It was the best of races. It was the worst of races.
Let’s examine that adopted idiom. What IS the “best” of races? The race where you shatter your PB by double-digit minutes? Or that tough trail where you find yourself pushed to the cliff (multiple times) and you claw back some respectability?
Nothing is ever *supposed* to turn out the way we want them to. Because if it did, the world would be chock-full of happy people. Because if it did, the world would be full of elite runners who would ALL finish at the EXACT same time at EVERY DAMN RACE! (If you are an Asterix buff, you’ll know which scene I’m referring to)
I think a test match is a great analogy to ultra-running.
Finishing within 15 min of your target time would be a “win”. A DNF with “no good reasons” (more on this later in the post) would be a “loss”. A “draw” is clawing respectability against unforeseen circumstances.
Salvaging a draw in a test match is, in many respects, more satisfying than a rampaging victory where all your batsmen, bowlers and fields click together like a dream. You see where this story is headed, don’t you?
Lead-up to the race
This was the 3rd successive year I was running the 75k distance. In year#1 I finished in 9 hrs 46 min with plenty of gas left in the tank. That and a feeling that 75k might just be ‘my’ distance made me count my days to Bangalore Ultra 2013. With a finish time of 8 hrs 38 min, it was a nearly perfect race (there was the little matter of a few Cocojal bottles which might have made it perfect!)
I awaited Ultra 2014 with a greater fervor than ever. There was one crucial difference though. The previous two Ultras were in the midst of a 22-month purple patch where I was running a marathon (or greater) a month. My weekly mileage was steady and high (by ‘my’ standards). Prior to the first ultra, I had one 55k training run under my belt and at least two other high mileage weekends. Last year, I was scheduled to run a 50k training run but stopped at 46k because I was ‘feeling good’ (yeah, sometimes my type uses this kind of excuse).
This year? One 47k training run at a pace reasonably close to target. It mentally assured me that I was “ready”. In fact, I registered for the race only after this run. The timing of this run (exactly two weeks before race day) was not ideal. Heck! There were very few ‘ideal’ things at this year’s leadup:
- Bout of bronchitis in Oct (first after 20 years of childhood asthma). My reaction: Whew! Thank god it happened in Oct and not Nov. Never mind that I missed many long runs as a result.
- Nagging lower back pain (started 14 months ago and periodically makes an appearance in despite my following a prescribed daily regimen of exercises). My reaction: at least my back didn’t act up during the 47k training run.
- Cold and mild return of the bronchitis at T-6 days. My reaction: Whew! I’ve got a whole SIX days to recover from this thing.
The Goal and Race Tactics
Mentally I couldn’t have been more prepared. The target and race tactics had crystalized. When the 8 year-old popped the inevitable question “how long will you take this time”, I answered confidently “Well! I plan to do the first loop in 2.5 hours and stay as close to that pace as possible in the next two loops”. When he persisted, I said “8 hours would be awesome but I’ll take even 8:30”. Other tactics I had worked out in my head:
- Footwear: first two loops in previous two years had been my trusty 4mm huaraches. In the third loop, I had upgraded to Brooks Adrenaline in year#1 and the softly reassuring Puma chappals in year#2. This year, I decided to go “all-in” with the newly acquired Amuri Cloud sandals.
- T-shirt change: changing tees and sweatbands after every loop seems to work for me. Last year, I added a twist by doing a half-monty for the final loop. This year I ruled it out on grounds that it would upset my ‘rhythm’ (more on this rhythm business and how I missed an OBVIOUS rhythm crusher later in the post)
- Hydration: The learning from last year was that Cocojal consumption needed to start early and be regular. I was prepared with 4 bottles at the 5km mark and 3 at the starting point.
- Nutrition: Normally I get by with my trusty Navadarshanam Dry Fruit Delight complemented by sandwiches at the venue. After last year’s finish, one of our group’s resident ultra studs (aka Sir Gaunkar) shared his secret – a Goan ragi recipe that he grew up with. A few days before race day and a few calls later, his kind wife agreed to make the delicious ragi-with-jaggery cake.
Damn! It took me 800+ words to get to the start of loop 1? Yeah – I’ve been known to indulge in banter.
Dawn broke near the 8km mark and I jettisoned the torch at the next aid station. A few minutes later I saw a green snake galloping away to the left. I SO badly wanted to announce “I saw a snake! I saw a snake!” Instead, I pointed in that direction to the runner immediately behind.
Who needs a Garmin in an ultra?
Garmin Forerunner 305 was in my past. In my present was a 20-year Timex analog timekeeper (gifted by my brother) in a plastic sleeve. At the 10k mark, I looked up the time and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was BANG on target (i.e. 6:00 pace). I noticed that I was still feeling winded. It normally takes my lungs 5-7km to get warmed up so I wasn’t worried yet. When my lung rhythm didn’t improve even after the 15k mark, I was miffed (rain rain go away.. come back…) Unfortunately one can’t wish these things away. This lack-of-lung-rhythm (aka “feeling winded”) would stay with me for the rest of the goddamn race. Oops! Is my second loop frustration spilling over already?
Curve ball #2
In my brief ultra-running ‘career’ I was surprised to encounter the second curve ball already. I was already feeling tired. I must need elaborate. I was feeling ‘second loop tired’ – I had enough muscle memory to realize that I should NOT be feeling this tired at this stage of the race. I was still in my ‘game face zone’ (i.e. staying focused with controlled thoughts and acknowledging runners shouts with a mild obligatory thumbs-up). My fortunes were soon to change. I’ve never had anyone pace me at ANY race and this time I would have THREE of them! A tall fella loomed into view and yelled out a “how are things man?” It was Saurabh Panjwani – unexpected and thus bonus pacer #1. Saurabh had mentioned a few days ago that he’d try to pace some of us BHUKMP’rs. He quickly changed directions and joined me as I headed towards the first loop turnaround. I soon unburdened my doubts and travails and he set about reassuring me and prompting me to talk about last year’s edition which triggered many positive thoughts. A few km shy of the 25k mark, Saurabh handed me off to the runner couple (and pacing couple today!) Rinaz and Shilpi. I might have confessed that I was having DNF thoughts for the first time in my brief running career. He squashed that talk by reminding me of ‘muscle memory’ from the 2 previous Ultras and added, for good measure, there are WAY more people behind you than in front.
Second Loop: Running with Rinaz and Shilpi
Rinaz ran with me for the last few km in loop#1, then let me execute the turnaround solo and rejoined me somewhere at the 2km mark. He would stay with me for the next 17-odd km. And boy, did he showoff his pacing skills? He kept a steady smattering of runversation going… the ideal kind of one-way chatter that does not require more than a grunt or a syllable in response. We were averaging 6:15 in the initial stretch (which I was perfectly happy with me). He kept egging me on with “it’s downhill, let’s gain some time”, “it’s shady, let’s pick up some pace”. Forget about YOUR legs, just follow me. If you ever wondered whether gentle martinet was an oxymoron or a real person, I’d steer you in the direction of Rinaz. At this point I was also reminded of Murakami’s “my mind needed to show the body who was boss!” My quads (protesting in the first loop – damn them!) had started behaving again. I started getting back some of my inner calm. The confidence was returning. In test match terms, my batting partner had steadily allowed me to rebuild my game. I was still winded but I had stopped fretting on the “why”. The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado? (Attempting to salvage some pride here)
Having a buddy pace you is such a luxury. Rinaz first (and Shilpi later) would race ahead and retrieve the Cocojal bottle (and ragi cake) from the baggage area obviating the need to stop, bend, and rummage. To the non-runner, this might seem like a small thing but let me say that it was a HUGE deal to me.
The stretch from 37.5k to 43k was more circumspect. Rinaz seemed to realize (perhaps better than me) that he could not push me harder so the urging changed to cajoling. We crossed Nari (who was a few km behind but looking much stronger than I did at that point). Rinaz switched directions and started pacing Nari and his place was smoothly taken by his cool-as-a-cumumber wife Shilpi. Running with her for the next 8k, you couldn’t tell she was rebounding from a stress fracture and this was her first long run in months! She kept a steady chatter going about her travails with loony doctors and biased physiotherapists and how she decided to back her own instincts. We ran alongside for the most part and, thanks to her bright colors, we attracted more photographer interest than the previous leg. When I grumbled about my inability to push myself, Shilpi sagely responded with “Now is the not the time to push yourself. Just finish the second lap and you can push yourself on the last lap.”
A short DNF conversation
By now it was painfully obvious that I would not better my last year’s PB. I was not having fun either. A perpetual state of windedness, periodic bouts of self-doubt (Damn it! Why was I racing when I was apparently not ready? But I WAS mentally ready, wasn’t it? What good is ‘mentally’ ready when you haven’t given your body the adequate mileage? Maybe I hadn’t fully recovered from my bronchitis?), and not to mention periodic blowing of the nose (my tees or the course faced the brunt of it depending on the proximity of other runners). I couldn’t imagine where these thoughts might have taken me had I not had the company of Saurabh, Rinaz and Shilpi.
There’s a first for everything. 30+ marathons and four ultras later, this was the FIRST race where DNF thoughts crept in. The timing of these thoughts was not coincidental. Once you complete the second loop and you head back for the final one, finishing is guaranteed (run, walk, crawl you can finish unless you run into medical distress). So if there were any DNF thoughts from 40-50k, they needed to either be strengthened or vanquished.
In a strange way, the case for (and against) DNF could best be described as not pretty. It had turned into a tough grinding run (on many physical levels) and the joy was vaporizing by the hour. Here’s how the perverted logic for DNF went… Did I want to subject myself to another 3.5 hours of misery? Especially when the prospects for ‘victory’ had disappeared? Did I want to ‘merely finish’ SO badly? I mean, what’s the big deal with finishing in 9+ hours? What’s the big deal with a DNF? There’s no shame in it, right?
Fortunately that day, I didn’t need an inner voice to cut through the bullshit. I casually asked Shilpi “Is there anything redeeming about a DNF?”
Pat came the reply “No. Unless you are feeling dizzy or something.” By dizzy, she meant some manner of life-threatening symptoms which she knew I wasn’t exhibiting. Not for nothing is her moniker Lady Don (LD).
The matter was thus settled and we plodded along. LD was going to see me through to the 50k mark and run with me a further 1k to the start of the forest section.
Irritation at the 50k turnaround
There are many benefits to ‘visualizing’ on a course that you have previously run. I had visualized the 25k and 50k turnarounds as a slightly slower rendition of Clark Kent executing a Superman costume change inside a phone booth. What I did not bank on was the on-course baggage counter to be a lackadaisical inaccessible mess. I started frantically looking for my bag, irately yelling out its description to the folks manning the counter. Sunil and Jugy (wise men of BHUKMP and legendary sportspersons par excellence) pitched in and found my bag in no time. Gobbled a few of the ragi cake goodies and switched tees. As a gaggle of 75k runners came into sight, LD raised the level of urgency and off we went. I had pulled on my shades so folks wouldn’t see how crabby I really felt inside. I vaguely recall Sunil asking me how I was doing and my response was on the lines of “miserable grinding run.”
LD bid me goodbye at the 51k mark with “You’ll do fine. It will be boring but you’ll finish.” After yelling out my thanks, I headed back to the cave to complete the job. I had switched on my tunnel vision and it seemed to help a bit.
Binge drinking is known to cause memory lapses. I reckon long distance running induces similar lapses. I have a dim recollection of the final 24k barring the following:
- Pulling out a few hundred pebbles stuck in my sandals (and swearing like a sailor)
- Remembering Murakami’s recount of his first ultra where he swore he WOULD NOT WALK. This was my mantra in the final 12.5k. My pace had dropped quite a bit, I was looking forward to the aid station stops but I DID NOT WALK!
- Santhosh (of Runner’s High) yelled out an encouraging “finish strong” at the 72k mark and I thought to myself “How can I? There’s that 1km goddamn moat!” By moat, I mean the pathetic excuse of gravel-masquerading-as-road that signals the start and end of the bloody ultra. Yes – I’m emoting.
- At the 63k mark, I smiled at another 75k runner. He smiled back. My smile read “Yeah! He’s going to take me.” His smile read “Yeah! I’m going to take him.” He would surge past at 64k and finish in 2nd place overall. I finished 24 minutes behind in 3rd My time was 9 hrs 17 min.
Yeah – I had finished and drawn the test match. Unlike last year, my enthusiasm for next year’s race was a bit tempered. I did want to race this course again but on different terms.