Malnad Ultra 2018 – a 50km Yatra

As there is a lot to say, I wanted to put it in a blog

Selecting the run

I have been smitten by hills and decided to make 2018, the year of the hills. Of course, I was not going to do all of them or all of them as races. These four – Kodai 21km in Jan, Yercaud 25km in Feb, Kolli 26km in March, Ooty 30km in April were all treated as training and fun runs. It was an excuse for me to go to new places and do my second favourite thing. I felt this was a better way of seeing the place and soaking in the hills and the views. Malnad was selected for precisely the same reason after Ashok Daniel gave a glowing review of it during the Yercaud run. He mentioned trail running can and should be done a lot more than road running to remain injury free and it’s much more beautiful. And the Malnad Ultra – absolute beauty and a runner’s delight!

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Malnad literally means hilly region in three sound Indian languages. The best part of this run the group of committed organisers who really know the terrain, know a runner’s need and more. I wish more power to them! Even in its third year, its extremely popular.

I looked up the website for the Malnad Ultra and saw the completion percentages for the past two years. Approximately 50% for the 50km category. Hmm, so this is not something to be taken lightly, I must respect the distance and put in mileage needed. No work, no ultra – that was my firm decision. If I decide to do this, I don’t want to be part of the statistic that is considered DNF (did not finish) Nope!

I understand that some circumstances during or before may force a DNF or slow down and that’s completely ok. Not putting in adequate work and proceeding on so-called mind power may work for some people (and I salute them) but I am quite a weakling and can’t proceed like that.

Preparation

If a run is to last more than 6-7 hours, then without the proper preparation and putting in the base mileage in a structured manner, I would risk injury, fatigue and overall dissatisfied vibes from the event. Douglas in my own training team – Team Metamorphosis – signed up for the 80km run in Malnad too, so I found another mad hatter whom I could club with.

Coach Aravind Kumar’s forte is ultra-marathons as he has done a few with proper strategy down the nitty gritties of fuelling, heart rate, cadence, run-walk ratios etc. Added to that, being a chi running coach, he was able to inculcate those aspects as well into the training plan. Luckily for me, it had mostly aerobic and easy runs that prevented me from getting burnt out. Week on week recovery was also good although I must admit my lazy self didn’t do the hill speed runs for the 3 peak weeks. Sorry Coach A! I must’ve followed about 65-70% of what he prescribed. Without this plan and motivation to follow through, I wouldn’t have finished this strong.

The challenge about living in Chennai is finding long hills to train on. Treadmill inclines are just not the same! Here are two places in Chennai to train – Pallavaram hills has a nice 800mts uphill which is quite steep. STM is available for the devout and the discreet on Saturdays for two hours. Both these places, I went exactly once to each of these during the taper weeks. Yes, I’m not proud about it.

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I am by no means a disciplined runner, I did many runs in the evening, and even two of them starting at 10pm in the rather spooky basement gym in my residential building. It is still safer than running on the road at night or late evening. Hill runs meant inclined runs on the treadmill and in mostly MAF or aerobic heart rate. The longest treadmill incline run was for 3hours listening to and laughing to Seinfeld on YT.

The only official run I did in between was at Satara Hill Half Marathon on Sep 2nd. I have mixed feelings about Satara. The reason I like hill runs is the low crowd and time taken to enjoy the views and place. I don’t know how I gave in to the Satara hype and signed up in the first hour. I knew 5000+ people would be there and the event was crowded, but when we all come together atop a small-ish hill, it became “oh why? the humanities*!” There are many such equally good scenic and less crowded runs in the Sahyadri range region, perhaps I should’ve chosen those. I must remark that I loved the crowd support, volunteer support and the amazing downhills where I got a good idea of what my run capabilities were. I finished this in 2:28:xx to get the coveted Silver medal titled Hill Conqueror (although no hill can be conquered per se!) The best part of this event was of course the people I met there (Naresh, Raju, Rahul) and my wonderful generous host Milind Halbe sir.

*yes, I know its incorrect usage of the word, it’s a joke.

Kolli Hills (Reprise) as part of the VVO 5th year run was an excellent run where I did the full marathon distance as a qualifier for the Malnad run. I was feeling fresh and bouncy even after the run. This is my most favourite event in the year because of the small crowd, beautiful location and overall good vibes pre-during-post the event. The only disadvantage with this location is that it gets very hot post 10am which is still better than Chennai’s 7am.

Apart from the kolli run, I did one 30km self-supported run on a VERY hot day and the other 30km had to be truncated to 23km as the September heat was unbearable and I sure wasn’t going to put in junk miles!

Travel and Stay

Vinodha and I decided to travel and stay together and we took care of the booking through Active Holidays. We left on Thursday night via Kaveri, waited for 2hours in the ladies waiting room at Bangalore station and took the Jan Shatabdi straight to Birur. A lot of Bangalore folks got in at this point and we were chatting in the train. The return was also Birur to Bangalore and Bangalore to Chennai on Sunday.

Active holidays took over at Birur and everything was arranged superbly from start to finish by them. Transport in decent vehicles and the stay was very comfortable. We stayed in the main town Kadur which had proper mobile tower and network. I would’ve preferred staying perhaps in Ballavara or Rajagiri in the wooded region, but then those are the dormitory types and we asked for two-in-a-room type (i.e. the normal hotel room) from the beginning.

Vinodha has been my cute and awesome travel and stay partner and I am glad she was with me for company and support. We get along fabulously always!

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Expo Day

We should’ve skipped this entirely. It was a good 1.5 hours away from our stay and felt like unneeded hectic travel the day before a long run. Yes, I could meet a few people, but could’ve seen them pre and post-race. Anyone planning on this, if you have received your bib, Skip it! The CTC guys were having fun and dancing for music, it was nice to see their josh and nonstop energy. I would not name it hooliganism as one of my good friend did. Yes I did face palm at that post. Same scene, different perspectives. Yasmin, Suchi and I also jived on the dance floor for two minutes in one corner away from the main dance circle.

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Race Day

Gear – I did not practice with a hydration vest and hence did not want to wear one. I took my hydration belt with the 500ml water bottle half filled. For the first 17km, I was fine with just water and then started filling with electrolyte water (rrun mix). After sometime, I wasn’t happy with the concentration of the electrolyte mix and made my own with a little salt and 2 spoons of sugar, some water and moved on. I think I am getting ahead of myself, let me start over.

Our stay was 2 hours away, we started at 3:30am and reached Lalbagh at 530am. While most people dozed off in the bus, I could hardly catch 20winks and stayed wide awake looking into the forest darkness. I had a hearty breakfast at 6am and waited around for the event to start. 1000+ runners milling around…

Race Report

The race started on the dot at 630am for the 80km and 110km runners and it was good to see them start their runs in great speed and enthusiasm. Near our own start time, I didn’t feel any jitter or wasn’t even thinking of what next. Yasmin and I decided to stick together as much as we can and we did the first 5-6 kms together most of which was downhill. Running downhill is one of the joys of the hills for me! Once the uphills started, we kind of drifted apart, she is very good at uphills (living in Conoor) whereas I slow down a lot (not proud of it.) While I am able to run slowly up gentle slopes (thanks to Hill MAF training), I can only walk slowly up the steep ones. Even though, I got enough guidance on the proper hand swing during the uphills, none of it was implementable at that time because let me admit, I didn’t practice enough.

The Fall – Not the season! I am a bit of klutz as it is and one loose stone plus one pair on non-trail shoes ensured I landed on my knees and torso at the 6th kilometre! I got up and dusted myself off, noticed the tear in my clothes at the left knee, and continued without even thinking about it. After a minute, I notice my hand and it was full of blood. Quite a cut right on my lifeline on my palm, but I knew it wasn’t so deep because it wasn’t dripping. Yikes! No, I did not swoon and fall down, I had ordinary water in my bottle and just washed it off. One wonderful couple, Revanth and Mala, gave me bandaid and some words of encouragement which helped a lot.

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This is not for show-off but a reminder to myself about the fall.

Killer elevation No-1: The walk to the summit is about a 1.5km steep incline from 16 to 17.5ish and this was a recap of the Satara run. I am middle of the pack runner and of course, a huge majority of the crowd was right there with us. “oh why? the humanities!” Towards the summit, it got very crowded to even walk in a single file for to and fro runners. Yasmin was there as well and was kind enough to take a decent picture of me.

After the summit, I expected some downhills, but it was rolling ups and downs and that’s when I got my menses right in the middle of the run and had to slow down a bit. More details on that later.

Killer elevation No-2: This was an unbelievable and unexpected 1.5km of mostly uphill in this section. I would walk up 20 steps, take a standing break, walk up 20 more steps. It was that slow and strenuous on the heart and lower back! I was drinking sipping water, trying to keep my spirits up.

This was repeated several times during the run but in shorter stretches. Some of the downhills (smaller sections) were so steep that it could only be walked. Another runner on the route was discussing with me on how we are unable to maintain a pace, there are a lot of starts and stops and change in pace. This definitely was a new experience for the body and especially the mind.

Killer loop – We were asked to take a loop around an aid station and this loop was quite confusing. I felt like I was in the matrix passing the same tree and shrub again and again. The thing with a complete circle is you always think the corner i.e. the next 10mts is the end and its not. This one also had a steep incline and everyone was heaving and breathing and sitting around at the top of the incline even though the downhills beckoned. I filled my bottle with more salt, sugar and water and continued on to catch up with Yasmin. I caught up with her somewhere along and we did a small cat and mouse sequence.

The lake – When the lake came into view, the heart started singing. I was thrilled with the progress made thus far. The view is nothing short of magical even though it was the middle of the day and this was a landmark on the course. This was the 41st km and we had done it in 6hours 15-20 minutes. It was all mostly gentle ups and from this point on. I knew it would be impossible to meet my 8hour time goal and revised it. The official photographers there took some brilliant solo shots with the lake, all profile picture wala ready.

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This is approximately the full marathon mark, the longest distance I had done thus far and I got mental fatigue at this point. It was all gentle slopes except for one steep incline for a short distance of 0.5km. However, I was not running, neither the downhills nor the uphills. I was trudging along like a bloody fool. I wasn’t looking at my watch just trudging along. This is the part where if I had done decently well, I could’ve finished in 8:10 to 8:15. I entirely blame myself for skipping on the hill speed intervals and strength training (on some weeks or doing half-assed work) which would’ve helped me a LOT at this stage. All those who ran with me until the 35-36th km finished their run at 8 to 8:10 and I should have too.

At km 43, Jaisinh asked me how I was feeling and I said “not good.” It was the last stretch and I was ready to plop down into shavasana right then and there (not DNF, just plop down) Then this happened.

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A group of local women handing out water to all the runners with so much enthusiasm and involvement. They were talking in Tamil, from Salem and were oh so eager to help us. Bring more mugs, bring more buckets. It was a touching moment for me. My heart was full and I continued on with renewed enthusiasm and finished the next 7km in 30 mins. Ok I’m kidding, it was not the elixir from Asterix and Obelix, it was water and it was refreshing. It got me out of the mental fatigue, I trudged along nevertheless but in a much better overall mood.

It was a good thing Jaisinh and Naveen were there for company for almost the last 5km. Naveen was talking non-stop about nothing at all and it was good to laugh at some silly jokes at this point. I still wasn’t running the downhills, in fact none of us were doing much running as we should have. Even we were discussing why aren’t we running even though the terrain eased out? I think it was the afternoon heat too. Chennai people shouldn’t complain about this at all.

Yasmin (braving on despite shin pain) and Ramesh Palani were also with us just 3-4 minutes behind. The last 500mtrs was around the corner according to the on route people and I could hear the cheers from the finish line. Being the hills and running in zig zags and the echo effect, I could never guess where I was and which point I was because my watch had been showing 1.5km extra for a long time now.

As soon as the start/finish area came into view, I ran the last 100mts with hands in the air and let out a whoop. 8 hours 35 mins from start to finish! (35 mins past my 8hrs aim) Yasmin and Ramesh came in 2 mins later. We all hugged for doing this race decently well. Ramesh bravely forged ahead for the next stage of his run.

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The terrain –how many times I remarked to Yasmin, isn’t this beautiful? Most of the route is tree covered and shaded well even while running at peak 12pm sun. Trail, trail, trail. I have become a big diehard fan and I hope to do many more trail run events rather than road runs in a few years. There is something so deeply moving, and connecting with the unpaved earth. The wonderful mother earth, this life nourishing planet that she is with most of her intact (yes some changes for the coffee plantations) and not stopped by the concrete and tar and several layers of chemicals. There is a certain nature’s flow (as described in the movie Avatar) that was much more prominent here than in the concrete jungle we all choose to live in!

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Let me try to put in a few sentences. *clears throat* (not a poem, don’t read it like a poem)

That endless canopy of trees sheltering me in an unending hug

And the raw earthy, rain kissed mud… this was PRITHVI

Water bubbling merrily flowing in brooks, small streams, pipes

And the magnificent gentle presence of the lake… this was JAL

The male-naadu air so unsullied, carrying the earthy goodness

And the gentle rustling of the falling leaves… this was VAYU

The partly cloudy skies, providing beauty and comfort

And to remind us of smallness in this vast cosmos … this was AKASH

And us solar powered beings with the glorious sun overhead… this was AGNI

All FIVE came together for a pancha butha offering – the five elements cleansing/dance ritual

BLESSED!!

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Another wonderful thing about the trails, I must remark is… lack of leg pain. As mentioned previously, I am a weakling and just about anything will start aching. After the 25/30th km in my training run, I get this dull plantar fascia pain, knee pain and slight strain on my Achilles tendonitis. I didn’t get this at all this time at all. Even 2 days after the run, I am sitting here just nursing a cold infection (that I picked up due to AC train travel) but NO body aches or pains. I feel blessed that I really enjoyed a long run with all body parts intact. I described it as trashed on strava, but that was more a description of the difficult uphills rather than how I feel right now.

Another thing, is no leeches this time as it didn’t rain so much! I’m not particularly scared of them anyway and would rather let them suck up and fall off (rather than crushing them.) This is what the RD also said on expo day, just let them suck it up and fall off, consider it blood purifying. Hah!

Menses

I have been a tad smug about how trouble free my monthly menses are. After an extremely trouble-filled first 4 years (ages 13-17), it has been relatively cramp and pain free (touch wood?). The first one hour, I can sense the rise in body heat in the lower abdomen and it goes away in a max of 2 hours. In fact, it surprises me how much women complain about periods. All this smugness came back to hit me, well during the marathon. My periods due date was the day after the run, but the uterus walls decided to break down during the run itself and the familiar lower body heat started. It’s a good thing I was prepared with a menstrual cup. Ladies! Embrace the menstrual cup today. I am a big evangelist and will never return to using sanitary pads ever.

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Having said all this, I hope to reach an early menopause (by age 40-44 like mom, grandma), and I hope nature/fate is kind enough to grant it for me soon as I’m NEVER going to incubate and push humans into this extremely overpopulated planet anyway. #antinatalagenda

How did it affect my performance and timing? It affected my downhills a bit, the time I always run without stopping. To be frank, it would’ve affected my overall timing by 10 mins max. So, I would not say it was a big deterrent.

Post-Race

What else to do post-race except take socialise and take pictures? I got my change of clothes and changed out of the muddy ones. I don’t know if it’s psychological, but it helped come out of the race fatigue within minutes. I was in no mood to eat, was sipping my soya milk (I love having milk at the end of a run), met a LOT of people including the great Hayden Hawks and Sandeep Kumar (vegan, fastest Indian at Comrades 2018) After 1 million pictures, I ate something. After nearly 2 hours, I look down at my palm where the wound has dried up fully and wonder if I should’ve done something about it, maybe get it cleaned and dressed. Honestly, I forgot all about the hand and the knees after the high. I headed back without getting anything done because I didn’t think it was needed.

Aid Stations

There was much complaint about the lack of stuff at aid stations and even I felt it was not good enough. I went back to the website to cross check and this is what they promised (water, electrolyte, biscuits, salt, sugar, lemon) and this is exactly what they had! So actually, we should’ve been well prepared for this. There were two points where food was promised and food was available there! S We have been spoilt quite a bit with watermelon slices and chikkis and some more stuff (volini spray), that the brain expected that.

However, they have been clear from the beginning about their offering and I take back all my words! The only issue in the aid stations was the items were not spread out enough so there was much crowding. When there is crowding, there is bound to be tension and impatience and more. Since the crowd increased 4 times this year, this crowding would be more obvious and more often. There should be sufficient space between the items, say only two items per table and many cups/packets of the same item for the participant to grab within seconds and move out of that area.

In one aid station, a participant scooped up drinking water and poured it over his head. For this, the person manning the aid station said don’t use drinking water as the next set of water cans will take some more time to come and they have to travel long distances for which there was some skirmish. Again, these things can be clearly spelt out before the run in the various emails and groups.

People

The locals were out to cheer and support and I was totally moved. At so many junctions or U-turns, the locals were positioned to guide us. While some of them were full on cheering, some of them just waved us on in the right direction. These pillars of strength are the Malnad Ultra. Much kudos and thanks to them for their support in whatever manner they provided. Even those not directly commissioned by the organisers were sitting in cute groups with their broken English (did they say anything other than Hi and Bye) to cheer us all.

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Women runners inspire me a lot! Suchi is ms.cool cool taking on the 110km as if childs play! Mahalakshmi is a strong runner improving her course timing by 30mins from last year and finishing in the top 10. Yasmin has battled severe shin pain since August, missed out on peak training weeks AND finished within cut-off (if she were ok and prepared, definitely a top 10 candidate, she’s that good), Vinodha developed a bad thigh pain in the second half and went on to complete the course even though she knew it would be outside cut-off, now isn’t that something? Janaki the speed goat of course ruled from the beginning and finished in a decent time despite not specifically preparing for this race. Kudos!

The elites were a delight to watch, the way they moved over the rocks and inclines was incredible. They were sensing the terrain and completely in tune with their bodies and what they were doing. Hawks and Meek seemed to do leaps and jumps in few tough places. As if could I see them in person, this just from what I watched it on the video. Indian elites can also aim for this with proper guidance and I look forward to the day when Indians start making a mark in ultra marathoning. We are still in the very nascent stage now and the really good guys are doing too many things.

Ok, I am not a great or accomplished runner to comment on some things, how about an honest observation by the overall 80km second place finisher – Jo the Flying Squirrel, for all of us to learn and consider before signing up unless we are in an advanced stage of regular long runs?

Running in relatively new to India with only 10-15yrs of history but gaining incredible popularity. It seems to be a matter of pride and bravado to enter a race completely unprepared. I talked to many runners who had only run 10km and then entered one of the ultras. Needless to say the DNF rate was high within the 1200 entries.

I think it’s unfair to consider all completions outside cut-off (especially the poor thing who ran in 30 seconds past 9:00:00*) as DNF along with people who pulled out midway, but hey then I don’t set the rules. Is it related to UTMB/trail marathon system? I would still consider them as two different categories.

*cut-off is now revised to 9:15:00 three days post the event.

Gratitude

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None of this atheist BS for me, my first heartfelt gratitude lies with the mighty Amman/Devi/Shakti in my life. I am immensely grateful to even have her presence and grace in my life. For those asking why not Sadhguru/Adiyogi in this, they are for a much HIGHER life purpose and not for smaller things like 8hrs+ 50km runs. Please… Anyway, I digress. Thank you Devi, Yes she is for everything, every small thing from my daily food, trivial 50km runs to opening my own venture one day.

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Coach Aravind Kumar for the excellent guidance and training plan. You the man! Thank you for your expertise and primarily for your patience with me for the past year! Team Metamorphosis that I belong to is an immensely supportive group and especially Douglas Lobo and Srinivasan with whom I shared not so many runs, but lots of rants/cribs with.

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P4R&E group, a group of my loving annas and akkas from Chennai’s running community. Believe me, you guys are extended family. Don’t believe this serious photo… its a super enthusiastic and boisterous group!

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All the enthusiasm and support from the Running community, you may not know it, but your likes, comments, reactions on Strava/FB mean a lot to me and my spirit.

Reflections

What could I have done better? STRENGTH training for sure. I am going to attack this with a vengeance given that I am clearer and Coach A knows some ninja kettlebell moves. I must get rid of this dreaded abdomen fat that I am carrying and have been carrying like it’s my family wealth for years now! Core strength is of course key, lock, the lock pick, the door, door frame, walls, foundation, structure and more. I feel KB moves will help in both core and overall body strength.

NUTRITION. Despite knowing quite a bit about this, I have failed implementing it for myself simply due to lack of time and whole bunch of distractions (moving the house, pet parenting, xyz). All these are excuses, but I haven’t followed those very principles which I prescribe and believe are the foundations of a good diet. This blog will have a lot of information on that in the days to come. In the last few weeks, I was eating a lot of white rice (empty nutrition) and ordering stuff on Swiggy. Once again, lack of time and distractions, but no excuses for not following the fundamentals. #vegan

INTENSIVE HATA YOGA. As the name of the blog indicates, my first love is Hata yoga and I consider it my primary identity. I approach it with the same reverence and sacredness as martial art student and not as a stretching exercise. I want to balance my time and energy to ensure I do 1 hour plus of this everyday with utmost devotion. Yes, the Hata yoga modules learnt from Isha Hatha school of Yoga.

What next? Malnad 2019? First of all, that’s too long to decide. I want to work on stronger road HMs and FMs. I want to do the longer distances next, perhaps 110km in much more relaxed manner taking lots of pictures (maybe with the always cool Raghavendran) Perhaps it will be more charming!

Vagamon is another beautiful trail marathon (but more of cliffs and not so much trees) in Idukki, Kerala. Registration for this season is closed, I wasn’t intending to do it anyway. Then there are several new trail runs coming up on my feed. Hmmm…

If you have reached this far, I applaud your patience. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did recollecting everything. Feel free to ask me anything…

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