Stupa to Stupa: Trail running in Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

“Its gonna be a long day”, said the Canadian runner as we tackled the first elevation of the day. It was half past seven in the morning. A naive 6-7 hour finishing time however was my idea. I saw that intention mocked at, by the trail, as the noon sun began drying the salt at the back of my neck. Stupa to Stupa run has been the most grueling run that I signed up for, until now. What, with a lifestyle of running in plains (and the lovely parks of Bangalore) was I hoping for here in the mountains? Running is a completely different affair on mountain trails. A simple lesson as this, hits home as I write this. An Olympic runner once said that “you have to run mentally first” is true of trail running too. I tried running mentally. Then, at 28th km I realized that I had the mind for the remaining 27 km but not the body. Spirit was soon a pendulum swinging from I-can’t-do-it to keep-chipping-it-away. Every 100 meter done is 100 meter closer. By the third ascent at around 39th km I was in the dumps – cursing myself for being there. This was a perfect spot for the onset of such crisis – no hope of dropping out because on either side the trail has no vehicle support. One would have to walk through anyway!

The morning had an upbeat mood which is sort of typical for runs. A little beyond the Swayambhu stupa which was the start line the trail began climbing up to the peak of Changunarayan. The summit lies at 7.3 km from the start. The impression was that this is the only hard tackle of the day. Rest of it would come easy. This wasn’t true. It was only first of the many truths about trail running and about myself that were to hit over the course of the day.

I wasn’t prepared for the substantial elevation gains three times over the entire course. As soon as one starts, over the 7 kms the trail goes from 1326 m to 2073 m. When this is done, a long winding forest trail follows which is also one of best forest trails I have seen. A thick bed of dry leaves covered the trail for the next 10 kilometers. There was an earthly feel to that stretch. At such moments there is a feeling of being thankful for being able to run, which gets you to these places. I was glad to be there in that morning. It was hard to spot any stray piece of plastic packaging or litter that generally comes along with human presence. Whatever was, was nature’s own. Nepal is a very beautiful place to run in my impression. The trails are very well kept, or rather, left alone. There is military presence all along the mountains though. And one needs park permits to enter in these reserved areas. SAARC nationals benefit from low entry fees.

The first aid station (with food) was at 20th km. Picked up a few muesli bars and biscuits and went on. The sun was bright by this time. However, on higher altitudes it was cold and comfortable. Crossing 20th km, I felt a good reserve of energy and was up for the remaining, until I saw the trail marking ribbons stretching all the way to horizon. The second climb, contrary to popular view, was actually more difficult. It ended with squeezing all the energy, knee strength and hope. It was a grinding halt. Hereon, I could only walk. Left knee was no longer able to bear the sight of those long staircases which stretched almost 200-250 meters. This was a trek, not run, I thought. Between 20 km to 28 km the elevation dropped to about 1460 and went up again t0 2050 m. To a runner from the plains this was a sentence to the gallows.

Meanwhile, the Nepali runners with their ‘hill legs’ were cantering out into the canopies. The fastest finishing time on this trail is 7 hours. This was a piece of info shared at the finish line. The finishing time estimate I set out with in the morning had a reality check!

On this trail, I bonked out by 28th km. The usual mind games took over. The DNF devils buzzed around and I was giving in to them. Even a gentle gradient hereon would get me walking. There was no hope of shuffling through them. The many streams of water flowing across the trail helped with reviving home and a good wash could get me an uncomplaining half km run.

Soon enough, I was out of my mind. The entire machinery stopped. It was like the silence which consumes a space when the power goes off abruptly. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I wasn’t registering events around anymore. I had stopped looking at the GPS too. Same state of mind until 50th km when the trail descended from the hills onto the plan and had the last 4 km run up to Boudha Stupa. This was an aid station. A kid sat on a chair, may be 2-3 year old. I stretched out my palm, she stretched out and touched it after some hesitation. We sat. After a few biscuits, I was up for the last leg. It is amazing to see what is registered in the mind’s eye during such states of exhaustion. 200 meters ahead I lost way. Went off a different path until someone said that other runners have passed through a different way. I almost died at the thought of backtracking to the right course. However, from this spot the Boudha Stupa was visible in the distance. It would have been a shame to call it quits now.

Getting back on the right course, the last two kilometers were through city roads. It was not a run. It was a quick leap to end it all. A large part of me wanted to get done with it all and go back to the hotel bed. I hobbled into the paved alleys that led up to the stupa. Runners had to do a kora (circumambulation) of the stupa and then show up at the finish.

I had managed to end the day. As always, finish line never sees a miserable runner, just an exhausted one. This wasn’t life changing. I felt that such event have been character building for me. I returned to a very large meal of Nepali daal-bhaat after a long hot shower.

The rest of the night was seething pain in knees and torso, but a peaceful realization that I know myself a little more, a step at a time.

 

 

Some trails

​Bangalore Mountain Festival

29/1/2017

This was a short ride and a short run combo. Rode out this morning for a trail  run outside the city. Early hours, the yellow of the city roads and the engine’s rhythm worked up nostalgia of a dozen road trips.

Reached the venue after overshooting some 20  km in the pre-dawn darkness. Losing way is a smooth experience these days. That may be age’s doing. Rolled into the venue and changed. Paced around a bit and got on to the starting line. After Mumbai, this was to be a recovery run. So didnt bother tracking time or pace.

A sweet and simple start and we were off into the many spaces between the ranges around Nandi hill. The peak was still covered in fog but the many couples and groups of people were already flocking it like maggots. Hated the number of cars and rash riders all around. Feels sorry for the villages around. 

Two laps of 10 km were to be done and the bunch of Kenyans and Ethioians were already pounding it. They are the new variety of money chasers. likeable sorts though. Run races to win the prize money and repeat this all year. Such a livelihood doesnt quite come with a retirement plan. I was bombing down all the dowhills and loving it. Pissed too on the trail.There was one toilet at the start and ladies were already chatting for long in the long queue. So kept it for the trail.

Kept a good clip all the way and enjoyed the sight of hills around. One uphill stretch got me pushing myself but the downhill was like catching a flight for the next 2 km. A curious guy on one of the farms wanted to know the distance the runners do in an hour. 

By the second lap sun worked up the temperature. But Bangalore sun is no match to Chennai’s. Kept on. Bach’s symphony played on the phone. The last 4 kms were sure a symphony – a beautiful trail, good physical form, a decent pace and the morning. 

Through the last stretch of casurina plantation, emerged on to the timing mat at the finish line wishing for another lap. Some runs perk up the spirit like that of a lark’s – excited to fly, wanting not to perch! 

I’d recommend Bangalore Mountain Festival’s trail. Tasks the runner just a little beyond the usual endurance required for a half marathon.

Mumbai in 42 kilometers

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CST, Mumbai (Image: Eraserheaded)

Last week at SCMM, I figured that a 42 kilometer loop around a city is quite an unusual way of experiencing it. May be that explains increasing popularity of running tours in Europe. A run around the city is much like our old town halwai offering generous bits of the assortment of sweets on display before one buys any.

With Mumbai, it was also a re-look at the city. It has showed up annually in my life ever since I stepped out of school. I have taken bits of of it on every visit and looked forward to the next visit without making an effort to know when. This year’s Mumbai was different. I was going past the same places that I have gone past earlier. The difference this time was running through these spaces, floating along with a stream of runners. The rhythm of a run, places gliding by, changing soundscapes, changing landscapes… all of these together have a rather unique effect on the visitor. It isn’t quite an immersion into a single site. Rather, it is a swim through the landscape. The effect is that of a visitor experiencing a closeness that develops spontaneously with someone, in first meet.

I’ve stood by CST, starting point of the marathon, several other times as a just arrived traveler, as a purposeful visitor, as an idler… but never under a pre-dawn darkness which is about to turn deep blue of the morning with an intent to just run around. The monument in those hours, void of its daily throng of people, was much like an artist in a completely different role than what the audience has seen her in, all these years. I couldn’t have imagined the magnificent CST building without people milling all over and this not because the city has shut down due to a terror threat, but for a different reason – when the city lets a whole lot of people see it, up close, and let them experience it on foot.

A runner in this country is somewhat privileged to be able to travel to different cities only to run and pay registration fee. If one is able to afford it, it offers a completely different and unique peep into the city. This isn’t a call for any sort of consciousness or action but a plain observation that it was upsetting to see children with huge sacks going after every single plastic bottle thrown by runners on the roads. There were easily a hundred of them who, oblivious to the event and people around them, kept their eyes on these plastic bottles and were out to collect as many as they could manage. That would be the day’s haul and perhaps a decent amount of money than other days when sold. At the same time another group of children were experiencing it differently – The Scindia School Band played from a stand. That was a lovely sight! The children showing up and playing for the runners.  The realities are stark – of the runners and of these children and of the worlds that the several pickets of policemen there on duty inhabit. Each of these overlap with the other’s only by virtue of their need or call of duty. Nothing else. I am not sure how these city marathons go in developed countries of the world. But in a place like India with its very wide spectrum of social and economic status of people, it can be a bit unsettling. Perhaps, this comes out best to a visitor when she comes attends an event like this.

At the same time there are several appealing aspects about it. SCMM is a huge fund raising event for social causes of a wide variety. The energy and enthusiasm among the people makes one feel quite good about being in the city and about the collective spirit of oneness. Even the diversity of people and groups seen on and off the course is remarkable.

My favorite part was to run on the Worli Sea link. There was something surreal about being on it and watch the steel ropes glide, one by one,  a little above the eye level. Modern structures as these are seldom seen on foot and at such pace. It isn’t a commonplace experience in India to be able to run right in the middle lane of a vast mega structure as this and take plentiful looks at the city’s skyline on both sides. It is as though this was an opportunity to come up close and know the spaces taking all the time that one wants. This aspect is quite distinct in urban runs and even more in large metropolises as Mumbai.

Amidst all this, I realized I was also doing a faster pace than my last run. I wanted to shave off some time from the Iceland run. Until halfway point, I was sure doing better and confident about finishing it well. It was a little surprising how I registered everything happening around and be mindful of the pace too. I can usually do either of the two -run or look around. Look around as I run, was new!

A couple of known faces passed by. Some were sure on their way to achieve a personal best timing. Meanwhile, I was bonking out. I hit the wall by 33rd km. Pace slowed. Shoulders drooped. The ones I tailed took off and were speeding to the finish line. And I was experiencing Marine Drive at a much slower pace than what I started with. There were kids reaching out for the strewn plastic bottles. There were policemen trying to mind them. The runners were all pushing themselves to the finish line. Meanwhile, there was an anticipation in the crowds which waited for the elite runners to run past, much like my brother and I used to wait by the small railway station in our town to watch a superfast train run through our little town leaving us in a storm of catering litter. Anytime now, the air suggested! There was this stepping in and out of the door that connected the chambers of past and present, which happens with me in almost every run. This was similar.

Running the 42 at SCMM wasn’t difficult. Keeping a faster pace, was. At the sight of the clock hung at the finish line, I started racing the seconds. Even before stepping on it, I was checking how much better than the last. The idiot inside overpowers ofern! SCMM course took 3 hrs 43, 15 mins less than Iceland’s. But a wholly different trip looking at Mumbai all over again while I was about to hit a personal best timing.

A day before the run, at Kitabkhaana, I searched for authors from the city writing about the city. Feels good to have come across an endearing volume of writing by Adil Jussawalla, edited by Jerry Pinto – Maps for a Mortal Moon. I knew that Jussawalla was a good friend of A K Mehrotra.  So this was also about discovering friends of a writer I admired. This morning’s reading from the book was a trigger to recollect my connection with Mumbai during the SCMM trip. The city lives in the heart of those who spent a lifetime here or have come to form an undying bond with the city because they came of age here, or found a career, or love or self or whatever. It is hard not to admire the city and its several cultural creeks as much as the geographical ones. Jussawalla writes about two writers who are pining for their Bombay in their time, which I think I am not quite capable of feeling about a city but several cities. Until next time, I too remain homesick and eager.

jussawalla_excerpt

“Six Authors in Search of a Reader”, Adil Jussawalla

 

 

First 50 KM Ultra Run – CTM

ctm_dilip_srinivasan

Chennai Trail Marathon – 2016. Pic – Dilip Srinivasan (via FB)

This year has been good for running. I started with a full at Auroville Marathon. Then in July did the Raramuri run (TRORT-08) where I finished full marathon with a personal best. Fueled by these, last weekend I ran my first ultra run of 50 km. I sat over the experience of it for a week before I could gather my thoughts about it.

I’ve known of runners who have written about their experiences after finishing runs that they aspired for, prepared for or simply wanted to run. It is amazing to read their experiences as they put themselves through the challenge that they have set themselves against. It is remarkable that a part of what all the runners go through during a run is the same -mental ups and downs, doubts and the love-hate conversation about running.

At the same time it is an immensely calming experience. On the other side of the finish line my mind was void of thoughts. It wasn’t the stress of running that led to it. It was something simpler. I have noticed that running long distances helps in clearing up mind, even if that state of mind is short lived. On the face of it, it appears paradoxical – one drains himself out physically and feels a sense of mental calm. There were no thoughts running through my head as I finished the last 2 km of the 50k. I finished, checked the time and moved on to have some food and cold water pads on head. The rest of the day, I cruised through the southern landscapes on a train to Bangalore.

Running the 50k at Chennai Trail Marathon (CTM) was unintended. I wanted to finish the year with at least one ultra run, though I was unsure of which one and where in India I might want to do that. Haven’t been a very planned person. Running on the other hand is gently nudging me towards having at least a semblance of a plan, which I now figure is necessary to do those distances or even to make it to some runs.

CTM has a lovely trail around a huge lake on the outskirts of Chennai and I enjoyed running the trail for its scenery and silence. This was also my first time running in Chennai. I was expecting the heat to put me down which it sure did. Running in Bangalore for most of the year doesn’t build much capacity in a runner to endure the tropical heat of the Indian subcontinent. Last year, running in Nagpur at 6 in the morning drained the life out of me in a mere 10 km.

I was sick for a week before the run and hadn’t ran for over two weeks leading up to CTM. Even as I took the late evening flight to Chennai after work, getting off there I was unsure whether I wanted to run. I pushed along and reached the venue at midnight. The lovely folks at CTM let the runners sleep at the venue for no charge. And I was hoping to catch some sleep. By the time I slept it was 1.30 AM and the lineup started at 3.30 AM. I had the crappiest of the sleep that night. Woke up, collected my bib from the organizers and got ready. I was kind of okay doing the dark hours from 4 AM until the sunrise because the headlamp only illuminates a few meters of the trail. So it is literally a step at a time, by design. One doesn’t get to see how the trail ahead is. Also, the wee hours are usually quiet.On one side of the lake, the trail went on the raised bund of the lake and into the distance was a roaring four-lane national highway. Except the occasional roar from a passing trailer truck, it was only the footsteps of runners ahead which could be heard. Everyone ran in silence. It was surreal, the two hours until the sun came up. David Laney recently wrote of his experience of running the UTMB – a mile by mile account.  Here are some of the moments that I recall from the run:

KM1 18- I do not want to do this. I want to fly back home. There is no way I am finishing the 42, fuck 50!

KM 20 – Sun rises over Cholavaram lake. The trail ran through a mud flat along the shores of the lake and it was splendid to live that moment in which the entire landscape was getting gradually illuminated. Surreal! Wasn’t worried about finishing at that moment.

KM  39 – Again on the mud flats across a cross-section of the lake. It runs for 2.5 km. With this distance I would finish a full marathon distance. Was glad to be back at that stretch again. Exhausted. Seriously considered dropping out as the full marathon finish line was up ahead. I do not have to do this, I kept thinking.

KM 41 – Fuck! I have spent five hours saying I do not want to run and I finished full. Coughed hard. Chest congestion built up. Took the  U-turn. Ate a sandwich at the aid station. The aid station volunteer called out my name and asked if I need any assistance. It startled me! I was alone and someone calling out my name felt so damn different. Felt good! Thanked him. Decided to go for the last 8 km. There were no cramps, no pains. Only a near complete state of exhaustion. Ran out again for the last 8.

KM 44 – Got on to the raised trail along the lake side. Looked at the horizon and the lake again. Though how remarkably it has changed in its feel and appearance from 4 AM to now at 9 AM. In the next few meters sun made itself felt. Couldn’t put one foot after the other. I only wanted to make it to the next aid station. The run from here on was aid station to aid station.

KM 45 – Joined another runner for the next kilometer. He was in a very uniform clip and his sandal’s sound gave a sort of rhythm. I wanted to keep up with him. We did, till the U-turn at 46th. I couldn’t resume after that. It was early to think that I will complete it.

KM 46 – Most excruciating. Disoriented. Felt that sun was hard. Started walking. Sat on the raised side of the lake twice. Everything around felt like it has paused. As though someone took the remote and paused the video.

KM 48 – Hallucinated about the aid station a good 100 meters or more ahead of where it actually  was. Took two cold water mops. The volunteers were amazing. I thought how much I wanted to be like them. Help and cheer even as someone completely unrelated is attempting his own goal. Realized I was too hungry. Wolfed down peanut-jaggery chikkis and two bananas. The certainty that I will complete kicked it. Was sure I can run the last two. Broke into a trot which I maintained till the 50th KM.

KM 50 – Finish line in sight. Only for a moment thought about how this has all been a mental chaos. Even at that moment I was perfect – no cramps, no pains. It was a mental battle.

Finish line – A tranquil sense prevails over me. I photographed myself with a friend, thanked the volunteers and went to collect the bag and leave.

It was all a constant state of mind – void, peaceful. Flying back was expensive, so took the train instead. Slept in bouts along the 7 hour journey. It was so damn peaceful. I felt as though I was returning from a vacation. Felt mentally strengthened after the run. And I continue to be in that state of mind.

Running an ultra has been a unique experience. I am sure that I am running longer distances.