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!