Latest Tales from Trails

India Backyard Ultra 2021: As It Happened

Amid all the skepticism, fears and speculations we had just two months ago, India Backyard Ultra 2021 has been flagged off. All the runners are out on Loop 1. It’s a nice and cool morning with tad bit of fog and temperature in high single digits (in Celsius). A clear day awaits for them. So, we have 27 on the first yard.

Hour 2

All 27 arrived in good spirits. Early hours, you know. Sun is out, cool breeze is there, skies are clear, temperature has just begun to rise but still fairly cold for Delhi standards. And they are on Loop 2. Kartik Joshi (19y, 39 loops) is the defending champion, but he is no longer our youngest participant. 17-year-old Sushil Thakur is one among these 27 who just left. How far will this kid go?

Hour 3

Beautiful blue skies, warming temperatures, some breeze and bright sunshine. What else does one need? All 27 are out on the loop three. Among these, we have just two women, veteran Juby George and Kalpana Saha who is running her first Backyard Ultra. We wish we had more women actively participating in Ultramarathons in India. Meanwhile, cheer for these two.

Hour 4

Layers have come off. It’s getting warm quickly, but it won’t cross 20 degrees Celsius today. They have probably made their mental markings by now, where the stone on the trail can tell how many minutes are they in the loop. Meanwhile, social distancing and masks are recommended to the crew, latter being mandatory whenever they can not ensure 1 m distance outside of their crew bubble. Corral has designated space for each runner to stand before the flag off. These are just a few of many adjustments we had to make this year. All 27 are out on Yard 4.

The Starting Corral with special COVID-19 regulations to ensure safe space for each runner.

Hour 10

The hottest part of the day is behind them and the sun has started to go dimmer. In this while, 3 runners have hung their boots so far. A bit of tiredness is visible on their faces. They no longer get in the corral before the final 30 seconds, conversations with the crew have gotten longer than earlier and they are getting massage more often. The tent city looks nice though. All 24 are out on the loop 10. Loop 12 will be the headlamp loop as that will end in the dark. So, two hours to go before the darkness, and many of them have never experienced the darkness and loneliness during their run. Interesting times ahead.

Hour 11

Sushil Thakur. As he finished foam-rolling his quads, he got a set of instructions with a couple spoonfuls in his mouth. Wrapped in a saree, his mother is there crewing for him as the 17-year-old is out with other 22 runners on the 11th loop. The last day loop and then there is 12 hours of darkness. Our veteran, Juby George had to quit the loop 10 due to health reasons and now she is busy with her crew, recuperating and reflecting on how the day was. Kalpana Saha is the only woman that remains, and she’s looking strong.

Hour 12

The sun of the first day has set and all 23 are out for 50 miles. What an incredible day this has been so far. It was clear open sky with bright sunshine and cool breeze throughout, keeping just enough warmth ideal for running. Couldn’t have asked for more from the weather gods. Now, clear sky in the night means a cold night that will reach close to freezing in the open the fields. There was some twilight when they took off, but they will finish in the dark. And they are fighting for not just the Golden Ticket, but this beautiful trophy as well. Last year, Kartik Joshi lifted a similar one after running for 39 hours. For this second edition, we are still in Day 1. So, time to grab some popcorn and coffee as we will now have the campfire.

India Backyard Ultra 2021 Finisher Trophy

Hour 13

50 miles in the books. First night loop had its first victim. 17-year-old Sushil Thakur failed to make it to the Corral and hence he couldn’t start the loop. Thus, we are down to 22. Among them is the lone Female contender, Kalpana Saha, who is consistently logging sub-49 minute loops with a smile and going strong. It’s pitch dark and all of them follow the light of their headlamps. The trail is mix of beaten sand, tarmac, loose rocks with an elevation gain of 82 m per loop. It is easy in the day, but one has to watch their step in the night. We lost our first runner with a sprained ankle at one such section on just the fourth hour of the day. Campfire is simmering and we’ll get some music. Stay tuned.

Hour 14

As we count the last 50 seconds, we are still missing two runners – Keshav Manik Tahla and Kshitish Purohit. Both are India Backyard veterans. At the stroke of 30 seconds, Keshav stormed in the venue and finished the loop, grabbed some water and joined the corral in the final seconds. Kshitish? The loop started without him as he decided to hang his shoes in the loop 13. Tired, he failed to finish his loop in time and thus, we are down to 21. Layers have come on again and night has started to get chilly. The trail has very little shade and when you about half way in, you are sandwiched between the heat of sun and sandy ground in the day, and frozen between the open sky with winds and quickly cooling sandy trail in the night. Night will be brutal and it will be the test. It’s getting exciting here. Where are all of you? Meanwhile, those who DNF, we don’t let them go empty handed. They get our special DNF-Mug to remind them, they have an unfinished business for the next year. In the picture, Juby George sporting her Mug.

Hour 15

39-yo Kulwinder Singh was logging 41-42 minute loops ever since the race was flagged off. But then, for how long can you sustain that pace? And does that pace even matter? Because however fast you may go, you are still tied for the first place when the cowbell is rung. Kulwinder finished his first loop in the dark in 53 minutes and failed to finish the loop 14 in 60 minutes. Most things shrink in cold, and so are our numbers. All remaining 20 runners answered the cowbell and they were lost again in the darkness. On the other extreme, continuing his pace from the day time, Sameer Nehra is playing with the clock with consistent 55-58 minute loops, even in the dark. When will he run out of his luck? We wish never, but our trail has no mercy in the night. Beautiful clear night with full moon awaits for the runners every time they leave the Corral amid LIVE music from our volunteers who are playing multiple musical instruments and singing along as the night deepens and the bodies shatter.

Hour 16

Trail demons wake up in the night and prey on the weak. They scare you, challenge you, humiliate you. And you have to fight them all to stay in the race. I guess, that’s why Backyard Ultras are so special. And Laz like them so much. You have to do all of it every hour. For 12 hours every night you survive. All 20 finished the yard 15 in time and were looking mostly in good spirits. Sameer Nehra, who was playing with his luck since morning decided that he has had enough for the day and chose not to answer the Cowbell. Siddhant Chauhan refused too. So, 18 people answered the cowbell and started jogging towards the trailhead for being lost for another 60 minutes. But, wait! Three of them held themselves back in the corral, bowed their heads and said “we respect the race and the trail, and we will come back another day.” Thus, we have only 15 on the yard 16 now. Backyard Ultras are full of surprises. Trail demon feeds on your fears and weaknesses. What is going to happen next? This is one section of the trail from earlier in the day.

The Race Trail

Hour 17

Rituals are very important for some runners. In fact, in a way, we all have some. Some wear socks and shoes in a particular sequence, some have very specific foods before they train, some have their favourite race t-shirt and particular shoe. Then we have Dharmesh Verma. Every hour, silently, he sneaks in the corral and positions himself at the very end. Stands there like a saint and starts moving when the cowbell is rung. Just when he reaches the Start line, he bends, touches the line and then his heart, make a silent prayer, pays respect to that trail and starts running. When he is about the finish the loop, he stops again, removes his shoes and then jogs back to the finish line. And we are witnessing it since morning. Dharmesh is generally a barefoot runner and he’s logging consistently sub-50 minute loops. As the cowbell rang, Dharmesh answered again with the others but Praveen Kaushik, who denied to continue. But, we are still one runner short. The clock goes to zero again, and 19-yo Yash Mishra fails to finish loop 16 in time, poor hamstring cramped at the wrong time. Remaining 13 runners are out on 17th loop. 8 more hours before they will see the sun again. Just eight or friggin’ 8, it has a different definition for each of them. I’m sure they are counting miles to go to 100 in their heads now. More to come soon.

Hour 18

It’s midnight! And it’s Sunday! So, the day has changed, the layers have changed, the whole energy of the base camp has changed and definitely the condition of their already shattered bodies have changed. What hasn’t changed is that Race Director blows the whistle thrice when we have three minutes to go, twice when we have two minutes to go and once when we have one minute to go. And then the cowbell is rung and everyone leaves. All remaining 13 runners finished the loop 17 in time and their souls looked in good spirits, especially Binay. When Binay Sah stepped on the Start line of India Backyard Ultra 2020, he was one among the top contenders, and he fought like one of the toughest contenders. He logged 34 loops in his first ever outing in a Backyard Ultra which is an incredible record for a debut. Riding on that, Binay was the most formidable candidates alongside defending champion Kartik Joshi, when he stepped on the Start line today. While Vikrant Sharma denied to continue any further, Binay answer the cowbell again with remaining 11, so we had our dirty dozen. But, Binay didn’t move. He walked to the Race Director and shared his big plan. Today, January 31 is his wedding anniversary and he’d rather spend some quality time with his family over crying his soul out on the trail. Thus, only 11 remains. 10 men and one woman. Will a woman walk away this year as the Last One Standing in India? We’re biting our nails as well. Meanwhile, heartiest Congratulations Binay Sah.

The Cowbell, I’m sure every runner hates by now.

Hour 19

World’s best stories are told around the campfires. Okay, almost. But, the problem with the campfires is that they are too comforting. Temperature is close to 8 degree Celsius here, in the fields, it must be close to 5. The comfort of campfire then becomes a problem here when your body is hurting. And you can tell they are seeking that comfort in some form. They are 75 miles in and just six more loops will get them to 100 miles in 24 hours. All remaining 11 finished the loop 18 in time. And all answer the cowbell again, but Vivek Kumar Saini. He’s in a world of pain but happy with what he got at Backyard, perhaps, his personal best, I’m told. Remaining 10 are back in the woods, if you can call them one, and we wait around campfire.

Campfire: Night One

Hour 20

Crew is most important piece of your puzzle after your physical and mental ability. The fine details of how your sandwich should taste, how much peanut butter and jelly should go in aren’t nearly as important as making sure everyone on your crew understands the overall goal. Are you trying to win or just going for a particular distance? The crew has to know what kind of race day experience they are trying to support so they can make good decisions about how to help bring that experience to life. How many loops is your target? Crew must know. Ashu Abhishek called it quits countless times, and his crew sent him back in the Corral equal number of times. But, this time they failed. After logging two back to back 59-minute loops, Ashu called it quits and remaining 9 are out on Loop 20. Four more after this to 100!

Hour 21

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb stands true for a reason. Especially in the ultramarathons. Ever since morning, our last woman standing, Kalpana Saha was running alongside Vikrant Sharma, who called it quits after loop 17. And her journey in the race began after that, as she digs deeper all by herself in this freezing cold midnight while all the pins around her continue to fall. You can hear runners moaning in pain as their crew help them stretch and now we are only little over three hours away from the sunrise. Some are in pain and some are in their zen state smelling blood on the next corners. “There should be the Last Woman Standing in this race” echoes the corral as all remaining 9 go out again. Just three more after this to 100. But, that’s not the end. There is no end.

Hour 22

Shadows is what everyone has in their mind. Shadows not made from some artificial light of the headlamp. But, the shadows from sun. That will rise in about two hours. That would also mean they will reach 100 miles. So, they actually have two things on their minds. In minds of all, but one. Tarun Nehra logged 9 loops in India Backyard Ultra 2020. And that evening was one of his better perfomances. And today, this 50-yo happily called it off on his personal best, 21 loops. He amassed 87.5 miles in those 21 hours. Just three hours shy of 100, but he took it with smile. Remaining 8 are out on loop 22 with their eyes set on that 100. In image, the shadow of the trophy.

Hour 24

Super Seven are out on mile 100. I call this loop of doom. And there is a reason for it. Everyone wants to try running a Backyard Ultra as the concept is pretty simple. 4.16667 miles in 60 minutes. Any kid can do it. So it is natural curiosity of most runners who get attracted to this format, for how long can they continue? So, not everyone starts the race with an aim of being Last One Standing. 100 miles in 24 hours is a significant achievement, so it is very easy to fall prey to satisfaction of finishing the 100. And that is when most people quit. The sun will be out by the end of this loop, so that should lift some spirit of all. Meanwhile, all we can do is wait. Kalpana Saha will become the first Indian woman to log 100 miles in a Backyard Ultra, if she comes back in time, which is very highly likely. Give it up for her.

Hour 25

100 miles! Backyard Ultra is very flexible when it comes to goals. True that there can be one, and only one finisher, if at all, it still allowed every starter to have their own goals. So did Kalpana Saha. Before today, the longest Kalpana had ever gone was 12 hours. Yesterday morning, when she was standing on the Start line, she had set herself a goal of running for at least 24 hours, and now look, where we are! Kalpana Saha has set a goal for Indian Women to breach as she becomes the first to go past 100 mark. And that was her goal, with that she happily called it off and women contention ended in India’s Backyard. Meanwhile, other six finished their respective loops in time. India Backyard Ultra, in its two editions, with 45 starters, has seen 100 mile being breached 13 times, twice by the young defending champion, Kartik Tyagi, who you will get to see in October at Bigs Backyard Ultra. All the remaining six answered the cowbell and they went off. However, there is always a twist on the next corner. A few minutes later, Dharmesh Verma decided to turn back and call it quits after struggling with bad stomach for many hours. Throwing up, seemingly, had become unbearable. Thus, we have five remaining on the trail. All are very strong runners and know they have serious chance of winning this. Sun will be out in a while. We still have clear open skies with cool breeze, birds, a bit of fog, and the views in the fields are breathtaking, well, only if they have left any. Meanwhile, here’s Kalpana in her last moments at India Backyard Ultra 2021.

Hour 35

It was all working like a machine, they would come, sit with their crew, get some stretches, pop in something to eat, listen to the whistles, get up and start moving at cowbell. All four of them. Then we lost one of them, and there were three. Defending champion, 19-yo Kartik Joshi, and the ultra running veterans Munish Dev and Vishal Adhau are out on loop 35. Our previous record is of 39 loops and all are determined to beat that. Sun is going to set soon. “We have already applied for leave from the office” were the last words as they sipped tea and coffee and left on the trail, for one more time. We are excited. Are you?

Hour 37

150 Miles! Bettering our previous record, Loop 37 began with three runners. It’s night again. With clear skies, we expect another cold night. And they are prepared to take it to the morning as no one is showing any signs of deterioration. Yes, a little tiredness though. They walk in the corral with 1 minute to spare, chit chat a bit and leave as soon as cowbell is rung. One is Kartik Joshi who is trying to better his record from last year, and save his title. Other is Munish Dev who won La Ultra The High 333 km long race, in the higher Himalayas after running for nearly 72 hours. Third is Vishal Adhau is pretty consistent with his ultra running beyond 200 km, have personal best of 196 km in 24 hours. Vishal also transported the race trophy for us, so, it is natural to have a desire to take it back home as well. They all know what it takes to deeper when nothing is working, and we hope they do continue to do well. Now, we wait. Time for another fire.

Hour 39

Vishal Adhau hails from warm tropical Central India dominated by the state of Maharashtra. So, he is not used to running in cold. He amassed 14 loops covering 58.33 miles at India Backyard 2020 when his health deteriorated and he had to call it quits. This year, he started Loop 38 with the other two, nearly tripling the number of loops from last year. He struggled to keep warm last night and wanted to quit after 100 miles. Then at hour 27 sun was out, and he continued. But that was all he wanted to take. The trophy that Vishal brought with him for us from Pune, will stay here and he won’t be able to take it back home. Ah, one more element to backyard stories. He returned from loop 38 without completing it, and called it a day. 37 loops with 154.1667 miles, one loop less than our last year’s assist. Base camp is settled now. The only thing that breaks the silence is either applauds of our volunteers, or their occasional musical performances to keep busy. With this, we are back at where we were last year, again. The Loop 39. This was the final loop last year. We have Kartik Joshi and Munish Dev running on it. As they left the corral, they talked among themselves a little, Munish patted Kartik’s shoulder in some agreement, and their bobbing headlamps were lost in the dark yet again. Night is getting cold and will continue to get colder. Meanwhile, give it up for Vishal Adhau.

Hour 40

For the first time, Lap 40 is flagged off and now this is an uncharted boundary for all of us. Collectively, at the end of this hour, 504 loops would be recorded in 2021 edition. That’s a total of 2100 miles. Both are in their zen, just talking to their crew now. Kartik enters the corral mostly with two minutes to spare, reach the Start line and just sits there. When the cowbell is rung, he gets up and starts moving. Beautiful full moon is out illuminating their trail and I’m told there are some dogs every now and then, to company them, other than our photographers occasionally. What’s in their minds right now? I wish I could read. Meanwhile, here is the flag off.

Hour 41

“Why does the loop remain 4.16667 miles even after 40 hours of running?” Munish Dev laughed as he walked in the corral in the last 30 seconds. The cowbell was rung, and he marched on with Kartik. Cold was continuously getting better of him, and when you are tired, its bite becomes even more severe. But, he had Kartik on his side, supporting him, one loop at a time. They were always talking among themselves when they left the corral, and did the same this time. Both walked out and started yet another loop. 20 minutes later, Munish Dev surrendered and called it off, while Kartik Joshi continued to march on. The 19-year-old Kartik Joshi is once again, The Last One Standing at India Backyard Ultra, successfully defending his title.

Kartik Joshi with his Finisher Trophy

You win once, people may call it fluke. How about twice? Presenting Kartik Joshi , the second-time winner of India Backyard Ultra after 41 hours and 170.83 miles. Kartik, at a young age of 19, now has run 80 loops on our trail, that’s 333.333 miles. His goal of running for 60 hours from 2020 still stands, which hopefully could materialise when he’d make it to Big’s Backyard Ultra in October this year. We extend our support and heartiest congratulations to Munish Dev as for being a wonderful assist and amassing 40 loops on his Backyard debut. Thank you Lazarus Lake and Sandra Cantrell for allowing us to put this event together and sharing this space with the rest of the world. Until I see you next time, that’s it from our end.

The timings for all runners are available at : https://indiabackyardultra.wordpress.com/results/

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