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After a few years of conventional marathon running, I tried a mountain ultra—50K at the Annapurna 100 on New Year’s Day, 2012. This was an organized race in the foothills of the Annapurna range in central Nepal. For a good part of the first 30km, a couple of giggly Nepalese teenage girls kept me company—in a sense.

Staying true to my training as a long-distance runner, I was maintaining as steady a pace as the terrain would permit, taking a 5-minute break every 55 minutes, regularly packing in calories, salt tablets and water to maintain nutrition and prevent dehydration. In contrast, the girls had no gear except decent running shoes and light jackets—they were not even carrying a bottle of water. Other than their bibs, there was little else to indicate that they were running a race. When an easy section of trail appeared, they would take off in a sprint, leaving me far behind, and then huff and puff up the harder sections. Often, when I would catch up with them, they would be sitting, giggling, egging me on to keep up with them.

After we had done around 30km, my thigh muscles had begun to tire, and the right one had started twitching involuntarily. I would count 100 steps and take a 30-second break. I willed myself to focus on the immediate target of reaching Ghandruk, a water stop at the top of a 3,000ft climb. When I did reach, wet, shaking at the knees, my giggling friends greeted me with big smiles. They watched as I wolfed down a bowl of noodle soup and drank a cup of tea. Then one of them tapped me with a stick and said, “Come on! Let’s go!" Inspired, I got up, and ran the remaining 15km, in failing light, at a good pace. The girls, on the other hand, had met some friends in Ghandruk, and didn’t bother finishing the race.

It was illuminating to see how these girls approached the race. They weren’t motivated at all by the idea of completing a run in tough conditions. To them, it was a lark, a fun way to spend a Sunday. That encounter helped shape my current approach to long-distance running and made me question externally imposed constraints like route, distance, cut-off times, and the high registration fees associated with organized events.

The day after the race, over breakfast in Pokhara, two friends who had also run the race, Santhosh Padmanabhan and Rajeev Muralidhar, and I resolved to explore two new directions in our future running plans: First, address our inadequate training for running in Himalayan terrain, and second, embrace the freedom of the mountains and plan our own runs.

Perhaps part of the reason my friends and I choose to run in the Himalayas without the predefined agenda of an organized ultra is that planning any trip to the Himalayas, especially a running trip, is exciting. There are many variables to consider while selecting a route—analysing elevation profiles, planning the overnight stops as well as meal breaks, digging up trek reports from various forums, analysing them from a runner’s perspective, choosing the season, and ensuring good views of snow peaks.

But no amount of planning can prepare you for reality.

Roughly a year after Annapurna, the three of us reunited for a trip to the Singalila Ridge, a chain of hills on a north-south axis, separating India from Nepal in West Bengal and Sikkim. This was our third self-funded, self-organized trail run.

Several months of planning were aimed at a multi-day trail run that would take us all along the ridge, providing us with views of the major peaks of the eastern Himalayas. On the trail, however, we were surprised by unseasonal snow from the first day itself, which meant two of our “running" days were reduced to a slow trudge, often through more than a foot of snow! By the end of the second day, we had made it to the highest point of the run, a minor summit called Sandakphu (around 12,000ft), just as the storm petered out. But of course, not before I, the planner-in-chief for this trip, had got an earful from my fellow runners.

Our lodge owner provided us with a warm local brew called tongwa (rice beer), fiery fried pork, friendly banter and blankets. In spite of this, the three of us shivered through the night.

The next morning, however, watching the sun rise over four of the world’s five highest peaks (Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu) under a brilliant blue sky made it all worthwhile. Since the rest of our planned route was buried under 3ft of snow, we ran downhill till we were well below the snowline.

Over the last few years, I’ve taken part in and helped organize several such self-supported ultras in the Himalayas with friends. Compared to organized ultras, the sense of freedom is immense. Not knowing what you might encounter as the trail runs around a spur, or as it goes over a pass, is so much more liberating than the detailed route information that organized races provide. Running for companionship and experience rather than medals and timing takes the stress out of the activity, and provides opportunities to form relationships that go beyond simply sharing a trail.

This lack of speed goals or competitiveness should not be misinterpreted as a laid-back approach to running. If anything, people who participate in these self-funded trail runs train harder because they simply cannot afford to be unfit: There is no backup vehicle, no race organizer to help out if you’re tired, or injured, and no cellphone coverage. The training regimen includes waking up at 3.30am to meet for intense short workouts on steep stairs (generally in the seating area of the upper level of the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru), often carrying up to 10kg backpacks. In addition, a lot of work goes into strengthening the core muscles.

It cannot be overemphasized that running self-supported in mountain terrain is an inherently risky proposition. The remoteness and variability in conditions means the simplest of mistakes (a wrong turn at the wrong moment, a fall) can have serious consequences. So it’s crucial to let caution outweigh bravado, and ensure the group has enough experience to make wise judgement calls when required.

In the last few years, several ultras have been organized in different parts of the country, including many that cover hilly, sometimes mountainous, terrain, such as the Nilgiris 100, the Sandakphu 70 Mile Himalayan Race and the Uttarkashi 100. For us, the freedom to define our own agenda and the companionship that comes with it has outweighed the perceived risks and disadvantages in being self-supported.

Typically, our trips are executed on a shoestring budget: Daily expenses are generally well below 1,000 per person. In contrast, an organized ultra can cost you upwards of 10,000 for a single day in the mountains. Moreover, going self-supported allows you to venture into remote terrain where organized races will rarely go. For example, no race organizer in their right senses would contemplate a run to Tapovan, a meadow at 14,000ft in the Garhwal Himalaya, which involves crossing the crevasse-ridden Gangotri glacier.

The pleasure is the entire experience—of being out in nature, with friends, seeing people in the hills and halting or slowing down if the weather is bad—just being in the moment.

Earlier in 2013, I was diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening illness. Mountain trail running turned into a metaphor for the next few months of off-trail challenges. The conviction that every steep ascent would be followed by an easy downhill; that every snowstorm would be followed by warm sunshine; that running through the dead of night would be rewarded by the most spectacular sunrise, was key to getting through those tough days.

It was no coincidence that my trail running friends were right there by my side.

Looking to organize your own trail run? Here are some locations to consider

UTTARAKHAND

View Full Image

Maximum altitude: 14,000ft

Total distance: 45km

Use a guide to cross the Gangotri glacier. Plan a run over two days

Sangam Chatti-Bhebra-Dodital-Darwa (top and back)

Maximum altitude: 14,000ft

Total distance: 60km

Plan a run over two days

Sankri-Taluka-Seema-Har ki Dun and back

Maximum altitude: 12,000ft

Total distance: 60km (approximately)

Plan a run over two days

WEST BENGAL

View Full Image

Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu-Rimbik

Maximum altitude: 12,000ft

Total distance: 50km (approximately)

Plan a run over two days

Darjeeling-Bijanbari-Rimbik

Maximum altitude: 7,000ft

Total distance: 50km

This is a one-day run

Rimbik-Srikhola-Gorkhey and back

Maximum altitude: 7,000ft,

Total distance:: 40km

Optionally, push on to Phalut (about 12,000ft) from Gorkhey for an additional 10km. This would make it a two-day run

KARNATAKA

Kukke Subramanya-Kumara Parvat Peak and back

Maximum altitude: 6,000 ft

Total distance: About 30km

This is a one-day run

Kanishka Lahiri lives in Bengaluru and works in the semiconductor industry.

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