The toughest City Trail – The trail that refuses to be tamed.
Since 2010 the ultra community in India has seen many an ultra running aspirant take on the toughest and the harshest trail, the one that made a tough runner tougher and a weak one challenge themselves one more time! The Bhatti Lakes Ultra has seen a few new ultra runners go on to take on more challenges around the world and become an annual pilgrimage for the serious runners.
Here is an account of an experience of a serious and impressive runner, Sidharth Tripathy at Salomon Bhatti Lakes Ultra 2015. The following is an account of his 100km race, in his own words. It is reproduced here with his permission. For runners planning a long run this October at Bhatti, this is a good read!
LONG AND SHORT OF RUNNING 100K – By Sidhart Tripathy.
As some of you may have come to know on 3rd of October 2015, I ended up running 100kms @ Solomon Bhatti Lakes Ultra Marathon. I started at 5:00am and was running for the next 17:53 hours. I am recounting my experience here as I feel I owe this story to the faith of my friends & family especially to the extended family of the running community. For me it was worth every inch of the 100,000meter journey and I wanted you to visualize and experience some of it.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 99 & 100?
Connecting the dots backward, I think it all started with this question which somebody asked me when I was eight or nine years old. With such questions even a young kid knows that the answer was not going to be very obvious like even/odd or 2 digit/3 digit etc. So I spent several days thinking hard about it until it dawned upon me that the answer was ‘100’. That means 99 is never 100. Sometimes we reach the point of 99 but the distance that remains between 99 and 100 is not just 1 but almost 100. Because 100 stands for utmost commitment, leaving no effort for tomorrow, the end of excuses and beginning of a new you,. I had instantly fallen in love with the number 100 back then. Unknowingly the love for this number influenced most of my major/minor life decisions like when I believed somebody it was 100%, when I loved somebody it was 100%, when I cried, it was 100% real, when I tried, it was 100% efforts and so on and so forth.
My love for this number never diminished but when I ran the first ultra of my life , way back in 2008, I was perhaps 100 times more untrained that I was this time, so I didn’t dare to sign up for 100k and felt 50k is too close to 42.2k so decided to run the 75k. But even though I ran 75k successfully in about 12 hours in B’lore Ultra but again I did something 100% and that was to regret for not having run the 100k.
RESPECT GOALS, NOT STATISTICS !
Less than 8 weeks from Bhatti Ultra Marathon, I came across some write-up about this race that this is the only official Indian Ultra Marathon recognized as a qualifier for UTMB International Ultra Marathon. My 7 year old ultra-regret for not doing 100k in 2008, showed up with full force. Almost instantly, I felt this time I have to deal with it, no matter what. The next few days I searched the internet to find any 6-8 week training plan for 100k and I found none whatsoever. Shortest training program was for 24 weeks. Instead I came across some scary quantitative statistics like worldwide more than 84% of the registered runners completed the Ironman Triathlon within the cutoff time but only about 25% of the runners could finish 100k+ Ultra Marathons and the specific statistics for Bhatti Ultra was even more scary because on an average in the last 5 years only 3-4 people could finish in all categories above 100K+. To add to it there were other qualitative discouraging inputs like somebody said that “100k Ultra Marathon is more like a cousin of the sub 2.30 hr Marathon or sub 4 min Mile ” and “It is meant for those who find pleasure in extreme pain.” etc.
But I think the more the odds grew in volume, so did the weight of my desire to run the 100k. Looking back I can say perhaps we all are conditioned to give too much value to statistics, If only we can divert a fraction of that respect to our goals, everything could be more possible- because even ‘impossible’ is based on mere statistics.
So finally I decided that I will run the 100k absolutely, positively, whatever it takes.. I also knew that I can never train my body for this race in the given duration- so I will have to make do with enhancing my appetite for mind games.
THE UNREAL TRAINING!
As far as training was concerned it was a poor mans’ ultra marathon. I had so little time that I just didn’t know where to start. And I was working burnout hours in recent months managing multiple ventures and priorities, barely had time to read the newspaper, let alone train for a 100k. One the13th of August , I had to drop my daughter at her soccer practice session at 5.50 am and then just veered off to the Leisure Valley park in Gurgaon, met a good friend Coach Ravinder over there. Shared with him that I am thinking about running a 100k on a lark and just don’t have anytime for training. He said two things both of which I didn’t really believe at that point of time, first thing he said ‘You can do it’ and second ‘ “You first run 10km everyday for next 10 days and only after that you should register”.
So from 13th till 22nd of August, I ran 10km every day, many of those runs were with some of you all during our normal GRR runs, so if we had speed interval days and our schedule was 400×6, I would do 10×600 and 2k warm up followed by 2k cool down just to add it up to 10k, if we were at BD park I would do 3 bigger rounds to somehow stretch it to 10k. It was very humid those days, I remember the last day in particular on the 22nd Aug. It was a Saturday and I had some work at Delhi so I couldn’t run in the morning, came back very hungry by 2 pm. Told myself, that I will have to be out in 40+ degrees of sun for the whole day on the day of 100k, so better to confront it sooner than later. Had to struggle to keep off lunch for another hour and ran 10k from 2-3pm and completed the last of the 10x10k lot.
Surprisingly felt as if I have earned my place in the 100k run even though I had only run 100k over 10 days, that too running on the road as compared to the Bhatti mines terrain of sand, rocks, trails and thorns etc. I realized difficulties are great teachers in our day to day life, if we get into the habit of confronting even minor difficulties (on a relative scale), it prepares us for bigger trials and tribulations in a very silent way- its like having the source code (as programmers would say) and our brain can build an application on top of it for a different function. Also goals have a mind of their own, no matter how small or big they are, once we reach any goal, we conveniently slip into the relax mode- so next 2 weeks I almost did nothing as if I had already completed the ultra. So you can call this the Taper-I.
I realized with about 30 days to go including last 2 weeks of taper, I couldn’t do much except just thinking about what could happen on the D-day. So every day for 10-15 minutes I would read the blogs of world famous ultra marathoners. Wrote to some of them and almost got similar answers- ‘you must be kidding !’, ‘Are you crazy !’ , “This kind of training gets you into ultra-injuries and ultra-pains and never to the finish line” etc. etc. In any case due to the GRR Sunday long runs’, managed to do another 15k and 18k respectively before the ultra. Didn’t have to plan for Taper-II, it happened by itself. One thing was clear that with this training if I get nowhere closer to the 100k finish line- I will only be validating what biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry and statistics has reiterated over time.
My mom always used to tease me that I am a great example of ‘little efforts and big results’. I would normally argue about the validity of that statement but ironically this time I so badly hoped that she is right.
* Disclaimer: You are advised not to try running a 100k ultra ever with such little training, and if you do so you will be totally responsible for the consequences.
CALL IT KARMA OR ENERGY, IT COMES BACK TO YOU !
During my self styled Taper-I period, GRR family was busy preparing for the Pinkathon. Last year I had not gone to Pinkathon even though my wife Mansi and daughter Sanskriti both were running but this year I had decided to train/pace a maverick runner who had decided to run for 3k and gun for a podium finish. I have this pet theory about coaches that they tell 3 words for every 1 word they listen and if they are running coaches they run only 1/3rd of the distance they are coaching their athlete for. Which meant that I was perhaps more and less running an average of only 1 km in the last 2 weeks prior to Pinkathon. But somehow I felt I was chosen to show her the way. That’s where the cycle of karma kicked in, little did I know that the maverick runner I was pacing will go on to not only get a podium finish at Pinkathon but she will eventually go on to pace me for not 1 or 3 but 15 Kms on a harsh and dark night trail and propel me to the 100k finishers podium. Music ! Confetti blast! Ladies & gentlemen, please put your hands together for Richa Deo (I may be excused but I had to do the grand ta-da entry act for the dramatic diva that Richa is.)
But on a serious note, I am certainly more convinced that, no matter how dark and desolate the path might be; good karma will eventually illuminate the trail.
THE CHATTY & SPEECHLESS ULTRAMARATHONERS !
When I was trying to train for my ultra marathon by substituting running miles with reading blogs of those who are running those miles, I came across this blog written by a Fauji(Major in Indian Army) from Bagdogra who had a no-nonsense training plan for 30 weeks to prepare for the Bhatti Ultra100k run. His blog had serious amount of detailing about the miles he was running 50K+ several times before the actual run. Ideally I should have been psyched out but strangely I was feeling as if somebody else is training for me and it will be handy for me during the run. (which indeed happened in a very different way). I exchanged few comments on his blog before finally meeting with him during the Pre-event briefing session on the Thursday evening i.e.; Oct 1st.
Everybody was chatting a lot during the bib collection session, I felt all that noisy chat was either helping the ultra athletes dilute their fears or they were desperately striking last minute alliances for the arduous battle ahead. I introduced myself to the Fauji, Major Neelanjan Banerjee. He said that he plans to go for a recee to the Bhatti trails next day morning at 5:00am . I agreed to come along and in the hind-sight it was a great idea as it took us some time to figure out the exact location and saved us from the lost and found plight on the race day. While at the site, we decided to go for a small sample run of 5k to get a feel of the trail. During the run he told me that he lost his 59 years old mother to Dengue on Tuesday itself and he is still running as she would have loved to see him complete this Ultra. I didn’t know what to say, was speechless for sometime and came back home and for most part of 2nd Oct, felt some kind of a tug in my heart, I forgot about my race and so much wanted Neelanjan to finish the ultra. Felt as though completing the 100k could mean some sort of a completion of the last solemn rites for his mom.
Somehow my pensive silence had lent more focus to my mind as I felt sharper by the evening when I decided to call some friends to brief them about what would be their 1st crew experience in a trail ultra. Just before I went to sleep I reviewed my dress and shoes etc., I had only one GRR T shirt, was wondering whether it is a good idea to wear it in the beginning or towards the end. Just then Sid.C called to tell me that he is sending 3 more GRR T-shirts as if there was a spycam telling him what I was thinking about. Over time I have realized that both Sid & I do not just share our first names but we also share a great mutual understanding of each others’ aspirations and endeavors. He wished me luck and said, ‘…you will do it ’. Coming from him, it surely inflated my faith in myself.
My daughter and son both wished me luck since I wouldn’t be seeing them in the wee hours of the morning. My son hugged me and said, “ Dad, Come Back Victorious”. Thought about those three words for few minutes while walking the two stories to my room- why did he use the word victory? Is it because he is reading lot of mythology these days? Is it a war? Victory over what? Victory over inner fears,! Victory over limitations! Victory over weary legs & scary dark trails! Perhaps victory over the very ‘idea of losing’.
OCTOBER 3rd, 10:30 pm:-
I had gone to sleep at around 9:30- had to work on it for sometime and finally slept by 10:15 or so and at 10:30 my mobile phone woke me up. I received a call from Major Neel Banerjee to let me know that his father too has been diagnosed with Dengue and he is rushing him to the base hospital. And that he may not run the next day. Asked him to take care and almost lost sleep for the rest of the night. Felt very sorry for Neel. I didn’t want him to deal with any more loss and I was ready to exchange anything for that. So used up all my reserve prayers in the next few hours. Kept thinking who needs to do an ultra marathon to experience pain when life provides generously on this count.
OCTOBER 4th 2:20 am:-
My wife, Mansi woke me up, I wondered when did she actually sleep? Thanked God; felt blessed. I remembered the college girl I fell for about 21 years ago, who could just about sleep anywhere as long as her head is on my shoulder and the same girl now stays awake through the night ready to shoulder all my worries. At home, she is the scientist as far as planning and organization is concerned and I am the timeless artist who is ready to forget time at the drop of a hat. I had a cup of steaming hot tea in my hand before I could rub my eyes and she had a clear minute by minute plan of getting me out of home by 3.20 am sharp.
Sent a quick text to Neel to check on his fathers platelet count, snap came the reply, “dad is fine, count is better, I will start by 3 and pick you up enroute”. Suddenly I felt the darkness outside was brighter and felt surge of new life in me. Shared the good news with Mansi and got ready quickly.
OCTOBER 4th 3.20 am:-
Met Major Neel and his friend at Legend main gate, and setoff for Bhatti mines via GFR. By 4:30am we were already there at the starting point. Met 20 odd runners who looked like ultra lean mean machines with some ultra gear on them- compression socks, camel back water pouches, head lights perched on their hats etc. . etc. I reminded myself that I have never ever run in the dark and that too with lights on top of the head but then quickly shooed the potentially self destructing thought- said to myself- what happened when I biked, swam or drove a car for the first time. What’s the big deal- it should be easier than that.
OCTOBER 4th 5:00am:-
Blood Pressure checked 110/80, Sugar-105. The countdown started. I said to myself, this is it and moved the index finger of my right hand on the back of the left forearm to draw the digit 100, some self styled voodoo ritual I do before every big run by ghost writing the distance goal, this helps me to tell myself that this road is irreversible from this point. The countdown started and I smiled at myself, even starting such races calls for a celebration when you look at the stats of what a huge % do not start even after registering. I spoke to myself- there couldn’t be a better place than the abandoned Bhatti mines to conduct this ultra marathon as I am going to dig deep into my capacity and perhaps find the real metal I am made up of.
THE FIRST 20Km: ‘EVERY TIME LIKE FIRST TIME’ formula…
We started running dot at 5:00 am, It was still dark, even though I was being watchful, but I was still at the front of the pack for about 1km, perhaps because the first km or so was the road part before the trail began but my advantage as a trained road runner ended soon as people crossed me one after another after the trail part started. But I liked that idea as I was getting to use the light thrown by the headlamps of the people ahead of me and people behind me as well.
Somewhere around 4 km or so saw a big porcupine cross the trail in front of me, I made some loud meaningless chatter with whoever was running next to me since I had heard that if a porcupine feels threatened, then one can easily end up with sharp quills in their skin which are venomous and very difficult to extract. At about 7 odd km saw the first of the Bhatti Lakes, since it was dark couldn’t see much but within the next km or so, saw the next lake, the day was just breaking and I could see the lake from an incline, it was a majestic view, just stood there and felt like a school kid who had wandered to an unknown land. Wondered if we lose our childhood because we grow or because we do not allow ourselves anymore to be awestruck, fascinated and see things every time as the first time. Suddenly it kind of made sense why our son was able to repeatedly see the same movie and laugh or get scared at the same scenes again and again. Every time like First time …hmmm…felt like a eureka moment of having cracked a formula for making short of long repetitive endless journeys. Told myself I am going to try and use the childlike ‘Every time like First time’ perspective during every km of the remaining 93 Kms.
Suddenly a pack of runners came and I was reminded that I have to go. So reached the 10k aid station by 1:15 minutes. The 10k Aid station was manned by an accomplished ultra marathoner turned humble volunteer. Felt lot of respect for him, had some salted peanuts, a banana and some Gatorade before starting on the outback route. The return journey was in daylight and I could now see the Bhatti trail in its real form, every 10kms included about 1.5km of sand, 4+ km of big and small rocks and various patches of irregular elevation, remembered the heartbreak hill on the Boston marathon route. Reached the starting point after 20k in about 2.40 hrs., figured out that the down route was tougher than the up route. Despite the benign weather so far, I was soaked, so changed into a fresh GRR singlet, happily put away the headlights in my drop bag, put on the glares and a new cap with a neck cover. For fueling I had half of a peanut butter sandwich with some coffee. Set off for the 2nd loop at about 8:00am.
20-40Km- THE SOCIAL LOOP…
I gathered it is during the 2nd loop that people socialized the most as everybody had settled to their planned or unplanned speed as in my case. I was perhaps little ahead of Major Neel as I didn’t cross him anywhere, I was hoping that he was going strong, a thought crossed me-I felt his mom must be watching over from the heavens. Met another tough runner who had a 3 year old relationship with Bhatti Ultra, he had a DNF in the 80K category in 2013, DNS in 100k for the 2014 edition and was back at 100k start line this time. For the uninitiated, ultra has its own lexicon, DNS (Did Not Start) is when you sign up for a race and never come to the starting point, DNQ (Did Not Qualify) is when you complete the distance but beyond the cutoff time and DNF (Did Not Finish) is when you stopped short of the distance.
In some ways, ultra marathoners are die hard romantics. Once they are smitten by a goal, they chase it like their life depended on it. I was quite impressed by this runner who looked determined to conquer Bhatti Ultra this time around. In this loop we mostly met at the aid stations, chatted and joked around over lemonade. During this loop I came across a band of 3 runners who were running as if it is a half marathon. I wondered am I going too slow? Anyway I was following a simple formula to calibrate my speed, that if I can breathe with my mouth closed then I am on the right speed. Met Neel this time around, he told me “you should have something to eat, they are giving some Upma”. Finished this loop by 11:20am and found that Upma was finished. Almost full marathon done. Felt its is not a good idea to go for the next loop without any carbo, asked about lunch- it was not ready as yet. So waited around a bit, stretched, changed into another GRR T, went into the medical station I had lost 2 Kgs apparently, sugar was at 95 but pressure was still at 110/80. Drank some sprite and waited some more time for lunch, had no clue how this was going to cost me dear later. Finally had some dal rice and left the aid station at about 12:00pm.
When reality clashes with fantasy in running, the results aren’t pretty. The sun was right on top of us and seemed as if the sun has decided to punish me for being too tempted by food. The hot lunch became a siren song for me and I was no Odysseus. (The Greek hero Odysseus knew that the sirens lured sailors to their death with their beautiful songs, but he also wanted to hear the music for himself—so he ordered his men to tie him to the mast of their ship.) I wished I had some alert device that had prodded me to leave the aid station earlier. Every step was tough even to walk, somehow reached the 5k aid station at 45K point, dipped my hat into the icebox and threw water over my head, took a banana dipped it into a jar of table salt and ate it, strange combo but just didn’t have the heart to consume salt as it is.
45-50Km..MYSTIC BHATTI LAKE BECKONS
At about 47k saw the beautiful lake again and saw a herd of cattle having what looked like a luxurious bath in the lake, felt extremely tempted to take off shoes and go into the lake, told myself that its not a good idea perhaps should do it on my way back. Was feeling that I am going too slow as I had no idea bout my speed since I had put off the GPS watch around 32k, realized that in the woods the GPS has to work harder so the Garmin exhausts the battery faster, I was clear it cannot take me till 100k so chose to put off the GPS and at least have the watch working. Suddenly heard my name from behind, looked back to see Amit, a dear friend who was there to play the navigator role. I would later upgrade his role in my mind to ‘sarathi’ for the humongous support he will provide in the 2nd half of the 100k. Hugged Amit and felt like I have new batteries on me. Amit, for the techie that he is, had done some smart calculations, not waited at the starting point, gone strait to the mid point, found out my location from the aid station volunteers and joined me enroute to the 50k point.
50-55Km…THE CREW EDGE
Finding Amit was like finding my mojo back, so we chatted about many things, during this part is when I felt the first time my hamstring wanted to tell me something, I knew I had to attend to it immediately. Two personal mantras of running has remained my secret cheat code since I have started running in 2006. 1) Tell yourself that ‘I can do it’ as many times as required and 2) Listen to the whispers of your body much before it starts telling you. Asked Amit to carry on while I strech- basically internally wanted to test the effects of the stretching. So sprinted a bit after stretching, joined Amit and in sometime we reached the 55k aid station. Realized that the GRR T is too wet and cannot wait for another 5k, interestingly Amit had carried extra T-shirts and socks for me. When did he get trained as a master crew member ! So got into a white GRR T-shirt, most of you haven’t seen it, it was more like a limited edition one, perhaps got made during the earliest trial runs of the production. But in the process of changing socks when I was bare foot, a thick thorn pierced my feet, pulled it out, saw blood – don’t know why but I felt good about the fact that it was flowing, got some first aid, put a band aid and then the new pair of socks. Amit on his own volition also ensured that I could speak to Mansi couple of times. Told her to get another GRR T-shirt as the frequency of t-shirt change was shifting downwards from 20k to every 10k now. Again we lost lot of time on this aid station during the change etc. Noticed on the big digital watch kept there, that the temperature inside the cool aid station tent itself was about 40 degrees which meant it was somewhere in the zone of 42-44 outside. In the woods the temperature is typically 2-3 degrees lower as well as higher than the city based on the time of the day. Got alerted that its time to move.
55-60Km.…HEART OF THE MATTER-
This phase was rather uneventful except for the fact that I saw the lake again and remembered that I had planned to stop by and take a dip. But being in the sun for so long, my brain was already too shrunk to allow the kid in me to expand his desires. Gave a wistful look to the lake and moved on. Did tell Amit, that I planned to do so but maybe some other time. It was almost 4’0clock by my Garmin and was wondering that Amit had already run about 15k with me against his original plan of 20k, But Amit, the true sport that he is, somehow sensed my concern and said that he is liking the overall experience and that he can carry on for longer than the original plan.
We reached the 60K point, got medical stats checked up, weight gain of 1k, maybe the food and lots of fluid intake, Sugar was 130 and the Blood pressure 110/80 again, wondered did I have a heart, how come it is so constant for 60k and almost 11 hours of pounding on rocks by then, either it has attained the Zen state or has given up on me- anyway the doc said you are the first one to complain about something rather good, so go run your ultra!
60-65Km……RETHINK, REBOOT & RESTART
After a quick bout of energy drinks and some salted chips, Amit & I calculated that we have exactly 6hrs 29hrs minutes left for completing the remaining 40k, that info ran a little shiver through my spine, I remembered that not long ago in December 2011, I ran the full marathon in Singapore where roads are like runways, still I had to exhaust every milligram of myself to barely complete it in 6:39 hrs., and now about 4 years later, after 60 Km and almost 11.30 hours of running I am required to do 40k in <6.29hrs on a mine sweep kind of a trail that would anytime now turn pitch dark. Talked little hard to myself for the predicament- told myself I was perhaps feeling too much and running too less. Failed to pinpoint the reason whether I ran too slow or chatted too much or stopped too many times or rested too much at the aid stations.
Looked at the watch, rebuked myself for giving too much value to the cold statistics about time and distance left, (blame it on my heritage-my father started his career as a professor of mathematics), I knew its not cold statistics but only warm surge of emotions that can make it even remotely possible now.
Suddenly it felt like the daunting task of a 10th down batsman having to firstly survive the last 10 overs in a one-day cricket match but also to score at a huge run rate. I hadn’t played much cricket but like a true Indian watched many a cliffhanger cricket matches. So I knew for such a fight the size of the dog doesn’t matter, what matters is the size of the faith of the spectators and the real deal was the size of the fight in the dog. Like a quick flashback, I remembered the faces of all those who had shown unreasonable amount of faith on me, who told me that I can do it knowing very well that I might not even know what I am signing up for. I paced around the medical aid tent few times while Amit was arranging some ice for me.
When Amit was back we discussed that the strategy is straightforward, I have to target finishing 5k every 40 minutes and a 5 minute aid station break after every 5 km. Sounds very possible only that it had to be done 8 times over to cover 40k from that point. The more I put my mind to it, more it looked like ‘not happening’. I realized that if so far I was relying on a strong mind to compensate for an untrained body, then that could get me only so far. Now perhaps I will have to entirely resort to some mindless running. Mind Out and Game On! A new mission 100k was born at that very moment. My right hand index finger secretly wrote 100 on the back of my left forearm again- a ritual that I had never ever repeated in any single race since my first marathon in 2006. Wanted to drop the glares, but Amit advised against as still the sun was quite strong. 4.31pm October 3rd 2015, I started running in a new race of 40k, as we say in GRR, Nothing fancy, Just (road) running!(bad news-there was no road!)
60-65Km..AN ULTRAPLAN UNFOLDS:
This was one of the most intense running sessions of the day, I suddenly picked up speed, there was just one target wherever you can run, run fast- where you cannot –walk with purpose. But just reach the next aid station before 40 minutes. I think we reached the aid station dot 40 minutes and almost like clockwork left the station in 5 minutes. 1 of 8, 5k laps done as per plan. Suddenly I had a plan somewhere towards the end of the game when I was planless since morning.
65-70Km..…LONESOME TO WHOLESOME
About 2 Kms in this lap, Amit tells me, “ Sidharth you should congratulate me because I have run past 21k for the first time in my life”. Smiled back at him, he had already climbed his Everest in the process of helping me reach mine. Felt all the more obliged to not let down Amit’ s gigantic support act. Tried running in the sand for the first time in the race. Even though I had silenced my mind forcibly but the thought did strike my mind about whether I will get to meet Richa & Aniket at the 70k point or else they can only see me after another 10k. (After 5.30 pm the loop was converted from a 20k loop to a 10k loop). Almost near 70K, near the starting point aid station saw a Honda CRV, looked like our car, I thought I am hallucinating since Mansi was supposed to arrive only by 8pm but then as I ran little further, saw Richa vigorously waving at me from the car, then Mansi, Aniket, Richa and their son little Kavin came out of the car and cheered me as I reached at the 70k point.
Seeing them all at once and their clapping for me, I felt like I have already completed the race. When I hugged Mansi, I felt like crying (again for a rather stoic runner, it was the first time ever in any race in last 10 years that I felt so). I was so sweaty but she didn’t care, she just held me tightly. Since it really was looking more like a shot you would expect at the end of the race, the official photographers came out with their cameras and clicked merrily.
Both I and Amit quickly downloaded the plan for the remaining 30k to the new crew, The new crew members realized it is not going to be some fun cheering stuff here. The intensity was so written all over my face. I changed to the new GRR T that Mansi had brought- I knew I wont have time to change any more from now, put away the glares, head lights on and it was time to experience Bhatti jungle in the dark. I was famished, I heard Richa saying she has got some halwa, I opted to have few spoons of halwa. But not much time to spare, we decided on the fly that next 5k, Richa is going to be my crew and then for the 5k after that it will be Aniket. No plans beyond the next 10k to be done again in 1hr 20 minutes max with 5 minutes of break in between, we agreed that if I go any slower we will have to cut down on the pit stop time.
70-75Km….Flying with the maverick – Richa started running with me, we decided that we have to move fast in this leg because there was the last bit of natural light left when we could move faster. She had been trekking in the wild on and off, so l found her deftly negotiating with the trail. The rest of the crew had gone to the 5k point and were waiting for Richa and my arrival over there. I remembered telling Richa when I was pacing her during Pinkathon to lift the upper body, move hands and keep breathing. As she was running with me I got even more conscious of my own inputs and that sort of helped, around 3.5k we were about to lose our way and that could have been the beginning of whatever else but certainly the end of this ultra endeavor. Luckily my 6th sense alerted me and I asked Richa to use the headlamp and look out for the red ribbons that were put on the thorny bushes by the organizers. If we would have arrived at this point 30 seconds later we would have definitely lost our way as the natural light almost summarily vanished at this point. I had to concentrate harder on the trail now and we reached the 5k aid station in about 40 minutes. Aniket and Amit were waiting for us over there. I had some lemonade, popped few biscuits into my mouth and decided to leave the station, must have been a 4minute stop or so.
75-80Km…THE RUNNING POET
Aniket was pacing me in this lap, unlike Richa who was running by my side, Aniket was running in front of me, so I had to pace up to be near the source of the light. He was holding the water bottle for me. But water consumption had drastically reduced in the dark. Owing to all these factors, I might have run this lap a trifle faster but somehow I was not at all thinking about the remaining distance just finishing this lap. Mansi and Richa were at the start point, they cheered me on as I entered the 80k mark.
I sat down in the medical tent and was feeling the need for some calf massage. Some telepathy, next I see is that Mansi was already sitting down and had started kneading my calf. Her head was down focused hard on the task and I stole a glance at her and was wondering how unconditional her support has been despite the fact that she was strongly against the idea when I first broke the news to her about my intentions to run the 100k. Mansi got up, brought some tissue and wiped off the sweat off my face. Right then, perhaps unknowingly she was playing a role that was having a huge impact on my mental state. Amidst all this frenzy, a poetic simile instantaneously struck me, I felt that she was like a shiny drop of a sweat on my face that is sensing my need, cooling me, staying close to me but it never drops off just gets absorbed in me again to reappear when I need her.
Before I could get swayed, told myself, Mr. poetic warrior, time to run again. I was realizing that it is so much easier to run a 100k than to run 8 5k races one after another. But that was no time for self pity so I started again- for this lap my pacer was Amit again, the most experienced and perhaps the most fatigued crew member by then. Amit had taken a unilateral decision to call his wife and let her know that he is going to overstay and support me till the end. Felt hugely grateful, couldn’t thank him much at that stage but felt great to run again with him between 80-85k. During this period we discussed that the last 5k will be critical so he will come back for the last lap between 95-100k as there might be a need to push me harder to do it lightening fast.
85-90Km….MINING FOR THE NEW METAL
Richa paced me again during this 5k. I was entirely relying on her GPS watch, I would ask her few times about the distance covered and would always get disappointed as the distance came out to be 15-20% lower than what I would have thought before asking the query. I was either not feeling the fatigue or just not allowing myself to acknowledge the same. In some ways I was almost indefatigable at this point (came across this word in the Norman Lewis Word Power book in CAT preparation days some 25 years back, incidentally I had liked the word and wrote it with a pencil on top of my study table). Strangely enough, my night vision was getting better and better. My running spurts were getting faster to make up for the slow walking in between. I must have run 100/200meters spurts ‘n’ number of times. The GRR speed run mornings were proving handy for the dark night escape act I was trying to achieve. Whenever I would walk for anything more than 2 minutes Richa would very gently bring up, ‘lets run a little bit now.’ As per our over dynamic plan , I was to run the next 5k with Mansi, shared with Richa that Mansi will be totally new to the terrain and the darkness may not be easy for her, so I would be rather comfortable if she ran along with Mansi in the next 5 k to pace me. She agreed without even a micro second of hesitation. I had no clue when did she run her last 10k- maybe 6 months or even more. I was wondering how just 4/5 weeks back when I was conducting this tiny training session with Richa for her Pinkathon 3k, if we have already run 2.7k and I tried to push her to complete the 3k under whatever pretext, she would refuse point blank and stop right away. This race was already digging up all kinds of metal out of all of us.
90-95Km….Superbelief or superstition!
We reached at the 90k point exactly at 9.24pm, I sat down, Somebody gave me some water, Mansi pushed some food into my mouth and gave me a 30 second shoulder massage. Amit came and said you have exactly 2 minutes to leave the aid station because we need to keep few minutes buffer for the last 10k. So at 9.26pm I got up and started moving, had no time to tell Mansi that she is not going alone with me. We had only two working head lamps with us, there was little commotion for few minutes as Mansi wanted to give me and Richa both the lights and was willing to go without lights, finally we decided that I am better off without lights, Richa would light the trail for me, Mansi should have a light in case she falls behind in speed. Somehow I was sluggish on this lap, maybe last lap jitters. Slowly picked up the pace, Mansi was initially behind and she had her eyes set on the trail for few kilometers she started keeping pace. Perhaps to take my mind off the intense situation, Mansi asked me ‘how do you want to celebrate’. I was quite superstitious about preempting the grand design God may have for us, so I just said, “Let me complete it first”.
At this stage Richa and Mansi were talking about how our daughter Sanskriti had called and she had asked to be given a kilometer by kilometer briefing about where I have reached. I was overhearing and at that very instant there was a sudden acceleration in my speed. After I slowed down again, I took a decision that I will run the last 5k with Richa instead of Amit, perhaps I didn’t want any change in the rhythm. We saw Amit about 500 meters from the 5k aid station, we had done this 5k in 42 minutes. I was clear that this aid station stop should be the shortest of the whole 100k.
Amit was ready to join me in the last 5k. He was very clear and in no mood to change his mind. He insisted and eventually convinced all of us that we cant take any chances and it is best for him to run with me in the crucial 95-100k.
95-100Km -10:14pm Oct 3, 2015…PICTURE PERFECT FINISH Amit I started for the summit of what was appearing to be a never-ending race. I had already slipped to a state of mind where if I needed to run few more 5k runs I would have done that out of reflex action. I don’t know if medically there is a term for my condition, perhaps a state of ‘runningitis ’. Suddenly my ears started ringing I could hear lots of voices, that of my son, daughter, lots of running mates – I felt they are all waiting at the end of the race. I was wondering if this is some sort of delusion, I told myself if I am getting delusional, I might have a short window of consciousness left – that got me into a state of urgency like none of the previous 95 kilometers, even before Amit could keep pace I started I sprinting vigorously and for almost the next 2 kilometers. I sprinted hard, Amit struggled to keep pace but was doing his best to throw all the light towards my direction. At 97.5km when I slowed down, Amit said you are doing great but we need to keep 5 minutes of buffer in case there is a mismatch with the official race timing and our watches. So we decide to pick up speed again. In the meanwhile Mansi & Richa had gone back to the starting point and were waiting anxiously for us. Their eyes were glued to the turn from where a runner finally emerges as he or she approaches the starting/ending point aid station. I am sure for them the climax was building up, they must be checking their watches and thinking about whatever could go wrong what if I have had a bad fall or some negative thoughts like that. At the turn since I had an advantageous angle of vision, I could sight the end line earlier than they could see me and I started running in for the last 400 meters, they sighted me, everybody present at that time was cheering for me and I threw up my arms to make a big victory sign.
Mansi hugged me tight and we didn’t know what to say. I hugged Amit and Richa and then many other people congratulated me. I heard Kavitha (the race director ) read out my time loud 17hrs:53 min, just 7 minutes within the 18 hrs. cut off. Then she broke the news that I am one of the 3 finishers and I have a 3rd rank podium finish in the 100k category, I was thrilled and our very own podium lover Richa jumped up as soon as she heard the word ‘podium’. Somehow both of us have almost felt or been on the podium twice within last 30 days running as different races as 3k on road and 100k in the woods. We hugged again in elation and suddenly felt liberated that I don’t have a time limit on this final pit stop.
What followed was what you can perhaps guess, lots of pics, the all important GRR pose, medal distribution. The finishers medal felt hugely special around my neck as this was the first time in the last 10 years that I had ran in any kind of a race and was truly the favorite and ranked as the top seed for not getting the finishers medal. I had other reasons to feel very happy- gathered that Major Neel Banerjee was the 2nd finisher of 100k and had dedicated the run to his mom. Ever wondered why Ultras are mostly held in trails and not on roads- perhaps one doesn’t need any cellular towers over there –the story behind each runner is a huge tower of inspiration to others to stay charged. Salute to that.
A SMALL PIECE OF ADVISE
-If you want to run an ultra like that, then go get a crew like what I had. Can never thank enough my wonderful team – Amit for staying with me till the end, Richa for flying with me, Aniket for being there on a Saturday evening sacrificing his most valuable sleeping time and Mansi for flowing through me before, during and after the 100k – she is a dream partner in the long run of my life.
Thanks due to many many other seen and unseen forces…
The rocks in the trail for feeling but not failing my body
The sands of Bhatti for not sinking my spirits
The Sun at Bhatti for burning me enough only to bring out my shining metal
The lake at Bhatti for bewitching me and giving back a mantra for life “Every time like First time”.
The many ultra runners who chanted my name umpteen times whenever they crossed me- indeed that resonance will keep me running for all times to come.
FINALLY WHAT IS THE POINT OF ALL THIS RUNNING:
There are people very close to me who keep asking me this question many a times and finally I might have an answer for them now. The point of it all is to experience a state of mind that cannot be experienced in our normal lives and not even in our normal running schedules. A state of mind when the trail vanishes & only footprints remain, when the destination vanishes & only the journey remain, when the runner vanishes & only the movement remain, when the ego vanishes & only humility remain, when competition vanishes & only camaraderie remain and perhaps a state when only the vanquished can become the victor.