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!