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.)