Monday, 30 December 2013

Hubli Passenger humbled in the hills

Having gone barefoot for a little over one year, the only regret is to give a go by to trail runs. So when Globe racers announced the Nilgiris 100, a road event, I was tempted. My friend from Gandhiland, Piyushbhai, assured me that Kavita’s events are no frills and affordable. Anyway, my purse strings were already loosened after the flight ticket for the Navagraha Ottam, I registered for the Nilgiris Ultra. We were happy that we go back to our honeymoon site after 22 years and to be able to participate in an Ultra, a bonus!

Self doubts kept assailing me since I registered for the event, the gradients, whether the khadi wear will keep out the cold! New pair of shorts and tops arrived on the day of the departure, with the shorts not having pockets! Kept debating whether I should run in full pajama-kurtas. Finally, decided to run in double shorts and tops. Bala stepped in with a reflector suit and wife was saved the bother of stiching reflector tape on my top. I had equipped myself with a night headlamp during the last Ahmedabad visit. After   having lost one headgear during Navagraha ottam and another one with the weavers in Madurai as sample, have been running bareheaded. Decided to take daughter’s monkey cap (for the night portion) and Neville’s Dawn to Dusk cap (for the day portion) for headgear during the run. As for the eventuality of stretches of bad roads, decided to carry slippers tucked in at the back as a backup.

Left Hubli on Thursday night, ironically, daughter returned at the same time from her visit to the Northeast. Breakfast of Bun and Jam washed down with green tea. Wife fasted to avoid motion sickness troubles on the bus ride later. My colleague came and dropped us at the bus stop. The bus stop is very spacious and modern, but, lacks a chemists shop. The bus left on time and we snuggled into our two-seater, wife taking the window seat. We passed herds of spotted dear and my Sita did not crave for a golden one, she was sure of my running limitations! Beautiful weather, scenery and carbo loading, if this is not heaven show me one!

My eyes were constantly eyeing the quality of the road sizing up if it was bare sole friendly. Kavita had assured me that the road was bare foot friendly. The bus had two stops at non-descript hotels for snack breaks. I got down for the sun bath and bio-break and not for any snacking. The bus entered Ooty at 1:45 PM. I had bargained for the rest house suite at the Ooty station (giving up the more popular one at Fernhill!) since it was closer to the start point. If the climb to the rest house suite was any indication, I was forewarned of the gradients for the night’s run!

We quickly changed our dress and set out to find a place to have our lunch. Our mission was to locate ‘Vijay vilas’ a vegetarian hotel next to the station which the then station master Radhakrishnan Sir (said to have retired and settled at Coonoor/Chennai!) had introduced the young couple to 22 years earlier for good south Indian meal. Our last visit we had most of our meals there, walking the distance from Fernhill rest house to Ooty and back. This is a good time as any for a small diversion. I remember during our walks back to Fernhill late at night my wife of a few days then had asked me what I would do if someone waylaid us. I used to wear hawaai slippers then (trademark of IITK students!), I had told her I would remove my slippers, wear it on my hand and make a run for it and suggested that she also do the same. How unromantic it must have been! Little did I know then that my passion later in life would be barefoot running! The caretaker and the station master stated that the place we were referring to has shut down and is now called Komala Vilas, but, it does not serve lunch. The lady at the counter of Komala vilas did own to be the descendant of Vijaya vilas, but, offered only biryani for the hungry souls. We settled for food at Shiv Shanti, an Andhra joint standing at the same place as Vijay vilas. The food was a disappointment. Maybe, we should have listened to the persistent VRR bearer who was calling us for lunch.
We took an auto for the venue of bib-collection and after my purse becoming lighter by Rs. 60/- we were deposited at Sai palace (we later realized that that the place was less than a kilometer by walk from the station!). Met Priya, Kavita, Dharmendra, Bala and many other running legends. Photo shoots ensued and we were on facebook even before a step of the Ultra was run! I was overwhelmed by the affection and respect shown by the fellow runners. Pavitra’s article in Mint seems to have done the trick! There were inevitable questions about the target time for the run. I was already under pressure by Piyush bhai repeatedly coaxing me to go for the 12 hour mark. In my heart of hearts I knew that the course was hilly, the cold weather added and the fact that I had not run this distance since last two years, hazarding any target would be foolish. I maintained that I would like to enjoy the run and would like to finish on two feet and smiling!

After having fixed up with Bala for the reflective jacket and plan for rations to be left at aid stations, we returned to the rest house by 5 PM. Plan was to get a few hours sleep before wake up call at 9 PM for the pre-run rituals! Idea was not to have any major meal now and to stay light for the run. My wife was feeling restless for not being able to crew for me or cheer me as this was an out and back run and that too starting at midnight from a place about one km from our place of stay. Knowing my Columbusian skills she was apprehensive about letting me walk to the Sai palace at night. I assured her and tucking a hundered rupee note in the pocket as insurance, set off to find Sai Palace. Reached the place after an interesting conversation with a hotel employee returning after his day’s toil (his was a Non Veg joint, of no help to our culinary adventure!). To be honest, I did go off in the wrong direction and had to seek help from policemen, I am not sure if they were covinced that I was sober when I told them of my intended purpose (running 100K from midnight). Spent the next one hour soothing Bala’s nerves and trying to convince Srikumar to go for the 100K. Between me and Ashok we were able to convince Sri to dress up for the vent, the lady however, was very severe on Sri’s flip flops of distance to be run and he had to retire to start with the 50K group next day morning. After tucking in my slippers, tea and curry leaves in the mouth, reached the foyer for the warm ups with the group. My feet were going cold and I kept jumping on my toes to keep them warm. Kavita gave a Seargent Major’s speech and woke us up with her descriptions of getting lost on the way. I decided to stay with some other runner all through the run. The part about carrying one’s own bottle or using smaller bottle from the aid station and refilling it and not leaving plastic waste gave me a warm feeling. I took a 300ml bottle of water.

All my promises fell apart as usual once my feet found rhythm on the smooth road. I zipped off and I remember Bala mentioning this with relish the next day to my wife!  Luckily, Dharmendra and another youngster (I came to know later as Keiren) were running at about my pace or a little faster. The fist few kilometers in the city were quite confusing and I kept following the lights on Dharmendra’s shoes mechanically. We got quite a gap among the three of us, Keiren always in the front, Dharmendra lagging me initially and later led me after taking off at a down gradient. I crossed the fisrt aid station where Aparna was just setting it up, she egged me on and asked me to go on. I had set my mobile on hourly alarms, the first hour just having chimed, 12.5K in little over an hour was good progress! Keiren and Dharmendra were simply flying. I had been running all the up gradients till then and seem to be going for the broke without a care for the balace run to be done!

After the first aid station and having had one 300ml of water, I was looking for a place to relieve myself. I chanced upon what looked like a statue of a large Bison. I went near and was in for a shock when its eyes twinkled in my headlights reflection. I quietly witched off my headlamp and proceeded on without looking back. It looked like Yama having decided to take a break had left his steed to rest while he did a few stretching exercises after his notorious nightly duties. I did not think of the Bison till I met Dharmendra and asked him if hed had seen the Bison, I thought I must be hallucinating when he said he hadn’t seen one (My sanity and sobriety were later vouched for by Bala’s not so friendly encounters with this very Yama-steed!). I caught up with Dharmendra at around kilometer 15 and we ran together till the half way mark and the experience was sublime. He taking care of the route and frequently egging me on, the journey was perfect. He also taught me to adopt the walking uphill and running downhill strategy. The roads were virtually free but for a rare vehicle. The aid vehicles were frequently criss crossing us. It would have have been great if they had said a few words to cheer us. I remember Dharmendra also mentioned this. Another important lesson I learnt running with Dharmendra was not to look too far ahead, he famously said that if we go one step at a time, there is no gradient! This I consciously tried to follow all through the run. The scenery was bathed in moonlight and we could switch off our lights and savour the nature as we ran. Few dogs kept trying to get introduced to us, but, having been locked up they couldn’t meet us. I remember hoping that I have the energy to chat them up on my way back the next day!

The road got a little worse after KM 30, but, I persisted with my bare feet. After many a pokes and soles little raising their hands, I finally took off my slippers and used them from KM43. I was now ahead of Dharmendra and around this time i came across the crossroad saying Upper Bhavani on the side road and the red tape of Kavita showing the other road. I decided to trust Kavita’s marking over my knowledge of Tamil. I remember calling out to Dharmendra about this. It had markedly become cold now with very cold winds tearing into my two layers of Khadi. There were no kilometer stones now and the road was very bad. I got a doubt about whether I had made a right choice at the crossroads earlier. I tried calling Kavita on my mobile as best as my icy and numb fingers could manage only to find that there was no network coverage. I started walking back to find Dharmendra. After about half a KM I saw the headlights of Dharmendra and was I relieved. He confirmed having seen the red mark and we walked together. After what looked like zillions of kilometers, we saw this lady (who has been crewing for one of the colleague runners and who really cheered and supported all of us during the entire run). We heard the sweetest words from her then when she said that the half way mark is 200m ahead. We both reached the half way mark and crashed on the mats. We spotted Keiren who had reached much ahead of us. The time was 6.01 AM. The volunteers had to peel the orange and banana for me, my fingers were frozen. I also quickly gobbled up two buns with jam which I had kept in my drop bag.I left the headlamp in the bag. I don’t know if I could have refused Tea/Coffee saying that I am Vegan if I was offered it then! Final act of mercy, volunteer Shashi Gowda (hope I got his first name right) offered and stretched my legs which I am sure would have wanted to stay back.

We three, Keiren, Dharmendra and me started back at 6.30 AM. Within half a kilometer, Ashok Daniel and two runners met me. Following them closely was Bib-Bala. I stopped and gave him a big hug. I was really worried about him after seeing the course and was feeling guilty about not running with him. He was very emotional. I was really impressed with his effort and told him to have something to eat and rest before the return run. He really did very well considering the course and the weather, his training for the run seems to have really paid off.

My slippers were now bothering me. Small pebbles getting in were very painful. Also, the slippers were hitting the other foot while running. I tripped very hard and thankfully was able to balance myself. A fall then in that cold would have cooked my goose. I seem to have forgotten running with footwear. Dharmendra now seemed to be slowing down. He graciously told us both to carry on. The run got a little better when the Sun came out. I never thought that I would welcome this guy. The tea estates and the downhill run seemed to suit us and we made quick time. Keiren kept reminding me of the clims between KM 25 to 15. I was looking forward to KM 58 as after that psychologically, it was just another marathon. I was also looking forward to KM 35 where I could take off my slippers.

In my exchanges with Keiren, I was impressed with his dedication and maturity. For a boy of 20 to have the temperament to run 100K (he seemed to have run BU100 in under 12 hours last year) was impressive. We kept talking about running and the distance melted. I had taken off my cap and tucked it in my back. After some time I felt lighter and realized that I had dropped my daughter’s cap. I had no plans of returning for them! I was running ahead of Keiren and was disappointed when said that he had not seen the cap when he joined me. After a while, I could hear Dharmendra catch up with us wildly waving my cap in hand. We three kept up together for the next few kilometers after which Dharmendra stayed back pointing to his knee.

After KM 35, when I was running with my headgear, reflective suit and slippers in hand, met Kavita who offered me to drop the extra things in the car. I felt much lighter after this, but, having dropped my slippers I was committed to 35K of barefoot running even if the course was tasted earlier by my soles. I mention this incident of dropping my extra baggage for one more reason, when I asked Keiren why he did not drop his back pack in the car, his answer impressed me no end. He said that it would be cheating as he should carry whatever he started off with! Such honesty and dedication, in this day and age of doping and other short cuts, this kid would sure go far!

Rest of the run was a flurry of walking breaks on the uphill and run on the downhill. We met the 50K runners and seeing them energized us with the high fives all around.We had considerably slowed down and the 12 hour target was out of the window. I got quite a few stares for my attire and bare feet. Keiren and I had to stop at one place to help an old man who wanted help to put his firewood bundle on his head. Without our knowing, Kavita was at hand to take the picture of us taking a break to help theold man. I remember both of us had commented that it would appear we performed for the camera. We definitely needed the break!

About 15K from the finish, Keiren’s friends joined us. His warden, his biggest support, and two of his friends from college, cheered us all the way for the rest of the run. At about 3 kilometers from the finish when we were mostly walking, I saw my wife behind her camera at a distance. I asked Keiren to run as I did not want us to be snapped walking. We ran a good stretch and continued, Now, finish point could not be far! We, Keiren and I had discussed earlier when he had said that both of us would finish the race together, that he should go first as he drserved the win, he having led all through the race. Keiren then just took off, while I struggled with pebbly roads and traffic. Once into the city, the red tapes whish could be seen in the night without the traffic were a struggle to be spotted. I had to ask every person for the Sai Palace, soon I spotted a small buch of people cheering aoutside the hotel, our start point. I had finished in 13 hours and 15 minutes by my watch (Official time, 13:17), Keiren having come in at 13:11.

Next few hours were spent basking in the glory of the finish. Had lunch with Sri and wife at a local South Indian restaurant. The Sun was setting and the winds were getting chill, was worried about Bala who was said to have been last sighted at KM 12.5. Bala came in at 3.30 PM relatively unscathed considering the course and the weather. He was over the moon, but, really cut up at losing precious time inside the city. Dharmendra came in about an hour and a half after us, he seemed to have taken some phsio exercises before he could continue. Wife and self returned to the rest house with Bala promising to join us later after his PR exercise.

I must have been overly ambitious in having promised wife a trip to Fernhill hotel (was it 5 star, it was sure much beyond my purse during honeymoon at Rs. 65/- for a cup of coffee and cutlet) on Sunday. Dinner was on some Idlies, Parotha from the VRR at Ooty station where the boy had agreed to home deliver. Bala kept us waiting and dinner was had at around 7PM and we turned in early for the night. Bala had a bad night with the Bison and the cold tormenting him. We woke up relatively stronger and able to negotiate the climb down (and the climb up on the return) to the VRR, the Pongal (I had to forego for the ghee, said to be good), Idli and Rava Upma. We promised the Manager three tickets for lunch. My wife backed out and it was Bala and me. The rice quality was not good and variety very less, but, it was bland and filling. My wife skipped the meal as a mark of respect to the bus journey down the hill! The journey through Mudumalai and Bandipur was as exciting on the way back, with sightings of wild boar and stags in addition to the ubiquitous monkeys and deer. We had a sumptuous dinner at my colleagues place in Mysore and felt good impressing his young nephew and his wife of my exploits in the nilgiris.

The run was an experience particularly coming to know two great persons, Dharmendra and Keiren during the run and finally being able to meet Kavita and Priya in person. Bala and self seemed to agree on more informal runs like the Navagraha Ottam in the coming year than paid events in the coming year. But, SCMM is on a different footing altogether, Mubai here I come for our annual tryst!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Margazhi Utsavam of the running kind

This year due to insufficient practice for her and probable clash of an official function, we almost were to miss it. As a compromise we decided to take the later train to Chennai with half a day in Bangalore. Bala and his family stepped in to take care of us and Bala helped with the logistics of correcting errors in registration (In my own absent minded way I had registered twice in my Daughter’s name!) and collecting our running kits for us.


After a leisurely and sumptuous breakfast and lunch at my brother-in-law’s, we set off for the train journey from Bangalore to Chennai. My daughter agreed to travel second class in Brindavan Express to humour me. I have had very fond memories of travel by Brindavan of my childhood days of non-stop eating and looking out of the window. Our seats were nearer the toilets and despite cleaning before start, it was stinking. I just hoped with the breeze of the moving train, things would get better.  The train got very crowded as the compartment was overtaken by commuters, sadly many of them Railway staff, who were returning after half day work on Saturday. We had a Gujrati couple with two young kids for company on the other side. They were indulging in non-stop eating and we were amazed at the young kid’s performance. Hearty meal at home meant no luck for the pantry staff with us. I really admired their patience and persistence in weaving through the crowded aisles tempting the prospective customers in their distinctive sales pitch. Tribute to our self control railway got revenue of one cup of tea from the two of us (age and the fear of interfering with the digestive system before the run next day kept us sober!). In between all this, the brave TTE was able to check the tickets and at least clear the reserved seats off the commuters. Bulk of the crowd got down at Bangarpet and we breathed a sigh of relief. I mechanically impressed my daughter with my knowledge of the section prompting her with the next station and the timing (I have been an officer of this division for almost 5 years even if a decade back!). The train was running to time and the brief stoppages at the stations were a relief from the scenery and some change in our companions.

The kid took a nap from his exertions of non stop hogging and woke up to further bouts of raiding the pantries of the Brindavan Express. His appreciation of the Railway catering warmed the cockles my railway heart. After running perfectly, the train lost at the entrance to Chennai station and we were worried about getting the MRTS connection to Bala’s place. Bala had been all through the afternoon and keeping track of our progress and we were afraid of disturbing them too late in the night. After an agonizing half an hour’s wait at Park station, where we were assured by the waiting crowd of regulars that a train would come andeeing Murphy’s law in operation (nearly three trains in the opposite direction and many more on the adjoining suburban line) we got the last service. I alerted Bala two stations before and he reached in time to pick us up on his bike (not wanting to disturb Prabhu, his trusted driver, from his Sunday afternoon off). We rode triples on the bike with our

luggage and Bala likened the trip to the scooter ride of film ‘Swades’. We polished off quite a few idlis for dinner, smilingly served by Shanti. Bala updated us on his bib-distribution adventures during the day. He was not running and the entire family, including Prabhu, were volunteering in the next days run. Hats off to the family and their spirit of service! The kids had slept and we also turned in early setting alarm for 3 AM to meet the 4 AM start prescribed by Bala. I had forgotten my spinning wheel at Bangalore, which i spin while consuming morning green tea before the run for hydration. I was feeling superstitious about the run due to this. We got ready and dropped by Prabhu to the nearest point from where we had to walk about half a Km, the gravelly and scuffed up road to the CPT ground, the start point this year, were testing my soles. I was feeling a little apprehensive as this could be the finishing stretch of the run too!

Leavinf my daughter to wait for her later start of half marathon, I reached the start point. The party on stage, ably assisted by Bala, were working up the runners into a frenzy after the trainer had put us through warm up routine. Met lot of runner friends and meeting with Parag from Pune who is a good artist and barefoot runner was special. I was not feeling much excitement and was going through the motions. I was hopeful that the running in the group would get me going! The humidity was tempting me to prepone doing the Gandhi act of taking off my top shirt at the start itself (Ram Sir did his bit by egging me on!). I desisted, but, the shirt came off in the first km itself. On my way back after the turning we crossed the waiting HM runners. I tried to spot my daughter, but, did not spot her. She later told me that someone was telling her about my strange attire and barefoot running feats and that he sees me at all major events. She trumped him by saying that she was my daughter. It’s a great feeling to be a hero to your daughter (My Daddy strongest!). The movement and gap between runners eased the suffocation, but, just a bit. A brief spell of drizzle did give a good relief, I remember calling it the ‘Amma Neer’. A much bigger and heavier shower awaited us later. The rain made it very pleasant to run. The people in shoes had problems of wet wear, I was once thankful for my bare feet. I could run splashing in the puddles! My unconventional attire and bare feet were as usual getting the, by now, familiar reactions. I remember a bunch of Ayyappa devotees giving me a rousing catcall taking me as their own. I told them don’t mock my passion or else I would be provoked to mock their faith, to each his own. I saw a clock outside a church near KM8 show 51 mts past five, I was unusually slow.  By now I was feeding off the energy from passing of cheers and high fives from spectators and colleague runners. Running on Marina particularly on the rain swept morning was a divine experience. I had the company of Surya Nandhan Raj, who gave me silent company and paced me beautifully. We ran together for about the first half and it was a wonderful experience. One incident stands out in the run on Marina, on my way back a yound girl came from the opposite side with her hand raised asking me to give her a high five! This can only happen with people high on endorphins, imagine a young girl giving a high five to a middle aged half naked man on Marina on a busy Sunday in our own Singara Chennai! She looked like the girl in the Cadbury Ad and seemed full of spirits, hope she had a good run. I got lot of return cheer and high fives from runners in the opposite direction. I saw my daughter running strongly in the opposite direction and we exchanged a loud cheer! But, I seemed to be running very mechanically and not exerting myself, maybe, the novelty of the Chennai marathon is wearing off for me.

            Argument much like the famous Coffee-Toffee frequently happen between me and colleague runners about my being the Hubli Passenger or an Express. In their eagerness to praise my speed they call me the Express (not that I am really Express pace, more like Balwinder Sandhu!), but, for me, my calling myself Passenger is not about speed alone. To me a Passenger symbolizes more of what I believe running means to me. A Passenger is for enjoying the journey than about reaching the destination faster, takes all along and does not overawe the common man with jazzy exterior!

Running further, I met Anandan, who was part of the organizing team of our Navagraha Ottam on one of the streets. He recognized me and I thanked him as I had met him in person first time after his kindly act of restoring me my glasses!

I crossed a lot of aid stations and even at the cost of appearing rude, I did not want to break my rhythm, I refused drinks as I was not thirsty. The smiles of the volunteers was quite another thing, they seemed to put back the spring in the steps. I had not once looked at my mobile to see the time, that was my challenge! I slowly started picking off runners ahead of me one by one particularly at the aid stations, it always gives you a kick to overtake! One cyclist volunteer approached me to ask if I needed Volini, he stayed on with me for the rest of my run and was a great company. He cleared the way for me and kept asking me if I needed anything. I was made to feel like an elite runner with my own dedicated support buddy, THANK YOU ASHOK! I missed him at the finish point and could not even thank him. Outside IIT before entering it, we crossed the 10K run participants on the other side. I got a loud cheer, I think my dress or lack of it did it again, I gamely waved back at them. The rain ravaged roads inside the IIT was quite harsh on my soles and I had to run very gingerly. I was feeling like a Ferrari stuck in city traffic, not being able to accelerate. Even though there was Sun induced sweating, there was a feeling of not being able to push the pace. The volunteers were very cheerful and welcoming and I had a few drinks at two of the aid stations to mix with hem more than for a drink. Gatorade was a bad idea, should have stuck to my plain water. I met Ravi and Srikumar in one of the aid stations,but, did not stop there or drinks. Heard that Sri has got an injury and would not be running for a few months. Hope he gets well soon, will be missing him in Nilgiri run, was looking forward to run with him again after the Navagraha run.I kept sucking on orange drops and chewing green for salivation. I was able to accelerate a bit on the cobbled road outside IIT and that part of the run was satisfying. I finished the run in 3 hour 50 minutes and 59 seconds, timing not as good as the previous edition, but maybe, the humid weather was the culprit.Met my daughter who looked in pain, she seemed to have twisted her foot and cramped herself in the last 3 Kms of her run after having a good run for the first 18K, TOUGH LUCK. She still did a creditable 3 hr, what could it have been without the cramp. Better luck next time, great show with the amount of training she had put in! The stretching with Bala’s recommendation for jumping the queue seemed to have eased her pain. I waited patiently for my turn for stretching.


Meanwhile, she informed me that nothing was kosher for the vegan me in the refreshment pack except of an orange which she had thoughtfully saved from her pack for me. I still took my pack and after taking the orange gave the balance to the young girl who was smilingly serving all runners without herself having had breakfast. I said it last year and will repeat for emphasis, Chennai should switch to a more local breakfast like Pongal/Vadai like Auroville, if possible ghee being kept separate to spare the vegans like me. Got my turn for stretching and after Arun, my physio’s attention, I was as good as new. After Shanti and krishna got free of their volunteering duties and had had their breakfast, we reached home. It was good to interact with Shreya and Krishna (they had slept off the previous day when we reached and were sleeping when we left in the morning!). We had a hot water bath and Shanti dished up a wonderful Pulao with Papad and Salad for a sumptuous lunch. My plans for testing Amma’s canteen would have to wait for my next trip!

The return journey was spent resting the body. The train seemed to be full of runners returning from marathon. Everybody seemed to be complaining about the weather and having got poorer time than the previous edition. Made my daughter and me feel better. We had a wonderful exchange about diet, injuries. Feels good to see so many youngsters take to running in a big way. Compared to them we were quite indisciplined in our youth. I see no reason why we can’t lick lifestyle diseases by taking to running. I have got a few of the companions as facebook friends now.

A very hurried visit and an insipid run, but, looking forward to the Nilgiri 100K Ultra in two weeks!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Star spangled run

           Bala had alerted me almost six months before this run and honoured me to be first few founding runners. Let me confess that I was merely a running partner and had no contribution in the organization. I am of course talking about the Navagraha Run, the plan was to cover the nine temples dedicated to each of the Nine graham (nine planets) located in and around Kumbakonam. The icing on the cake for this wannabe Gandhi was the run was to culminate on the Gandhi Jayanti and this was inspired by our Dandi to Sabarmati run of the previous year around this time. My exposure to the navagraha’s before this run was only that I circumambulated the nine idols looking away from the Sun idol in temples especially on Saturdays to ward off the ill effects of Saturn.


            The run was to commence on Sunday the 29th of September from near Kumbakonam. The build up to this run was not without its ups and downs, more downs I would say. If I thought getting four days off (with the office already bossless for over a month) was a challenge, the situation got compounded by my getting nominated to a program at the Indian School of Business with virtually the who’s who of my service upto the evening of the 28th September. While I was grappling with the challenge, my wife gave me the courage to book a flight ticket from Hyderabad to Chennai (my first big expenditure for a run, maybe, shape of things to come. I may still spend and run the Comrades!). The General Manager of the railway obliged by agreeing to my week long absence (subtly guided by showing an article about my barefoot running in Livemint recently, thank you Pavitra!). The course at ISB was thankfully light and an unending orgy of eating with lecture breaks. I was able to put in a few smaller runs on the picturesque campus. The heavy fare at the campus did not suit my Gandhian palate (being a newly turned Vegan did compound my problems!). Result, I had the runs for the last two days at the campus. What I remember of my departure from the Campus to my eventual arrival at Kumbakonam Railway station next morning was the loo breaks at the various stops enroute, including the small one on board the Dornier aircraft. It would be ungrateful of me if I did not mention the stop over at my nephew’s place in Chennai where I got home food and loo. The night train was late by about an hour late.


            I was continuously tracked by Bala, like an anxious mother of a teenage girl out on her first date, on his mobile. It was extremely kind of him to offer to wait for me for even a late start, if need be, to accommodate my late arrival. Mention must be made of the able assistant of Bala, Saravanan who received me at the station (7.30 AM, the runners had already started an hour before from Thingalur, which was about 30 Kms from the station) and literally flew me to waiting Bala’s car (I am reminded of a similar episode where my colleague, Pandeyji, who had similarly flown me to the start point when the Hubli passenger had earlier gone to tango with the Pedong Express, Roshni Rai!). I had already changed into my running gear on the train itself. The swamimalai temple evoked many memories in me (it’s our family deity), the village Alvandipuram I crossed next touched me a bit more, this is the place from where my paternal grandfather comes from and from where he walked away in his prime with only the clothes on his back over a dispute with his siblings. I met Bala, my wife and his wife and after a brief interaction we reached the Ganapathi agraharam, the place where the group had stayed the previous night to take blessings from Lord Vinayaka. The lady of the house met us outside the temple. She gave one look at me with concern and asked my wife if I have to necessarily run to all the temples. I was touched by the concern and affection shown by the simple folks within a few hours into knowing you. We rode to the first temple of the circuit, Thingalur (the abode of the Moon). I crossed the runners and waved to them, most of them later told me that they did not recognize me because of my spectacles. After a brief prayer (after wearing dhoti over my running gear, topless, top tied around my waist), Bala and I started at 8.40 AM (a full two hours and 10 minutes behind the others). After a brief stretch of bad road we got on the main road and to paraphrase Barefoot Ted, it was like a baby’s bum (Hema Malini’s cheeks if you prefer Lalu’s analogy!). The shady trees along the road made it even more pleasurable. We stepped on the gas and my mind was already scheming to catch the advance group. When Bala tried to get me interested in the greenery and the various water canals enroute, I remember having told him, we were like two candidates with arrears papers and could not afford the luxury of enjoying our run. The smiling assassin, the Sun was up in full glory and was making lip smacking sounds. The first leg till the lunch was 44Kms, the longest in the entire run. I pushed Bala with a view to reducing the gap. We had breakfast of Idlis, Sambar and Chutney (I avoided Pongal for the ghee it had!). I also had my first outdoor dump and with that overcame this fear of long distance cross country run. This was the first of the many breaks I took along the way and abundant Cauvery streams were a godsend. Despite Shanti (Bala’s better half) pleading to not push him too hard, he was doing admirably. I was running with him after a long time and was impressed with his grit and stamina. We passed on the left over breakfast to a reluctant assistant of a lorry driver. We carefully packed the paper and plastic refuse so as not to litter.


            The road was now getting hot and our drinking breaks were now every 3Km’s down from earlier 5K. Both the wives were doing a great job of countering the Sun and keeping us interested by mentioning that the tail of the advance group was only half an hour away.We now started taking unofficial breaks with Bala deciding to charm kids and ladies to get us water from every house/shop enroute. We also met a farmer who was cleaning freshly harvested cotton. He was befriended for a drink after Bala claimed brotherhood with him by introducing me as a person who spins yarn from fresh cotton. We crossed a group of ladies singing aloud while working in the field. I now found many locals going about topless, on their bikes and in the fields. I looked less out of place in my topless attire. Bala also decided to go topless. A look at the green paddy fields and streams did wonders to counter the hot sun baking me at both ends. We entered a populated place with concrete structures and heat particulary at the bottom became unbearable. I let myself be coaxed into putting on my slippers. It is now I remember I badly needed to take a potty break in the middle of a built up area. My wife’s extroverted skills came in handy here, she knocked into the house of a M.A. M Ed, a retired DEO (I forget his name!) and befriended the couple and even found common acquaintances while I used their toilet. Bala used the time for stretching. I remember telling Shanti about my wife’s skills at making friends, that, she could find and make acquaintances even if we were stranded in Timbuctu! My Gandhian reservations notwithstanding, I was force fed a pill to arrest my runs. Before evening, the trick was done and I had a peaceful run thereafter.


            Soon we could spot the last two runners of the runners of our team, Chakra Rangarajan who was painfully walking and Ravi Krishnan who was keeping him company. We wnt on to then meet Ram Viswanathan and Balaji and a few photographs later we ran on. We crossed some more runners (whose name I did not know then). At 2:40PM, Hubli passenger and Chennai mail chugged into our lunch point (6 hours for 44KM in the hot Sun was really superb), Well done Bala! A nice shower and before that a nice stretch by Manikandan the team physio was what the doctor would have ordered. Here we met all the runners, Selva’s mother, who very affectionately and personally fed us. Selva’s brother gave a smiling welcome, I felt as if I was in their home, he had come from Neyveli to make us comfortable. I must also mention Cindy, Peter’s pet, who took time to become friends but eventually we hit it off very well. Thank you Cindy for the company! We had a short nap and visited the second temple, Alangudi (the temple dedicated to Guru, the lord Brahaspati).


            We started the evening run at 5:50 PM and the Sun now tired from its day long atrocities was no match for Neville and my combined onslaught. Our destination was Thippirajapuram, the Race Director, Narayanan Sir’s village, where we were to stay the night. Neville was game when I suggested that we do the 11K in one stretch. We had a good run and Sinu (Peter’s mate) paced us on the cycle for the initial part of the run. We now also had the luxury of more aid vehicles now. We did the distance in 55 minutes and while I was celebrating, when Krishna and Shreya (Bala’s kids), grounded me by telling me that Srikumar uncle had come first and we were second and third. We got a grand reception from Old and young alike. The house where we gents were to stay was an old mansion complete with a big swing, high ceiling and walls replete with old black and white family photographs and Tanjore paintings. Here I was made to feel like a Cine star by a bunch of youngsters, who claimed that they had seen me in the movie ‘Edhir Neechal’. Ice broken, we had an interesting discussion on why I run and how old I am and what I eat. Krishna and Shreya made friends with them easily. We all were given a public reception with the elders welcoming each one of us traditionally with a shawl. The picture was complete with press coverage. We had literally arrived. Dinner was excellent with Narayanan Sir personally serving each one of us with a local sweet speciality (I had to pass over, it was not Vegan!). My wife and the ladies were put up in a separate house and they were fussed over no less! Thus ended Day 1, with my having covered 55 Kilometers in 6 hours and 55 minutes.



Day 2 started with not many aches and pains. My habit of early wake up meant no rush for toilet. I had a good spinning session on my spinning wheel. People came to life starting 4 AM. Cindy was squealing for attention and I had a good time petting her. There was no order in the chaos and it was well after 6 AM when the juggernaut rolled. We learnt from the next day when Selva Sir took over and we had prompter starts thereafter. We said our farewells to the now almost family elders of the place. I had done my bit to prolong my connection with Narayanan Sir’s place, I had forgotten my spectacles in their house where I stayed the night (or so I thought). I am still managing with my wife’s spectacles as I type this account a full two weeks later. Our first stop was about 12 Kms away, at Thirunageswaram (Rahu sthalam). I was disciplined and kept along Bala and Selva Sir for about half an hour, thereafter I let my natural pace take over and joined the lead group. I mention this habit of mine of sprinting off as this would be a subject of a major heartburn the next day when I caused an embarrassment for the group! The stretch of road was bad on one part of the run and I had to switch to my slippers, I must have been a sight, shirtless with a pair of bathroom slippers in hand. I met Saravanan who had come as promised to join us for the run this day. Srikumar, Neville and I reached the temple car park. We were stranded as our temple gear was stuck in the vehicle which was bringing up the rear. We had an imropmptu photo session. The bus arrived. We grabbed our Temple wear, and rushed to the temple pond for a dip. Peter, Selvam Sir and I had a good swim. I left my running clothes on the side of the pond to air and went off to be with my wife. When I rushed back to the pond, I found only my towel and my shorts and top were nowhere to be seen. This lost and found ended quickly much to my wife’s chagrin who gave a long lecture on my carelessness, when Selva Sir came to my rescue having taken my clothes to the vehicle. Today was a big day for the reigning deity for the temple as the day was Rahu’s day when he did the trick of turning the milk offered to him blue, the time being the rahukalam (7.30 to 9 AM on Mondays!) added to the crowd. We wished him from a distance and went for the much deserved breakfast. My stomach was holding well with the previous day’s pill having quelled the culprits. I had a good breakfast even tempting my tender tummy with half done Rice Upma! The cooks and attendants who fed us took personal care and fed us lovingly. This group really ran on their stomachs! A big part of the success of the run without any casualty was largely due to the culinary skills of our Annadaatas!


            The next stop was to be the Suryanar koil (ruling deity Sun!). The fact that we were going to pay obseissance to him did not cut any ice with him and he kept up to his torturing tricks and sapped us dry. The volunteers (minus my wife who had an engagement with the Registrar at Kumabakonam for the morning) kept up tirelessly the good work of hydrating us all along the route. The distance of about 12 Kms looked like a mountain in the hot Sun. The temple was special in that it had separate sannadhis for all the nava grahas. Even though I had read once the material on all the temples painstakingly compiled and circulated by Selva Sir and Shanti, the details keep merging into one another and I only remember following the crowd and the visit was an endless ritual of receiving of the holy ash and prostrations.


            The next stop was Kanjanoor the abode of the planet Venus. The best part was that this was a short run of about only four kilometers. Delayed start in the morning and the time taken at the first temple meant a sunny run and delayed arrival at Kanjanoor. We took a cooling break at a canal enroute. Peter and Selva Sir led the way. Selva Sir’s mother seeing us in the water from her vehicle on the bridge, rushing to the water like a young girl would stay etched in my mind. Krishna and Shreya also joined under the care of the Grandmom. She is really an example to the dictum that age is just a number. We did the rest of the journey in one stretch and Peter kept me company. Peter ran up a debt at the local shop for cold water. Soon others joined us and most of us crashed at the temple, the big cemented courtyard and sparse crowd of devotees also helped. We seemed to be in no mood to go on to the next leg of the journey to Vanaathi rajapuram (another 11 Kms) for lunch. We received word that free Annadanam is done at the temple. Most of us trooped in to partake of it. Even though the quality of rice was not too good and food was a bit spicy we had a go without a care for the upcoming run. We learnt that the cost of feeding is met from offerings and shortfall is made good by the State Government. I observed that the people serving food were partial to us well dressed and were not treating the locals with equal care. Peter’s white skin was a hit. I also have been impressed with the ease and felicity with which he took South Indian food from a plantain leaf. Looking at the delay I rang up my wife to try and come to Kanjanoor itself after she finished her work at the Registrar’s. Selva Sir, bowing to popular demand shifted the lunch venue to Kanjanoor and the temple authorities obliged. We lay down in the cemented courtyard, the high ceiling and cool breeze gave us a perfect rest. Soon lunch arrived and I lunched on Lemon rice and fried savouries to go with it. Within an hour, the water warriors led by the ever young Selva’s mother made plans for a dip at river Cauvery on the way to the next stop. I reluctantly stayed back for my better half to arrive. Within minutes of my wife arriving, we decided to run to the bathing point. This was about 3 Kilometers from Kanjanoor. A waiting colleague of Selva Sir, informed us that at this point, Cauvery flows northward and that it is a holy spot. The dip at this point is supposed to be equal to a dip in river Ganges at Kashi. We needed no such sales talk, a dip in cool waters in the hot sun was inviting enough. Srikumar, Neville, Peter and I had a good run and rushed to the waters where already the earlier gang was cooling off. Cindy showed off her swimming skills. Durai took many snaps of the group here and we had a nice picnic like atmosphere. Our next target was to reach Vanaathi Rajapuram, where the management of Flexi was to have hosted us lunch. Since the lunch was taken at Kanjanoor, they had kindly accepted to host us evening refreshments. We were told to reach by 5:30PM. We decided to cool off a bit more and wear down the Sun and felt that one hours run would get us home. The next part of the run was the best with people pressing on the accelerator, road obliging with smooth top and not much traffic. A barefooters paradise!


            I got carried away and had a good run, soon sighted a banner welcoming the Navagraha Ottam runners. We were welcomed by the people with farm fresh bananas and copious amounts of lime juice. I don’t remember how many bananas and rounds of lemon juice I would have downed. I remember someone fondly drooling for Vazhakkai Bajjis. Peter and a few others went straight for the borewell to cool off from the run. My wife tells me that the owner of the farmhouse used to entertain belonged to a Muslim owner who was currently in Middle East. This happens only in India that a Muslim fetes runners doing a Hindu temples circuit. It was getting dark and there was still 11 Kms to go for the night halt point at Myladuthurai. The hospitality and weather was so good that we did not want to leave.


            Reluctantly, we set of for the last leg for the day. Neville and Srikumar led from the front and I had Vadivel for company. After a few kilometers, Vadivel wished me well and dropped back. I pressed on to try and catch up with Neville and Srikumar. The road was straight and the instructions from the race director were to look for guidance after crossing the level crossing gate. I must have slacked a bit as I could not see the lead runners. It was getting dark. I got company in the form of a young kid on a bicycle. He looked embarrassed in accompanying an old man who was running barefoot, topless with a pair of bathroom slippers in hand. Just before the level crossing I confirmed from him the direction to take after crossing the level crossing gate. He airily waved and asked me to take the right. I crossed the gate and looked for some guidance, no one was in sight. I stopped and asked direction from the saw mill owner. He also corroborated the direction given by the youngster.


            I turned right and sped on. I still had hopes of catching up with Neville and Srikumar. It was getting dark and there were no street lights. I started remembering the handout and instructions given during the briefing before the last leg of the run. I remembered being asked to look for AVC kalyana mantapam and was to watch out for somebody who would guide before we hit the Kalyana mantapam. Almost half an hour of run later and many enquiries later, my worst fears came true. I had lost my way, was not sure of the name of the land mark. I had no money and no mobile! The things in my favour, I could speak passable Tamil and I could call from some shop to my wife! A very confident looking middle aged man told me that I have taken the wrong turn at the level crossing gate. I was advised not to turn back but to take a parallel road and ask for the Kalyana mantapam. After a few kilometers on a busy road I reached the kalyana mantapam. There was no lookout there too. I stopped at a shop and asked the shopkeeper to make a call. My wife had reached home, but, there was nobody to guide me. While I was struggling with my Tamil with the shopkeeper, I heard Bala abd Selva Sir’s voices. I experienced what Robinson Crusoe would have experienced on sighting man Friday! It turned out that they all were also lost. I had a good talk with Ravi Krishnan about our Labrador pets and I felt better. Finally we all reached home. After dinner of chapattis and korma (here also sweet dish had to be forgone, including one provided by the hosts, for being not Vegan), I walked to the nearest ATM to pay Bala our contribution. When I returned back with my legs aching for rest, I found a war council in progress. The group went silent as in entered. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to guess that I was the person under discussion. I was confronted by the three inquisitors, viz., Selva Sir, Narayanan Sir and Bala and told in no uncertain terms that I should not run alone, should carry mobile and cash. I don’t know if it was the late hour or my tired muscles, I decided to join issues with them in tones not befitting a wannabe Gandhi. In restrospect, I can now see that their outburst was out of concern for our well being. I apologized to both Narayanan Sir and Selva Sir. Bala I am sure understands. For records, I carried mobile and cash on the next day at least! Thus ended Day2 and 48 kilometers of recorded run and lots of fun and drama. I had a restless night, maybe, a combination of fatigue and guilt at having been rude to Selva and Narayanan. I got up early and spun yarn for some time. Cindy wanted my attention after spending the night alone on a leash and I obliged much to her pleasure.


            Amidst the riot act the previous night, Selva Sir had announced departure at 5.30 for the next day. Runners assembled by themselves eventhough Selva Sir did blow a few whistles like a PT master for effect. Today the first stop was Vaideeswaran temple (abode of Mercury), a run of about 13 Kms. Volunteers guided us on to the highway and then we were on auto pilot. One more decision of previous night was that I was paired with the speed demons, Srikumar, Peter and Neville. Neville looked a bit reserved today and was not giving his all. Sri and Peter put in a good distance between them and us. Presently, the Sun came out from our right, he looked so innocent. I was not to be fooled; I goaded Neville to step on the gas. One aid vehicle was serving us four and the run was pleasant. I must have been a sight running barefoot with slippers in hand. I made it a point to explain to people who commented about it and later even before they commented that the slippers were for if the road got bad or too hot later! We reached the temple about five minutes later than Peter and Sri. We walked to the South entrance, which was our rendezvous, warding off locals offering to read our future by reading palm scripts. The temri was emphatic that it was all fraud. I personally have not much interest in what the future holds and prefer to read the book called life without reading the back covers or flipping to the end.The joy of life is in its glorious uncertainities! Trading our running gear for impromptu swim wear we rushed to the temple tank. Peter jumped in and before you could say ‘Jack Robbins’ he was on the other side of the tank. He also posed from the top of the pedestal in the middle of the tank. I also followed suit taking care so as to not lose my towel in the water. When I reached the other end, an officious looking guy (not in any uniform) was having a go at Peter in chaste Tamil for swimming in the tank. I had no problem with the message, but, his tone was offensive. I gave him a piece of my mind and few other pilgrims nearby suppoted us. Presently, Selva Sir entered the water and when told of the altercation, informed us that he could clear the pond of all other pilgrims and arrange for our group’s private bath with police escort if required, such was his clout in the town! After a nice run and a bath we changed into fresh clothes and visited the temple. The temple was grand and had a separate sannadhi for Dhanvantri, physician numero uno! I could only think of my blisters. This is where Lord Rama believed to have performed last rites for Jatayu. There was something unique here, the navagrahas surrounding Sun were looking to the Sun whereas they normally look away as if in a fight. Balaji had a simple take on this, he felt the architect made a mistake! After the temple visit we all assembled along the pond side for a hearty breakfast of Idli, Sambar and Chutney (Pongal, coffee excepted!).

            It was around 9, when we set off for the next venue, Thiruvengadu (Planet Mercury). Others had started earlier, and we set off to catch them. Vadivel was also with us and we stopped next at a borewell. Vadivel took permission from the owner and we all had a nice head shower to cool the body. The aid vehicles carrying Bala’s and my wife and Shreya located us and stopped for us. After a drink whiel we were just contemplating starting again, we spied an ice-cream vendor. The lic-lolly kind which has many flavours. We tried Grape, Mango and Orange and I can bet the taste was better than the best. It brought back childhood memories. Simple joys of life! Race director informed us that local guide would help us cut 3 Kms of the run to the next temple. He was the father-in-law of Selva Sir’s assistant ang gave us all the Son-in-law’s treatment. He made us cool off in his house. We decided to sprawl there till others arrived. The high ceiling and breeze gave us a feeling of being in an air conditioned room. Next was 5-6 Kms of dry run with the person guiding us on a moped at each turn. The temple had a spacious and covered quadrangle where we all rested and ate groundnuts. All runners got special treatment from the temple priest. We waited for the food to arrive. Today was a little tricky as we had to do another stretch after lunch to be at temple dedicated to Ketu by 4.30PM. To run in the Sun after lunch would really be a challenge. I wanted to eat light, but, the food was tasty and hunger took over and I ate without a care for the run to follow. On a full stomach, blood drained to the stomach and bodies fell left and right in the shaded quadrangle.


            One by one the runners started to leave for the next temple, Keezhaperumballam (abode of Ketu). We four whom Selva Sir has started calling the elite runners left at 3 PM, distance of 8 Kms in one and half hour should be challenging! Luckily, the road was shaded on both sides and not hot for the soles. My blisters were now quite bad and my feet were refusing to go into the slippers. We met the other runners just where we had to take off from the main road. Even though the road ahead was quite pebbly and hot I preferred to rough it out as the soles looked better equipped than the feet being forced into slippers and aggravating the blisters. We reached the temple premises at 4.15 PM, well within the rahukalam (Tuesday 3-4.30PM). To witness the rahukalam puja at this temple is considered auspicious. There was a big crowd and we stayed on well past 4.30 PM to have a leisurely darshan and to read about the lore of the place which was prominently painted on the walls of the temple in English (which I discovered after struggling with Tamil) and Kannada. We all went outside to have cool drinks. I had two Bovontos (a local drink of Kumbakonam) which I hadn’t found anywhere else. Bala gave me his half finished bottle when he heard me saying that I like it. Neville and Sri had a buttermilk downing contest and this was to tell on the elite runner’s performance later in the evening. While Neville and Sri were at it, Peter and I decided to walk the bad stretch till the main road (my soles were scorched and I couldn’t risk running on this bad stretch). They took a long time in coming and when they did come, they kept delaying the start of running. So much so that I felt guilty about stopping for a drink at the aid stations. What Krishna said did the trick! He said, Uncle, I am mixing you special energy drinks and you can’t walk! Despite express instructions of the previous day, Peter and I started a slow jog, we wanted the end the day running and on a high and not walking and limping. We had a good run in the evening breeze and had an interesting talk about our pets. We reached the intersection where went off the main road. Here we met Selva Sir and Bala. I stopped to walk with Bala and Selva Sir and Peter ran on. It was quite dark now, I did not wan’t to repeat the previous day’s fiasco! Bala coaxed Selva Sir to do walk and run lamp post by lamp post. My legs had jammed due to prolonged walk and I was finding it more painful to walk than run. Selva Sir and I had an interesting discussion on Gandhi. This was our long march. Tired and battered we reached Sembanar Koil the venue of our night’s stay. What Krishna said about the place sums it up for me! ‘This place is like home, it has nice toilets’. The hosts were Selva Sir’s acquaintance. We were plied with bananas (which I gorged on) and fried cashews (which I had to decline as they were fried in Ghee!). I had a nice bath and even washed my running gear. There was ample space in the balcony to dry clothes. Manikandan gave us all a good stretch, interesting how you feel more tired after a walk than a run! Selva Sir’s CA friend Sreenivasan joined us. He was to accompany us on the run next day in his car. Coming to know that I am a die-hard fan of Gandhi, he shared interesting news. His firm had audited Gandhiji’s Harijan Seva Sangh Trust’s accounts at Gandhi’s request and he had a hand written note from Gandhiji thanking he firm for the same. He has been kind enough to send me a scanned copy of the same to me. We all sat around and gossiped till dinner was announced. We had started more and more to resemble a joint family. Balms and creams were being passed around and gentle leg pulling went on with sterner stuff by the physio. Dinner was downstairs in host’s drawing room and I had a hearty meal of Dalia upma. We were provided with beddings and had ample space. Tomorrow was the big day Gandhi jayanti! I was looking around for a place to be able to spin charkha without disturbing others. Balcony looked a good place. Bala’s wife and my wife joined the lady of the house on the ground floor for the night.


            I got up to my alarm at 2.30 AM. I went to the balcony on tiptoes avoiding spread-eagled bodies in the dark. Somebody was sleeping there. I woke him gently and asked him to take my place under the fan. I think it was Vadivel? I had a long session of spinning after putting on the balcony light. People came to light slowly starting 4 AM. Selva Sir’s PT mastersque voice was to rudely awaken late birds. I think Ram or Balaji suggested putting on Suprabhatam! Suprabhatam and the smell of filter coffee, reminded me of childhood vacations to my uncle’s place. After having lost the spectacles on the second day and not being able to blame my wife for it, I was feeling miserable. I made do with my wife’s spectacles. I had been pestering Narayanan Sir to check up at Thippirajapuram if I had left it there. Loads of files to attend on return, at least three days without spectacles (even if I order immediately on return) was weighing heavy, not to speak of being poorer by Rs. 500!


            The hosts had assembled at the early hour on a national holiday to see us off. The distance to the temple, Thirunallar (abode of the dreaded Saturn) was 24K. The first group started minus Neville, Sri, Peter and me (Sri was not ready; he has a knack of reaching the start point at the last moment!) The spectators felt disappointed that the runners were walking and limping. I remember to have a told them that it’s a long distance train and would pick up speed once it left the platform. Race director briefed us about the various landmarks. They were absolute tongue twisters and I decided to stay with the group.  Neville was not fully fit and we two started at a slow pace. Sri and Peter were flying! After some time we crossed Balaji and Ram. We crossed a bridge where the villagers were celebrating Gandhi Jayanti. They had placed a photo of Gandhi on a chair, garlanded it and lit incense sticks. They were offering chocolates to passersby. I stopped, said a silent prayer and took the chocolate (Lacto king, here goes my Vegan vow, but, the occasion demanded it wouldn’t you say?). Since the ladies and other support vehicles were to start after an hour, we were asked to stay in groups. Having lost all hope of catching up Sri and Peter, I tried to coax Neville to speed up. Even though he asked me to go on, I felt guilty and stuck on. He was getting better in his breathing and rhythm. I had a good long discussion with him. As luck would have it, Peter and Sri had been waylaid by a tube well much to our delight. We all had a nice refreshing bath and feasted on bananas and oranges. Our aid party had caught us. Here everybody met and venue for next break and breakfast was being decided. Sri and I had a consultation and we decided to run the entire stretch in one go and take breakfast in the end. Our plan was to run light and avoid the Sun. I summoned the courage and told Narayanan Sir of our plan. He could not hide his disappointment, but, understood our logic and fully suppoted us. Sreenivasan kept our company. We four set off, Neville was running stronger now, but, he still lagged. I went ahead with Sri and Peter as Neville waved me on. He kept us in sight all along. Next stop was a cold drink shop where Sri, Peter and Neville had chocolates (Sugar loading for the take off!) After this break, Peter fell behind and I kept up with Sri, hoping Peter joined Neville. After sometime, I asked Sri to wait for Neville and Peter. He reluctantly obliged. Neville reached after some time and informed that Peter is not feeling well and would be joining the others. Now Neville was also running hard and we three set off. The weather was nice, the Sun notwithstanding! Suresh had been doggedly going at a steady pace without any break. The next 15 odd kilometers were a dream run and it was a pleasure matching Sri step for step. There is no better tango than finding a running partner who can match you for pace. The road was absolute billiard top. We stopped at a shop for cold drinks for Sri, I also took a sip of Maaza. Neille joined us here. Next we were stopped about 3Kms from the temple by the breakfast vehicle. Narayanan Sir had sent us food. We politely told the keen feeders that we would eat after the finish point. Nothing could stop this dream run, not even good south Indian breakfast on a hungry stomach. We both stopped about a kilometer from the finish and waited for Neville. We downed concentrated salt dissolved in Limca, I don’t know how many pegs! Then the three musketeers walked hand in hand to the finish point, my wife handing us a mini 5 star bar each as finisher’s prize (mine went to Shreya). I was offered kosher groundnut chikki instead! While I gorged on Idli, Gothsu and Chutney, Neville and Sri started downing Moosambi juices! We ate and drank without the sword of next run hanging. I finished my heavy meal with another favourite of mine Panneer Soda (Krishna and Shanti were also partners in crime in this!).


            Shanti and Banu decided to go shop for gifts for the support staff and left me with Durai’s Camera and finisher’s 5-star to welcome finishers. Selva’s mother felt bored at having been left behind by the shoppers and kept me company. One by one all the runners completed the run and we all proceeded to the temple tank for a dip.  An impromptu closing ceremony complete with photo coverage was organized at the temple tank. Race director was presented a momento and he was overcome with emotion while receiving it, kudos for the effort Sir! All runners were garlanded and momentos were given to all support staff. Finally a group photo was taken.


Neville the most devout of us, followed all the rituals after consulting all the experts. I felt like a fraud Tambram. We all visited the temple and relaxed in the hall. Run done, people started preponing their return. The late night train people managed to hitch a ride with vehicles leaving. Peter obliged me and Banu and offered to drop us to Puducherry. Durai and Manikandan also joined us. Packed lunch was taken and we decided to stop enroute for lunch break. Peter and Sinu took turns at driving and baby sitting Cindy. We stopped at a bus shelter for lunch. Banu gave me her Sambar rice, curd rice packets which were extra were fed to Cindy and a street side Romeo! After a comfortable ride in air-conditioned comfort we were dropped at Puducherry station. They waited till I threw my rank and managed a room in the rest house. Thank you Peter and Sinu!


            Thanks to Selva Sir, Shanti, Bala and Narayanan Sir and all the volunteers for a wonderful time. Looking forward to many more such runs in the coming days. Bala are you listening? We spent the evening reliving the last four days. Its two weeks now and we still say last week this time we were…As I go to press I have some good news, Narayanan Sir has located my spectacles in the vehicle and hopefully it would reach me through the Railway channels, Alls well that ends well!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Another Roller Coaster ride

I don’t know why Hyderabad Marathon reminds me about school re-opening after the summer vacations. About a few weeks before the event, the long break in the running season after the curtains fall on Auroville, the running alone gets boring and becomes increasingly difficult to maintain running discipline. Then there is the anticipation of comparing notes with other runners. Not to undermine the other attractions of the AHM, the fact that it’s a first of the season after a long break after Auroville does contribute to its popularity.

            There was a minor scare of my not being granted station leave for the weekend, thanks to a chivalrous lady colleague sacrificing her being home for the weekend, accompanied by my trusted aide and abettor (read wife), we boarded the train at 4 PM on Friday. This time my daughter and brother had backed off, the former due to her exams and poor training and the latter because of his professional engagements. My brother-in-law, Sudarshan, just one HM old from last years HM at the same venue was there to give company.

            The journey was quite uneventful, but, for a family who joined us at Bellary. The child was repeatedly asking for her Nanima and the mother was patiently replying the child in a heavily accented English and chaste Telugu alternately. We were treated to bedtime  stories of the Monkey and the Crocodile and the Lion and the Mouse. The patience of the lady and her skill in diverting the child without getting angry really stayed in my mind. I was able to see the child only the next day at the Begumpet station. Rest of the journey was uninterrupted hogging, the star this time was the Dates and Banana Vegan cake and a close cousin of Thepla (Methi parathas). Train reached on time at Begumpet, the journey from Lingampalli onwards was torturous with frequent stoppages, our hearts went out to our daughter thinking of the ordeal she must be having in visiting us.

            This time I had not sought help for local transport from my railway colleagues and I was not upto getting fleeced by the local auto/taxi-wallahs. My wife concurred and the long wait for the MMTS train to Secunderabad started. The enquiry counter had a cardboard with message that next MMTS to Secunderabad at 6:30. It was a pleasant sight to find morning walkers on the platform at Begumpet fully dressed with sneakers and all. Indian Railways could think of introducing a monthly ticket for walkers. The MMTS arrived at 6:50, not before the Sun had greeted us at 6:30 sizing me up for the next day’s encounter. I knew I would be no match to the Sun on the dreaded flyovers in the AHM, I sent out a silent wish to Kareena (for the uninitiated, the reference to Kareena symbolizes clouds referring to a lemonade advertisement where she teases the sportsman to perform better and rewards him with a cool drink in the end) to come to our rescue the next day. We reached Secunderabad and did a long trudge to the rest-house, I was trusting my memory and wife was dreading if I get it wrong. We had a date with our daughter at Alankrita for the breakfast. We had to tie up with my bro-in-law (Sudarshan, who was running the HM the next day) and go with his family for the breakfast. My daughter, not on Carbo-loading the previous day, had already given me two calls to find out if I had started. She reached the joint and was waiting for us. The breakfast was fabulous (at Rs. 180/- it better be) and my daughter guided us with the air of a regular and gave me expert advice on proscribed items in keeping with my Vegan vrata! We stayed till the breakfast closing hours, 11 AM.

            Breakfast done and dusted, daughter got back to college for her exam-preparation and we started for bib-collection. On the way, Sudarshan dropped his wife and daughter home and us at the Expo. He collected his bib and left for office, promising to return in 3-4 hours. We were left to socialize and bask in peers praise. This is the best part of the event for me. I love spending time with runners (I don’t mind the handsome praise, deserved or not!). Exchanged notes with Bib-Bala and Selvanayagan Sir for the plans for the Navagraha run (a 4 day run to cover all navagraha sthalas during the end of September). Met Roshni and her band of runners, they are so humble and respectful! Loved reminiscing about the Pedong run. Met Venkatramani Pitchumani (my Vegan guru), who was busy briefing his pacers. Bhupendrasingh (Dandi run mate) was to be driving the 5:30 bus. There were comfortable chairs and clean urinals. They had priced drinking water at Rs. 30/- per bottle (the Gandhian in me preferred to dehydrate, wife brought a bottle which I studiously avoided). My wife, however, said that foodstuff was reasonably priced compared to the previous year’s venue (I must caution that our definition of reasonable vary widely like the different poverty line estimates of the GoI!). I was cursing myself for not bringing water from home.

            We returned home by 5 PM and I was enquiring about how to reach the Vegan dinner venue, we kept talking over boiled salted groundnuts (we had picked this up on our way back from Alankrita from a road-side vendor) and it was too late for leaving for dinner. After a sumptuous ldinner of Rice, Sambar and vegetable at our genial hosts, we made a plan for transport by Dot-cabs the next day. The first vehicle was to drop me at the start point at 4:30 AM and my wife to her cousin’s place before picking him up for his later HM start. Another vehicle was booked to pick up my wife for the finish point and take us back home after the run. This seemed the most economical transport option (I was reminded of the travelling salesman problem which we studied in OR!). We took a bus to the station and walked to the rest house. We told the attendant of the early vacation next day. He was not impressed with my marathon boast!

            Plan was to turn in early. I was tossing and turning and got two official calls, I don’t know when I slept. I woke up befor the 2 AM alarm and got the hot water for green tea going. I had an extended spinning session. My wife woke at 3:30 and started packing. I managed to tuck in two bananas, two Chiku (sappota from our garden in Hubli) and some green tea. I went easy on the hydration this time, knowing that there would be aid stations every 2K (more so because of the request from the organizers not to pee on the way, two urinals for the FM is miserly!). I tucked in the green tea leaves and a Date in my mouth and put one in my pocket for the road. Now the usual tension time started, whether the vehicle will come in time, will he find the place? Not to mention the lurking fear of my wife having to travel alone from the start point to her cousin’s place! The rest house vacated, we waited for the taxi. My wife fed the rest house stray a Nutri choice biscuit and we earned a few more vigorous wags of its tail. The driver was middle aged and I made small conversation about his routine. I told in his hearing that I would guide my wife on phone till she reaches home (I felt quite bad about having done all this in retrospect!). After getting down at the NTR memorial, I called my wife and she did not pick her phone and I panicked. I then rang the driver and asked him to ask my wife to call me. To cut the long story short, she reached safely.

I met a lot of friends, my different attire attracting people to me in droves. I met Delhi Rommel, Kripa Sagar, the Bib-Bala, Selva Sir. On meeting the Pune runners, I told them that I would visit Pune in November, by which time my brother would have reached there and that we should plan a long run then. I met Romel’s young daughter who was bright and early and all excited about her 5K run. I joined the long queue outside the urinals, only two each for the ladies and Gents. I met my friend Srinath Nagappa there. Bladder emptied, I returned to the group following the Marathon Jockey’s attempts at waking up the runners. The Bangalore team of runners was training separately, now they would start qualifying for sharing special status with the elite runners, considering the number of podium finishes they end up with. The biggest cheer went for the 159 runners from the Nat’l Police Academy.

            The run started with a muted and curtailed countdown from 5. I stood behind the pack in the front to avoid being stamped on my bare feet. I tried to get some cheering going. The breeze from the lake and the smooth road was very pleasant. The second half of the circumambulation around the lake was harsh on the soles and it was dark too. I took off my top and was greeted with a loud cheer for it. I was running strongly and completed the loop before the HM started, meant, there was a good crowd to cheer us when I crossed the start point.

            Soon I was climbing the first of the many flyovers this route is notorious for. Somehow, the tempo was not there and there was not much of chatter among the runners, or so I felt. The volunteers at the aid stations were very helpful and gave me a rousing welcome. Presently the HM speed demons, Bobby and KcPani Sir crossed me. It was nice to run along with them for some time. I must mention the good time I shared while running along and exchanging notes with Dharmendra Kumar.

            There was no sign of rain and the sweat had become condensed indicating need for hydration, but, I was going easy on fluid intake considering the lack of Urinals enroute. I had the company of the Police academy trainer for the most difficult stretch, the flyover at KM28 followed by the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) campus. We had interesting discussion on how keen the probationers are under the guidance of his boss who is an avid runner himself. This is the toughest stretch and becomes more difficult because there very few people to cheer. It was at KM 31 that he pointed out that we are on course for a sub-4 as we had done 31KM in 2:51. I had seen experienced the course earlier and kept my fingers and toes crossed. The Sun was up and the soles were screaming. The thighs were threatening to go on a strike. I just wanted to finish with a smile and strongly. The line up of girls and boys with their teacher conducting their symphony of clapping for the runners was very heart warming.

            Previous day I had read that the CM of AP had directed the municipal authorities to fill up potholes. Fill up they seem to have done with a vengeance, there was more tar coated jelly scattered around the pothole than in it. Only a barefoot runner knows how painful it becomes to negotiate a road with scattered jelly. In fact it is easier to negotiate a pothole even if it means changing course frequently. In this case the way to hell was definitely paved with good intentions by the CM/AP. The dreaded route inside the HCU campus which was a katcha road last time had a freshly laid tar-road, but, as I said earlier, a freshly laid tar road is quite painful. Coming as it did between KM 30 and 38, it was the toughest on my soles and I had to take lot of walking breaks. The guards and students were very enthusiastic in their cheering.
I find the run inside the stadium to be the best part, the runners having finished HM and faster FM finishers really give a rousing welcome to the finishers. I finished strongly, but, my legs were really hurting. I was told I finished in 4:03, I could not see the time on the mobile due to the glare. My wife had again missed my grand entry. I seem to be faster than the Dot-cab in Hyderabad traffic. Her ambition of taking my photo on the home stretch will have to wait one more year.

This marathon reminds of a visit to Tirupati in many ways, the last straw on the camels back is the organizers expecting the finishers to climb the steps to get the snacks. I sincerely suggest that the organizers could consider keeping the snack counters along with where drinks counters are presently there, unless, it is some rite of passage to qualify for the Tirupati laddoo!  After all the effort, I found that except the fruit juice, there wasn’t anything which I could have had from that snack box to fit my Vegan regimen. However tired one gets after AHM, before one leaves the stadium, we make a silent promise to come back next year. The timings which came two days later showed that I had finished in 4:04:19. Maybe, I have to come next year and crack the 4 hour barrier.

A good Sambar rice meal after a hot water bath was what the doctor ordered. For two hours after that I was dead to the world, the various aches and pains were gone when I woke up. Now I can understand why people who do manual labour need no sleeping pill and sleep like a baby! We left early for the station to discount for the reduced frequency of buses on Sunday evening and in case the T-stir affected MMTS running should disrupt our travel plan. Heavy downpour enroute meant wife and self had to do a Nargis-Raj Kapoor scene on the way from the bus stand to the Secunderabad station. We immediately got a MMTS to Kacheguda which meant a solid one hour plus at Kacheguda station. We used the time sitting on a bench eating groundnuts and drying ourself. I guess romantic outings have a new meaning post 50!
Watch out for the Hubli passenger’s exploits on the Navagraha run during last week of September!