DARE TO DREAM. ENDURE TO CONQUER
A 100 Mile Debut on India’s Toughest Trails
People should learn endurance; they should learn to endure the discomforts of heat and cold, hunger and thirst; they should learn to be patient when receiving abuse and scorn; for it is the practice of endurance that quenches the fire of worldly passions which is burning up their bodies.
On a bright sunny morning was walking a zombie dressed up in red-blue-white; wearing a mask of heedless expressions; knees wrapped up in bandages and tapes and shoes adsorbed with barren red soils, he dragged his head up to see the first aid station in past hour and a half. Long breathes and ‘keep pushing’ was all he could hear in his mind –that was indubitably shattered after toil of over 28 hours. With tee and skin soaked in liters of sweat and a bit of salt, he collapsed on chair limping his way through loud round of applauds.
“Just two more laps, Gaurav. Great!” said Kavitha, race director, handling him a bottle of water.
“I’m dehydrated, I guess. It’s really hot outside” he whispered.
“No, it’s not. It’s chilling winter out there boy. Mercury is dropping every minute. It’s all in your mind” insisted Milind, who was relaxing on floor.
Zombie was still bearing the face of grim. Electral, juice, biscuits and oranges were offered from either side by the volunteers still left, while medical staff kept him busy recording weight and blood pressure –a mandatory process to be followed after each loop.
Welcome to Bhati Lakes. “GR Bhati Lakes Ultramarathon” is an annual and India’s only 100m ultramarathon (it’s 100 miles and not 100 meters) organized by ‘Globeracers’ on Delhi-Faridabad border at Kant Enclave in Suraj Kund. The first glimpses of Kant Enclave might exhibit another lame solid track with minor elevations, but reality is fairly opposite. A track that has seen only one finisher in history and runners like Roger and Rahul Verghese falling to its impregnable fury, speak volumes about what that track has to offer. 100 miles or 160km are divided into 8 laps of 20km each spread along 10km stretch which is required to traverse to form a loop. Trail, spread across jungles around 5 lakes of long abandoned Bhati mines, apparently has no flat surface whatsoever to sprint your way through. What makes it more miserable are the night hours where the only source of light is your headlamp or the aid station.
Generous cut-off time of 36 hours for 100 miles is something that might attract runners from the subcontinent that still has few runners that dare to go beyond the word limit. At age of 23 years and few months, I was youngest to attempt the 100 mile roller-coaster ride.
Throughout this report (if this looks like one), I’ll not use words like race, competition, competitors, winner, PR, position or loser, as these had no meaning during the entire marathon.
I believe I was the most instigated runner when I saw registration invite for first edition of Bhati Lakes Ultramarathon in 2010. With a BADWATER dream in eyes, it was a luxury to have an ultramarathon worth 50 miles (or more) in my own backyard at such tender stage. Unfortunately, exam schedule didn’t allow me to run.
Early in the month of June, I had a word with Vishwas regarding my 50 mile attempt in October while discussing future plans. It was the stage when he tempted me to go a step ahead and aim for 100 mile. I was weary of making such a huge commitment. Longest run under my bag was 50km with Delhi Runners which was slightly hot to handle. Days passed and I kept logging undisciplined miles in cool evenings. 12 hour log and then Birthday 102km marked the important breakthroughs in training that made me believe 160km was something achievable.
Since, all the training was on asphalt tracks I was still an alien for loose and rough trails like those of Bhati mines. Meanwhile, I logged a few miles on Bhati trail to check the comfort and some photography. It was beautiful but difficult, silent but terrifying, lonely but with some friendly wildlife. I decided to run the marathon without the crew –as I was not sure about my finish and then there was no point making someone toil for 36 hours and then scoring a DNF on our name.
Nervousness kept amplifying as time progressed. I had read somewhere –one must log 1000-1500 miles of dedicated training –figures that were nowhere close to my logged miles. At the same time Dr Chauhan guided during the La Ultra “it’s the amount of time you spent on feet that matters. Distance in just a mental barrier” which was fair enough. Last week kept me busy collecting the gear required, as per Kavitha’s summon –a headlamp, reflective night wear, whistle, batteries, energy drinks, cleaned shoes, round band aids (you know why) and all other jazz.
The 100 miles of life
Friday was busy and night was sure supposed to be sleepless. I left home early at 2am after having late dinner (or early breakfast) with fellow 100 mile runners, Aparna and Aditya –who was generous to arrange a cab for us to reach the venue during those odd hours. We were the first to reach and welcome a few known and unknown faces –who dared to register and had guts to start! Soon, model and actor, Milind Soman arrived with another fellow 100 mile runner, Raj.
While all were going through the mandatory procedure of medical checkup, we kept cracking jokes to calm our nerves and laugh away the terror-nervousness-excitement (?), don’t know still, what was that. All I remember is, it was getting over me. Physically, I don’t have great deal of strength and stamina in me. All that I always had was will to succeed and mental calmness –that I was losing.
“So, how are you feeling? All set for the 100 miles!” asked Rahul.
“Don’t know. I’m developing goose bumps now”
Soon, at 6am (5.57am, being precise) all 100 mile runners –Vishwas Bhamburkar (Ahmedabad), Aditya Bee (Delhi), Bhupendrasing Rajput (Pune), Raj Vadgama (Mumbai), Milind Soman (Mumbai), Aparna Chaudhary (Pune) –lone female runner and I, were lined up on the start line with Tanvir Kazmi, who was pacing Vishwas. I realized I was standing at the start line now and from there, it was no way back. I was thrilled. It was supposed to start this in a few seconds that I didn’t even dream of. A torture of 36 hours was calling.
As soon as Kavitha flagged off, I was off to a blazing 10 minute mile start with others. Did I say blazing? Certainly it was, considering the way things progressed thereafter. The tarmac was the easiest phase to run –asphalt with a topping of loose gravel –with silence of graveyard. It was just our shoes to break the silence and head lamps to slice the dwindling darkness of the morning. As we moved, it was getting brighter and head lamps were mere the extra load to carry.
The track was indubitably toughest that most runners had seen. The initial flat 2km tarmac lead us into the trail spread through the barren but arboraceous jungle of thorny weeds. With every passing mile the inclines were getting steeper, surface was getting rougher, rain ridden gorges were getting wider and thereby running was getting tougher. I would call 10kmph a fierce speed. The first half of the route was comparatively lesser complicated than second half offered.
After 5km mark, the track got narrower with larger gorges, more elevation transitions, bleeding thorns (that left none) and sandy surface that demanded extra force. On the second half alone, I twisted my ankle seven times in total –fortunately none of the twist was poignant enough to extenuate the spirits. All those sandy twists lead across the five lakes on either side. One could easily lose their way there, the way Bhupendrasing did (he certainly lost valuable minutes). The morning view of Bhardwaj Lake was divine. While moving across the trail, I didn’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on the misty morning. There they were, and they were beautiful. I ran slowly, steadily enjoying each passing moment as I knew this is something that would keep me going over the next couple of hours once heat will get rough.
The narrow-thorny-sandy-placid trail led us to the turnaround point, the 10km aid station through a gorge, biggest of all that was required to cross with safety. At aid station, there were volunteers to greet us with refreshments, water and energy drinks. After a halt of 3 minutes I was back running towards the start line to complete the loop. During the process, I ran into 30 mile and 50 mile runners along with fellow 100 mile runners who were progressing steadily.
Soon I was back on the tarmac and I could see the aid station crowded with runners, who were being assessed medically by Artemis Hospital staff. I quickly refilled my water bottle, got weighed and grabbed three quarter-sandwiches along with little Electral. After having a little chat with honeyman, Preet Singh, I kept going.
The heat was building up and I could feel it now. After 2.5km mark, suddenly I incapacitated. That marked the decline of 100 mile dream. Out of nowhere I developed stomach cramps that were hard to handle. I could barely walk then; running was out of the question. I could sense the distress and nausea. I knew I wouldn’t die of the stomach ache, so I told myself “In worst case, I would just puke out. Then eat again and continue. Stopping makes no sense here.” But I could see the castle of dreams falling like pack of cards in front of me. My life’s first DNF was calling me on the wrong day.
I decided to walk my way for this lap until the sore feeling was there. Things were getting rough, sun was getting brighter, sandy ground was radiating heat, body was losing water, but I couldn’t drink because of stomach distress. Somehow, I managed to reach the 10km aid station stumbling over the rocks on declivous trails –three ankle twists, I remember.
Rahul, Aditya and Ankush were already there. Surprisingly, Aditya was facing the same problem few minutes ago, but fortunately he was out of it and was in perfect fitness. I sat there and relaxed for 10 minutes with a hope that things might settle. But, no visible progress was there. Water was sprayed on my head while I was taking electrolytes to keep the check over fluid balance. Then I had 3 small scoops of honey and decided to keep going with the poor stomach. As I progressed chasing the trio, things appeared to get better. I could walk briskly now and soon within 3km I was slowly running the slopes again.
I was getting better and faster with every passing mile and soon that grim feeling was getting lighter. The body language was changed, I was smiling again and I could sense, it’s possible now. However, the distress was still there. I finished 40km, relaxed there for a minute or two and was back on the track with the same creepy feeling. Fortunately, this time it didn’t bother me as hysterically as it did earlier. I kept going slowly just to make sure while my body was attaining the stability, I was in motion. Soon, I was pacing good then.
It started to get darker again by the time I finished the third loop. Due to security concerns associated with the jungle, which was macabre, the laps were reduced to 10km distance and turnaround point was the 5km aid station. The loop distance was sure reduced, but that was a defile in mental calculation that was dealing with neither hours nor the distance, but the number of loops. I took a break for a while; then had the first meal of the day and was back on track chasing the darkness in no time grabbing the headlamp again. I decide to run this one quickly so that I can have another lap under my belt before it got darker.
On my way back, it was dark. There was silence of dead. I was no more aware of my surroundings. All I could see was the earth 5m ahead of me. I didn’t know what was beyond that or what lied underneath my feet. ‘Abandoned Bhati mines’ may be called that, but really it was so full of life, life you would never see here in Delhi. And at night that life really came out to play. Monkeys, spiders, lizards and snakes, mice and rats, bulls, jackals, camels, birds and other flying things that would hit me in the head in the middle of the night, or fly into my unzipped jersey or strange sounds of some animal chasing, whatever that was? It’s hard to put into words. While being there, I had my own fears to conquer –the darkness, the jungles, the animals and the terrain.
Darkness reduced all of us to walking on the trail and slow running on the tarmac. Being reduced to walking was the last thing I wanted. The mercury was dropping and so was the plan. I stepped on that track in the morning with a thought that I would cover maximum distance at night at faster speed in the cold hours. And now, the plan was shattered. Carving my way through the trails, I kept walking briskly. To break the silence, it was not just my shoes now, but the entire wildlife of the jungles dominated by jackals and dogs.
I was virtually at half way mark now. 50 miles were done and the same was left to be done. I was no more thinking about the distance covered or what was left to travel. The plan was to stay in motion throughout the night and log as much laps as I can. The monkey of cut-off time was another concern to be taken guard of. Thus, speed mattered now. I kept moving alone, along the trails with under my headlamp and the reflective tape.
While briskly walking the third lap I was stuck by another blow. My lower back developed sprain that was hindering the progress. This forced me to relax for while at the aid station. I was lying on the floor planning the progress to be made further. Aparna was relaxing next to me and soon Bhupendrasing joined us. I woke up Aparna and we all started to head back together. Since I was still in pain, I decided to follow the speed of Bhupendrasing and hang around him for as much time as possible. As we reached back tarmac, right knee started to cramp. I asked Aparna and Bhupendrasing to continue while I stretched by knee a bit. I was distasteful but I kept going.
At aid station, I got my lower back and knee massaged by the medical support and was back off to log another lap with Aparna after having a quick dinner. Meanwhile, the legendary ultra runner, and lone finisher of Bhati Lakes, Arun Bhardwaj was there to boost our spirit and reignite the dying pace of Milind. Aditya was relaxing in the tent falling to the sprained knees. I was feeling terribly sleepy. It was over 40 hours ago when my body rested for last time. To make it worse, I was actually hallucinating. I remember what happened until 102km mark when Aparna decided to sleep on the track in the middle of nowhere and I accompanied her. She had a quick 15 minute nap while I rested my knee and back; and decided to walk our way again, relatively slowly though.
I’m not sure about Aparna, but I was hallucinating now. I do not remember what happened in that lap, as I was not in my senses. In short, I was sleep-walking. I could no more sense the surface or my surroundings, I was just moving like a zombie after that. While returning back to aid station from turnaround accompanied by Vishwas (who was being paced by his crew member and exceptional runner, Piyush Shah) I realized, we had just 90 more minutes to meet the cut-off and still we were short by 12km. It was getting slightly brighter, so we were running the downhill and flat surface and walking the uphill. After surviving the cut-off by 3 minutes, we rested for a while and kept going.
The unexpected was waiting for us on the next turn. The day was getting brighter every minute and soon I realized, what I was praying for whole night, was nothing but hell. With every passing mile, it was getting difficult to continue.
“I’m feeling tired now” I said to Prateek, who was escorting the 5km aid station.
“After 30 hours of running!?” he popped out with perplexity, while spraying the water on my head.
I was dehydrating and I could sense that in my urine. So, now I was tired, sleepy, hallucinating, hungry, dehydrated with cramped back and right knee. I was getting my back massaged when Raj and Aditya joined in at the aid station. It was inspiring to see all the 100 mile runners still on track chasing their personal milestones even after 30 hours –just Bhupendrasing was missing, who had conquered the castle of dreams already, a smart runner he is.
I limped my way back to finish 140km. I was feeling lost. Body was not holding it anymore and all negative thoughts were dominating the mind. For the first time, I lost my mental balance and though process was so much in chaos that I wasn’t able to head even my voice, applauds of volunteers was out of question. I could see a DNF right in front of me. Shattered and lost –my mind believed.
While I was relaxing on chair trying to gain the mental balance, Kavitha came for the support, helped my regain the hydration and survive the scorching heat. I wasn’t feeling like standing again and walk another lap. I was losing that WILL. A million trials and all were failed to motivate myself with positive thoughts. On the other hand, after holding it for 140km, I didn’t want to let it go like this.
There, Aditya came as my savior and said that he’ll lead us in this loop. With his aching knee, he was ready to give his all so that I could finish. Kavitha kept a piece of ice under my cap and we left the aid station to a journey that was leading to eternity. Suddenly, the 5km was looking like a 100 mile and 10km, a lifetime. Aditya kept pushing me along making sure, he was not being harsh with my body. Limping our way, soon we reached the 5km aid station in the hottest time of the day. Only respite was that day was expected to get cooler by the time we start our last lap.
Pushing across my barriers we reached back aid station to accomplish yet another lap. We were just one lap away from our dream. But, I wasn’t feeling the thrill. The spirit of running, the joy, the mental calmness, physical strength, the will to move and energy –all was dead.
“Please, I don’t want to lose it now. I want to finish.” I blubbed to Aditya.
Holding my back with both hands, loaded with chilled water bottles and a bit of honey-banana-biscuits, I took off the aid station for one last time with Aparna and Aditya. Day was getting cooler and walking was no more a problem. Just that back was almost crushed into pieces that faced the blows of that terrible terrain through past 33 hours. While Aditya and Aparna were walking their way strong, I was trailing behind by a few feet, limping. The climbs were getting tougher for me. As we reached the aid station, I made an extended 10 minute halt than planned 3 minute half, to get my back fixed for the third time in past 14 hours.
“Enjoy the beauty of this place, Gaurav. This is the last time you’re experiencing this. Let this breeze enter into you for one last time. Enjoy boy.” said Aditya with great excitement.
I was actually feeling it now. Just 40-50 more minutes and the torture of lifetime will be over to lend the glory for the lifetime. We kept placing one step in front of the other and thus logging the final miles. I always asked the ultrarunners how does feel being on the 99th mile. And they never used to explain me.
I got my answer there. It’s “absolutely nothing”.
I could feel it. We were back on the tarmac and the trail seemed like never ending. Soon, Aparna started running as she could see the finish line. I had no guts to give myself a shot on running to give it an electrifying finish. But, as soon as I reached with the 150m distance, I couldn’t resist myself. I started running and soon I was flying. I could feel all the pain, misery, and tiredness being dissolved in the joy, proud and moment of completeness that was supposed to stay with me for the entire lifetime.
I sprinted with Bhupendrasing and Aditya and gave it an electrifying finish.
The aid station exploded with applauds of all who were there waiting for us to finish. Appreciations were all I could hear while I was rehydrating myself with eyes flooding in silent tears. Soon I got the souvenir I toiled for, “GR Bhati Lakes 100 Ultramarathon” finisher’s medal.
After a brief photo session, beer party, and moment of appreciation I was all relaxed. However, for me, it was still hard to believe I was a member of 100 mile club, and probably I was youngest member (or one among the youngest) from my country.
I was highly obliged to have runners like Aditya, Arun, Aparna, Kavitha, Vishwas, Raj, Milind and Piyush around me throughout the course to keep the fire ignited for daunting 36 hours and make me a proud finisher.
Describing the emotions is a hard thing to do. Similarly, putting the hallowed feeling of accomplishing your dream into words is something out of reach of a raw-ordinary human like me.
Soon, I reached back home. I could barely walk. Eyes were crying for sleep, legs were demanding mercy and stomach was waning off scoff lapse. I hadn’t dumped in past 40 hours, so stomach was heavy off all consumed over past two days. As soon as I entered home, I removed the shoes, closely looked the huge blister underneath right foot, embraced the medal and rushed to the washroom. This might sound creepy, funny or filthy, but I had a good 30 minute nap sitting on commode. A 20 minute cold shower was enough to calm the tired body.
RICE was all in my mind as my right knee getting worse. Icing, dinner and little chat with family is all remember before I was lost in the world of dreams on my bed only to ensure, I was alive. Next morning, I woke up fresh and was feeling all the mental fitness again –motionless, stiff and cramping knee, quads, calves, ankle, feet, butt, lower back, shoulders and neck were the secondary issues to deal with.
Magic is not that I was back on work next morning; neither is it the revival off the stomach cramps and stiff knee, nor is the 150m sprint to the finish line with sore back and lambasted right knee. Magic is “I had the courage to take up the challenge and start”
Before I sign off, there few acknowledgements, without which the victory is tasteless –Aditya Bee (for making me hang there when I was losing it), Aparna (for accompanying throughout last 70km), Vishwas (for igniting the 100 mile fire), Rahul Verghese (for helping me discover a runner in me who could run beyond 21km), Dr. Rajat Chauhan (for guiding my way through) and last, but by no means the least, Team Kavitha and the volunteers (for putting on a tremendous show with exceptional patience).
“Do not lose hold of your dreams, or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist, but cease to live…”