Thursday, November 20, 2008

Balu's First Bangalore Ultra Run with Asha Folks Amid Running Demons

The buildup

It was my first Bangalore Ultra and the idea was to do a 25K as I was coming back from an injury. For beginners Ultras typically cover distances greater than your marathon (42K) distances up until 100KM (and beyond sometimes). I was training with Asha folks as I ran my first run for them.

Doc Rajat and Santosh where to do a crazy thing, like run for 24 Hours or 200KM which ever comes first. Later we got a mail from doc that he may not run because of flu and Santosh was up to it. Guess couple of others volunteered to run with Santosh.

AS the Bangalore Ultra starts on 16th Nov from 6.30AM to 6.30PM the idea was to reach the run sight a day earlier and begin on 15th Nov at 6.30PM and end by 6.30PM the next day. Shumit surprised all of us by declaring that he would do a 100K and would accompany Santosh and Doc. This just spruced me to aim for 50K subject to how my leg reacts.

Asha Tent: Our Eldorado

Santosh and I did an easy 5K at cubbon the previous Webnesday and I decided that I'd be up for volunteering and Santosh picked up Shumit and myself in Tata Sumo. We reached on 15th Nov by 4.30PM and soon got into business.

We setup the Asha tent from scratch as it was fun to build it following the manaul for dummies and filled it with all possible paraphernalia that was required for such an event. Santosh' mom and dad were a wonderful company and Aunti had got so many varieties of food and I chipped in with few Aloo phulka rolls. This was just the beginning of so many things to follow. It was a long night.

Gathering Storm

Soon Doc and Anita joined us and by 6PM we were all set. The Three Musketeers were all set with water bottles, lights. Unfortunately Sudhir had his gearbox jammed and could cycle further but was a great company in the tent.

On dot, at 6.30PM all three started for the (epic) run and the RFL guys had already marked the path for the next day event. All that we now had to do was to wait for them to come back as the loop was 6.25 one way, so 12.5KM would be like one and half hour and thereabouts.

I was starting to feel heavy stomach as there was so much food out there. Luckily Anita had some "poha" as a quick starter. Doc had got some loads of breads and his car bonnet had some 10 pair of running shoes (no kidding).

First Break

We had our time sheets ready and in about one hour and forty five minutes the trio turned up. It was dinner time and every one were happy to serve them. After some fueling the runners started again. They had spotted couple of snakes as well.

Soon Gaurav joined us and he cycled with them the rest of the night by providing them support. Make no mistake Gaurav also planned to run 50K the next morning.

The moment they all left we volunteers had a galla time and there was so much food that every visitor to our tent was offered food and many tasted it as well.

Sleep, Snooze, Sleep, Getup and Sleep

Well this is what we precisely followed the entire night. Suhir, Anita, Uncle (Santosh's dad) and I were doing this after the third lap onwards. The were taking about 1 hour and 40 minutes so we had to keep the alarm at for every 1.5 hours. Luckily no mosquitoes and there were some great sleeping bags.

Then somewhere from horizon three-four lights begin to appear and keep moving in a sinusoidal fashion and approaches towards you. They were our runners all glued for refill and begin afresh taking one lap at a time.

This cycle went on till 6AM and now Aunti and Uncle were back fresh to take over. Aunti initially called me "Balasubramanian" and soon she made it "Balu". But the tone with which she used to call was all the more soothing to my ears.

I must have bugged Anitha, Sudhir, Aunti and Uncle with my gibberish and some silly PJs. But guys it was fun !

The Morning of 16th Nov

Sreeram and his wife had come my motorbike around 4.30 in the morning and Sreeram's wife also joined Aunti and Uncle in the tent for support. Soon other Asha runners came by and by 6.30 we all were set for the run.

There were around 300 runners in various categories and it was a very well managed event and planned to perfection.

My Run and Running mates

Soon I was slowly settling to a pace and hit upon Rajesh Vetcha from Hyderabad Runners and Pankaj from Dell. Rajesh Vetcha calls me as "Son of AP (Andhra Pradesh)" and soon we three of us hit rhythm and Rajesh Vetcha took lead in all sorts of topics and 25KM just passed by. As I was aiming 50K I slowed down around 20KM mark and was doing fine up until the 31KM mark.

Now I started to walk and was feeling worn out and had lost all the motivation to run. I just walked the next 6 odd KM and decided to stop at 37.5KM. I could have walked the rest 12.5KM and finished my best ever 50K but decided to save it for next year. One my leg was slowly beginning to hurt and the next is I want to run bulk of my distances and not walk instead. I guess it was a wise decision to stop and tapered for rest of the day.

Massage and Stretching
Luckily Anita pointed me to go to the B2F (Back to Fitness is Doc Rajat's Venture) folks and have massaged and stretched. Thanks folks !

Then I took room keys from Anita and went to room and took a fresh bath. It helped a lot and I had lunch coupons from the RFL guys. Gaurav was also done by then and we had lunch together. It was pretty decent lunch and the only thing that I did was to sleep for the next two hours.

Screw It, Lets Do It

The above pic explains it all. The kind of motivation they all had. Way to go Doc !

The Grand Finish

The time was approaching 6PM now and Santosh and Doc were planning the distances for the next half hour. As the clock slowly ticked we all waited and just about 6.18PM Santosh and Doc finished. Santosh finsihed a mammoth 160KM. These three, Sanotsh, Doc Rajat and Shumit were like Running machines. Running tirelessly can going on and on like the machines and stopping every hour and a half for fuel. It was one long 24 hour !

It was photo session for all of us to get noticed and be part of this elite company. Soon we got the Asha tent down and packed up. Doc was very tired so Sreeram drove Doc's car as I cannot drive a car. So I took Sreeram's motorbike and we all met Bombay Post near Domlur. Had some decent dinner and discussed some topics orthogonal to running.

All in all it were great two days with Asha folks and hope to join you soon for a run again.

Just in case others if you have forgotten to contribute, please do so by going to my Asha support page:

Some of our Pictures are at Picasa:

Thanks to everyone who have supported me for this run. It is primarily you who are the winner !

Keep Miling !

First Ultra in India - Santhosh's experience at the Bangalore Ultra.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” - Kahlil Gibran
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” - Edmund Hillary
“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.” - Edmund Hillary
"Courage has never been known to be a matter of muscle; it is a matter of the heart. The toughest muscle has been known to tremble before an imaginary fear. It was the heart that set the muscle trembling." - Gandhi

In different ways the above quotes mean the same to me. This post is my experience and a report on my first ultra marathon attempt after I moved back to India.

Why Running?

A couple of years back I wrote a post about what running means to me. Its been an education for me. I believe it has taught me a lot of things in life and can be quite transformational to a lot more folks. Moreover, the soul of these efforts is to fund raise for the underprivileged. This motivation has kept me going for the last 5 years now.

Why Ultra?

There is no easy answer for this. Many folks think its an 'ego trip' or something 'whacky'. Its quite the contrary - when a 'normal' person does it, I think running and the desire to attain one's physical or mental limits becomes normal. The intent is to take away the 'super human' aspect away from the idea of running! You don't need to be fit and thin to run. If you run and develop a passion for it, you will be what you want to be :) Nowadays, I would rather not talk a lot about it to people who most probably won't get it - because I tend to get expert medical advice on how I would die soon, if I carry on with this - some of the rather funny ones include - "My brain would shake a lot within my skull as I keep running and eventually, I will loose my brain cells and god knows what..", "By running on pavement, hard surface etc. etc. one day my knee caps would just pop out and I won't be able to walk", "I would be exercising my heart too much that I could die very young". So, my reply would be "Thanks! I would keep that in mind when I run next time."

Why fund raise for Asha?
This is an easy one. But, I still get social experts who leave me speechless with some rather sad quotes. For e.g. "The poor in India are poor because they are lazy.", "Discrimination was in the past. There is no caste or gender discrimination in India", "Our culture and way of life keeps us ahead of so many nations
", "The sensex is booming, the GDP is high. Talk about poverty etc. is only a crib and the work of pessimists". Now, I have written enough in this blog about how all the above statements are blind to reality. I have also written about how Asha works at the grassroots levels in various areas towards empowerment of the underprivileged and creating a systemic change. The many visits to various efforts have only convinced me and created hope to help make the change in a small way. Feel free to contact me if you have any doubts. Here are some of my recent visits.

The 24 hr run - until D-day
Ironically, after all the expert medical advice I get to quit running, the person who inspired me and came up with the goal to run for 24 hrs at the Bangalore Ultra was a Running doctor. Dr. Rajat had a crazy dream to do 200kms in 24 hrs. It got me excited immediately, but I was worried that 200km in 24 hrs was not my cup of tea. I decided to run all 24 hrs after I start with him. We trained together with night runs in an army campus (thanks to doc's friends!). We did a couple of 30k+ runs and a 50K in the night. We then ran real early in the morning, with dogs chasing, doc flying etc. for a 60k+ run. Followed that with a 42K marathon run in a couple of days. Then, both of us fell pretty sick around Diwali time. While, I recovered from the food poisoning in a week's time, Doc was not as lucky and couldn't recover in time from the viral fever, congestion and cold. So, even on Nov 15, as he came down to support us he was sick. He had dropped the plan for the 200K or 24 hr run. But, he was there to make it happen for me! We had planned quite well for this run - a tent, food, volunteers, pacing etc. - thanks to experience from Austin, my parents and wonderful friends.

So, before we started the run - we had food (chappathi rolls, puliyogare, curd rice, vegetable rice, fruits, biscuits, noodles, soups etc.), water (we filled water in our own drums), a small stove, our own running gear, lights for the tent and a dedicated set of volunteers! We set things up by 5:30 p.m as Doc and Anita reached the race location. We realized that the race starts at 6:30 A.M, so we relaxed for sometime and went to the start/finish line for our run at 6:30 P.M.

Loop1 - Time: 1hr 35mins, Break: 15mins

The initial plan was to go with a preset run/walk interval - this was designed for a really flat course. But, I didn't want to take a chance, and thought of the first lap as a survey lap to figure out strategy for the rest of the run. As Shumit, Doc and I started at 6:30 PM on Nov 15th, we had 5 cameras clicking at the same time - so for a moment under the flashlights it felt like we had a million folks cheering us :) - there were about 15 ppl (a good part was the crew) wishing us the best and a RFL race organizer announcing where bibs can be collected for the race next day :). The weather was chilly and nice. We figured in the first lap that there was quite a bit of bumps (about 3) along the way and lots of open area - we feared that we would all be roasted peanuts the next day! Though it was supposed to be a survey lap, we ended up being too fast (one of the fastest laps!)

Shumit, is one of the recent Team Asha runners. Its amazing how he decided to do a 100K with us. He had not done a marathon distance in a year and here he was! Doc and I suggested that he take it easy and look at things one lap at a time. I have not seen anything like this - but, I surely wouldn't recommend it to anyone! I hope the ultra bug gets him and he trains well next time around :)

Loop2 - Time : 1hr 36mins, Break: 12mins

We had a sumptuous dinner after the first loop. For all the folks who are not used to the 'Team Asha' ultra way of life :) - the elaborate dinner was a bit surprising - but, trust me whatever you do, your body needs what its used to. You can't just survive on candy bars, gel shots and sports drinks to do an ultra run. I have almost weaned off all the so called designed-for-running foods. I get the salts I need with some salt capsules (high concentration of minerals in a capsule), take plain water and eat normal home food, fruits etc. Second loop we stuck to the walk breaks at bumps as planned, yet we finished with a faster time again!

Gaurav had volunteered to bike with us as support all night through! He got his bike and came out with us every loop, making sure we didn't take any wrong turns or did anything funny. After his biking ultra marathon through the night, he went on to do a 50K run of his own!

Loop3 - Time: 1hr 36mins, Break: 14mins
We did an even loop again with the same walk breaks and amazingly did the same time as the last loop! I had a couple of Bananas and some oranges. I requested for some lime juice in my next stop. Folks at the tent were getting tired a bit. My mom had gone to the room to get some sleep, while my dad dozed in his chair. During the run, we discussed a lot of stuff - about sensitivity of races and courses to the runner community, what running means to each of us etc.

Balu is another Team Asha runner who trained for the ultra with us and would be doing the Auroville marathon as well. He was up all night supporting us and by the first few loops knew exactly what needs to be done. He was awesome as crew support! After all this, he came out and ran his race in the morning as well!

Loop 4 - Time: 1hr 46mins, Break: 9mins
By the 4th lap, it was kind of obvious that we were hitting a low. Halfway into the lap, all of us were feeling a bit groggy and tired. This was around mid night and probably past our usual sleep times. There was also a slight drizzle and thankfully it was not a downpour. Around this time, I had some serious concerns. I was getting an urge to urinate, but every time I did, there was a burning sensation and this kept happening too frequently. This distracted me and got me worried - had not happened to me before. Meanwhile, Doc had his issues and was looking pretty bad too.

Sudhir is another good friend who jumped up to volunteer with this effort. The plan was for him to bike with us all along like Gaurav. Unfortunately, his bike broke down and he pushed quite a long way to the race location. He was up all night and supported all of us. He also went out to run in the morning!

Loop 5 - Time: 1hr 51mins, Break: 17mins
The 5th lap was slow. Doc dropped out of this one. He felt like throwing up and just lay on the sleeping bag and he said he will take a loop's break. Shumit was not doing all that great, but still was in high spirits! So we set out and did our thing like always - walk the bumps and run the rest. By the end of the loop, Shumit wanted to walk most of the way back and I jogged to the tent. This was one of the slowest loops. Obviously, this was the most crucial stage in the night and we were fatigued. I had a shot of hot black coffee to wake me up.

Anita was an angel at the Asha tent. She patiently listened to what we needed and made sure we got it whenever we wanted it. She took a few sleeping breaks and with a rather sleepless night still finished her 25K run in the morning! I feel bad that I didn't help her with her running as much as she did with mine.

Loop 6 - Time: 1hr 45mins, Break: 15mins

We had completed 62.5kms through 9.5 hrs of running by the end of loop 5. Shumit was feeling pretty groggy and fatigued. He decided to take a break and work on his legs a bit - massage with bio-freeze etc. Meanwhile, the short nap woke Doc up and he was his usual self again! We did a faster clip and by the end of lap 6 we shot back to a 1:45 lap time. My coach joe mentioned that, its quite possible to face ups and downs in the run and I had to play it according to my body and situation. He was right and just when I thought things might get screwed up, it got better. I had controlled the urge to pee for a while, drank lots of water with more salt intake. After a while, the burning sensation was gone and my urination turned normal.

Around the middle of this loop a couple came in the bike and cheered us along! It took me a few minutes to realize it was Sriram and Aarthi! Aarthi spent all the time from early in the morning 4:00 AM till late evening helping out all the runners. Her enthusiastic cheers every time we came in, woke us all up and made the break lively!

Loop 7 - Time: 1hr 35mins, Break: 15mins

Its an amazing feeling to have the sun rise and the day break when you are in the middle of a run through the night. I don't think I will ever be able to express it well enough. Time and again I have found that it brings amazing energy and your body and senses literally wake up. It happened to all three of us as we went on our 7th loop. We did our fastest lap time again! By the time we were returning back from the half way point, we saw the 50K runners coming in with all their energy - just the sight of all the runners pushed us and I had to pull back Doc a few times :).

Sahrika, Preethi and Vish work for Back to Fitness (B2F) and are part of Doc's team. These folks did an amazing job volunteering for us. We were lucky to have them at our tent. What they did meant a lot to all the runners at the event. My mom mentioned that they couldn't even have lunch and they went on and on. Special thanks to B2F - you folks are simply amazing!! You mean the world to the runner community and that's what matters most!

Loop 8 - Time: 1hr 43mins, Break: 11mins
In this loop I had a kind of a stabbing pain right under my rib cages. First, I though this was side-stitches (due to running too fast and the lungs can't get enough oxygen), but this pain was actually from a muscle and I felt it with every step I took. It was not too bad to make me stop, but was something new. As we reached the 4Km point, Shantanu joined us - he literally switched directions, took his bib off (so as to not confuse anyone) and ran with us! Moreover, he gathered a gang around us by needling folks to join us :) - Soon, we had a gandhi gang as Shantanu liked to call it! He made the morning and afternoon entertaining for all of us! It was an amazing feeling to find folks you have not met, run with you and egg you on. I was not in a shape to carry a lively chat, but this support meant a lot to me!

Shantanu is another Team Asha runner that many folks don't know about. He trained on his own and couldn't make it to many of the runs with us. He did more than the 25K he had planned, proudly wore the Asha T-shirt and brought me home on the next two laps!

Loop 9 - Time: 1hr 47mins, Break: 9mins

The weather was actually pleasant and wonderful for running. The sun never came out although it threatened to, hiding behind the clouds that were too coy to rain. I couldn't have asked for better weather and as I saw the Team Asha shirts go by - Siva, Santosh, Balu, Sridhar and others, it brought a smile and an encouragement that's again not easy to explain. It might sound cliche' - but, I really do derive inspiration from other runners when I realize what they have been through - training, injuries etc., yet they come out to achieve their goal. Shantanu was still sticking along. He was hoping for the good food at the tent that was the buzz on the entire running course. It made me hungry too!

I am still not sure how I get away with things I do when it comes to my parents. They seem to have taken the role of 'running parents' with ease! In Austin, my mom made the trail runners in Texas crazy about good indian food. In their short trip to Austin, they knew more runners and became friends with so many more than I did in the 4 years I was there! Back in bangalore, they did it again - this time offering all the food and affection to the running community here!

Loop 10 - Time: 1hr 51mins, Break: 10mins
Shantanu was done after Loop 9. I had a quick lunch of puliyogare, curd rice, water melon and lime juice with black salt. I was looking for someone to run with me on the mid-afternoon loop. I was almost desparate as I yelled out in the tent - "Can someone please run with me on this loop?" - Nischal called out from behind me and said she is going out right now and was up for it! She was being treated by the physio at the tent and looked like she was in pain. We trudged along for the 10th loop. By this time, I was quite sure that my loop times was not giving me enough leeway to finish a 13th loop. We decided to discuss a few nasty things about doc behind his back :) We also saw Pratibha go past us with all smiles. I asked her if it was her final loop and she nodded her head - we thought she was really strong for her final loop - it did turn out that she was strong enough to come 2nd in the girls' 50K!!

Nischal is one of the ultra runners that almost everyone on the course knows! When I found that Nischal wanted to do the same thing as me - i.e. finish 2 more loops after this one and go as far as possible in the 3rd, we decided to stick along. Nischal had a bad problem with her foot. It was swollen and she was dragging herself along in pain. Around the last 2 miles in the loop, I decided to run along as Suresh gave her company. She really inspired me with her all out effort this year!

Loop 11 - Time: 1hr 48mins Break: 11mins
125 kms down and 4hrs 45mins left. While, a 160km run would have been awesome, there was also a back-up goal that Doc and I had discussed months back :). I was in with a chance for it, if I could finish the 11th and 12th in a fair enough time. So, I had to find fresh legs to help me out! Sriram volunteered to help. He was worried if he would be able to keep pace with me. I told him that should be the least of his worries. We set out on the 11th and chatting with Sriram took my mind of the times etc. As most folks were finishing their runs, they check on where I was with regards to the distance. Towards the end, when there was just 2kms left( a nice straight downhill and a flat stretch) I picked up pace and started off.

Sriram is a veteran Team Asha runner, a good friend and a colleague at work. He was amazing with his support. He had finished his 25K in the morning and came out this loop to help me out. If not for his company, it would have been very easy for me to give up and do a long walk.

Loop 12 - Time: 1hr 43mins, Break: 3mins
I was like a kid waiting to see Santa claus when I came inside the Asha tent after the 11th loop. There was Doc, ready to go with me for the last stretch! He looked fresh and raring to go. I asked him if I can do it, he said "Of course, we are doing it!". He was wearing a bib which said "Screw it, do it" - which of course had many meaning for many folks :). We set out for the final few hours. I had about 2 hrs and 45 mins left. Doc, pulled me along at a brisk pace and I had done a fast loop again. We discussed how best to handle the final stretch. We estimated about an hour in our hand when we finished the 12th loop.

Doc and me decided that no one is officially recording our times (other than vols at Asha tent) and this won't even count as any official race - because RFL never recognized it. AID stations were winding up and there was no point going beyond the 3K mark on the course. We decided to do 2K repeats - go to the 1km point and return back until 6:30 - I estimated that I will be able to do 3 of those in that time.

Loose change - Time: 47mins, Break: 0mins

As we came into the tent after the 12th loop. I had done 150kms. Folks were expecting me to either stop or really go after the 160km mark. Then we announced to the rest of the team why we are doing this - 153K is the longest distance run in 24 hours by an Indian on a surface other than a treadmill. We requested Balu to get the clock and the note pad and wait at the finish. We wanted him to give times as we crossed the turn around point each time. The first 2k was in about 17 mins. I knew I was close to the mark. Doc, was relentless, he wouldn't let me walk more than what we decided. We did a fast 2nd repeat - I really pushed it and when we clocked in at 6:01 P.M, we had 154K! I was elated as I went out for the third 2K repeat.

So, finally by 6:18 P.M I was close to 156K - I was not in a mood to go further, because I knew I can't do another 2k repeat in that time and I wanted to finish with our folks around. I sprinted to the finish and jumped up in glee in front of the team that made it possible for me! It took me a while to realize that it was over and then I was incessantly chatting and eating people's heads off!

Nothing official about it
Firstly, this was a team effort from the beginning. If any of the folks I mentioned in each of those laps were not there, I doubt if this run would have been possible for me.

Now, there was nothing official about this whole effort. It was a purely self organized run that has no real proof for supporting a claim. Then what was the point of going after a record? Well the quotes at the top of this write-up are really cool - Lets say I like the third one :). My motivation has always been the efforts that Asha supports. I believe once we are truly convinced about our motivation, there is very little that can come between us and our goals.

Running is one sport that is meant for anyone. I sincerely believe it should be made affordable and achievable for everyone. It has the potential to increase confidence and self esteem in folks. Of course, like any rules or dogma, records are meant to be broken and only when more and more folks come out to run, can we see more records being broken. The real finish line for me was to derive meaning out of this effort and reach out to folks with the cause we are all striving for. I don't think an official commendation, my name on a piece of paper etc. matters as much. This effort was not about me, it was about the change we were trying to bring in many lives - through Asha's efforts and through running.

As we made our way back home, I got a phone call from one of the kids at Thulir (Background here). He patiently asked me for this week's schedule. There would be four kids from Thulir who would be training for the Auroville half and full marathon.

I sincerely request you all to support Team Asha's efforts. You could donate to us through my runner page. My family and I hope to fundraise at least Rs 3lakhs through our efforts this year.

Go Team Asha!