The Servarayan Hills Ultra

In the middle of the night, Aravind wakes up and yells, ‘Praveen…. It’s 3:30 and no one has got up.’ Checked my phone and the time read 11:59. Praveen jumps out of his bed to confirm the same. Aravind quickly realises that it is the second time of the dual time on his phone screen. Those were the scenes ahead of the inaugural Yercaud Ultra, later renamed as Shevaroy hills ultra before finalising the name as ‘Servarayan Hills Ultra’ (SHU) in sync with the original name of the hills.

Yercaud
Photo by Ram. From left, Ramani, myself, Aravind, Bala, Praveen, Mani and Kannan

Aravind has signed up to run the Comrades Marathon on June 1, 2014 and it was natural for him to be anxious about every run until his Comrades. He was not the lone Comrades participant in the trip; Shahid, Ram and Kannan were also gearing up for their Comrades experience. The SHU has been intricately connected with Comrades marathon in many ways. Back in 2012, a month after (miraculously) finishing my first, (only as well as last) Comrades marathon, I joined the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC) Weekend Ride in Yercaud. The ride captain was Vaz a.k.a. Vasanth who seems to know the roads in Yercaud in and out. He introduced me to the beautiful ~34K loop road starting from and finishing at Yercaud.

Elevation
Elevation profile recorded by Shahid’s GPS on the run. Ah! The obsession over miles and feet!

As we rode on the loop road, the frequent recurrence of peaks and troughs reminded me of the early stages of Comrades route with similar terrain. At the end of the ride, I was really eager to run the route sometime in the future. Few months back, Shahid and Paul were discussing about Shahid’s plan for Comrades training and was keen on running in Ooty. I discouraged him as neither the route profile nor the altitude suits a perfect training. A year back, few of us ran all the way up to Kothagiri from Mettupalayam and the route was inclined upwards from the start till the finish. It did look like a challenging uphill run but not the right kind of run for practicing hill running.

Source: http://www.comrades.com The map is only indicative and does not explain the actual peaks and troughs!

Training for Comrades is a challenge by itself and poses many hurdles. I had tried to summarise some of my thoughts in my earlier blog on Training for Comrades. The loop in Yercaud presented us with an ideal terrain for hill training. It had ample peaks and troughs with the elevation no more than 100m at a stretch. I shared the maps (courtesy: Vaz) with Paul and Shahid suggesting the loop and in addition, a downhill towards Kuppanur would resemble Comrades route. The ~26K downhill run features a steep climb of ~4K sandwiched between downhill run of ~11K each. At first, it felt like the challenge of running the Botha Hill in Comrades but later turned out to be a bad idea because of the steep inclinations and declines.

Apart from the Comrades participants, the idea was thrown open to a small group of select runners (chosen based on the familiarity. Given the risks involved, it was decided not to open to a wider group). Among the takers includes Manivannan, Praveen, Bala, Ramani, Paul and by default, myself! It was a no-frills run and very minimal effort was taken to organise the run. It was self-organised and self-directed by each of the participants. I reached out to Vaz for assistance in Yercaud and he took the risk of introducing me to Yeshwin. Yeshwin, originally from Chennai, has relocated to Yercaud and dabbles in many activities, notably, cycling. On explaining my requirements, he suggested me a nice house for all of us to stay. The food was to be taken care by his wife, Kavitha, who runs The Pear Tree Café at Yercaud. Thanks to their assistance, we managed to have a pleasant stay and wonderful food for those two days.

Pre_race_dinner
Dinner at The Pear Tree Cafe

Our plan was to start the run at 4:00 AM and had a cut-off of 10 hours to cover the total distance with an intermediate cut-off of 6 hours for the loop (later reversed to 5 hours and it still didn’t matter). Our route reconnaissance (recce in common language) on the previous day didn’t give us a good preview of what was in store, the following day. Moreover, with 7 of us cramped on a single car (and me getting the ‘business class’ front row by the virtue of having tall legs), it was difficult to feel the elevations and troughs on the route. We retired to bed early after a delicious dinner of sandwich, curd rice and chocolate truffle. It could possibly be the only event where all runners had the same dinner and stayed together. Guess, IAAF can take some lessons from us to avoid pre-race doping!

Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!
Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!

We got ready for the run in time at 3:45 AM. The two car drivers – Pervez and Abdul – reported in time at 3:30 AM. Their assistance on the run was immense. It was also decided to run in groups until the day-break for safety reasons. Running in the dark is a challenge and also a memorable experience. The challenge is of two fold – not to get lost on the route and not to trip down. The first challenge did not exist in this run. The route directions was just simple – Keep left always! The second challenge – well, only the medicines for bruises were available.

Route info
Giving route directions on the previous day

It seems to be an unwritten law that tripping in an integral part of Ultra-marathons. Every year, I am sure there are at least 100 runners who trip themselves over the cats-eye in Comrades. Although I was lucky to escape it in my comrades run, I suffered it at Coimbatore, two months after the Comrades! The honours on this run went to Shahid who had a nasty fall suffering bruises on his elbow. It looked distressful on the first sight but Shahid was not the one to be let down by it. He quickly recovered to continue with the run.

The beauty of running in the dark is realised when the day breaks. The joy of watching the day break is unsurpassable. For those living in the cities, their day break is often spoiled by the street lights or the lights from vehicles. One can never watch a true break until they get themselves in a totally dark place. The first two hours of the run was a very pleasant experience except for the presence the street dogs. There were more ferocious ones inside many fenced residences but the ones on the street troubled us by pacing us on the run. Living in a street where there are more dogs than humans, I found it easier to tackle them.

I had chosen to play the sweeper role on the run and the drivers were instructed that I will be the last runner. The loop looked like a dream route for every runner – very little traffic, no confusion about the routes, perfect blend of elevation and declines and a pleasant weather. Our original plan was to have a cut-off time of 6 hours for the loop which looked very easy to achieve. In hindsight, I thought a four and half hours cut-off (corresponds to 8:30 AM) with an added of incentive of getting a cup of coffee for 10 bucks at Sree Saravana Bhavan, Yercaud could have been a better challenge (The price of coffee goes up to Rs. 25 after 8:30 AM).

All the runners completed the loop with ease. Bala was keeping unwell and has to opt out before the end of the loop. It was a steep climb from the end of the loop (which was at the lake) to the start of the road leading to Kuppanur. While I was enjoying the running uphill, it was getting really tough running downhill. After running about 10Kms on the steep downhill road towards Kuppanur, I have to call my run off. This was the route I enjoyed riding a lot during the Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010. Little did I realise that it would such a bad route for runners. The steep declines were absolute killers and I neither had he physical strength to run down nor the mental strength to pull trough with the run. I was also scared that most of the other runners would curse me for such a horrible route. It gets worse in the last 10 Kms which was no more than a barren hill. Strangely, all those who finished took it up as a challenge and accomplished with ease.

Finish

I was happy for the Comrades participants – Ram, Aravind, Shahid for finishing the entire stretch. This was definitely a confidence booster ahead of the Comrades. The downhill run in Comrades is lot more easier than this run even if the route has another 28Kms to cover. Also glad for Kannan for finishing the difficult stretch of the route, even if he didn’t run the last few Kilometers.

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