Sunday, October 8, 2017

The tale of two ultras, Jawadhu & Malnad

** Warning ** this is an ultra marathon blog... don't expect this to end soon :)

The last one week, since I completed my first ever The Malnad Ultra 110k run, slowly itching more generously all around both my ankles, is an every minute occurrence for me. Whenever I sooth and scratch the leech bite spots, at least 8 of them, I have been reminded of everything memorable that occurred from the time I left Bangalore on Friday morning (6th Oct) till the time I returned back home on Sunday night (8th Oct)



Going in a complete circle, many aspects of this journey made it an extremely very special one,
  • Vivid memories of traveling on a train after a long time.  Traveling in a beautiful train (yes, the Jan Shatabdi is certainly the best experience), the trip to Birur was a visual treat with so much greenery all by the sides of the train tracks.  Suchi's company was awesome and it was great to share the event with Vijay, Sweta, Elango, Shan, Watson, Jaisingh, Narayanan & Vishwanath.
  • the surprise celebrity status was given when the Malanad Ultra official photographers started clicking random pictures of the Ultra runners inside the train 
  • the noisy and bumpy bus trip from Birur to Ballavara cutting through lush green fields and village roads
  • The never-ending Ultra-runners yapping about running and what to expect from Malnad
  • night briefing by the Malnad team on the day before, followed by sumptuous dinner went in full volume with an excuse of 'carb-loading'
  • another full-on breakfast and the most energizing start of the race on Saturday morning at 6.30 am
  • completing my first ever three digits Ultra 110 kilometers and dashing into the finish line with my arms wide open
  • and finally, the most fulfilling trip back home trying to recount every single minute that was spent during this journey
There is so much one can feel, hear, smell and sense in this part of the secret world and I doubt if everything that I went through can be written down by me to the last word.  In my opinion, the best to experience The Malnad Ultra is to participate in this event at least once in a lifetime.  I'm certainly fortunate to be part of it this year.

Last year, I missed the first edition of Malnad Ultra due to my #424242running road safety awareness campaign runs commitments. On multiple weekends, Vijay Pandey ran and supported my campaign. He was very instrumental in planting the idea of running the Malnad in my mind by often lighting my desires to experience the event.  Vijay's constant narrations about his experiences, the passionate connection the runners can experience the hills and nature had multiplied my hopes to experience a wonderful event.  I immediately registered for the event as soon as the bookings were open.

For the year 2017, I had set myself 3 major goals; to complete the #424242running campaign successfully, to run the 12 hr stadium run in Chennai under grueling heat and humidity to test my endurance limits and to run the Malnad Ultra to taste my first ever 3 digit Ultra run.  

Jawadhu Hills Ultra was not part of my list but chose to run JHU 75k to understand the technical aspects of running on a mountain trail for the first time.  This was another most memorable trip supported by Balaji & Gayatri and the rest of the MFC team who was kind enough to accommodate me into their group.  Elango was kind enough to pick me up from Vellore and we had a wonderful road trip.  The staying logistics and food was superbly supported by the MFC and I didn't have to worry much about it.  I had my goals set for the event and paced a bit faster during the first 25k.  I ended up walking a lot in the second half due to the burn-out in the steep climbs and downhills filled with slush and mud.


I learned few more of my physical limitations as the nature of the trail slowed me down at many sections. Thanks to the heavy rains the day before which added to the challenge the course had to offer.  Interestingly, the sun and humidity did not bother me. JHU experience provided an exciting learning opportunity.  I completed the 75k in 11 hrs 20 mins with 1st in the Veteran Category and finishing 6th overall. The experience that I gained was immense and acted as a foundation for The Malnad Ultra.  

Jawadhu Hills Ultra 75 K Veteran Category results (Source here)

My training, specifically for Malnad, barely had any running involved and I was averaging only 90 km in Aug and Sep.  Interestingly, my monthly average was ~270 km while preparing for the Comrades marathon.  My fitness trainer profession and teaching badminton involve many physical movements every single day through demonstrations.  I was certainly getting my share of exercises regularly.   The only thing I was doubtful about was my running endurance.  Unlike the Comrades Marathon, The Malnad Ultra did not offer any time or cut off pressure.   I decided to stay cool and eagerly wait for the race day.

At the Malnad region, the rain God was threatening us with some random showers on Friday.  It looks like there were heavy rains just a few days before and the trails were expected to be slushy.  The briefing session by the Malnad race organizer Anand was thorough and at the same time offered some insights into the dangers lurking on the trails.  With merely over 120 participants in the 110 km race category, there was a greater possibility for a runner to experience lonely sections.  Due to perennial rain and the wetness on the trails leeches were waiting to suck runners elevated blood pressure, a high concentration of carbs, salt & sugar.  He also said about sighting snakes and few wild animals.  Being the first time, I was deeply hallucinating and as well as imagining the entire run from start to end in my mind.  I tried to play through my mind about how to run through mountains under pitch darkness.  Unlike any typical pre-marathon day night, for the first time, I drifted into a deep sleep easily.


The race started with a bang at 6.30 am.  There was no sign of rain, humidity was under control and the weather appeared to be just perfect for a day-long running journey.  All the runners were constantly moving on with their arduous journey with different thoughts.  Within the first few kilometers, the wet roads filled with mush and slush made me an instant moon-walker and were slowing me down.  There were many coffee plantation workers and their family members sitting quietly in amusement & in a well-disciplined manner, and cheering for the runners at the fuel stations.  They were continuously clapping with bright smiles.  Their children offered "good lucks" and "all the bests" with their tiny thumbs pointing upwards, providing free visual fuel to my body and mind.  Many sections of the trails offered eerie silence often broken by the endless crying of the cicadas during the daytime.  I reached the Summit and quickly turned around since the distant mountains and the Badra reservoir were not visible due to cloud cover.  The Summit also offered a little extra dose of fresh air to my lungs.  It was a bliss to run through the 350+ years old green coffee plantations & variety of wild trees, bushes, wierd crawling insects & sudden water streams flowing down the hills.


I was able to control my pace till about 83 km and I felt my quads were tightening.  I started to slow down and decided to keep moving under the darkness.  The trail section was too risky to run.  My strategy was to move constantly and not to take breaks in between (fear of being leeched ;), walk the ups and run/walk the flats & downs.  I switched my headlamps to the ambient mode with the fear of losing the batteries in the middle of nowhere.  At one point in time, I was feeling a mildly increasing pain on both my ankles and when I bent down I was totally under shock to find 3-4 leeches clinging onto my leg.  The fear of leeches latching onto my legs had never allowed me to stand in one place even for seconds since the beginning of the run.  The blood-hungry rascals would quickly crawl onto the shoes and hurriedly disappear inside the socks. One can only feel them after few minutes of plunging their teeth inside the veins. Then it is a crazy feeling to wriggle them off. They don't leave you unless you remove them off properly. I was carrying a packet full of salt and every time I found a leech I would take some salt sprinkled on them and brush them down.  From the thoughts of leeches to thoughts of snakes, the night was getting scarier and I started hallucinating most dreaded things.

Pic: Pitch black surroundings, but for the headlamps & reflector sign boards
Amidst all these chaotic mental games, I was extremely positive about the safety of the surroundings.
The ghostly appearance of plantation worker next to the fire was adding to the eeriness that the night forest had to offer.  The slush and slippery route (The even organizer mentioned that even the 4 x 4 failed to move in certain places) offered enough challenges to the already tired legs.  Crickets were constantly calling their mates making the whole forest creepier.  There were hundreds of moths flew right onto my face thinking that they were targeting the headlamps, the often moving shadows reminding me of some strange animal hurridly moving towards me.

The last few kilometers after getting back to the main road was a bit of relief and the surprise slushy trail section from Rajagiri topped as the 'most challenging' lap of the entire run.  The last fuel station volunteers offered me soup but I wasn't in a mood to stop.  I quickly grabbed a glass of juice and kept moving.  The finish line was in sight and was already worried that the thrilling adventure was going to end soon.  I quickly hopped back to the road and started slowly running towards the finish line.  The night suddenly became so beautiful.  My excitement levels rose every single step as I started seeing the lights of the finish line sparkling through the trees under the darkness and the loud announcements echoing through the mountains.
















Last few words

At 1:27 am, after moving around for 18 hrs and 57 minutes, finishing 15 out of 71 runners started, Malnad Ultra, for the first time appeared to be an extremely unique race.  I had always gone through the physical, mental, psychological and spiritual stages of running Ultramarathons and at least once during my run, questioned the very reason for me to signup for the run.  But, at no point in my run during this event, I felt like quitting and I was wishing and longing to have a longer than just a 110k adventure.  My love with Ultra trails has certainly multiplied.

I'm now worried that the leech itch will stop in a day or two and I might as well forget about this piece of "not supposed to be forgotten memory" until the next year.

I was totally submerged in the abundance of the nature that this part of the world had to offer. Wish I pick a time machine to travel back to the stone ages, become those mountain dwellers who loved to move around on foot, eating fruits and nuts, chopped woods for fire, traded woods and pebbles, drank water from the brooks and soaked in the clean nature free from the digital distractions and pothole filled city streets.

I've compiled all the videos (unedited) that I shot during the run.  Those innocent children would always bring back the cheerful memory back.   I will add some captions in the coming weeks.


About the organizers & volunteers: 

Anand and his Malnad team have taken painstaking efforts in providing access to the hidden beauty lying within the private estates.  I doubt even the owners of the Coffee Day or their friends and relatives, or those who had an unlimited tourist access to these estates would have seen so much 110 km in one single day & night.  It was very motivating to see Jagdeesh Damania,  Brijesh Gajeria & Sindhu Rao among the organizing team/the brain behind this beautiful event.  I can't think about any complaints and I'm extremely grateful to the team for thinking about providing an adventure like this.   God bless you guys!  This is certainly not an ordinary ultramarathon but certainly an extraordinary one.

About my running gear & fuel
  • Running gear
    • Camelbak 3 liters: I was always carrying 1-2 liters of water, drink to thirst and to splash on the face & back of my shoulder, I was missing my Indian flag & the road safety banners when many of my known friends reminded me of seeing with the gear always.
    • Salomon Sense Pro shoes+Nike and Kalanji dry-fit socks
    • Redmi 3S - Phone used for shooting the videos till the end.  Surprisingly the batter consumed was only 28% at the end of 19 hrs.
    • ONNIGHT 710 headlamps, started using the Low mode and switched to the ambient mode with the fear of draining the battery off fast.
    • Garmin 310xt - died in 103 km.  Lesson learned: Keep the contrast to lowest possible to get the best juice from the battery
  • Fuel
    • Gels, 9 of them
    • Homemade protein bar, thanks to my wife for making them for me with care and love!
    • Morning breakfast Semia Upma + scrambled egg & skipped having lunch
    • Refreshing green tea & electrolyte mixture, lemon juice on the course, to thirst
    • On the course 4 white bread slices + Jam & butter, the solids are getting better during my runs
  • Lastly, loads of self-motivation and desire for an adventure!
About me,

I'm a random writer who enjoys the basic act of sharing and teaching others.  I'm an ACE certified personal trainer, an ultramarathon runner, and a running coach with a personal touch.  I left my corporate job after 24 years of working and have founded KaysFIT Academy in 2016.

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