your essay's getting attention and you have some distance from the marathon, how are you feeling?
I feel grateful that so many people get it. That's the biggest thing. Men and women alike, they get it. That is my favorite part about this whole thing, that people are remembering that women have this thing that they have to deal with. For some people, it isn't a big deal, and for other people, it is. It's amazing that every month, they clean it up, and every month, they act like they aren't in pain when they are. That's a big fucking deal.
The other thing that's a big deal is that people around the world who can't either afford to clean up because society tells you you have to and can't go out in public and participate in work or go to the pool. This conversation happens all the time but it's so real. I have this vision that if men had their period, because we are in a male-privileging society, that rules would be written into the workplace, rules would be written into the social fabric that enable men to take a moment when they need to or enable people to talk about their periods openly. We would make it OK. But it is oppressive to make someone not talk about their own body. It's intelligently oppressive to not have language to talk about it and call it out and engage with it. I really can't think of anything that's the equivalent for men, and for this reason, I believe it's a sexist situation.
Do you think you'll run another marathon?
I'd like to and my friends are both trying to get me to. They're already signed up. I'll have to see. Maybe if it's not on a period weekend!