Underneath a high silver oak canopy, about an hour and a half into the run, I knew that there was much to be thankful about on that morning. To be able to stand there, on a quiet mountainside trail and watch the daylight break made me feel thankful to be able to get there. Radiant blue patches of sky studded the spaces where the canopies broke. The day was going to be long. And yet, there were several moments on the run where I felt compelled to stop, stand still and watch an immensely beautiful landscape in which the trail hemmed over 110 kilometers.
Malnad Ultra this year was a relatively tough course than previous year. I have found every ultra run to be, in part, an unraveling of the self. I do not know how many ultras will it take to claim that I have completed the process of knowing myself. As of now, after this run, I know there are lot many unknowns. From last year’s experience, I knew that Malnad’s early morning start for 110 km works well for me. About 80-85 kilometers can be done with by the time daylight fades. To do the remaining 30 in dark isn’t hard work. So, I ran out from the start line trying to cover maximum distance in day light. The first 50 kilometers were as perfect and fulfilling as a trail run can get. Lovely morning, quiet woods, a fairly challenging trail and with runners spread out well on the trail so that each one had his solitude, if he preferred. The leading pack ran in silence as though pilgrims with a vow of silence. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was off about the first three hours of the morning. I am thrilled thinking about it even after several days – runners in good clip, enjoying a beautiful morning, embedding themselves deeper and deeper into coffee plantations, on the fringes of Bhadra’s forests.
While I enjoyed running the course, this run also revealed some troublesome aspects, which perhaps are specific to ultrarunning scene in India. This year, Malnad ultra had to change the course significantly because Coffee Day’s estates were not available. The short time in which the organizers had to find an alternative trail, do a recce and mark it well enough for the runners was a tall order. It is not possible to organize a run nearly 60 kilometers away from the nearest state highway, ensure runners’ safety, provide aid and logistics all along the course and also mark it such that it lends itself well for a runner to navigate easily in a space of few weeks.
This year’s course was not easy. There was too much water on the trails due to previous weeks of heavy rains, the inclines were too slippery and dense undergrowth made them hard to run through. Such trails come with leeches too. So, for those attempting their first 50 km runs, this was a tough one. This trail needed experience. For 110 km, after the first 50 km, there were two laps of a 30 km loop that were to be done, to make it 110. This 30 km was not easy to access, confusing, poorly marked and had aid stations spread far apart. It was this 30 km loop which hit many runners. Perhaps, this is also the best way to test the spirit of sportsmanship among runners. Some turned abusive. Some felt the race director owed them. Some felt they were being cheated. Standing on the trail, in fading daylight, I saw the best of men lose their facade and an abusive, thankless self revealing itself. The men in lead pack were annoyed that this trail wasted their time. They were out for a podium finish and establish course record. And a poorly marked trail took that away. There was no space to think that this was just a run which they can run again next year. I could understand the concerns of those who felt that the trail was a risk to their lives and they genuinely feared for it. But, weren’t they the ones who signed up for it? Part of the blame was on them too, to have voluntarily signed up for this trail run! I think in Malnad I saw the ugly side of ultrarunners. They felt they deserved a good trail. They felt they deserved all efforts from strangers, villagers and race volunteers to make them finish the run. I wish for a better spirit on show here!
The 30 km loop felt tough. I seriously considered dropping out after 80th km when the day light faded. Losing way on it would have meant spending a whole night in the plantations without finding a way out. It wasn’t a comforting thought. Every runner who emerged back on to the rest station after 80 km seriously assessed taking the effort of the next 30 km. Most runners teamed up to jointly navigate the trail. There was comfort in numbers. This was the part where, in the same run, I also saw genuinely good intentions among some runners. I was egged into the last 30 km loop by three runners who were doing the same pace as me. Their repeated insistence on how little 30 kilometers actually are, in the larger scheme of 100+, made me get comfortable with the idea. Alone, I would have dropped out. We got out as a team of four. Then, on the course, shooting through the dark was another runner, who caught up from the rear. She was an admirable figure, surefooted on a pitch dark trail, going alone and enjoying herself. That was a sight! She joined us. And from there onward, at about 90th km our pack of four got led by this woman, Ashwini, all the way to the finish line. I walked behind her, inspired by her and the other runners. I owe this year’s Malnad finish to Ashwini and the other three runners. It was their confidence which I drew on, was comforted by and led by, all the way to the finish line. These strangers were fighting their own limits and yet had the ability to take along others like me who struggled to find their way through the self talk and depleted spirit. This year, I wasn’t hallucinating on the trail. I did, last year. I was in complete control of myself and the self talk was doing me in. I felt dreary, out of spirit and was mentally checking out of the run. That is where these beautiful strangers helped. I drew on the collective spirit.
I realize that within the same run I saw the best and the worst of the runners. I am grateful for all the efforts that helped me get to the finish line. Drawing close, all five of us sprinted the last 100 meters to the finish line. It was close to midnight. I stepped on the finish line last, among us. I had developed big, painful blisters on my feet. Wrong choice of socks! As soon as we finished, everyone locked into a hug. That said more than words. I washed up, spread my sleeping bag in the space next to the finish line and slept till it was time for the morning shuttle service at 5 AM. I had parked my bike at the pickup point. Riding back to the hotel in an exhausted mental state my mind was void of any thoughts. After breakfast, I rode back to Bangalore, tired, relieved and thankful that this space of human experience is accessible to me as of now.