Monday, September 07, 2015

Where there is a hill, there is a way


Hills are a nightmare for most runners and I was no exception. Despite this fact, I still signed up for the 4th edition of the Satara hill half marathon in April 2015,with great zest, after hearing rave reviews about the beautiful course that runners were treated to. It was just 4 months away. Training for it was literally an uphill task especially when summer was at its peak and the humidity levels were enough to deter ones determination to run on those long winding slopes. 

The Satara hill marathon was slated to be the toughest one in India- not surprising as it’s called the ultra half due to its elevated tough terrain. Satara is a small district tucked away in the interior belt of Maharashtra. It is about a 5 hour drive from the city of Mumbai and close to the hill stations of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani.  Runners from various parts of the country flocked to this hilly destination this year as this edition was to be recorded in the Guinness book of world records. 

 The D day soon arrived as I set off to conquer the hills, early Saturday morning. After collecting my bib from Satara marathon expo, I proceeded to Panchgani which was an hour’s drive away from Satara, to halt for the night before my run the next morning. As the sun set slowly, so did my spirits. Nervousness began to set in gradually-a similar feeling which I encountered before my Class 12th   CBSE board exams. 

Getting sleep the night before the marathon is a challenge as there is a flurry of emotions-excitement, nervousness, restlessness. However I did manage to get some good rest before my alarm rang the next morning.  I left the hotel to pick up my runner friends on the way to proceed to the start line.  We soon reached the holding area-where the runners assemble before the race. The atmosphere was lively with the music blaring from the speakers, some runners were doing their warm ups while others were posing for photographs and engaging in a lively chatter.

I soon spotted a familiar face from my Mumbai road runners group (the group whom I run 20 km with every month). It was Coach Giles Drego who was a marathon veteran and a wonderful guide.  He acknowledged me with a smile as I approached him. After exchanging pleasantries, I expressed my nervousness and apprehensions. He reassured me saying that it was only the 4-7 km stretch that would be challenging while the rest of the course was doable. His words worked like magic as faith slowly began to find its place.  Despite doing 6 half marathons, 1 full marathon and several practice runs, I knew this was no ordinary race. It was a test of one’s limits and endurance. The worse part was that my running partner cum husband was not here to accompany me on his journey so it was a lone battle with the hills for me that day.

The race flagged off at 6 am. The initial 3.75 km stretch was through the village of Satara. I was surprised to see many people up in the wee hours of morning to cheer us runners. The steep ascent began at the 4 km point and this was where the real challenge commenced. As I ran uphill, I remembered to bend my body forward as instructed by my trainer in the past and take slow strides.  I experienced a sudden wave of light dizziness  and my eyes began to feel heavy. I instantly took out my GU energy gel packet and consumed it, followed by a sip of water. It worked for some time until I felt drained again. It was evident that the hills were not going to relent easily and were putting up a fierce fight. I looked at the other runners around me-some were walking up, some jogging lightly. Deriving some inspiration from them, I too put my best foot forward, literally. However the climb worsened and my inner voice instructed me to just go along with the electronic dance music booming from my ipod and pretend that this run was a dance.  It kept me going for a while until I realized that I was running out of water. The next aid station was only at the 7 km mark. As I started to walk slowly, I was almost on the verge of giving up when a fellow runners voice boomed behind me saying ‘”Come on, don’t stop. Keep going.’ He was truly God sent at that juncture as those words restored my spirits to run up to the 7 km mark.

 Sometimes that gentle nudge from an unknown source works wonders. I may not even meet such kind souls post the race or in my life again, but strangely I will always regard such individuals with gratitude as they were crucial in aiding me through this arduous journey. 

During the course, I caught a glimpse of a waterfall to my left. A little ahead I spotted some monkeys on the right who were curiously looking at this bunch of 2 legged creatures in shorts and t shirts, perspiring all over and staggering up the mountain slopes-probably wondering what on earth we were doing at their abode so early in the morning. As I reached the 7 km aid station, I got the necessary refreshment in the form of an orange drink which spiked my energy levels to that of a race horse.  I found myself cruising up to the 10.5 km mark where we had to take a U- turn. It was a downhill and a flat stretch from thereon and my legs suddenly seemed to have grown wings as I raced down like a person possessed-probably to make up for the lost time in the 4-7 km stretch. 

Now this time there were 3 medal categories-hill champion for those who finished under 2 hrs, hill conqueror for those who finished between 2-2:30 and a hill challenger for those who exceeded 2 hrs 30 mins. I desperately wanted that hill conqueror medal and was prepared to put in my heart and soul into this race. They say when your heart is really set on something, all of the universe conspires to help you realize that dream. I offered a silent prayer to the hills and the sun which for some reason came down on us fiercely. I soon caught up with the 2 hr 20 min bus and even overtook them at one point. 

I soon reached the village and by now there were more people on the road cheering and clapping hard for the runners. At this stage, your legs want you to stop but the heart urges you to go on. I soon spotted Coach Giles in the last 500 m stretch who had collected his medal and goody bag and was on his way home. An appreciative nod and a thumbsup from him was enough for me to sprint that half a km. 

I crossed the finish line when the clock showed 8:20:35 with the 2 hour 20 min pacer bus just behind me. Words cannot describe the feeling when you reach the finish line with a decent timing after running such an arduous race as this one. Relief, exuberance, exhilaration all engulfed me as I silently thanked everyone who guided me before and through the race. They say faith can move mountains; in my case while I didn’t exactly move them, I did manage run 21 km amidst the mighty Ghats and come back as a happier person. 

Such experiences are humbling as you realize how tough it is to take on nature. It’s even more humbling when veteran runners come up to you and congratulate you on your feat, making you feel like a star. Satara hill marathon is one unforgettable race, for its undeterred spirit of fellow runners which leaves a lasting impression on you. As I drove back to Mumbai, I looked back at those daunting hills promising to visit them the next year. I learnt that while such terrains are difficult, it is not impossible as where there is a hill, there is a way.