How I became an ultra runner

The story of my first baby steps into the world of ultra running

Why o why?

Runners know that there is no answer to this. Others will never know. Unless they take the red pill (ref: The Matrix)

Unfortunately no one can be told what it is. You have to see it for yourself.

So this won’t answer the “why”, but I’ll attempt to share the “how”.

I completed my second full marathon in January 2018 at Tata Mumbai Marathon. Thanks to some solid training with Jayanagar Jaguars and a few good Hill events like Chamundi Hill challenge (HM), Jawadhu hills ultra (25K) and Nilgiris Ultra (25K), I was well prepared. I ran strong and finished with a timing of 4:24, a staggering 53 minutes faster than my debut marathon in the same event in 2017.

Strong finish @ TMM 2018

I experienced a runners high and an immensely happy state of mind for several days. In this happy and (over?)confident state of mind, I decided I’ll step to the next level of endurance running this year, and registered for the 50K Category of the Malnad Ultra on 11th February. Little did I know what was to come.

Training starts

The training for Malnad Ultra kickstarted in the first week of June. As expected, this was quite different from a typical FM training. Week after week of never-ending Hill runs and downhill repeats were taking their toll. The hilly roads of Banashankari, Turahalli forest trail and pipeline road were becoming the second home.

Meanwhile, as I started reading more about the event and talked to few fellow runners who had run it the previous year, it was clear that this was not a place where one (not considering the elites) could run the whole distance. Coach’s training plan also indirectly emphasized this; half of the long runs had to start with around an hour of walking. The ultra had dealt its first blow long before the event by preparing my mind to walk a significant part of the route.

Tentative Strategy #1 : Walk most uphills to preserve energy and make up for the lost time on the downhills.

The confidence booster

First event during the training — TRORT (The run of Raramuri Tribe) on 28th July. This is arguably the toughest race in Bengaluru covering part of the hilly pipeline road and nearby areas. Like any other event before Malnad, this was to be treated just like a regular practice run, completing the workout distance of 28km (7km after the race). While the timing really didn’t matter and we ran intentionally slow, I felt great throughout and particularly strong on the downhills (I’m usually a very skeptical runner on steep downhills and tend to hold myself back for the fear of falling flat on my face). This was a great sign. My strategy was going to work! A timely confidence booster. Or was it?

Fun in Coorg

Second event with coach’s blessings — GHR Coorg on 5th August. A run vacation as they call it, and also a great opportunity for some of us to have a good training run on real hills. I found company in a couple of other runners from Jayanagar Jaguars, and we took many detours, straying into the countryside and stunning coffee plantations.

Awesome run with Ramki and Ambika @ GHR Coorg. This location was a detour from the official route.

We had great fun, the elevation notwithstanding, and after having breakfast at the finish point, I continued into the town to complete my workout distance of 32km. Another strong hill run completed without much trouble. Things were looking up. Or so I thought.

Optimistic Strategy #2 : After such good training, maybe I’ll be able to run at least half of the uphills also?

The Ultra Half Marathon

The last event before Malnad Ultra was Satara Hill Half Marathon on 2nd September — considered by many as the toughest half marathon event in India, and self-proclaimed by the organizers as “The Ultra Half Marathon”. Having run it the previous year, I knew it stands true to all the hype with almost all of the first 10.5km being uphill and the rest downhill. It is an invigorating experience to run this event, with incredible crowd support, second only to Mumbai marathon (among the races I’ve run).

Workout distance = 40kms.

The HM is tough as is, and I had to do it almost two times! I was scared to death in the beginning and was literally looking for an excuse to skip the second loop. Thankfully, the HM went well, the weather was still good, and I had some energy left to attempt the remaining 19kms.

Hilarious yet meaningful distance markers at SHHM 2018!

As I climbed up the hill with stares and inquiring glances from the slower runners still coming down, I started feeling the heat, literally and figuratively! The sun was out in all his glory, legs were fatigued, and I had my first taste of being “forced to” walk during a run. But I was closing in and felt a big sense of relief after finishing the uphill part and turning back for the all-downhill last 9.5kms. If only! There were 7kms to go when the knees suddenly started to hurt badly. No amount of stretching, leg swings, etc would help. Had to again resort to walking and extremely slow running to somehow finish the remaining distance. There was some comic relief in store when a couple of onlookers inside the town asked me if I was just finishing the HM.

That was it. I had conquered the hills of Satara. Probably the most important training event in the lead up to Malnad. It indeed was, but for the wrong reasons.

It’s going downhill

The very next day, I had trouble climbing down the stairs with similar knee pain. To make matters worse, I also had (a relatively mild) attack of Gout, which can take weeks to recover from. Took a painkiller to reduce the swelling before it flared up into an acute attack. I was more worried about the knee pain and skipped a few training runs to give it time to heal. It improved to some extent, but I wasn’t able to run beyond 20–22kms and had to abandon two key long runs because of this. I was staring down the barrel now. If I can’t run 25kms on the roads of Bengaluru, how was I going to run 50kms in the hills of Malnad? I then saw a very good sports medicine doctor who examined my knees and assured that there was nothing wrong with them, and the pain could be because of tight hamstrings. His advice was

  • Keep doing hamstring stretches.
  • Ensure a good amount of leg swings as part of the warmup.
  • Walk the downhills if there’s any hint of knee pain.
  • If it surfaces during the run, walk for a while and attempt to run after that.
  • If you can’t run even after walking for some time, abandon the race.

Planned strategy gone for a toss. If I walk uphill to save energy and walk downhill to avoid knee pain, where does it leave me?

By this time, the training had started to taper, and I had to do only up to 20kms of long runs, which I could finish fairly comfortably, reducing the self-doubt to some extent.

Not really a Strategy #3 : Forget about strategy. Turn up on race day and put one leg in front of another. Run, walk, crawl. Finish the race. Don’t hesitate to abandon if knees don’t cooperate. After all, I can always come back next year. Save the knees.

That was it. Now the mind was prepared to (if really required) abandon the race as well, not just walk when required. Tamed by the ultra.

The day before

In spite of all the setbacks, it got more and more exciting with anticipation as the event drew closer. The prospect of running through lush green coffee estates and grinding through the challenging mountains was more appealing than any fear of failure. It seemed that the taper had helped as the pain had not shown up in the last 2 weeks.

So there we were. 12th October. Two full compartments of the train filled with runners from Bengaluru. A short 3hr journey to Birur where buses were waiting to take us to the accommodation arranged by Active Holiday Company in Ballavara village. After settling down in the rooms and after all 5 of us from Jayanagar Jaguars had arrived, we took the 4:30 pm shuttle to the Rajagiri estate where the pre-race briefing was to take place. The organizers had also arranged for early dinner. The simple south Indian food was quite tasty! They had also arranged for containers for runners who wanted to pack and take some food back to the hotel. This was good thinking, and we did take some food with us to handle any hunger pangs in the night. We had this second round at around 8:30 pm, readied the race gear and baggage, and went to sleep, full of anticipation.

The JJs gang at Malnad. Self (50K), Taher the mountain man (quickfire 50K timepass run), KS (110K), Dr Sreedhara (80K) and Dr Chiran (80K).

The (very early) morning of the race

The alarm rang at 3 am. Brush. Shower. Change into the race gear. Wear shoes. All set. But wait! Something didn’t happen. Oh shit! Literally. For the first time in all the races I’ve run, the stomach hasn’t cleared. Made another last-ditch attempt but to no avail. Not good.

We take the 4:15 am shuttle to start point (Lalbagh estate). The bus is full and we have to stand through the 45 minutes. This may not sound like a big deal for ultra runners, but believe me, it was painful.

A walk of around 1.5km from the drop point to the holding area. To my utter surprise, there was this huge spread of breakfast waiting for us! Sandwiches, cheese, puliyogare, upma, kesari bath, eggs, bananas and what not! I went bananas and hogged a good amount of the tasty puliogare and upma. Then I realized that toilets were available here, and there is still more than an hour for the 50K start, so I still had an opportunity to start light if I made an effort.

The race before the race

So I had a good two (small) cups of tea — tea/coffee usually helps me in this matter — and stood in the loo line. And lo behold, there were just 6 toilets (3 for men and 3 for women). For an event where 1200+ runners had registered and 850+ turned up, this was too less. And consequently, there were huge queues. And the queues were moving at snail's pace (one could also say ultra-marathon pace). On top of this, good samaritans the runners are, they were allowing the 110K and 80K runners to jump directly to the front of the queue as their race was to start at 6:30, half an hour before the 50K. So it was getting increasingly frustrating with some of us not even sure if we’ll reach the front of the queue by our start time. And then, something interesting happened.

One of the runners started timing the event — from start (entering the toilet) to end (coming out of it). He also started checkpointing at 2min. So if someone hasn’t come out after 2 minutes, the guy at the front of the queue would start knocking on the door. Everyone outside now became conscious of their timing. It was not just about finishing it now, but about how fast one could finish. Runners who finished in less than 2 minutes now started getting an applause from the runners. “Great pace”, “Good one”, “Strong finish”, and every other runners’ encouragement you can think of. Just like that, a frustrating wait was turned into a fun and entertaining one.

The queues now moved fast, and I finished my “race before the race” well within time, feeling lighter and fresher and all set for the 50kms of suffer fest.

Race starts

After all of that had transpired, I felt a sense of mystery about how I was going to fare. I was feeling great and thought I had a good chance of finishing strong if all went well. Those last four words must be laughing at me. As I did a little bit of warmup and waited for the race to start, my mind cooked up a new strategy.

Serious Strategy #4 : Keep running at an easy pace when the HR is below a max threshold, say 170. As soon as it breaches the max threshold, start walking till it goes below a min threshold, say 160, and then start running again. This will prevent me from getting exhausted by running too much in the early stages, and hopefully, leave me with some reserves for a strong finish.
50K about to start

And so it started. The first checkpoint was the summit at 17kms, and the cut-off time to reach there was supposed to be 4hrs. That sounded very reasonable, so I set off at a very easy pace, religiously following my strategy and walking even on easy downhills if my HR crossed the max threshold.

Dangerous downhills

The route, as expected, was rough and uneven. Most of the first 9km was downhill, and I saw many runners enthusiastically going fast, some to their own detriment. Within these 9kms, I witnessed two runners having serious falls. A male runner bruised his knee badly but boldly continued after applying a band-aid (which looked quite inadequate) from a fellow runner. A female runner was in more serious condition, crying out in pain, not able to even get up. As a bunch of runners were already around her trying to help, I continued till the next aid station and informed the volunteers to send help.

Puliogare fetish

The aid stations were adequately stocked, and rest areas were even better — the homemade passion fruit juice was quite refreshing. I was delighted to find my favorite puliogare again at one of the aid stations and didn’t leave the opportunity to have some more of it. I sometimes wonder whether I’m more of a runner or more of a foodie. Both I guess. Nope. Foodie it is. Running is just an enabler to eat without guilt.

The views and the summit

Stunning views all along the route!

In good spirit, I kept chugging at the miles happily, enjoying the amazing views on offer and reached the summit checkpoint in around 2:30 hrs, a good 1:30 hrs before the cut-off time. 1/3rd the race was over and I was in great shape. The biggest uphill climb of the race was over, and it was mostly downhill with smaller uphills till 40kms now. All hunky-dory.

The summit!
Adrenaline strategy #5 : Keep at it — it’s going to be easy till 40km. Then run at least half of last 10km and prove everyone that said “last 10km is to be walked” wrong.

The pain

This strategy died a quick and painful death. As I climbed down from the summit and completed 23kms, things took a turn for the worse. The dreaded knee pain was back! It became unbearable within half a km and I had to stop. There were 26+kms to go — more than half of the race, and there was no way I could run with this pain and risk a major injury.

Survival strategy #6 : Be pragmatic and give up. Walk till the next aid station and inform the volunteers that you have had enough.

Dejected, I continued walking with discomfort looking for the next aid station. At this stage, I remembered two things.

First, what coach had told once: “Ultras are the most unpredictable. No amount of planning/training can guarantee success and even the best of runners can end up with a DNF on a given day.” Ah, that sounded so good now. It’s just not meant to be my day today. It’s alright, there’s always the next time.

Second, what the doctor had told. “Walk for a while and then attempt to run again.” Whoa, why did I not remember this as soon as the pain started? Why did I not “plan” for this? Well, after running 25km in the mountains, you (I mean “I”) can get disoriented a little and are not really in a state to think rationally. OK, so let’s try this.

The resurrection

After walking a good km or so, I tried to run. Hardly 10 steps. Walked some more and tried again. Was it 20 steps this time? I thought so. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? It was hard to believe, but it seemed so. Slowly but surely, the body found a way to land the feet in a way that minimized the pain. How you ask, I can’t really tell. Just like when the doctor asks “pinpoint the exact place where it pains”, I can’t really tell. If you are a runner, you know what I mean. If you’re not, remember the Matrix.

I was now able to run 50+ steps in one go through this novel landing technique I had learned. The downside to this was that all of my focus had to be on the ground in front of me and my feet. This was because the road was all dirt and mud and rocks and uneven jeep tracks, and one wrong landing meant excruciating pain. This became more like a balancing act than running, and my upper body, and specifically the arms were moving almost as if I was an amateur rope walker trying desperately to avoid falling down. Running form can go take a walk. This was bound to give rise to some awkward and sometimes hilarious situations. Some kind souls overtaking me inquired if I was ok and I responded thanking them with a forced smile. One smarty-pants though came up and started “Hey buddy, your form is all wrong. You should be swinging your arms like this for better efficiency!”. I was like “Thanks buddy, I’m just trying to put one foot in front of another!”

Scrape-through strategy #7 : Okay, so we’ve found a way to move forward, though at a snail's pace. Time to make the most of it. Reserve 2.5hrs for the walk uphill in last 10kms, and use the ropewalk technique to ensure that you reach the 40km in 9–2.5 = 6.5hrs.

Simple. But difficult to implement. Some sections were just too difficult. I tried to calculate the remaining time and distance and get a sense of whether I could finish within the cut-off time. It seemed to be slowly but surely slipping away from my grasp.

Can you see that incline? (Difficult to capture in a photo, actually)

In spite of this pathetic sounding situation, I found myself overtaking a few runners! And these were not similarly injured runners. They seemed fit but exhausted. Probably ran too fast in the beginning and hit the wall. Some of them were not even trying to run but just lying down and trying to catch their breath.

Was it a blessing in disguise? Did the pain slow me down and effectively ensure that I didn’t hit the wall?

The GPS fallacy

I reached 40kms in about 6:35 hrs. Five minutes slower than what I had planned, but it seemed like a small time that can be covered by pushing a little hard in the last 10kms. Surprisingly I was still going downhill and was still running a little. Great, this is going to be a tight finish!

After two more kilometers, I reached the most beautiful spot in the whole route (or the second most beautiful after the summit? Can’t decide.) — the Doddakere lake. What a serene view, and what luck to find real food at this place? The aid station was stocked with Pulav and curd rice. I had a bit of Pulav and took a few photographs. It was exactly 7hrs. 2hrs left for the remaining 8kms. Tight, but doable even if I brisk-walk all of it.

The serene Doddakere lake

And just when I was about to take off, I heard one volunteer cheer some runners — “You’re doing well. Just 10km to go. Keep going!” Uh-oh… What just happened? How is this possible? The disoriented me had forgotten to look at any of the distance markers and was completely relying on what my TomTom watch says. Bad idea! Any runner worth their salt will tell you that “Their GPS is not our GPS” and one must always be prepared to run a few hundred meters more than what the watch shows. But still, a difference of freaking 2kms? Give me a break. But I can’t afford to take a break now. Can’t run either as most of the remaining distance is serious uphill. Dejected again, I started walking as fast as I could.

The last push

Don’t-give-up Strategy #8 : Having come this far, you can’t give up now. Push hard. Hope the GPS difference narrows down. Hope you find a flat section where you can run. Go for the finish! Don’t ask how, but you can do it!!!

Surprise, surprise! After a steep uphill of about 3kms, there was a good 2kms of downhill. Why was this a surprise? Had I not studied the route map before the race? Lazy me! I sure made the most of it and covered those 2kms in about 16 minutes. The watch now showed 47km, the km marker showed 46km (yay! the gap had somehow narrowed down to 1km) and I had done about 7:52hrs. So 1:08 hrs left to cover another 4kms. Definitely possible. Now I was really exhausted and had no choice but to walk these 4kms out. The watch battery died after around 2kms, but by then I was confident of finishing in time. Kept going with whatever I had left, and dug deep to run the last 100m or so and finish in 8:38:54 — a good 21 minutes before the cut-off time.

Hard earned!

That’s it. I had done it. Within the cut-off time. It was such a hard struggle. Harder than what I had imagined from reading and listening to those who had done it earlier. Something that could not be told, but had to be experienced for yourself.

The feeling of…

Unlike most other races, I didn’t feel any euphoria, neither did I have the energy to express any joy. I just collected my finisher badge, went to the recovery area, did a few stretches, had lunch and walked back to catch the bus for the hotel.

What I really felt was surprise.

  • Surprise that I thought that doing a strong FM meant I was ready for this kind of ultra. No. Maybe I was ready for a city/flat-road 50K. But not a race like this. It’s a totally different ball game. I almost failed (not that there’s anything shameful about that). I intend to come back next year when I’d hopefully be really ready and finish stronger. But who knows!
  • Surprise at how the body and mind (together) can adapt to and work around seemingly impossible situations. This is my biggest takeaway from this weird obsession called long distance running.
  • Surprise at how the knee pain had all but vanished after finishing the race! I was expecting to limp around for the next week or so after forcing my legs for those 27kms. But instead, I was happily walking around with family in Udaipur and climbing the Kumbhalgarh fort with ease. Mind you, I’m still recovering from the issue and have faced it in a couple of my practice runs later, but it’s still a surprise of how its intensity has reduced rather than increasing after the ordeal I put my legs through.

So I was back at the hotel and preparing in my mind about telling my exciting story of how I conquered these seemingly insurmountable challenges to my fellow runner friends. But then I met some runners who also had similar, if not more difficult challenges and yet completed even bigger distances of 80K and 110K!

  • Someone ran 80K with a bad stomach
  • Someone twisted their ankle and ran with it to finish the 80K
  • Someone had a leaking hydration pack so had to carry a 1ltr water bottle through their 110K run
  • Some runners missed the cut-off by a long way (2–3 hrs), but still completed their distance knowing that they will be considered DNF. Whatever the race results say, they are still finishers. Hats off to their perseverance!
  • Someone ran their first 80K barefoot in these conditions!
  • I met a guy in the bus who usually runs barefoot, but had got shoes knowing that this is not a course for barefoot running. Was attempting his first 50K. He felt uncomfortable with the shoes and removed them around 25kms, and ran the remaining 25K barefoot

So I just shut up and listened to all these amazing stories.

I know very well that this is no big achievement. No big deal. There are enough number of runners (many in my own friend circle) who run stronger, faster, longer and have achieved feats that truly deserve to be applauded.

This is just a personal milestone and the story of my journey into the world of ultra running. A story that I will remember fondly for days to come. A story that had so many twists and turns that it deserved to be told.

And now it has been told. Thanks for reading!