Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Rebel Walker – Reverse Maclehose Trail 100km Ultra

For me this 100k ultra is best described by its name itself – “Rebel Walker”. Having done a 130km ultra at Kodaikanal in end Jan and since then being plagued by many niggles, deciding to participate in this event was a “Rebel” thought – against some sane advice I got from friends !!! And the trail itself was so tough and brutal that it actually was an “Ultra Walk” for me !!!! But as they say – “The only run you regret is the one you did not go run”, I am glad I went ahead, to experience an awesomest, beautiful trail in Hong Kong.

The Maclehose Trail – Its hard to believe that just 45 minutes away from the concrete jungle that HK is, lies this 100km long hiking trail that runs through some rugged peaks, some beautiful valleys, ocean coastlines and valley reservoirs. The trail itself is well marked and sign-posted, divided into 10 sections and connects eight country parks.  This event instead of starting from Section 1 of the trail ended at Section 1, which basically meant that for participants of this event, the two big peaks on the trail came in the first 35km of the race. Not sure if this was good or bad – those rugged, rocky and steep peaks killed my legs right at the beginning but then if they were in the later part, I would have totally missed the views from top of the Needle Hill in the dark, maybe my ascent on those peaks was better with fresh leg but I anyways would have walked only, irrespective. In the end, does it matter – a 100km is a 100km from whichever direction !!

But that’s not the tough part of the event, it’s the many steps – some cemented and perfect, some cemented but broken, some just rocky slabs; and then the missing steps – where all we had were uneven rocky patches and hard tree roots!! See the pic on the right and you would know. We did get some road running, in the first 25km odd and the last 10 odd km, some running on muddy track in the forest below Eagles Nest, a good well lighted cemented track for about 6-7km beyond CP 8 and maybe some more soft track interspersed with the rocky climbs, but the trail is for someone who can manage the never ending steps and the technical patches. 

The Plan – With the various niggles I had  prior to this run and some serious knee pain, I had planned to take it easy, enjoy the trail, take it more as a run to practice some learnings from my last ultra – especially on night running, nutrition etc. There was nervousness on landing up for an event where I knew no one and on managing the night leg alone – but knowing that there are about 1000 of us, eased my nerves.  

The Run (or The Walk) – I started easy with a plan to finish the run in about 21-22 hours. I had decided to not waste time at the aid stations, walk up and run down the inclines, continue to fuel myself well from the stuff I was carrying (wasn’t sure about the aid station food). The first 10 odd km was a “mild” and “soft” trail and then came the first big climb – thankfully all road and tree lined. A steep descent from there and we were climbing up to the next one through some beautiful grassy highlands onto the Grassy Hill and then the real race began – up the many steps to the Needle Hill!!! And that’s when I realized and understood what I had signed up for – the never ending steps and the rocky patches both on the ascent and descent from there on. It was a challenge to climb up anyways, but the usual “making up” on the descent didn’t happen as I had to ensure there was no mis-step, had to learn to break my speed covering those rocky patches or trails with big and huge tree roots on them. I still did manage to slip and land on my bum a couple of times – thankfully no wounds and scratches, just some blue bruises which are healing. And this continued all through the night – Heart beat going up as I would climb up - climb some steps and then take rest and start again; the descent didn’t bring any smile for the challenges it brought and finishing each such stretch on real wobbly legs !!!

We went up some ridges in the night and could see the HK skyline at a distance. The strong winds while on those ridges and me on those wobbly legs were a bad combination !!! But I plodded on, took rest at 3 check points to get some strength back in those legs, loaded on coffee and coke, rice balls (ah yes – this was the only thing I picked up from aid stations and just relished it) And finally it was day break – 22 hours in to the race and 85km done !! All I had to do was climb up and down the last of the inclines at 85km, reach the last CP at about 91km and run the last section of flat and road to the finish.

It took me 26hr and 20mins to finish my 100k and so you can imagine what happened in those last 15km or the 4hrs 20mins. I just couldn’t climb up those damn steps – 5 steps, rest, 5 steps rest and so on. Maybe a 30-35 runners passed me on this incline. I would look up frustratingly for the hill to end and then put my head down to continue climbing up. The trial finally ended with the descent taking us to a beach, a few more inclines to hit the reservoir and the final stretch to the Finish.
What worked and what didn’t – 

  • I did not do race specific training. Infact, my training sucked but I should have added some step climbing in the little training that I did. 
  • I am now quite comfortable with my gear and comfortable carrying my stuff through the run. This event didn’t have any mid race drop bag facility and so all my “during the race” stuff went in my back pack. 
  • Niggles / Injuries are serious stuff. While I didn’t experience any knee pain but the back pain has flared up again. I have said this before and say it again – its important to reach the start line with no injuries and niggles.
  • Gear check – Major Fail !!!
                a. The plan was to keep the head lamp lighter and use a handheld torch instead. Forgot the torch in the room and the small head lamp was not sufficient for the difficult stretches we covered in the night leg. In anycase couldn’t have used the hand held torch – see point below.

                 b.      I had recently bought a pair of hiking poles. The overconfident me left them at home and finally had to pick up strong sticks on the way to help me climb up the steep inclines.
  • A positive mind set with a clear acknowledgement that I will be on the track for 24 hours helped.
  • Each of my ultra runs have been different in preparation – both the physical and mental aspect. For the first 100k I was physically fit, did my training as per the plan but could mentally committ to the distance only a week before, for the 130k I was mentally stronger, physically fit but couldn’t get my training runs and just managed with one really long 85km run 2 weeks prior and for this one I was mentally much stronger but could not get my training runs as was not physically fit. I have realized how important it is to get it all right for any ultra !!!
And with these learnings and some more, I look forward to my next adventure on the trails !!!!!!! 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

KHU 2018 130km - Race Report

I wrote my brief summary of the run earlier on at

But a 130km and 26 hours can not be summarized. So here are the details of the run, checkpoint to check point. It should also help anyone who is planning to do this run, get an idea of what the route is like.

Event : The event had about 60 runners each for 130km and 80km run, another 125 odd for the 50k and about 2000 runners for the shorter distances of 21k/10k/5k. The elevation gain for the 130km run was 3500m i.e it was a super hilly run. But this was known, it was the additional information at the expo that had me worried.

Race Organisation - A race is made by its volunteers and an ultra race all the more so. To climb up those hills with water and food for us runners, to be out in the sun clicking pictures, to brave the cold and the wild animals and keep that fire burning  - this race is also as much our story as it is of those volunteers. The warmth and support from each one of those volunteers - the smiling faces that greeted us after a grueling 6km or a 10km climbs were so energizing. Keep doing the good work.

Expo : My assigned bib U119 got misplaced at the expo and I was given a replacement bib, U164. It was the least of my bother - just that at each Check Point I had to give both my bib numbers for records - because the big bother happened when I met the CTC runners, who had done the recce and learned  
1.      The area around Kodai was largely uninhabited jungle area and that all of the night running till we hit Kodai, which would be about 8-9km from finish is through the jungle. As I mentioned earlier, running in the night is not something I prefer and that too, through quiet jungle areas, well all I could say was “Bring it On” till we were warned …..
2.      To be careful around “Bisons”. From memory I knew that Bisons were huge buffalo-kind animals but when I googled to see what it actually looks like, I was nervous and I was scared!!!

More on this later.......

KHU2018 – 130km :
The Start - The run started at 3am on Saturday morning with both the 130k and 80k runners starting together. The 130k distance had a cut off of 28 hours. In the pre race briefing, organisers requested runners to stay in groups, especially in the night and to be careful if we see any Bisons - which was simply switch out the headlights, no looking in the eye, stay put and wait for the mighty animal to move. Finally at 3.15 am, we left the grounds of KIS for a 24hr adventure in the hills of Kodai.

Ultra Scene in South  - Within 1km, we had formed a small group of ours which kept breaking and coming together but I had Vijay and Vikram, who were both doing the 130km, as my constant companion till about 30km. The first 18km till Poomparai was mostly downhill. The legs were fresh and so we decided to hold ourselves back. Under the star spangled sky and the full moon, running through the winding roads of Kodai in the dark was exciting. We even switched off our headlights in many parts.  I learnt a lot about the ultra scene down South – the various races, the love for trail running and the ultra running community there. There was an endurance story that each of my fellow runners had to tell and I was just pure mesmerized with their feats. I have a few ultras on my bucket list, now, for next year J. As we left Poomparai towards Puthupootur, the next 12km was rolling hills on loose gravel road. The valley and the fields looked beautiful as the sun rose from the hills surrounding them. At around 30km I took a small lead and both Vijay and Vikram got left behind. I met Srivatsal at the 35km check point (Puthupootur) and we ran together towards the most awesomest location on the route.
Palar View Point – This was the high point of the race, both in altitude and beauty. We ran up some mud tracks for about 3-4km to reach a view point overlooking a valley. And then we were told we need to trek about 300-400m up the rocks, to reach the view point and the next check point. It was breathtakingly beautiful - high up on the rocks, looking down at the valley – totally worth the climb. Kudos to the volunteers at that aid station for being there, not only to ensure we got the food and water but to take our pictures as well. We ran down some more muddy and rocky tracks to get back to Puthupootur and started our journey towards the next check point at Kookal Lake.

Trick to run an Ultra – I still had Srivatsal for company and we were joined by Abhishek as we started climbing the hills towards Kookal Lake. The race briefing had mentioned this stretch to be largely downhill and the uphills at the start of this stretch were not encouraging. We did get some downhills as we neared Kookal and my experienced companions made sure we ran all downhills and walked all uphills. We also met a fellow runner doing the 80K distance who was power walking – whether it was a downhill or an uphill; and he would catch up with us eventually even if ran the downhills. Each to his own trick for an ultra.
Uphills are Uphills – Kookal Lake at 54km was a pleasant sight as we prepared for the next 6km uphill stretch – a nice winding fully tree lined road leading us to Mannavannur. But the sights could not take away the pain of walking up the never ending hill. I walked this stretch mostly alone but struck up conversation with Satish, who later became my partner in crime and stayed with me from about 60km till the finish. The tall eucalyptus trees, the small pond on the side, the deep valley in some parts could not take away the focus from the job to be done – reach the next check point, which was also where the 80km runners turned back and us 130km runners took a right towards Mannavannur.

Finally it was Downhill - I joined Satish at this check point and he was my constant companion till the finish. We ran the 6km downhill stretch towards Mannavannur. From Mannavannur, it was a 28km loop, to bring us back to Mannavannur and start of our journey back to Kodai. We were supposed to get our drop bags here which had my nutrition for the loop and more, but we reached before our bags did !!! And so relying on what was in the bag and on the food at the aid stations, we started the loop with a downhill stretch of 7km towards Kumbur. Of the entire run, this was the only boring and dull stretch, mostly through the village. But for the locals, we were definitely a reason for excitement J
Beyond words – This next stretch is something that has to be seen and experienced to understand and that's why beyond words. But let me try. The volunteers at Kumbur, told us that the next check point was 7km away. I thought I had sufficient water to last me for that distance and so did not refill the bottles fully. I later paid the price for the time I thought I had saved at this aid station. Satish and I, still together, chatting and sharing our life stories, left the aid station and started climbing through some really beautiful hill side - on soft grassy patches, with beautiful flowers on the sides, crossing a stream over a bridge made from tree trunks, small waterfalls and ponds on the way. But these beautiful sights soon gave way to a muddy and rocky part of that hill where even finding the next step needed us to pause and carefully move forward. In total we climbed 10km on that stretch, a never ending uphill, pure 10kms of torture under the sun. The climb and the sun meant, we ran out of water midway but managed to refill the bottles at a forest officer’s house enroute. We caught up with two Rams and Satpal in this stretch and all of us reached Killavarai almost together – happy in our minds that now it should be all downhill to Mannavannur. It wasn’t to be. Atleast, I don’t remember that it was all downhill. We did get some downhill sections but it still was mostly uphill. Thankfully this entire stretch was on road and hence as the sun was setting, it made an easy run / walk back to Mannavannur. Our target, when we left Mannavannur, was to get back before 6pm, restock, dress up for the night and leave immediately for our return journey. But the uphills which we did not know of fully, meant we finally reached at 7pm. It was dark by now so the 5 of us decided to stay together on our return journey and without wasting too much time here started the 6km climb towards the next aid station. We were also told we will get a bike or a gypsy support at the next aid station as the rest of the run was all through the jungles. We remembered the warning about being careful of bisons and walked fast to quickly get our support vehicle at the next aid station. 
Z++ Security – However, at the next aid station, the volunteers told us that with five in the group, it was perfectly safe and there was no need for an escort vehicle. Now, I am not the one to throw tantrums but remember its me – who doesn’t like running in the dark and who also now had the word “bison” stuck in her head – and so I became “that girl” who refused to budge….till we got an escort vehicle. And so 15 mins later, with me in the middle and a bike escort with us (which became two bike escorts a few kms later), it did seem like Z++ security cover for me as we started walking the 8km mostly uphill stretch towards Poomparai. This was the stretch which had the most chances of sighting a bison but for us it was an uneventful 1-1/2 hours and we were glad to see the village lights from far.

Is it 18km more or 28km more – At this check point we were told its 8km to the next checkpoint and just 18km to the finish. The maths didn’t work but then 10k less to run was good news !!! We were four of us who started from here – Ram dropped out due to some emergency and the bike volunteers stopped here as they had to head straight back to Kodai and anyways had already helped us cross the difficult stretch.
Is that a bison – With our headlights on, we must have walked just about 3kms when we met a forest officer on his jeep who warned us that there is a bison sighting nearby and to be careful. Well, I don’t know about others, but I froze and refused to move. And that’s when the same two escort bikes came to our rescue again. They were on their way back to Kodai and agreed to have one of them stay with us till the other gets the volunteers from the next check point to come and escort us. With the bike in the front and stopping every 200m, we started walking this section. We must have walked just about 2-2.5kms, when we heard  - heavy breathing and a big rustle of the leaves – and that too some 20m from us. And that was our fastest 100m of the day, to the bike !!!  Saved was all we could think !!
Guide for Dummies on How to walk in the Jungle in the night – Anyways, some distance later, we met the bike volunteers from the next check point and were told that the aid station was another 6km away. Shouldn’t it be 2km ?? But who are we to argue in the middle of the night with the man who is supposed to take us safely to the next aid station especially when he sends the bike back and starts walking with us. Well, as per him, having a bike with headlights on in front was a sure invitation to a passing by bison. The trick was to switch off the lights, keep walking, if you see a bison, stay calm and let the bison pass. With him in the lead and all of us huddled together we started walking the uphill to the last aid station, praying that we don’t get to test this knowledge !!!

Finally a green signal that all’s good – At the aid station, it was so encouraging to hear that now its only 12km to the finish and that a Forest Officers gypsy would accompany us for the next 3kms as we would now be entering the forest reserve area. Good news also was that once we cross this area, no more bisons !!! We were also joined by Sandeep here as we waited for over 30mins for the gypsy which had gone to drop off the runners before us. But getting impatient, we all agreed to a bike escort for the 3km distance to the Forest Check Point. Uneventful walk / run – mostly rolling hills – we were dropped off half km from the Forest Check Post and told to switch on our headlights and run to the finish !!!
But it was a joy short lived – We crossed the Check Post with the four of us chatting and planning our next day and Sandeep about 100m ahead of us walking fast. It must have been just 200m from the Check Post when we heard Sandeep shout in front of us “Lights Out” “Watch out”. And there, finally, we met the mighty beast !!!! 24kms of escorted running for a safe passage and not even a km had passed and there we were watching a mighty animal slowly crossing the road and sitting down on the right side of the road !!! How Sandeep escaped and warned us at the same time is another matter. With lights switched off and slowly without making a noise, prayers in our heart, we started walking back to quietly sit at one of the stone bench. And then began our wait for the animal to move… But half an hour later and shivering from the cold and also scared that sitting here we are more exposed to another one, we decided to make an attempt to cross the animal. Gathering our strength, in a line, we slowly started moving towards it when suddenly one of us whispered “It just looked this way” and back we came running. And this time all the way to the small hut at the Check Post, where we hoped the forest guard was there. Well he was there but he too refused to help us cross !!! It was time to call the organisers to send a vehicle. In the meanwhile, the next group of runners had been dropped off half a km near the Check Post and joined us to wait for the vehicle. Finally 1-1/2 hours later, with a vehicle in front of us, the cautious and tired gang of 9 started the run / walk for the final stretch to the finish line.

Finish – The next 10-11km or whatever the distance was seemed never ending. We circled the lake before we reached back in the school grounds. The finish line of a race is the most awesome place on earth esp in an ultra run !! 26hrs from when I started I was back in the school grounds, with memories that will stay with me forever!!!

But this report can not end till I talk about what happened with Sandeep. At that slight bend in the road, 100m ahead of us, Sandeep encountered the bison – had the presence of mind to immediately cover his headlight with his hand, move further left into the bushes, warn us and just run !!!!

Its a run I would recommend for the sheer challenge and the beauty of the kodai hills that you get to see up close. While our group because of me had an escort for the entire stretch we ran in the night, there were some who ran even alone through the jungles. Its a bit unnerving to think of what can happen given the wild life in that area (and not to forget the chase that some 5-6 dogs gave us in one of the stretches). So as long as one does it in a group and is careful, go for it !!!