Running an Ultra Marathon: My first 50 km at Bangalore Ultra 2011
‘Why do you run?’
Somebody had asked me this question with genuine curiosity and shock (and NOT in awe and appreciation as I had hoped for) around the time I had started running seriously and had just finished my first half-marathon in 2005.
‘I enjoy running.’
I replied unconvincingly and without thinking knowing that the person wouldn’t understand. He didn’t. Any non-runner will not. Actually even I didn’t. I think the veiled reasons were to get fitter and to tick off this glaring thing-to-do of “running a marathon” in the seemingly long and unwritten bucket list.
Did I lie?
Six years later and after many half-marathons and two full ones I was on the verge of running an ultra marathon distance of 50 km at the Bangalore Ultra.
‘50 f@#&ing km!!! Are you outta your mind? Why? Why? Why?’
A voice screamed out. I saw myself in sepia lying on the sofa having beer and potato chips, watching TV with friends.
Oh! Those wasted years!!!
I didn’t reply although I knew what the answer was. It was a quote by Amitava Ghosh in his book “Hungry Tide”.
‘The true tragedy of a routinely spent life is that its wastefulness does not become apparent till it is too late.’
13th Nov 2011 – Bangalore Ultra Marathon: It’s Tough, are You?
The mobile phone alarm rings loudly. I wake up. Actually I have hardly slept. Even though I hit the bed at 8 p.m. the previous night, I eventually dozed off only three hours later. Blame it on the pre-run jitters, or too much water I have been drinking (a valid excuse for hydrating myself before the run) or blame it on the “unputdownable” book I have been reading – Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” – a starkling account of a hidden tribe of runners (Tarahumara Indians in Mexico), super athletes, ultra runners and great long distance races never talked about or heard of.
I finally get up after the customary deliberate snooze of the alarm. After the usual morning rituals I force myself to couple of idlis and sambar – to beef up on carbohydrates much needed for the 50 km run I was attempting in a few hours. In fact I have been beefing up on carbs the entire week – rice, bread, potatoes etc. and on proteins (read egg whites, daal) during my 2-month training. I pick up my bag, which I have stuffed the previous night with the usual change of clothes, cap, some medicines, iPod, glucose biscuits etc..
I put the bag in the boot of the car and drive towards Koramangala to pick up Rishi. He will be running 12.5 km. As I drive, I feel the chill. It is cold outside. Or is it my pre-run nerves acting up?
Rishi is as enthusiastic as ever and his effervescent smile calms my nerves. We head towards Langford Town to pick George Binoy and Elizabeth Chapman (Lizzie) who will be running 25 km and 37.5 km respectively.
Both of them hop into the car dressed in their running attire eating bananas. We start the long journey towards Our Native Village (ONV) resort, Hesarghatta around 50 km away. I realize that this is the same distance I will have to run in a couple of hours. The jitters return.
As we drive following the detailed directions provided by the organizers (Runners for Life), we are surprised to find a lot of traffic at that time of the morning (or night) esp. near Yeshwanthpur. I have no idea about the route even though I had come here many many years back to attend a concert at Nrithyagram very close to ONV.
We finally reach the venue following the Bangalore Ultra signboards and cars of ultra runners. I quickly pin the bib (no. 5030) to my T-shirt, tag the timing chip to my shoe, place the iPod on the shoulder band, pick up the wrist band, heart rate monitor/stopwatch, a snickers bar and car keys. I like to run without carrying too many things on myself. Well, there are those true trail runners who run truly “minimalistically”, with just their shoes on or sometime even without in thick forests running alone communing with nature. I wonder how that would be. But definitely not today with more than 1000 runners around. But, then there was no dress code for athletes participating in ancient Olympics (actually no dress/clothes).
I quickly shirk off that thought blurb.
It is still dark. The first of the runners for 75 km and 100 km have already started their run at 5 a.m. with torches. The starting point is crowded with runners eagerly waiting. It is noisy with announcements and blaring music. However, in all that noise we hear a cock crow. It is hilarious. The cock is definitely not used to such noise and activity at this time of the morning in this secluded nature resort.
Arvind Krishnan or A1 as he is popularly known is on the podium warming up the participants with his jokes and pre-run announcements. He starts by defining Ultra Marathon.
‘Any sporting event involving running longer than a traditional marathon length of 42.195 km, as defined by Wikipedia.’
My eyes light up as I realize that I too would be soon part of this elite club of ultra marathoners, if I complete 50 km that is.
I should. I better.
I have been preparing well for this run for last two months (as per the spreadsheet I have been maintaining) – running cumulatively 50-60 km in a week including weekend long runs of 30 km upwards, cycling, gymming regularly to strengthen specific muscles – quadriceps, hamstrings, inner and outer thighs, gluteus maximus, lower back, neck. Blah, blah blah !!!
Mentally I am better prepared as I have completed two full marathons with a personal best of 4 hr 32 min. I should be able to run 50 km within 6 hr. I think.
However, the last long run was the Auroville full marathon 18 months ago and in between I have not run much and have been plagued with injuries (the ever persistent torn ACL now in the left knee).
6:00 a.m. – 50 km run starts
The run finally starts. This one is for 37.5 km and 50 km distance. The route is 6.25 km long after which a runner would have to take a U-turn and return to the start/finish line to complete 12.5 km or 1 loop. I will have to run four loops. I am super excited. However, I start slowly as there is a huge file of runners ahead of me.
Around 300 runners are participating in these two categories out of 1000 runners overall for different distances. It seems that many late registrants had to be turned down. This is the 5th edition of the Bangalore Ultra and the event has come a long way with amazing participation from runners across the country and from 17 different countries. And the trail this time is supposed to be the toughest with very little tree cover and consistently uneven track.
Finally, the long bottleneck created by the runners in the narrow trail ends as the dirt track widens.
‘Why do you run?’
I hear a voice in my head. It’s the same question.
‘Just look around and you will know why.’ I sharply retort.
It is beautiful out there. The conditions are perfect. The morning light is making its presence felt. The weather is nice and pleasant with a slight nip in the air. The entire area is grassland interspersed with occasional trees along the route. There is adrenaline, joy and cheer in the atmosphere as hundreds run this amazingly gorgeous trail.
I decide to follow a strong runner as this strategy has worked for me in previous marathons where I ended with good timing as well. Lizzie is a strong runner. However, she has already paced away. I realize that I have started very slow. I decide to continue with this unhurried pace as I have miles to cover.
A complete stickler for listening to music while running, today I decide to start without it. And am glad that I do, as I listen to the sounds of nature among sounds of runners chatting and hitting the trail.
I spot Ravi Venkatesam, a batchmate from B-school and a marathon enthusiast. He is running 37.5 km. I catch with up with him and soon we chat away maintaining a steady pace. We discuss almost anything and everything about running – upcoming marathons, training, injuries, barefoot running, vibrams five fingers, Born to Run – the book, Tarahumara Indians, mad and crazy ultra runners. It is such a refreshing conversation where we don’t discuss work, campus gossip, the global recession and similar crappy stuff.
We focus on the art and science of running discussing the Tarahumara.
The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico were pushed into the Copper Canyons after the Conquistador invasion 400 years ago, this tribe hasn’t changed much since then. Known for their long-distance running abilities and long distance here means more than 100 miles (160 km), which they cover for hunting and going to other villages and not for leisure as the rest of us do. They run barefoot or with thin sandals in the tough terrains. Running naturally and correctly, as one should be doing.
‘Your expensive running shoes are responsible for your injuries. Your well-cushioned shoes ensure that you land on your heels which puts pressure on your joints, hips etc. You should switch to running barefoot or with thin soled shoes. Check out Abebe Bikila winning the marathon in 1960 Rome Olympics.’
The voice adds its two bits.
I stop at an aid station for enerzal and treat myself to sandwiches and bananas. Need to feed myself for the long run ahead. I remind myself. There is an aid station at every 2 km along the trail.
‘Wow. This is luxury, dude. There are ultra marathons with running distances more than 100 miles (160 km) in harshest of conditions where the aid stations are non-existent or spread apart more than 20 miles (32 km). In 1999, Marshall Ulrich completed the 146 mile (235 km) Badwater Ultra Marathon (as the name suggests) without a crew or resupply refusing any outside aid.’
The voice in my head is at it again. I ignore it.
I gather steam and pick up my pace overtaking Ravi along the way. I switch on my iPod playing the new playlist starting with the very apt song “Marathon” by the Canadian rock band Rush.
“It’s not how fast you can go
The force goes into the flow
If you pick up the beat
You can forget about the heat…”
I am pumped.
I meet Lizzie on her way back from the 6.25 km mark. She is scorching the trail along with other runners who have raced away.
I reach the 6.25 km mark. I take a U-turn and maintain the same pace. This run is a breeze. Have I spoken too soon?
As I inch closer to the initial starting point I see a sea of runners in one long file coming towards me. The 12.5 km and 25 km run started at 7:00 a.m. I meet Rishi and George in that pack as we high-five and shout words of encouragement.
It has taken 80 min to complete the first loop (of 12.5 km), 10 min more than I had estimated. I take a U-turn from the mark with intent of gradually increasing my pace.
I cross the 17.5 km mark. Each km is marked with a signboard indicating the distance covered for the number of loops covered. The pace is slower. The sun is out and is beating down hard. I feel completely exposed without a cap. I meet Rishi again who is returning from the 6.25 km mark. He is running after two months recovering from a broken wrist, a bad asthma attack and viral fever. Even without practice he is going strong. After our usual war cry and high-fives, I ask him to get my cap from the car and give it to me at the starting point when I return.
I cross the 21 km mark. I stop at each station for something to eat and drink ice cold water/enerzal, which I mix with salt. Need to keep on replenishing myself with electrolytes and salt. Diet before and during the run is important.
‘The Tarahumara diet is mainly Pinole (made of corn) and Chia seeds. Very vegetarian.’
I am reminded.
The trail path is now crowded on both the sides with folks running the different distances. It is a colourful sight with running jerseys of different colours and shades. I see runners from different countries.There is one elderly runner from Canada (it was written in his running jersey).
I see Yasuhiro Honda San, the 50 year old Toyota executive from Japan who has a 100 km course record against his name. I notice his running gait, slightly different from others as he thrusts his frame forward pushing ahead his centre of gravity while running. No wonder he is faster than the others.
I make a mental note of working on my gait as a reminder is thrown at me.
‘Correct running gait minimizes injuries, something you should get analyzed’
‘Yeah, yeah. I get it.’
I reach the starting point completing 25 km. I have taken 2 hr 50 min. 20 min more than my practice runs of 25 km. I am tired. Never felt so tired during my practice runs for this distance. Rishi is waiting for me with his mobile camera and my cap. I turn back for the 3rd loop and I put on my cap. Suddenly, I feel so much better now. This small piece of cloth on my head cools me down.
I have now memorized the route. The first two km is a narrow trail of very uneven dirt track and completely exposed to the sun. I walk when there is a slight uphill and run in the downhill. I see lot of runners walking. I am tempted and start walking.
The trail between the 2nd and 3rd km mark is interspersed with trees. I break into a small jog as the fast runners overtake me. One of them is Athreya Chidambi, who is running gracefully like a gazelle. I am just amazed at his running gait. In fact it is like ballet in motion. This is his 4th loop. He eventually wins the 50 km ultra marathon.
The path from 3rd and 4th km is characterized by half a km of tarred road, where I break into a run. I suddenly realize how easy it is to run on a road than in an uneven trail with loose gravel, ditches, grass etc. Not that my training runs on the road were of no use for this kind of trail running, but they have given me a sense of false confidence.
I stop at the aid station at 4.25 km mark (29.25 km for me now). My legs are all cramped up. My right knee niggle, which I sensed during training is in full flare. This was the football busted and later surgically sewed knee. I break into a routine of squats, stretches, bends along with the usual dosage of enerzal, salt, bananas and oranges. I bathe my head with cold water and I am on my way again.
I meet Lizzie, who is running at a steady pace. She will eventually win the 37.5 km race in women’s category with a new course record.
‘The battle of the sexes is really close when it comes to longer distances. There is only a difference of 10 minutes between the men and women world record for marathon. In fact, women are beating men black and blue in many of the ultra marathons.’
Even before I nod my head in agreement, two women runners overtake me. One of them eventually wins the 50 km in women’s category ahead of many men (including yours truly).
I meet George who is returning. He will eventually finish strong in his 25 km mark, his first ever mega run and that too almost barefoot (in his vibrams five fingers). He never ceases to surprise me with his strength even while summiting the daunting Stok Kangri peak (6137 m) with me in July. After the high-fives and war cries, I get back to business.
As I turn back from the 31.25 mark I am completely dehydrated and demoralized. I decide that I will finish this loop of 37.5 km and retire. With that in mind I find a spring in my steps as I alternate small walks with slow jogs taking breaks at all aid stations and stretching.
On the way back I meet Arvind (A1), we chat up a bit as we cross each other. After performing his usual organizer duties he decides to break into a run. A runner that he is cannot stay away from it can he?
I also pass the stream of runners who have now thinned out, as most of the 12.5 and 25 km folks have finished their runs. However, there are still many out there. There are couple of 12 year old boys, there is an aunty in a sari. What enthusiasm!!!!
I am now motivated as I run the last 2 km amidst shouts of encouragement from fellow runners who seem to be knowing my name (???). Ok it was written on my bib.
I race to reach the 37.5 km mark and am welcomed by Rishi’s encouraging smile and more shouts (with my name).
Ok. Sometimes this kind of pressure helps and I am now determined to finish 50 km even if I have to walk or even crawl the remaining distance.
It has taken me a whopping 4 hr 50 min to cover 37.5 km. My initial time estimation has gone for a toss. I set a new goal – to finish within 7 hours.
I take off, as in, I walk. I cover the treacherous first 2 km mostly walking with brief slow runs in between.
At the aid station I take a long break stretching and spraying my extremely painful knee with volini. I start walking as a runner passes me by from the other side. I think he is running 75 km or 100 km as he has passed me many times. So what else is new? Many such runners have done that. However, this runner has only one arm.
I am overwhelmed with extreme awe and admiration. Inspired, I start running with a fairly decent speed.
I pass by Ravi who is returning to finish his 37.5 km. He is another case study for inspiration. In three years he has transformed from a heavy struggling short distance runner into a lean and mean long distance runner shedding some 25 kilos in between.
Inspiration and motivation is not at all in short supply. I start to run. After stopping briefly at the aid station 2 km till I reach the U-turn point at 43.25 km mark.
I walk back and strike a conversation with a badly cramped runner from Chennai. I help him stretch his muscles as I do my stretches as well. He has decided to walk back to the finishing line. Not a bad idea as we walk back together. Most of the runners I see around me are walking. My right knee is hurting badly. My muscles are all cramped up. Achilles in my right foot is acting up (arrogant bugger). Neck and back are badly strained. I think I have lost sensation in my right toe or is it that the toe nail is coming off?
I need to throw these expensive running shoes and practice barefoot (or with thin soled shoes) running.
To sum it all. I am in deep and excruciating pain.
‘Why are you running, when you could be sitting in front of the TV drinking beer?’
It is that bloody voice again. However, I actually visualize myself doing that and this time in colour (not in sepia). The fatigue is getting to me.
‘Embrace pain. This is what sets an ultra runner apart from the rest.’
I tell myself. These are the exact words of an ultra runner featured in the book “Born to Run.” I get a fresh lease of life as I set myself up to embrace pain. (Please – not to be confused with any form of masochism here.)
The smile is back on my face, a typical runner’s smile.
I bid adieu to my walking partner and I start my run albeit slow. And soon all the runners and walkers I overtake or I pass shout words of encouragement – ‘way to go’, finish it dude’ and so on. I meet more familiar faces along the way, runners who I have met only during the course of this run. Somehow an invisible camaraderie has been forged between us as we acknowledge and encourage each other. I meet A1 again as he eggs me on.
I stop at the aid stations briefly and I continue running. I am aiming to finish within seven hours now.
The last 2 km are more treacherous than before with the trail more exposed than ever with the hot afternoon sun beating down even harder as I try to run in that uneven and uphill of a trail.
Just 1 km to go. The finish line is so close yet too far and I give my every bit of the energy still left in me as I race towards the finishing line.
I cross the finish line with cheers from the crowd, PA system and Rishi. I pause to press my stopwatch as one of the volunteers puts a medal around my neck.
I feel like a winner. I have done it. I have completed the 50 km ultra marathon. It took me 7 hrs 3 min (ranked 35th out of some 155 odd 50 k runners). It is more than an hour I had estimated. An extra hour of pain, heat, sweat and even blood, and yes, oodles of adrenaline.
Totally worth it !!!
‘So, why do you run?’
‘I enjoy running.’ I reply confidently and convincingly, this time.
‘Try it out. I am sure you will enjoy it too.’ I add emphatically.
And keep smiling. Cheers.