Thursday, April 5, 2018

Munnar Ultra Marathon 71km



Ultra runners are not 'crazy'. They are anything but crazy. These are people who have trained for years and planned for months to do something that only few can imagine. Yes they are 'crazy' as in they are extremely enthusiastic about running. I am one of those! The idea of running long long distances seems crazy in today's world where walking a few blocks down the road seems like a waste of time and effort. I will not try to answer the 'why' question but make an attempt at the 'How' question. How do people run these long long distance?

I have been running for fun for many years. It started with running for morning PT in my school. I realized that I enjoyed it a little more than many of my friends but I also had friends who were much better at it than me. I was in that spot where I was better and more enthusiastic than the average kids in the class but not fast enough to represent the school or my college. Time went by and I kept running for my fitness. When I was doing my PhD I kept running in the evenings because that helped me gather my thoughts and recover from tiring days of data analysis and writing. I kept running after my PhD because I was worried that I would end up with an unhealthy lifestyle. In all these years I rarely ran longer than 10 km and never ran longer than 17 km.

So what has changed now? After I registered for my first race - the Cauvery River Run - there has been no looking back. First I wanted to run a faster 10K, then I wanted to run a half marathon and in my enthusiasm I did not think much about a full marathon but jumped right into the world of Ultra running. I did run one full marathon (TRORT 2017) as a qualifier for my first ultra - The Malnad Ultra 50K. The years of consistent running provided me a good base to build on. I had my fair share of injuries along the way (you can read more about that here). For the past 5 years I have been setting 6 monthly and yearly running goals. In 2017, I wanted to complete one full marathon. I over shot this goal by miles, literally! I ran one full marathon and finished on the podium of the Malnad Ultra 50K. By Febreary 2018 I gained a 2nd place at Munnar Ultra 71K.

At first, I thought that I don't have the time to train for an Ultra marathon. I have a family and a full time job. I have a little kid who is less than 3 years old and my wife is studying/working full time. How was I to find the time to log 50 to 80 km every week? The answer was simple; I ran whenever and wherever I could. My job requires me to travel a lot. I did hill workouts when I was in Shimla for work meetings. I hiked when I was doing field work (it is a great way to recover from long and hard races). I was surveying the Argali and Ibex in the Tienshan mountains of Kyrgyzstan withing a week of running the Malnad Ultra and the hiking was a great way to recover from the race. I did night workouts on the treadmill when I could not run during the day. It helps that my colleagues and friends also like to run. It is not unusual for us to discuss work over a long run.

The racing season in the southern part of India is fairly short. The races start toward in August and end before the summer heat starts in March. I had already done the Malnad Ultra in October 2017 and I was looking to run another ultra as a stepping stone towards my goal of running a 100K race in 2018. I needed something close to Bangalore so I wont loose much time and money traveling to the race venue. Munnar Ultra seemed perfectly suited for it. The only problem was that Munnar Ultra is not a ITRA event so I knew I wont get any points that I can use to qualify for some of the big international races but the goal of the season was to move another step closer towards to goal of training for a 100K run. Munnar Ultra promised the right right distance (71K), the right elevation (2200m), the right weather and scenic route. It did not disappoint me on any of those accounts.

Toeing the starting line of Munnar Ultra Marathon 71 km

The Munnar Ultra started at the SAI training centre in Munnar town. It is a long jeep road that winds through tea estates, gardens and forests to finish back in the town. My goal in this race was to finish strong. That meant I had to get my hydration and fueling right. I needed to start slow (6 min per km pace) and keep getting 300-400 calories every hour. I was going to rely on sports gels for 200 calories per hour and hoped to make up the remaining 150 through the food available at the aid stations.

The race started well. The first hour was run in the dark. Almost none of the runners were carrying headlamps. Some of us used our cellphone light to see the road. I know that some of you are very surprised but the organizers did a great job of lighting the way using motorbikes and support vehicles. I cannot complain. At the crack of dawn I realized that this was going to be one of the most scenic races I had ever done. We saw a beautiful sun rise at around 15-17 kilometers into the race. I was running with Nagaraj. We knew that there were two other runners ahead of us. At the 25k mark we passed the second place runner. He has made the mistake of going out too fast and was paying for it already.

The next step of my plan was to keep a steady pace until the 40th kilometer when we would begin the long climb of 1500m and reach the summit at around kilometer 52. After that it was a long 20k descent. I had no plans for this descent. Nagaraj and I hit the base of the climb together but then he slowed down immediately. I still felt strong so I decided to push on. Now I was in second place. When I asked about the first place runner at the aid station, I was told that he was 30 min ahead of me. with only 30km to go I knew I wont be able to catch him. Also, I had learned that I had to run my own race. I continued up the hill at a steady power-hike pace. I was eating well and hydrating well. The race was very well organized and there was a hydration point every 4km with some food like bananas and oranges. I was able to steadily take 200 calories per hour from the gels that I was carrying and eat a banana or two and some oranges every hour. I was feeling strong.

Nagaraj and I running together. We ran together from the 10K mark to almost the 40K mark.


I was worried about my IT-band when I began my descent. But I was very happy to see that it gave me almost no trouble. I descended the entire 20km at a pace of 5.30 min per km. I entered the town at around 1pm. The sun was blazing and it was hot but the cheers of the local people carried me through. I finished the 72km in 2nd place in 7hr 20 min. I was very happy. At the finishline there were several people waiting for us to finish. The organizers had also arranged for the traditional Kerala massage at the finish line. By the end of the massage session an hour after the race, I already felt ready for another one.

I came home very pleased with my performance at Munnar Ultra. I had finished strong and come back without any injury. I was already planning my next race - potentially a 100k - while I was driving back to Bangalore from Munnar. The biggest take home from this race was that it pays to plan your training, race nutrition and mental readiness for ultra events. This race was, in many ways, easier for me than many of the shorter races that I had attempted without adequate planning even though the training may have been similar. Hence, ultra runners are not crazy, they are good planners! 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

From IT-band injury to the podium of Malnad Ultra 50K

Stories from a Long Run

Two years ago I was suffering from a severe IT band pain after finishing a hilly 10K at the Goa River Marathon. Back then I know nothing about IT band tightening and the problems it could cause and how to solve these problems. There was a ton of information on the internet but little was reliable. I could not afford the sports physios and the doctors that I could afford knew very little about IT band stress. For nearly six months, all my attempts at running were thwarted by this IT band pain. That is when I decided to deal with it in my own way. The only advice that seemed to make sense was 'take it slow'. The rest of my body and mind were ready for a full 42.2 km marathon but my IT-band could not handle even a 5 km slow run. It was the ironic place where the rest of my body wanted to run but the pain cause by the IT band on the outside of my knee was unbearable. I decided to limit my daily runs to only 2 km and not increase the weekly miles by more than 10%. This is the classic advice for anyone starting long-distance running. I decided to apply it to my IT-band hacked running career.

This restrain was hard. To someone who does not run this might seemed like a no-brainer but to a seasoned runner who is hooked to the runners high this was a hard thing to implement. It was hard to stop at 2 km when my IT-band was not hurting but I know that pushing this limit will bring it back. In six month, my mileage was back to 60 km per week and I was again planning a half marathon. I was also dabbling in traithlons for cross training. I was very scared of increasing my running mileage too quickly. This is when I did the Thonnur Triathlon. But traithlon are no substitute to good long runs. After a few more half marathons I felt ready for a full marathon. I felt that my IT band could handle the increased miles.




This is when I realized the important of goal setting in long-distance running. I wanted to run my first full marathon but setting a purely timing based goal was very difficult. Any time that I aimed for would feel 'too difficult' when I was going through a low and feel 'too easy' when I was going through a high. I needed something less numeric and more experiential. Around this time I was also enjoying running on trails. The uniqueness of each trail made every run interesting. Running on the same trail felt like a different experience with season. I was enjoying the beautiful surroundings of lakes and mountains. This is when I finally decided to side stop my first full marathon and set my eyes ona mountain ultra trail race.

I chose the Malnad Ultra 50K. It promised 1500 m of mountainous uphills through the picturesque western ghats - a biodiversity hotspot. I was stepping up from my best racing distance of 21km and best training distance of 33 km to a 50 km trail race. But somehow the 50km in the hills felt the right amount of challenge. When I registered, the race organizers wanted me to have done a full marathon to be considered eligible for the 50k. I needed a race that was not too close to the Malnad Ultra and not too far out. I ran the TRORT full marathon as my qualifier for Malnad Ultra. This is a hilly full marathon on the outskirts of Bangalore. My goal was to finish this race strong. The fact that I finished in 3rd place was pure bonus and confidence booster.

Malnad Ultra 50K (Watch video)

This race is truely an experience. It is nestled in the midst of the lush green western ghats. This is a perfect setting for a mountain ultra trail race. The ultra running community is very special. I was embraced by fellow runners and I made several new friends. Toeing the starting line with the likes of Paul Giblin did not feel intimidating. It felt very inclusive and friendly. I started the race modestly. I was eating regularly at each aid station but I was running the uphills as well. Most people would walk the uphills. Somehow I felt easy running uphill. I was surprised when I caught up to the race lead around the 21st km. This was 'the peak' the highest point along the race. I was now running with Kieren and Sandeep. Together the three of us pushed the pace at the front. It went till the 38th Km when I found the pace too hot to handle. I dropped my pace but it was too late. The hard pushing in the front had taken its toll and I was bonking around the 40th km. Even walking felt hard but a gel and a few potato chips later I was ready to push through the bonk. I kept repeating to myself that this is an ultra and things go up and down all the time. This too shall pass. I was ready to push through the bonk but the last 10km was a steep uphill. The hardest of the race. Mentally I needed to get to terms with everything that was happening. I knew the race leaders were somewhere ahead of me but I did not know how far behind was the 4th place runner. I tried to listed to the cheer of the aid station behind me but no sounds came. Perhaps I was comfortably ahead. I was in the no mans land. Not a soul around me except the birds chirping in the canopy of the trees.


"I caught up with the race leaders at 'the peak', the highest point in the race"


It was here that I discovered what all other ultra runners know as 'a dark place' in the race. I found myself contemplating things like 'existentialism' and our place in the universe. I never thought I was capable of such thought but it helped get through the last few kilometers. The final few kilometers were spent thinking how it would feel to be crossing the finish line in 3rd place. To say I was suffering, both mentally and physically, is an understatement. 

Crossing the finish line in 3rd place in one the most prestigious ultra in the country felt amazing. there was an immediate high that I experienced at the finish line which was quickly replaced by a calm that I had never felt before. I spent the evening with fellow runners from my dormitory and a barbecue. We all shared stories from the day and the stories from the middle and the back of the race were as exciting as from the front of the race. The evening made the experience even more memorable.

It was only on the train ride back to Bangalore that I remembered my IT-Band Injury!  


At the 40 km mark during the Malnad Ultra

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Birding in Cambodia!

"Depressing!" That was my first reaction on being asked about birding in Cambodia.

This is not a birding trip report with a long check-list and details on where to see some of the exciting bird species. This is a description of the experience of birding in a new place. Bhagya and I were very happy to be going to Cambodia for our first international holiday. I had wanted to go to Cambodia every since I was a little kid. Still in school I had read a lot about Ankor Wat. Then when I had started birding going to a south-east Asia meant a treasure of bird species. I could not have been more wrong about birding in Cambodia and more right about my fascination with the temples of Ankor Wat.

The first sign that this was going to be a rather dull experience was the lack of birds around the airport when we landed in Phnom penh. All I saw was a few sparrows in a small garden. But no pigeons, myna or crows around. Phnom Penh was a sad place. It was more crowded than Delhi's Chandni Chowk. We immediately moved to Siem Reap to be closer to the Ankor Wat. It was a long 10 hour journey by road. I was hoping to get glimpses of at least a few species of birds and again I was left high and dry. The only moving life that I saw was at the lunch break when scorpions, spiders and unknown birds were on the menu. Not a single chirp nor a single movement in the canopy.

Siem reap was only a notch better. The town is very touristy. Beautiful and clean with a river passing right through the middle. There was a large roost of flying foxes in the middle of the city. These were promising signs. I did spot a zebra dove somewhere on an electric cable. Then to my shock we found a series of bird cages along the walk way. Most had native bird species in them. They had doves, Mynas, Sparrows, Weaver. But the most shocking was the cage with two oriental pied hornbills! These cages were on public display by the authorities. After three days of wandering around parks, rivers and canals I had seen more local birds in public cages than I had seen outside.

Bhagyashree standing next to a bird cage n public display next to the river in Siem reap


For the next seven days, we cycled from Siem Reap to a different temple in the Larger Ankor Wat Complex. It was in this complex that I finally saw a few birds. The most notable was a Black Baza right next to the main Ankor Wat Temple. It was really a stark difference inside and outside the Ankor Wat tample complex. Inside one would see drongos, flycatchers and squirrels but outside was completely silent.

This is when I realized that I enjoyed birding but I am not a birder who goes to protected areas and birds for rare endemics. I am a birder who enjoys watching birds that are all around me as I go about my life. I bird from my balcony, outside my office, at the airport or train-station, the occasional boat ride, on a bicycle ride, on a long run.

The place was abundant with trees but there was no chirping to be heard


We went on the Tonle Sap lake. One of the biggest lakes in south-east Asia and all we saw was 3 spot-billed pelicans and a few pacific swallows. I was told that I should visit the bird sanctuary and that is where I can find the storks and ibises. This place is home to the giant ibis and greater adjutant stork. Both are critically endangered species. But then we decided against it. It would cost us a few hundred dollars to visit the sanctuary to see these species. For me there was no point in going to a sanctuary to watch a rare species when the ones outside had no future.

Back in India, my home, I enjoy watching the shikra hunt the sunbird at my window. I love watching the cinereous tit dance on the electric cable. I get distracted by the deep cooh of the coucal or the loud whistle of the koel; the chatter of the mynas; the acrobatics of the kites and the occasional falcon. I rarely travel to protected areas for birding. I feel that I enjoy the rare species in the protected areas only when I see their commoner cousins doing well outside.       

Tired after a spending a full day of looking for birds and not finding any!


The entire trip list can be seen on my eBird Profile page here:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Five ways to screw-up your first Triathlon!

- I screwed mine in all five ways

1. Get beaten-up in the water: Okay, everyone has told you about this. Everyone I know told me about it, but still I got beaten-up in the water. Reason: I thought I will dash ahead of where all the fighting will happen (just behind the leading pack). But then everyone was thinking the same. And all those who thought this were the people hitting each other. To make matters worse, even though the race I chose is open waters, it was six loops around a 250m stretch! Lucky for me that the fighting lasted only for the first lap and then it was fine.

The calm swimming after getting beaten up

2. Get scratched by the Mr. Breast-stroke specialist: You have read and practiced all about how to overtake the athlete in front of you in the swim. But do you know how to overtake that one person who has switched to a breast-stroke? Well, its simple, stay an arms length away from him. If you don't do it then his sharp and uncut nails will claw your sides or belly!

3. Now do you remember your lap? Now, while you were busy getting beaten-up or beating others around and getting clawed by the Mr. Breast-stroke specialist do you remember how many loops have you done around your 250m course? I forgot. Thankfully, there are not many Triathlons that make you count your laps in the swim stretch but there are some and it happened to be my first.

It was a hot day!


4. Wet feet and dirt go well together: That says it all! I didn't have a towel for my feet in the transition area so the result was that my feet had many small particles of dirt sticking to it and I pulled my socks over it. By the end of the 40km of cycling, I could count every one of those dirt particles because of the sheer pricking pain I was feeling on my feet.

5. What does my timing chip do? I was well instructed that I had to collect a wrist band at the U-turn point of the run (at 5km). Thats too much to remember after 1.5km of swimming and 40km of cycling. I was banking on the volunteers to give me that wrist band. Well, no surprise here, they forgot too. I was back at almost the 7km mark when I noticed this band on the wrist of the athlete that I was passing. No excuses, I turned around to go back to the 5km U-turn point to get my wrist band. It added only 26 min to my overall total time. This is when you tell yourself that you wanted to do an Ironman anyway. So these few minutes are just training miles! The worst part it that nobody was looking for that wrist band at the finish line! There were others like me but they didn't go back for the stupid wrist band. Again there are not many Triathlons that depend on wrist bands to ensure that you complete the race. Most will have sophisticated timing chips. But that is exactly the kind of thinking that got me in this mess in the first place.

Second time at the turn-around point (5km) asking for my wrist band!


After all that I managed to finish no later than 4 hours. Not bad considering it was my first triathlon on a very difficult course and after running almost 14km. The previous years bronze medalist had barely done it in 3:30 h:mm.

None of this matters when you hold your little girl in your arms after a four hour triathlon!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Birding in Ajanta!

We don't think of Birds when we think of Ajanta. Ajanta is better known for the famous Ajanta caves, the second century BCE Buddhist monument with the Jataka tales painted and sculpted on the walls. But Ajanta is much larger and much more diverse than what we see at the caves.
The Ajanta Caves are surrounded by dry dry deciduous forest
The Ajanta UNESCO site also protects 3000 hectare of dry deciduous forest in its surrounding. This forest is an excellent habitat for many of the regions fauna. It also forms a steeping stone connecting Gautala and Autramghat wildlife sanctuary and the Bothaghat wildlife sanctuary. So far I have seen over 250 species of birds in the hills surrounding Ajanta. The two key eBird hotspots are Ajanta caves and Ajanta-andhari dam. By no mean means are these hotspots well birded. I dont have the analysis but the accumulation curves are nowhere near saturation. The highlights for me so far have been Indian pitta, Sirkeer malkoha and an abundance of Paradise flycatacher.

A paradise flycatcher from Nandi hills, Bangalore
The real amazing birding in this place is during the winters. Migratory species such as Isabelline shrike, desert wheatear and orphean warblers are easy to see in the scrub around agriculture fields. Duck such as Ruddy shelduck, Pochards, Garganey flock to the Ajanta-andhari dam in the hundreds. The forest around the caves is also a great place for raptors. It is fairly easy to Crested serpent-eagle, Changeable hawk eagle, Bonnelli's eagle, Booted eagle and Short-toed snake eagle. The real excitement of walking in the forest of Ajanta is also due to the possibilities of seeing mammals such as Hyena, wolf, fox, blackbuck and nilgai. If you are super lucky they you may even see a leopard!

A stripped hyena in the scrub forest of Ajanta 
 The common grassland birds in Ajanta would be the many species of larks, pipits, quails but the most exciting so far has been the Common grasshopper warbler! I am not yet sure if it winters here or just passes by to its winter grounds in the western ghats.

The male blue bull or Nilgai in Ajanta

Indian Bushlark at Ajanta-andhari lake

Friday, June 26, 2015

Where are the birding gaps? Part II

This blog was originally published on the Bird Count India website: http://www.birdcount.in/where-are-the-birding-gaps-part-ii/

Over the last year, eBird’s popularity amongst birders in India has grown rapidly. An increasing number of birders are using eBird as a platform to keep track of their bird sightings and locations and for planning their upcoming bird trips. A new feature, Target Species, is really helpful for people who want to be prepared in finding out potential new species they could see on their next trip.

Of course, all these features of eBird are only as good as the data that goes into it. So far, the eBird database contains about 1.5 million records from India. What is really amazing is that one million of those have been added over the last 10 months! As of June 2015, eBird contains over 81,000 hours of documented birding effort in India. It is a fairly rapid growth from about 35,000 hours of effort in September 2014. This increase is a combination of new lists from the last 10 months and older lists that people have uploaded on eBird between the period from September 2014 to June 2015.
In September 2014, I had done an analysis of the spatial coverage of sighting records in eBird database (linked here) and concluded that the spatial coverage across India was poor. A million records later, it’s time for an update.
The proportion of Indian districts with not a single effort based list has declined from 40 to 28.5%. These 182 districts with no effort based list add up to 20% of India’s total land area. Proportion of districts with less than 10 hours of birding declined from 61 to 48.5%. The proportion of districts with more than 100 hours of birding effort increased from 13 to 21.9%.
Total birding hours 2015-06-18
The comparative map above (click to see at full size) gives a fair indication ofareas where birding effort has increased and areas that continue to be under-represented in the eBird database. Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra continue to be the four largest contributors with around 55% of total effort (in terms of birding hours) concentrated within them. Gujarat has made up significant ground, both in the total number of hours of birding as well as the coverage of the entire state. Parts of central Maharashtra (Marathwada), Telangana and Andra Pradesh had major gaps in September 2014 and many of these have been closed but more effort is still required. The biggest gaps in regions of UP, Zero districts 2015-06-18Bihar, Jharkhand, parts of MP, northern Rajasthan and Punjab remain. In the list of gaps, UP leads with 36 district with not a single effort-based list followed by Bihar with 15 districts. The table to the right lists the top 10 states with major birding gaps. If you have old lists lying in your notebooks from these area then this is the another reason to bring it out. All those birders who are also avid travellers, these are the opportunities for pioneering birding!
The birding effort in relation to the size of the district is another important parameter, eg., 10 hours of birding might be a fair representation of birds in a small district with uniform habitat but the same effort is a clear under-representation for large districts like Leh with a large diversity in habitat. The following map (click to see full size) represents birding effort standardized by the size of the district (total birding effort divided by the area of the district).
Birding density 2015-06-18
The only two states with high birding density are Kerala and Goa, and to an extent, Karnataka and Delhi. Most districts in Kerala have at least 5 minutes of birding effort per square kilometre (sq km) while 5 districts have more than 20 min per sq km and one district, Thrissur, has more than 60 min per sq km. Similarly North Goa has over 60 min of birding per sq km and South Goa has more than 20 min of birding effort per sq km. But the leader across the country is Chennai with over 6 hours of birding effort per sq km. Of course, coverage within these districts may also be highly uneven.
What is surprising is that despite the 1.5 million records, over 88% districts, adding up over 93% of India’s land area have less than 5 minutes of birding effort per square kilometre of their area.
Top-districts-2015-06-18_300pxFinally, a quick look at the leader board in terms of total birding hours per district (chart to the right, click to view full size). Thrissur, Pune, Palakkad, Amravati, Udupi, Thiruvananthpuram and Chennai have all moved up in the order. Mysore, Bharatpur, Alappuzha have moved lower. But, mind you that Mysore is currently doing its second year of the city atlas and much of this information is yet to arrive. Alappuzha and Thrissur are also doing their first year of district atlas so can expect to see rapid information coming in from there. North Goa and Iddukki continue to lead. Does this mean that visiting birders continue to contribute more to eBird in India than the local Birders?
If you are curious about the status of birding information from your district on eBird then follow this link (‘Explore a Region’) and type-in your district name. Here you will get an updated summary of the birding being reported from your district. You can look at India-level summaries, State summaries or District (called ‘County’ in eBird) summaries (eg Districts of Gujarat) . If you are uploading an effort based list from a district with currently zero birding effort, please drop us a comment here or at the Bird Count India facebook group.
Note: if you would like to explore the raw numbers underlying the summaries described above (perhaps you’d like to see all the districts with zero effort), then you can download an excel file of the data here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Catch it in -20C

The original post appeared on the Nature Conservation Foundation Blog

It is really difficult to work at 14,000 ft. in the Trans-Himalaya where the temperature can dip to an astonishing -20C, but it is even harder to play a sport like cricket in such harsh conditions. The frozen ball pierces you when you try to stop or catch it, and you can imagine the agony of it hitting your shin after missing a hit while batting! You’re probably wondering, why bother playing cricket in such icy landscapes?
I didn’t realise the significance of cricket in the high altitudes until my field vehicle broke down in a remote village in Spiti. I was alone and still new to the mechanics of an old, borrowed Gypsy. It was freezing and I was trying to fix the car when a group of people walked up to me. I thought they would recognise me as “someone from NCF” or think I am Charu and help me out, but lo and behold, one of them exclaimed “he is the guy who caught the Chichim opener at silly point during the republic day matches!” They remembered me from a catch that I took in a cricket match over a year ago! Later, I was told that they were surprised that my reflexes had not frozen in the numbing cold. Needless to say, they all helped me fix the car.
Cricket is a social glue in many high altitude areas of the Himalaya. Yes, I am generalising, but while I was working on field in the Gobi desert with colleagues from Pakistan and Nepal, we spent more time talking cricket than any other topic. Our Mongolian colleagues were quick to note that while the snow leopard ecology was slightly different in the relatively uneven Trans-Himalaya of Spiti and the relatively moist and rugged Khunjerab of Karakorum, the cricket we all played remained the same!
Forgotten deep mid-wicket!