Battle of Vagamon 2019

Excerpts

9:30 PM. It was already 16 hours of me running. Even though the vitals of the body were crying for a relief and the climb was  getting steeper with each step, I was still looking to finish the race with only the surrounding jungle to accompany me. Amidst the dark, screeching noises, and the rustle of the wind, my only support was a headlamp paving the way for me to run. With no one in sight, a thought entered my mind. 

‘Am I lost?’

There was no one expect my instinct to reply back. ‘Yes you are!’, pat came the reply. 

‘Stop blabbering, you often misguide me’. 

I continued. Few minutes later, I had to take a difficult climb. Being nervous, fidgety, and aghast, I shouted in the dark.

‘Who put these turns right before a few kilometers from the finishline?’ 

‘Come what may, I will sprint on these sky trails.’

And, I sped upward like a gazelle. In the blink of an eye, I was on the top of the hill. I continued the rhythm and found a one-feet wide downhill trail and my acceleration towards finishline continued. In fact, I found the rhythm I was looking from the wee hours. 

Flowing in my flow, I heard the increasing burble of a stream nearby. I looked down on my left and found, except one row of tea plants there was nothing to protect me in falling in the deep gorge.

My eyes became salty again, ‘Who will play with my little angles, if I slide here for a while?’ 

I tapered down to walking, holding tea plants in the left hand and kissing hard rocks from the right hand. After 50 meters, I found a safe turn. And, I smiled again,

‘Oh God! I’m alive!’

Highlight

                      

Vagamon ultra 2019, I ran 90k with total elevation gain of 3300m on 5th Jan 2019. A ferocious trail full of uneven stones with more than eighteen non-trekable hills (avg height: 180m+). Every-time my fully protected foot hit the trail, it was not sure in which way it would land, kind of twist it would get and kind of acupuncture it would receive. My knees were showing signs of dislocating. And, mind was contemplating for signing up for the race. A race where I waited till finishline to find my rhythm. A race where I first time worried about cutoff time. A race where 40% participants did not finish. I can call it Barkley of India. In the end, I felt accomplished where I found a better version of me in a day. A respect to all who finished ahead of me, who finished behind me and who didn’t finish.

Thank you Soles of Kochi for being the best organizing team till date. Love you all.

Precursor

The script of the battle of Vagamon was written a fortnight back in the historical Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, New Delhi. Where, I conceded my first defeat of running life, a DNF in 12 hours stadium run, after leading the track for initial 3 hours. This was the race, I trained dilligintly for. I was not defeated by the fierce competitors, but by my own compatriots, Achilles Tendons. They became so hard that I had no options than playing soft. They were arguably laughing on my leisure time in the name of tapering. After the event, like a true warrior, I took the challenge and wrote to the organisers of Vagamon to upgrade my distance from 60k to 90k. Going by the philosophy of my life, I chose to solve bigger problem when I was not able to solve the easy ones. 


Training

            . 

Nandi Hill Training

After New Delhi Stadium Run (16th Dec’18), I had three weeks to get into the groove for Vagamon (5th Jan’19). Recovering and hill training. That means there was no time for tapering. First week spent on resting with little running(6kms) and cycling(8kms). Second week started little late on Tuesday(28th Dec) with cycling 27kms in the morning and 10km running in the evening on comfortable pace. Followed on Wednesday with 22kms running and 5kms cycling. Thursday and Friday took rest with few kilometres of walking. I did my final and only one hill run in Nandi, 53km with three breaks on Sunday.

                   

Shivagange Hills Training

Clocking 85km of running and 32km of cycling. In the last week, I cycled 19km on Monday, 5km Trek to Shivagange hills with 420m elevation on Tuesday, first day of the year. Last 4 days, I kept for tapering and travelling to race venue.

Journey to Vagamon

               

              

After getting the crash training of one week, I started the journey to Vagamon with my running buddies ( Pranaya, Hema (left out due to injury) and Beata with new running gears for first time use – hydration pack (borrowed), calf support and gels ( tried few in training). We took the Train to Kochi from Bangalore ( Kanyakumari Exp.) at 8pm on Thursday, 3rd Dec. To our surprise, the train’s coaches were relatively new and well maintained for second sleeper class. The journey was pleasant added with mutual leg-poolings and predicting our final scores. Yes, one digit finish time was the highlight 😊.  We also bumped into with  few running buddies at City Junction.

We reached Kochi station an hour late at 8:45 am next day. We took breakfast in a hotel opposite to Kochi railway station. The food was yummy given our overnight hunger.  After breakfast, we boarded Janshatabdi train to Kottayam, the nearest city to Vagamon connected with train. From Kottayam railway station, we moved to KSRTC bus station to take the bus to Vagamon. Finding a direct bus to Vagamon was a daunting exercise. The scheduled bus of 12:30 PM didn’t come till 1:30PM. Worried about delay we took an on way bus to Erattupetta, from where we got bus for Vagamon. The journey uphill was pleasant except few faults of KSRTC age old busses, occurred due to overhitting in climb. At one place, they had to stop the bus for 20min and poured a bucket of water on cooler to get moving. I wonder, how do they manage daily double commute, maintaining safety. We reached Vagamon town at 3:40PM. Where we had late lunch in the city. Food was ok given the time of the day.

             

After lunch, we went to nearby city lake to explore and click some pictures. Yes, we had grand photos. From there, we walked, ran to the bib distribution center(2.6km), Green valley restaurant. The short walk with luggage turned out to be the best fun part of the day. At bib distribution center we bumped into with our old running buddies and had delightful pre race briefing by race director, followed by gourmet dinner. 

 

To get acclimated with race conditions, we decided to camp with CTC folks. However, travel to camp venue cum start point was an issue as it was 10km away from the Bib distribution center and there was no transport arrangement from Soles of Kochi, the organisers. Somehow, CTCians managed their tempo traveller to commute twice to take everyone to start point.

Night in the tent under the cold open sky was pleasant except wind which kept trying to sway away us whole night. Pranaya was accompanying me inside the tent. I managed around 4 hours of sleep in the night. I found my head freezing cold, as I was obstructing the flow of the wind.

We got up at 3am. After obeying the natural call, we slept for 30min then woke up again to bind up our tents to get ready for the race using already pinned bib, t-shirt, sleeves and rest of everything. In a haste, I forgot to take cap assuming it must be there inside the hydration pack, a lesson for next race-  pack and double check your bag a day before. 

The Course

The Vagamon 90k route was carefully selected to assess the endurance level of  rugged runners through its jigsaw puzzle like difficulty levels. At times, it felt, ‘Is it the way to select a course? Course or curse? Are you kidding?’

It runs through, hills of Vagamon, covering all big, medium and small hills, cutting across major private Tea Estates. Except initial 2km, the entire course was a trail/ dirt road, covered with loose, uneven stones with gradual elevations. The track was so uneven that probability of finding a flat surface to put one’s running foot was very rare.  Every time one had to land on the spiky surface. Apart from this, some climbs were too steep that even trekking was difficult. At times, one had to run on the edge of rocky mountains. At some places, even downhills were non-trekable.   

The extra 10km that was added this year was the most difficult phase. Which appeared after 42k when your body was crying for relief.

Route Map

The entire 90km were divided into 19 aid stations with aid station on an average 5km. One had to climb at least 180m before reaching to the next aid station. The course was mostly unshaded. However, it never failed to amazed you with its scenic views. 


The Race 

Armed with new arsenals ( hydration bag, calf sleeve, gels etc.), I lined up at the start line just in time at 4:55am, juggling for a space in first line with the folks who always vie for the podium. Excited and charged, I joined the bus. 

The early birds zipped past me. I started slow to get the warm up. In a haste, I forgot to eat something before the race. But, had nice bread and jam at the first aid station at 5km. The initial course seemed difficult beyond my expectation, I was too careful to land my foot on stoney, uneven track to avoid early injury. However, I sustained multiple ankle twists in the beginning. So, I became too careful and started walking on uphill in the dark after the first the climb which was very dangerous. A single slip would lead you to more than 1000 feet deep valley. I walked up carefully. On downhill, I checked my time and found I was running like a turtle. I sped up and caught the champ running buddy, Binay Shah, exchanged few words and felt comfortable when he said take it easy we had long to go. But, I didn’t listen and zipped passed him. Continued some two kilometers or so. And, I ended up at a dead end, realised I have missed the track, came back some 800m and joined the pack. By then, I saw few familer comfortable running faces and got worried about my progress. 

I paced up, but slowed down due to unbalanced foot landing. I realized my high cushioned road  running shoes were not enough for these trails. A dedicated trail running shoes felt the need of the hour. At second aid station, I again grabbed yummy bread and jam. At 3rd aid station and 1st cutoff point, I stopped and grabbed two iddlies. By then, I had enough food intake. In fact, it started giving me reaction.

Coupled with local spicy food a day before and sleep deprived cold night, I felt the extreme pressure. Nature call in nature :). I had to take a detour to find a safe place in tea garden. I can’t describe the pain I went through in sqauting in tired leg. It may be the reason why I got ITB pain in later stage of the race. Yes, there was no tissue paper except dry tea leaves. Yes, I tasted tea other way around. 😁 I had to wait till 50km to clean what remained uncleaned. 🤩 

You, want to become an Ultrarunner. Live with it. It’s not a choice but lifestyle. 

I lost some 25min in nature, and my pace dropped below 8min/km. I was assuming that I was the last in the lot, but found a uncle brisk walking through the tea estate. I found my first easy target to cross. But, after a considerable seating, my legs were too stiff to move, I paced up and IT band pain appeared in knee. I continued run, walking and reached 21k mark in 3hrs. I refilled the hydration pack there and sat in the chair to remove pebbles from the shoes. I assessed my legs and realized that from then it was difficult to get sub 12hours finish. Pushing hard might result in serious injury. So, I became Rahul David, waited for plains and downhill for pacings. 

I stopped at every station to grab some edibles. I again had 2 iddlies at 30km mark and 2nd cutoff point.

After second cutoff point, I took turn to small shaded portion which was mostly uphill. On my surprise, I found one female ultrarunner returning. And felt bad on my condition that I was even unable to limp forward. Embarrassed I, pushed myself ahead in turtle pace. By then, 60k runners also crossed my path.

Next, the trail led me to gradual cimb over picturesque series of hills. I found that by then I have crossed 5+ runners. That implied, I was doing good. I continued surpassing other struggling fellow runners. 🙂 I met Pranaya and Binay at 43km mark, returning from extra 7km loop. The race was difficult for them as well. In that loop, I met Devi too who was surprised by my slow pace. Upon knowing my condition, he told me to take it easy. This segement was the toughest. Thorn bitten both my hand and feet. It bled too. But, that was temporary. In fact 4-5 new runners surpassed me in this phase. 

The next cutoff point was at 56km where, I cleaned my face and had lemon rice and curd rice. I left this point around 3:30pm with a target of reaching the final cutoff point(74km) an hour before. Seriously, first time in life I was worried about cutoff time. I started running even on uphill. However, the race God had different plan in mind and He threw the toughest climb of the course. A steep climb that demanded a zigzag movement to avoid slip. After reaching at the top, it felt very nice, but I was not carrying phone to capture the moment. The watch also died. I didn’t charge it previous night, it had got drained in traveling. The downhill was difficult where I sustained two small falls. At the bottom, one villager was offering water. I drank entire mug without thinking about the purity. From there, I started running continuously, also realized that IT band pain at knee got disappeared.

I crossed runner after runner, found Beata moving at 62km. I met Pramdeep Singh Ji, a navy guy who crossed me at 45km. He was doing better than me, running and brisk walking. I tagged along with him. We exchanged thoughts and discovered many common running buddies. I was impressed with his 15 years of running and dedication. I will never forget his two cents on recovery which was resting, eating and praying. In fact, he was playing Guru Wani in his phone that also motivated me. Later, he disclosed that it’s his and Guru Nanak’s birthday. We both decided that we would reach final cutoff point in daylight. We sped up, but Pramdeep was not able to run fast due to knee injury.

At 74km, Pramdeep continued and I stopped for food and water. I had lemon rice there and refilled my hydration bag. I continued my journey alone from there. I was happy that I was 1 hour early to the last cutoff time. I noticed, my hydration pack was leaking. But, I didn’t stopped, as I wanted to finish early. I tried sipping water but failed due to leakage. 

Along the way, I met Bala, a runner from Kanoor with whom I exchanged the thoughts on Game of thrones and cursed the organizers for unthoughtful course selection. As he was not able to run due to knee injury, I surpassed him in a jiffy. And found one beaming light, Pramdeep. I walked with him for few kilometers and sped up. After that, I surspased ,6 more runners in last 5km. Last 3km was very confusing, when I thought, I was going in wrong direction. Even, I thought of taking u-turn, but continued. Some 1km before the finish line, I found two volunteers clapping and saying just 800m more. I sprinted, and surpassed one more runner before finishline.

I killed Vagamon in 16:58hrs. A proud finisher in the end, managed an overall 30th rank in the adverse conditions.

After getting medal, I attacked the chicken (little more roasted) and rice and said to myself. This is it? I could have done a lot better. Let’s run again here tomorrow. 😃

This is the spirit of Ultrarunning. The spirit worth dying for.🤘

Thanks for reading till here.

Till the next battle,

Amen!🙏