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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)