Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vignettes from the Hessarghatta Ultra Marathon

The toughest marathon in this part of the world was held in Hessarghatta, Bangalore on November 14. Forget the 100k and 50k categories that give this marathon the sobriquet of "Ultra", I had registered in the 37.5k category. My preparation for the marathon was staggered and ranged from a few half marathons to a trek in scenic Kumara Parvatha mountains. Not much but with a weekly mileage of 40-45k I believed I had done enough to get through 37.5k on race day. I reached the starting point just in time for the race and ended up in the front row during flag off. This turned out to be an advantage since at many places the trail gets very narrow allowing only one person to get through and a decent start was vital. The trail was 6.25k in and out meaning every loop was 12.5k. I maintained a steady pace and felt some discomfort in my right knee when I stopped for water at the 6.25k mark. My right knee was troubling me for sometime due to a fall during the previous week's trek but I decided to ignore it and push ahead at the same pace.  
A marathon is a gala affair and the most important thing that a runner must do is enjoy the race. And running in a forest trail with the sun just rising in the horizon is pretty much ideal settings to have fun. Add to this the amazing resilience and determination of folks running 100k and 75k for inspiration, there was nothing more I could ask for. Around the 10k mark I struck a conversation with Pankaj Sir who is a regular fixture in RFL long runs. When we ran into the 25k runners starting off, Pankaj stopped by and posed for photos with a group of friends! Unbelievable I thought. Ran ahead to press my advantage, but he soon caught up with me and said "We should always have some fun in life. Right?" and sped ahead. I realized that running is not all about race timings. It’s more about having fun while you are at it. 

Start of race 37.5k race
Soon my first loop of 12.5k was done; two more to go. And every time I stopped at the refreshment stall, starting to run again was becoming harder due to my knee. I decided not to stop since getting into my running stride was the only thing that numbed the pain. Very Soon I understood that this I wasn’t going to be able to complete this race. I was pushing hard through sheer grit and determination and the encouragement from fellow runners. Was afraid to stop at the refreshment stall and just grabbed some fruits and ate them while running. I completed 25k in around 2:38 mins and decided to stop in order to avoid aggravating my injury.
I settled in the Medical desk to apply ice-packs and watch the other runners strive, struggle and strive harder due to the blazing sun. You could say I had front row seats. I was there watching  Ashok Nath win the 37.5k in blazing sub 3 hour timing demolishing the previous year’s first by more than an hour, Nigel make his way to the starting point with long strides like a football player about to take a penalty kick and Cath and the other 100k runners run loop after loop with grim determination. You need to strive to be an athlete and not just a runner and these folks simply epitomized that ideal.
 And it wasn’t just about the winners. It was about ordinary folks making an effort at the extra-ordinary and stories that shall remain for a long time. After the first few 37.5ers finished, the folks from the medical desk brought in a person who seemed to have collapsed just a few steps before the finishing point.  Thomas had run 37.45 kms with gusto and seemed all set for a glorious finish in the category when exhaustion overtook him meters before the finish line. He told me that he was gutted at falling short at the finishing point. The ultra is a cruel race that way. But they seem to have carried him over the finish line and the timing chip registered his timing as 4th in the category. Congrats Thomas. Nobody deserved this finish more than you.

Me running the forest trail
Sometime later another person who seemed to have succumbed to tough course walked into the med desk. There was blood all over her arms and legs but a serene elation in her face that could mean only one thing- She had completed her 50k despite the injury. When I spoke to Vidyatha later to ask her how she managed to continue and she said “The pain is all in the mind”. Now I felt guilty at not having shown the determination to finish the race. Many such stories of determination and resolve came through and I was glad to have been there and soaked it in.
I would like to thank all runners from around the nation and the few outside it for participating and enriching this amazing test of endurance and stamina. Also much thanks to RFL, your organizational skills are truly sublime.
Soon all my friends Nitin, Suraj and Vinod completed their race taking a lot longer than what they had anticipated and we headed for lunch. Later limped back to the parking area, just like most other folks and I slept for the rest of the day once reached home. So will I be back next year? You bet. I have unfinished business…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Solitary trek up Kumara Parvatha - Day 2

I had trekked up the famous Kumara Parvatha Mountains all alone but had to stay put at Girigadde Bhatt’s house after the cyclone raged on without any sign of easing since noon. Woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise; the sun stayed behind the clouds and never obliged. Got back for a hot water bath and a little rice upma, both managed to lift my spirits and resolve more than I could imagine. The group from Magadi on the other hand ate like there was no tomorrow. So when they backed out at the forest department checkpost saying that the entrance fees of 115 rupees was too much, I had my suspicions about why they really did it!  I was disappointed to see them leave, the companionship I was hoping for vanished in thin air, literally, as I moved further into the mountains.

Just another morning in Kumara Parvatha
I smeared my shoes and socks with salt in good measure to avoid leeches. Just took the salt meant for food, since folks around these places refuse to part with salt for some strange reason I cannot think of. The rocks were slippery due to the previous day’s rain and progress was slow and measured. The only wild animals I saw were red-coloured crabs, wild fowls and snakes that slithered away as soon as they sensed my approach. After an hour’s trek from the police check-post, I reached the place called “Mantap”, a stone-hedge like structure just below the peak. If I had had tents and company, this would have been the ideal place for a campfire and night-stay.
At around 12 noon, I reached the peak. Mission accomplished! Or at least the trekking up part of it. A dangerous downhill trek to Bidahalli APC was all that remained between me, glory and a lot of bragging rights, only I had forgotten the route to get there. A layer of mist had blanketed the peak reducing visibility to around 10 meters and hampered my search more. Soon it was time to decide whether I would spend more time probing for the trail or return to the Bhatt household where I am sure a sumptuous meal would await me. Dark clouds threatened to open up the skies and my survival instincts that I had suppressed until now woke up from slumber urging me to head back the way I came.  Fortunately I found the way to Bidahalli before it could do any damage!

Red crab! First for me
 The last bus leaving Bidahalli to Somwarpet was at 4 p.m. and I had only 3 and a half hour to tackle 7 kms of treacherous trail and 4 kms of road travel. Sounded like fun. The trail from Kumara Parvatha to Bidahalli is through a dense evergreen forest. I had great difficulty getting down two steeply inclined slopes of around 75 meters due to the rains and the loose gravel and slippery rocks lying around. At a certain location, I had to go across a slimy three meter slope from the side. No way! I thought. I went back for a sturdy stick, used that and a few low hanging branches to jump to the other side.
 My euphoria at having crossed the tight spot with the finesse of Tarzen made me overconfident and I slipped the very next step I took. Butt down on a patch of grass. Lucky you would think to fall on grass, only it was home to particularly large specimens of leeches than those I had encountered all day. Every time I fell, I dusted off the leeches, told myself that I did not want to incapacitate myself at this desolate place with no rescue squad waiting in the wings and carried on. So when you do check out the photos of this trip, keep in mind that a lot of real blood and sweat went into getting them to you...

Try getting down this one...
 With every passing mile, my joy at having conquered the Kumara Parvatha alone grew and so did my concern that I would miss the last available bus from the tiny village of Bidahalli. I quickened my pace, but there is only so fast you can go in a jungle without injuring yourself. Around a km before check-post on this side of the mountain, I met a bunch of teenagers going into the forest. No water bottles, no gunny bags, just gung ho attitudes. I asked one of them where they were heading and he smugly replied “The Peak, of-course”. “Best of luck”, I said and added “you might die you know”. The smile withered to be replaced with concern while I advised him to avoid the peak and head to the Girigaddhe household through a bypass trail 4 kms from the start. You know you have reached adulthood once you can clearly see that all teenagers are douche-bags. The teens went off into oblivion while I emerged triumphant from it.

The evergreen forests en-route Bidahalli
 After reaching the forest check-post, the forest trail ended, but my trial had just begun. I had to cover the next 4 kms in around 30-35 minutes. I don’t know where I energy and resolve came from, but I increased my pace and also started running whenever I encountered an inclined road. And finally managed to catch the bus, full filmi style. There was only one person who conquered the Kumara Parvatha this Diwali, ME. I felt and still feel such a great sense of pride and awe that I think I am going to start referring to myself in third person from now on. “Your highness will now respond to your comments...”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Solitary trek up Kumara Parvatha - Day 1

I just wanted an adventure and to take some photographs. And a two-day trek in Kumara Parvatha, the 1712m high mountain range south of the Vindhyas seemed just like the right place. After the usual suspects (read friends) dropped out with lame reasons, I found that I was the only willing to make the trip.  A tinge of fear at traveling alone and the scent of an exploit I could call mine alone were enough to nudge me into deciding to go it alone.
If you are expecting encounters on the lines of Discovery channel host Austin Stevens kissing the forehead of a King Cobra in this blog, time to move on buddy. What you will find here is the story of a guy looking for adventure, but the lonely trek up the forbidding mountain shows him that in nature’s scheme of things, he is very puny.

Kukke Subramanya Temple
I reached Kukke Subramanya, the temple town located around 280 kms from Bangalore at around 6 a.m. after an 8 hour journey by bus. Freshened up and first visited the temple to deposit money given by friends and family. To think that the mighty Snake God would stop sending his minions to your home for a paltry sum of money is debatable, but a postman just has to do his job. I later visited the mantap where the Naga dosha yagna is performed to bless childless couples with children and cure skin ailments. Visiting any temple in the wee hours is a serene experience and visiting Kukke Subramanya when the early morning fog has just lifted is a sight to behold. Makes you wish you were a theist, almost.
I then started the trek after breakfast at around 8 a.m. The destination for the day was the house of Girigaddhe Bhatt located around 7 kms from the temple complex.  Not even a km or two into the trek, I decided to stop to catch my breath and immediately became aware of the sounds of nature- the cadence of the drizzle, the chirping of crickets and this distant gushing of water. Add to this the smell of fresh sand after rains and it will explain the reason why I trek...

Pushpa giri's beauty unfolds
The joy I mentioned above evaporated once I laid my eyes on fresh elephant tracks and dung around a km or so later. The most dangerous animals I could face in Kumara Parvatha are solitary male elephants or bisons. This is the point in time where I started asking myself some uncomfortable questions I had avoided – “What were you thinking? What are you doing in this forest all alone? You are a computer engineer, not John Rambo...” Add with this the constant chore of removing blood sucking leeches from my legs and the questions begun playing in my mind with increasing frequency.  Not sure how many elephants were there, but figured out that they were heading away from the trail. Took some pictures and hurriedly put some distance between self and the herd.

My experiments with the SLR. Depth of focus especially

 After walking for around 3 hours, I reached the household of Girigaddhe Bhatt, whose small farm house is an oasis for many-a-weary trekkers. The self sustained Bhatt household is sandwiched in the midst of the climb from Kukke to the Kumara Parvatha peak and is 7kms away from any pesky neighbour dropping in for tea at odd hours. Girigaddhe Bhatt, the 53 year old proprietor spends time grazing cows, growing betel nut that generally turns bad due to the heavy rains and feeding the multitude of tired people who end up at his doorstep without warnings. The mildly pot bellied man is at peace with himself and curious about what everyone else does for a living. He calls himself a “Kaadu manushiya”(a man from the wilds) but is more sophisticated in thought and speech than loads of city folks I know!

One the few pictures with  me in it
 Lunch prepared was simple with sambar, rice, chutney and curd. After a short siesta, one of my friends who knew I was on this perilous journey alone called up Girirgaddhe Bhatt to inquire if I had reached his home safely. Just a short call to see if I was still alive and kicking. Yeah partner; everything’s fine. I never pay much heed to weather reports when I plan for treks/trips since I think they are just reasons not to travel, but this time the cyclone decided to make its presence felt that very afternoon. Any plans of landscape photography I had were totally put to rest. Instead had to satisfy myself with the company of the loud mouthed but amicable folk from Magadi who had just arrived before the sky opened up.

House and farm of Girigaddhe Bhatt
 The day ended with heavy showers late into the night while I was battling my own demons in my mind – Will I be able to cover the toughest part of the trek alone or should I tag along with the Magadi folk? The trail is dangerous enough and with such heavy rains will I be able to climb/descend any of the slippery hills that I knew are waiting en-route to the peak. Sometimes all it takes to slay your demons is to go to sleep and look at the world afresh the next morning, which is exactly what I decided to do.

To be continued...