BEING ASHOK DANIEL

Ashok Daniel (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We speak to Ashok Daniel, the youngest Indian to complete the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). In a relatively short span of time, he has been to a variety of races, the bulk of them partial to trails and mountains.

Six-pack is the flag bearer of the gym movement. For some gym goers, despite six-pack, gym becomes limited fascination. The type of person you are, matters. There is only so much the confines of a room and its occupants sweating their way to sculpted glory, offer for engagement. “ I got my six pack and all. But I was finding gym work-out very repetitive. It became the same thing over and over again, it became boring,’’ Ashok Daniel said.

Born December 1990, he grew up in Chennai’s Besant Nagar, a suburb that got its name from the noted theosophist, Annie Besant. It is a well-known suburb, particularly popular for its beach – Elliot’s Beach, also called `Bessie.’ The Theosophical Society has its headquarters in neighboring Adyar. Its premises or `garden,’ spanning over 250 acres, is one of the greenest parts of Chennai. Ashok’s father worked as a lawyer; his mother, a teacher. As a child he was on the heavier side and had no interest in sports. By the time he was in twelfth standard, he weighed 93 kilos. When he reached law school Ashok decided to address his obesity. He joined a gym and through a combination of work-out and diet, brought his weight down to 58 kilos in six months. “ I was very dedicated when it came to working out at the gym,’’ he said.

From a recce run of the Jawadhu Hills Ultra before the race and as part of training for 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

That was why the emergent boredom bothered. If you have known a regimen and its benefit long enough, threats to continuing it, worry. And yet, there was no denying the truth – gym sucked because there is no creativity in repeating and repeating the same thing. In direct proportion to six-pack sprouting on abs, the mind felt bored. On the other hand, if you left the gym’s confines, you became one with the world. If you moved around in that world, the world and its many dimensions engaged you. The brain likes variety. “ I used to jog in the morning and hit the gym in the evening. Between the two, I decided to pick running and focus more on it,’’ Ashok said.

As it turned out, all those months of morning jogs and strength training at the gym, had laid the foundation for a potential runner in him. A Sunday, he saw senior citizens running a half marathon in Besant Nagar. It prompted him to sign up for his first running event – the half marathon segment of the Chennai Trail Marathon organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). He finished fourth in that. Ashok’s progression over distance categories appears to have been rapid. Following that half marathon, he signed up for the Chennai Marathon and the Bangalore Ultra. At the latter, he planned on attempting the 25 km-category but when almost everyone he connected with online in discussions around the event seemed to be headed for the 50km, he changed his mind and registered for that. At the Bangalore Ultra, his fist 25km-loop went by smoothly. The next was painful. He finished the assigned 50km in around six and a half hours.

At the finish line of the 50k Val Vil Ori Ultra in Kolli Hills, April 2016 (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The good thing about an event is that you meet like-minded others. He trained through November 2012 with runners he met at the Bangalore Ultra; in this case – a group from Chennai YMCA. He ran the Chennai Marathon in around four hours. Following this he kept attending races in other places – Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Auroville among them. Around this time, he read a book titled Extreme Running. Published in 2007, it was written by Kim McConnell and Dave Horsley. According to information on the Internet, the book provides an overview of extreme running and races in that niche located in testing environments like mountains, cold places and hot deserts. The book played a big role in effecting Ashok’s transformation from a runner of half marathons and marathons, to runner of ultramarathons. But while it offered a goal, finding the path to it seemed Ashok’s onus. In the lean season following the run at Auroville, he began ramping up mileage, sometimes up to 160km per week with 50km every weekend. “ The distance barrier broke for me,’’ he said. This phase was followed by a project in league with his friend Sreekumar – run a half marathon every day for 50 days with weekend runs going up to 30km. Sreekumar did this for 80 days, Ashok said. “ The first 20 days of this was painful. Thereafter the body got used to it. We even upped the weekend distance to 50km. All this running was done early morning; start running by 3-4 AM and be done by 9 AM. None of us had any clue on how to handle training for ultramarathons. We decided to figure things out as we went along,’’ he said. Also happening around this time was a run from Chennai to Puducherry. There were five runners. On the first day, two of them including Ashok ran 75km. The next day, the same two did much of the running and reached Puducherry.

Near Snowden, Wales; from a training run for UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

In English folklore Robin Hood is an outlaw with a difference. Operating from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, he robs the rich to help the poor. His main adversary is the Sheriff of Nottingham. The story of Robin Hood contributed to making Nottingham a known name worldwide. In 2013, Ashok moved to the UK to do his masters in law (LLM) at the University of Nottingham. He joined the university’s running group. That group – they were into cross country running – was composed of fast runners. “ I had to raise my performance. The university group was my introduction to structured training. My time in the UK taught me to train smart, not merely hard,’’ Ashok said. In Nottingham, he ran less and trained more. The idea of piling mileage got recast. He was exposed to the concept of acquiring muscle memory. Nutrition was emphasized. He also got introduced to running on trails, in mud, in the rain. “ Trail running was something I wanted to do. I had got bored of road running,’’ Ashok said. He did a 50 mile-race in Sheffield. It was a low key event; a mud fest. He ran it in road shoes. But he managed a decent time – around nine hours. Soon he was dreaming of UTMB – The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc – among the most coveted ultramarathons out there. It is 166km long with roughly 9600m of cumulative elevation gain. To run UTMB, you have to accumulate points running other races accredited for the purpose.

Running Highland Fling (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

UTMB was first held in 2003. The entire UTMB basket consists of the main UTMB, the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) entailing 101km of running plus 6100m of elevation gain, TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) at 119km plus 7250m, OCC (Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix) at 53km and 3300m and PTL (La Petite Trotte `a Leon) at 300km plus 28,000m. According to Wikipedia, the route basically follows the Tour de Mont Blanc hiking path, a loop around Mont Blanc, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. However, changes in route do happen from year to year, main reason being safety. Ashok’s blog post on UTMB put the challenge in perspective: Generally people take around a week to ten days to get the route done at a leisurely pace but during the race we have around 46 and half hours to finish it. Given the need to accumulate points for eligibility to apply, UTMB smacks of project. For aspirants, it is a long haul. In 2013, when he came to India for the holidays, Ashok ran the Nilgiris 100, completing it in 14 hours. It was a race that provided UTMB points; he gathered some in the process. In December that year, having accumulated UTMB points from the races in Sheffield and Nilgiris, Ashok applied for the 2014 TDS, part of UTMB. For Ashok, 2014 was the first year with a real calendar in running. In March 2014 he ran the Oldham Way 40 miler. In April he did South Downs Way, a 50 miler along the coast. South Downs Way is basically a long distance footpath and bridleway along the South Downs in southern England; it is one of 15 national trails in England and Wales. Wikipedia says people have been using the paths and tracks linked to form South Downs Way for approximately 8000 years.  A week after the 50 miler at South Downs Way, Ashok did Highland Fling, a 53 miler from Glasgow to Tyndrum. Lack of recovery from the previous run hit home and he was forced to abort the run at the 30 mile-mark. Next he signed up for the West Highland Way Race; it had UTMB points on offer.

From a climb in the 3×3000 Skyrace in UK’s Lake District (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

West Highland Way, a long distance trail in Scotland, was opened in October 1980. The first race on it – it was between two athletes; one well known, the other little known – happened in June 1985. From next year onward, it was opened up to more runners. At around 24 years of age, Ashok was the youngest runner in the 2014 edition of the 95 mile-race. Waiting at the 50 mile-mark were his uncle and aunt. On race day, Ashok reached 50 miles to be greeted by stunning scenery. He felt good. He cruised for the next 20miles. That was a revelation for him – realizing that such energy kicks in so deep into a run. At 75 miles, by when he had been running for over 20 hours, things started to go wrong. He had his first spell of distance running’s hallucination. Then he started to feel “ super sleepy.’’ But a Scottish friend who was along – Gavin Bussey – egged him on. Gavin dropped off at the 80 mile-mark. At that point, Ashok was pulled out of the race and told to wait for the others. Cut-off time was 36 hours and there was much time left. However, his muscles began to seize. The next section of the race was isolated and risky. The organizers were reluctant to let Ashok continue. “ I was a hallucinating mess,’’ he said. Two runners who came in just then, agreed to take him along. “ Those 13 miles were the hardest of my life. My body was literally shutting down,’’ Ashok said. Fresh life kicked in over the last 10 miles. The scenery was lovely; Ben Nevis – Britain’s highest peak – was visible. Eventually Ashok completed the race in 32 hours. West Highland Way has remained special for him as an instance of the running community making sure that he got to the finish line.

Near the highest point of the course, around 50km into the Transvulcania Ultra; May 2015 (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The rest of that summer he licked his wounds, slowly recovering and regaining his strength. He commenced running only two weeks before TDS. That was too late to attempt the race properly. So he let TDS go by that year. But he travelled to France to see UTMB and came back resolved to run it. A point worth noting is that each of these visits to UTMB and its locale was enhancing Ashok’s familiarity with the race and its dynamics. Ashok’s blog mentions him having a degree of familiarity with the event by the time he got down to actually running it.  Lake District is a mountainous region in North West England, famous for its lakes, forests and mountains. In October 2014, Ashok did a 50 miler in the Lake District and although it was far from satisfactory, it gave him precious UTMB points. Adding that to his existing bank of points, he applied for the 2015 UTMB. Then once again, setback occurred. In an accident, he tore an abductor muscle. It forced him to skip plans of running once again at Nilgiris 100 and put him out of action till mid-February 2015. Returning to training, he decided to give a shot at a race he had signed up for in November 2014 – Transgrancanaria (125km, 8500m elevation gain).  Held since October 2003, the race sees participants crossing the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, on foot. Yet again Ashok made the mistake of deeming himself fit too early and ended up doing a DNF (Did Not Finish) at around 65km. At this race, he met for a second time, Paul Giblin, a Scottish runner who had won the 2014 West Highland Way. Paul started to coach Ashok; get him ready for UTMB.

In March 2015, Ashok ran Oldham Way again. In April he repeated Highland Fling too. In May he headed for Transvulcania. This race, another one held on Canary Islands, is rated among the toughest ultramarathons. It has been held since 2009 on the island of La Palma. Ashok found the race living up to its reputation – it was tough. The weather was warm and the route, steep. His blog post on the race put La Palma and the weather in perspective: The place is stunningly beautiful and less touristy / trashy than other Canary Islands as it’s harder to get to but there’s a reason it’s called the Isla Bonita (Beautiful Island). It has some of the most varied and technical trails in the world and gives you a real sense of skyrunning as you are literally running above the clouds for most of the race. It is also the most mountainous island in the world. Although technically its part of Spain, it’s just off the coast of Morocco in Africa and often around the time of the race we get hot winds along with Saharan smog to the island, which certainly spices things up; this natural phenomenon is called `Calima.’ “ The first 50km of the race was awful, I almost had a heat stroke’’ he said. He started to cramp and throw up. Eventually, he finished the race in 16 hours and 45 minutes with 15 minutes left for cut-off. Transvulcania took a toll on Ashok. But that didn’t stop him from signing up for the June 2015 Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites. Although he trained well for it, within 20 minutes of starting the race, he grew nauseous. He had to stop running by 50km. Paul and Ashok didn’t want to mess up prospects for UTMB. They decided to come back for the race in the Italian Dolomites, next year.

On a glacier around the Chamonix valley, during a training run in July 2015 ahead of Ashok’s first attempt at UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Site of the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix lay in south eastern France. It is close to the peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges. According to Wikipedia, the north side of the summit of Western Europe’s highest peak – Mont Blanc – and therefore the summit itself is part of the village of Chamonix. The place is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Chamonix is much revered in climbing. It is also UTMB country. Paul was training for UTMB around Chamonix. It being holiday season, he asked Ashok to go along. Ashok ran the UTMB route over 2-3 days. He was in good form; he also felt mentally ready for the race. Reaching France that year to do the CCC was India based-ultra runner Kieren D’ Souza. Ashok had been in touch with him. According to Kieren, they were both participants at the 2013 Nilgiris 100. However an opportunity to meet and talk hadn’t manifested at that race. In 2014, when Kieren got around to applying for CCC, Kavitha Kanaparthi who manages Globeracers (they organize Nilgiris 100) mentioned about Ashok, a runner based in UK with plans for attempting UTMB. That’s how the two connected. Subsequently they met up in Chamonix, two to three days before commencement of the 2015 UTMB. Kieren went on to complete CCC. For Ashok, the race went well up to the 60 km-mark. Past that he suspected he was pushing himself but running empty. He wasn’t fueling properly. Around 65km, he took a fall and injured his hip. As a result, stretches with descent became difficult to handle. He had to DNF at 50 miles (he was pulled off by race medics). “ I was devastated. I was in good shape and had wanted to do UTMB for long,’’ Ashok said. He also suspected another angle; one that was philosophic. “ When you put on the UTMB bib you are supposed to respect the mountain. I think I got too competitive with the landscape. I shut everything out in the interest of performance, leaving nothing open for the ecosystem to seep in and inspire me. That came back to bite,’’ Ashok said.

From the 2015 Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Three to four weeks after UTMB, he signed up for a 100 mile-race in UK called Autumn 100. He ran it to get UTMB points. The race is unique for its long night-running segment. A flat, fast course, Ashok completed the race in 23:30. All the disappointment accumulated from the aborted run at UTMB was flushed out. He decided to attempt UTMB again. In December 2015, his studies completed, Ashok moved back to India. He decided to take a six month-holiday. At the beginning of 2016, he applied for UTMB and was accepted. In February, he ran the Hong Kong 170 (it no more exists). For the first 18 hours of that race, it rained. Almost half the field pulled out. Having run in UK and the Alps, Ashok was alright with the bleak, wet weather. Around 8 AM, morning of the second day, he succumbed to sleep but snapped right out of it and somehow managed to finish the race. He completed it in 37 hours. Within two weeks of the race in Hong Kong, he participated in a 50km race in the Kolli Hills, a small range in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district. He finished it in five hours flat. Next he signed up for Lavaredo, the race in the Italian Dolomites. He spent May training in the UK. In June, Ashok ran Lavaredo. Paul told him to pace himself and enjoy the race. He completed it in 28 hours with two hours left for cut-off. “ That gave me a lot of confidence. I told Paul that I have got the monkey off my back,’’ Ashok said.

From 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Back in Chennai, he trained diligently, spending his weekends with Peter Van Geit of CTC, running long distances in the hills. He approached his second UTMB with all learnings from the past, in place. He also felt more relaxed. Yet again, in a repeat of the previous attempt, he hallucinated during one of the descents in the latter half of the race. He blacked out and woke up wondering where he was. Ashok describes it in his blog: On the way down I told Paige to keep running while I sat down to remove dirt from my shoes. I had a blackout here for about ten minutes where I had a vivid dream which involved me volunteering two years ago atop this same mountain while tracking the elite runners. It felt so real that it was hard for me to snap out of it as my mind was playing the memories that happened two years ago before I snapped out of it and started questioning if THIS was real or I was dreaming. I slowly got back to my senses as people passed me. I looked at my bib and realized I am in the race and not volunteering! Slowly I got up and started running.

From 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Race cut-off time was 46 and half hours. Ashok finished it in 45 hours and 45 minutes. “ I really enjoyed the whole experience,’’ he said of the 2016 UTMB. In October 2016 he ran Malnad Ultra in Karnataka followed by a 100km-race in Thailand in February 2017. “ I didn’t finish the race in Thailand as I got lost in the forest,’’ Ashok said. That month, he also signed up for the iconic Tor Des Geants in the Italian Alps. The race located in Aosta Valley in Italy’s northwest, comes with a waiting list and lottery for admission. Each country has a quota. Nobody had applied from India. So Ashok got in without a problem. Ahead of the Tor, he also did a 100 mile-race in the US – Old Dominion in Woodstock, Virginia. It was on trails. Unlike trails in Europe, which are quite technical, American trails appeared well maintained. One reason for this, Ashok said, could be that many American races go back to horse racing and continue to be run on trails of that sort. Ashok completed Old Dominion in 23:45.

From Tor Des Geants (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The 330km-Tor Des Geants is a seven day nonstop race with cut-off set at 150 hours. The route includes some 25 mountain passes and cumulative elevation gain of approximately 24,000m. Positioned in the transition phase from summer to autumn, you get to experience seasonal change. Plus, it is one of those races, where you have to carry crampons for tackling snow and ice. Not all who participate complete the Tor. According to Wikipedia, completion rate is 60 per cent. In a piece he composed for his blog, Ashok notes that he had initially thought of the Tor as something he would attempt in his older years; perhaps an assignment amid midlife crisis. But then aged 26, he felt ready for it. His friends encouraged him to enroll; as first applicant from India, the race welcomed him immediately with no recourse to lottery. Ashok appears to have prepared well for the Tor. At a wedding in the US, he met Dima Finhaus, who had been a three time-finisher at the Tor. It fetched him valuable advice. Training for the Tor was done mostly in the hills of South India coupled with a month of running in the US East Coast (including Old Dominion) and time spent with Kieren running in the Himalaya. Still, despite preparation, the Tor was a handful. “ I went through a lifetime of emotions in those seven days,’’ Ashok said. His biggest challenge was sleep – most days he was sleeping only 20 minutes or so. Towards the end spurts of sleep evolved. “ I must have lost about eight kilos during the race. But somehow I had it mentally locked down,’’ he said. He completed the race in 147 hours and 41 minutes. Ashok has applied for the Tor again in 2018. Meeting him there would be Kieren, who is attempting a shorter version of the race. After the 2017 Tor, Ashok signed up for Diagonale Des Fous (also called Grand Raid) on Reunion Island, a French overseas territory located between Madagascar and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. He was the first Indian attempting it.

Completing Tor Des Geants (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The event of October 2017 was the twenty fifth edition of Diagonale Des Fous. Cut-off for the 162km-race with 9643m of cumulative elevation gain, was 64 hours. It was a technical route but given the location was a heritage site use of trekking poles was banned. “ I really suffered in this race. But it was a beautiful experience. I hate running on tarmac. I like being in the mountains. Flat is monotonous. It gets tedious. When you run in the mountains, you cannot shut off your brain. There is no fooling yourself. You can’t be on autopilot when you are running in the mountains,’’ Ashok said. According to him, years ago, when he started shifting more and more towards trail,  it took him two to three months to get used to the transition and run without pain. Road forces the legs primarily into forward motion; trail requires sideways motion too – so there is both transition and getting used to, in the frame.

From Ashok’s visit to Manali to train with Kieren D’Souza (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

There is also another transition happening across Indian athletes like Ashok and Kieren. You can’t do a race like Tor Des Geants if you don’t really enjoy running in the mountains simply for what it is; but it takes years if not decades for this mindset to develop and having that deep ultra-running experience is vital: Ashok wrote.  Read that alongside Ashok’s race statistics from the Tor – the advertised distance is 330km with 24,000m elevation gain but the post-race GPS log showed close to 350km and 31,000m. This, Ashok says, is like climbing three Everests while running a 200 mile-race with very little sleep. Although in their pursuit of the world’s great races athletes like Ashok and Kieren still tackle tarmac, their repertoire includes transition from road running to trail running and within that, willingness to tackle technical trails. Importantly – there is a lot of mountain in the frame. At this juncture, they become a convergence of skillsets from multiple disciplines – there is running, hiking, tolerance of altitude, capacity to move fast on rock and snow. If you scan the world of endurance sports, the emergent term for this sportsperson of multiple skills is `mountain athlete.’ As with the Tor, Ashok has signed up again for the Diagonale too. The last race Ashok had done before we met in Chennai, early March 2018, was the 120km Ultra Trail Angkor Wat in Cambodia. A lawyer handling civil cases, he funded most of his running by himself. In the last three years, he said, he has been getting some support. A French company, WAA Ultra, supports him in sports attire; Unived in nutrition, Salomon India in shoes and Sunto in watches.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Ashok Daniel. Timings at races are as provided by interviewee.)                                   

BARKLEY 2018

Grant Maughan (This picture was taken at the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High. Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is an article by invitation. The author Grant Maughan is a seasoned ultramarathon runner and adventure racer.

Many of us in India know Barkley Marathons through that wonderful documentary film: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It is an ultramarathon of approximately 100 miles (with a “fun run’’ of 60 miles) happening in late March or early April every year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee in the US. The race – it has 54,200 feet of accumulated climb – is limited to a 60 hour-period. Only 40 runners get to participate.

The Barkley course was designed by Gary “ Lazarus Lake’’ Cantrell. According to Wikipedia the idea of the race was inspired by the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray covered just eight miles (13km) after running 55 hours in the woods. Mocking Ray’s low mileage, Cantrell told himself that he could do at least 100 miles. He named the race thus born, after his longtime neighbor and running companion, Barry Barkley. It is an event with unique traits. For instance, besides running, runners are expected to find a certain number of books placed along the course and remove the page corresponding to his / her bib number as proof of completing a loop. Each loop comes with a new race number and therefore the need for another page from all those books. The race – you have to complete five loops of the course – was first run in 1986. In all these years – 33 as of 2018 – it has been completed 18 times by 15 runners. The 2018 edition saw no finishers.

Among those in the fray in 2018 was Grant Maughan. Hailing from Australia, Grant is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. Veteran of many races and a regular at Badwater, in 2016 he was joint winner with Serbian ultra-runner Jovica Spajic in the 333km-category of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. Ten days before the 2018 Barkley, he finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race across winter Alaska (pulling a sled). Post Barkley, he heads to Tibet to attempt Everest from that side. At the time of contributing this article, he had his calendar packed till September, all the way to Tor Des Geants with yet another Badwater in between.  

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous Barkley Marathons isn’t that hard…. it’s freaking unbelievably hard! It’s a psychological thriller wrapped in a survivalist’s apocalyptic daydreams.

Having just completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race pulling a sled across winter Alaska only 10 days before, I had a simple ambition: turn up at the yellow gate and see if I could make one loop in the allotted time and find all 13 books.

After check-in, the sorry souls who were about to embark were allowed to view the master topographical map and draw the route on their own maps, as well as the general locations of the books that each runner was required to find so as to rip the page out of each that corresponded to their own race bib number. These were to be handed back to Laz, the RD, at the completion of the loop to confirm that you had been to each location. Each runner also received a few pages of navigation notes, which at first, second and third reading appeared to be a cryptic scroll to hidden treasure. They would take considerable time to decipher and apply to finding our way.

Barkley is a thinking event. You can’t zone out too much, like in “normal” races where you just lift your head long enough to spot the next marker or course flagging. You are continually evaluating where you are, because if you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you’re going. I have worked at sea for more than 35 years so navigation is a daily occurrence. But doing so in the bush is a different story. At sea, you plot Rhumb Lines or Great Circles to skirt around land, but in the mountain bush it is difficult to see exactly where you are even if you are trying to find a spur that leads to a ridge line high above. You need to actually feel the ground contour and correlate that to your map and compass, then try to analyze if you are on the correct section of the mountain. As soon as you drift off into a reverie, you may miss a critical landmark confirming – or otherwise – that you are on the “loop”.

Virgins at Barkley usually cling to a veteran for at least the first loop to try to learn the navigation so as to make it back in time to start the next loop. I figured this was excellent advice and hung with Aussie veteran Nicki Rehn. It was her fifth start at Barkley, so she had a good feel for the bush and a better nose for the navigation. I can’t imagine having to do the first loop by map and notes alone. The night before I had jotted down compass bearings and distances of most of the legs of the route to find the books. But the time to keep stopping and correlating everything while underway would be all consuming and probably lead to timing out on the loop.

Grant at the Barkley Marathons race venue (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

The majority of the course is off marked trails, and runners find themselves sliding and stumbling down precarious topography, clinging to trees and rocks while trying to find an important watercourse at the bottom to direct them to an equally steep and precarious ascent. Torrential rain assisted in making Frozen Head State Park a quagmire of soap-slippery mud. Climbing up the notorious Rat Jaw was a lesson in frustration of trying to find enough grip per step to make any headway. Coming back down was like sliding down the face of a giant Hawaiian wave of mud. Time on your feet was marginal as one fell, rolled and cartwheeled to lower elevations. Much of the climb and many sections of the loop are mired in brier bushes whose thorns stab holes in grabbing hands and shred clothing to flapping ribbons.

Cantankerous weather gave us sheets of cold rain, windblown summits and fog, making navigation and book finding even more fun. At the final summit of the first loop, with all pages in hand, the fog was so thick I could hardly see my feet, which meant the long slippery descent was literally done by feel. I got back into camp in good spirits but shivering in soaked clothing. It had taken about 12.5 hours to do one loop. The distance is supposedly 20 miles, but most would agree that it’s a bit more than that. To finish 3 loops is called the “Fun Run”. To finish all five loops in 60 hours is almost incomprehensible and, indeed, in 30 years only 15 persons have managed to accomplish that, which will give you a general idea of how “out there” the Barkley Marathons event is. Which is exactly how abnormal and brutal the race director, Laz Lazarus, envisioned it to be.

In an age where one can find a 100 mile ultramarathon on any given weekend, the Barkley stands out as an eccentric tour-des-punishment as quirky as its long-standing race director, and after the release of a number of documentaries about the event there is a steady stream of masochists, male and female, knocking on the door to get invited. That’s if you can work out how to apply…

(The author Grant Maughan is a freelance super yacht captain and ultra-endurance athlete. For more on Grant please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/ For a detailed account of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)

THE CHALLENGE OF THE FINAL STRETCH / TALKING TO T. GOPI

T Gopi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

T. Gopi is among India’s leading marathon runners. Assigned to pace the army’s best hopes in the discipline at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, Gopi found himself not only running his first full marathon but also securing a podium finish. Qualifying thus for the 2016 Summer Olympics, he went on to finish a creditable twenty fifth in the marathon at Rio de Janeiro, covering the distance in 2:15:25. In August 2017 at the IAAF World Championships, Gopi placed twenty eighth in the marathon with a timing of 2:17:13. In November that year, he became the first Indian to clinch gold at the Asian Marathon Championships covering the 42km-distance in 2:15:48. In February 2018, Gopi improved his timing further from the figures returned at Rio; he completed the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon in 2:15:16. Media reports said that Gopi had commenced the run at a pace suited for 2:13, slowed down at the halfway mark and picked up pace again in the last ten kilometers but was unable to recover lost ground.

In January 2018, soon after the Tata Mumbai Marathon (he finished first among Indian elite athletes), Gopi spoke to this blog. A small abstract from the interview was immediately published on this blog in a report on podium finishers from the 2018 edition of the event. Here are some more excerpts including the runner’s account of what lay between him and the national record:

The 2016 SCMM was where you made your mark as a marathon runner. Can you explain how that happened?

I had this feeling that I may be able to qualify for Rio when the qualifying time was disclosed as 2:19. But that was one to one and a half months before the 2016 SCMM. I asked my coach if I may attempt the marathon. He didn’t discourage me. But he pointed out that there was little time to prepare and be good enough to meet the qualifying standard. I left it there. I focused on the Asian Cross Country Championships, the national level selections for which were due a week or so before the 2016 SCMM. I was following that schedule.  It was in this phase that the coach asked if I can be pacer for a distance of 25-30km at SCMM for Nitin (Nitendra Singh Rawat) and Kheta Ram.  I reached Mumbai for that task following my cross country selections, where I had placed second. On race day at SCMM, I ran well without any problem for 30km. At 35km there was only Nitin and I left (at the front of the Indian elite group). Given I had executed what was expected of me I was told that if I wanted to, I can slow down. But I said I will continue and stop if I sensed anything going wrong.  At about 38km Nitin pulled ahead.  I stayed where I was, maintaining my pace because I had no experience at truly long distances; in my work-outs I hadn’t trained beyond 25km.  At the same time, since I was past 38km, I was confident I will complete the race.  I remember Nitin opened a gap of almost 200m. Eventually I finished the race. That was also when I noticed the time on the screen – 2 hours, 16 minutes. I was very happy that I had run within the qualifying time for the Olympics. What can I say? I was just happy.

Can you tell us something about your background – where you grew up and how you became the athlete you are?

I was born 1988 into an agricultural family, at Kalloor in Wayanad, Kerala. As a family we had no connection with sports. I am the only child of my parents. We now stay in Sulthan Bathery.  My father is a farmer; years ago, he also worked as a wage-laborer but now he does his own farming.  My mother is a housewife. I studied at the government high school in Kakkavayal. It was in eighth standard that I came into sports; that was the time I participated in the state level sports meet. I was interested in sports even earlier, I was interested in running but I didn’t have a proper environment for it. School was some distance from home. I therefore stayed at the school hostel.  My physical education teacher – Vijayi – she encouraged my progression in sports. After eighth standard, I stayed at her house and finished my studies. Her house was close to the school and residing there helped me gain practice time for sports.  Those days, the disciplines I participated in were 800m, 1500m and 5000m. My interest from then itself was to run long distance.  It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at speed – I used to run the last leg in the 400m relay for my school team. I was interested more in long distance running.

Was there any specific reason for liking distance running?

That is hard to say. I liked sports and used to play whatever games were available including football.  Sweating, panting – I was used to all that. Looking back, I think I had a decent capacity to handle panting. Maybe all that slowly built up endurance and made me good at distance running.

Sportspersons from Kerala, often say that the state’s best distance runners come from hill districts like Idukki and Wayanad. The argument forwarded is that you grow up on a regimen of tackling uneven terrain, ascents and descents. Is that true of where you grew up and did such conditioning contribute to what you are?

Where I grew up, such terrain was there but not in a pronounced fashion. For example, we also had fields, which were flat and big enough to play games.

Following school, how did life pan out?

After school, I joined Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam.  I trained under P.I. Babu.  Mar Athanasius College has a name in sports in Kerala. There was a reason why I joined that college. When I was in high school, completing my eleventh and twelfth, two teachers from this college had come inquiring if I would be keen to join Mar Athanasius College upon finishing school.

Did they come looking for you at school because it is a college that seeks out talent in sports?

Yes.  Students from different schools, having track record in sports, have gravitated towards Mar Athanasius College. The management of that college took interest in sports.  In school I had begun running the 10,000m and my time used to be around 33 minutes.  Within one year of being at Mar Athanasius College, that lowered to 32 minutes.  After two years attending my degree course, I was moving into the third year, when I got selected to the Indian Army. I then shifted to Hyderabad.

How did you come to join the army?

That is an interesting story. I was at home and 21 years old; to be precise the start of 21. Once you are fully past 21 years of age it becomes difficult to get entry into organizations like the army and railways. My friends Ajesh and Aneesh – they studied at the same college as I did – they wanted to go for trials being conducted for enlistment in the army. They asked me to go along. I wasn’t physically in best shape but I had my certificates, accumulated from sports events at university level, with me.  As it turned out, I got selected to join the army but the other two didn’t make it. I joined the army in 2009 and underwent training for a year. In 2012 I moved to Army Sports Institute. In 2013, I secured a bronze medal at the national cross country championships. Since then I have been a podium finisher at the nationals in the 10,000m, either in cross country or on track. My marathon running commenced only in 2016 with that year’s edition of SCMM.   I am now known as a marathon runner. In 2016 at the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, I had run the 10,000m in 29:10. I could have done better but the last two kilometers proved to be problematic; my stomach was very tight. Had that not happened, I believe I could have taken that timing to below 29 minutes. The discipline I was originally interested in was the 10,000m. The marathon – I was interested in it but I never expected that I would be able to tackle it so quickly. It just happened.

You said you are now known as a marathon runner. What do you see yourself as?

I see myself as a long distance runner tackling distances beyond 1500m.

Indian elite runners Gopi T (foreground, blue vest) and Nitendra Singh Rawat at 2018 TMM; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

Can you describe the Rio experience and your passage to Rio following the 2016 SCMM?

After SCMM, I was battling a shin bone-injury. I was being treated in Delhi. The injury took time to heal. The training camp for the Olympics was in Bengaluru. I got three months to be there and prepare.  Within that, in the first month there was interference from treatment protocols etc. I could devote two months to focused preparation. It was with that amount of training that I reached Rio. The Olympics was my first major international competition in the marathon.  I wasn’t particularly tense. I knew I hadn’t had much training. The silver lining was that in training, the gap in performance between Nitin, Kheta and I wasn’t very big. The men’s marathon was on the last day of the Olympics. The women’s marathon had less than ideal weather. It was very warm; you would recall what happened to O.P. Jaisha. Luckily for the men, the night before their marathon and on the morning of the event, it rained. It was therefore not too hot. Sole problem was that the road was slippery in parts. For the first 25km, I managed to stay with the first batch. That was all I had the capacity to do. Eventually, I finished twenty fifth in the field. But then again, something tells me, that had I enjoyed more time to prepare, I may have finished within the top 20.

What do you think you lacked?

That is hard to say. I had worked out only so much. You therefore tend to conclude automatically that you worked out only so much and your performance corresponds to that. I have also had a continuing problem with my hamstring. It improves through treatment but then after strong competition, it gets tight again forcing me back to treatment.  However on the whole, I was quite satisfied with the outcome at Rio.

Now that you have run with international athletes what is your assessment of where Indians stand in the marathon and how we can improve?

To tell you honestly, for the first 30km or so, we manage to stay in the first batch. What happens in the next 12 km, we can’t explain. In that distance, some block is occurring in the body. What this is due to, on account of what shortcoming this is happening – I don’t know.  We don’t know how others are training. But there are videos available. We watch it and try to make relevant changes to how we train. The coaches do that. For example how I trained ahead of Rio is not how I train now.  Many things have changed. The thing is – in the training phase, there is faith that we can live up to the targeted timing. What we are finding difficult is carrying that over into a competition scenario.

What are your immediate plans for the future?

My desire is to break the national record set in 1978 by Shivnath Singh. That is the goal. The first target however is performing well at the Asian Games.

You ran the marathon at Rio in 2:15:25. The national record is 2:12. From a runner’s perspective how tough is the job of slicing away those few minutes?

From a runner’s perspective, if you can cover every kilometer in three minutes eight seconds, you should be able to run a full marathon in 2:12. When we design our work-out we orient it towards this. However what we feel we can do while training is not quite what it is like in the thick of competition.  For instance during work-out (training) I had the confidence that I will do 2:14. But that didn’t happen. There are also variables to consider like the weather on a given day.  Conditions have to be hospitable. Not to mention, that challenge of sustaining the last 12 kilometers in good form. At the world championships, I could hang on to the first batch till around 27km. Thereafter they pull ahead while we remain at the same state or tend to fade.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

IN EVERY STORY IS A SKETCH MAP

Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club, is a book packaged to be collector’s item.

The concept – each chapter as sketch map of mountain visited plus supporting article – is essentially tribute to an old habit at the club commenced by The Himalayan Journal’s very first editor, Kenneth Mason. A geographer and surveyor, he made it a point to insist on sketch maps accompanying expedition reports published. These maps gave a quick overview of the region visited along with route taken. Since then as The Himalayan Journal continued to be published, the club has steadily accumulated sketch maps.

Harish Kapadia, veteran mountaineer and explorer of the Himalaya who also served many years as The Himalayan Journal’s editor, avers that the total number of sketch maps with the club should be several times more than what has been published in the book. Besides encapsulating the human trait of observing and helping to reinforce narrative, these maps also have a few other uses.  Speakers of languages other than English have contributed considerably to exploration and climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum. An account in English by them for The Himalayan Journal is a narration in alien tongue.  Writer struggles for correct word and tone. Like a picture that speaks a thousand words, the sketch map compensates for any shortfall in narrative. Further according to Kapadia, the Survey of India has been quite conservative in making maps available to trekkers and climbers visiting the Himalaya. For reasons best known to the establishment, detailed maps in the hands of civilians, is deemed a security risk. In turn, lack of reliable information on mountain features has caused errors at expeditions; some have climbed the wrong peak. In such context, Kapadia believes, the hand-made sketch maps of The Himalayan Journal help to get a bird’s eye-view of a region or a mountain massif, at the very least develop a mental image of what visitor is getting into.

However, between the two – evoking the spirit of exploration with its accompanying human quality of noticing one’s world, and map as comprehensive tool for location in perspective – it is probably the former that this book celebrates. For instance when you study a sketch map with archival article alongside by a Bill Tilman; T.H. Braham, John Hunt, Giotto Dainelli, Maurice Herzog, Bob Pettigrew, Victor Saunders, Kinichi Yamamori, Andre Roch, Chris Bonington, Martin Moran, Major J.K. Bajaj  or Kapadia himself, the take away is a slice of human experience in that time, that year.  As of 2018, The Himalayan Club was ninety years old; to choose maps and articles, the book’s team of editors scanned editions of The Himalayan Journal from the late 1920s onward. There are photos too, from the club’s archives and Kapadia’s personal collection. Make no mistake – this is not a book that replaces the utility of Google Earth. Through its combination of sketch map and narrative, the book reminds you that the act of being outdoors and exploring is essentially founded on one’s senses. Comprehension – that is what you gain when you sketch a map and the quest to comprehend is timeless Google Earth or none.

Given all the maps and articles are from The Himalayan Journal, Kapadia who served as general editor for the book said that curation from archives was based on attributes like a given article being interesting or having a humorous tone, writer being famous or an incident mentioned being important.  “ Priority was for sketch map. A well written piece to accompany followed availability of sketch map,’’ Kapadia said. The written narrative is mostly in the form of abstracts from the original article. In the old days, sketch maps for publication were hand drawn. Over the last 20 years or so, a key person in this craft at the club has been Pune based-Aparna Joshi. A commercial artist and graphic designer associated with The Himalayan Journal’s production, she provides final form to the sketch map accompanying an article. According to her, on most occasions Kapadia provides the basic sketch. She would then render it using computer software. “ We don’t use cartographic software or anything like that. We use regular software used for illustrating.  Our need is limited to showing areas visited and specific routes taken to climb or trek,’’ she said. Visual clues like variations in elevation or the prominence of ridge lines are indicated in a rudimentary way. The maps are generally flat in appearance. Emphasis is on helping the reader to understand. “ The idea of bringing out a book based on sketch maps had been there for some time. The club’s ninetieth anniversary seemed apt juncture,’’ Kapadia said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

2018 GGR / THURIYA IS OFF TO EUROPE

File photo: Commander Abhilash Tomy KC with the Thuriya at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa; just before the boat’s launch in August 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thuriya, the sail boat in which Commander Abhilash Tomy KC will attempt his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), has become Europe-bound. She left Kochi for Rotterdam, aboard a ship, on Friday, March 30.

The boat is scheduled to reach Rotterdam in Netherlands on April 26. From Rotterdam, the boat will be taken to Medemblik, a Dutch town famous for its sailing events. Here the Thuriya’s mast would be refitted and some final work on the boat as well as purchases relevant to the circumnavigation ahead would be done. Abhilash will be in Netherlands by then along with either his team manager, Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) or Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard, which built the Thuriya. The plan is to depart Netherlands for UK on June 1. Abhilash has to report at Falmouth by June 11. Thereafter the team would move to France for pre-race inspection and training. GGR begins from Les Sables-d’Olonne on July 1, Abhilash said. Incidentally this seaside town in western France is also home to another famous race – the Vendee Globe yacht race, held once every four years.

The Thuriya’s passage aboard a ship from Kochi is a slight departure from plans disclosed earlier. The process of registering her in India entailed paperwork that was more complex than anticipated. She was the first sail boat being registered under new rules framed by the Mercantile Maritime Department (MMD). When there is no precedent that can be easily followed paperwork takes time, Abhilash had said when contacted in the third week of March. The Thuriya’s journey out from Goa – the pattern of it – also added to the paperwork needed. Had she sailed out to Europe on her own, procedures would have been simpler. But with boat and Abhilash required to report in UK by June 11, there wasn’t enough time to do a long voyage. She had to be shipped across; something that was anticipated months ago, except the distance got longer and the port of exit changed.

Early August 2017, when the Thuriya was floated at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa, expectation was that she would in due course – after her mast was fitted and sea trials were done – sail to Cape Town and be shipped from South Africa to the UK. That was subsequently altered to a ship-out from Kochi. According to Abhilash, any port on the Indian west coast would have sufficed but Kochi had a vessel scheduled to depart at apt time. Consequently the pattern of Thuriya’s journey out from Goa became one of first being trucked to Kochi and then, heading to Rotterdam in Netherlands aboard a ship. Such passage for a boat built in India, made the paperwork time consuming.

The Thuriya; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot, This picture was taken soon after she was floated in August 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There were suggestions to register the Thuriya overseas. That would have meant less time chasing documents. Abhilash did not want that. Given the boat was built in India, he felt it should be registered under the Indian flag. “ The boat is now registered in Mormugao,’’ he said on Saturday, March 30. Mormugao is home to Goa’s main port.

The Thuriya had her mast fitted in December 2017. From then till almost mid-March 2018, she underwent sea trials locally, Abhilash said. One limitation in these trials was that strong winds were missing. Abhilash had to make do with the weather conditions available. Trials done, the little boat had her mast removed for the journey by truck from Goa to Kochi and onward shipment to Rotterdam.

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC is the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation. His team manager for 2018 GGR, Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) is the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation. Ratnakar Dandekar’s Aquarius Shipyard has the distinction of building three sail boats headed for circumnavigation – INSV Mhadei, INSV Tharini and the Thuriya. The 2018 GGR is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968 (with same technology levels replicated), which saw Sir Robin Knox-Johnston of UK do the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. The Thuriya is a replica of the Suhaili, built in Mumbai and sailed by Sir Robin in the 1968 GGR. For more on the 2018 GGR and Thuriya please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/ For more on Sagar Parikrama and the original circumnavigation voyages of Dilip Donde and Abhilash Tomy please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-one/

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

RUN MEGHALAYA

Gerald, Habari and their children (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article is about a family from Meghalaya and their quest to spread the running bug in the state, home to some fine natural-born runners.

Saturday morning.

North Goa and Panjim had drained the overnight bus from Mumbai. Just two people remained for last stop. Stepping off the big bus felt as empty. The Kadamba bus stand in Margao was far from crowded. Being weekend, morning and Goa, there was none of the noise and commotion typical of Indian bus depots. The pilot (Goa’s bike taxi), I hired, drove through streets still indifferent to the time. My hotel – the only one on a rather bare road in Fatorda – made me wonder for a while: what’s happening? Where’s the hustle and bustle? Without it a certain Indian normalcy went missed. Then I hushed myself to my age and stage in life. You have seen enough of that madness, haven’t you? I embraced Goa. That afternoon in Pajifond, an enterprising shop owner helped me find The Cinnamon Tree Project. Usually interviews for this blog feature an individual. This time there was a family. Like freelance journalist born in Kerala, living in Mumbai and now in Goa to meet him, Gerald Pde was a man from elsewhere. He and his wife Habari seemed to have chosen consciously in life – their children were being home-schooled and for the last two years, the family had spent winter in Goa.

Gerald running in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

Gerald was born 1974 in Shillong, Meghalaya. Along with seven other states, this part of India is generally referred to as the North-East. Connected to the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor of West Bengal, the North-East is the largest salient (elongated protrusion of a geopolitical entity) in the world. Aside from the plains of Assam, the terrain here is mostly hilly. Gerald was one of four siblings – two brothers; two sisters. His father served in the Border Security Force (BSF). His mother worked in government. He attended school in Shillong and although he never represented his school in sports, Gerald had a unique streak – even as a 7-8 year-old, he loved getting up early in the morning and going for a half hour-run. Very few people ran in Meghalaya’s capital those days. Gerald does not know from where he acquired the trait. He believes his father was into sports for the family has an old photo showing him at the finish line of a race. After school, Gerald set his mind on becoming an architect. From 1994 to 2000, he studied at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi. On completing that course, he “ joined the bandwagon’’ of students heading to the US for higher studies. He was accepted at Arizona State University. Upon completion of that course, he moved to New York (he had friends in the city) and started working there as an architect. It was there that he met his future wife – Habari Warjri; she had completed her Bachelors in Business Administration from Baruch College, New York and had just started her first job at Lehman Brothers when they met. More important, although they met in New York, Habari too hailed from Shillong. Her father worked in the Indian Foreign Service and as happens in the family of officials with transferable job, she had grown up in India and overseas. She had been in the US longer than Gerald. They got married in Peru in 2004. In 2008, both of them left New York and returned to India. Gerald set up an architecture and environment design practice in Shillong called EarthStudio. He was there for two years, then, he shifted to Delhi and tried working from there. The Delhi ambiance was not to his liking. So he moved back to Shillong.

Habari at the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

Habari’s page on Dailymile introduces her as a runner based in Bogota, Colombia. That was one of the places her father was posted to. While studying in the US, she had been into cross country running albeit not long distance. Sporadic running continued in New York; the distance she ran never exceeded 10km in this phase. Many years later, after the birth of her daughter and she was only seven months old, Habari trained in Colombia and ran the New York City Half Marathon, completing it in 2:06. Her first full marathon happened two years after this half marathon; it was the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon in Meghalaya. When he moved to New York, Gerald revived his running. He was a member of New York Road Runners. After their work stint in New York, the India Gerald and Habari returned to, was different from the country they had known earlier. It was beginning to have a running movement. In 2010, while he was trying out Delhi as place to work from, Gerald said that he was into running but “ not in a serious way.’’ In 2011, things changed. Roughly four years after Gerald completed his architecture program from SPA, the first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM, now called Tata Mumbai Marathon / TMM) was held in India’s financial capital. By 2008, when Gerald and Habari returned to India, SCMM had settled in as an annual fixture on Mumbai’s calendar. It was the biggest event in a domestic running landscape beginning to sprout more and more events. In 2011, Gerald ran the full marathon at SCMM. He finished second in his age category completing the 42km-distance in approximately 3:23. Two months after SCMM, he ran the Tokyo Marathon with a timing of 3:03:32. He got his personal best in the discipline, the following year at SCMM, running the full marathon in 3:03:21. Since then Gerald has run SCMM every year (he has been podium finisher multiple times) and his list of races span locations ranging from Mumbai to Tokyo, Boston (twice), Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kochi, Delhi, Kolkata and Goa. Over the past two years, Gerald had been focusing on distances longer than the marathon – the ultramarathon.

That is not to say that he moved off marathons; he continues to run events like the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). Just that his natural preference was now favoring the still longer distance of the ultramarathon. “ Maybe the marathon comes across to me as a tight schedule. In ultramarathon, all that structure goes away. I no longer wear a watch while running. I run from one point to another. That process is very fulfilling for me. I find it freer and more meaningful. Compared to this, I find the marathon more commercial and providing a fixed, structured experience,’’ Gerald said. Two weeks after the 2018 TMM, which he completed in 3:14, he ran the 80km-category of the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra. He finished that in 10:15. “ I run TMM because it is like an annual pilgrimage. It is tough to secure a fast time in Mumbai given the weather, the Peddar Road gradient and the inevitable rendezvous with half marathon runners,’’ he said. In 2013, he had attempted to secure sub-three hours finish in Mumbai. But that wall of half marathon runners ensured he slowed down.

Gerald running Paradise Trails in Goa (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

Dan Lawson is a British ultra-runner and charity worker. Winner at the European 24 Hour Championships in 2016 and a podium finisher at Spartathlon, he has also been a winner in India at races like Run the Rann, Nilgiris Ultra and Bangalore Ultra. At the last named event, he set a record for the maximum distance run in 24 hours in India – 226km. Dan Lawson is Race Director for an ultramarathon in Goa called Paradise Trails, a 101km-UTMB qualifier. The course spans a mix of Goan scenery – beach, countryside, forest, hills and villages. Ever since he started spending the winter in Goa, Gerald has liked running in the coastal state. Unlike Shillong which has caught that modern epidemic of the hills – vehicular traffic, the village roads of Goa are quieter. “ Where we live in south Goa, there is less traffic,’’ Habari said. There is also another difference. Although the hills of North East India harbor much talent in sports, runners out on the road every day is a phenomenon that is still catching up. Running in South Goa, Gerald said, he witnesses less traffic than in Shillong and more runners on the road, the latter also because Goa as tourist destination attracts plenty of recreational runners from around the world. After meeting Dan and learning about the race he oversaw (it started and ended a few minutes away from where they stayed in Goa)l Gerald decided to attempt the Paradise Trails Ultra of November 2017. It was tough. “ You are given a GPS with route laid out. You have to follow it. The route is not marked. That made it difficult. I got lost a few times,’’ Gerald said. He completed the race in 14 hours and 10 minutes. Gerald was the first to cross the finish line and having Habari and children there was a memorable moment for the family. He plans to try it again in 2018.

The longest distance Gerald had run before Paradise Trails was a 60km-run he did in Meghalaya as part of scouting a route for a race he was organizing a week before the 101km-race in Goa. In fact, aside from their own running, what makes Gerald and Habari interesting from the perspective of running in India is the work they did to promote running in Meghalaya. A hilly state, Meghalaya offers some unique attractions. To begin with, it is one of the wettest areas on the planet with Cherrapunji holding the world record for most rain in a month. The western parts of the state are at lower elevation and hence warmer; the east – including Shillong, the capital (elevation: 4908 feet) – are at higher elevation and hence cooler. According to Wikipedia, the maximum temperature in the Shillong area rarely exceeds 28 degrees Celsius. The British, who once ruled India, called Shillong “ Scotland of the East.’’ Although rain can be an issue, the rolling hills and the never too hot weather, makes this region engaging for running. However until some years ago, Meghalaya had no formally arranged large event in the sport. In 2013, as part of the state’s autumn festival, Gerald and Habari, in collaboration with state authorities, organized a Shillong Half Marathon, the first event of its kind in Meghalaya. “ It went off quite well,’’ Habari said.

Start line of the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

This event was the seed for RUN Meghalaya, an initiative Gerald and Habari founded, wherein they raised funds to take talented runners from the state to run at city marathons elsewhere in India. Commencing with the 2013 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), they have since taken Meghalaya’s runners to the Mumbai marathon and races in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The first outing to ADHM was realized through crowd funding. Thirteen runners participated under the RUN Meghalaya initiative. Almost all of them placed in the top 10 in their respective categories with the fastest runner completing the half marathon in 1:13. According to Gerald and Habari, although they have persisted with RUN Meghalaya, there are challenges. There is for instance, noticeable gender imbalance in the region’s running culture; as yet women runners are few. Specific to RUN Meghalaya, funding remains main challenge. “ After every year, we have to start all over again,’’ Habari said. In general, finding corporate sponsors for events in India’s North-East is difficult because the region does not represent a big market. A silver lining is that government agencies assist. However governments change frequently.

From the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

The Shillong Half Marathon and later events the duo helped organize, like the Sohra Cherrapunji Marathon, received some support from government. For the first edition of the Cherrapunji Marathon in 2014, there was only one runner from outside the region – Vishwanathan Jayaraman. According to Gerald, Jayaraman’s article on the event hosted on his blog, helped publicize the Cherrapunji Marathon. Although he didn’t participate in an event there, Athreya Chidambi is another runner who sampled running in Shillong. “ They have good runners,’’ he said in a later conversation with this blog in Bengaluru. By 2015, the Cherrapunji Marathon saw 1500 runners. But an event’s stature is founded on more than just scale of participation. As Habari and Gerald found out, all it takes to dent image is a shortcoming or two. For its third edition, the Cherrapunji Marathon attracted close to 1700 runners. That year – 2016 – the weather played truant. While you can’t imagine Cherrapunji without rain in the frame, rain was more than enjoyable measure on race day. “ It strained race logistics,’’ Habari said. Result – the organizers came in for a barrage of negative feedback. Runners used to events are a different breed from those who approach the activity in a more spontaneous, organic way. When the barrage of negative feedback hit them, Gerald and Habari wished there was some empathy shown for the effort that goes into organizing an event in hilly terrain amid inclement weather. They wondered if this had something to do with the half marathon and marathon reducing over time to structured, stereotypical events; promising guaranteed return on money paid. Such conditioning spares little tolerance for variables like weather, hiccups in logistics etc. It is one of the inbuilt paradoxes of sport as event. Packaged so, notion of the unpredictable as part of life – an integral part of being free and enjoying it – is leached away. According to Habari what made the feedback particularly difficult was that it was on top of their family life already squeezed by the pressures of organizing an event. “ He was always running around to get things done. We hardly got to see him,’’ she said of Gerald.

Mawkyrwat Ultra; the surrounding landscape (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

Another factor also influenced their thinking after the 2016 edition of the Cherrapunji Marathon. A race anywhere passes through multiple localities. Ideally these localities must participate and support. In a big city like Mumbai, governed by one large municipal corporation, continued sense of locality is cosmetic. It is for all practical purposes one big metro. Organizers backed by civic authorities can ensure things happen as planned everywhere along the route. That is not so in the North-East where sense of tribe and tribal ownership of terrain prevails. You have to engage with each of those constituents and get them interested in the event. Support for the Cherrapunji Marathon, Gerald and Habari felt, wasn’t uniform all along its route. Not all communities on the race’s route seemed to have bought into the idea well. They felt there was the need to reinvent the wheel – create a new model where running is again revered and its inherent joys are rediscovered. This juncture precipitated by a convergence of various factors, Habari said, was when the duo started to look at organizing an ultramarathon instead of a marathon in a place that embraces running. While they were arranging races in Meghalaya and finding runners to sponsor for races elsewhere in India, the duo had also been getting an idea of where the state’s best runners were coming from. “ Almost 90 per cent of the good runners were coming from one region – Mawkyrwat. Within that, they were mostly from two villages close to each other – Sakwang and Shngimawlein,’’ Gerald said. The reasons for this can only be speculated and range from – difficult terrain to generally active life, good running form and a diet dominated by locally grown organic red rice. Mawkyrwat liked running.

This is how the idea of the Mawkyrwat Ultra was born. The location would be a place with resident running talent; one of the aims would be to potentially open up a second economy in the form of “ running tourism’’ that can monetarily help runner families from humble backgrounds. The ultramarathon was chosen as discipline based on the belief that it’s seasoned, older participants or at the very least those weathered by nature, appeared a comparatively more serious community of runners to deal with. Three distance categories were marked – 70km, 45km and 30km. The event – largely on trails – is designed to benefit the local economy, Gerald said. Woven into the concept of the ultramarathon is the idea that runners should get a feel of life in these parts. It is hoped to be a mutually beneficial transaction with runners from outside getting a chance to run in rural Meghalaya and local runners, getting a chance to meet runners from elsewhere in India and overseas.

One of the runners from Mawkyrwat (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

The inaugural edition of the Mawkyrwat Ultra was held in 2017. Among those who participated was Suresh Zimba from Darjeeling. “ The location was roughly three hours away from Shillong. It was a rustic setting with the villagers leading a simple life. We stayed with the villagers, in their houses. They took good care of us. The race route was very nice. It was mostly trail with some road. The run went through the main town as well. I participated in the 70km-category. I think about a dozen people ran in that category. Participation was higher in the other categories. Given it was the first edition, the race wasn’t well known,’’ Suresh said. As regards funding of the event, half the required amount is provided by Gerald and Habari with the rest coming from the state’s tourism department and through registration fee. The running is self-supported and the race has been certified by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA). It is the only such race in the east of India; it also offers UTMB points. The second edition of the race is due in October 2018.

Gerald at the 2016 SCMM; now TMM (Photo: courtesy Gerald Pde)

Given the family’s annual move to Goa and emergent focus on other aspects of life like their children’s education, running and the events they organize, EarthStudio progressively took a back seat. “ I still work on selected projects but do not take up more than two design projects a year,’’ Gerald said. At the time of writing, Habari was helping him in some administrative aspects of the design practice. What people are and what they do in life are often mutual reflections. “ My work as an architect and environmental designer and my passion for running – they have some correlation. For example my work deals with utilizing the laws of nature to dictate design decisions – to come up with buildings that try to respond to the nature around us such as light, wind, the Sun and natural materials. Similarly over the years I have found running to appeal more to our natural selves. The more we run the more we realize how connected with nature we are – you can only push one’s running capabilities as much as nature allows you to and so the more we push the more we are humbled by it,’’ Gerald said.

Sunday evening at the Kadamba bus stand was different from Saturday morning. Working days ahead had made their presence felt. Tourists were returning to wherever they came from. Not all seemed happy to do so; the disappointment in going back to an all too familiar life showed in the facial expression and body language of some. Mercifully, freelance journalist wasn’t among those reluctantly returning. It was a smaller bus this time. Destination: Bengaluru.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Gerald and Habari in Goa and further interaction by email.)   

KODAIKANAL BY TRAIL

From the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra (Photo: courtesy Ramachandran)

This is an article by invitation. The author, Ramachandran, is an entrepreneur and runner based in Coimbatore. Here he writes about his experience, running the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra. Kodaikanal is one of the best known hill resorts of South India. The main town, located at an altitude of over 6900 feet, is on a plateau on the southern escarpment above the upper Palani Hills, between the Parappar and Gundar valleys. These hills form the eastward spur of the Western Ghats in southern India. Kodaikanal is roughly 120 kilometres north-west of Madurai, the third biggest city in the state of Tamil Nadu.

January 27, 2018, early morning 2.30AM, around 100 runners scheduled to run the 130 km and 80 km-distance categories of the first edition of the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra assembled at the Kodai International School ground. With the temperature at around 10 degrees most of the runners were fully covered. Many were equipped with headlamps and hydration gear for running 12 hours plus. Upon reaching the venue, my running buddies from Coimbatore and I, engaged in warm-up exercises, both to limber up for the run and to stay warm.

From the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra (Photo: courtesy Ramachandran)

When the first edition of Kodaikanal Hills Ultra was announced with categories of 130k, 80k, 50k, and 20k to accommodate runners of various competence levels, I decided to participate in the 80k as it would be my first event after two years lost to running injuries. I created a training plan based on Jason Koop’s book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. Much of my weekday training consisted of interval training and tempo workouts. Weekends were dedicated to long, endurance runs. I ran for six hours a week in October and gradually increased it to seven hours in November and eight hours in December and January. Since Coimbatore is close to the Western Ghats, I am lucky to have few small hills near my house. Starting from December I did my long runs in the hills of Paalamalai which has a three kilometre-steep climb and a trail route of five kilometres at the top. I alternated it with the rolling hills of the Anaikatti range. My last three long runs were for six hours on those hills. I included plenty of fast walks and practised downhill running as both would be a very important component of any ultra-run. I also did three days of weight training every week to strengthen my core and did foam rolling after every run to prevent injury.

From the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra (Photo: courtesy Ramachandran)

On race day, the run started at 3.15 AM due to a delay in drop bag collection. It was a sight to see hundreds of head lamps lighting up the roads of Kodai. We ran towards Poombarai which is 20 km from the start. The route was mostly downhill with some small climbs where I switched to fast walking. My strategy was to walk the uphill sections and run the flat and downhill sections. After four hours I reached Puthuputhur aid station covering 35 km. From Poombarai to Puthuputhur, it was mostly steep climbing. I fortified myself with two sandwiches. We ran a loop of 10 kilometres on trails with difficult mud paths and a steep hike to reach Palar View Point. Then we navigated back to the same Puthuputhur aid station. I ran towards Kookal Lake passing through vegetation and mud tracks. The road to T-Junction from Kookal Lake was a difficult uphill segment and I walked much of the distance. From T-Junction to Moir Point was an arduous hike of 26 km. By now I had covered a total distance of 76 km.

From the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra (Photo: courtesy Ramachandran)

I was told by the volunteers at the aid station that I had to cover some more distance to reach the finish line for my category. After a few minutes of rest and a mayonnaise sandwich I ran through the reserve forest only to be told by other runners that the distance to be covered was 12 kilometres. While some of the runners were upset about that, I was not bothered by distance at this point of the race and ran the last eight kilometres to complete it. In total, I estimate that I ran 88 km in 13 and a half hours. I had a solid nutrition plan; among what I consumed during the run were 10 gels, 10 sachets of electrolyte powders and eight sandwiches. The finisher’s medal was beautifully hand-carved in stone.

From the Kodaikanal Hills Ultra (Photo: courtesy Ramachandran)

I felt the organizers did a good job. The aid stations were far and few; some of them were strategically located at the top of climbs to give the runners much needed refreshment and rest. The route markings could have been better especially inside the town. I heard that many runners missed the route at times and did five to six kilometres extra. They could have included more trails as 70 per cent of the distance was on tar road. All in all it was a nice event and for me personally, it was very satisfying to run for 13 and a half hours without any injury. Looking back, I think I could have finished two hours earlier but fear of injury, uncertainty about terrain and how my body would react after 50k made me run slowly in the first half and avail many walk-breaks.

Ramachandran

According to the organizers, a pattern adopted while putting together ultra-trail races is to have a healthy mix of roads and trails – even, more of roads – in the initial editions of events. This is to make the race amenable for the wide range of runners who assemble, many of who are primarily used to the evenly tarred or concrete surfaces of city roads. As the race editions progress, the share of trail is slowly increased.

(The author, Ramachandran, is an entrepreneur and runner based in Coimbatore. This article has inputs from Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)