‘Do not attempt a record. Just finish the race.’ I heard one of the organizers say at the pre-run briefing of the Baikal Ice Marathon. It was Nikolai, translating in English all the instructions and details that Alexie, the race director spoke in Russian. Since, the English translations were brief and intermittent, I held this to be an indicator of what the run might be, from organizers’ perspective. Brief descriptions of the terrain, ice and snow conditions, and weather possibilities were the bits of information that I was latching on to. They screened a video clip of the snowy terrain and trail conditions shot from a hovercraft the previous day. I found this information necessary for a first timer in Siberian winter and on a frozen Baikal lake. I had no clue what to expect – powdery snow or glassy, uneven, broken blocks of ice or a mix of both and for how long in the 42 kilometer distance. ‘The weather changes in minutes’, he said. I have heard that one before while skiing, riding and trekking in snowy regions elsewhere. Only that there seemed to be an added intensity to what they meant here on the Baikal. I had read that a couple of years back they had to stop the marathon midway and evacuate all the runners at half-way point, as a snow storm broke out. The thing with these events is that when it goes good, and weather is favourable, then the runners end up saying, ‘oh that was nothing’, ‘it was a fine run’. I have known that only a few minutes of an adverse weather event is needed to turn all that pleasantness into dropouts like falling pins. 2019’s La Ultra was a clear demo of it. Marathon reputations are made when it turns bad on runners.
This marathon isn’t just a sporting event. It is a unique cultural experience as well. An immersion in Siberia, no matter how brief, can be overwhelming in the way it can bust a visitor’s sense of scale about things. Imagine standing on a frozen, glassy ice sheet, stretched across two ends of a valley that is 1.6 kilometers deep! That is literally what a frozen Baikal is. It is water, filling up a very deep valley. A thin sheet of it, less than one meter, freezes over in winter, turning the lake solid. Before one gets to the shores of Baikal, there is a 6-7 hour flight to Irkutsk covering about 5000 kilometers from Moscow. Russia is an enormous country. Its expanse is realized only when a visitor flies to the Far Eastern region. The Russian post of Vladivostok is another 3800 kilometers east of Irkutsk. Gorky called Siberia as ‘land of chains and ice’. Chains may not be visible anymore, but there is plenty of ice. Looking down at the landscape from air, there is an infinite looking snow cover with barely any settlements visible for long. We arrived in Irkutsk in early hours to -13 degrees C.
In its sixteenth edition, Baikal Ice Marathon seemed to have a depth of experience that it necessary to organize a running event in tough conditions. I wouldn’t have known how to react to the snowfall and the drop in visibility that happened around ten kilometers into the run. Will it get worse? Will the wind speed pick up? I had such questions running in my mind. I stuck to route markers – one foot high red flags that marked the route across the frozen landscape of the lake.
Baikal Ice Marathon is unique in its setting and the conditions that it can throw at the runners. Baikal lake spans about 42 kilometers from its western shore at Listvyanka to the eastern shore at Tankhoi. In earlier years, the run was from the eastern to the western shore. Weather and snow conditions vary across the lake. The organizers tried to work out the best fit in terms of direction, logistics and ensuring a less difficult starting stretch. Running towards the eastern side, snow was about 1 – 1.5 feet deep for the last ten kilometers of the run.
I haven’t seen a marathon start like this one. The runners get called out of the organizing hotel lobby by their bib numbers and they make way to the lake front. Stepping on the lake, they are expected to offer a prayer to Lake Baikal, as Buryat people do – pour a little milk in a cup, dip ring finger in it, flick the milk in the four directions, one by one, and drink the remaining milk. This is an offering prayer before setting on the lake.
I must add that I have had a lower tendency to be a pure blooded runner who’d hit a course knowing its specifics, run through, grab his drop bag at the finish line and evacuate. Running has been a trope in my exploration of the world. There are other aspects of this experience to write about than just running – Siberia in literature, the city of Decemberists – Irkutsk, people and life around a unique lake ecology and much more.
About a hundred of us bunched around two marker flags and parked hovercrafts. The race director could be heard muttering a few words on a handheld loudspeaker while runners were warming up. Somewhere along, all the runners seemed to have turned to one direction, steadied up and soon there was a countdown ending in a soft ‘go’. The marathon had begun. Several pairs of feet began crunching the ice. I was recovering from an injury I picked up a couple of weeks back during an ultra run outside Mumbai. Until the previous evening’s briefing I was not sure of starting. At the start line, I was not sure of completing. I was taking each moment as it came, not trying to anticipate or speculate. A few steps into the snow, I began hobbling. I gave myself the first ten kilometers to see if the injured leg settles into a steady state and allows me to keep a slow pace through the course. I had tried a trial walk on the lake on the previous day, to get a feel of the terrain and traction on the frozen surface.
Soon enough, the entire pack of runners had stretched out into a long, blurry black line on a vast white canvas like landscape merging into a grey sky. I was tailing. I didn’t care. I was out there to finish the run. In comparison to the several thousand kilometers from home to this place over the last couple of days, the marathon distance felt dot sized. I needed to get through this. Also, with the previous DNF at Deccan Ultra, I knew this DNF would affect me. That morning, with the crunch of snow and ice piercing the windy silence, I was at peace. I wore a pair of strap-on cleats for grip on the snow. At the fifth kilometer mark, I found my shoes without them. They slipped out in the thick snow somewhere. Most runners were wearing four layers of warm wear. Exposed skin was covered with frosting tape. Sunglasses and balaclava were mandatory among other things. It felt as though I was armoured against the lake. I wore a layer of fleece inside. A relatively thick one. This could make me sweat a lot and drench the inside layers over the distance if I were to spend a lot of effort and get heated up. I kept track of this. In about half an hour from the start it began snowing lightly. The visibility dropped. I expected it to worsen. Since, there were marshals riding snowmobile along the route, I took that as a sign of the situation under control. I wasn’t picking up pace. I had locked it in by the fifth kilometer. I was only trying to keep steady and get to the half-way mark. That was the target. If I got there, I knew I’d get to the finish line for sure. In the absence of reference points, a vast open landscape dissolves away the sense of distance. It feels like running in an infinite landscape. A repetitive sequence of markers.I was enjoying this surreal experience – to know what a massive geographic feature of the planet is beneath me. That there were ice sheets which could sway gently, creating what they call as ‘Baikal symphony’. The vision was boundary-less. Seamless. Just a few black dots of people in the distance. An occasional hovercraft passing by, checked on the runners.
By half way point, race marshals knew that I was running with an injury. Beyond halfway point I was the last person in the run. At a few control points they checked with me if I was okay to run. I saw how a distance that I have done several times over the years can turn into such a struggle and trigger massive doubts. Every step towards the finish line hacked at that doubt. Wind and fresh snow covered the route that was marked for the run. I had to be careful in stretches where snow was over a foot deep. I worked meter by meter to the finish line.
As I look back, I see that this was one of the tougher marathons that I have run in my life. It turned tough because of my leg injury. The way body and mind come together for a run is quite a complex thing that I am trying to wrap my head around. Sometimes, the mind prevails over the body and shifts the natural pain thresholds. Normally, these pain thresholds prevent a person from self-harm and signal him to withdraw from a run. When the mind prevails, the signal seems to get intercepted and it pushes the body to go beyond. In retrospect, I see that I could barely manage to stand straight at the finish line and couldn’t walk for four days, all the way into Delhi. It was an alarm that kept getting snoozed by the mind. I was ruined at the finish line, but felt over the top because I finished the run. This finish mattered to me.
In retrospect, I see that this marathon was about not giving up. I ran my leg to ruin and yet, it seems a fair deal. This run was about checklists. There was an elaborate set of mandatory gear and paperwork. I worked on that with a checklist. I was consumed with doubts about the prospects of finishing and whether I can carry my body through the distance. I worked on that with a checklist. Every kilometer, I ran through a set of questions that checked the state of my legs, heartbeat, sweat, gear, food and hydration. This protocol helped drive confidence and work with a limitation.
By the time I hit the mid-30 distance, the race marshals knew that I will not stop. They encourage me to go on. The marshal who was in-charge of closing the route, tailed me on his snowmobile. I was steadily taking on every mound of snow that I encountered. I took care to not dig into them with my right leg which was weak and in pain. I worked with the left and swung most of my bodyweight on it. By 32nd kilometer I spotted the shoreline where the finish line was. Practically, this meant little because there were ten more kilometers and the flat landscape would now mess with my head with the illusion of it nearing. The light improved with a sliver of sun shining through. Weather was clearing up. I spotted three black birds flying by in a line. I couldn’t figure what they were. I didn’t have the mind to focus on them. To even spot a few people on the horizon and some human activity was reassuring. It meant that this was about to end. That faint sight did something important – bring a boundary, a limit, to the seamless sight. That was enough to keep on. It was only a matter of time now.
As I ran the final 500 meters to the finish line I could hear my friend cheering me and ran out to give me a hug. The route closing marshal went ahead of me, parked his snowmobile and held out a route marking flag for me. He pushed it in my hand and cheered me on. I stepped on the finish line holding that route marker flag. It had been an effort. I looked back at what I had come through. I was exhausted, but in awe of the lake, the expanse and the people to whom I owed this. At the finish line were a group of people who went all out to help me finish. I owe this marathon to the team at Baikal Ice Marathon.
I saw how human effort binds people into a bond. Its extraordinariness lies in the fact that it is selfless, genuine and based on a spirit that transcends language, nationality or any other division that the world wants us to be mindful about.
We transferred back to the start line on a hovercraft and walked down to our hotel. A shower and some food later, I felt glad and fortunate to be there. Russian marathons issue a physical certificate of accomplishment at the end. Certificates and medals were given out in an after party, which was also for the participants to get to know each other and share their experience. It was a good way to finish this encounter with Siberia.