Chappal mein pachattar – my first 75k ultra


[Editor’s note: Translation for my non-Hindi readers: pachattar is the Hindi word for the number 75, chappals are the Indian rendition of flip-flops, a colloquial reference to my 4mm huarache sandals. This post is a very belated race report of my first 75k ultra marathon in Nov 2012.]

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Just a year ago, I ran my first ultra – a 50k distance at the Bangalore Ultra (Nov 2011). It was a particularly brutal rite of passage into ‘ultra’ territory. Brutal because a large chunk of the race terrain was through ploughed fields. Barring a few mountain goats and gazelles who pulsed their way to fast finishes with nary a missed step, the vast majority were falling like nine pins.

As ultra races go, 50k is the equivalent of a ‘bunny’ slope. If you’ve been running marathons regularly for more than three years, sooner or later you’ll think about the 50k. After all, it’s only 8k more than the regulation marathon distance. But what lunacy pushed me to upgrade my ultra distance from 50k to 75k in ONE year?

Two reasons. I had been running barefoot for about six months by the time this decision came around. As I wrote in quest for natural running form, getting faster wasn’t a 2012 goal. Not getting slower was implicit however. What I was increasingly noticing (after each long run and race) was that I was getting less fatigued. The strain on the knees that I’d invariably feel (either starting at the 22k mark or  closer to 30k) was gone. This was somewhat expected because the forefoot strike gets more work done by the calves and demands less of the knees. Changes in my post-run recovery were more dramatic. Previously I’d walk in the door trying not to look like see-what-the-cat-dragged-in and hoping the family hadn’t planned a pre-lunch outing (a two hour siesta was paramount to take the edge off my muscle soreness and fatigue).

In my post-barefootia metamorphosis, I would return from my long runs and be greeted by “Oh! Did you do a short run today?” Or I’d ask “Which place for weekend grocery shopping?” The afternoon naps were no longer necessary. When it became apparent that this post-run recovery magic was not a fluke (and in fact directly related to my new running form), I started thinking that 75k might be a distinct possibility.

But what about the nightmarish ploughed-up Ultra course? Then word started filtering in that the Ultra organizers were changing the venue. The new venue was an eminently friendlier course in the Hennur forest preserve. My friend Jugy who has an amazing knack of finding awesome trails (KTM course was his first high-profile find) also found this beauty of a course in Hennur. A 12.5k up-and-back trail through a forest preserve which made for a nice 25k loop. There was a fair bit of tree cover (maybe 60%?) and a smallish rocky section close to the turnaround.

Three rounds of golf

I had it all worked out in my head. It was not a 75k ultra I was running. I was just going to play 3 rounds of golf on a 25k course. There was the little matter of playing all three rounds in one day, that’s all.

How did I intend to get my body into the golfing mood? It had to start with the clothes selection of course. White tee for the first round, blue for the second and red for the third. Since I sweat like a pig, a change of sweatband was also part of the plan. The script really worked out. It’s amazing what a difference a change of tee and sweatband makes. Replacing a soaking drifit tee and sweatband was almost like taking a quick shower.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The neat thing about long distance running is that one can have long conversations with fellow runners even during races. This is especially true for the ultra distances because you are running at a slower pace than most of your training runs, thus allowing for conversations without getting tired. A 5am start at Bangalore Ultra (and a 6am’ish daybreak) ensures that even the fast runners hold back in the first hour. We had reached the Ultra venue very close to start time so it was a bit of mad scramble.

In the process, we forgot to pickup the torchlights. My compatriots (Praveen – who was running 100k and Nari – who was also running 75k) ran back to pick theirs but I demurred, presumably because why add an extra 100-200m to an already long 75km? I quickly rationalized my decision with the light is not going to help with depth perception anyway so.. From a practical standpoint, I had to stick close to a runner with a torch. Stayed with Praveen and Nari for a bit but they seemed to be in a hurry so I hung back… and found a light meandering at a suitable pace. This particular light was from Bill Nash’s headlamp and Bill was more than happy to share his light. And thus began our conversation.

Maybe it was his Cal Berkeley t-shirt, his friendly demeanor, my natural impulse to engage in conversation, or the fact that we both were running a 75k ultra for the first time (possibly all of the aforementioned), the conversation flowed like we were sitting at a Dublin bar and downing Guinness from the tap. Bill (a Jet Airways pilot stationed in Kochi) talked about his life — his career, his college-going kids, his daughter who spent a year with him in Bombay during his first year in India, the camaraderie he shared with the Indian pilots and crew in Kochi, and a whole range of sundry topics.

Not to be outdone, I talked about my years in Houston, Chicago and Bay Area, of Bangalore and social enterprises and blogging. Before we knew it, we had crossed the 10km marker, daybreak had arrived and the turnaround point wasn’t far away. After consulting Bill’s Garmin, I realized I needed to slow down further. We said our byes and he surged ahead. Sometime after two loops, I realized that I had overtaken him – presumably when he was at a water stop.

Closeup of the huaraches

Closeup of the huaraches

Walk the path? or finish strong?

The second hour was probably the most spiritual segment of my ultra journey. We had descended into a dark forest at 5am and it was beautiful to see the forest reveal itself bit by bit and tread by tread as dawn broke. The sights and the smells. The undulating trail and the uneven ground. Beautiful vistas all around. Somewhere between 15k and 17k, crossing the friendly hordes of 50k runners (they had a 6am start) was fun, especially seeing some of the speed demons from our running group. The title of this post, Chappal mein pachattar, was coined when my friend Rishi yelled it encouragingly when we crossed each other at the 20k mark. The first loop was completed rather uneventfully in 2:45. The white tee was swapped for the blue and off I went for the second loop.

My footwear plan for the ultra was to negotiate the first two loops in the huaraches and decide (at 50km) whether I needed to upgrade to shoes.  In the first half of the second loop, Santhosh Padmanabhan (Bangalore’s well-known ultramarathoner, running coach and zenman) egged me on with an approvingly rhetorical “Walking the path?” He didn’t realize it but I’d be pondering on those words between the 40km and 45km markers.

Mentally and physically I was feeling strong. No complaints from the usual suspects (quads, calves, knees). The soles of my feet were a slightly different story. They were sore of course. Not painfully unbearably sore but I had to extrapolate how they would be after a further 25k.

Did I want to be a barefoot purist and complete the entire 75k in my huaraches? Or did I want to take the pragmatic approach of upgrading to ‘Business Class’ (shoes) and finish strong? What, in fact, was my top goal for this race? These were the questions I was considering.

One less-known fact is that barefoot walking is harder than barefoot running, especially on barefoot unfriendly terrain. My recollection of this fact turned out to be the clincher in my decision. Since I was power walking all the up-slopes, I’d have a fair bit of walking to do… a not-so-appealing a prospect with the 4mm sandals.

I would go on to finish the second loop in a decent 3:15.

Home stretch with Nari
As I neared the end of my second loop I crossed my friend Nari (who was about 1/2 km ahead. He asked whether I intended to tackle the third loop in my sandals. I replied in the negative and he nodded approvingly.

At the 60km water stop I passed Nari without realizing it. As I reached the 62.5k turnaround water stop, I wondered what the heck happened to him..

As I hydrated and picked up some oranges, Nari caught up. Physically we were in a similar place but his body language conveyed a dispirited mental state. And we BHUKMP’rs simply hate that state of mind.

It was no time for solitary brooding and plodding. It was time for a good old-fashioned runversation.. BHUKMP style. We did the math and reckoned that a sub-10 hour finish was clearly in the realm of possibility. With a target set, we set about crunching the km’s – walking the up-slopes, running the flats/down-slopes, and tossing drivel at each other all the way. We finished together in 9:45 min and it was a mighty fine and satisfying feeling.

Next year?

My first 75km ultra done and dusted but you know the weirdest thing? I felt there was still plenty of juice inside. Can’t wait for next year, I thought to myself.


That one perfect drive!


The Golf Omnibus - 31 tales from the green by the master

Following is an excerpt from PG Wodehouse’s A Mixed Threesome – one of many beautiful golf stories from The Golf Omnibus. The scene being described is that of the story’s protagonist (Mortimer Sturgis) executing that perfect golf swing. In the narrative below, the inimitable Oldest Member (who stars in many of Wodehouse’s golf stories) is speaking in the first person view and Mortimer Sturgis is speaking in the third person view.

A moment before he had surveyed his blistered hands with sombre disgust.

“It’s no good,” he said. “I shall never learn this beast of a game. And I don’t want to either. It’s only fit for lunatics. Where’s the sense in it? Hitting a rotten little ball with a stick! If I want exercise, I’ll take a stick and go and rattle it along the railings. There’s something in that! Well, let’s be getting along. No good wasting the whole morning out here.”

“Try one more drive, and then we’ll go.”

“All right. If you like. No sense in it, though.”

He teed up the ball, took a careless stance, and flicked moodily. There was a sharp crack, the ball shot off the tee, flew a hundred yards in a dead straight line never ten feet above the ground, soared another seventy yards in a graceful arc, struck the turf, rolled, and came to rest within easy mashie distance of the green.

“Splendid!” I cried.

The man seemed stunned.

“How did that happen?”

I told him very simply.

“Your stance was right, and your grip was right, and you kept your head still, and didn’t sway your body, and never took your eye off the ball, and slowed back, and let the arms come well enough, and rolled the wrists, and let the club-head lead, and kept your balance, and pivoted on the ball of the left foot, and didn’t duck the right knee.”

“I see,” he said. “Yes, I thought that must be it.”

“Now let’s go home.”

“Wait a minute. I just want to remember what I did while it’s fresh in my mind. Let me see, this was the way I stood. Or was it more like this? No, like this.” He turned to me, beaming. “What a great idea it was, my taking up golf! It’s all nonsense what you read in the comic papers about people foozling all over the place and breaking clubs and all that. You’ve only to exercise a little reasonable care. And what a corking game it is! Nothing like it in the world! I wonder if Betty is up yet. I must go round, and show her how I did that drive. A perfect swing, with every ounce of weight, wrist, and muscle behind it. I meant to keep it a secret from the dear girl till I had really learned, but of course I have learned now. Let’s go round and rout her out.”

I could wax eloquent about the sheer beauty of Wodehouse’s writing but that’ll have to wait for another day. The quintessential sporting truth in this story is that the amateur sportsman, every once in a blue moon, experiences that “moment of perfection”. If you’ve read the above account carefully, you’d have noticed that Mortimer Sturgis doesn’t really know how he hit that perfect drive. He’s trying his best to recall (& desperately hit the Record button in his brain) all the things he did right in pulling off that effortlessly perfect drive. The tragedy is that he might never hit a drive like that for the rest of his life.

I’ve been fortunate in experiencing two “moments of perfection” in two separate sports. Read on.

Perfect drive on hole #9 in Schaumburg

A disc golfer preparing to putt

A well-kept secret in USA is the sport of disc golf. For the uninitiated, disc golf (or “frisbee golf” as fondly referred by the non-puritanical) is a sport modeled on golf. Instead of metallic clubs and a ball, one uses different types of aerodynamically specialized flying discs (driver discs, approach discs, putter discs – you get the idea). Instead of a hole in the ground, you have a metallic basket with a receptacle and chains. Disc golf aficionados refer to regular golf as stick golf. Unlike stick golf, which require  large areas of water-guzzling well-manicured grass and legions of golf course designers, disc golf is one of the more environment friendly sports. A colleague and good friend (Gary Smith) introduced me to this sport in the fall of 1995. For the next three years in  Chicago I played disc golf every opportunity I got and, believe me, I created many opportunities as well.

As you can imagine, there’s an entire science behind the making of these flying discs. There are understable discs (that curve from right to left on a right-hander’s backhand throw), overstable discs (that curve from left to right on a right-hander’s backhand throw), beveled edges and harder plastic for driver discs, softer plastic for putter discs, heavier discs for windy conditions, you get the drift…

In the early days, my friend (Gary) had already invested in a complete set of flying discs while I was making do with a very light yellow-colored 99 cents Frisbee (bought from a K-Mart or a Walgreens). We were playing at a Schaumburg 9-hole course for the first time. By the time we reached hole#9, Gary had a comfortable lead and I was playing for — what else — pride. And then it happened. In a manner similar to Mortimer Sturgis above, I took up position and let it rip. And watched – with frozen feet and widening eyes – as the dainty yellow butterfly-esque disc soared majestically like a Jonathan Livingstone Seagull belying its humble plastic moorings and landed — a mere 10-feet away from the hole. Gary and our two other friends watched with dumb disbelief. It  turned out to be the only time I out-drove Gary that day — with my cheap, light and sub-optimal flying disc. Powerful emotions coursed through me.

Unreal 10k run on Feb 7, 2010

Three weeks after I had successfully run my third full marathon (and my first Mumbai Marathon), I resumed my short runs. Those days, most of my non-weekend running was done in the late evenings (when I generally tend to run faster) – on the concrete driveway around Raheja Residency. 7 rounds for a 5k, slightly under 14 rounds for a 10k. On that eventful evening, I realized after a few rounds that I was running faster than usual – my Garmin told me it was a 4:40ish pace but I wasn’t huffing (strange I thought!) I passed the 5k mark at 23:04 and that’s when it hit me. I had run my fastest 5k (as part of a 10k run) and I was not going all out – something special was afoot. I did slow down during my final 2-3 rounds but I still finished in an unbelievable 47:26 – beating my previous best by more than 2 minutes. There’s no danger of my repeating (forget beating) this performance in this lifetime. The high resolution Exhibits (A and B) below are courtesy my pal Dheeraj.

Garmin Forerunner 305: unreal 10k on Feb 7, 2010

Sustaining a 4:45 pace for 10k? No way I can repeat that!

The Three Bubbles Revisited


When I wrote The Three Bubbles back in Oct 2008, the perspective was biased around cushioning the India landing. Clearly the 3 bubbles represent a fairly minimalistic view of life. If one were to just shuttle from the “living bubble” to the “working bubble” via the “commuting bubble”, there’s a strong likelihood of slowly going mad… unless you are one of the workaholic types who’s all-consumed by work. For the rest of us, a fourth bubble is what the the joie de vivre doctor ordered.

The fourth bubble is an activity you do at least once a week, usually on weekends, and is something that delivers large doses of joy, pleasure, and exhilaration. Physical pain may be a side effect sometimes but..(heck) it would have been worth it. Lest the hyperactive imagination of my readers go off in strange directions, let me cut to the chase and elaborate on what I’m talking about 🙂

Pranshu Gupta (buddy and ex-colleague from Yahoo who returned to Delhi in 2002) spends weekends offroading his custom-fitted Jeep up-and-down steep ravines and sloshing through muddy swamps on the outskirts of Gurgaon. For company, he has 8-10 other folks vying with each for bragging rights on offroading adventures, jeep modifications and towing equipment. For a taste of what these guys do with whinnying machines, check out Offroading in Behrampur/Gurgaon.

Soumya Banerjee (who returned to Delhi from Boston in 2001 to start Sapient’s India operation and is now working on a startup in Mumbai) is a thoroughbred wanderlust who doesn’t let a single weekend go by without exploring yet another picturesque part of India. After experiencing the best of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (during his Delhi days), he’s now busy exploring Maharashtra and the southern states. For photographic evidence, check out his travel blog at – be warned! the travel bug might bite you.

Manjula Sridhar (a budding entrepreneur and endurance athlete who returned to Bangalore from Silicon Valley) has a menu of endurance activities to choose from every weekend – from running to cycling to “Lost-style” adventure competitions. I kid you not! This gal chalks up cycling and running miles like…well… I don’t know what to compare her with. As though this were not enough, she’s also a trained martial artist and she teaches karate. Clearly she has conquered time.

Sridhar Ranganathan (serial entrepreneur and good friend who moved to Bangalore ~ 7 years ago) does not miss his Sunday morning round of golf at the KGA links for anything! His golf handicap is steadily getting better I’m told but I strongly suspect he’s sneaking in an odd round during the week as well (there! that’s how rumors are started).

Ajay (my colleague who moved from San Diego to Bangalore 3 years ago) gets his weekly dose of adrenalin by playing several games of squash at his apartment club house.

When we moved to Bangalore ~ 2yrs ago, I had grim forebodings that my dormant asthma might flare up (see Asthma, Bangalore and me) so I had to choose a physical activity wisely. My choices narrowed down to squash (which I absolutely LOVED) or running (which I kinda sorta liked in a bursty irregular way). Running eventually won out because there were no squash courts within reasonable driving distance. Boy! Did I get lucky or what? I was introduced to a rabid Koramangala/HSR running gang and before I knew it, had run ~ 1200 km in 2009 – completing my second and third marathons (see Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010) were merely a side effect.

The Three Bubbles will keep you nice and cozy during your initial year (a ‘necessary’ condition in The Art of Returning to India) but I now believe that it’s the fourth bubble that’s the high-order bit (‘sufficient’ condition) in staying-put for the long haul.