The Last Man Stands
India Backyard Ultra was flagged off in the rural outskirts of Delhi’s Backyard with 19 Starters (3 didn’t cross the Start line). They are out on the first loop. It’s nice 10 degrees out there with beautiful weather for the weekend.
All 19 of them came back well in time, still fresh, had a few sips of warm tea on a reasonably cool morning for Delhi standards and are out on the second loop.
All 19 finished the second loop in time. These are still early hours. The sun is out and shining bright on them. The layers have started to come off and they are slowly gauging the trail that is a mix of a few road sections, gravel, beaten dirt road and tarmac with an elevation gain of 82m. They are out on the third loop now. Long day ahead!
All 19 completed the third loop. Things are slowly getting settled now as they have marked those mental checkpoints on the route. As fog lifts, they are off on loop 4.
“What loop is this?” questioned a runner just when cowbell was rung and all 19 started the fifth loop into the trail that offers only a little shade and the sun has started to warm the ground enough to bake the runners on very low heat. But, they are feeling just a little now. There is a lot more to come. Here is how they stand at the moment. We have two women and 17 men. Will there be a last woman standing here as well? Cheer for them!
The clock was ticking and it had 60 seconds to go for the next yard. Race director whistles once and everyone lines up at the starting corral, but one. Keshav is missing. Generally, a fast runner, he has been logging 56-minute loops all morning. But this time, he did not show up on his usual time.As tension was mounting among the crew, Keshav storms in at 59.40, sips in a cup of water and cowbell rang! And all 19 went out on loop 6. It’s getting better!
We are well in the afternoon hours and trail has started to wear them down. Unlike earlier loops, they now jog out, nice and slow, probably recalling the timestamps of each turn they make. It’s a beautiful day out there. All 19 head out for loop 7.
All 19 are looking strong in numbers. But, the trail is getting all over them. The repetition is killing. Go out, turn right, go downhill into the open fields with no shade and wait till you hit the road after half a dozen turns. Turn left and climb up the dirt road to the parking area to finish. It is a lot of math, if one is thinking too much. And some of them are. Meanwhile, all are looking great and are out on Loop 8! Sunset is due in three hours!
And thus, the trail drew the first blood of the day in the form of Juby George, who succumbed to knee discomfort. With this, we have Rashmi Mohanty as the only woman left with 17 others and they are out on loop 9. One could see the tiredness and feel their misery when the cowbell rang. This time, all of them just kept talking and walk out of the farm to deal with another 4.16667 mile long ordeal.
Remaining 18 continue to grind on the trail that looks much familiar now. Unlike earlier, now, they hit the chair as soon as they finish, but their spirits are high. This is their final loop in good daylight. Next loop will end in the twilight, but won’t need a headlamp, still.
Twilight hours are the toughest hours. As the sun goes down, the exhaustion suddenly starts to take over. If you make a mistake of listening to the body then, it’s never a good sign. 10th loop took away 3 more as the shadows continued to lengthen and we have no women representation left in the race. While two runners, Neel and Tarun timed out their 10th loop, a comedy of errors put an end to Rashmi’s suffering for the day to finish women’s contention for the golden ticket. 15 runners are out on loop 11 – the last loop before the nightfall. How many will get to wear the headlamp?
The sun of the first day has set and the remaining 14 are battling hard for their life. They started the loop in the twilight but will finish in the dark. Abhishek Mishra hung his boots after finishing loop 11 as the minimalist runner has had enough of slamming his feet to the rocks. Meanwhile, unlike Big’s Backyard, there are no easier night loops. But, the same wide-open course with little protection from elements. The sun will rise again at 7 in the morning, leaving them with a total of 13 hours of darkness to deal with. It’s a long tunnel ahead of them. And that is full of pain and suffering.
50 miles are done. Not every runner starts with a target to be the last one standing. Some have their personal milestones in sight. I don’t know how many of them have started to think they are halfway through. As of now, all are tied in the first place. Backyard Ultra has one simple rule. To win the game, stay in the game. Everyone is looking good, singing, chatting, eating whenever they get time. Thus, all the 14 bobbing headlamps left the base camp into the oblivion for the first loop in the darkness. Trail demons are waiting.
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India awakes to celebrate its 70 years of Constitution in the form of Republic Day, the remaining six headlamps bobbed in from the gate one by one. 7 had started the loop 17, but Keshav stopped immediately after the flag off and decided to receive some massage and resultantly, getting removed from the course. Six are now out on the loop 18 and all are looking good superficially. Inside, they are tormented watching others chilling in this coldest time of the day. Remaining 5 hours are the toughest one, as they wait for the sunrise, counting one mile at a time. We are biting our nails too.
All the remaining six are settled in their grove and working in pairs. Like a machine, they go out on the trail, follow the oddly positioned reflective tapes and march in the tunnel, their headlamp creates, make a gazillion turns, finish, sit on their chairs, dump in everything they can and now answer only the last whistle. All can smell blood in anticipation that someone will fall that will solidify their claim on the golden ticket even further. Question is – when?
They came, they ate and drank and they left. While the crew is keeping themselves warm around the bonfire, they are struggling out on the open trail. Sleep deprivation will soon start to kick in too. Sunrise is still about 5 hours away. All they have to do is just hang in there.
The mercury continues to take a plunge, the fog has fallen on the trail and all six emerged out of the darkness yet again with 6 minutes to spare. They admire bonfire from far, but they know the comforts of sitting around it is merely an illusion. As they continued to crack jokes, everyone answered the cowbell and they were lost again in the darkness and fog for just another 4.1667-mile-long loop. Just one more. The skies are clear, so it is cold out there in open fields.
When the night gets darker and foggy, in cold, sleep deprivation makes decision making a challenge. That’s where the crew takes the control of things like an F1 pit crew to make sure the runners are serviced in minimal time and pushed to stand in the corral before the cowbell rings. Subodh Kumar Yadav has been logging consistent 45-50 minute laps since yesterday morning and shows no sign of fatigue. But, on this lap, he made a mistake. He started the lap without a headlamp. He forgot to pick that up from his crew. How could this happen? Even we don’t know.All six are out again in the fog and Subodh is dependent on someone else’s tunnel this time to navigate his way safely back to the finish. Like every other hour, he has only 60 minutes to do it. Unlike every other hour, now he needs to find someone who he can keep up with. Fortunately, our trail is not technical. But, you are always one rock or pothole away from hurting an already hurting body. This is a difficult and interesting hour.
Subodh latched on to the two runners and made it back safely in time, with the other 5. Now, this is the last night loop that is in complete darkness. Survive this, and 24th loop will end in twilight – that will also mark the 100 miles! Mandeep Doon, Praveen Sharma, Pranay Mohanty, Binay Sah and 18-year-old Kartik Joshi are the other survivors with Subodh. They lined up once again and got lost in the fog as the cowbell rang for another hour. This time – all with their headlamps. What are they fighting for? A beautiful handmade trophy, a cash prize and the coveted GOLDEN TICKET to Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra 2020. Quite something to grind for!
The 100-mile loop begins and all six answered the cowbell. The last lap in the darkness and then they get to see much-awaited sunshine with some warmth. They are all in good spirits, looking strong and putting one step in front of the other. They are enjoying each other’s company, lifting each other when lined up at the starting corral exhibiting excellent camaraderie. But, only one of them will walk (or crawl) away as the finisher. Here is how they stand.
The entire base camp erupts as they receive runners for their 24th loop to celebrate 100 miles under 24 hours. Anyone would take that any day, a sub-24 100 miler! But, that’s the thing about the milestones. You start to question your limits. Is this it? Was this my target? How many more miles do I have in me? And then comes a moment of shutting all these voices down as the final whistle is blown.That’s what happened when all of them lined up for loop 25. But, suddenly, Subodh Kumar Yadav hugged his companions and called it quits 5 seconds before the Start. Thus, we are down to 5!
The sun is out, the fog has gradually started to lift exposing the beautiful fields on the trail. The calm breeze is just cold enough to kiss the skin and leave behind a little goosebump as all 5 of them lined up for the 26th time for another yard. The body is still feeling good, they are fresh with new wardrobe and a long day awaits ahead of us!
Look at these morons. Just standing there, like nothing ever happened in the past 26 hours. Waiting to be thrown back on the trail. The temperature is warming up quickly, layers are coming off, the fog is almost gone and the base camp is busy and chirpy again. BUT, all of them have a hidden secret. They are sore. Very sore! You can hear that the moment you touch their shoulders or calves for a massage. They all can smell the victory as they are still tied in the first place. Hiding that weakness is the only way forward! All are out on loop 27!
Not much to write about, really. They all arrived in time, had enough minutes in the bank to eat, stretch a bit, drink and then left. Just another hour. They were looking better than the previous hour, though.
“It’s hurting. It is hurting bad now!” As loop 29 is flagged off, all 5 of them saunter back on the trail. Legs are not lifting as smoothly as they were in the past few hours. Clearly, exhaustion is taking over. One of them is in bad shape. Something is about to happen soon. And we all are waiting!
Doubts. They are a great source of learning when you are in the classroom. You have doubts, you acknowledge them. Then you ask someone or do a bit of reading to learn more so you can address them. But, what happens when you start to have doubts after running for 29 hours? When you’re sitting on a chair, trying to eat in whatever little time you’ve got, pondering on the next lap. That’s a dangerous situation.All five of the runners are out on loop 30. But, doubts are encroaching someone’s mind. Backyard Ultra is a delicate mind game. As Laz says, you can’t have a bad lap. Only good or better one. Which one is this?
All 5 answered the final whistle. They were lined up. And then suddenly someone asked, how many kilometres it’s been? Indians are bad with miles, you know. The doubts encroached the head or it was planned in advance, there is no way for us to know, but Mandeep Doon called it quits after an incredible 30 hours covering 125 miles. Bravo for stunning effort. Remaining 4 are on loop 31.
Ultrarunning is all about solitude. You cover those difficult long hours on your own. It becomes easy when you have a partner – to share stories, pain, talk out the anxieties and share resources as well. But, if you lose the partner? Mandeep Doon and Praveen Sharma ran 30 hours together, and this lap was the first one when Praveen must have experienced the solitude of an ultrarunner since the first lap. It’s not easy when you get only 3 minutes to turn around and you are sleep deprived. What storms is Praveen carrying in him? We don’t know. All four are out on loop 32, and all of us are in just awe.
Many of you would think running 4.16667 mile loop is the challenge they’re facing every hour. But, that’s false. Challenge is to walk those 10 metres to be in the corral before the cowbell is rung. Chairs are so comfortable. Aren’t they? All four answered the cowbell and were off to loop 33. Praveen made a head start, while others casually followed. Tiredness can be seen all over them.
This time they took forever to enter the corral, but all 4 answered the cowbell and crawled up the trail – probably thinking when is the finish! But, surprise – surprise! There is no FINISH! The shadows have started to lengthen again. Sun will be down for the second time in the next two hours. Thus, loop 34 begins!
All 4 entered the corral but in a surprising moment after the starting bell, Binay Sah poetically ended his journey by taking a step back from the corral after rest others moved ahead.
Goes in progress, now all the games are being played. First Pranay refuses to go, come and hugs both other and leaves corral, re-enters it at 10 secs before the bell rings, and heads in the lap 36. The young lad, Kartik is looking strong.
It looks like Pranay was really in bad shape, couldn’t reach to corral from lap 36 in time. Now its experience versus youth, as Praveen and Kartik enters the loop for hour 37. It’s dark and they are pretty tired. Now it’s a battle between these two, or they are going to see their own limits.
The remaining two finished the last loop together in 57:24, and had just enough time to drink a little, pop in a few calories and head back out. The trail is dark and with all the fog, certainly not easy in the night. The sleep deprivation is killing. Their crew are doing an amazing job to send them back to the corral after the final whistle and they are off again! They were 22 once. Three denied to show up at the Start line. 19 took off on Saturday morning, forged strong bonds on the route, enjoyed each others’ company, shared the music at the base camp and hi-five before every flag off. Now, they are two. They need other to break. One is 18-year-old Kartik Joshi and other a seasoned ultrarunner Praveen Sharma. Who will break first?
Kartik appeared well in the time, just so he had enough in the bank to finally eat. What about Praveen? Kartik last saw him 2.5 km ago. The whistle is blown for the first time, then second and then the third. “I came with a target of 60 hours” says Kartik and stands in the corral waiting for the flag-off. But, all eyes were dug on the gates of Ansal Farms in wait of Praveen. The clock kept ticking and entered the 40th hour, but Praveen didn’t arrive. With 39 hours and 162.5 miles, merely18-year-old Kartik Joshi is INDIA’s first LAST MAN STANDING and the winner of GOLDEN TICKET for Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra! More thoughts to come.
For race results: CLICK HERE
Feature Image: Lalita Sharma
Hour 35, 36, 37 sourced from Gagan Deep Meena