Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pacing at SPBM 2016

Bangalore runners, many of my friends and their Facebook walls get into this mad frenzy during the annual running festival – The Shriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon, every year. This time though, I had committed to doing the Malnad Ultra, just a week before. There was no way, I was celebrating this festival.

The race director, Nagaraj Adiga, did not want me to miss out on the action. I volunteered to pace the slower runners. He let me pick, I choose the 5:15 bus. Pacing / Pacers are a common sight in large city marathons. The pacers have 2 objectives – 1. run at an even keel (or as per pre-published pace strategy) to finish +/-30secs from the time target and 2. Use experience to motivate runners to stick to pace and help them finish.

Adidas, one of the sponsors, was kind to sponsor shoes, shorts and tee shirts for the pacers. We were given specially designed pacer pack to hold a flag (with the target timing) off our backs.

Pacing in the GPS age:

I have seen pacers and used them as markers during my Singapore marathon way back in 2009. In those days, GPS was not as popular, many runners used the help of experienced pacers to finish in target times. Almost any runner has GPS, a watch or on a mobile. Most watches have virtual partner features, which is essentially a virtual pacer, doing a constant pace. So, what value does pacing bring to a runner.
I found out.

Almost as soon as I wore my pacer flag at the warm up area, I was approached by wannabe full marathon finishers. At the start about 5-10 of them stuck together and we started the bus. My plan was to stick to 7:30 pace all through. “Runeversations” happen mostly during the first half. I shared a few of my stories and tried to engage most runner in sharing theirs. There was a mix – mostly first timers, some well trained, some not at all, some afraid to go faster, others already too fast for their pace.

The Pacing Dilemma

1. Training truth vs race day morale
Being the slow bus, I had many runners who were inadequately trained. During the Q&A that was going on, it was difficult to say the hard truth “Train hard, race easy”, without affecting the morale of the runners.

2. Slowing down vs Pacer goals
During the later stages of the run (perhaps, when they need a pacer most), when some of them dropped pace, I could only egg them on, without slowing down my pace. I whish I could have slowed down, prodded them some more, and picked up pace. But alas, my pacer duties forced me to stick to my pace.

The heaviest casualty for my bus was during the Indranagar 100ft road. After that undulating stretch, I was left with just a handful of runners. Then a couple of them wanted to speed up. So, by the time I got to about 32kms, I was looking for new recruits, except one.
The course markings were off by about 500m, and I did some miscalculation at around the 36k mark, which got me running at a fast clip for a bit. This, however, helped me correct for the longer course.

Once inside Cubbon Park, I egged along a few runners to pace along for a strong finish. I finished with the clock showing 5:14:49 or so, on target!

It sure was a good experience and although I was running 3min/km slower than my marathon pace, it sure was tough. I am happy to have contributed in some way in the finish of a few fellow runners. For the first time, in over a decade, I completed a FM in over 5 hours!

And, on the third edition of Shriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon, here’s an open letter to the organizers, NEB Sports:

The Bengaluru marathon is very close to my heart, since it is in my city. A big thank you, for all the efforts in making this a great event. Having run the last 2 editions and pacing the 5:15 bus this time, some feedback from my side:

1. Route - On the return, the stretch from 100ft road turn (on old madras road) till Trinity circle was not good. Traffic was not blocked, we had one thin lane to run, traffic is heavy, fuming buses, etc. You should avoid this, by considering returning via Old Airport road to Trinity circle and then left turn into MG Road. That way runners will not need to cross Trinity circle (both while going out from MG road and then coming back).

2. Traffic - On some stretches (MG Road, Old Madras Road) traffic was not blocked on one complete side. We used only one lane on one side of the road. In most marathons that I have run, both India and overseas, traffic is CLOSED. No compromise. If you need to bring it up to Procam standards, you have to find a way to totally block traffic. Even in Marine Drive, Sealink, etc, the traffic is blocked for the whole 8 lanes. It is very uncomfortable to run when you have buses fuming smoke on the other lanes, accidents and shouting at traffic police is happening on the other side. Affects the morale of runners and leaves a bad memory

3. Aid stations - Much better than last year, where I did not find gatorade or electral for most of the run. This time electral was there for most part, except a few water stops towards the end. The bananas were not ripe. I loved the peanuts and chikkis.

4. Post run food - Bisibele bath was very spicy. Rava is not great on nutrition, Pongal and curd rice would have perhaps been better options.

I am happy to put my thoughts on the course planning for next year. I thought I should share my thoughts, since I am sure I will be heard :)

(ps: the feedback has already been responded to)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Malnad Ultra 110k Report

8th October, Saturday, I ran for 13h:45m to complete a distance of 110kms. First, some housekeeping stuff:

Total distance: 110kms
Trail type: 50k paved, 60k trail
Total ascent: 2850m

The course - Set in pristine nature, amidst coffee estates, unsuspecting mini villages, country roads and mud trails, Malnad Ultra is a dream Ultra marathon course. It includes never ending inclines (and declines), long ones, steep short ones, ones that top off with spectacular views, ones that curve into more inclines – all kinds of them. The symphony of chatter from all kinds of birds - the piercing peacock call in the morning to the chirping crickets in the evening and sometimes just the eerie silence at night. The shades of green – of coffee plants, of silver oaks, of vegetation draping the misty endless hills. The lasting memory is of the women and kids from the villages in loud cheer as the runners approached them, giggling, clapping, jumping up and down, what joy!

I folded my hands, closed my eyes in a silent prayer to Lord Krishna close to the “Summit”. Everything that you do, just faded away in front of such magnificent creation.

Excerpts from the Malnad Ultra Information Handout (loads of information in that one):

Average speed: 8kmph
Total time: 13h:45m
Rank: 2 out of 19 finishers
Split timings: Avg speed @ 30km 8.88kmph, @43k 8.9kmph, @80k 8.24kmph, @110k 8kmph

My own race - I had the perfect race.
Avoiding a Did Not Start (DNS).
My lead up to the start line was shuddered in uncertainty – my daughter needing hospitalization the previous week, slight delay in starting to Chickmagalur from Bangalore. I had to revert to plan B of riding a RX100 from Chickmagalur to Kemmanagundi on Saturday. I started at 3:30AM to cover the distance of 60km, it took me 2 full hours. I barely had time to peel off the layers of clothes, put the bib on, drop off my bags. A big shout out to Sripad, my cousin for helping me plan to get to the start…

The cheers of the 110k & 80k was getting louder at a distance, I reached the start point, still fumbling with my bib. I said a quick hi to Athreya and we were off.
I took the first available detour into the coffee bushes, for my  morning ablutions. When I rejoined the course, I was already DFL – Dead Freaking Last. I began passing runners one by one (something that I did for the next 14hours).

You will be saved the agony of a long post – I don’t remember much, it’s all mostly a blur even 2 days after, but for some highlights.

From the elevation profile, the course went mostly like this – 10k down, 10 up, 20 down, 10 up (to summit), almost 30 down to 80k mark, 10 up, 10 down, 10 up. The course gets you to Lalbagh guesthouse in 30kms, then loops a 50k course, then back up to K’gundi (30k).

My plan: My plan was to be easy for the first 30k to Lalbagh, be steady for the next 50k till Lalbagh (perhaps finish this in 12hrs) and then do what I can, in the uphill to Kemmanagundi.
I did not plan to take forced walking breaks, but had decided to walk all uphills; albeit briskly.

It’s good to have a plan, you need something to trash.
How wrong I was on the course reading. There was no 10 up, 10 down. It was just simple ups and downs, ups and downs, more ups and downs. But what was good was that the downs were runnable (unlike some of the steep downhills in the trails in the Cinderella trail run).

0-30km 6AM to 9:30AM
I just ran with a watch, the km markings were once every 2km (if you didn’t miss seeing them). I thought I was doing better than 10kmph speed. But only reached Lalbagh at 9:25AM; 3.5hours for the first 30km, I mentally prepared myself to finish only past midnight. I was slower than I expected, not according to plan.
By the time, I had eaten (while on walking breaks), 2 idlys, kesari bath and Khara bath.

30-80km 9:30AM to 3:45PM
This stretch was much better than plan and what set me up for my super amazing finish. Read on.
I don’t remember doing anything different. I had to stop once to stretch my thighs early on, at 35k. I slipped on a twig once, tripped on stones & uneven trail a couple of times, but luckily held my good.
There were long down hills, running a few kilometers at a time. I ran them steady, passing 2 ponds in the valleys. Then the long climb to the Summit. I passed Athreya in 1st place coming down, about 20mins behind him, with a few other 110k runners between us.

The Summit, overlooking the Bhadra reservoir was spectacular beyond words. I said a quiet prayer and carried on. I think I was there at the Summit by 11:45 or so, 6hours for 50km. Back on plan.
Photo credit: the wonderful photography team from Malnad Ultra

I took a detour into the DodKhan rest area to grab a quick Curd rice packet “to-go”, 56k or so. I polished off the yummy curd rice on the uphill in the next km or so. I loved the boiled eggs available on some water stops. Sadly, had to give the bisi bele bath a pass. At some point, I had so much food and cocoa vanilla in me, that my stomach went slosh slosh slosh, I had to STOP... eating.

The course led us to a serene lake, we run around this to the 70km water stop.
There something happened, my competitive side (very deficient side, that is) got switched on.
The volunteer there was making a note of bib numbers by category. I joked with him like in other water stops, but surprise surprise, I was 4th on that list. With only 70kms done, I had a long way to go.

Moving up to 3rd:
I caught up with Shaswath by 75k. He was doing good himself, going a tad slow on the uphills, but gutting it out. I was under severe mental pressure at this point – battling between not wanting to be competitive, but still wanting to be ahead of S. But I had settled into a good rhythm by now; breathing deep and steady, no specific niggles and happily no signs of cramps. I was having a salt tablet every hour and downing generous helpings of Cocoa Vanilla & Green Tea flavored energy drinks at each water stop.
Shaswath gave me a breather when he stopped to refill his bottle, I went past. Getting back to Lalbagh (80km), I was 3 mins ahead of him.
Photo credit: the wonderful photography team from Malnad Ultra

As I was getting into Lalbagh guest house, Himanshu in 2nd place was getting out of there, some 3 mins ahead.

80-110km 3:45PM to 7:45PM
I made a quick stop to pick up my head lamp at the baggage drop point at Lalbagh, picked up a boiled potato, poured water on my head (like I did at every water stop) and blurted out of there, sending my love to my family via Reena. At this point, with H (who had won the Bangalore Ultra last year) and Ath ahead of me, I was more concerned of S catching me up than me moving into 2nd place.

Moving into 2nd:
In about 5-6kms, H started getting to my sight. He was slowing, taking walking breaks on flats and running downhills. I was feeling strong enough to run some sections of uphills at this point. I was squeezing a few run paces in between long uphill walks.
I caught up, went past, acknowledge his greeting and never looked back.
Actually, I didn’t want to look back, to see how the others were doing. My goal was for me to finish strong. I never came into this race wanting a place on the podium. I brought back focus on what I needed to do, power walking the uphills, using the hills to rest the running muscles and vice versa.

Moving to the top:
At each water stop, I got updates that I was second and the closing gap with Ath. “10mins”, they said. But you know in India, 10mins can be anywhere between 2mins and an hour. I had no hopes (or wish) to catch up with Ath.
Some steep inclines later, I turned into the last 7km of concrete uphill road to the finish line. It was 6:55PM. By now I was running with my head lamp on for sometime now.
In that small pool of light, it was difficult to notice the uphills. I was feeling good and running some sections of the uphills as well, cutting corners, dodging headlights of oncoming vehicles.

The last 2kms slowed me down, it was bad potholed roads, difficult to discern the depth in the headlight. I missed a turn and went into the Bhadra sanctuary gate, but soon some people directed me back on track. As I stated up the last km, I saw a torch light ahead. Expecting it to be a volunteer, I shouted at that, to check if I was on the correct route.
When he turned, it was Ath. I caught up, he looked done, said he was giddy and had walked most of the last few kms. We walked together for another 200m or so. Then Kieran, the run manager and Reena ran back to us 100m to go. Kieran ran ahead to warn the finish line or our approach. Anand (race director)’s son trotted up with Ath. I held back an urge to sprint. It’s only fair that Ath takes the winning honors. I came in second, a few secs behind.
My race was over, you don’t need the 1st place to be on top.

A note of commendation and gratitude to the race director, Anand Adkoli and team, for bringing trail running to this paradise. A thank you to Gauri from activeholidays for providing me a bed for the night, so I didn't have to ride back to Chickmagalur that night.

So, how does one run these 100kms, all day runs?
There are no Short Cuts, I mean, NO short cuts. It’s a long 3 pronged answer:
  1. Diet – I have been cutting down on junk, no sugar, no flour. Salads (yummy ones) have long replaced rice for dinner.
  2. Exercise / training – All through this year, I have run. 5 ultra’s in all, finishing in top 10 in all of them. Many thanks to Shreya for tolerating my high mileage in the last month. On a weekend when they were away, I rode to Nandi hills, parked my bullet there. Starting running down at 4pm from Nandi hills, all the way to my house near RMV. Finished the 56k or so in 6hours. Slept a bit, woke up at 4am and ran back to Nandi. 56kms in 7hours. That was 112km in about 19hrs incl. sleep. Alone, self supported, along the highway. A week after my 12hour stadium run, I ran a tough 50k ultra (1800m ascent) in the US. The last 5weeks were 100k+ mileage, running in UAS campus from 8:30 to 11:00 everyday. You got to gut it out in training.
  3. Lifestyle – Lead a stress free life. Many thanks to my bosses at work for being supportive. At some point being spiritual takes the load off. I listened to Gitopadesham during training (thanks to Sripad)
 I feel blessed. Thanks for reading.

Receiving the finisher medal from Anand Adkoli, the race director

D's report http://dhammo.blogspot.in/2016/10/malnad-ultra-2016-50k.html
Ath's report http://athreyachidambi.com/wp/the-malnad-ultra-110k/