Crash Course In Ultra Running

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I am not one of those guys who plan a lot. In fact a lot of who I am today isn’t a bit according to the plan. Life has been a string of chance encounters and impulsive decisions. Be it quitting a sizeable business after a quick chat with a stranger at a filling station or, riding solo 4000 kilometers across the Himalayas on a beaten up bike. Why? well… because I can. That being said, impulsive decisions haven’t meant half-hearted efforts or giving up easily. Rather, decisions have (almost) always been pursued to perfection like heartfelt grief, with the chaste of honest prayers.

Running a 76 kilometer ultramarathon in the Himalayan foothills was one of ‘those decisions’. Made at a chai shop over steaming momos and a chance sighting of a poster with a call to action for the Garhwal Runs.

I haven’t been much of a runner in all these years. In fact, I try to substitute running with skipping, as I really don’t like running empty distances much. However, the Garhwal Run was a qualifier to the LaUltra which I am really psyched about due to the difficulties it poses in addition to ultra running. It is a 111 km long race, run at an average mean sea level of 14000ft, in temperatures below freezing – justifiably known as the cruelest ultra on the planet.

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Barely Running! Still going strong. 

50 days prior to the event, I started training. A 5km run uphill made for a good start. In less than a week I graduated to running my first 10kms uphill under an hour. Since there wasn’t much time to train, I had to push myself to run a distance of over 21kms under 2 hours within the first 10 days of training. I never knew that this much endurance was already within me! Running a half marathon became a habit and I sustained it for almost the entire training period, coupling with a rest day or two each week. A fortnight prior to the race, I even ran a 30k and marathon distance on consecutive days. This was just to instill some self confidence.

I was a bit nervous before the race, though. This was due to two reasons. First, I had lost almost 7 kgs in training so I wasn’t feeling very strong. Second, I was going through a rough patch emotionally – if you’ve run distance, you’d know how the unoccupied mind can mess with your motivation and emotions. However, there I was at the start line, 6am in the morning on 14th of February – ready to take on the world.

The first 10kms drifted while I chatted with my running buddy Praveen. Then the road began to climb up and Praveen glided out of sight. It was ‘straight uphill’ from there both, physically and emotionally, as thoughts started filling my head and blood pumped into the calves. I endured for the next 15kms and halted for my first snack break at the 25kms mark reached in under 3 hours. I vowed not to halt before completing the marathon distance. But stop I did, when I caught up with Praveen again and decided on a quick five minute laze on the roadside.

The marathon distance was covered in five hours. The next 10kms were straight downhill, and here lied the crux of the race. At the 51kms mark, we lost all the altitude gained in the last 6 hours of running. However, I being the overconfident hare decided to nap for half an hour. This turned out to be a huge blunder. The body cooled down and all the muscles stiffened. In a matter of minutes my entire self was writhing with pain. It took a great deal of effort to get back on the road again. The next 5 hours and the last 25kms were some of the most torcherous moments of my life. I ran a bit, walked a bit more and crawled to the end – finishing second last, in 11 hours and 42 minutes.

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Salt settled on my skin. The ethereal pain sublimated into the cosmos. And all was good, again.   

There was no glory at the finish line, only the luxury of time to attend to our injuries. What might remain once this body has healed, is that faint feeling of satisfaction of having made it to the end. And the knowledge of qualifying for the LaUltra. Finally!

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Musings about Love

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(Sunset on Namik La top, J&K; Photo credits: Arindam De)

I have firmly believed that love is for all the reasons and none in particular. Riding to IMF today on the ‘saat taal’ of the short bottle this thought clung to me and I realised that I am falling in love with her all over again!

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(Carrying firewood for dinner enroute Nubra Valley, 60kms off from Indo-China border in Leh; Photo Credits: Arindam De)

My thoughts, of this affair, go back to that heart wrenching month of February 2011, when it all first started. On the 19th of that month I had been dumped in a first relationship. Puppy love as it were the break up left me heartbroken and shattered. In the days to come there was a lot of ruing over the ‘lost’. A lot of reflection was triggered, an introspection at the end of which I stood, a north Indian wheatish male, five feet six inches from the ground, abusively tanned by Delhi sun, wisdom spot on head (read: bald) and gross seventy two kilograms on Earth.

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(Negotiating Zozila; Photo Credits: Dilip Baba)

I had definitely lost a lot! – trying to fit into the equation of a society, I didn’t relate to (or cared for); Trying to chase the love that was never mine. And when the blindfold lifted, life had forsaken me.

In these times, on a chance night, a dear friend of mine took me to Khan Market for ‘winter bird watching’ (read: ogling at south Delhi girls) to uplift my mood – (this was October of the same year, and I was still lamenting). On a traffic signal, pillion riding that night, I was still pondering over the turn of events in my life when some notes, straight out of a double bass solo parked to our right. The beats were being played by a white lady from her Classic 500 – I was dumbfounded! Such uninhibited music came as a ripple of shock wave; the music was forcing me to consciousness from years of slumber. In no uncertain terms, I was perplexed! Was I even ‘allowed’ to feel that way? Was it acceptable? Where will it lead to? – I had no clue!

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(Atop Fotu La, J&K; Photo Credits: Dilip Baba)

In the parking lot of the market, that evening, a foundation was laid. My friend gauged my heart – he had a spare standard 350 – I, kind of, got it there and then!

The following November, I was in Dehradun to pick my bull. It had been stocked in a garage, for a year (of disuse) until then. All it took was fresh engine oil and a battery to get it roaring again. Though it still lagged a few critical part changes and mechanical help but nevertheless, it was thumping.

The same day, I took the bull out for my first riding lessons (first time on a geared two wheeler that too, a ’79 standard 350, right hand geared et al). I was scared to death riding a few hundred metres, and surrendered the controls to my friend. In my mind, I was revaluating the sanity of my decision. However, the deed was done, and I thought, I’ll somehow get rid of it afterwards.

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(Bringing the bull from Dehradun to Delhi – First long ride; Photo Credits: Pranav Manocha)

The next day, November 11th, 2011 (incidentally, World Mountain Day) we took the bike to the mechanic’s for the critical repairs that were needed. All work was done by noon except, the repair of the front brakes Doon being a small town, it was difficult to find the brake wire for the high handle on my bike. We decided to ride the bike without the front brakes (people who have never rode a bullet must note: having or not having the front brakes won’t at all make any difference, whatsoever in any situation, emergent or anticipated, requiring halting of the bike).

For the same day, I along with two friends (including the one who gave me my bull) had pre planned a night stay in Mussoorie; and each had sweared on sticking to the plan. Needless to say, I joined the trip – on my thumper, barely without any lessons (Funny, how we put our life on the line).

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The ride was destined to be everything but, forgettable. Initially, as we started out for the trip, I was shy, inhibited and AFRAID to ride the machine; so I stuck to the pillion or, rode the non geared scooterette that a friend had brought. A few kilometres passed, I avoiding the bull and the attention of my friends; should they discover that I was purposefully not riding the thumper. After a while, we stopped at a roadside dhaba for Maggi and chai,  then we stopped for a fuel refill and all was merry until my friend forced the standard under my command putting it out straight and simple, “your machine, you ride” – and I thought, “So it be”.

(The wall made out of Alex (Dilip and Abhinav’s Bolero) and Bull guarded us from many a beasts of the wild in Nubra Valley)

A hesitant I, kicked nervously – it won’t start. The 350 can surely tell men from boys. You can kick all day and get your calves ripped off but, it won’t start if you ain’t got no cojones! So, I was helped with ignition; that done, I put the bike in the first gear, released the clutch and simultaneously spinned the throttle. That day on a sharp incline of a hilly road, on a thirty four year old machine, I could feel gravity being defied and with such ease.

Down in the second gear it hugged the snakish turns; all I had to do was lean in and out of an approaching curve – the bull took care of the rest.  As I pressed down to the third and the fourth, it charged like Islero proceeding sharply, confidently, and desperately towards Manolete. I couldn’t help but feel like a helpless, weak and vulnerable gladiator who knows his fate and yet holds on to the earth, without giving in – until the body is reduced to mud and blood.

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(Yes! I love to do that)

I can’t really put in words, the overwhelming emotion surging through my veins at that point in time; breaking every shackle of fear, insecurity and inhibition. The sheer vulnerability of my body that evening, made me realise the worth of being. For the first time after two decades, I was living in the moment. All I cared about, the air I was breathing in – I could literally see it! How it rhythmically swayed in and out of my flesh, in tune with the note of the exhaust. For sure, I was enchanted by her beauty and character. To quote Roger Mc Gough, ‘she was so beguiling that I was running miles in mere seconds’.

In Mussoorie, we checked into a cheap hotel, bought a quarter and a half of Old Monk, and drank as if it were our last; until we dropped dead on the floor laughing and chatting, inebriated all the while. The next morning we strolled the markets, chirping and flirting around. The morning was fresh and clear and after a long while, the sun was warm. We ate at Chardukan and Sister Bazaar; and had an afternoon nap on the tarmac near the Christian cemetery in Landour.

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(Ready for the Delhi-Ajmer-Delhi ride)

The afternoon soon melted into the evening. A warm, bright, lit up evening, consuming all the energy and emotion of the day; and emitting it in the sting of the winter breeze of the Shivaliks – like the bitter sweet pain of longing felt by lovers who have just found their beloved! (And how unfair does fate play at times?! Even before their eyes have satisfied theirselves with the other’s look, it’s time to leave).

As the night claimed territory over the murky Mussoorie sky, we checked out of our hotel room. Riding on the Mall, towards the barricade at Picture Palace, shop shutters could be heard – going down – shouting and clapping, playing their warmest adieu songs.

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(Tantrums! Time and again)

Good bye it was for then but, the memorable journey hasn’t been our last. Her pursuit has taken me to the dunes of Alwar; and to the mighty Rohtang. In trying to woo her, I have failed, time and again. While I have been conquered and enslaved. She has often deserted me on dusty village roads in the middle of nowhere. At other times, she like a capricious young girl, has shown me her moods; but, all the while she has won me over with that little move that she does, that gentle massage for my fragile male ego (often pampering it with her love; at other times, mending it for another day when I have been hit by the blues). In her arms, I am a Superman!

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(Enroute Manali with Kshitij; trip through Sach Pass was abandoned as the engine died in Manali; of course its built now.)

And when I think of our relationship, I wonder what is it, if not love?!

A love, stupid and senseless, twice removed from reason. A love which has made me vulnerable to the moods of the beloved. Vulnerable to her each emotion. Alive to dejection and her acceptance. Alive to every little failure and success of this relationship.

A love, which has made me Human – and I guess, that is what it does!

That thing, called Love.

 

Ride To Jaunsar – Exploring hidden gems of Devbhoomi

(Enroute Chakrata from Tigerfall)

It had been two weeks since I moved base from Delhi to my ancestral place in a village (called Pondha) near Dehradun. Using the infrequent shared cab service that operates between our village and the city was wearing me out and the ‘wind in my hair’ experience (although there aren’t a lot left on my balding head) was being thoroughly missed. So a train ticket to Delhi was promptly booked to bring back my beauties.

I was packing stuff at my old residence in Delhi, for next day’s ride home, when it suddenly dawned on me (and this didn’t happen any sooner) – the bikes are two and I was the only rider; I couldn’t possibly ride both of them at the same time unless I had Ajay Devgnish skills from Golmaal.

So, I called my younger brother Kshitij and asked if he’d want to join me on a ride to home and then probably we could also explore the mountains for the remaining part of the weekend. Now, my brother who works at KPMG audit Gurgaon has a job profile requiring him to manually tick mark audit sheets from 8am to 2am – accounting for other’s money for peanuts of a salary! Obviously, he wasn’t at all keen to miss an interesting day at work.

But then, who can resist the idea of soloing on a bull on lone mountain roads?! A little insistence on my part, made him call in sick at the office.

Day 1

On a calm Thursday morning we started from Delhi (before the office crowd could take to the roads) and by 10 ‘o’ clock we were already past Sonepat. We were riding along the Delhi-Yamunanagar-Dehradun highway rather than taking the more direct route to Dun on NH 58 and 73. Reason being, the otherwise peaceful city of Muzzaffarnagar was riot hit at that time and also we were bored of the scenic beauty of places such as Sakauti Tanda, Khatauli, Roorkee and Chutmalpur that lie on that route. So we opted for Saharanpur instead! (For those who aren’t familiar with these places, try parking your car on a street in Saharanpur; I bet two hours later you’d be collecting it part by part from the flea markets of Jali Kothi in Meerut).

It is a good eight lane highway until 40kms off from Yamunanagar when approaching from Delhi; after which the road narrows down to a single lane, for traffic running from either side. However, the road condition is good and there isn’t much traffic on this route, so we were able to average 50km an hour for most of the way. Only in the much dreaded Saharanpur, did we encounter a 15km long dirt track which took us an hour and a half to negotiate (not to mention the balls that were beaten to a pulp between the saddle and the petrol tank).

It began to drizzle as soon as we hit the hills of Mohand, 20kms from Dun – my mind drifted to the thoughts of sweat drenched white collared employees driving back an Alto or a Wagon R, through snail paced jams on the ring road, to reach home. I pitied them and moved on quite unemotionally, as if poking fun at their miserable existence with a twist of the throttle.

We were completely soaked by the time we reached Marigold café on upper Rajpur Road. The clear vegetable soup did justice to the day’s labour; post a round of Chai and Pakora we headed home to seek our beds and called it a day as we retired under the warm sheets.

Day 2

I woke up lazily at 8.30am, the next morning. We had planned to leave home by 9, the night before – that seemed remotely possible as Kshitij was still struggling on the commode for the past hour and a half.

With great effort we readied ourselves for the day by 10 and planned to head over to Chakrata, a remote hill station, 84kms from our place in Dun. We were expecting the ride to be a hard one only for the reason that we were doing it on our vintage standard 350s, and there was little chance of a mechanic enroute in case of a break down. Little did we know that our first problem would surface even before we stepped outside the gates.

Kshitij’s bike did the second best thing it does with ease (the best will come later) – not starting unless one has kicked atleast a hundred times. Even after half an hour’s kicking, the bike did not relent – and then I had a superb idea. We pushed the bike on to the street; I asked Kshitij to push it to the far corner of the street until the bike gained momentum and then I could attempt engaging the gears to revive the engine from the slumber. The exercise was in vain! However, a lady from the neighborhood came running out of her house, stared blankly at Kshitij for a minute (who was still wearing the helmet and the riding jacket) and commented, ‘main sochi gaon mein robot aaya hai!’(I thought a robot has come to our village).

(Robot a.k.a. Kshitij)

Disappointed, we pushed the bike inside. I suggested giving the bike one last try before we called quits and abandon the trip. Surprisingly, two kicks and the bull hummed with life. I don’t know whether it was the performance pressure or the threat to abandon trip that made the bike start (of course! a bull has a mind of its own).

We were able to start at around 11am; gauging from the distance to be covered, I estimated that we would reach our destination by 2 in the afternoon.  The weather was pleasant and the road conditions are good – perfect for a leisurely weekend ride. For 35kms between Dehradun and Herbertpur the engine purred at 40kms an hour; after which we took a right turn towards Vikas Nagar. The road being devoid of traffic, we cruised at 60kms an hour on the two lane road. A short stop at Vikas Nagar was made to stock some provisions and refuel our petrol tanks. We resumed the ride only to stop 10kms ahead at Kalsi (which is at the base of the climb) for chai and bun omelette. Half a litre of chai and four omelettes down, back on the saddle, we were on our way. The road up to Saiyyan (20kms from Kalsi) is being built currently so there are a lot of bad patches on this single lane road; plus the trucks carrying building material, plying on this road make navigating the various blind curves on this road, precarious. Both of us struggled to ride close in visible distance of each other; the ride was both intense and exhilarating on this lag, due to the traffic, trying conditions and the bad road.

It took us almost an hour and a half to reach Saiyyan; here we stopped for a short pee break, exchanged bikes and continued upwards. Chakrata was only 24kms ahead, the road smoothed, the traffic was almost negligible and the incline became steeper. Kshitij’s bike began to lose power (due to the incline and a recently built engine) and we were barely able to manage 25km an hour in the 2nd gear.

4kms off Chakrata, we were stopped at a barricade posted by the Chakrata cantonment board. After a prompt flash of our identification cards, getting directions from the sentry and struggling a bit with the kick starter, we couldn’t contain our excitement being so close to our destination and sped full throttle – only to be stopped again, two bends later by another guard. He asked for a ride to the town so Kshitij accommodated him on the pile of luggage already tied to the pillion seat. Nothing could’ve bogged us down but for another waving hand at the next bend. This time a police official wanted to inspect our ‘papers’.

The official asked for the bike’s registration certificate; I produced the driving license along with them. Disappointed that he couldn’t score a reason to demand bribe the official tried to harass us by asking outright stupid questions such as, ‘what is so scenic here to visit?’. Indeed you don’t only need eyes to appreciate beauty; proven amply by the officer’s ignorance.

Fifteen minutes post this ordeal with the local police, we were in Chakrata’s main market. The sentry hitchhiking on our bike, introduced us to two other guards in the market. They directed us to the ‘must visits’ of the place, among which cropped the name of Tiger fall, which was the closest attraction, only 15-17kms from the town.

(Tea, the elixir of life!)

With no particular objective, we organised our thoughts over a cup of tea, and started for Tiger fall. The road diverges at a fork, 1km outside the town – we decided to turn right and descended on a half built road onto a forested hill side. The path gently rolled down and we turned off the ignition to save some fuel. There are only a few hamlets on this very scenic stretch of the rustic Himalayas and it took us another hour and a half to reach the nearest road head to the waterfall, the bike being propelled by gravity alone.

(Beauties parked in the tea stall’s compound at the base of the hike)

One needs to hike down a kilometre long stretch to reach the waterfall. We parked the bike at a tea stall located at the start of the hike, collected our stuff and started for the climb down. The way down the fall’s trail passes through a small hamlet populated by local farmers and shopkeepers (who sell snacks at the fall during summers). The trail closely follows a stream (streams are called ‘gad’ by the locals), which merges with another at the camp site.

(Trail down to the waterfall from the road head)

A few yards away from the end of the trail we could see the two streams merging, there was nothing like a ‘Tiger’ fall in site, at which Kshitij hurriedly remarked, ‘ye hai tiger fall?! Ye toh cat fall bhi nai hai!’ (Is this tiger fall?! This doesn’t even look like a cat fall!). Little did he or I know about whatever lay in store for us?! A few steps ahead we could now hear an unmistakable roar emanating from something on our left. A few steps still further a cold and dense spray kissed our cheeks, igniting goose bumps. In sight, almost fifty metres on the left was the mighty Tiger Fall – secretly hidden in a maze of rocks, like a tiger on its nimble paws, lurking in the shadows for a chance to prance upon its prey (The water is falling from almost over a hundred feet with great force and its is nearly impossible to stand under the fall without risking serious injury). The camp was pitched at a safe distance from the water, where we could still listen to the music of the Tiger fall throughout the night.

(The mighty Tiger Fall)

All camp duties were put aside for a cup of chai and some introspection (along with biscuits of course!); then we sat down to prepare our meal. Using the butane gas cylinders that I didn’t forget to stock this time, dinner was ready under fifteen minutes and we savored the ration inside our cosy tent.

The roar of the water in the silence of the night, sustained a certain eeriness in the air and a reverential fear in our hearts towards the magnanimity of nature and the insignificance of the human kind against it. Recollecting the day’s experience, I gently slipped into the sweet sleep that was well deserved.

Day 3

(Bed tea, round 4!)

Morning came with Kshitij gently prodding my back with his feet and demanding tea, again! Post a boiling pot of caffeine, we hiked back to our beauties. Surprisingly Kshitij’s bike started without much trouble, and we were on our way back by 8am. 5kms ahead Kshitij’s bike began to lose power, again; and the bike did what it does best – BREAKDOWN! It didn’t budge a centimetre from its place.

(the bike wouldn’t move an inch; we were more than happy to spend another night in this wilderness.)

However, some time of living by the bull has taught us atleast this bit, so as to be able to handle such problems. Kshitij inspected the gear box, made some adjustments to the clutch and handed over the bike to me for a test run up to Chakrata.

(Kshitij working on the gear box; you guessed it right, he sleeps with the helmet intact)

It took us an hour to reach Chakrata market 12kms away. Post a breakfast of bun-samosa and tea we decided to ride back the same way we came (although one can take an alternate route via Mussoorie, which is equidistant too), and reached home by 11am.

(stop over for keenu/malta/mausami juice on the way back home)

Kabul Bhai, who has been working in our household for over three decades now, had brought home freshly harvested urad dal (Black Gram) from the farm next to our residence. He was grinding the grain pods to extract the gram. The spin of the grinding stone wheel made me reflect on the full circle we had run in the three days. The trip has been special in so many ways! Especially for the fact that I could spend so much time with Kshitij (which was long due), getting to know more about a fantastic person, I have spent most of my growing years with.

(Kabul Bhai at the wheel)

How to Reach

I ride a ’79 Enfield Standard 350.

Kshitij rides an ’83 of the same make.

Equipment

Riding Gear

Extra fuel, engine oil, spares and repair tool kit (including a puncture kit)

Tent (We used a 3.4 kg Quechua 2 men dome tent)

Sleeping Bag (I use a Quechua poly fill, that works upto -5 degree Celsius)

Iso Propane Butane Cylinder and cooking stove

Dry ration and liquids

Kiwi bag for waste disposal

Pocket knife, torch, camera, spare batteries, lighters, candle and matchsticks