Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Malnad Ultra 2016 - 50K

From the moment, Anand, the race director contacted about an event he was planning to organize in the Western Ghats, sometime in Nov 2015, I have been quite excited about running in the event. The race that he meticulously planned with a great team backing him, came about last weekend.

I was chicken to run anything longer than 50 km since I have other events in this time frame, esp the Bangalore Ultra, whose ghost haunts from last year. Before the Cauvery trouble derailed KTM, I was looking at the FM at KTM in Sep, the Malnad 50K in Oct, the 75K Bangalore Ultra in Nov and the FM at SCMM in Jan. Before the Bengaluru Marathon changed its date from the announced date of 23rd Oct, I had also planned the FM there too.

Now that KTM has got pushed to Nov, I had no events from the TCS 10K in May. My training had also suffered some interruption due to dengue in July. I had trained quite hard for the Malnad Ultra doing repetitions of the Nandi Hills loop as well as several runs over 30km, some of it on trail surfaces. The way I saw it, the event had twin challenges - esp after A had done the routee recce, elevation gain and surface. Nandi Hills took care of the elevation change and I did some repeats of the Cubbon loop on my long runs as well as Thu runs where I ran only about 16 km on some days in the last few months. I thought I was adequately prepared and based on my training runs and some other hard runs such as the Ooty Awareness Run earlier this year and Javadhu last year, I felt that a sub-5 hr finish was possible. Little did I know how off I would be.

The night before I travelled to the event, my scooter got hit by a bus, which caused significant damage to the scooter and mercifully zero damage to me, except my wallet due to what I will end up paying for the repairs. The latter really messed with my head as I set out for the race as I am not exactly flush with funds and any accident where you are the victim leaves you feeling violated.

Some snafu on the transport connection at Birur didn't exactly calm my nerves. I have spent so much time discussing the pre-race events since one'd mindset during the race can get influenced by events outside of the run itself. The weather was quite warm the day before the event and I had even spoken to Anand, on behalf of several people who felt we could start the race perhaps an hr earlier than the scheduled 9 am, to avoid some of the heat. However too many things were set and once we got to the pre-race dinner, we could see the difficulty with shifting times and the start time was unchanged.

On the race morning, most of us who were at a resort named The Last Resort, were first ferried in the wrong direction by a driver as confused as the rest of us but were rescued by another alert driver in a bus in the opposite direction. This actually provided some comic relief since we had over an hr's buffer to the race start time.

I had taken muesli from home and ate it on the bus while we went one way and then the other. Once at the start, all we had to do was wait for almost 45 min to the start. Before that, we cheered the 80K and a few 110K runners who passed the 50K start. A looked good as he gently went by.

Our race began about 10 sec ahead of time!

I caught up with A, checked how he was feeling and then went on my way. Sampath J (distinguished from Sampath Kumar who won the 80K) kept asking me about my target time. I had no specific time I was willing to disclose but I wanted to pace the run on effort. Besides Anand's suggestion on treating the event as a run and not a race, was still fresh in my ears. There were no prizes after all and all finishers got the same medal.

Sampath J (SJ) and I ran together for about 6km or so, having lots of conversation. SJ is a very fast runner, who I have run with several times in the past and is great company, since running isn't necessarily his primary interest (he does treks/mountaineering at high altitude quite often and is also a member of an Ultimate Frisbee team). At that point we had passed all but one of the runners we had seen at the start. All of the runners ahead of us had been estate workers, most of whom were doing their first runs, perhaps over half marathon distance. When we hit the first uphill, I continued and was a bit surprised to see SJ drop a bit behind. At this point, I had only one runner (also an estate worker) ahead of me. I passed him too at around the 7.5 km mark. When I got to the 9.5 km mark or so, I was the first runner at that point and the water stop wasn't ready with pre-mixed electrolyte. Kieren (the boy who's already a legend in Indian running circles, also the running manager for the 80K and 110K events) was trying to be apologetic, but I stopped him and told him I was really in no hurry (esp with Anand's suggestion still fresh) and I understood what went behind getting these things going. I mixed my own drink (and would so at every water stop till about 32K) and then carried on. By the time I left the water stop, the bald estate worker had caught up, but then he needed a stop too. I realized I had spent over 30 seconds at the stop.

From then till about the 16km mark, when we came to what had been announced to us as one of the highlights of the race, the Summit, I saw no other runners. On the path to the summit, I saw what appeared to be a tourist in a white t-shirt (who I now know as Tapas), given how he was walking leisurely on the narrow path. As I got closer, he turned back and I was surprised to see he had a bib on, one for the 50K! At this point, I made a move since I knew I couldn't make any move on the steps to the Summit and quickly went past him. I was the first guy at the Summit and since that was a mandatory checkpoint, I was also informed by those making notes of our bib nos of the same fact. From this point on, I was told the same at every stop till I finished! I must confess that till about 40k, when I asked the water stop volunteers if they knew someone was ahead or how much behind me the next runner was, I didn't really check if someone was close or not. All the info was just fed to me by enthusiastic volunteers/photographers. I met SJ on my way down from the Summit and hence knew I had < 1km on him. I slowed just a bit b/w 17K and 21K since I was keen to not be caught soon, since the hard running up the slope had caused me to hyperventilate. At the halfway mark, a photographer stopped me since he wanted to take pics! I must admit I was simultaneously flattered with the attention and nursing mixed feelings about slowing down for pictures. Soon after the half marathon mark, I tripped on a stone on the trail and fell face down. My bib ripped from the safety pins, my left knee (already dodgy!) hit the ground and one of the safety pins caused a bruise across my chest*. I picked myself up and after checking that I hadn't broken anything and had suffered only minor bleeding on the knee, I continued. The left quad began to spasm a bit from that point on, since the knee had suffered a direct impact but at that point it wasn't much of a bother, esp if I slowed a bit. I also realized a bit later that I had dropped the piece of ginger (I had kept one handy to avoid nausea during the last segment or post-race) during my fall.

When I checked the elapsed time at the 25K mark, ~2:21 hrs, I knew that I'd be challenged to hit my 5 hr mark since the last 5-6K finish was uphill. It didn't bother me then as I wasn't really checking splits every km. At about 22-23 km, we had to go on a loop of the estate and one of the boys who was at the water stop before the one he was supposed to be, ran with me for about 2km and ensured I didn't lose my way or any time trying to decide which way to go. After about 6 km, I got back to the point where he had met me. He chatted with me for a bit and told me he was finding it difficult to hold that pace. I told him it must be because he hasn't trained. Almost everyone who talked to me on the course asked me where I was from incl this boy.

After this loop, I asked the water stop volunteers if someone had passed after me. They told me that just 1 runner had done so. That gave me anywhere between 3-5 km on the next runner. I didn't know if it was Tapas or SJ. I was expecting it was SJ since he's fantastic downhill and I don't know Tapas.

When I encountered a rather steep hill at the 29km mark or so, I began walking almost without hesitation since my left quad was hurting and left adductor was threatening to pull, like it had during SCMM. Walking helped a bit. The next segment was more forest than coffee estate and at about the 32km mark, I had my only moment of real confusion and agitation on the route since there was an unmarked fork, but with someone manning it. There was the parent of one of the runners and I asked him which way to go. He asked me if I had done the hill. I had no clue since I had run up and down several hills all of which looked similar - typical coffee estate slopes. He reassured me that if I had run a hilly loop of ~6K to get there, I had covered it and I should take the path downhill from the fork. Moments later, my Garmin which showed 32.7km at that point (my Garmin had been drifting by about 0.1-0.2km every 10km and was ahead of every race marker except at the 18km mark, where it was just 0.24 km ahead) vs the race marker of 32km and I was quickly placated. This juncture also provided an emotional high since a bunch of villagers heartily clapped for me and almost everyone at that water stop (it was one of the major food stops on the course) cheered for me. I was back in the forest at this point. Other than monkeys, some of which seemed to heckle me at some point, I saw a doe which provided another moment of hilarity. It darted across my path, just before a hairpin bend only to meet on the path on the other side of the bend and then darted back to where it had just crossed me moments before. It is useful to remember that most animals are as surprised as you are when you see them in the forest, especially if you chance upon each other. I had been hoping that I didn't see any cobras on the route and was glad when I reached the finish line without seeing a single cobra. However at several points, I was startled by various items which seemed like snakes to me. One such item was a portion of a silver coloured cement sack, which had sunk into the ground and glistened just like a snake's skin does. For someone already expecting to get spooked, this was one such!

There was another moment of anxiety at some point between the 35-36 km marks when I came upon what seemed to be a fence identical to the one I had seen about 2 km before. I thought I had missed a turn and ended up in a loop of 2 km. I decided to be more careful about looking at markers at this point but needn't have worried since the next marker at 38km showed me all was well. From there till the 40km mark, I could see the water stop at the 40km mark, since it was located on a beautiful section of the course, by the side of a water body, in an almost dream-like setting with calm water on one side and a neat path on the other with ready refreshments. An ambulance came from behind me at this point and in response to my query told me that the next runner was perhaps 5 km behind, since none was to be seen. Still, I expected to get passed before the finish as I only wanted to survive without incident. I haven't forgotten that I have puked during or after every one of my 50K events. Strangely I have not puked on my training runs of over marathon distance incl a 50k I did on the road last year. While the photographer at this point was very encouraging, my legs weren't feeling great, since both quads were cramping, resulting in some adductor pulling once every few hundred meters. And they weren't relenting even if I walked, however slow. While I felt a bit disappointed, since I had led till this point and was sure I would get passed in the next 10km as I was walking, I also knew that if I was suffering, it was likely that some of my fellow runners were too. My goal then was to try and finish running. So I'd save my legs up till the last km or so, by walking and then running to the finish.

I realized at some point on this section, that I didn't even cross the marathon distance under 4 hours. I was looking at a finish in ~5:30 hrs, since I was walking at about 15min/mile and I had ~6 miles to go. At about 44 km, I began seeing and hearing vehicles above and I knew in about 2 km, I would be back on the road, when the surface wouldn't be a challenge. Once I hit the 46 km mark, I began running a bit, since I hit something of a flat/downhill section which felt odd since I didn't remember much about the first few km, but they were certainly not uphill when I had run down!

At about 48 km, I actually looked behind and saw that there was no one behind me. The ambulance came by and confirmed that fact. All I had to do was continue. There's enough photographic evidence of my walking and suffering on this last section as I think the photographers had little to keep them occupied :)

In the last km, I could actually see a lot of vehicular traffic in the distance and several people on the road incl. some people on a motorbike were taking videos of my running and encouraging me to the finish.

Once I was within sight of the finish, I ran the last 100m or so, trying to get a good finish line pic and everyone waiting there cheered the first finisher!

For the record, I finished in 5:19:21 hrs.

My first reaction was one of relief. I quickly drank about half a litre of curd, since my wife had gone sightseeing and taken my bag (with my food) with her. After recovering, I spent quite some time conversing with several people all of whom wanted to know various things about training for the event and my life in general, incl. why we were all in an event which had no prizes/rewards of the monetary variety !

I remember some things from the event with mild bewilderment - I had exactly 1 gel (the one that came free for all participants) and that too at the 40km mark or so. I had only the electrolyte drink at every water stop, except one. I had 3 dried figs, each about 3-4 km apart, starting from around the 29km mark. That's pretty much the only nutrition I had during 5 hours. I can't remember exactly but this is perhaps the first time I have finished first in any running event at this distance. It is also one of the few times I have actually run in an event with a moustache :)

It is difficult to describe my exact feelings about the event. It is easily the toughest run I have done but it also ranks amongst the most beautiful routes. The sense of calm and isolation on the trails is something I would pay for. The fact that I have mostly recovered from the run in ~48 hrs is proof of how much good trail running is, for the body. The Malnad Ultra is a fantastic advertisement for all that and much more.

Thanks to everyone who made the experience memorable - the volunteers, fellow runners and local people who cheered for everyone and some who even joined for a few km.* I actually saw this only well after the race when I took off my singlet after the run