Ultra 75k: Doors to spirits and Oiled hinges

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.

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JLBR – Madness personified

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.

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8 hr stadium run …clocking close to 50km in 400m loops

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We’ve failed our forefathers

You know what makes a runner? Nothing. We are just a pair of nail-less limbs moving in rhythm through the contractions of a thousand muscle fibres, muscle fibres fired by a million synapses in the brain. Therein lies the problem. The brain. Probably the utter callousness of the two hemispheres to agree upon the common good of evolution; to seek comfort in shelter, rest and food. The failure to adhere to the rules of Darwin, runners tend to tread in the opposite direction of the general flow. Our hunter gatherer ancestors tore limb and fruit to land us here; Here in a bliss, privileged ocean of high carbs and fry. The industrial age ensured we don’t move a muscle to plough, to reap and to transport. Silver screens and streaming pictures ensured we don’t have to head out to colosseums to see humans bludgeon each other for entertainment.
Here we are at the cusp of everything our ancestors ever dreamt of and what do we want to do? We want to be like them. To keep moving, make new trails everyday. To run away to faraway lands in hunt of animals that no longer roam the forests, the only animals around now are mongrels and we run haywire when they come snapping. Of all the things we ever wanted, we wanted to be like our forefathers the most, to build cathedrals around our heads, then on paper and then on a mountain top, to catch the first rays of the sun. We then want to race to it from the plains, run up switchbacks lined with wild flowers, yellow blooms that leave their pollen on our feet to travel the world with us. With all the cathedrals built, with souls trampled like flowers on a side-walk, all we are left with is to dream and sometimes those stop too. So, on a dreamless sleepless night, you reach out and if lucky find that crankshaft deep within your heart, tether it to hope and jump start yourself, jump start into a run, a long hard run where you find yourself again and hopefully to dream again. Not to be haunted not be chained, only to be free. Free to think, free to be. Free to hallucinate about food dripping in fat and a beer to wash it down, that’s all we ever want. We just want to reach out to our primordial days, the little rush of rashness that’s left in us, we want to reach out to that place, dip our hands into happiness and let some of it sweat down our brows. We’ve failed our forefathers.”

Stories of a relentless Sole

*This post was an entry to a blog contest organized by Decthalon Sports under the category of how running has changed my life, got shortlisted in the top 50 and that felt real good, didn’t win it of course, maybe another time*

I’ve seen a beetle scurry across a trail at noon, moving laboriously and slow, taking but all the time of the universe. Going around pebbles in its path, pausing to look around and reflecting a deep indigo in the scorching sun. What was I doing staring at a beetle? I was bent over in pain, elbows on my knees, finding a respite from the cramp shooting through my calves, hamstrings, glutes and slowly making its way to my soul. I studied the beetle till it disappeared under a fallen rotting leaf; I straightened up, limped a little and tried to continue what I was doing. Running.

Running through mist covered trails before dawn and through darkness, seeing fellow runners disappear into the horizon, human figures taking the hue of the sky and dissolving into the mist and suddenly you are all alone all-over-again. Running alone to the pitter-patter of an early morning drizzle and the pitter-patter of your footfalls, running to the tune of thrush waking up in the brush, birds that chirp in the thousands on the first hint of daylight, daylight breaking through the clouds in the horizon. Running on endless trails that lead straight to a fiery red ball of a sun rising through the mangle of branches of a banyan tree, rising above the tree line. Running is more than breasting a finish ribbon, is more than a timing, is more than sweat and tears….it is the balm to your aching soul.

Running has taken me to faraway places, faraway places that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes to bright happy places, places with a sky full of balloons, places resonating with happiness and laughter. Sometimes it took me to dark corners, dark and reeking of fear and doubt. These journeys were within me, the destinations always inwards, towards the abyss of my heart and mind. Running takes you to the raw version of yourself, of the person you’ve been and the person you can be.  If there is a paved path to the soul of a man, running would be the cobbles that make that path. Cobbles made of stars plucked from the grey sky under which you’ve run a thousand miles.

Running was an unintentional sojourn, taking a break from weight lifting and endless kick boxing sessions, I landed up for an info session with a running group, Runner’s High and ran two miles and have been hooked ever since and that was four years ago. Ten half marathons and five marathons later I realize I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of the sport. While the majority chase fast times and personal bests, within our group we have created an exclusivity to gather running experiences. The races I prepare for is a party at the end of a long training session, I go in and do the best I can. That is all. I soak in the atmosphere of running with a thousand other runners, soak in the positivity that fills the air and when things come to shove on hitting the ‘wall’ I dig in deep and stay the course, endure and suck it up and see that the run is completed. At the end of each run, the surge of joy rippling through my heart is what I find the most satisfying and endearing

Running has provided a channel to let go of the daily mundane musings that our busy life is made of. It’s been a channel to meet new people from different walks of life, meet people of different age groups sharing the same passion. I’ve had opportunities to run with someone as young as eight, at eight someone who dreams of running a hundred miler. Of running with an octogenarian, who at eighty is as nimble as a teenager and who dreams of cycling the distance to the moon. I’ve run with a visually impaired runner and have learnt what zeal and guts are made of. I have also learnt how many blessings we take for granted. If not much, I’ve been able to make a little contribution of helping someone when I do a charity run. Charity runs that are routed through schools, routes lined with cheering children with pompoms and whistles, the children whose lives we can a make little difference in.

Then, you have days, weeks and months when you can’t step out for a run. Something at work or at home, a sickness that leaves one heaving and puffing as the antibiotics throb through your veins. More often it is an injury, a calf here, a glute there or a hamstring that revolts to the agony it is being put through. These injuries need cajoling, an ice bath, some taping and some rest and they are friends with you again. It’s during these days of non-running that you realize you are an addict and the withdrawal is sickening, it makes one edgy and irritable and a relapse is the only saviour. Some mornings there is an overwhelming surge of saneness that keeps you rooted to your pillow, mornings when the task of slipping on a pair of sneakers is a monumental task, when stepping over the threshold is akin to impossible, you just give in and sleep it out and feel guilty for the rest of the day, but then a runner is a human too, you just pick the scabs, run your fingers over the suppleness of a fresh scar and run the next morning.

My favourite run is the trail run along the banks of the river Kaveri and the run always ends in a small pool of the gushing river. It’s a place that is close to my heart, there have been many a moment of triumph and despair in those waters. As I’ve lain in the water, spangled with bubbling foam from the stream washing away the effort and sweat of a run, a rush of adrenaline gives way to a ruminating hum as my head dunks below the water to close out the sounds of the world. The hum churns out a wide range of emotions and the flag bearer emotion is gratitude. Gratitude for the blessing of being able to experience a joy so pure and unconditional, gratitude for finding fellow runners in love with the same aching sport and who are ready to share the love with you. Even as I’ve laid there in a rush of water, oblivious to the world, you realize you’ve changed, changed to accept losses and wins in the same stride. Changed to the taste of beer, how it tastes like nectar after a twenty miler. Changed to see the vivid details of nature and fine-tuned to pick the sounds of a distant cheering drum. Running changes you at the primordial level of human nature or rather you just rediscover it. As I stand up, dripping wet in joy and the breeze sends a chill up my spine, I realize with a chilling clarity that I’ve changed and changed for good.

Kaveri Trail Marathon: Once Bitten Thrice Shy

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.

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Bengaluru Marathon 2014: First Home Run

Ten thousand footfalls and slowly the dust settles over the Kanteerava. Ten thousand stirred souls, a cauldron of emotions. Joyous, euphoria, pride, relief, loathe, sadness. Some tear smeared faces, mascaras that run long after the race has finished. Tears of joy. Tears of pain. Ten thousand runners. Some have risen, some have fallen, personal bests broken, some agonizing finishes, many for whom the weight of the medal on their chest is a new surreal feeling and as the floodlights dim and switch off one at a time, it’s time to reset the clock, to countdown another year before we have the second edition of the Bengaluru Marathon. With the first we’ve taken off and given India a world class event, with the second we are gonna soar.

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Bengu Superpowers [pic: Facebook Bengu Community]

But you look at the clock that’s been ticking away, the hands spinning endlessly in reverse now and you can’t help but marvel at the precision and effort to keep the clock ticking, the vision to execute at clockwork a race unlike any that Bangalore has seen. If you lift the glass off the face of the clock, move aside the hands, what you’ll see layered below are countless promo runs and runner parties. Nandi Hills, Decathalon, Kanteerva, Pipeline. The brashness of the 12 hour run at Kanteerva. No organizer across India has attempted that, attempt it as a promo run at least. A 6am to 6pm run. Big names, celebrities, ultra-distance behemoths, some young, some bare- feet, some topless, all runners alike, running on the 400 meters in an endless blur. It was just epic to stand on the sidelines, watching alone made one dizzy. The traffic commissioner flagged that run and ran a few laps himself, that reconfirmed what an epic race the Bengaluru Marathon was in the making and he returned in the evening to speak and give away medals to the twelve hour crazies.

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Twelve Hour run. A twelve hour fest [pic: Raghu Mohan]

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Kaveri Trail Marathon 2014: Fear, Running and Audaryaa

I have these long extended conversations in my head. Made up conversations most of the time. Making up quirky replies to prying questions that someone might ask. Sometimes, I talk to my other self in my head. Is it only me or does everyone have a different image of themselves up there in the vastness of their mind. An image of themselves that they covet or an image to come undone. An image cut and pieced together by looking at some trait they liked or disliked in someone else, a nice bouncy haircut, a well-rounded deltoid or bosom, the drawl in someone’s speech, the energy in someone’s stride or just a make believe character that they have conjured up in their heads.. Is it true when Chuck says ““Nothing of me is original, I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” It’s a scary realization isn’t it, to realize​ that​  everything about you could be fake. Coming back to the conversations that I have, I feel it stems from the primal emotion of fear. The fear of rebuttal by someone if you put your true thoughts across to them. Fear of ​non​-acceptance, fear of success, fear of loss, fear of the unknown; I would drop other words and just say Fear​. For fear manifests in every imaginable possible way, fear makes us crave buffer, to soften the fall when we really drop, to make the worst of that we fear seem manageable and survivable. Money is a buffer, that high rise pocket-burning apartment is a buffer, that four wheel drive SUV to drive to a corner office is a buffer, those endless conversations in your mind are a buffer to keep the fear at bay, unveiled and to keep you sane.

Then, there are experiences that wedge into you ​a double edged burning flint of fear  KTM 2013, did exactly that. Forget about the timing – I was battered so hard, timing was the last thing on my mind. Crawling gnawing self-doubt took top shelf; ​the brightest spot in my mind. Conversations revolved around it. Can you ever pull off a full marathon again? I needed reassurance but SCMM 2014 just added more fuel to that self-doubt. A limping, walking finish adds no mileage to your soul, it just kicks away the crutch of hope you were resting on. I pulled out of Auroville though it’s a favorite race, I do a scratchy and scattered summer season to keep my legs alive and sign up for a full at KTM, the way I saw it, the decent way to move forward was to disconnect from what happened the last edition and give it another go. Disconnect, leave it behind, burn the bridges, water down the burning embers, and watch the ashes of the bridge flow away down the blue river in a grey blur.

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Thirty Km into the race, running head-on into cramps and walls [pic: Sandy]

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SCMM 2014: A race that wasn’t

Don’t we love the underdog stories? Rocky Balboa black eyeing Apollo Creed, the phoenix rising from its ashes, the ogre called Shrek who marries a princess , Croatia toppling some major teams in the 1998 world cup, Bangladesh thumping us on a few occasions and in recent memory Ireland making a mess of England in Bangalore. The lore around them is the belief that each one of us is capable of doing something majestic, something extraordinary and running has been a path to a door that opens up these possibilities. Running reiterated the fact that I was capable to star in my underdog story.  Kaveri Trail Marathon and I starred in it handsomely, content with the riveting experience of the training and enormity of a race, the experience brought tremendous belief to trust the process of training and leave out the result. Coming from Santhosh’s tutelage, results didn’t matter, didn’t matter if I came first or last and I managed to achieve the latter and the chief was witness to it and he was one proud mentor that day. But for some reason I needed the validation, the validation of a measure of that effort, it’s a single dimension and however hard I tried to shun that thought and bury it, it seemed to rear its ugly head and come right back.  And I literally tried to bury it too. I went out on a motorcycle ride to the ocean for a good 1000 kilometers after Bangalore Ultra. Sitting on the beach, some of the boys built castles while a few of us got busy building elaborate graves and hacking tombstones out of cigarette packets. A few of us threw in cigarette butts and buried it, symbolic to the act of quitting and lit another right away to mourn the passing. While we performed the final rites, I mentally threw in a few numbers into that pit, my KTM timing, my appraisal numbers and the numbers in a bank, all thrown in and buried. As we set the final tombstone, I was convinced I’d put behind these measure units and continue doing the things that brought me joy, but that was not to be.  The obsession with the numbers returned. It seemed to have gained some demonic powers and shaking it off seemed tough.

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Kaveri Trail Marathon 2013: A mauling and a full

I  ran my first full marathon in 2013 on the banks on river Kaveri in the Kaveri Trail Marathon,  it was a race of epic proportions and I learnt a hell lot about myself that day and also the unconditional support and love within Runner’s High.  The race story;

I squint to look at the bird circling endlessly a mile high in the sky, it looks like a buzzard at first, then slowly as my eyes get used to the light, I see it’s just a crane or a swan and I smile. It’s nice to be lying down in the middle of a race, the concrete slab of the culvert feels nice and mellow, without the buzzard around to pick away at my bones, I’d love to just lay here, just like that, still, without a movement. Without a sound.

“If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?”

Just lay there and listen to the gurgling water beneath the culvert, listen to the approaching footsteps of a runner, footsteps close in to you and listen to them move away.I’d love to just stop, not quit, but just stop and catch my breath and try to enjoy the scenery a little bit more, but it is kilometer twenty six and not mile twenty six, I have a long sixteen kilometers to go and it feels longer than what I’ve trained for. I gather my strength and stand up, look at Paroma who is patiently waiting for me and give a nervous smile, I’m just warming up to my antics on this race, I start to move and trudge ahead.

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Namaskara; Hola

Who am I?

I’d love a Hollywood intro to that. A fast dropping camera, falling through the sky, tearing through cloud banks and pausing over an island in an endless blue expanse. A white crescent beach, with a single shack, a boom box, a cabana,and me on that tan stained cabana with a book in one hand and a beer in another. One foot in a flipper and another in a sneaker. I’d turn to the sky, slow mo, look at the camera, adjust them shades and wink and then realize there wasn’t nothing sexy about the hovering camera but a floating subpoena. I’d scramble, make a dash through the sand to the surf, grab my board and paddle and disappear into the ink. Wilson my shoe, the last image on the lens.

As we are not getting that Hollywood intro, something about me, a little more grounded? Am a Josephite and a Bangalorean. Fitness freak would be too strong a term, I’d go with fitness skew. A lot on this blog would spin around that, “being strong” “eat your greens” “PRs” “running” “bench presses” “hammer curls”.

Who am I again?

Can I get cheesy and use the term “Meet me to know me better” Pleasy please, cut me some slack.

What will I write about?

A lot about running, it’s a new found way of life and it’s nastily addictive. I train and run with Runner’s High, we are a small group of eccentrics, who wake up before sunrise on weekends, to run around in circles, very very large circles. The blog will host my marathon race stories, I will try to avoid the usage of the sentence ” a marathon is a metaphor to life” but will not guarantee it.

What else will I hopefully write about?

Travelogues, bike rides, short stories, poems and lots of vagueness. Ramble ramble.  Day dream accounts. Doodle boards.  Ways to bring about World Peace.

Why wash linen in public?

I’ve been penning for awhile, my friends say I should share my content in the public domain via a blog, I really don’t know whether it is to encourage me or to embarrass me in front of a larger crowd, they usually cheer me up with a beer when I tend to sulk with jeering, so am still to gain, even if it’s a mug of stale beer.

Your feedback and comments would be great to hear from, I’d love to connect to share more ideas, the crazier the better. No ideas? How about connecting to share that beer.

This is not my first blog, the other one fizzed out within a week. If purpleinkrambles sees daylight after a year, I feel I would have accomplished reaching to a larger group of people, hopefully connecting to peers with similar interests and mending my procrastinating ways with regular posts.

Thanks for reading. Cheers.

PS: A little about the title, purpleinkrambles.

Purple, they say reflects royalty, of course it’s not chosen for that reason, no royal lineage here. It’s just that I did the bulk of college note scribbling , doodles, pen fights, collages, all with an arsenal of purple pens, purple markers, purple sheets, heck, I even had a purple silk shirt in under grad. Hence the word purpleink, purplechart, didn’t have the same ring to it. “Ramble” because of what you’ve read till now, lots of unstructured thoughts put into what looks like an ensemble of words.