by Taru Mateti
The Malnad Ultra
I trained well on hills for 12 weeks! I didn’t know what a trail ultra is supposed to be like! I didn’t know what an incline of >30% is supposed to be like! I didn’t know that running takes on a different meaning going down such steep trails! I didn’t know how to run by finding arrows, some missing or contraindicative ones! I didn’t know how to slip-slide in an event! I had never walked through slush! I had never done a long running event in the dark! I had never been bitten by leeches! I didn’t know about the challenges the runners as well as organizers can face in such a run! I didn’t know how scenic an ultra can be and how exciting the run-hike adventure can be! I came out much stronger after this risky-at-places, challenging-all-the-time, and now-feels-like-great-fun-adventure experience! Not once during this Ultra did I think of quitting. In fact, I had to focus so much on other things that there was no mind-space for this thought! Read-on, but this race report is going to be long! I am writing this for myself, for those who might want to run this ultra in the future, and for those who love to read about “different” experiences!
The route for this edition was changed in the last couple of weeks due to unavailability of the earlier route. The elevation gain increased further to about 3120m for 80K (some runners recorded 3500m because of slightly different on-ground conditions!)! The unpredictable and unexpected rains made the route further less runnable as informed by the organizers. This was what was shared, and included an elevation map indicating >10%, 20%, and even 30% inclines! Can’t say we weren’t forewarned! I worked on preparing my mind for a very tough run during the taper period.
To skip the pre-run sections and read directly about the run, click The Run
I first heard about Malnad Ultra in 2016 and decided that I would do it some day! Then other runs came along and this one got pushed down in the bucket list, but I kept reading about this ultra, its beauty, and its challenges! So when after Comrades, coach Atul Godbole advised me against participating in Khardungla Challenge this year, Malnad Ultra was automatically the one I chose. I had never done a trail event before, have terrible stability and a weak left ankle, and find it difficult to even walk in the dark without tripping. Hence, I checked earlier results and decided to go for 80K instead of 110K, hoping that I would be able to finish it under 12 hours and won’t have to run in the dark…little did I know how everything would change for this special edition!
12-week training started in August, giving me enough time to recover from Comrades and some easy weeks of running in July. Looking at an elevation gain of about double that of the Comrades Up-run…on trail…coach modified the training plan accordingly. This training plan was tougher – thanks Atul for the changes, I blessed you on so many of those very steep inclines! So, besides that monthly long run of about 50K, the plan included a mid-week long hill run with two repeats of Bopdev/Sinhagad hill on alternate weeks. One of these always happened in the week prior to the monthly long run! I trained longer and harder than for Comrades. Moreover, most of my long training runs were solo…even though two of three longest ones were part of events. I ran the full marathon in Hyderabad (AHM) in Aug, a 50K solo on Bopdev in Sept, and 50K at Mahabaleshwar Endurathon (ME) in Oct at steady training pace. Was fortunate to end up on the podium in AHM and ME :p I also broadened my horizons by taking up my first two 21K pacing assignments in this time at Ravine Mountain Run and CME Lake Marathon, both excellent training runs for me and extremely satisfying ones too. I ran a lot of hills in these three months, actually started enjoying running them and looked forward to the long runs. My stronger point still remained the downhill! I was pretty confident after following the training plan about 95%. I had continued with yoga, stopped Pilates in Sept but added spinning, and also did some strength training once or twice a week.
Because of the rains, I didn’t get any opportunity to run on trail other than a small portion of easy trail in ME, well, I can confidently call that easy now 😀 And here, I had signed up for the challenging 80K Malnad Trail Ultra. The other disadvantage in my case is that my footwork is awful and my left ankle/foot has stability and mobility issues. I did some conditioning and decided that I would manage because a trail run will anyway be a slow run with a lot of walking too.
Other Health Aspects
I took fairly good care of nutrition adding more proteins and carbs on appropriate days, being regular with my supplements and generally taking better care of my gut. Due to my fondness for eating, I was unable to lose the weight I had gained after Comrades, but that didn’t bother me too much. Sleep always has been an issue and continued to be so. That’s something I have learnt to live with. Thankfully, other than a bout of cough and cold, antibiotics, two weeks before ME and stomach issues a couple of times, I kept good health through the training cycle. Regular weekly massages, foam rolling, extensive stretching were a part of my schedule. Minor niggles came and went with adequate care. Coach helped to rein in my over-enthusiasm at times with his cautionary messages and feedback on training runs!
Travel for the Ultra
Chandan and I went to Bengaluru and then took a train to Birur on Fri morning. Drama started there when we got into the wrong train and missed ours. Had to take a cab finally, which wasn’t very comfortable but we didn’t have a choice. Reached Birur in the afternoon, hence missed the morning pick-up. Took another cab to our Kallathigiri Guest House right next to the waterfalls. Our cottages were down below and we had to take some steps to get there (this was so difficult at night after the run!). Food was arranged in the common dining area and was simple, home-made type of food. Dinner was served at about 9 PM and later we set out all our gear. With hardly any sleep on Sat night, we woke up at 2:30 AM to get ready and catch the bus to the start point at Maskalmardi, the journey was more than an hour although the distance was just about 20K. I felt very nauseous during that turbulent ride and went and sat on the steps in front, ready to vomit anytime! Fortunately we reached the destination without anything like that happening. Then we had to walk about half a km to reach the holding area. The instructions communicated by email by the organizers were very clear. The lady who was coordinating had even come to give us a wake-up call at about 3 am!
As soon as we got off, we first went to the baggage counter to hand over our bags. We had packed two bags each, one for 50K stop and the other after finish. The baggage handling was something that impressed me the most! Volunteers there were super-efficient and knew what they were doing. Good breakfast was laid out with rice, sheera, boiled eggs, bread, jam, cheese slices, and maybe there were other items too including tea and coffee! I had already eaten two elaichi bananas at 2:45 AM, so I just had a boiled egg and a little sheera with tea because the rice refused to go down my throat in the excitement. Met a lot of runners and some Facebook friends for the first time and clicked pics. Stood along the route to cheer for the 110K runners and then moved to the start for RD’s briefing.
Race Director Anand explained the route, which was a 50K loop on one side bringing back to the start point and a different 30K loop on the other side, bringing us back again to the same point. These loops had a few loops within them, especially the second one! He also told us that a bridge had broken on the first 4K tar road before the trail starts. Hence there was no ambulance enroute although doctors were there. We were requested to exercise extreme caution and if we had to DNF, we had to come to an aid station on tar road to be picked up. It would take time to reach people in trouble enroute, a lot of the route could not be reached by the jeeps too.
There were km markers every 2k and we were advised to not rely on GPS at all because connectivity was poor. He asked us to focus and look for arrows on trees/rocks through most of the route and retrace to the previous arrow if we didn’t see another arrow within 200m. There would be tape at some places or cross marks to indicate trail not to be taken. Also, there would be volunteers to guide us if there were different loops starting from the same point.
He told us about the aid stations, specifically about a couple of them that were 9K apart. There was one rest area with hot food at about 21K. He told us that there were plenty of leeches enroute, but we needn’t worry too much about their bite and could use salt to get rid of them if we didn’t like the free leech therapy! The start/finish point had a running kitchen. I did some warm-up while I listened to the briefing. Soon it was time for flagoff.
The run started on time. The start was very slow because the road was quite narrow. But that was fine because none of us were in a hurry! The first 4K were gently rolling to help us start well, and then we got into a trail with more than 5K of steep trail climb, steeper than the steepest I had run on Sinhagad Hill tar road! And that’s when I realized that I would have to run after dark, which would be terribly slow too! Then came some downhill. I love downhills and just let gravity take me down fast. It was very different here. It was too difficult to run on this trail. I had to control myself and also be extremely cautious about mis-stepping and falling! As an extreme, I found myself running at pace of about 10min/km on very steep slopes of about 100m to a km because of the trail route. The entire route was a rolling one, very scenic and totally mesmerizing at a lot of places. There were forests, waterfalls, streams, beautiful valley views, coffee plantations, and long bare expanses. Even the seemingly gentle slopes were very treacherous because of the stones under the grass. I must have twisted my foot at least 15-20 times, once I was probably even captured on camera when I tripped! Each time this happened, I sent up a prayer that I shouldn’t get injured!
Slush: And then there was that slush, some shallow and some deep. There are times when I was brought to a dead stop and had to think how to cross the slush…I figured that at most places there was no way on the side, we just had to step right through it. At two places, I went knee deep into slush. I had to grab a co-runners stick to pull out my foot. My shoe almost get left behind in the process, but managed to grip on to it.
Some of the slushy trails
Loo breaks: At 20K, I took a loo break and later again at 50K. Thankfully and surprisingly, I didn’t need to go more often than that, although the entire forests, trails, and hills were our territory!
Trail: Steep hills with terrible inclines and downslopes, rocky, grassy, slippery. Unsteady and undulating. Gently rolling at some places. At places the trail was so narrow that there was place to put only one foot at a time. Hence slow running had to be done (with fear of falling) placing the feet the way models do their ramp walk 😀 I learnt new skills!
At places, there was no trail to follow even on grass, just arrows on trees going around the fields to form a loop, which seemed pretty random too!
A very long portion that was exquisitely beautiful was along a spur and hence had a heavy camber to one side so the left was lower than the right. This also had stones under grass and even though this was gently rolling, it was very difficult to run here. I twisted my left foot multiple times here and had to walk a lot again despite wanting to run. Another thing that happened here and more-so later in the dark was that the fear of tripping to the left and falling into the valley got into me and I altered my form by tilting to the right so that I would trip lesser and fall to the right if I did. In fact, a co-runner mentioned at about 74K that I was running bent to one side! This also explains my form at the finish!
The mesmerizing but form-changing part of trail
As already warned by the RD, GPS kept coming on and off, probably picking the shortest distance between two points where there was no real trail on ground. By about 26K, I was already close to 2k behind the km markers. By 50K, the difference was about 3K, and then I stopped looking at the watch because neither pace nor distance as per watch mattered here, especially with many small loops in the 30K route. The watch kept falling behind in distance compared to the markers! Then, the km markers and the time by watch were my only guide, finishing injury-free within cut-off was my only target!
The aid stations had water, electrolyte, oranges (at some stations), lemons, and salt. They might have had biscuits too, but I wasn’t looking. The volunteers were very helpful and even filled water in my bottle. However, there was congestion in the 50K section because just one volunteer was filling water as well as electrolyte and more than 8-10 runners sometimes reached the aid station. The 20k aid station had a lot to eat too, but I just filled water and moved because a visit to the loo was higher priority for me there, and the loo with rest area was in a bungalow off the road. I washed my face, neck, and head there. 50K start/finish point had an open dining area, but I didn’t go there either so wouldn’t know what was being served. There, my priority was again a visit to the loo and the baggage area. I wish some bananas had been placed near the mat where water was placed so that runners who didn’t want to go for lunch could at least have a banana. One major lapse was that there was no aid station after 65K even though the table shared with us earlier showed one at 67K and another at 74K. This made it really challenging because I couldn’t take my last gel and salt tab when it was taking longer to get to the destination.
Some flat trail portions
Photographers and Volunteers
There were very active, smiling photographers at places on the 50K route. They also cheered while they clicked, seemed to ensure that each runner was captured. The volunteers at aid station were very few but did their best to ensure that the runners spent minimum time at their stations and quickly got what was available. It was good to see the same smiling faces at a couple of aid stations within 50K. After that was a different story. The volunteers providing direction were sometimes a little lost themselves and often missing too. After the last aid station at ~ 64K, didn’t see anyone and we were on our own.
I had carried a big packet of salt all through the run because I had heard enough about leeches. Should I say that I was very disappointed that I got only two leech bites 😀 Thank God for that! I didn’t notice one of them and the leech had its full and later fell off I suppose. The other was noticed by a co-runner at an aid station and he quickly applied salt to the leech to get rid of it. The camaraderie amongst runners was amazing! The socks had evidential blood stain now!
I had eight gels, nine salt tabs, four dates, six wedges of orange, some lemon besides water and electrolyte, no other solid “food”. I carried the gels, salt tabs, dates, and a handheld bottle with an additional small bottle for last 30K. I found that on such a route, one tends to lose track of time and distance. I took much lesser gel and salt tabs than I was supposed to, partly because I missed out and also because there was no aid station for the last 15K or more.
I came back to the (4k?) tar road to the 50K mark. This part allowed a lot more running in the last two km that weren’t totally uphill. I finished 50K in 7:55 totally eradicating any hopes of finishing the run while there still was daylight (although a few amazing runners did!!!!). I took a loo break after walking and climbing a few steps to the washroom, walked back about 50m to the baggage area and got my bag quickly to replenish. Here, I appreciate the baggage counter volunteers again for their organization and efficiency. Noticed that I had one blood blister on a toe, just applied Vaseline generously and changed my shoes and socks. I also decided to wear my knee caps as a precaution, a good decision in retrospect. Stuffed my pockets with a torch and more UPTK gels. Took an additional small bottle besides the handheld that I had carried for 50K. Then I walked back to the start point and filled up the water bottles. The total break there was about 20 min or so. I was wishing it had taken lesser time…only to be able to reduce the distance to be run in the dark!
The Infamous Last 30K
I would like to divide this into two sections of 14K while there was natural light and last 16K in the dark.
The 14K had some trail with some extremely steep and long slippery climbs and then some runnable but rolling road followed by some more trail. I am told that some runners missed the first trail part, and there was some confusion also at the road offshoot. Within the first trail part too, there were confusing loops even though there were volunteers placed there to guide runners. They really didn’t know who was coming and who was going! I was trying my best to run a little more than I should have to try and cover more before it went dark. Met a lot of runners on the road part and we all cheered each other. At one place, I was made to do a loop twice, which I recovered. I noticed some runners not doing another loop even once and some runners cutting through loops in both 50K and 30K sections even where tapes had been put! Wondering how the organizers will sort this out with no manning from their side after about 65K, I decided to turn a blind eye and complete what I had come for. Towards the end of this stretch, there was one runner who was a little ahead or behind me for a few km. And then the confusion with arrows started. We would shout out to each other on seeing arrows. At one turn I was ahead and took the normal curve down in the absence of arrows. He followed too, but I didn’t notice any arrow after going about 200m so I called back to him. He was closer to the turn, so went back to the other road that went up and found an arrow after about 100m. He called out, I turned back and followed him. Ideally, there should have been an arrow at that fork. By then, it was almost dark.
In the next section of 16K in the dark there were no volunteers to guide or man the loops while I ran. The torch came out and I had to use it to see the trail and also the arrows marked on the trees. In the dark, it was difficult to do both at the same time for most part. After crossing 70K, slowly our group increased from us two to ten people as we congregated every time we get lost, and after we reached 72K, we stuck together! This 16K section was replete with missing arrows, incorrect markings, getting lost, spreading out in different directions to find arrows, calling out to each other, retracing, and then moving ahead. At one point, there was a big rock with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. We just didn’t know what to do, did inky-pinky-ponky and went in one direction for about 400m, didn’t find an arrow, then went to the other direction and didn’t find anything either. My memory is a little fuzzy because of the amount of arrow hunting we did and am not sure where we finally went 😀 At another point, there was one arrow, but on stepping in the direction of the arrow, there was no trail! So we all spread out generally to find another arrow. We found another group that was lost. This was the place we lost maximum time. We had to come back to the arrow and start looking again until someone shouted out that he had found an arrow…and that was not at all in the direction we were sent! I was thanking God for the company I had found by then!
There were some very steep, slippery slopes that were hardly visible and looked very dangerous! At one place, two runners (Thanks Rahul and the other runner too) who were wearing trail ultra shoes helped me by holding my hands and we slid down together twice through these short, steep slippery trails. Their experience and shoe grip helped! Otherwise, I would have had to sit and slide on them! We came to the 74K mark and saw the finish point across the tape just a couple of hundred meters away. Resolved to just keep going in the right direction! However, we again had to look for an arrow to give us a direction to follow. No idea about the exact distance, but many km again had a valley on the left and I modified my form again to cover risks! The finish pics are indicative of this! The sight of the road seemed totally unexpected when it finally came, and we “Arrow Finders”, as we called ourselves, jogged to finish our run together! Sorry I don’t remember your names, but I am glad that we all stuck together until the end, encouraging each other!
The finish, don’t miss the tilt!
The modified route this year was a lot more challenging than last year with steeper inclines, slush, missing and incorrect marking in the 30K loop, Missing aid stations, and the slush as well as slipperiness caused by the rains that thankfully stopped on the run day. The guy who finished first in 80K did it in 11:32. Last year, the first Indian did the old route in 8:49. Just an indicator to tell myself that it’s OK to have not finished within 12 hours as I had hoped! RD extended the finish time because of the 30K loop conditions. I feel sorry for those who had to DNF because large sections of the route were not runnable and also because of incorrect marking! God bless those who DNFed after 63K but still were captured as finishers.
The Arrow Finders
In such a run where timings and positions are inconsequential, my official time is 13:43:49! A huge thanks to coach Atul Godbole for a training plan that worked wonderfully! I definitely think that I have earned the buckle and the bragging rights!
Earned this beauty
Before and after, took the after pic on Sunday
Note: Some of the pics here have been downloaded from other Facebook posts.