by Taru Mateti
Tata Ultra Marathon (TUM) had proved very elusive for me in its first two editions, and despite registering for it last year, I couldn’t participate even though it is an excellent “first long monthly run” in the entire Comrades training cycle. I had heard a lot of good things about it, and so was determined to not let anything come between (TUM) and me this year. To the extent that I even planned my Melbourne trip after this run! And oh boy, was it worth it! Of course, read on!
Training for TUM
I ran Malnad Ultra last Nov, took two weeks recovery and then had a fast-track, short training cycle for Tata Mumbai Marathon. Full marathons are not my thing and I was running one after a long time because it fit in well in the training for TUM. This is not to say that I didn’t put in effort in my TMM full marathon, I did get a course PB even though by a few seconds :)! The main thing was that hills were totally neglected in this training period.
After TMM, we were to have two easy weeks again and then Comrades cycle was to begin for those participating in Comrades, and TUM would be their first monthly long run. Coach Atul and I discussed and because I need a longer recovery period, I got a customized training plan with only one week for recovery after TMM and a week of taper before TUM. And we decided to include sufficient hills for terrain-specific training. Even the lean Sunday run of 10K was done on Nandi Hills in Bengaluru. I did my 32K run on Bopdev Hills, doing two loops of the hill amounting to an elevation gain of about 700m. And then there were hill repeats too during the week twice between TMM and TUM. I felt confident about the training.
After Malnad Ultra, I continued with the regular gym 10:15 AM batches that included two days of spinning, two days of yoga and one day of aerobics, besides some yoga and strength training at home off and on. Of course, I took a week off before each event during taper time. I think these activities really complemented my running training. I also ended most of my runs more than a km away from home and brisk-walked back. Periodic visits to my physiotherapist for trigger point release helped and I also continued with the recommended exercises irregularly :p
My IBS flared in the last week and I had to take medicines on Thu and Fri to handle tummy issues. Stopped the meds on Sat because they were causing a little dizziness. Also, suddenly in the last week, my quads and calves became quite tight despite regular release and foam rolling. My physiotherapist did some deep tissue release on the quads and IT band and did dry needling for calf and foot. She thought that this could be because I wasn’t hydrating enough, and recommended that I have coconut water daily until Saturday and also hydrate well. And then I was set!
Bib collection was quick and smooth, not too many people were around because we reached Lonavala on Sat morning. So we went back again in the evening and met runners from many different cities. The goody bag, which is actually a shoe bag, had some stuff from Tata, a headlamp, a cap, a bandana, and a good quality, well-fitting tee shirt.
Whether it was the excitement of the run or just my regular sleep issues, I got absolutely no sleep during the day on Saturday although I did try after lunch and after early dinner. So I just decided that I should be happy going a step further…during Comrades training and other ultras, I’ve been able to get at least a couple of hours of sleep. We had carried some sweet potato that we had during the day and also shared a bottle of enerzal. Early dinner was standard khichdi, jeera aloo, and curds. Had two bananas at 00:30 AM and got ready to go. As expected, body clock didn’t cooperate well.
We reached the start line at about 1:50 AM and met a lot of runner friends there. The start holding area was laid out very well with many items to eat as well as tea/coffee. I had a few almonds and raisins and decided to skip the start gel. I was carrying my hydration mix in my bottle and date gel in my belt and pockets. I was also carrying some salted dates and salt tabs, so I was well-stocked and knew I would need only water and electrolyte from the aid stations. The headlamp strap was quite loose, so I put it around my waist instead of the head, which felt more comfortable too.
I had looked at the route map before the run, so I knew that the toughest portion would come after 40K. However, that’s not how it turned out for me.
The first 30K of the ultra
The run started at 2:30 AM in the dark. The initial 6K doesn’t have much inclines, so I could run in a relaxed manner. Then came the first hill. This being the first one, I could do most of it running, with very short walk breaks on very steep stretches. It being dark, the run just went on with nothing much to distract because I needed to focus a lot on the road. The cool weather and the darkness made me feel sleepy while I was running, so poured some water on my head, face, and neck and gave myself a shake! The entire route is a rolling one, so the route gradients ensured it didn’t become monotonous. I am a little fuzzy about this, but I think there was a patch of broken road too that needed careful running. Tummy issues forced me to take two breaks. I also poured water periodically to keep myself cool. It was fun running alongside so many good runners, waving a hi to a friend, and chatting a sentence with another. I didn’t have a specific target so I was just running by feel and effort, just as I had run during my training runs.
Excellent is the word for it! The volunteers were so forthcoming with support. The traffic was controlled well wherever needed. The port-a-loos were the best I have come across, clean and equipped with tissues, handwash and water. The aid stations were well-stocked with a variety of things, although all I needed was water/electrolyte. At some critical places there were vehicles with headlights on, that was very helpful.
There were many cheerful photographers enroute, and I plead guilty for sometimes taking my own time, slowing down behind a runner or two to get good running pics 😀
I had a salted date every 6 km and then a date gel after the next 6-7 km. The electrolyte I was carrying lasted until about 30K and I took water from the support stations and electrolyte too later. Although coke was available earlier too, I had it thrice after 40K. I took a salt tab after every 11-12k. After about 35k, I started feeling a little puky, so reduced the eating and skipped a date between the next two gels.
The last 20K of the ultra
Somewhere along the way I realized that I was having a good run and enjoying it at a decent pace. And then I thought that if I reached 40K with an average pace of 6:45, I would be able to manage a sub-6 despite the infamous last 10K. However, towards the end of the first segment, a long gentle incline of about 7K began. Also unknown in advance, there was a long segment of rough road patch with both incline and decline. The rubble here was very bad. I must have tripped 8-10 times along the whole route with fellow runners saying “be careful”.
The good thing is that I slowed down and didn’t fall. Downhill is my strength, and I was feeling a little frustrated at not being able to sprint down. Uphill too was made more difficult by the rubble. I think this long rubble stretch was the part of the ultra that bothered me the most and slowed me down where I could have covered time. But I guess all runners took it in their stride. Sunrise was beautiful and then the scenic route made the run easier! I reached 40K with an average pace of about 6:48. The km markers were good and helpful, but by now I my watch was about 300m behind, which is normal. I specifically like the indicative “Uphill” and “Downhill”, I started to challenge myself to not walk for at least some distance when I saw an Uphill written on the road.
The last two hills lived up to their reputation 😀 I had planned to walk them, but the walking pace was going down to even lower than 11min/km, so I decided to not be so laid back and run as much as possible, whenever. I should have done the downhills faster, but somehow didn’t have a sense of that much of urgency and wanted to enjoy as well as finish injury-free. By the time I reached the last hill just before 48K, I had realized that if I ran a little on the hill, I could manage a PB. But it was very close. Decided to just keep going as best as I could. And when that hill finished, I realized that I needed to finish faster to get a PB, so I increased the pace!
Just as I finished, a volunteer put something around my neck and I felt that it was too light to be a medal. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this indicated that I was amongst the top 10. I was impressed with the efficiency of the entire prize distribution process. The finish area was also huge! The physiotherapist helped with ice and stretches. Icing helped arrest the swelling of my knees and also helped cool down my toes that were red and hot.
Finished the run – 50K at Tata Ultra Marathon with an elevation gain of about 900m – a very happy one, with a PB (with a few seconds) of 5:54. I had earlier clocked the same timing in Nov 2015 at Pune Ultramarathon with elevation gain of less than 100m.
I followed the Comrades strategy of “just don’t stop”, except for a couple of loo breaks and once when I requested a volunteer to refill my bottle. All the remaining refilling and eating/drinking happened jogging. I ran most of the hills too the way I did at Comrades, except the bad patch of the road. Thanks coach Atul, the training plan and the pace guideline for the training cycle after Malnad Ultra worked well for me. The best thing for me is that I enjoyed my run and finished injury free besides getting a PB on such a challenging route.