The Nilgiris Ultra

Disclaimer: None of the medications suggested below is conclusive or scientific. Please do not try them in your daily life or before long distance runs.

Saturday, January 28, 2017 – The night before the run, I was still unsure of whether to run or not the following day. It has been a quite painful three days preceding the event. After my final training run (followed by a heavy breakfast) on Thursday, January 26, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with my troubles starting from a throat infection. One led to another, and I was down with running nose, common cold and fever which sapped all the energy out of my body for the next two days. The sight of strips of paracetamol tablets, squeezed lemons and empty samahaan sachets was depressing, to say the least. Frequent gargling of warm water with salt helped in easing my throat pain but not my anxiety of missing the event.

Of course, there was the positive events leading to the run that kept me cheered about. The first one was visiting my good old friend, Birendra Nepal at Wellington after almost 14 years! Biru, as we used to call him (and possibly, I still can call him that way!), was one of the earliest persons to encourage me to take up sports in spite of all my short comings. A pleasant conversation that took us back years as if the last 14 years were non-existent! The second of it was the presence of the Hyderabad Runners who has turned out in big numbers to celebrate the unique achievement of Mr. Hariharan in participating in 100 running events! The pre-race dinner with the Hyderabad Runners helped me to cool some of my nerves and made me feel confident about the next day.

As I went to the bed at 10:00 PM on Saturday, I was still in two minds to do or not to do. I wasn’t keen on hurting myself any further but the race meant a lot to me. Over the previous two months, I had done plenty of training focused towards the run. Adding to it was my fund raising initiative which was well supported by my near and dear. It looked like I was a different man altogether when  I got up the next morning at 5:00 AM. A cup of coffee followed by some stretches and morning ablutions, I was confident and raring to go! The start and finish point for the race was barely 200m from my place of stay. Thanks to Anu for permitting me to stay at her home, I could leave home at 5:53 AM and be in time for the start of the race at 6:00 AM. As John Bingham would say,

” The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

To write about the run can be as long as the run itself and for the reader, it would be as boring as watching me run. There were some great moments like spotting a Gaur in the early morning, watching the day break in the hills, nice drizzle that always kept me fresh, stunning landscapes of potato fields, carrot processing units, tea estates and breathtaking valleys. More than the physical endurance, it was all about retaining the focus on moving forward without getting distracted by the discomforts and the intermittent challenges.

Run with your Heart

This time around, I chose to focus on my heart rate to avoid distraction from other areas. The strategy was simple and clear – Not to get my heart rate over 160 (beats per minute) at any point of time. I set myself an upper limit of 150 and lower limit of 140. Every time, I cross 150 while running, I would switch over to walking till I bring my heart rate below 140 and start again to run. I was reasonably confident that the distance would be accomplished as long as I have been feet on the ground and keep moving. The heart rate of 140-150 turned out to be my comfort zone where I could accomplish distances with minimal effort.

heart-rate_elevation

It was more of walking the uphills and running the downhills. The bigger challenge for the run was getting appropriate aid station support (about which I will write in detail in the next blog).

The distance was accomplished in 11:27 minutes and a detailed statistical report can be found here:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1548049409

A big thanks to all my friends and special thanks to all those who came forward to support my fund raising initiative towards ASHA for education. More about it here – https://runningunlimited.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/running-for-cause/

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.