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The whole nine yards: For the love of handlooms, this Microsoftie traded tracksuit for a sari to run a marathon

It’s not every day you see someone complete a 42-kilometer marathon wearing a sari and sandals. While saris are considered a traditional attire, Jayanthi Sampathkumar decided to push the boundaries and run the annual Hyderabad marathon wearing her 9-yard handloom sari.

Sampathkumar is a Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft and when she’s not working on Bing Knowledge Graph, she pursues her passion for Carnatic music, takes care of an entire household and indulges in collecting handloom saris.

“I visited Kutch district in Gujarat and witnessed the hard work these handloom weavers put into creating something so beautiful. Seeing their painstaking work and how handloom weaving is their livelihood encouraged me to choose handloom saris over machine-made saris,” she says.

“I have always been fond of handloom saris. In fact, my fondness for them was so extreme that I have almost two cupboards full of saris. Last December, when I was going through these cupboards, my husband joked saying that I don’t even wear all of them. I took it as a challenge and decided to wear a sari to work every day from January,” she adds.

Her unconventional inspiration to run a marathon in a sari began when she read an interesting news piece on her running group that spoke of a man that set the record for the fastest marathon run in a business suit. “If he could do it in a business suit, perhaps I could achieve this feat with a wearing a sari,” Sampathkumar thought.

After researching, she found out that the Guinness Book of World Records also had a category for the fastest marathon run in a sari that had to be completed under five hours. As the category was still awaiting a contender, she decided to take up this challenge and compete for it.

“My mother wears only a sari ― all the time ― even when she sleeps at night. Sometimes she does think wearing a sari limits you from doing certain activities. I do not want women to have any limitations in their head when it comes to wearing a sari. A sari is a piece of clothing. Women can continue to be traditional, but that should not stop them from achieving their goals,” Sampathkumar tells us over a Skype call.

A sari, which is a wide strip of cloth at least six yards in length that’s wrapped around the wearer’s torso, can be quite restrictive for running. She reached out to her friend Sudha Rani, who is closely associated with the handloom industry for help. Rani is the CEO of Abhihaara that works with cotton farmers, handloom weavers, craft artisans and garment makers. She’s also the project lead at Chaitanya Bharathi, which manages Microsoft’s Project ReWeave.

Project ReWeave is one of Microsoft Philanthropies’ programs in India that began in April 2016. It focuses on reviving the handloom-weaving ecosystem across various clusters in India with the help of technology.

Rani had already given Sampathkumar a six-yard handloom sari in the past that was comfortable and beautifully colored. She wanted an identical weave in a nine-yard sari, so she has the best mobility while running. Sampathkumar completed her marathon, in 4 hours, 57 minutes and 44 seconds, with her handloom sari draped in a traditional Tamil “Madisar” style.

“Microsoft, as a company, has given me a lot of support, particularly my current team, my manager, and management chain. They have given me the opportunity to pursue my passion and maintain a good work-life balance as well,” she says.

UPDATE: It’s official! Sampathkumar has been awarded the Guinness World Record for running the fastest marathon in a sari.