Malnad Ultra: It gets easier after 100K

Malnad Ultra, 2018

On Saturday I ran the Malnad Ultra. Runs near Bengaluru have the same format – ride to starting point, run, sleep over, ride back.  This was my first 100 KM+ trail run. After Ooty Ultra, I was doubling the distance. In the interim, since April, I have had six months of time to prepare for this trail. In this time there was plenty of travel too, which threw routine off and made it difficult to train. But that little beauty of  a farm that we have bought recently in Central India, gives the necessary push for mid-distance workouts whenever I am home. These farm runs, 30K one way, have been the only workouts before Malnad.

It is striking that I have felt an unprecedented mental preparedness in the run-up to this 110K. Even through the run, as each 10 KM interval passed, the confidence maintained itself, that I’ll finish strong, that stepping on the finish line is certain. I am not sure if it needed these ultra distances to slip into my skin and believe in my physical ability to run these distances.  I am struck by the way this experience went – light and easy, but not effortless. May be, this is the next zone that a runner enters after some years. In this, distances feel comfortable, there is a greater tuning-in with the body, its needs and its physiology, and an overall sense of enjoying the whole process without running with the thought of finish line. As with other ultra runs, I do not wear a watch or track my splits. I dispense with time. The only way it stays is when the run has cut-off times. As long as I get past stages within the cutoff I am okay. It comes down to simple things – run, eat, run. After a threshold, it is all the same, except a few hallucinations on the trail.

As with most endurance runs, in this one too there was a fair amount of self talk – thoughts, ideas, observations and generally in-the-mind speak. I have often written about these thoughts from most of my runs. This seems to have changed too. Except, the sight of salt kept on aid stations reminded me of my grandma who passed away a couple of months back. The nurse gave her salt dissolved in water frequently. There were her last days. Her last intake of fluids. And every pinch of salt that I took was reminding me of her. It is amazing how things acquire new meaning after events. In my head, salt was her. Every aid station I saw her. While self talk maintains, it has reduced. Perhaps, one learns to keep them aside, and then over time they just cease to be. There is remarkable peacefulness and focus that comes in when the head is not full of chatter. This too, is new, with the Malnad run.

Then there is this pull between marathons and ultra runs. I am not sure which way to go. Both seem to give a different kick and at the moment they both seem very enjoyable. I’d prefer to fit in both through a year. At the homestay where I shared accommodation with about ten other runners, a runner observed, ‘You know, marathon and ultrarunning are two different pursuits. You run marathons for performance. You run ultra distances to find yourself. ’ He was a seafarer from Indian Navy with a hunger for trail. The man’s a trail runner. His words sound like someone who loves the kind of transformative experience that running long distances bring along.

In short, Malnad Ultra has been a transformative experience for my running aspirations. It is a sort of breaking out, into endurance zones which until now I wasn’t sure of being able to do and handle well. The timing seems okay too, though I can certainly try to better it. But it seems that I am inclined to appreciate the simpler pleasure of being on a trail, completing it and revel in the experience of traversing through that landscape, mentally and physically united. I finished the run, slept at the finish line and rode back to homestay for a shower. I rode back to Bengaluru after breakfast and slept through all day and night. The following day I could resume work, but eyes were still clouded with snapshots of the trail.

At Malnad, two hundred of them went out on the trail, from before sunrise, to moonrise and until the next sun, running through a trail of pitch dark coffee estates with tall silver oak canopies, sometimes hallucinating, sometimes elated, trying to reach the end. Many did. The next morning’s sun was different for many. They knew the trail has ended. Only in their heads. Exhausted bodies piled up wherever they found space. Only the spirit perhaps knows what has changed or what happened. Weakened, they hobbled to their beds, smiling. This group of men and women help me see how people put themselves out there, brave the odds, resolve to do it and push themselves all along. It is inspiring. I couldn’t help marvel at those runners who were taking on the steepest climb at the dead of the night, and after which stood thirty odd kilometers to the finish line. There were sure to return early hours, to finish line. Then, I saw several of these runners inching their way to finish line at 5 AM. Man, this was pure inspiration. This is the kind of steel that I hope I build within – to persevere. And not drop out, not worry. I am learning from these runners at ultra runs. This is a part of the reason to run – to see possibilities.

I have finally begun to accumulate points from qualifying races to apply for UTMB races next year. While a chance to run depends on the lottery, qualifying takes points from the qualifying runs. The pursuit feels good. So, not working myself about the outcome.

Also, I’d highly recommend Malnad Ultra to runners for the fantastic team of orgranizers and volunteers that they have. They worked too hard to make it possible for the runners to chase their dream distances. I owe it to them!