It’s been three weeks since Bangalore Ultra and I am still coming to terms with it. My ankle keeps me in check along-with a tan that’s left me looking haggard. This is my Bangalore ultra 75k race story. It’s long. Race stories don’t begin at the start line, it begins way back at the start of the season and this story does no justice to the nine months of training, I’ve tried to keep it short.
“… Perhaps the genius of ultra-running is its supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in a world of space ships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted from the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runners know this instinctively. And they know something else that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being — a call that asks who they are …” – David Blaikie
..and most times you are not ready to receive that call, but it’s the only call you are allowed to and I took mine in the bottom of a murky chance-less pit.
There’s a beginning, a middle and an beginning to this story and the heart of it lives in the middle. The heart which is sandwiched between your head and your ugly feet. The heart that wants to bleed, but you put a band-aid on it and like Sandy said at the start of last year’s 50k, it’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. The bleeding doesn’t stem nor does the pain. The yearly heart check-ups make sense now, most people are torn between their heart and mind, we runners are torn between heart, mind, glutes, knees and ugly stinky feet. A mind that wants to stop, bums and glute that want to sit, feet and toes that turn black with envy and a heart that wants to go on.
I finished the ultra upright albeit 7 hours after the winner had finished the race. Sanjeev Ramki, won the 75k in seven and hour hours and must have returned to his home in Chennai, I took fourteen and a half, two hours more than what I had planned for. Doesn’t matter. I finished. I wish I had finished stronger, to give my friends tighter hugs, to hug my coach tighter till a happy laugh spilled out and stronger to punch one particular RFL organizer in the jaw. Probably squeeze his neck till his tonsils lay among the gravel we were forced to run on.
JLBR and gang spent most of the season huddling around. We first huddled in Jahangir Hall, declaring a purpose of intent on the 75k. We huddled around yummy food for the rest of the season, most times curd rice with a dash of sambhar, idlis some times and I secretly had my own stash of biscuits and choclates. We huddled around sweaty yoga mats and dumbbells at contours and on a long night run we fought hard, haggled, negotiated and huddled over a smoking brown broth of coffee in the middle of a longish night run. Rest of the time we ran and ran whole-heartdely, sometimes in pain and discomfort, sometimes with Santosh throwing rocks at us, sometimes in endless loops in an apartment block, around lakes, around cubbon, through rock cleavages, through throny shrubbery and running around a lonely tree till all of us regrouped together. Yes, we did run around a tree. You can’t make this up. Nine months of training and it wears the rubber off your shoes, grates away the layers to your soul, it’s easier to feel happy and joyous after a long run, easier to feel the pain of the past, the beauty of everything that surrounds you is glaring, silence so profound it silences and quiets your mind and sometimes the sheaths around your soul are stretched so thin that it’s easier to touch a nerve. Though it happened many-a-time, one moment I recall fondly is at Kanteerava. We met up earlier than usual at Kanteerava to do our hill-repeats and when we wrapped up, it was still dark with the sun-just peaking on the horizon. The horizon and the city you can see only when you climb to the highest cement row of the seating arena. I’ve stolen moments here, to look down on the dash of green of the football patch, simmering somedays in the light of a feeble distant floodlight. As you rush down, jumping down the steps and dashing down the ramps, it’s gravity all the way and on that particular day of pushing harder than usual, I finished my workout, crashed into the wet grass of the football field and lay sprawled facing the sky. As my hastened breaths slowed down and it was safe to open my eyes, it was spectaular to see an ink blue sky framed by the oval of the stadium, with distant stars sparkling to a rhythm I couldn’t hear. I lay there for a long time, the dew seeping through my clothes, drenched in sweat, moistened eyes and choking a little.
Race day came quicker than expected. Some tough runs thrown in and I was feeling a little not too great, coach says, this happens all the time. The first giant bite was the stadium run, eight hours of looping around 400 meters. Mine was painful, my glutes hurt and hurt bad after four hours into the run. It hurt so bad, I had it trampled. First with Sujoy, who ran a few loops with me, who helped me bring my back focus and then stomped the hell out of my glutes. Getting stamped in the middle of the run feels good, so I’d sneak away every half hour to ask if anybody wanted to walk on my buttocks. Quite a few were interested. This went on till Vinay spotted me and sent me packing away. A few personal issues saw me missing the longest run of the season, eight hours on a Saturday and four hours on Sunday. Santhosh, being the task master that he is, made it clear that I get it done or just move to a different distance. I took the challenge head-on, landed at Cubbon at 8am to do the run by-myself, it would be the longest I would have run by myself and all the enthusiasm drained out by the fourth hour. After jumping over one garden snake, booed by couples who were frolicking in the undergrowth, trying to bring down a Persian cat perched on a tree, sipping chocolate and trying to out-run a walking horse, I finished the run at 4pm, drenched in sweat and stinking to high heaven. It was the longest ever and accomplishing it gave a strange confidence that I was alright, but I wasn’t.
Race day, I lined up exactly where I had finished the ultra 50k in 2015. I had run zero races for the whole year, there wasn’t a compulsion and I didn’t feel like it. The memories of that race lingered, it was my first brush with glute issues, I didn’t write that race story, but if I had, I would have definitely mentioned foam rolling on a thick round branch in the middle of the forest. Pre-race photo ops with Sharath, Nanda and Siva, the other JLBRs were meanwhile far away into the forest running some insane distance for fun. I patted myself and everything was in place. Visor, sunglasses, band-aids on the chest, shoes and chocolates. New entrant into race day attire was the purple K-Tape holding my ITB together and a tingle of cold on my shaved legs. Patted that as well for re-confirmation. Flag off and there was no hurry at all, no Garmin to key-in and no RFL idiot to trip on the way out. I looked sky-wards, short prayer and a thank you to the Lord for allowing me to experience this and I was praying to the same Lord seven hours later, I wanted to end it, end the pain and quit.
The first 25km was a breeze. Nanda and Siva took off while Me and Sharath stuck together. It was a role reversal, while me and Nanda trained together, Siva and Sharath stuck to each other throughout the runs. Poor Nanda had to put up with some real long rants through the training, how long was it? I narrated an entire sci-fi novel once, we discussed about gravity, about time-travel and the power of imagination. No wonder Nanda scampered away with Siva on tow, meanwhile Sharath and me shared silly stories, cussed at RFL for retaining the gravel strewn path at the start of the race. With a six am start, the sun hovered just above the horizon, at that moment I didn’t realize I’d still be on the course when the sun would set in a rush of orange and purple, but I was there, to see the sun go down and kept crunching up the gravel. The first 25km went to plan, a tad faster and before we knew it we were chomping on delicious idlis with sambhar and Santhosh had joined the four of us and was sharpening his weapons by ensuring we got no second serving of sambhar and made sure we left the RH tent in a jiffy.
The demons started to jump out the forest as soon as we entered the trail. Running for me after a food break has been a challenge all season long, no matter what I ate. So, the second loop felt lethargic and very forced but this was regular and should have passed but did not. The sun was out, hard and blazing and the run for some reason got tougher and tougher. The four of us spread apart gradually, with Nanda taking the lead, followed closely by Sharath and the rear guard was me and Siva with Santhosh. The walk break of five minutes after every twenty five minutes of running seemed distant, and when it did arrive, the walk felt difficult and what was supposed to be a recovery walk did no recovering. The turn around was at 12.5km with which we would have covered 37.5km or the half way point. This turn around felt like an eternity but I was still moving and when we did turn around we were still on schedule, I turned around 5hrs 59 mins into the race. I still had a one minute lead on the whole plan, I pointed it out to Santhosh who by this time was raging and pushing us to run and skim on the unscheduled walk breaks that me and Siva were taking. Siva found a rhythm and took off with Santhosh and I was officially the only rear guard and sweeper. At 41km I rolled my left ankle on one of the thousand roots that protruded from the ground, the ankle rolling was fine but it set off the ITB. Taping or not, the pain shot up from my knees and suddenly I felt the run slowing down to a crawl. This wasn’t new, had faced the same issue in 2014 in Mumbai at 34km but that was a 42km race, here, I was hardly half way through.
The race quickly slipped away from this point on wards, the tape had lost it’s tension and looked more ornamental than functional. Santhosh and Siva turned into a corner and that was the last I saw of them. With no rhythm in sight, I tried counting 50 steps of run and 50 of walk, did not work. I tried a minute’s run and minute of walk, that didn’t work either. Every step I took was a nagging pain in the ITB and bending the knee to step forward either to run or walk was excruciating. I decided to stick to walking. However slow that was, I wanted to keep moving forward. The only goal was to walk from aid station to aid station and figure something along the way. After walking for what seemed like an eternity I saw an aid station coming come, while it brought some cheer into me I wasn’t prepared to see Siva lying flat on the ground in the shade of the tent with Santhosh on a chair. I’ve never felt so dejected and horrified at the same time in a race. This wasn’t happening to two of us on the same race day. Santhosh asked me to keep walking and that Siva’s race was doubtful. I dunked some cold water on my head and moved away from the aid station, tried to run and stopped shortly. The walk to the 50km mark has been the longest ever. With no runners in sight and the sun overhead, I felt the entire nine months of training drain out of me. The RFL volunteers stopping often and offering me a ride wasn’t helping, somewhere between being horrified at Siva’s state and the 50k mark, I decided I was quitting this race. I decided, I’d walk to the tent, remove my Bib and close this horror. The ITB wasn’t helping, neither the heat nor the ankle. Somewhere along the way was a bed under some shade, I crept in and fell asleep promptly only to be frightened and wakened by a screaming Abhi, as I tumbled out of the bed, the volunteers turned me in the right direction and I continued my death march.
The walk seems like a distant memory now, but it was pleadingly long and painful, the old familiar glute pain checked in as well and I must have been a twisted sight when I walked. I missed KTM suddenly. There was no gurgle of water for company, no waving farmers and no distant cow bells. There wasn’t a blissful splash of green paddy and the hovering herons. The silence was eerie. Surrounded with nothing but an expanse of bamboos that didn’t even rustle like the way they did in the morning.Bamboos are water sucking monsters, they suck the earth dry and all those biology lessons from college came rushing back. I could visualize all the water travelling the length of the bamboo from earth and evaporating into the sky. But I made use of whatever little shade they provided. I sat on a mound, careful not to cramp up and tried to make sense of the situation, I wasn’t even sweating anymore. I was caked up in dry sweat and my tee and shorts felt stiff like card boards. I tried to throw up, but just dry heaved. I tried eating a bar of five star but spat out a half chewed brown goop that rolled down into the trail from the mound gathering sand along the way like a little snowball. There are low points and then there are low points when you can’t chew chocolate and spit it out. I stood up, spent some time with my hands on my knees looking intently at the floor, the floor stood lifeless, dry and bleak.
I met Santhosh again and he came blasting away. Once I told him I’d stop at fifty, he changed gear to a rotating barrel and let out a spew of bullets, all I could mumble was “I’m trying”. He wouldn’t have it and we decided on a middle ground. Susan would take the call on the ITB, my pacer Sandy would take the call on whether I would continue or not. Reaching the 50k mark was surreal. Along the way I had met Sharath and Nanda on their third loop, they looked beautiful with their pacers and looked strong. They were distraught when I told them I’d stop, distraught just like Paroma and Sandy and the rest of the RH gang who were waiting for me. What happened next was beautiful and no amount of thanking would ever suffice. Susan and Shoba took a broken soul and patched it. The purple tape came flying off and a black menacing tape took it’s place. I drank and ate to my heart’s content, sipped on coffee, hugged everyone and they must have smelled a dead raccoon on me. I took my time and confided in Santhosh and Sandy that I would take it one loop at a time, thirteen loops to the finish. The small loops felt familiar; kanteerava loops, ST Bed loops, apartment loops, cubbon loops, somewhere there was a glimmer of hope that I would finish. My logic to quit was this. I had trained to run, I had already walked 8km there was no way I’d walk another 25km to finish the race, I had trained to run and I wanted to finish running and not walking, Santhosh’s reaction was priceless, his eyes rolling back into the that perfect bald prize of his.
Off we went, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Sandy was my pacer and she has paced me before. Bonus was Jay, seeing him after a longtime felt super nice and we went off to do some count-down. Thirteen to zero, one inch at a time. Mobile phones blaring loud music, jingles I loved, jingles that made so much more sense than the stunning silence in which I had crawled. The rhythm crept back, but not the pace. Sandy spoke and I listened and nodded. We spoke about base jumping, about roller-coasters and all things positive. We ran tree stump to pipes, walked from flags to compounds, turned around at the km marking and made our way back to the gravel path. Coming back to the RH tent every second kilometer kept me in the the right spirits. Paroma was there to cheer me on along-with everyone from RH. My close buddies, Rutwij and Soms rode down to see me do what I called running, it was heartening to see them everytime. Susan kept an hawk-eye on me and suddenly the ITB and ankle felt tolerable, I was a moving entity, albeit slow and broken. Frozen water melon chunks, iced tender coconut kept finding it’s way to my tummy thanks to Sandy, she did more running than me in that last twenty five. I stopped once more for a full on stretch, I think someone stamped me on my bum again using the opportunity. Blue tarpaulin in your face with people on your back. Perfect. Vishal assured me every loop that I could change my tee but that never happened and before long I was running across the finish mat on the far end of the race start point. It felt like an anti-climax, but the finish felt sweet, it felt surreal, dawn to dusk and a little more on my feet. Seventy five km done and entrenched into my being, this was a first and I will always recall this race both fondly and with a horror. Rode back pillion with Rutwij to the finish/start point and nope it wasn’t to the RFL one but to the RH tent. Bear hugged everyone, thanked them all for the support and love. Probably teared up on Paroma’s and Som’s shoulder but the sweat drench hid it well. Taking the medal was again an anti-climax, a stronger finish and I would have really tackled some idiots to the gravel path. I kept my calm, took the medal and walked away. More about that some other time.
Sixty five kilometers into the run and that rusted hinge that holds the door to your spirit is a little oiled. The sun’s set, gone home in a riot of colours, the moon’s shaping up, ragged clouds swirling their trails in it’s light, there’s a song you love playing out aloud, you love it because it’s beautiful, a whole ounce of beautiful that weighs on that door and the door swings. Door’s ajar and the light shines, for a moment, you know who you really are, in plain-sight and a burst of radiance, you know and you will never forget.
This race, the training and the execution would have never been possible without the crazy folks of Runner’s High, Bangalore and JLBR. The camaraderie is Oscar worthy. The unconditional love I’ve received is what fables are made off. Training days, race days and off days. The love showered is never tempered.