Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Spirited Run

I had read about the Nasik Spirit Run, held in the midst of vineyards, and wanted to take part last year. But the registrations had already closed by the time I tried to register. I couldn’t be late this year too & registered myself a good three & a half months prior to the event. The run was scheduled 2 weeks after the Spice Coast Marathon at Kochi (http://theotherwhys.blogspot.in/2015/12/a-spicy-run-along-spicy-coast.htmland I was sure HM would be beyond me, so it was the 10K this time. You Too Can Run has got its hands on a very good property with Zendurance Nashik Spirit Run. This was at the fag end of the daughter’s vacation & this event became a family outing too. She was very happy to know that she would traveling to two different places during this vacation which would be the envy of her friends at school!

It was a 3-day trip for us & when we departed early on 27th November, it was one big family (myself, wife, daughter, dolls, teddies & other soft toys) who managed to squeeze into our small car. The Baroda- Nasik drive is some 350-odd km, but most of it is in Gujarat & one finds it very comfortable. You would also pass through the only hill station in Gujarat & can plan an overnight stopover here. Weather is pleasant in Nasik at this time of the year. It was just a week since we returned from a hectic travel to Kerala & we had decided that this is going to be a relaxed trip, while we were in Nasik (1 full day & 2 less than half days). I was particular abt this because immediately after the run I had to drive back to Baroda.

One has two options to collect the Bib. One is to collect it on Friday in Nasik town. I opted for the other, which was on Saturday at Sula Vineyards. After all, what is a visit to Nasik without going to Sula? I would anyway have to go there for the run, but the family had accompanied me. The leisurely Saturday morning found us at Sula Vineyards. It’s a beautiful green place surrounded on all sides by vine yards and very close to Ganga Sagar reservoir. Now, for the best part. Bundled with the registration fees, is a complimentary wine tasting tour. They also had a discounted offer for those accompanying the runners (Rs. 250/- for tasting 5 wines, apart from the tour). They take you around the factory & tell you a lot about the wine making process, the types of grapes used for wine, etc. Now, this is very informative but totally useless for one who has access to only bootlegged liquor back home! There’s a problem that runners from Gujarat will face. You have the entire range of Sula Wines to buy, but how do bring it back? There can be unpleasant scenes once you enter Gujarat, so it is better to have it here itself. The organisers had advised us to go for the wine tasting tour on Saturday itself, as Sunday could be more crowded & we followed the advice. Having to drive back some 350 odd kms immediately after the run was also a reason I did not opt for Sunday. It would be a better option to do so on Sunday, followed by having the wines of your choice at the Sula bar (which has a terrific view) if you take an off day from work the next day.

The event starts quite early & the assembly is even earlier. As the road leading to Sula is a narrow one which would also be where the runners would run the initial (and final) stretch, one needs to be at the venue well in time. At around 5 am, I was out on my way to Sula. Nasik, being an industrial town, there were enough people on the way to guide me along. I actually saw a lot of people jogging/running early in the morning. Now, being almost 10/15 km from the venue, I do not think they were participating in the run. I think Zendurance/YTCR did not really publicise the event locally, maybe to keep the numbers low. Most probably, these were youngsters who had moved to Nasik after getting a job here. Of course, there were also older ones out walking. This also showed that Nasik has a healthy running culture which can be exploited by race organisers (there’s another event in a month’s time). I found a couple of cars waiting by the side & in response to my query was asked to follow as they were also going to Sula. Thus, window panes now up, I was playing catch up rest of the way. Being early also helps one easily find a good parking space.

It was a wonderful atmosphere at the assembly point. The weather was cold, but not much. While other events start at a large ground or a stadium, this one was within the Sula premises. Beautifully landscaped, it had a cozy ambience. Runners were busy in stretching & warming up in groups, or solo (like I was). The Aurangabad Blackbucks, a running group from Aurangabad had sent a large contingent for the event. There were families too, participating in different categories, who did not have to spend needless amount of waiting time as the races (5K, 10K & HM) started off with a lag of 5 minutes. This is helpful for outstation participants, else the kids would get restless waiting over half an hour doing nothing (they never stretch or warmup!!).

We started off when the first light of dawn was making its presence felt. After an initial stretch of metalled road (leading to the vineyard), we move on to a stretch of unpaved path/road. Rest of the route is meant exclusively for 2-wheelers or pedestrians, though not only because of road width! The organisers had advised us in advance about not running barefoot as this was a mix of road + trail. But we had just begun.

After a pebbled stretch of what would have been a paved road once upon a time, we get on to a narrow kuchha road. At a distance we can see the Gangapur Dam. A small, shallow water body flows below by the side towards the Dam. A statue of a goddess by its side. It appears the goddess is keeping watch over the water flowing into the dam. These people don’t need to worry about the quality of drinking water, for it has divine protection. Nasik is a holy town for the hindus, with linkages to Ramayana.

Nasik is also an industrial town with plenty of interesting destinations. One of these is the Gangapur Dam. An a good part of the route is by the side of the dam. Add the early morning light & onset of cold weather, which teamed up for a wonderful running weather.

This stretch besides Gangapur is quite narrow with a pair of well worn paths made by innumerable people & bikes that have traversed it. The return leg takes one back along this way, thus it is not easy to overtake a slower runner as you have others coming the opposite direction. Of course, one can always run over the grassy patch in between if one is in a hurry. I wasn’t.

I saw two runners ahead with “Nirlep Runners” printed on their jersey who were talking to each other as they ran. When asked “what’s the hurry”, the other runner replied “the organisers would close the race”. I got chatting to the guy in front as I overtook them. I reminded them of the post-race breakfast that may be over as the 5K runners would surely finish ahead as would the faster of the 10K & HM runners. Now, this guy (Yogesh Karandikar, Bib No. 10105) told me he is on a fast. It was Sankashti Chaturthi that day & he would be off meals till dinner time. (You can read more about Sankashti Chaturthi on wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angarki_Sankashti_Chaturthi.) Of course, he could always have some fruit. He had come from Aurangabad & would be going back immediately upon completion. Now, Nirlep is a well known cookware brand & I was curious as to what the relation was. He informed me that they worked with Nirlep in Aurangabad. Their CEO joined a running group there (Aurangabad Blackbucks, that I mentioned earlier). Inspired, he formed a running group in his company too. Some of those who joined initially continued with the habit & a few now regularly travel to events outside Aurangabad. Like our friends here. I couldn’t get to discuss this but hope Nirlep facilitates employee participation in running events by means of reimbursing costs & extra leave.

A little further, and I came across another couple of guys. One of them was carrying a backpack. I jokingly enquired whether Sunday was not a weekly off & if he was immediately rushing to office after the run. He appeared not at all unhappy while informing me that there were no off days at work. To my query, he replied he had come from Deolali. I knew that Deolali was a cantonment town & received the affirmation that they were from the army. Part of the artillery unit, I was with runners who were actually gunners!! So, it was another race day selfie time with soldiers (remember, I had one at Kochi too). These are the people who don’t expect an off day at work so that we can avail weekly offs & annual holidays! One can never be grateful enough to our soldiers!!

The 5K mark is where we turn back towards Sula Vineyards. The HM is two loops of 10.5 K. They have hydration points at 2.5K, 5K, 7.5K & 10K. When we reached the turnaround point (5K), they had run out of Enerzal. Of course, they had enough in stock at the 7.5K mark. I hope they replenished the 5K point too for the HM runners who would be back at this point & would really need it. This is the only crib for a very well managed event.

Just beyond the turnaround, there is a steep drop off the Dam site where we get to a truly off-the-beaten-trail portion. There you see them, going towards the turnaround point & then down below, all in a single file. Immediately as I saw this, I realized we would climbing back up by a similar height but over a much longer distance. And it would not be a good, paved, metalled road. I am relieved that I didn’t go for the 21K!

Getting down we come across this caution sign out up by the organisers & soon come up to a ditch that comes into view at the very last moment. If not for the caution sign, more than a few 1st time participants would surely be stumbling down it. During the younger days we would run through such ditches & enjoy thoroughly. However, age brings not only maturity but also risk aversion along with it.

They should have put other signs too. Like “mind your head” at this point. But this is the only place one needed to stoop & rest of the course can be run with head held high unless one is too tired!

One soon climbs up to road level & it’s fortunately a short climb that one can walk through in quick time. So, a 21K should not be a daunting task as I feared earlier & I may return here for the HM and another wine tasting session.

The gentleman here is not scary enough to deter me from coming back. But I am not a bird & he would be performing his job admirably.

The local residents perhaps find it funny to see so many people out running so early. But the predominance of red colour on their dresses reminds one that we need to be elsewhere soon.

Back in my hotel room after an enjoyable run, the medal too found its parking place!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Spicy Run along a Spicy Coast

I have visited Kochi several times, but none was ever a leisurely trip. So when the Spice Coast Marathon (SCM) announced itself, I checked the date & it fitted within the kid’s vacation. That firmed up the plan, Kerala it was during this vacation. I had registered the previous year too but was not able to travel to Kochi, but that was last year. As we started planning, my daughter’s friends were also interested in joining up for the trip & we were 4 families who were travelling to God’s Own Country this November. Of course, of all the places we would travel to, it was pre-decided that Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon had to be in Kochi so that I could run. After all, wasn’t this the reason the trip had been planned? As it turned out, we got a full 2.5 days, including the race day, at Kochi.

I suggested to the others in the group that they could also take part in the 5K fun run. The moms & the kids agreed, thus, the entire party went together to collect the bibs. The 8 others had it easy, but not me. I found they could not retrieve my registration. I showed them the emails & payment track as evidence. The organisers accommodated me with an unnamed bib, but who cares as long as it has a number on it! I also got to meet Jagdish Damania, who was organizing Mera Terah Run – 13 half marathons (13-miles) on 13 consecutive days (towards the end of December) from the Southern to western end of India (Kanyakumari to Koteshwar). Our local running group (Baroda Road Runners) had already been introduced to this earlier & I was not at all blank when Jagdish mentioned this to me. It is an interesting concept & you can read more about the Tera Merah Run at http://meraterahrrrun.org/. Hopefully, it is still not too late (as on the day of posting) for you to join in, if interested.

The route of the HM took one from Willingdon Island to Fort Kochi & back. It starts early & outstation runners should make travel arrangement the previous evening itself. For, everything in Kerala is connected to some or the other trade union, each having its own strict rules. (Our driver for the trip was not willing to turn up at 4:30 am after dropping us at 8:00 pm.) Once you have fixed up a cab, you can be assured that he will stick to his schedule & safely take you to the destination. Reaching the venue, one came across the first good thing about SCM – there are not too many participants. Unless you long for large crowds, you will love this one. Which is a good thing actually, for the route takes us along narrow streets of a town built ages ago & it would not be desirable to have a mammoth participation. Also, the route is not really closed for traffic & some sporadic vehicles (two wheelers basically) share the road with the runners. It helps when a running event is organised by runners. Full marks to Soles of Cochin (www.solesofcochin.org) for a very well conducted event!

At the assembly point, I got to meet Fergal O’Flaherty, an Irish runner. His jersey, which said “Dublin to Delhi”, intrigued me. On enquiring, Fergal informed that he is running 13 half marathons in 13 weeks travelling through 13 countries over this period. SCM was his 11th run (that’s the sign he is making with his hands). Next weekend he was scheduled to run in Pune, followed by Delhi to end his journey. Later, when I was a few hundred metres away from the finish line, we crossed each other again but I was more focused to finish than stop by & chat (we did exchange a smile & a wave, though). I am sure he has had a successful journey & will have many more of these to come. He has an interesting & inspiring story, one I read on his website (http://dublin2delhi.com/).

2 km into the run, and organisers chose to welcome the runners in a rather shocking manner! Of course, I was not at all shocked, for mainly 2 reasons. One, coming from the 1st “dry” state I knew what these laws usually mean. Second, having been to Kerala often in the past I was aware of the ground realities & we had prepared adequately for the trip (you will have to read till the end for this). However, for those wishing to do the Kochi run I will suggest something better – God’s Own Nectar (aka Toddy). Later in the evening, while loitering in the Allepey backwaters our boat stopped at an outlet that sold toddy. After having a glass of this superdrink, all signs of pain & tiredness vanished. I wasn’t sure whether this was real or only psychological, as I did not feel intoxicated at all (I only had a glass). Talking with a mallu friend upon return to Baroda, I was informed that Toddy has medicinal properties & the locals use it as an externally-applied pain killer too!

It was still dark when we crossed the iconic Mattanchery Bridge into Fort Kochi. Previous day, our driver pointed out this bridge to us from a distance, so it felt good to have struck off one item from the Kochi to-do list. A 72 year old bridge, it is now a heritage monument with traffic allowed for 2/3 wheelers only. Don’t go to Wikipedia looking for some dope on this, as wiki doesn’t have much to inform. But you can always add to the little info provided there (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mattancherry_Bridge) as that would really help future readers.

Moving further, one moves into the old town that Fort Kochi is. It still being quite early & dark, most of the residents were asleep. Very few shops were opened, for those early risers who needed their daily supplies of milk, etc. This was also the time when I felt I needed a break for clearing the interiors. But for quite a few kilometres (and a pretty long time), I did not find any open house where I could ask for use of their facilities. Finally, I came across this sign & what a relief it turned out to be!! So if you intend to go to SCM in future, pls clean the bowels properly, as there are only 3 places where you can do so. Apart from this one near the Jew Street, there is another near the Fort Kochi beach (more of it later) where one turns back as well as the portable ones at assembly point.

The route is practically a flat one except for a small bridge with a minor elevation over a small stretch of backwaters. The backwater is in use as I saw this guy pulling in his nets after a hard morning’s work. He has safely put away his catch, but the cat there doesn’t know about it. Maybe, he may have kept some fish for the cat considering the patient manner it is sitting & watching our fisherman. I very much wanted to wait & see what happens next, but I had already spent a lot of time walking till I came across that toilet. I moved on.

I moved on and came across Maj. DP Singh (Ex-Indian Army) who was on his way back. Maj. DP Singh is India’s own blade runner, but with a glorious past. A battle-hardened veteran, he lost his leg during the Kargil war. Incidentally, he started running after losing his leg & has since become the face of other such amputee runners. He truly defines the spirit of the Indian soldier & it was a proud moment for me while I took a rare selfie! For those of you who have not heard about him, this Hindustan Times report can help you. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/dp-singh-fought-his-disability-to-become-a-marathon-runner/story-N8i350j4EiWMABE5h4OarJ.html)

Maj Singh had come to Kochi with some 15 other amputee runners. I came across a couple during their 5K run. Maj Singh is not only an inspiration to those suffering from physical disabilities, but all of us who have ever suffered a setback, be it physical, mental, social, professional, whatever. Recall Rocky Balboa, so memorably played by Sylvester Stallone? “It aint about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit & keep moving forward.”

We turn around at the Children’s park at Fort Kochi beach. Yesterday we saw a tree & were informed by one of our group (a teacher) that it was a host tree. Which means that another plant (creeper or a climber) grows on the tree & extracts nutrition from the tree. It was late evening when were there yesterday & I got a chance to click a clear picture in the morning when there was sufficient light.

It was good to have been late & reach this spot when the sun had already risen, for I came upon this sign. Imagine it still being dark when you, an outstation runner having already run 10 km, reach here & find some resident spirits welcoming you! Would they be interested in getting close to a perspiring runner? May be not, as dawn is about to break & they need to get back to their graves. There are also Pay & Use toilets nearby, do these spirits use the toilets? If they do, how do they pay for it? Considering the thoughts, was I going crazy simply looking at this sign? Not really, I think clean bowels, beautiful surroundings, clean & fresh morning air & an increased blood circulation after all this running turns the brain hyperactive.

Of course, I had the luxury of being on a holiday in this beautiful city in the midst of a long run to afford these kind of thoughts. But the residents of Kochi were already out & about their tasks. Like these people who had boarded the ferry to take them across the backwaters. Spare a thought for them, inside their cars or on their bikes, who will be chugging along the waters on this slow moving ferry. They will also be saving some cost in fuel as well as plenty of time. They will also be away from the narrow streets of Kochi so that we runners have a good time. These Rollo-on-Roll-off ferries are big business in Kochi, used more by trucks who bypass the congested city streets through the backwaters.

But the volunteers had an early start to their Sundays specifically for the SCM. They were there, every 3 kms, with water, energy drink, bananas, oranges & salt. Well managed & well stocked, they also did not use disposable plastic glasses which pose the problem of trash disposal (apart from not being bio-degradable). Other set of volunteers manned the route on their bikes & cars to take care of injured runners, while some were simply out there to encourage us. Like these drummers, one of who graciously let me try my hand with music. I don’t think I was really good at it, but I did enjoy this small break. Which was helpful as I realized a little later. this troupe was positioned just before the Mattanchery Bridge on Fort Kochi side. As I was running along the bridge, these two young kids on a bicycle crossed me & encouraged me with “Come on Uncle, you can do it!”. And I thought let me show them I can be as fast as them. I soon caught up with them only to see them go faster. Soon, I was actually sprinting (after almost 17 kms of running) and was exhausted before even crossing the bridge. A tired, famished, slowing me returned to Willingdon Island.

SCM had put up interesting signage along the route marking out the distance. The one at the 18K mark reminded us that it made no sense in slowing down now. Who would want to end up famished & realize that all one had was water? In fact, at SCM it makes more sense to speed up the last few kms (not just for the sake of negative splits) as they have a wonderful breakfast to offer. Freshly made idli, dosa & omelet after a 21K (or a 42K) run can salivate a runner like nothing else. Fast moving queues in front of the counters help in filling up fast too! Now, I actually moved too  fast to break the sequence of events. Blame it on the SCM breakfast, if you will.

Just as I finished, I enquired about the whereabouts of our group & was informed that they had also just finished their run. In fact, the kids did very well, finishing before their moms. Here they all are, proudly showing off their medals! Made of coir, the medal is a beauty too.

You would have guessed where I chose to adorn the medal once I was back in my hotel room!!

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