This Sunday, 38,500 runners will take to the streets of Mumbai to run distances of 6-42km at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. Running a full marathon is never easy. But as marathons become popular in India, more and more runners are looking to up the ante. That’s where ultra marathons come in. By definition, any marathon where the distance exceeds 42km is classified as an ultra marathon. We spoke to three people who have run ultra marathons to find out what motivates them and how they did it.
Held in June every year. Register four-six months before the race date
Approx. cost to register: $2,000 (around Rs 90,000 )
The Gobi March is a six-day, 250km race. It begins in Tajikistan and goes through miles of desert, dry, rocky riverbeds, dusty tracks and sand dunes to the finish line at the 400-year-old mosque in the ancient city of Kashgar. Each person must carry his or her own gear, food and clothing in a backpack. Participants generally carry freeze-dried pasta, beans, energy bars and dried fruit. The only assistance provided is water, tents and medical aid.
Pushing ahead: Competitors cresting a ridge line, Stage 2, Gobi March, 2010. Photo: William Furniss; Courtesy RacingThePlanet Ltd
Ram Sethu, 50, an entrepreneur who used to live in Bangalore and is now based in North Carolina, US, ran the Gobi March in 2001. An email from Sethu’s New York-based running buddy Jim Chow was what set him off on this track. Sethu had been running for years but could never do more than 5 miles (8km) without getting knee, shin and ankle pain. “If I wanted to run what was effectively a marathon a day for six days in the desert, I had to change the way I ran.”
Training regimen: After research, Sethu came up with the reason—running at 13km an hour like he did, he was running way too fast. For Sethu’s body weight and type, he needed to run at the rate of 138 heartbeats per minute, which for him translated to a speed of 6.5km per hour. For Sethu, this placed his running in the aerobic zone (the body can supply energy more easily by burning fat via aerobic muscle tissues). Running any faster put him in the anaerobic zone (his body would have to burn sugar to generate the extra spike of energy, a process that works for short bursts but not for prolonged periods). Slowing down proved magical and Sethu was able to run longer distances, upping his long runs from 5 miles (8km) to 35-40 miles (56-64km).
Diet dos: “The impact of a specific diet generating the right type of fuel for running was a revelation,” says Sethu. His diet consisted of lots of simple carbohydrates, such as rice and potatoes. “For endurance running I needed complex carbohydrates such as lentils, dals, fruits, nuts and wholewheat bread or chapatis.” Changing his diet required a lot of willpower, confesses Sethu, but the results were worth it. “After this change, amazingly, I was able to run long distances with no complaints,” he says.
The “ultra” experience: Sethu reached Tajikistan, where the race starts, and met up with his running buddy Jim Chow.
Most nights the participants slept in basic tents provided by the organizers. Except for night 5, which was scheduled as an 80km running stage. “Jim and I didn’t sleep that night and had to follow the glow sticks that lit the course at night. We were lucky to finish the stage around 3am, 15 hours, 52 minutes after we started,” says Sethu, who successfully completed the race at the 61st position—47 hours, 14 minutes and 36 seconds after he began.
Life lesson: “The best part of the run was the first-hand experience of how I could synchronize mind, body and soul to accomplish such adventurous runs. Since then I have been inspired to organize such runs. The Thar desert run in 2009 was one such. Other upcoming runs, held under the banner of ‘Windchasers’, include a Himalayan run later this year.”
THE COMRADES MARATHON
Held in May/June every year in South Africa. Registration starts six-eight months ahead of the race date.
Approx. cost to register: $180 (around Rs 8,180)
The Comrades Marathon is legendary within the running community. The 89km-stretch from Pietermaritzburg to Durban goes over five hills and every participant has to complete the route in 12 hours—a second longer and the doors to the finishing line at Durban’s Kingsmead Stadium are shut.
Delhi-based computer engineer Tanvir Kazmi had run eight marathons successfully. The next logical step for this 35-year-old was to run an ultra marathon and he decided on the world’s biggest ultra marathon—the Comrades—in 2010.
Training regimen: Kazmi chose the Don Oliver plan, developed by the legendary ultra marathon man who has run the Comrades 19 times (www.alsoranrunners.info). Kazmi started working at building his running mileage every week till the peak week. He trained for six months but in retrospect says: “No amount of training makes you ready for this kind of run. At Comrades you have to run from dawn to dusk, a journey which takes you to the edge.”
Diet dos: He stayed with a normal diet of vegetables, rice and rotis. Kazmi also took whey protein as a supplement .
The “ultra” experience: Kazmi arrived in Durban two days before race day and met six other Indians who were participating. The group had already connected over a Facebook Comrades group, sharing notes on training and long runs. After the traditional night-before pasta dinner where runners “load” up on carbohydrates, Kazmi went to sleep at 8pm. Waking up on race day at 2am, he headed to Pietermaritzburg, the starting point of the race.
The first 21km went off really well but at halfway point Kazmi was already 28 minutes behind his targeted time and his quadriceps had begun hurting. Fortunately, a medical stop came up right after. “I stopped to get some work done on my upper thigh and quads, and the guy at that stop was really good. I was almost crying out in pain, but he knew what he was doing.”
The worst part was, predictably, the end. “There were runners who had given up hope and were sitting by the roadside. There were a few who were being taken to hospitals on stretchers. I had started getting a buzzing sensation in my hand as I walked, but as long as it hadn’t reached my head, I figured I was okay.” Kazmi crossed the finish line just 3.5 minutes before the 12-hour cut-off time.
Life lesson: “It was a humbling experience where, at the end of the day, you see a new “you” emerge out of the shadows of the old one, one which knows no bounds of what you can achieve.”
THE HIMALAYAN 100 MILE STAGE RACE
Held in October every year since 1991. Registration starts three-six months ahead of the race.
Approx. cost to register: $1,800 (around Rs 81,790). Price includes airport transfers, lodging and meals.
This is one of the most spectacular races in the world and also one of the toughest.
Spread over five days, it begins and ends at Manebhanjan (6,600ft) near Darjeeling and covers a distance of 100 miles (160km) through jungles, hills and small villages. Along the way runners can see four of the world’s highest mountains—Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. Five daily stages of 24-20-26-13-17 miles (approx. 39-32-42-21-27km) are designed for middle-distance runners. Day 3, called the Everest Challenge Marathon, is a separate event by itself.
Priya Darshini, 26, a Mumbai based playback singer and voice artiste, ran the race in October 2007. It all started with a phone call. “My friend Ram (Sethu) had completed the 250km Gobi desert run. It sounded so inspiring to me that I decided I was in for the next such endurance race!” The odds were against Priya Darshini. “I’m glad I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be back then. I have flat feet which caused pain when I ran; I suffered from spondilitis.” Only after a go-ahead from her family doctor did Priya Darshini decide to participate. She then worked on her flat-feet problem and by sheer persistence, built muscle and endurance over time.
Training regimen: Priya Darshini’s four-month regimen was set up by friend and co-runner Ram Sethu. “ I would train six days a week and take long walks on my rest day. I worked on building mileage slowly in order to prevent injuring myself. I ran twice a day—early mornings and afternoons, and alternated between weight-training and cross-training every evening. I’d usually do long runs on the fifth and sixth days of the week.”
Diet dos: Priya Darshini increased protein in her diet and cut out simple carbohydrates as they made her lethargic. She ate small meals six-eight times a day and stopped eating rice and rice products, flour, bread, potatoes, etc. “Since I’m vegetarian, I had to find alternative sources of protein.” Lentils, sprouts, eggs, salads, nuts, all kinds of beans and chickpea, dry fruits, cereal, yogurt made it to her list. She avoided drinking and being around smokers.
The “ultra” experience: Priya Darshini and her friend Sethu arrived at base camp two days earlier to get acclimatized. On race day, Priya wore Brooks Adrenaline shoes, which suit her flat feet because they give a high degree of support, a full-sleeved running shirt and a light running jacket. “It was pitch dark, temperatures dropped to almost -8 degrees Celsius, my lungs were almost exploding,” remembers Priya Darshini. On Day 3, she injured her knee but managed to complete the 26 miles (41.84km). But Day 4 was painful since she was dragging her injured leg. The doctor advised her to pull out at the end of the day but, says Priya Darshini, “I was down 83 miles (133.57km) and there was no way I was going to give up those last 17 miles (27.35km).”
Life lesson: “After a while, it’s mind over body. Sometimes while I was running and my knee hurt, I played games with myself, pretending to be a Spartan at war. When you struggle but survive and still keep going, then you realize you’ve just redefined the meaning of the words ‘limit’, ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’.”
While the The Great Tibetan Marathon is not classified as an ultra marathon, it is among the more challenging and exciting races
THE GREAT TIBETAN MARATHON
Held every June/July
Approx. cost to register: Rs 7,000.
The Great Tibetan Marathon starts from the Hemis Gompa (monastery) in Ladakh, located approximately 3,800m above sea level. The 42km route goes through green fields, barren foothills and sweeping views of the Indus Valley to the finish line at the Spituk Gompa.
Sunil Chainani, 54, a Bangalore-based management consultant, ran the Great Tibetan Marathon in 2009. He had been running for four years when he first heard of the Tibetan Marathon held in Leh, Ladakh. Chainani had done shorter, 10-15km runs in Ooty at 8,000ft but had never gone higher. Running a marathon at an altitude of 11,000ft sounded like the kind of challenge Chainani was looking for. It helped that he was already in training as a runner. His schedule included running three-four times a week, with interval training consisting of speed workouts and a long 25-30km run once a week. “The key is to follow a training programme, there are many you can download from the Net,” he says. Chainani recommends the Runners World training programme, (Runners World is a globally circulated monthly magazine for recreational runners, www.runnersworld.com).
The experience: Most participants arrived early in order to acclimatize. They also took part in the practice race, a 3km- run organized a few days before the race to get some idea of the conditions and the terrain.
On race day, after a regular breakfast of fruit and cornflakes, the runners were driven in a bus to the Hemis Gompa from where the race was flagged off. This being holy Buddhist ground, the start of the race was not signalled by the usual pistol shot. Instead a series of blows on Long Himalayan horns began the race, even as the monks chanted a special prayer for the participants.
For Chainani, the run on the stark landscapes past many monasteries, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance, was an amazing experience. “One of the joys of this run was that all the runners knew what a tough run it was. You’re not trying a personal best; you are just aiming to complete the run. Which is what I did.” Overall, Chainani fared well, clocking a timing of 5 hours, 21 minutes.
Since then he has run three full marathons in 90 days ( the Kaveri Trail, the Athens Classic Marathon, the Bangalore Ultra) and made it to the coveted Marathon Maniacs Club, an online community that serious marathon runners aspire to become a part of (www.marathonmaniacsdb.com).
2011 MARATHON CALENDAR
6 Mar-17 Nov: Racing the Planet, 4 deserts*
6 Mar: Atacama Desert Crossing, Chile
26 Jun: Gobi March, China
2 Oct: Sahara Race, Egypt
17 Nov: The Last Desert, Antarctica
20 Mar: Los Angeles Marathon
10 Apr: Paris Marathon
18 Apr: Boston Marathon
23 Apr: Two Oceans Marathon*, Cape Town, South Africa
21 May: Great Wall Marathon, China
25 Sep: Berlin Marathon
9 Oct: Chicago Marathon
21 Oct: Everest Challenge Marathon, Darjeeling
13 Nov: Athens Classic Marathon
4 Dec: Singapore Marathon
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