A Heroic Tale of Humiliation
“Hi Champ. How are you?”
“Hi Spartan. I’m fine, thank you! How about you?” replied the ultrarunner from Ahmedabad, Vishwas Bhamburkar from the other side of the phone.
“Oh, I’m all good. I just called up to confirm if you’re available on July 4th. I want to run from Mumbai to Pune –whatever distance that might be. But preference will always be for a 24-hr run” I said in excitement. I knew Vishwas had faltered on the same track a few days ago. So, he was the best man to run with. He must’ve been looking for revenge, I was sure.
“Yes! I am.” he replied without realising I was talking of an ultra on a Wednesday.
And I had a game on now. I was scheduled to visit Pune for an entrance exam to Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. Expectedly or unexpectedly, the schedule of exam changed and finally the date of exam was July 4th, the interview was on 5th and we decided to start on 6th morning.
One morning I got a phone call from Vishwas.
“Have you checked your email inbox?”
“No. I’m not quite regular in checking emails these days” I replied.
“I have sent you one. Just go through it and reply.”
The email was not just a normal one. It was summoned from a monster -possibly of my trial. A run that was initially scheduled to last for 24 hours was now 250Km long. The start point was shifted from King’s Circle to Mandwa Jetty and finish from the University of Pune to Dahanukar Chowk, Kothrud, Pune. The route now had a couple of hills, valleys, waterfalls, forests, beautiful beaches, villages, creeks, springs, backwaters and much more than just a plain highway as planned initially. I knew I had little training under my belt. Ever since recovery of my broken ankle, I was not stretching my body much over longer distances. A few 40Km logs were the only benchmark I had recorded as my training runs -best one being 50Km run/walk/explore in Bangalore during an interview at Indian Institute of Science. It was time now to speak up. 200Km was my personal target that I was focussed on; 250Km, only if my body supported.
Practically, I did not have a very proud history to support my decision of running 250Km in Maharashtra. Both the appearances in Mumbai Marathon had been lame -done by heat and humidity of the coastal region. To run that distance in the oddest conditions, particularly hot and very humid with scattered rains, it demanded a Herculean effort to achieve the ambitious target.
During training, a downfall was waiting when I was forced to quit at 70K mark during a self-supported 100K run in heat as high as 112 degrees. Certainly, I realised later that I was no Superman to run a 100Km distance in that cruel heat with absolutely no support from either end -tangible or intangible. Absorbing the learning and keeping positives alongside, I rested for 10 days (with little running, of course) and marched towards my troops waiting for me 1000 miles away to start the epic run.
A stay at Shwetank’s place with his other 6 friends was a fair enough plan to make the most out of the trip. Aman Narang was another pal I was looking forward to seeing a considerable time -childhood friends, from the stone age. Crawling down the rails in terrible heat, I reached Pune on the third morning of July. Accompanied by a few Islam disciples, it was a fairly comfortable journey with a lot of inter-religion learning involved. For the first time, I got to know the literals of namaaz (the prayers) and much more -with meanings for a change.
Pals, back at Shwetank’s home away from home, were amazed to know about the horrifying plan of suicide –how stupid one can be –they must’ve thought. As soon as I reached there, I decided to move out for a short warm-up run to explore the surroundings. At 10th km, I felt some niggle on the upper end of my right calf while running, but ignored considering a reaction of a somewhat tired body after a journey of 28 hours with little sleep.
Later, we had a bash with pals in the evening with a lot of fun served with alcohol; thunderous Thumbs Up was my drink to accompany them and derive the complete fun out of it. Entrance Exam and then the interview next day was all in the mind with a terror of distance seeding deep inside the heart -waiting to explode. Next morning, written exam was just perfect which was followed by some exploration of Pune.
The evening was marked by pre-run meeting with Vishwas Bhamburkar, Nikhil Shah, Samir Shaikh and Rakesh Mehta to discuss the strategy, planning and some things-to-do. It was great fun being around and finally, the excitement was in the air for all -runners and the crew. Aparna Choudhary, the third runner and a good friend, was expectedly missing from the scene -preoccupied with some official work. Aappe, Idli and some more mad but delicious south-Indian cuisines soon grasped the attention with a topping of some interesting tales about Tamhini Ghat and our past marathons.
Tamhini Ghat stretch of our route was the most exciting part of it. Little was the knowledge any of us had; all were the stupid stories as of a C-grade Bollywood movie regarding attacks by panthers, snakes and wolves spread over the span of 30 years. Interesting enough to drive me full monty –if not complete 250km, Tamhini stretch was something I couldn’t afford to miss.
The route was pretty unique in itself. Starting from the beautiful beach of Mandwa and driven along the coastline through Kihim, Alibag and Kashed via Nagaon, it was stretched to the south up to Murud. Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary and Mhasala were the hilly forests to play with before Mangaon, Nizampur and then the storied heights of Tamhini Ghat. That stretch led to Mulshi, a popular dam of Pune where most of water supply is derived from, landing us in Kothrud on the south-west of Pune through numerous villages including Paud. Overall, it was the most beautiful Konkan ride one could dream of.
Finishing the interview early on the 5th morning of July, it was time to move around and shop a little just ahead of the run. Singlet and socks were the chief items apart from some other edible stuff. After accomplishing the day’s chores, I had to spend the night at the guest house of Rakesh Mehta, as that would have made easier for Samir to pick me up from, Chandan Nagar (original stay) was way apart from the designated route to follow.
While travelling from Chandan Nagar to Kothrud towards Rakesh’s place, I lost my glasses to a brave attempt of bus driver while he was testing the power breaks of his jumbo-sized Ferrari with no seat belts to safeguard sleeping creatures, like me. I was nearly purblind. So the ultramarathon was suddenly ‘Blind-o-thon’ for me. Since it was already late at night, Rakesh took the responsibility of getting the glasses fixed by next evening, so that he could hand that over to me the other morning.
At the guest house, I was accompanied by one more guy, a trainee at Rakesh’s office, from IIT Delhi. After a quick chit-chat I went to bed a little late than expected with three hours left to have some mental peace before the physical colossal. Vishwas made sure I was up and going by four in the morning.
The dawn was breaking in dilatorily with a topping of strengthening drizzle, when the beasts were getting ready with an anticipation of a real wet run. The ultra-rider Samir Shaikh was on the roll right since the other day. With absolute no sleep, the ice-man was right in time with his SUV packed with all needs. For the record, Samir’s an astonishing rider of Royal Enfield and just a few days ago he successfully scaled a mammoth distance of 3200 km from Pune to the streets of Rajasthan in a journey through the richest Indian culture -an amazing trip that must’ve been. And people still call ‘us’ crazy!
Just before leaving the temporary den I made a quick check of important items I was carrying, viz., Honey, LED torch, Head Lamp, Tang, Energy bars, Waist Pouch, Band-aids, Clothes, Shoes, Sleepers, Kinesio Tape, Orange juice, Cap with sunscreen, my self-made Lemonade mix (Desi Gatorade as they said) and a few more small things. Analog Magnetic Compass, spare Batteries, a 500ml bottle and surgical tape was missing apart from my beloved glasses. Water, Gatorade, Bananas, Lemons, Biscuits, Khakhras, Curd, etc. -were already loaded in the car along with other important things as yoga mats, stick (to shoo away animals -though I had some doubts over his intentions), ice box, first-aid box, high power torch and much more -that I’m still missing.
Another point of interest was the niggle at the top of right calf -that gained strength instead of dieing out, with passing time, despite of massage and icing; though, it was not hindering running or walking by any means. Still, carrying a niggle forward to run in crushing conditions was not a wise thing to do. I was risking a ligament tear or at least muscle tear. With flow of adrenaline, the niggle seemed to be a talk of past and there was no superficial pain; hence, ignored. Secondly, it’s not every day you get to run with friends on such a beautiful track thousands of miles away from your home. It was one of those rare occasions when I was available for all the fun; so, I didn’t want to hear anything that would have made me pull out of it before the start.
Soon, we were on the way to the start line after picking up Aparna with her belongings. After driving through the beautiful lush green hills adomed with the monsoon clouds on top in heavy rainfall, we made a hault for some breakfast just ahead of Pen (pronounced as ‘pain’). Upma was the only thing I could trust in the alien Maharashtrian World as I was familiar with -you can’t find Idli in early mornings which would have been my first choice without any offence. Unfortunately, upma was not available yet. Sabudana is a high starch source, I knew. Without thinking much, I nodded a yes to Nikhil when asked for the substitute as Sabudana Khichadi. In Northern India, khichadi is considered to be a lighter food -high energy and easy to digest. Similar were the expectations from ‘Khichadi ‘of Central India, more towards the South. Poor guy, one would say. But again, the rule says “do not try anything new to eat or drink on the race day.” This was something I followed by heart during my first 100-mile ultra, but missed here, due to lack of options.
When served, Sabudana Khichadi was oily, slightly -they said, it was little too much per se. Since, it was what I ordered I had to bear. The taste was nice though. So, with no hard feelings, I enjoyed the early breakfast with friends and we left after having some tea to refresh. While knowing more about the route we were following towards Alibag, I kept sipping water and some Orange juice to keep the check on hydration level. As we were closing in to Alibag, rain was hard to find; just a few scattered showers. I could feel the heat in the air once I stretched my left arm outside the window, but then track was beautiful, wrapped with green canopy on either sides, stealing all the attention.
All the time over past few days, we were talking of rains, flash floods, water logging, wet clothes, chaffing, shoes rotation, waterfalls, etc. Little were the talks on the reverse -what if it didn’t rain? It’ll be humid, we knew. As soon as we reached Mandwa, the tables took a sharp 90 degree turn. It was sunshine there with thick cloud cover on the other end. Strong damp wind was lending the uneasy feel. I had no device to measure the humidity, but with little experience I could tell it was not less than 80% -a figure that could floor even a Mumbaikar; and I was born and raised in Delhi where 50% is considered a dead high humidity.
It was 0845hrs in the morning, and we were running 45 minutes late as per our scheduled time. After pulling up the socks and tying up the shoelaces, we walked towards the scenic Mandwa Jetty -the start line. Right at 0900hrs, we started the mission with a blistering pace of 4kmph. Surrounded by dogs on either side, it was stupid to risk your calves if one wanted to make a brave attempt to run towards the asphalt to pace. As per the planning, we had to start together and stay as close as possible throughout the distance. Going slow and finishing slower was what I had always followed. I remember in one of the mails Sandeep citing a fact “you can’t store time in an ultra, just the energy”. This was quite apt from an experienced runner. And under conditions alien as this, I knew of no plan. 3:1 was the run-walk ratio planned by the crew, and to make sure we were following that we had “GymBoss” to govern us -a little time keeping device lent by Venkatraman Pichumani, a passionate runner from Mumbai.
For the first time, I was running with a device governing my motion. Phew, it was going to be tough. The temperature was well over 90 degrees with humidity lingering around the same figure but with different physical dimensions. With the blow by Nikhil, we launched ourselves towards the toughest run our lifetime -for all three of us. The car was supposed to stop for us after every 5K for fluid refills and other supplies if needed. I was carrying nothing much -just a 500ml bottle of water in my waist pouch -which was enough for 5 Km. “Keep yourself hydrated, keep sipping a little even if you don’t feel thirsty. Going slow with over-hydration would still be a better option than drinking less and dieing out of dehydration” insisted Vishwas.
Things were odd right from the start. GymBoss timing seemed to be a menace intially, as those 60 second’s walking breaks were being exhausted so quickly –like 30 seconds. Suddenly, sustaining a continuous pace for 3 minutes was getting harder for me after the third kilometre. We were completely drenched. And there was no rain. Gradually I was lagging behind falling to poor gastric function. The oesophagus and body of the stomach were rendering an irrational feeling. Something was wrong, I was sure, but the question was -What? With a slight panic, I kept chasing both the runners who were getting separated with every passing second; though I continued running faster for next two minutes in pursuit of a chase that was never going to be successful. That was it. Running further was getting difficult with every step, and I still had good 246 Km to go -86 more than my lifetime longest distance. A DNF was right in front of me, but at fourth kilometre? Man, have some life -I said to myself. It was clear, it was no more a normal run, it was a battle. ‘Me’ vs. ‘body, weather and conditions’.
While walking I realized, possibly this can be due to Sabudana Khichadi I had during the breakfast. Now I had two options -wait till the feeling gets to settle down or puke the damn thing out right away and risk the instance. I chose the latter as that would allow me to run after some time. I had just 100ml of water left with me at the instant, so it was a tough decision to make. I voluntarily puked out whatever I could by shoving the finger deep in the buccal. In the first attempt, it was all the water that I had consumed over past few minutes that stated only one thing -my body was no more absorbing the water I was drinking. On the second forceful attempt, I was able to puke out some sebaceous yellow coloured thick fluid which was possibly the oil under the process of digestion.
After puking out, the abdomen seemed to have a new life. It was a relieving but tiring feeling a shift in blood pressure must’ve been a reason. Exhausted with all the water, I was in middle of nowhere with no idea where the crew or the runners were. After walking almost a kilometre I saw those heavenly flashing parking lights -our crew was waiting for me. I didn’t speak much to them. Just got my bottled refilled, grabbed the travel pack honey and asked them for lemons.
“Lemons and bananas -we still have to get them,” said Nikhil.
“Please find them as quickly as possible. Once you get them, you can squeeze them in bottle of water and mix the sugar powder along with. You can find the sugar powder in a blue container in my bag”
“You want me to add some salt to it too?”
“No. That sugar mix has salt and some spices already added. Just mix them and lemonade is ready. 5 scoops would be enough.”
“You are awesome!” he said, and they were off in search of lemons.
Meanwhile, I sipped some honey and I was feeling back the life. Honey was my saviour yet again. With an instant boost of energy, I was back, running. After some distance, I caught Nikhil again, this time with lemonade. After sipping a few millilitres, I was off to the business. Sun was playing games under clouds, while humidity had no mercy. Mercury was constantly shooting up with passing hours and it must’ve been around 97 degrees at the hottest part of the day, which was feeling like 106 degrees due to humidity. Despite absolutely no rain, I was completely drenched from head to toe -in my own sweat.
Soon I reached Alibag, the first checkpoint at 20 Km mark, where Nikhil was waiting for me. I had exhausted my water supplies and I was terribly thirsty. Samir was nowhere in picture. We were wandering around in search of right directions towards the next checkpoint -Kashed, some 30 Km away. After a considerable effort we were on right track chasing the runners by walking. Talking and walking, discussing some varieties of honey, we were looking for Samir who was still not in sight of Nikhil -can’t speak of my sight, I wasn’t even able to see the horizon of sea, Mumbai was rare thing to see from Mandwa Jetty.
I launched myself again, loaded with water supplies as soon as we caught up with Samir. Unfortunately, I launched on wrong track falling to a false road marking -corrected later by the crew when they came chasing me from the other end. As I was closing into Kashed, the speed was lowered considerably. Not because of physiological reasons, but anthropological. Throughout the course, I was chased by dogs that reduced the things to mostly walking in order to shoo them away. Finally, after a long chase of 22 Km, I caught up with Aparna and Vishwas in Nagaon. Relaxing and refuelling they bided a high-five and offered the drinks, chikki, biscuits, khakhras and bananas. After little stretching I was ready to move ahead towards beautiful Kashed beach, still good 20 Km away. I had been to Kashed earlier during Mumbai Marathon 2011, and I knew what to expect out of that near heaven.
Always doubted the right use of a stick, and it was clarified here. It was meant to be used on animals and those were “us”. Aparna got the stick in her left calf she had some trouble with. Three of us started again mixing up the run-walk through the villages en route. Considering the number of canis-encounters I had faced during past one and a half hour, keeping stones in my pockets was the second best thing I could do than carrying a gun or a stick. Within the span of 15 minutes, we faced the first showers of the day that lasted for some 10-15 minutes -enough to wet the shoes to lend that uneasy feeling.
Despite carrying the stones, there was no respite from canis-encounters. Actually, things were quite complex, but logical. Fair enough, that those dogs had never seen so oddly dressed human as Vishwas -wet tee and drenched shorts, a cap on his head, a shiny chrome camelbak on his back and to make the things even weird for them, he was running. That must’ve driven them crazy. By the time they were out of that shocking encounter, I was just too odd for them to handle dressed in similar fashion -without camelbak for heaven’s sake -shifting between walking and running. There were just too furious; think, they over-reacted in some way. Aparna was the third victim; I wonder how poor girl must’ve tackled them.
Running through villages, I was very sceptical regarding everything around me on the road. I wasn’t wearing glasses, so it was hard to scan the roads closely and look for the dogs in the virtual camouflage. It started to rain heavily, and shoes were wet again; though I didn’t feel like changing them. Drenched again, I was on the huge bridge over some creek. One could see the Arabian Sea right from there, which was a clear sign, Kashed beach wasn’t far away. Support vehicle was right on the other end of the bridge. As usual, I sipped in a bit of lemonade, collected a sachet of gatorade, some raisins and a Richbite energy bar. (No, I was not on any picnic)
Vishwas was right ahead of me; Aparna and I were peaking up the pace. Now, hills were there on our left side and buses were whooshing with a gap of whisker -brave MSRTC drivers. It was open sky, slightly cool breeze, a beautiful view of roaring sea on right and Vishwas and I were moving together. He was in his sleepers now and I was thinking of changing the shoe. I could feel some irritation right under my left toe. We kept going, listening to variable answers regarding the distance of Kashed from there. Soon, Aparna broke into running and crossed us as we reached the diversion where the vehicle was waiting for us. We decided to rest for a few seconds and then head on. Kashed was just 5 Km away, they said.
The road, further, was undulating again and soon Vishwas too broke into running following the Gymboss. I ran wherever I felt like. In no time we were within the vicinities of Kashed beach, beautiful as ever. Strong breeze, roaring sea, beautiful beach, a picturesque view and my energy bar -it was an awesome combination. Never felt like leaving that place, but had to -walking slow was another good option. I could see Aparna coming back on track from the outskirts of the beach, but that bouncing silver camelbak was no more visible. I kept walking soaking the slight relief. Somehow, the breeze was taking something out of me, and I could feel it -not good signs were they.
I removed my shoes and started to walk barefoot for a while. Such a relief was that! But, pieces of broken glass spread around forced me to put them back on and run. I was there! Kashed! Vishwas and Aparna were resting and the third mat was waiting for me. Curd, honey, lemonade, khakhra, plums and some more honey with water followed the back stretching and change of shoe. A blister was popping up right under my big toe on left foot; I thought changing the shoe and socks will do its bit to overcome. It was getting slightly dark due to thick cloud cover, and staying together was now mandatory for security and keeping up the pace if there was any.
As soon as we left Kashed, skies opened up and plunged whatever moisture they were holding up, since morning. The changed shoe was wet again, and sea on the right was roaring. “Do not swim in the deep section of the sea, it can be dangerous” said one hoarding, and we were following that by heart staying away from the sea that was roaring so loud that it was scaring me now. We kept walking as it was getting darker while we were closing into Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary on our left. The cruel weather kept testing us with humidity which was at the peak after the rains lending a terrible sticky feeling which was amplified now. 3 Km, 4 Km, 5 Km, 6 Km and then 7. “Where are both of these guys. Hope they are fine” whispered Aparna as our support vehicle was not visible since long. It was dead dark, we were off with our water supplies, feeling mentally tired now with no light source whatsoever. Things were gradually getting creepy. We were walking on the edge of some hill, somewhere around Phansad, with an astonishing sea view and thick forest on either side -you know which side was what. Fireflies, moths, mosquitoes and many other creatures had started to play their games with three abnormally dressed musketeers drenched in their own sweat and some rains.
We were lucky at number 8th as those heavenly creatures appeared from behind. They went looking to refill the water supplies that they managed from resort -clever crew. Thirsty, tired, hungry and now I was losing the patience too. We took a short break, gulped some lemonade and water followed by khakhras and a banana. After some rest and replenishing the supplies, we were ready to move ahead with the torch. Aparna decided to carry the stick, to help the movement on the undulating road with potholes. I changed my shorts, as they were giving some hard time from past few minutes risking chaffing. Shoes were the next thing to rotate as the previous pair was drenched too since long.
We were getting slow now, reduced to just walking. Every kilometre was taking 10-12 minutes and we were trying our best to keep up with the clock. Right before the road to Murud, my lower back gave up that was slightly troubling me since past 30 odd kilometers. Whatever that was lost in the day was getting into picture now with visible symptoms of physical destruction -mentally I was exhausted long ago. They say ultra is a mental sport and I was waiting for that moment, as physically I was done. With some massage by Nikhil followed by spray, I was back on my feet walking. Murud was still a little far away.
We could hear the sea as we walked in the dark and in no time were passing through some village that leads us to Murud. Again, we were there! It was 70 odd kilometres of terrible physical toil in an unearthy weather with no mercy. But that was what we asked for. Getting over it and keeping the move was the only solution out of it. Things were getting terrible for me. I could feel the burning sensation of urine that was a sign of dehydration. Cramps surmounted my lower back, back of knees, glutes and niggle in the right calf was back haunting more than ever. We rested under some T-junction under a street lamp as Samir made an unsuccessful attempt at getting some tea.
My body temperature was shooting, the body was slightly shivering and all the niggles were back on business. Humidity had beaten me for the third straight time -other two outings being SCMM’11 and SCMM’12. After a considerable rest for 30 minutes, we started to walk again. Throughout that short stay, I neither did eat anything nor drank a drop of water. I started to walk supported by Aparna chasing Vishwas, who was back running now. After slightly more than a kilometre I decided, that was it. I had nothing left in me to push any further. With a heavy heart, I stepped into the car and rested, sipping in lemonade, water and energy bar. Soon, Aparna decided to join me in the vehicle too. She was mentally exhausted with that sticky feeling and had no will to continue any further. Meanwhile, I was asking the same question to myself over and over again -”You want to go back and accept the challenge or not? Can you do it? Can you run? Do you have that in you?”
I could recall all the proud moments of success deep inside over past years -first marathon finish, first 50K, first 100K and first 100 miler. I was fighting a battle inside me, and I was lost. Every time, the answer was ‘NO’. Overcoming all the negative energy, with a rested back, I decided to join Vishwas at kilometre number 75. I taped my calves and knees with KT on both the legs to balance, and I was back on track, running. While Aparna rested in the vehicle giving tired Samir some company, Nikhil, Vishwas and I continued to walk on terrain through the forest that was getting rougher. None of us had sweat so much on track at any point in their life and conditions, for me, were alien as for a Martian. “There’s nothing like bad weather”. Bring that @$$%&!# to me who wrote this and I’ll make him run from Mandwa to Murud. Hell, these motivating wisdom words.
I expected the temperature and humidity to drop by the night but there was no change -temperature was still in the late 80s and humidity was even higher. It was killing now. The light warm breeze was soaking out all the energy leaving us limping. Removing t-shirt seemed to be one possible solution -Vishwas joined in too. Shorts? We actually thought of it, then society has some rules and finding palm leaves in dark was a tedious job. There were some astonishing scenes of angry sea waves hitting the bank hardest that I had seen, then jumping over 10 feet high and bouncing back -can’t forget those for long. After a while, facing a few dogs still, we found ourselves in some forest that was even dense leaving no scope for the wind to reach us. Humidity peaked up even more -if there was any figure beyond 100% -that was it. Moths, mosquitoes and insects were enjoying their party -they jumped on, got stuck in the sweat and then we had to remove them scratching-disgusting was the feeling. Along the way, we kept asking for the way to Mhasala and their answers had a wide range -difference of at least 60 Km between the two extreme answers. Data connection on phones had its own limitation due to poor signals. We decided to keep walking without thinking much. Thinking? Atleast I wasn’t. Not at all!
Throughout that distance, we walked, cracked jokes, discussed this, discussed that, cursed the weather, cursed the beautiful combination of hills and sea, cursed ourselves for attempting this and kept going. Ages of walking, and there seemed to be no end to the forest. And there was no end to the sea. I was tired of listening to those sea waves that now seemed to be laughing at our misery. Did I mention humidity was killing us? Throughout, the road was wet, which meant it rained there earlier justifying the high humidity levels.
I was sleepwalking now. I remember a few occasions when Vishwas and Nikhil did call me from behind and I didn’t reply. Later Vishwas told me about a short conversation I had with him while resting regarding the weather of next day and the plan ahead -I have no idea when did I say this all. I was losing it again. We were nearing the 100K mark, just before the brink we made a halt at some tea stall in some unknown village in the earliest hours of the morning. I finally took a dump that I was raring to since 12 hours. Now, I couldn’t handle sleep anymore. Eyes were stressed for over 30 hours now. While half asleep I rested myself in a chair sipping some tea. Even the tannins of tea didn’t work to wake me up. We were near another creek that was half deserted due to low tide.
I had given my all. After walking for some 100 meters, Vishwas insisted me to get back to the vehicle and rest for a while. I was shattered from inside. I couldn’t hear or feel anything. I remember Nikhil speaking something about the fluorescent grass, but was not able to analyze anything. The body couldn’t move any further. With silent tears of dejection in my eyes, I made a decision to head back to vehicle and rest. In other words, DNF finally knocked me out after a long wait of 5 years. The heart was heavy. I was doing something I never dreamt of, QUITTING -that too a single run for the second time. The track was literally laughing at me in humiliation. Now when I think back while writing this, it was a cowardly decision that I made. However, when I look at the other side of the same situation -continuing with body temperature wobbling between 103 and 104, cramped body, exhausted and lost mind, no sense of realization what was going and further diminished vision, there was no good in continuing further. A decision was made. I was stepping into the vehicle and stay in there for rest of the time.
I slept for a few minutes, when I saw strong rain colliding us for one more time, again it was gone in a flash as it arrived. Soon the gang from Mumbai joined us expecting to run with all the three runners a few tens of kilometres. But the number was down to one. Kiran Solanki, Yogesh Chavan and Pranav Mehta took the guard of Vishwas for some distance further ahead; meanwhile it was decided Samir, Nikhil, Aparna and I were driving to Indapur in Kiran’s hotel to rest for a while and then further decide the future. Soon, we reached Indapur, had Kokam Soda and fed ourselves with delicious Upma in “Jhopadi” (Kiran’s hotel). Aparna took a cab from there back to Pune and we rested ourselves for a few hours over there in a room.
After some good sleep to calm the mind and the muscles, we decided to head back to Vishwas after Nikhil and Samir had showers. I didn’t have any will to eat anything when asked by Nikhil to join them for lunch -though we still stopped for some tea. My body temperature saw no change and it was still around early 100s. It was the influence of run or I actually was suffering from fever, I didn’t know. I was just raring to get back to the track and join Vishwas to hail whatever distance I still could manage. The niggles were still there; nothing had changed apart from the mind -which was little rested now. It was not the time to think of what was hurting; it was time to run. That was the phase where everything was mental now -physical condition was not very supportive still. I had some 95 Km under my belt and now had to add further whatever I could.
As soon as we reached there, Rakesh was already there and had run 15 odd kilometres already. I got my glasses back, all repaired (thanks was really a small word for that). I was blind no more. I could see, so the added stress on eyes was gone. While Vishwas was going slow, Rakesh and I decided to run up to Mangaon which was still 6 Km away. Both of us started to run in light drizzle and Vishwas followed with Pushkaraj Kore, an amazing runner and colleague of Rakesh. By the time, Kiran had already run a good amount of distance and he was still raring for more with Vishwas. I ran to Mangaon and then continued till Mumbai-Goa highway. The support vehicles soon followed. Shoes were soaked again in water, so removing them for a while was a fair call. Since Vishwas was going slow, I decided to take a quick nap again which got extended to one hour.
Vishwas joined us a few minutes later and he wanted some sleep. I didn’t speak to him anything as he needed some rest. He wasn’t in good shape, but he could hide it perfectly. I was back for one reason -Tamhini Ghat climb. I had heard stories, I had seen pictures, and I was so close to it, so I never wanted to step back. I still couldn’t feel any change in my body as the temperature was only getting worse ever since morning. I kept sipping honey, water and soon I launched again after an unwilling extended break of two hours. The track was dark with a silence of the graveyard. Frogs were the only thing breaking the silence and the sound they were making was riding on my nerves now -they were irritating since last night. All of us decided to stay together for this last leg to the morning. Kiran, PK, Vishwas, Rakesh and I kept walking keeping up the pace as all the three vehicles led us stopping at every kilometre. Humidity still had no respite and with no hesitation, Vishwas and I dumped our t-shirts again. Kiran and others were not interested in following the mania. Decent runners, they always wanted to be.
As we were heading towards Nizampur, we could hear a loud roar as of a tornado from the front with twinkling bright lights. They were ‘Road Shakers’, a group of bikers from Pune -friends of Samir -probably came to see the animals attempting 250 Km on foot. The loud sound of high power engines of Royal Enfields fired up the deserted forest; after a high-five, they went ahead to get some fuel -for themselves and their bikes. Rakesh decided to rest for a while in his car while Vishwas and I broke into running once again, supported by Kiran and PK. The monotony was broken lending a good feeling. Those canined foes were still there raring for us. We could hear them but they were no more visible. During past two days, I had faced so many dogs that if I call this “Konkan Canine Marathon”, there won’t be any injustice to what we experienced.
After some time, Road Shakers were back. Excited, all were, greeted us with great affection. Some handshakes, hugs, appreciation and introductions; and we happily posed for them bare-chested. It was quite a moment. Soon they launched back to Pune and we continued to walk-run towards Nizampur. As we reached Nizampur, we stopped for a while. I took a dump again and within no time we were off to run after some taping on blisters that were getting worse now. During all this time, I hadn’t changed my shorts for over 24 hours and they were drenched for most of the time. I could feel the chaffing, so I was applying vaseline regularly as relentless sweat was continuously washing it away. Kiran decided to stop and check his blisters. Meanwhile, PK continued to stay with us followed by Yogesh. Rakesh was still resting in his car. As we crossed Nizampur, the map on google said within next four kilometres the heavenly climb would start. I was excited as we kept putting one step in front of the other around dead bodies of few crawlies crushed by vehicles earlier.
My shoes were slightly wet falling to evening showers and overwhelmed sweating and blisters were just adding to the misery of high body temperature which was denying any fluctuation. As all of us moved further, instead of any climb we were heading downhill on a patchy but slippery terrain. Cruel games of google earth and locals. The cry of toads was still there to keep the levels of irritation still high enough. I was focusing PK’s footsteps now -following them blindly. After some distance, we crossed a raging river. I wanted to step down to feel the cool water closely, but Yogesh denied saying that would risk an animal attack nearby, fair enough. Vishwas was losing it again. He was not in good mental shape, physically we were ended long back. After some distance rested Rakesh joined us. By the time he was out of his car, it started to drizzle. Vishwas wanted some sleep, so he decided to sleep in Rakesh’s car and I rested myself with Pranav, Kiran and Yogesh in the other car. Rakesh decided to join Vishwas for a small nap as rain strengthened.
While Kiran, Pranav and Yogesh were busy cracking their jokes and discussing the funnier instances, the rain just got heavier and I kept resting keeping my feet elevated -taking weight off the legs with some elevation is always a big relief in an ultra -do it whenever you get an opportunity. Time passed in winks and suddenly Pranav erupted “Gaurav, gear up. Vishwas is up and he’s moving”. Rain had stopped and Yogesh quickly joined Vishwas and PK to move ahead. I was still pulling up the socks and tying up my shoes very slowly -blisters were hurting now. We were at the beginning of the climb of storied Tamhini Ghat, so walking alone was a big mistake. Vishwas was some 300 meters ahead of me walking on uphills as I started to chase them with hurting blisters, irritating chaffing and no light source. Pranav followed me in his car as my light source as I ran to catch the others. Soon, we were together again.
After walking a few kilometres we realized, it was still not Tamhini climb, rather a foothill. Rakesh was still sleeping in his car as we continued moving ahead. As we moved further, the road was bifurcating. I stopped in order to confirm which way to go, as PK insisted on our right side was the road to Tamhini Ghat. We were right outside POSCO plant, huge and completely automated. It had something to do with steel, but who cared. Yogesh went ahead and asked the guard there to check how far was Tamhini still. Two kilometres was the answer Yogesh got. “It’s not far away anymore,” I said to Vishwas and we kept moving.
By the time we crossed POSCO, the drizzle strengthened to rain again. We could see an endless linear array of street lamps. Still we couldn’t see any hill -camouflage, Yogesh said. But, if we were just a kilometre away, why couldn’t we see any signs of it? 2 Km, 3 Km and4 Km the road was endless. The atmospheric “rain” was stopped, but another rain was initiated -strings of verse of some third world -in all the languages I knew and also the languages I didn’t know about. They have lost the balance, I thought -but we completely enjoyed that moment. All of us were in laughter of frustration with explanations to -where the hell Tamhini Ghat has gone?
Blister on left foot was busted and probably bleeding too, chaffing was rougher and we were still neither close to the vehicle nor that stupid climb. The hills were still not visible, an array of street lamps seemed to have no end on earth while every single step was a new marathon for me. After some distance we could see the end of that string and the flashing lights -on the right was the climb hidden behind the forest. Clouds were making the way for the light to kill the darkness exhibiting one of the most refreshing scenes we had seen in past 12 hours. We were standing right on the foot of the hill and there we decided to take a short break.
I changed my shorts and tee, applied tons of vaseline on some of the intimate areas and was all set to do the most difficult task -change the tape of bleeding blisters that were painful more than ever. Slowly, I changed the tape and covered my feet with a new layer of socks and a fresh pair of shoes. Yogesh was observing the whole scene and I think he was feeling the pain which was highlighted by his regular suggestions of quitting as things were only getting worse. He had some thousands of words to say, but I never gave him a chance -one could see in his eyes. The sole of feet was burning despite the regular massage. It seemed to have a million micro-fractures that were combined to give an uneasy feeling. As the daylight progressed, we started to move ahead –to the climb. Soon, Rakesh too joined us; upset by his decision of taking a nap and he was nagging himself on missing the entire magic. He probably had some targets in his mind that he was denied of now -falling to sleep.
It was beautiful as heaven, wonder why people were telling so many stupid stories. Waterfalls or “dhab-dhaba” as they said in marathi, were beautiful. Nikhil too joined us after some distance and kept me impressed with his Hindi skills. We were now five and then six, moving together and soaking the coolest time of the past two days. There was some drop in humidity and temperature was dropping with the height. “Why wasn’t the weather like this throughout?” I asked myself; probably, nature wanted me to return home with greater mental strength in a body nothing more than -dead.
Despite the change of shorts and tons of vaseline, the groin gave me no relief. Blisters were still sore, but that was a part of the game now. Halfway up, we made a stop. In a very small distance, we gained some good height. POSCO was still visible from the top and it was huge and beautiful. PK, Kiran and Pranav enjoyed a great shower under the falls. Kiran insisted me continuously on joining in, but neither the feet nor the physiology would have agreed on a natural shower in the condition I was going through. The gang from Mumbai -Pranav, Yogesh and Kiran -were all set to head back as scheduled. After some rest, dates and lemonade, Rakesh, Nikhil, PK, Vishwas and I started to head forward. PK was explaining the stretch of Tamhini and something more that I was not interested in listening to, at that time. “Should I quit?” was the question I was continuously asking myself. “I’ll quit as soon as we reach the top of Tamhini” I said to PK who responded in a denial. “Come on, you can do it,” he said. I kept moving ahead for a kilometre or so.
Now things were getting out of control. As I saw the vehicle with Samir, I declared “That’s all folks!” I was done. Vishwas and Nikhil, who knew I was not going through a very patch ever since the start, respected the decision and advised to rest in the vehicle and join later, if I ever felt like. Had I continued any further, I must’ve ended up with a bloody groin and throttled toes. Though I wasn’t feeling tired or sleepy at all, just that penguin walk was not working anymore.
“Quitting the single run for the third time” I was feeling like jumping off the cliff. After driving almost a kilometre, Samir made a hault at the edge of the road just ahead of another ‘dhab-dhaba’ or ‘jal prapaat’ as Rakesh cited. Sushil, Rakesh’s driver, and Samir were busy clicking pictures as I rested myself on the extreme edge of the cliff. The winds over there were strong, the weather was cool, clouds were near us and view was taking my breath away. One could see most of the route we covered over past few hours, the fields of far and hills opposite to ours. The sound of falling water from behind was adding the necessary topping to make it a near perfect spot. Soon, PK and Rakesh joined us followed by Nikhil and Vishwas. They decided they’ll walk for one more hour or upto the nearest tea stall, whichever is earlier and will finish. A fair call it was a time was already 0800hrs in the morning.
As all four of them moved ahead, I kept soaking in the view with a heavy guilt of stopping while everyone else was on the move. This was surely not the time to repent, rather cherish those happy moments that I had on the track and move ahead to improvise as soon as possible. They had covered hardly a kilometre when it started raining heavily. It was a sudden burst of cloud and the rain was cold. While we were resting on a tea-stall at the top of the hill, they joined us -all drenched and Vishwas was shivering. He needed an urgent change of clothes. They called it off. The marathon was over.
Once things were done, we decided to have some breakfast and leave back to Pune. Samir’s SUV was not looking in good condition, such a mess we had made out of it in past few hours. Quickly we packed up everything, fed the shoes with newspapers, and with some effort everything was settled. After some photographs and bidding good-bye to Rakesh, PK and Sushil, we were joined by a few of Nikhil’s friends, the cyclists from Pune (a group of some 40 cyclists), who ride every weekend to one end of Tamhini Ghat from Pune and then back. With a few handshakes of appreciation, we carried forward the journey on car that was supposed to be run, that too by last evening.
The marathon was nothing less than a disaster for me, can’t say about Vishwas, how satisfied he was. The track shattered me mentally more than physical damage. When I look back and recall the entire marathon, somewhere inside me I feel proud of those times when I didn’t lose it and was able to recover and kept going in the most difficult times with (or without) the support. But, at the same time, those moments makes me look down in shame how cowardly those decisions were. Physical training, courage, mental balance, a planned nutrition chart, more practical pacing chart and a trained personal crew -these all were the minimum requirement before stepping into that hell -and we had a couple of them.
It took over seven days for my body temperature to get settled; I caught up flu and gastric infection, doctor suggested. The recovery was going to be really slow as we had lost much more than just sweat and essential body minerals to that killer humidity. It was a suicide mission and we were succeeded in finally killing ourselves.
However, this entire heroic tale of some of the worst mental and bitter physical humiliation, displayed an astounding amount of lack of training in the rough weather, somewhat lack of commitment and planning. Nutrition planning was something I lacked in most of the occasions. During entire course, the track was laughing at me on my helplessness, misery and lack of physical training.
Keeping learnings from this run with me, I’ll train better and be back on the same track as soon as possible and this time I’ll make sure to run with a German Shepherd to keep the check on the stray dogs that made the things worse at every possible moment. Jokes apart, there were a lot of things we did wrong, a lot of things conditions made wrong and result could’ve been entirely different otherwise. Digesting Maharashtrian food is another issue to deal with, over next outing.
Next marathon will be even tougher, “Blue Battle”. 135 miles of crushing distance from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi via Dehradun, Mussorie and Tehri Dam, would take even more out of us. As per the plan, Bhati Lakes 100 miler and Taj Mahal Marathon will be final frontiers to conquer ahead of a long break off ultrarunning. Keeping the things positive throughout, it’s time to work on core and achieve never done before.
Just ahead of wrapping up this epic encounter, I have some important heartfelt acknowledgements to make.
- Vishwas Bhamburkar: For putting up such an awesome run and getting others together for such a memorable outing in one most beautiful Konkan ride. More importantly for being a rock solid support in toughest of the times during the run.
- Nikhil Shah: For manning all the things with near perfection. The kind of commitment he displayed throughout the run was immaculate. Pune Runners have a got a gem since long who has everything in him for being a perfect runner and a perfect Race Director.
- Samir Shaikh: For driving us straight for over 50 hours with no complains. We were hard to bear for him at times, I know, but the patience he displayed, saw us through the tougher times. I’d certainly like a long ride with him someday -a Royal Ride.
- Kiran, Pranav and Yogesh: For keeping the things up with fresh minds and legs. It was solely their effort that we could survive till the third morning; otherwise game was done by second morning. Kiran and Yogesh, one of the better humans and runners I’ve seen from Mumbai, crazy as we like.
- Pushkaraj Kore: For keeping the spirits high and leading the troop throughout the night without any tiredness whatsoever pushing the damaged runners. One amazing athlete resides in him and he’ll find out very soon.
- Rakesh Mehta: For getting the glasses fixed and accompanying with full support on my return the previous evening. Words are not enough to thank him for his support.
- Shwetank Sharma et. al. : No words for them. They already know. However, a heartfelt thanks to all seven of them for making this such a memorable stay -one I’m not going to forget for a lifetime. A special thanks to ‘aunty’ for making me feel home on alien land.
Last, but certainly not the least, Aparna Choudhary for getting along one more time, though not for long, with full support throughout. She’s one awesome runner and human and she knows that.
I know, it’s not possible to put the gratitude into words, but still I made a somewhat failed attempt to express what I feel. I owe a lot to all these guys more than what I was able to describe. Crew makes a runner what he aspires to be.
I will not look back and cry of the DNF for the lifetime; rather it’s time to move ahead as lots more of them are still waiting. It’s the climb and I’ve to be strong -ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE!