The decision to run the Vagamon ULtrail
At the beginning of the year, I had set specific targets for myself - This usually works in enabling one to stick to being disciplined and focused. I sincerely urge anyone and everyone out there to set particular targets and stick to those. Getting carried away is a recipe for disaster, injury, overuse, and all of those things which take you away from regular training and practice. One of these targets was to run an ultra this year - to go beyond the 42.2K distance. And so, I was on the lookout for an event that would give me the thrill to go beyond 42.2K - I asked around and had many recommendations for the Vagamon ULtrail - with everyone telling me it would give me the joy & challenge I was after. And so without giving much thought to it - I went ahead and signed up for this event. They have limited slots for the event, so I sat online the day the registrations opened for the fastest finger first toward registration. With registration done and dusted - I was at peace. Little did I know what was in store for me up ahead.
Training & Planning For The Vagamon ULtrail
As the days to the event got closer, we got a couple of emails from the organizers - giving us a heads-up that this was a challenging trail. Moreover, it had not been organized in June previously, which meant that there would be a lot of rainfall during the time that we would be doing the run. Never before have I come across an organizer who sends the participants emails putting the fear of God in them - it was almost like they didn't want us to go and participate. We had time cutoffs - some stories of crazy elevation, etc. After my TCS World 10K event, I had four weeks to the event on the 4th weekend, falling on 11th June 2022. Immediately after TCS World 10K, I increased my mileage. Some people have mentioned that I have hardly done any long runs in the event build-up- but you fail to notice that I have been running consistently for over ten years. I trekked regularly and upped my game in Strength & Flexibility last year. In addition, I raced a Marathon in April and after TCS World 10K. I was doing Half Marathon every other day - ALL OF THIS is training.
Anyway, I increased my weekly mileage by ramping up the weekend long runs - the thing is, time was minimal, and I often asked myself Why I had signed up for TCS with this event looming around the corner. As it got closer, I started panicking a couple of times and am very grateful to have people like Dinesh Heda & Arun Nambiar who spoke to me and helped me calm down and stay focussed. When I talked to Ankush & mum - they both were confident that I would be able to cruise through the event. Ankush said, don't overanalyze; you will be fine at Pokemon. Mum said you would proceed through 40K but be wary of the last 20K. So quickly and calmly, they gave me advice. I, on the other hand, was hyperventilating - I asked around and found the elevation chart - kindly see below:
Of course, you can see the enormous descent and climb around the 23K mark - but if you notice closely - the entire chart is jagged. Since I have spent a fair amount of time in the mountains in the past - I knew that this would not be child's play - so the first thing I did was, get proper trail running poles from the States. I got them two weeks before the event. I can get some mileage on them, but sadly I couldn't. The next thing was the weather - the weather changes everything - if there were going to be torrential rainfall - it would slow me down considerably and make the trail even more treacherous - considering how slippery and slushy it would make it. In addition to this, the discomfort of running in wet clothes. The leeches were another consideration. Due to the weather, we would have long stretches without aid stations, so I could not rely on the aid station for nutrition and hydration. I was getting overwhelmed. So I decided to break it down and look at one thing at a time.
Planning The Running Gear For The Event
Running pole - check, hydration bag - check, trail running shoes - check, nutrition - check. Hydration bag, I had an old one that I had bought many, many years ago for MTB cycling, and I had barely even used it. Nutrition - I hate consuming gels - but have to when I race - but for 12 hours, there is no way I would be consuming gels - so I made dry fruit laddoos ( with mum supervising), carried some snickers & peanut butter & cheese sandwiches. I would wear my Brooks Caldera 5 Trail running shoes, long dry-fit pants to provide maximum safety from leeches, and of course, my Brooks racing singlet ( because itna pride hai mujhe apne brand ko represent karne mein). I did a couple of runs with the hydration bag - these runs lasted 3-4 hours, and I had worn full coverage tops at the back when I used them. So, I couldn't even begin to fathom the extent of equipment failure I would have at the event.
Anyway, moving along - the run was one part of the event - but even the commute to and back was a mammoth journey. Thursday evening is when I left home for the event on Saturday morning. I headed to the station and caught an overnight train to Ernakulam. The last time I traveled by train was possibly in 2018, when I was traveling extensively ( just for fun). The sleep quality on the train is not that great. As luck would have it, I found runners crossing in the seats adjacent to mine - in fact, one of them I have known for a long time, Shilpa Deo - we all chit-chatted until it was time to crash for the night. Now I sleep on a vast bed, and initially, it is in starfish position - so I didn't know how to accommodate myself in that little berth and spent over 3-4 hours tossing and turning until I passed out. The next thing I knew, it was 6 am - we had entered Kerala, and honestly, it was gorgeous - so lush and so green - my heart was already smiling. By 7:45 am, we had reached our station. Kuljeet and I spoke for a while; he helped me with my hydration during SPBM. And we had worked together on his nutrition. He was also attempting his first Trail Run at Vagamon. He had already done the Ultra distance, but this was his longest.
He had also reached Ernakulam in the morning. I also met Sujith, Mayank, and Charan. Aditya and the entire RTC gang at the station. It was nice. We headed on to have breakfast at a hotel near the station. Some other runners also trickled in from the other stations. Kuljeet took a room close to the station. We all went there to freshen up before heading onto the next leg of the journey. At approx 11:30 am - we hired cabs and made our way to the Decathlon for bib collection and bus travel to Vagamon. As Dinesh Heda rightly said, it was the day of maximum footfalls at Decathlon and barely any sales (giggles). We were all hanging around there - hassling the organizers ( special mention of Anoop, Charles, and Parvati), who so sweetly responded to the same questions repeatedly. After the bib collection, we went to a restaurant around the corner and stuffed our faces with kickass biryani. We finally boarded the bus, settled, and moved from Decathlon around 3:30 pm. All through the bus ride, we were gossiping - excited little puppies, I say!! Oohing and aahing at the greenery and the gorgeous scenery around.
We finally reached our respective resorts around 9:00 pm. By the time we settled into our rooms, it was possibly 9:30 - then we moved & grabbed our dinner and came back around 10 pm. The next hour or so went in prepping for the next day - packing the race day bag and then repacking the main bag since we had to check out in the morning, have a shower, etc. I was bunking with Aditya Devi and Radhika Wakharkar - both with incredible energy and spunk. The three of us chatted for the next 40-45 mins and finally settled in for the night. It was around 12-12:30 am that I eventually fell asleep. Per the instructions, our bus would leave at 3:45 am - which meant that the alarm went off at 3 am. So at 3 am, we jumped out of bed - it was raining!!!- I quickly brushed & got ready in the race day attire - I was even lucky enough to manage a reasonably decent dump at that time of the day. Say what you may - but if you are a runner, you will relate to the importance of having a clean, light tummy while on the move. After getting ready, we grabbed all our stuff and headed downstairs for coffee/tea before piling into the bus. I was annoyed because there was no chai and only black coffee. It has now been over two years since I quit coffee - I have found that no matter what time of the day I consume coffee - it affects my sleep quality, so now I avoid it like the plague. But beggars can't be choosers, so I had the damn coffee. Everyone slowly tottered into the room, and before we knew it, we had turned it into a photo shoot area - obviously wanted the before ( fresh, clean, and happy) and After ( destroyed, filthy, and relieved) pics. We all knew that this would be a difficult day ahead.
Few Hours Before The Day Actual Race
It was 4:15 am when we got ourselves into the bus and made our way to the start point. Around 4:45 , we all got off the bus and headed to the hall where they were serving breakfast. We dropped off our finish line bags. The breakfast station had bananas, bread, peanut butter, and jam.
I had carried my peanut butter & cheese sandwich, which I stuffed into my face. My stomach was in knots!!! To grow - you must push outside your comfort zone, and today I was heading into a space way out of my comfort zone - terrain, weather, distance - all elements new to me. We all were standing and chatting away - Vijay, Yuvaraj, Kuljeet, and me. As my nervousness grew - I moved out - I needed to be with my thoughts and myself. Soon it was time to head to the start line. Warm Up? hahahahah - with 60K ahead of me - I didn't need to warm up, bruh!!!. The plan was straightforward: Start slow, at the back & take your time and start getting vital towards the second half of the race. Easy to say - hard to follow!
We never really spoke of running the event together - but as we walked to the start line, it was clear - Kuljeet and I were going to run this event together - this would be 'our effort' to cross that finish line. And so it began - as they dropped the start ribbon, off went the 120 people who had signed up to attempt this Ultra. The rain was now a very light drizzle, there was fog, and we could not have asked for better weather.
The Raceday Experience
Kuljeet and I started at the rear end of the pack and stayed there - " We got 60K to go - there is no hurry!!" was the thought and mantra for me this entire event. The first section is a descent, so it is easy for people to get carried away. Within the first 300 meters was the first climb. We had not accounted for this, and here we encountered our only traffic jam.
As we climbed up, we came to an open clearing - the fog, the greenery, and the beauty were breathtaking. And so we started moving at our own pace - moving one foot in front of the other - slowly but surely. Yes, we were dropping people as we moved ahead, but that was not the motivating factor. That's the thing about an event like this - you have enough of a challenge that nature gives, and you do not think about competition in this case. Slowly and surely, jogging where we could and walking where we couldn't - but moving at all times.
Vijay, Kuljeet, and I were more or less moving together for the first 1/6th of the race. They had marked the entire trail with orange ribbons, and we needed to keep following them to stay on track. Even before we completed the first 10K, we had already veered off the path and done a few hundred meters extra. So suffice to say, it was easy to get distracted and lost - there was just so much going on - the stunning landscapes, the terrain itself, streams to jump through - it was heaven. Before we knew it, we had reached the first aid station at 9Km. We were still in good spirits - grabbed some oranges, drank enerzal, and kept moving. As we came to an easy downhill section, Kuljeet picked up pace - and here is where the quality of the shoe shows its true colors. It was wet from the dew; it was a cemented section - and as he was prancing away - he slipped and fell on his butt. At first, it was customary - are you ok? and then there was the LOL moment. He was wearing trail-specific shoes - but those were for a light trail. I was wearing my trusted Brooks Caldera 5, and those babies took me for a sweet ride over this 60+km. The grip, cushioning, protection, and breathability were all on-point for this heavy trail race.
As we moved a little further, I saw many people on the subsequent elevation. by the 12K mark, and we had caught up with this bunch of people - around 12.5K was yet another massive height - we continued at our pace. Both of us marched up together. It was time! Time to take out my stunning running poles. Out they came much like the swords of the samurai warriors. Ah! The relief they gave. I asked Kuljeet if he would like to try them to see the massive difference. He tried it and felt it. We decided immediately to share the running poles for the remainder of the race. And we moved. The next aid station was at 18K - we stopped there for a quick restroom break, refilling the hydration bladders and grabbing some more oranges. When I took off my bag, I knew there was a malfunction in my hydration backpack, it was not body-fit, and I was wearing a racerback. The stitching on the back was chafing the skin on my back. " This is going to be a long and painful race," I told myself. I filled the entire bladder to minimize taking the bag on and off. After a relatively long break, we started moving. As we ran, we realized that the people we had left behind had overtaken us during this break. Mental Note: You cannot waste too much time on aid stations. Either way, we picked up the pace. It was just so gorgeous around us, and we were running through tea estates, climbing through meadows, on ridges, and through the pine forests. We also got lost multiple times, backtracked & retraced our steps, and continued moving forward -meeting people along the way and spreading as much positivity as possible. We reached a stream after a while, and it just looked so inviting - so Kuljeet and I took our shoes off and soaked our feet in the water - it was heaven! - We stayed there for a while, washed our faces, and drank from that water - Nature gives us everything we need. The entire experience was ethereal - Like running through a picture postcard.
But the pain was excruciating - the mammoth climbs followed almost immediately by never-ending descents. And after a point, you become numb to the surroundings - active meditation as you know it. You become oblivious to what surrounds you and are only in that moment, looking at where to put the next foot - only looking for the next ribbon, only focussing on this very moment - this is the FLOW - you're in the FLOW. It is imperative to focus your mind on the positive. I reached this state around the 30Km mark and stayed there until the end. There were so many negatives to think about - I had blisters on my feet, on both big toes, the ball of the foot, and my left heel. I chaffed my back, and the salt from the sweat was burning with every step I took. Calves and quads were crying with the beating they were taking due to the elevation. Every part of my body was singing a different song. But my focus stayed on avoiding a fall ( especially with fatigue), keeping moving - don't stop, stay on track and keep the spirits up - Sumit had also joined us somewhere along the way - and we were all feeding off each other's energy.
The thing to remember( a general rule for life): everyone is suffering - in an event like this ( and in life), the most success comes to the one that can learn to suffer the best. Kuljeet was having the most challenging time with his quads. He was not used to the elevation, and his quads were locked. We were punching his quads and applying pressure every few kms to open them up and keep them going. This tightness was causing many issues and pain in his knee - he was still moving as well as he could. Somewhere around 35K, we got a second wind and picked up the pace, trudging faster as we forged ahead. I crossed the 42K cutoff point and met Yuvaraj again - who was encouraging about how we were moving. We were well on time. The volunteers there were going to fill the hydration bladder. I had to take off my backpack to give them access to it. When they saw my back, they retracted in horror. I smiled and told them it didn't matter - now that I had made the cutoff, nothing was going to stop me from reaching the finish line.
With every step forward, I was doing my longest distance yet - We kept moving forward at a reasonably decent pace - somewhere around 45-46K, we missed yet another turn and veered off track, possibly 600-700mtrs off the course. Before we knew it, we had crossed the 50K mark - now it was all just single digits to the finish line. Beyond 50K, even Kuljeet was now doing his longest distance yet. We gave each other a high-five. Now it's just about the finish line. We started moving forward, and in another km or so, Sumit joined us again. Around 55K - Oh, how the downpour began!!! Torrential rainfall - there was a split second when we three may have slowed down - but that's right? It's that split second to decide.
If you have noticed, when a child falls, he looks at the older person around for a reaction - if you look worried or anxious, the child starts crying - but if you smile at them and tell them to dust themselves off and move on with their lives - they smile and do just that. So before anyone could say anything - I was like, " Downhill hai baba, chalo jog karte hain '' and just like that, I decided on it. We were going to continue at our pace. We kept moving; a leech flew onto my hand, and I immediately realized it. Sumit quickly pulled it off my palm before it stuck its sucker into my skin. We kept moving through the downpour, the estate, some treacherous slippery trail - we were in a line - Kuljeet in front, Sumit right behind, and Me bringing up the rear. As we climbed, we would walk, and as soon as I reached the highest point, I would scream out - Chalo baba - downhill hain jog karenge. We crossed a couple more aid stations along the way. We moved through this for the next hour until the rain finally subsided. We clocked the 60K mark on our watches - the finish line was nowhere to be seen. This point is where we would now know how much we had veered off track. As we inched towards it 100mtr by 100mtr - we finally saw the finish line - the gong rang, and the crowd clapped for us as we ran through the finisher arch. We had smiles on our faces - the torture was finally over! The day had been good, and nature had bestowed us with a great day!
Kuljeet and I had run the entire 62K together, got lost together, and saw each other suffer. Sumit had joined us and stuck with us through at least 10K together, we mutually decided. We will cross the finish line together - because this one was a team effort. That we each would have completed it individually is a definite yes.
But would we have had so much fun? Would we have been able to endure all the pain and suffering without a break? Would we have had a happier 10hrs 21mins? Would we have pushed a little bit harder? We will never know! But I think I speak for all of us when I say, Misery likes company, and we had bloody excellent company - laughing through the pain, looking after each other. We today are better for having done this together. The universe conspired to make it happen; it was our destiny to experience this together.
Post-Run Experience & My Thoughts
I have lost my Ultra and Trail Virginity -I crossed that finish line in 10Hrs and 21mins. I also managed to finish second in Women. I am grateful for this experience. Thank You to Soles of Cochin for organizing this event - it is a labor of love. You can see the love in how you have scheduled everything for us: from the pick-up to drop to warning us so that we are prepared, feeding us. I suspect you even used a machete on the trail to clear it for us. The marking was all just incredible and done with a precise amount of love - the patience you have shown and the support at every aid station - almost like a formula1 pit stop crew.
Thank You, Kerala and Vagamon, for being so gorgeous and kind to give us a beautiful day. Cool, foggy morning, relatively low humidity, heat through the day, and that torrential downpour gave our legs a second lease of life towards the fag end of the event. Thank You to Kuljeet for hanging in there and pushing his boundaries through 62K - Sumit!!! Your stories and spirit - grateful for it. We have suffered together and forged a forever bond. I am so so thankful for it. Thank You to the photographers, Vibin Balakrishnan, and the team - I don't even know how you guys reached your vantage points with all your equipment and waited patiently for us - we kept moving - but you were standing still. I am sure the leeches had a gala time at your cost - thank you for giving us pictures that caught us in our element.
Brooks India Team - always feel so strong with the support of an army of kickass athletes cheering and supporting you from across the country - there is a lot of love here. Kartik Shah, thank you for bringing us all together and making it a family; Mum, Dad, Ankush - steadfast, unflinching, forever support - you three give me the strength to be me. I had thought I would cry at the finish line. I didn't! But the tears are rolling off my face as I have written this and gone through this journey. This journey has changed me in a way that words cannot explain. These tears are of joy and gratitude - so blessed to be able to live my dream.
Of course, the journey back was another Ultra in itself. What's next? My main event after this will be the Ironman 70.3 in Goa. I will, of course, have some training outings along the way, and I look forward to the upcoming few months.