“And now I run like a river to the setting sun / I run like a river that has never been won / I run like a river that will always be free”
– Wide River, The Steve Miller Band
Trails are always fascinating. They aren’t restricted by urban zoning laws or sullied by development. They are mostly untouched by civilization and they put you back in touch with nature. That is why the idea of the Kaveri Trail Marathon has always appealed to me since the first time I heard about it in 2009. However, this year was the first chance I got to run the track (the last three years it had clashed with Ramadan, and hence I had to pass up the opportunity), and frankly there hasn’t been a race yet that took my breath away both literally and figuratively.
I have done six 10K road races, including all the five editions of the TCS (previously Sunfeast) Bangalore World 10K but trail races are a whole different kettle of fish. In fact, in the Kaveri Trail Marathon, the fish are swimming past you in the opposite direction in the canal that runs by the trail which begins just after the entrance to the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary and goes straight on to Balmuri. An undulating and narrow trail that snakes between paddy fields and general greenery on both sides and a canal out of the Kaveri flowing alongside it, it presents a challenge that is as gorgeous as it is tricky. On road races, the terrain is mostly even and for every stride you take, you get a consistent kick back (remember Sir Isaac Newton and his third law of motion?) but we were warned at the starting line that this track will not give you an even kick back/lift in the latter part of the race and hence timings were not expected to be as swift as that of a road race. The ankles take a beating on the undulating trail, and stray pebbles do not help your cause either. And of course, there is the logistical challenge of getting to trail first.
Runners For Life, the guys behind the Kaveri Trail Marathon, ferried us from Bangalore to Mysore at the ungodly hour of 3AM from the heart of the city and bleary eyed I stumbled down from the bus and ahead into the changing area at Young Island resort, which was the operations central for the race. I quickly freshened up and gulped some water down (I truly believe there are only three secrets to running a good race – hydration, hydration, hydration) before venturing out to catch the first shuttle that was to carry us to the starting point. As if the day had not been surreal enough what with dawn breaking across the sky and a cool breeze reminding you that you are 50 miles from home, the PA system blared out AC/DC’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’. It did act as an adrenaline booster just as I got into the bus bound for the start point.
Having arrived at the start point that early, I was determined to change one thing I have never got right at these huge number of junta races – starting off right at the head of the field. As the race director Nikhil gave out the instructions on a megaphone while three volunteers prevented us from accidentally stepping on to the starting timing mat with the timing chips I held my position and at exactly 7:01 AM with three other fellow runners I crossed the starting line first and soon another 800 odd runners followed on to a trail barely six feet wide. Disciplined running enthusiast that I am, I hadn’t had any practice since the Sunfeast World 10K back in May but I was loath to make the mistake I had made there – start off a little to slow. I maintained a fair clip but 200 meters into the race I had already discovered why trail races are a whole different ball game compared to road races. I had stepped onto some fresh cow dung. As I frantically tried to clean it off my shoe, I realized the other challenge of the trail race – it is impossible to fall into a rhythm. That’s mainly because by the time you get into a stride suitable for the turf under your feet, the topography completely changes. And I am not talking about just undulation, even the texture and the make up of the turf changes. The first two kilometers were mostly spent in figuring this puzzle out. In the meantime, a whole amazing vista of chlorophyll soaked scenery sped past me. It looked even more gorgeous than usual perhaps, fresh as it was off an early morning shower.
During the Kaveri Trail Marathon, it’s not just your tiring lungs that take your breath away, the view around is just as much a culprit. The unexpected obstacles kept coming – bullock carts that you had to navigate past ultra carefully (lest one of the oxen decides to poke you in a way that has nothing to do with Facebook!), a stray village biker rushing towards the paddy fields, hay mixed with dung spread across the road or those lovely birds flying in such a perfect V formation that you had to stand still and take notice. Yes, the trail marathon is cool like that. But it was no picnic. I was determined not to repeat the sluggish running mistakes of the World 10K and kept an eye on the watch. At the four km mark, it said 25 minutes. So far, so good.
A fellow runner, Prachi, who had started the race with me seemed to gaining pace after the first water station while I passed what must have been the 4th bullock cart in as many kilometers. I decided to assign Prachi as my marker. In a trail race, the narrow trail does make it difficult to pull off too many overtaking maneuvers but luckily I only had dozens rather than hundreds of runners to worry about. The field had already thinned (maybe some were using their cameras to capture the scenery?) and I tried to pick up the pace only to realize the knee and ankle were protesting harder than the BMTC employees and Trinamool Congress combined. Trail races are as brutal on your joints as they are beautiful for your eyes. Nonetheless I labored on, mostly because the mental challenge of ensuring the mind doesn’t tire before the body does is something I had conquered long ago for 10K races. I passed a fellow runner lying on the meadow, looking pretty resigned. I encouraged him to get back on to his feet and as we hit the six kilometer marker, a time of 35 minutes told me I was at a good pace and a sub one hour finish (the psychologically important mark like say Sensex 19000 or 6% GDP growth) looked within reach. In fact Prachi and me were almost at a dead heat by the 8th kilometer marker and as an energetic looking Rishi (an Infoscian who works at Infy’s Mysore campus and is an avid footballer, as it would later transpire) overtook us, I realized there was plenty of time left to finish in an hour.
With two km to go, the time read 49 minutes! And then the usual shenanigans began. The body started to give up and suddenly the sun (which had been a presence all through the race) felt a bit hotter, the stones under the feet started to bite and muscle reaction slowed. Perhaps that’s why they say the last few hundred meters of the Everest climb are the most dangerous. For the first time in the race, I almost turned my ankle on a stone. Recovering quickly I ran ahead trying to motivate myself by imagining how Yogeshwara Dutt would have felt in his last bout or Sushil Kumar in that terrific semi final. Images of a triumphant and cart wheeling Yogeshwara Dutt flashed before by eyes. I know what you must be thinking. No, I didn’t do any cartwheels. With 500m left, two finishers passed us from the opposite direction applauding and encouraging us. I gave them the thumbs up and pushed ahead, Prachi a few feet behind on my right. A slight downhill stretch raised my hopes of a strong finish (and maybe even a personal best of about 57 minutes) but it disappeared faster than water off the back of that duck which had just jumped into the canal on my left. The last 300 meters were revealed to be (gasp!) an uphill stretch. Prachi and I ran pretty much neck to neck and as she waved out in my direction at the finish line shouting ‘come on!’ I literally said ‘Ladies first’ and allowed her to cross the finish line first. I crossed a second later clocking 58 minutes and 19 seconds. On a turf that was supposed to slow us down, I had run my fastest 10K in the last three years! Naturally, the kick, the runners high and all associated paraphernalia came rushing on including the cute volunteer who put the finishers medal around my neck.
The finish line was the gorgeous Balmuri falls which, in the words of my editor (at the magazine I write for), constituted the most gorgeous finish line he had ever seen. The gushing water and the gentle breeze indeed made it a treat like no other in crossing the finish line and with the finisher medal dangling proudly around my neck, I announced to the people on the first bus shuttle leaving to Young Island resort that ‘anyone on this bus has had a terrific race’. There was Babita, who ran the 200 and 400m at college and in only her third 10k race (she ran the TCS World 10K in 2011 and 2012) picked up the runners up spot in the women’s category. And there was Rishi, the footballer who showed exemplary stamina to finish his first ever 10K race in 56 minutes. There was a gentleman from the Netherlands who finished just about a minute after me. Every single person who finished this particular 10K race looked less concerned though about their time and more excited about what a great trail they had just passed through.
The thrill of a trail race, despite all its tricks and troubles, is unprecedented. When you run on a trail such as this, even one that’s not entirely a forest trail but more a semi civilized one, it’s as if the runner, the scenery and the path all converge into one another. And that’s a feeling no stopwatch or timing chip can capture.
You can have empty rhetoric about ‘Go Green’ or you can ‘run green’ and experience first hand how remarkable nature really is how removed we have become from it.