Finding Platform 9 ¾
Strangely, the one moment that’s stuck inside my head from the Bangalore Ultra experience, has to do with a slice of orange, covered in slime and mud. It was the 43rd km of my first attempt at a 50K run. I had picked up the orange slice at the previous aid station, to be consumed for some desperately needed energy, after slowly swallowing drop-by-drop all the water that I had filled my mouth with. As luck would have it, I then half-tripped on the tricky forest trail, and the orange slice flew out of my hand to the slushy ground.
On a normal day, to any sensible human being, it would have been the simplest of decisions to not have anything further to do with said fruit. I consider myself fairly sensible most times, but this was not a normal day. I had already run longer that morning than ever before, fatigue was taking its toll, with 6Km+ still to go for the finish. In an instant, my mind weighed the pain of going back a few hundred metres back to the aid station to get another orange (plus traversing the same distance back again to get back to my current position), against the prospect of ingesting the most unhygienic slice of fruit one could imagine. The next instant, a decision was made. All hygiene considerations went out of the window. When running an ultra, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.
So that was my deep slice-of-life moment from my first ultra (sorry, terrible pun).
Once you have done a few marathons, the itch to go a few kms further and earn the tag of an ultra-runner is inevitable. I have started being selective about the events that I want to run at. I like trail runs, and KTM is the sentimental favourite – I ran my first half-marathon there 4 years ago – so kicked off this season with that one. Next came the Ultra. The gorgeously beautiful bamboo forest in Hennur, where the Bangalore Ultra is held, enticed me into signing up for my first 50K there.
Didn’t do too much different training-wise after KTM, more or less stuck to my SCMM training cycle. Got in one 50K mileage weekend (35K on Sat+15K on Sun), plus a couple of other 40ish mileage weekends. We also had our 10-day Kenya vacation break which happened 3 weeks before the event, so it wasn’t the most ideal prep for an ultra. Nevertheless, I was really looking forward to D-day.
The atmosphere of an ultra run is a bit different from the typical marathon events like Bombay or Bangalore. Far less folks at the start line, to begin with. Many were attempting their longest distance that day, so I guess timing, PBs, etc. weighed much less on everyone’s minds. I found the whole mood be much more relaxed. On the course too, there was a feeling of camaraderie that I’ve not experienced in road races. Smiling faces, all the hi-fives and back-slapping as you pass each other on the course, made it a lovely experience. The upside of doing the 50K at the Bangalore Ultra is also that it is the “baby distance” of the day. As I passed the 75/100K and the 24-hour runners purposefully ploughing away, looking serene & determined in equal measure, my task felt easier.
Was a bloody tough run, though. Trail runs are always a challenge. Here, overnight rain had made the route slushy, there were patches where one had to gingerly tread through on raised toes or heels to avoid slipping. The flip side of all that rain was that when the sun came out, it really started bearing down. The pleasantly cool weather at daybreak turned into a blazingly hot morning.
I was going well till about 2/3rds of my race, then the conditions began to get to me. My pace dropped, and as I entered the 40s, had to really dig deep to maintain rhythm. When it came to the last 4-5 kms, I brought out the mantra that has served me well during my treks when climbing steep uphills at high altitude: put all my focus and energy into counting slowly till 200 as I ran, then walked to catch my breath for a slow count of 10. Rinse, repeat. That got me close to the end. Then somehow managed to get in a reasonably good kick for the last few hundred metres to finish strong. Exhilaration mixed with relief were the dominant emotions as I crossed the finish line.
The term “being in the zone” is sometimes used in athletic endeavours. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi offers a definition which comes close to describing the feeling. Flow, he says, is a state in which you “are completely absorbed in an activity. During this ‘optimal experience’ you feel “strong, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of your abilities.”
For large swathes of time, in the lush setting of that bamboo forest on that November morning, I was totally oblivious to the effort of running or sometimes, even my surroundings. The lingering feeling, as I look for it in the recesses of my memory, is that of a pure, unadulterated joy. It was like running on auto-pilot. Felt as if I was in the zone.
I’ve written earlier about how it took me a couple of years before running became an integral part of my life. To borrow a phrase from a fellow runner, it’s a bit like “finding the Hogwarts train platform 9 ¾” – you know there is something magical on the other side, but to get there requires a leap of faith.
After running my first 50K (and getting hooked on what I’m sure is going to be a lifelong affair with ultra/ trail running), I am blissfuly joyous at having found my Platform 9 ¾.