Sometime in the future, hopefully in the near future, I could share a race story that has me flying low over the terrain, running smooth with the wind tucked into my locks, long strides and elbows pumping like a piston. As I’d pull in to a curve, the pillow on my bottom would make for a strange silhouette, a pillow in place so that my super strong heels don’t dent my bum. Today I don’t have that story, that’s a peek into the future, into a running future that floats low on the horizon, hazy and shimmering like a mirage. For today I’ll have to do with me. Just me. Not a version that’s manifested from magic potion. No unicorns and no big foot. The version today has little pieces of flesh hanging from its knees. A little blood, mixed with fine dirt, smeared to make the legs gorier; a mouthful of sand, a little dizzy and very far from the finish line.
The kaveri trail felt and looked very different this year. The canal wider and the trail wider too. The canal eating into the trail and the trail eating into the shrubs and trees. Trees that provided little cover along the trail now lay along their trunks beside the trail, belly up and their roots reaching into the sky. Though the trail remains, it appears like someone plucked out the prettiness of this place and flung it aside. The quaintness and the little gurgle of the stream were now replaced by a rush of water and a purring roar. The widened trail is fresh with packed in soil, the rocky sections patched in and softer to run on, trail sections that once allowed only two runners abreast is now wide enough to accommodate four. The soft grass that is so ever inviting alongside the trail is now buried deep. I miss the grass by sight and miss it by feel. It’s nice to roll on it in the middle of a run though it isn’t recommended. The track made by bullocks hauling paddy and cane is replaced by a blur of brown packed in earth. The place suddenly seemed to be in hurry, the water tumbling in waves and troughs instead of a ceaseless flow in ripples. That timeless prerogative of the place to charm and woo was dearly missing.
Every year as I reach the start at KTM I look skywards, first in prayer and then in hope of clouds. Clouds generally mean good news, clear skies a bad omen. It was decent news this time. Scattered puffs of white in the horizon, some thick rolling grey cover overhead, the clouds would hang at least for the first hour. The start line was electric as usual. Huddled up with the marathoners, exchanged nutrition, hi fived, posed for the cameras and all the time A2 was scaring people with the weather and the nastiness of the course. He does it every year, just puts people in a bad vibe I guess, threatening them with severe weather, there should be more cajoling and cheering instead.
Sharp six and flag off. One more prayer to the weather gods, keyed in the Garmin and set out. Idea was an easy paced run for two kilometres then get into the groove of things. Vineet and Vasu took off as usual, guys are normally in a hurry. Then Nanda, Atrei and Rahul went ahead along with Ash and Ashish. Next was Sandhya. The Sandhya you see running on a regular training day and the Sandhya you see on race day are two different people. She will probably beat me up for writing this but she brings her best on race day and is shy to own up to it. She was a phenom through the race and gave a hundred percent to the trail. Also, one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. As Sandhya took off, I and Siva stuck around for a while before I moved ahead. The first twenty one kilometres was smooth, I drank a little at every aid station, nibbled some food and looked around as much as possible because the second loop is when you are cussing and trying to keep it together.
The water ran deep and fast this year. The little aqueduct around the fifth kilometre was suddenly too small for the stream. It started on one shore and ended half way through the stream. Seeing it defunct along with the demolished culvert, the little piece of solace I found in my first race, made me a little disconnected and the trail seemed afar. While the canal seemed foreign, the paddy fields with the farmers toiling away was a familiar sight that kept me grounded. I kept myself entertained through the run, I eavesdropped on two runners who were discussing the demographics of the taxi market and how it could be made better. I ran with them for a while and once they mentioned servers and VCs, I dropped gears and took away. As I approached the turn-around at 10.5 the Ananya boys came tearing away; Ramu, Sharath, Sundar and Dharma in pursuit. This is the best part of the race for me at KTM. Running past the half marathoners. It’s a constant cheer and catcalls from friends and fellow runners. It makes running so much more fun and just like that I was back at the start point, feeling strong, feeling good about the weather and the rhythm I was in, I picked some food from Paroma, hi-fived and moved on to the second loop, normally the loop where things get a lot interesting in the head and the glutes.
The trail suddenly felt very close, the brownness of the trail suddenly filling the horizon; the trail definitely was a lot different this year. Very different because I haven’t seen it so close up ever. My face was plastered to it at the 23rd km. I was kissing it and instead of a nice chapstick all I could taste was a dry earthy flavour with a tinge of metallic blood. The sand granules were crunchy, adding texture to the fall. I picked myself gingerly, this was surreal, one second I was moving well and the next second I was face first into the trail only using my knees as a speed-breaker along with my palms, so probably I went knee first then or was it chest first? It’s a bit fuzzy now. Runners around me were a little alarmed and helped me up, guess I was visibly embarrassed because some pretty lady came by, patted me and told me “No one saw you fall, take it easy”. As I stood up and took a step I could feel the pain shoot up through my knees. They were skinned, bloody and covered in dirt. My first panic thought was to quit. Turn around and walk back two kilometres to the finish. I could cosy up a nice wash, some first aid and call it a day. My white singlet was dark brown in dirt, a slimy mix of sweat, water and earth. No one would question my decision. I almost turned back and started back the march until another marathoner asked me to just walk to the next aid station and wash up. The aid station was closer than the start line and I decided to atleast try a little before throwing in the towel. The walk to the aid station was long, laborious and limping. Attending the first aid and CPR session a week earlier wasn’t helping. Suddenly I was assessing my state. What if I bled too much and went into shock. Had I broken a bone and all that adrenalin rush from the fall was masking the pain. At the aid station I washed out the dirt from my face and legs and took a closer look at the wounds. It wasn’t all that bad. The bleeding had stopped. I took stock, ate a little and decided to walk and if possible run a little again.
November 2014, Bangalore Ultra. Vinay was eighteen hours into his twenty four challenge when he tripped over a stone and landed very hard into the ground. It was a nasty fall. His arms scratched, his spectacles bent out of shape and a real bad cut on his lip. It was an unfortunate sight to see and I was about to start pacing him. He stood up, dusted his clothes, washed his face and was back on track. A little further into the trail away from the crowds, Vinay asked me how bad was the cut on his lip. It was scary. It wasn’t a cut, it was a little crater. I just told him it was minor and he continued running after a short walk session. The next day was a different story when he realized it wasn’t minor after all. Those four hours of pacing was a severe lesson in running for me. Not a single complaint, he endured it and marched on and ran for another six hours after the fall to a glorious finish.
So there I was beginning to run again after the clean up and remembered Vinay out of the blue. My bruises were teeny weeny in comparison and I would try to attempt to complete the race with some inspiration. Then that nagging brawling voice in the head kept reminding me “That’s Vinay, you are you, take the bike to the finish”. I tried to keep the voices out and ran as much as possible. Somewhere around 25k I actually ran the whole kilometre, it was just the adrenalin from the crash I suppose for I returned back to a state of struggling to run. Returning marathoners were giving me concerned looks as they ran past me and this was beginning to get me worried, I did look battered but it wasn’t so bad, I look battered on regular days too. I ran alone for a long time till Santosh, Mani and Krishan caught up from behind. Santosh was like “Oh you fell?” “Both knees hurt?” “Did you fall twice?” followed by a laugh and then in a very encouraging way he told I’d be fine and that I should continue being strong and run.
I was still hopeful of making it to my goal time inspite of all the delay and clung onto that idea dearly till 34k after which I let the time be and tried to focus on a decent upright finish. I first cramped at 32k. Left glute, left hamstring and left calf all firing the wrong way and deciding it was time to become a fossil. Miserable, I was half a statue and half a pulpy fruit, I twisted and turned, howled a little and limped to a walk, dragging my feet along the ground and ploughing a new deep groove into it. The cramps eased out a little, I tried resuming the run and whenever fossilization threatened to return at any attempt of picking pace, I walked and recovered. I started walking 50 paces and running 200 paces and continued this for a long time. Sometimes I skipped the counts and ran to the aid stations. Then repeat again. I ran a little with Atrei. A little with Chandra. A little with Ajath. A lot with me and it’s not rosy company. I did silly things like racing a banana peel. I ate a banana, threw the peel into the canal and tried to race it. The peel won after ten seconds. I counted the coconut trees, saw them interspaced with arecanut trees. I tried to politicise the canal widening. It was widened not from the centre, but more towards the east. So the farmers lost land on the east. So were the farmers to the west more influential. Why was the trail so wide and high? Will it be metalled? Was this the last KTM at this trail? Random thoughts weaved into the count, I’d run a little and I’d suddenly come to a dead stop at the slightest inkling of a cramp and walk it out with a spaced out look on my face.
I met Paroma at the 40k mark and we walked a little discussing the fall and laughing it off. I was well spent and decided I’d just walk the rest out. The counting wasn’t really working anymore. It was tough to count to 200; I broke them into batches of 50 and counted them four times. Half way through a fifty count I’d get confused whether it was a walking count or an iteration of the running count, in the confusion I’d take sides and always let walking win the argument. Plans of walking to the finish got jeopardized when Mani and Santosh came along. I wished they’d pass me, Santosh pointed out that I was nearing the finish and to keep moving strong and moved ahead but Mani decided to hang around and make me run to the finish. I tried to cheer him away and that I’d just walk, he had none of that and insisted we do a run walk routine and the counting started again with Mani shouting out the count. Twenty counts of walk and twenty counts of run. Sounded like a democracy but it wasn’t. Mani counted the walk faster and run slower, I protested and would slow to a walk until being coaxed and chided. I latched onto the sound of the numbers and kept moving as much as I could among little whimpers of pain and constant bickering of my groin hurting and every other part of me going through hell, Mani would have none of that and kept pushing me to the finish and let me shuffle and run to the finish. The finish wasn’t a sprint finish, one crash landing was sufficient for the day, I tried to be upright as possible and plaster as much of a smile as I could even as the RH crowd reeled me in. I was happy I was done, finished and further humbled by KTM yet again. There was a celebration jig with the RH gang, some sloppy wet hugs and back slapping, I searched for the medal, didn’t get one last time, I wasn’t mentally cued to be sweet to RFL if they didn’t give me a medal this time but they did. A nice heavy star shaped medal. I wore it proudly around my neck for the rest of the day.
I came in strong into this run, strong… relative to my previous preparations. I lost four kilos in the course of the training program. I was mindful of what I ate every meal. I logged my miles and corrected my mistakes every training run, whether it be pacing or nutrition. On one of the longer runs I ran with my coach at length and we discussed visualization to a great extent and how it can be a game changer. I had visualized a good latter half especially the last 10k of the race and was looking forward to running that section well. To stumble and to fall on those well planned goals is very disappointing. No, the disappointment wasn’t the timing, even if one runs an amazing fast time it is truly never a true reflection of the effort that goes into the trainings and the final day. As coach Santosh says, timing is a very one-dimensioned representation of a run. The disappointment was not being able to run to my strengths and ability. I’ve almost leaned to the opinion that KTM might be jinxed for me, then again jinx falls into the supernatural category, and if we are going there might as conjure up some elves and a pretty minx to kill the jinx.
The traditional dip in the pool post run is where the race comes flooding to me, I’ve felt elated and deflated in the same place just too many times to weed out and identify each of them individually. This time around as I stepped into the rushing uuuuuuucold water and lay down, it was a concoction of cold running up my spine and the burn of the open knee wounds in the water. I sat up too cold to lay in the water and tried to wash away the blood from my knees as much as possible. It washed away, first in bright red then disappearing into the water with a yellow tinge. Probably we all just returned to the elements in the end, one with it and whatever we experience, the experience etched on own souls, is what we take with us finally.