10 Jan 2014

My tryst with devotion - The 100 kms UltraMarathon experience.


I have always believed that one does not conquer a mountain. The mountain welcomes us to experience her and in the process we are conquered. The Everest Base Camp trek undertaken last year taught me a thing or two about the magnanimity of the mountains.  I survived the acute mountain sickness and came back with a truckload of fond memories including the simplicity of mountain life and real experiences of the summit mountaineers.

David McCullough Jr. one famously said, “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

Providentially, nearly a year ago, my running mentor and guru, Daniel Vaz, sent me this inspirational one-liner. How was I to know I would learn the very same lesson by running and walking the 100 kms of the Blue Nilgiri Mountains in South India?

The whole journey has been a very humbling lesson for which I will be eternally grateful and something, I am sure, I will fondly recollect even on my deathbed.

And, that is why, this blog post to share my experiences for posterity.

After running the 50K in the Hesarghatta trails at Bangalore in November 2012, it was always in my mind to experience the joy of long distance running beyond 50 kms. And this year, sometime in February, I decided that I wanted to run an UltraMarathon.

When I wrote to Daniel Vaz about it, the plan was to attempt 75 kms in 2013. Since this also had to coincide with my annual India trip in December, I started searching for a suitable race around that time. The GlobeRacers Nilgiris 100 kms UltraMarathon, conducted by Kavitha and her efficient team, fell right in place. The scenic hill station of Ooty in South India, backdrop of the beautiful Nilgiri hills, lush green tea gardens, and the first women’s only Ultra – the allure of this phenomenal experience was irresistible.

The catch was they only had a 50 kms or 100 kms category. With trepidation, I decided to go for the 100 kms. After the registration, I reassured myself to take it one day at a time in training and only go for it provided all went well and I could train safely without injuries.

As if the 100K challenge was not enough, I also turned vegan in May 2013.

Going vegan was in my mind for a very long time.  I had been reading about the various benefits of vegetarianism and veganism. As a health practitioner, I also needed to experiment on myself before I could tell others about its benefits with conviction.

Having said that, some amazing people like Scott Jurek (author of ‘Eat and Run’ and a world famous ultra marathoner), Rich Roll and Brendan Braizer have been down this path before.
I also found vegan inspiration from within India - Vaishali Kasture (Boston qualifier), Deepthi Prasanna, Venkatraman Pichumani (cardiac survivor and evangelist of good health and running), and many more people had many lessons and insights on vegan running and nutrition.

I did not need any more convincing that this is the way forward for me. Sometime in May 2013, I gave up totally on all animal products including egg, milk, chocolate, cheese and honey. However, I also needed to take some Vitamin D and B12 supplements since I discovered I was low on these during routine blood tests.

On the positive side, after turning vegan, the recovery after all the hard runs and workouts was extraordinarily amazing. I did not experience any soreness and always raring to go the next day.

Along with the physical challenge of the 100K and the nutritional challenge of turning vegan, I realized that I also had to train my mind. I was sure that the structured training by Dan would get my body in shape. But, I also needed something to make my mind unwavering. I began to religiously practice Isha Kriya meditation for thirty minutes every day.

My gratitude poster for the Nilgiris 100 Km UltraMarathon 
Last, but not the least, like all previous endeavors, I set up a fundraiser for educating children at Isha Vidhya, a cause close to my heart. With a realization that a cause larger than myself was going to be a big motivator to train and finish the Ultra, I started the fundraiser with a target of 500 UD dollars. Ultimately, more than thirty friends contributed more than 3000 US dollars and made it nearly impossible for me to even think about failing.


Six months of intense physical training included waking up at 4 am, running back-to-back long distances, alternate speed runs, hills on treadmill, tempo runs, whole body strength and logging almost close to 250+ kms every month from August. But obviously, a visit to the physiotherapist for various niggles and sprains were inevitable!

Finally, in the beginning of the December of 2013, I was ready to pack my bags for Bangalore where I would spend a week with my parents before driving down to Ooty with a bunch of friends who were participating in the run. Conversation with parents and relatives, eating home cooked delicacies by Mom, hydrating every hour and being in the moment at every moment helped me to taper well and feel rested in Bangalore. 

I had connected with Dharmendra, a wonderful runner and an amazing personality to hitch a ride to Ooty. Together with Sudhir, Sanjay and Dharmendra, all mere Facebook friends till that significant morning of 19th December, all of us embarked on the car ride that would take us to the start of the UltraMarathon.

Long conversations on running and life ensued in Sudhir's car, which was driven by Sanjay all the way to Ooty. We saw some interesting wildlife like peacocks, spotted deer, kites, wild boars and monkeys at Masinagudi and Bandipur. And then, as we turned a corner, we saw the glorious Nilgiris hills at a distance. My heart skipped a beat imagining what was to unfold in the next 48 hours! We stopped a bit for group photographs. Dharmendra climbed up a tree and was doing pull ups on a branch! It was an instant childlike moment.  The air was crisp and we could smell tea when we reached Ooty around 5 pm. The race organizers, Kavitha and her team had gone for marking the tracks and setting up the course.

It was a solitary and contemplative moment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen". My family, particularly my soul mate, my parents, sisters and brothers, my running coach, Dan, a wonderful bunch of amazing friends and, not to forget, all those who donated graciously to Isha Vidhya had actively conspired to get me to this starting point as I embarked on the 100 km journey.

But before the women’s only run on the 22nd, there was the men’s run scheduled for the 21st. This gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of runner acquaintances on the morning of the 20th after the bib collection and pre-race discussions led by Kavitha, the lead race organizer.

Bare foot Vishwanathan Jayaraman from Hubli was there along with his wife Bhanu. While he has run 100 full marathons in 2013 and is a vegan, what makes him extraordinary is that he is a true Gandhian who wears only self-spun khadi even to work. His simple life permeates into his daily runs. And this made me have even more respect for him and his supportive wife. His words to me were just as simple, "Enjoy and feel the joy on the run, Priya. Everything else is secondary".

Many other runners made the moment truly magical. Lipsa Syal, attempting her first 100 kms, Abhijit Shome, Ashok Daniel, Bib Bala, Praveen Giriya, Kavitha, Vijay Bariwal, Lihas and so many other Chennai and Ahmedabad runners. While many of them were acquainted over Facebook, I was meeting many of them in person for the first time. Jokingly, I told them that I was adding face to the book!

It felt wonderful to chat with these stalwarts of ultra running who had inspiring ideas, tips and experiences to share, not to mention the several photographs we took in various groups.

As the midnight of the 21st approached, I woke up to see the Men’s Ultra participants off with some words of encouragement. The various fluorescent colours, flashing headlamps and reflector gear in the dark was just as fascinating as the cold outside, making all the fingers and toes numb. After flagging them off, I tried hard to get some sleep, which was difficult with all the excitement thinking of the women’s run the next day.

As the afternoon approached, we were excited and happy to see the men ultra runners finishing the race. Kieren D’Souza, all of 20 years and very mature to take on the 100 kms, came first. Vishy, Dharmendra, Ashok and Abhijit followed soon after. It was victory of mind over body and everyone had a story to tell and share their experiences with us. It was extremely tough and humbling in their words. I did feel a burst of happy emotion when I saw them cross the finish line after the really long journey. For a moment, I wondered whether it would be the same for us the next day?

I had a picture of the course imprinted in my head. It was going to be 28 kms mostly downhill followed by a 22 kms steep uphill gradient with hair pin bends all the way to 50 kms followed by the same course backwards to the 100 K finish mark!! My coach and me had agreed on a plan where I would run downhill and adopt a run and walk uphill followed by brisk walking on the last uphill stretch.

I carbo-loaded with simple lentils and rice, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, bananas, dry cornflakes, dry fruits, dates, raisins, peanut and rajgira chikki and hydrated with water through the day. I read some inspirational excerpts of the book "Running with the mind of meditation" by Sakyong Mipham and closed my eyes in peaceful meditation for a couple of hours in the afternoon. As the evening of the 21st approached, I visualized the course and the inclines over and over in my mind.

Sleep was difficult and disturbed in all the nervous excitement, which got me even more worried. Calls to hubby, Mom and Coach Dan, for some last minute pep talk, helped get over the nervousness. I just had to take it one step at a time for the children at Isha Vidhya and get it done. My mind was now ready for the journey.

Around 10 pm, two hours before the starting gun, I started my pre race rituals that included meditation, peanut butter sandwich, bananas, hydration and gearing up. Half an hour before flag off I started warming up near the starting point. The organizers took a few candid pictures of the gathering at the starting point. Much later, after the race, I noticed that I was clutching the Isha Vidhya gratitude poster close to my heart in all the pictures.

The race started sharp at midnight. Four of us were running the 100 kms. Aparna took off right away followed by Shibani and Lipsa who were running together most of the time. I stuck to my race plan from the start and that meant that I was slightly behind all of them.

There was a car with Abhijit Yeole at the 37.5 kms mark and another car with volunteers behind Lipsa and Shibani. Kavitha was following behind all of us in her car to ensure compliance. At some point early in the race, Kavitha had a doubt whether I was on the wrong track. I reassured her that I had spotted the red arrow mark on the road. But, to be on the safe side, she went back to check. I also ran back for almost 300 meters only to figure that I was on track. This detour meant that I was far behind all the other runners by now. 

My first adventure of the race followed soon after. While many dogs near the hutments were barking along the route on hearing our footsteps, not one dared to actually chase us. And then, my flashlight spotted a pair of golden eyes with yellow horns staring at me suddenly from the side of the road in the hills. Only after crossing it, did I realize that it was a huge bison. Thankfully, it did not charge at me, probably amused at all of us runners in the middle of the night.

I was running solo, enjoying the cool breeze of the hills. And then I turned off the headlight to catch a glimpse of the moonlight and star studded sky. This was truly a magical Zen moment. To see all those stars in a clear and tranquil night sky made me realize our insignificance in relation to the cosmos.

Soon, it was that transformational moment of daybreak. I spotted some domestic cats cross the roads and some mongoose too. I never run with earphones, which enabled me to soak in the sounds and sights of the elements.  I heard the rustling leaves and the gurgling of some falling water. The cool breeze made the experience even lovelier. There were some local people on their morning routines. A quick hello in Tamil with them and I moved on. This felt like paradise.

As proof that I was hydrating well, I stopped for a few breaks to empty my bladder on the sides of the road among the bushes. This was a moment of realization on minimalism and how little we actually need to be happy. The rest of the run downhill was a flow in absolute harmony.

At the uphill incline with various hairpin bends towards Manjoor (Tamil for ‘city amidst the fog’), I finally spotted Lipsa and Shibani. My race plan indicated a run/ walk strategy for me at this stage. I waved them a hello and passed them gradually. The rear car manned by Kavitha was following them now, instead of me. Slowly one step at a time, I saw the Gandhi Statue marker and eventually touched the 37.5 kms mark.

I stopped for a quick water and gel refill at the aid station before moving on from here. At this stage, Abhijit told me that Aparna was almost 2-3 kms ahead of me with her own support crew. I ran through more tea gardens. I also saw a mentally challenged man on the side of the road in the tea gardens and gave him some dates. I heard the morning suprabatham from a speaker at a nearby temple that calmed and soothed me. I was in a trance.

At the break of dawn, it was another magical moment with the orange glow and a line on the horizon, below which mist and dense fog covered the small town of Ooty. The smell of morning fresh tea rafting through the air and some smoke rising from the nearby huts told me that somewhere nearby, a morning cup was brewing. This was when I realized that I had left the city far behind and was up on the hills. I stood enthralled and did my salutations to the sun god. A young man from one of the tea estates asked me in Tamil about the race. I answered him on the run and he cheered me on.

The morning bustle started soon. A bus was now plying on the garden route. Some people on their bikes shouting out a cheer for me. Sporadically, some tea pickers had started their walk to the tea garden, their place of work. Another new day had begun.

By now, Kavitha’s phone was my only connection with civilization. I was calling her once in a while for being reassured that I was on the right path although I had seen the arrow marks all along the route.

At around 6.00 am, after approximately 45 kms, I left the tea gardens and suddenly realized I was alone in a trail inside a forest. There were many langurs (black faced monkeys) jostling up and down the trees. And then, at the 48.3 kms mark, I heard a growl. After all the morning stillness, my ears were sharp to the sounds around me. I instinctively knew that this was no ordinary growl. I stopped to look around and I looked up to spot a leopard staring at me from a tree almost 30 meters in front of me.

I froze and stood still. The first thought in my mind was "I will soon be breakfast for him, say your last prayers quickly". My heart also reached out to my soul mate and my mother, “How will they react when they heard the news?”

The cat did not budge for a minute, which made me a little less scared. I thought, probably he was not hungry? He has had a kill and was resting? In a flash, the entire previous big cat training came in handy. I stood erect and still for another minute and gently walked backwards for almost 400 meters after which I turned back and was walking away briskly. I took the phone out of the backpack and frantically trying to reach out to Kavitha and my soul mate. No signal whatsoever. For the first time in the whole run I experienced fear face to face!

As I was gently retreating backwards, I heard the footsteps of a human being behind me. Never have I felt better about hearing another human sound. It was the sound of help, the sound of me surviving!

It was Aparna, who was returning back after touching the 50 kms mark. I briefly told her about my encounter and my thoughts of returning from that point. I was not going to sacrifice my life to finish the race, was I? She told me, “You have reached this far, don't quit and get disqualified. Go reach the half way mark, Priya. Everything will be fine” She was indeed extremely helpful to then allow me her car and crew as support for the rest of the way till the 50 Km mark.

By now probably because of the car and human sounds, the leopard had disappeared when I crossed the tree.  This was truly divine intervention at work. I reached the 50 kms mark shaken but relieved. I requested the support car to help follow Shibani and Lipsa, who were trailing me, through the section, so that they do not encounter the danger I had to face.

I then walked up to a small hut by the roadside, and used their washroom, thanks to the caretaker of a tea garden and his wife.  I replaced the bandana and the headlamp with the visor and sunglasses. And, this break helped me prepare for the second half of the run.

As soon as Lipsa and Shibani arrived at the 50 Km mark, all three of us decided to cross the trails running together with the support car behind us. Lipsa was running strongly and I was just behind her, followed by Shibani. And Aparna was way ahead of us.

After almost 12.5 kms downhill on the tea gardens, Lipsa called it a day due to heat and cramps. For someone who had done only 20 kms in training even daring the 100 kms was commendable and she managed to successfully finish 62.5 kms of those 100. I was in awe of her mental strength and capability to take things in stride and stop when her body told her too. The simple act of giving up spoke volumes of the maturity and levelheadedness of this young woman.

By now, at the 70 kms mark, the intense heat of the overhead sun in those hills was shining straight on our heads. This heat with no tree cover, an uphill gradient and hairpin bends was a killer combination.

In spite of all the regular hydration, proper nutrition en route and a pacing schedule, my body was breaking up and my legs were getting harder and stiffer. Many a time, I held my legs and calves in agony. At such occasions, I sat inside the support car for shielding from the sun, but only for thirty seconds of rest before getting up to keep walking.

It became a complete mind game here. One step at a time, one child to Isha Vidhya at a time, I told myself.  At one such occasion, the car driver asked me in Tamil "At your age, why are you taking so much trouble"? When I replied that it was to send some under-privileged children to school, he thought I was mad to still go on! Honestly, I was past the stage of caring for such remarks and I continued walking.

The volunteers were extremely supportive, handing me water along the way from the car. I also dropped off my backpack and felt lighter.  At one point, after seeing my pain, Shashi told me to travel in the car for some distance. It was all with good intentions unable to see the struggle of my body on the hills.  I declined politely and after that he never asked me again. Instead, he jogged with me to encourage me to finish the proper way.

At the 85 km mark, I started sitting on the sidewalks frequently. At each instance, I held my heavy legs, stretched a wee bit and got my heart rate to normal. Then, within thirty seconds, I got up and walked again. I am glad I never gave my mind more than thirty seconds of this respite. Had I sat longer, I wonder if I would have ever gotten up.

The struggle was intense, but I was hanging in there.

13 kms to the finish, Kavitha hopped out of her car and decided to walk/run with me. She saw me go through the emotions and my tears. I was asking myself loudly “Why am I doing this to myself?” I was getting my answers from the smiling children on the poster and the many who were waiting to hear that I completed the journey. I felt grateful to everyone starting from parents, guru, god, family and friends. But, reaching the 100 Km was feeling like it was just impossible to accomplish.

At this point, Kavitha asked me to dedicate every km of this last stretch of the journey to someone special in my life. I had done a similar thing when I ran my first full marathon and I had carried the same list in my pouch.

After a while, my body just gave up and I had several emotional outbursts. I began shouting at Kavitha “When is it going to end? How far am I from the finish?”

I distinctly remember even cursing her on the intensity of the course. She took all this shouting in a very positive spirit and continued to encourage me. At every step, in my mind, I was so grateful to have her support at this crucial juncture when I was crumbling physically and mentally. She was and is a true sole to soul sister.

When all else had given up, I remembered the Isha Kriya meditation. “I am not the body, I am not even the mind”, I told myself every step of the way.

We now reached Lovedale and Kavitha told me the next stop was Charing Cross. I cannot describe the toughness and mental strength it took me to just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. I had tears in my eyes as I moved ahead.

By now, it was pitch dark. Suddenly the traffic around me had increased. I knew I was in the city limits and closer to the finish point. Around the corner, I saw many of the Ahmedabad runners waiting to run the last lap with me. Little did I realize that Kavitha had made a few phone calls en route to get them to support me from here all the way to finish. They egged me on and screamed, “hip hip hooray”! I felt like a winner returning home to the sound of victory beats.

And then, just like that, I crossed the finish line. I almost fell to the ground and did my namaskarams. Copious tears of joy flowed down my cheeks. I had finished the journey in 19 hours and 20 minutes! Someone brought me the poster of Isha Vidhya and I hugged it close to my heart.

In the hills of the Nilgiri, I was humbled again. It showed me her beauty, her glory and, silently, her toughness. This has been undoubtedly an extremely challenging and arduous first mountain UltraMarathon journey for me. But, ultimately, the mission was accomplished with gratitude to each and every one who helped me make it happen. The list is just too long to mention here, but those on the list know that all of you hold a very special place in my heart.

"When involvement with what you have taken up is so absolute that who you are does not matter anymore, then you are a devotee and this is devotion" says Sadhguru.

I am a devotee of the UltraMarathon for life.


18 comments:

  1. Brilliant! What a journey...

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  2. Priya - you are a hugely determined woman. The challenge that you took up is something many of the so called "seasoned" runners would definitely stay away from. A 100 kms is a LOT of distance - it yields only to someone special who is strong in both body & mind and who is humble enough to also respect the distance. This 100 kms on the hills would translate to an additional 25 kms on a plain surface. Congratulations on your achievement and wishing you all success on whatever you next aspire to achieve. Keep inspiring us. Cheers.

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  3. Nice Blog BF Priya. You have been running crazy "last" year!
    -BF Parag

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  4. 100Km is a huge huge distance, i still cannot think anyhting beyond FM. Hats off to your courage and your love and passion for the cause really helped you achive this mindboggling distance. Very well written and i could visualise your entire journey. You could think to help someone while running is so incredible. I agree with Srivats, keep inspiring us all!

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  5. What a great piece. I love your bio. A doctor by profession and a runner by passion. I was also drawn in by the books you read. I also learnt alot fron Scott Jurek. I run the Barefoot Beginner blog and would like my readers to read your piece so I made it our post of the day http://www.barefootbeginner.com/barefoot-post-of-the-day/

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  6. Thanks Chris. Truly appreciate the link and spreading the word. Happy Feet and Happy Miling.

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  7. Thanks Nikhil, Srivatsan, Amit and Parag for taking the time out to read and comment. Truly appreciated

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  8. Amazing, Priya.hats off to your determination and guts. was wonderful seeing you at ooty and this is a spectacular accomplishment.

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  9. Amazing spirit and determination! That you are doing this for sending some under privileged rural children to school should inspire many more to follow your example. You have converted your miles to Smiles. Keep it up!
    shanthi

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  10. Congratulations Priya! It takes enormous guts to even think of this let alone run it!

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  11. Wow. Speechless. Inspired. You rock Priya. Thank you for doing this. And thank you for who you are being in the world. And for the kids.

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  12. Congrats Priya! You are great inspiration for us!

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  13. Amazing run and amazing encounter with the wild...hats off and keep inspiring runners.. i am sure if you would have met the leopard after the race the leopard would have saluted you for your run ..

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  14. Amazing reading, could feel your pain and your joy - pure and simple joy of completing what you had started. I was waiting to read your experience. If reading takes me to that nature, being there must have been heavenly experience. Dreaming to run this one but I know I have to limit my dream to 25k, hopefully next year.

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  15. I guess I should consider myself lucky to see a cat on the tree and hear a growl, which on discussion with a wildlife expert was a tiger ( only they growl, not leopards). The leopard was probably up the tree escaping from the tiger. Ha, he was sacred too :)

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    1. I read in the news today that 45 schools in and around Ooty have been shut for the third consecutive day as the hunt is on for the Tiger!

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  16. Beautifully penned. The joy, pain, mindfulness, accomplishment, fear, happiness, joy. - Wonderful. Blessed are you for the awesome experience and what you are king for the wonderful kids. Cheers/Ashok

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  17. Thanks very much dear friends for your generous words of cheer and support. I am touched indeed. Glad that the children can go to school and that matters. Stay blessed all of you. Cheers

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