Traveling overseas as an "elite athlete" comes with romantic aire of catered this, escorted that. A plane ticket arrives in your email inbox with an itinerary you may have had some input on. This particular trip, I was thankful to see the direct flights, minimal connections each way and with a carrier I fly frequently.
There is a significant amount of unknowns to the travel itinerary when traveling under the support of a host, especially the host of a first year event. My plane ticket arrived 4 days before my departure. I was to land in one of the world's largest cities at 1am without knowing the next step after leaving customs. But as my travel buddy, Nikki Kimball, said once we were finally connected at our hotel a day later, "Things always work out." And they do. During my layover in Frankfurt I found wifi and an email from Madhuri, our contact, letting me know that a driver holding a sign with my name would meet me at the airport and transport me to the hotel. I got to spend a lovely day recovering from jetlag, sleeping, working out in the fitness center and eating delicious meals in the hotel restaurants. My experiences in the first 36 hours in India were limited to the confines of that hotel. I sat in the 24 hour restaurant for a late lunch and started a new book while slowly enjoying the fresh salad and spicy assortment of blended, creamed, colorful & fragrant options that lay before me. Careful to wipe my fingers before turning the pages of my book. I've never soiled a napkin as much as when eating Indian food.
Nikki's arrival unfortunately did not pan out as seamlessly as mine, but we were able to right it and soon locked into spending 24/7 together. That evening we caught another car back to the airport for a 90 minute flight to Ahmedabad where we would overnight before a 9 hour bus ride to Dholviria, the site of the race. An incredible amount of travel for 62 miles of running.
In the year 2000 India's population surpassed 1 billion people. The world's population is over 7 billion. One seventh of the world's population is living in this country. And it shows. Everywhere I looked in that 9 hour drive I saw people or signs of people. Buildings and powerlines, dogs and cattle. I even saw a couple of camels and donkey. Huts and shacks amidst modern cement-walled beautiful homes painted bright colors. And trash. There is garbage every where. Especially close to the waterways, streams and road side culverts have more trash than water, especially clean water. As far as the eye can see, and it is a long way as the terrain is extremely flat, signs of human use seem to exist.
Upon arriving at the race site around 9pm we literally rubbed our eyes in disbelief of the scene created. The Outdoor Journal crew had created a little village in the middle of no where. It was dark but the camp was lit. At least 100 15'x15' tents were set up in a large "U" and we were standing on the open end. Upon entering we found proper beds, solar powered lanterns, a table and chairs, a nightstand and even a power strip. The back door was unzipped, and as I went to close it I found another room - our own bathroom, complete with a western toilet, sink and bathing facilities (not quite a shower and definitely not a bath). We gushed about the accommodations before heading over to find a few calories. Everyone on our bus was also thrilled as the conversation started with introductions and learning how far everyone had come for this first year event. Finding horizontal came late, but we had the luxury to sleep till we woke the next morning and a lazy day before suiting up for the race.
"Who wants to check out a bit of the race course on the back of a moto?"
Without hesitation my hand shot up and I looked around to see a few other hands raised.
"Will there be an auto option?" asked another voice I hadn't yet met.
Via motos and autos around 15 participants journeyed out to the 10k mark on the course, a bright pink temple with access to the salt flats. This would be our first aid station and the view gave us a small taste of the terrain our course would cover the following day. The group started to bond through helping each other down to the beach, removing shoes to walk along the sharp salt encrusted beach and of course in snapping photos.
The evening passed quickly, basically in the blink of an eye. Upon returning to camp everyone retreated to their tents for a short rest, around 4pm. I laid down to read and Nikki fell asleep before her head hit the pillow. The next thing I knew I woke up to complete darkness. I rolled over to check my watch as saw it was after 9pm. Was that right? Had I made a mistake when I adjusted for the time zone? I woke Nikki in my shuffling about and we sheepishly added clothing before making our way to the dining area, just over the hill from camp. We found runners eating and the buffet still going strong. We found our race contacts and apologized profusely for missing the prerace meeting. They easily and casually brushed it aside, there was nothing to worry about.
"But what did we miss?"
"Put one foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Left. Right. You girls know what you are doing"
We were thankful to eat a good meal before the long run and easily fell back asleep, this time setting an alarm.
Feeling well rested the alarm was a welcome sound and we suited up quickly wearing our mandatory jacket and long sleeve to guard against the chilly morning. We continually reminded ourselves to enjoy the cool morning air as the day would be hot, especially compared to our respective homes. My last training run for this race was a 3 hour girls group run in -17degrees (F) weather. Nikki had been training in temps as low at -30 in Montana. Over 100degrees in temperature difference was bound to be a shock to the system, so we reveled in our morning goosebumps.
A short bus ride to the beach front start. Runners of all distances funneled down the colorfully flagged path to the start line. The helicopter rose from the nearby town of Dholviria and Gael gave the quick brief countdown to the start. 100+ runners tore off down the beach, some quickly, others like myself and Nikki settling into the long day. The helicopter swooped through the sky, camera men hanging out the side to capture this initial energy of the race. I felt caught up in the pace of so many runners, but enjoyed the movement, running rather than cooped up in a plane or car. The sunrise was spectacular and little did we know we would watch it traverse the sky and slip us back into darkness before we would find our day's finish line.
Before beginning Nikki and I admitted our early season fitness feelings and opted to stay together and make it a shared adventure. As the course unfolded before us, we quickly decided we made the right decision. The course meandered through the high desert feeling terrain, twisting and turning to avoid thorns and brush. With no visible path we ran ribbon to ribbon. Just when I thought I figured out a flow to the course the direction would change. It became necessary to have both eyes on the terrain seeking out the next ribbon and double checking each other.
The night before I asked Apoorva, principle at The Outdoor Journal and organizer of the event, how long he thought the course might take. His best guess? 12 hours. I had hoped he would answer closer to 8-10 hours because it looked like a long flat beach run from the photos. Six hours in at the 45k mark I realized his guess was much more accurate and that my hope was more the reality of my fitness. I knew I could keep moving for 8 hours with my current fitness, maybe 10. So halfway through the race I had to hit the reset button on expectations, this was going to be a long(er) day, one that tested me past what I was physically ready for.
Gael appeared out of seemingly no where to wish us well on the remainder of the race.
"What did you think of that first bit?"
"Much different than advertised, I thought the entire race was on the salt flat."
"I loved it!" Nikki gushed. "That is my kind of running."
"Well, from the next aid station you make your way onto the salt flat and run that all the way back."
"Thanks Gael! This is awesome!" we scurried down the rocky slop, Nikki a bit more daring than I.
"Surely he can't mean the entire final 50k is on the beach." I muttered.
At about the same time we heard footsteps join us from behind. Rafael (German) and Prokopis (Greek) had spent a little time off course early in the day and were now catching back up. I guessed they would cruise on past us, but instead we made our way into the next aid station together chatting. At the aid station we made a bit of a scene for the locals that had gathered to watch. I have never been photographed as much by race observers as we were in India. Everyone has a phone and it seemed everyone was snapping photos or video as we passed. Hunger had hit and I indulged in the local food provided at the aid station. It is embarrassing how much and how quickly I can devour calories. Nikki's stomach had turned south in the afternoon heat and her intake rapidly decreased trying to manage her gag reflex.
Gael didn't lie. We literally ran the flat, wide open expanse of beach back to the finish area. Aid stations were supposed to be 5kms a part, but as in every first year event there is a bit of figuring out the details. We fell into rhythm running and enjoying the tents when we came upon them. We snapped photos trying to capture the amazing vastness and entertained each other with random chatter, a few songs and eventually turned inward each of us plugging in to our own playlists. Rafael started the trend and was soon sprinting ahead of us wildly pumping his fists in the air and sometimes spreading his arms wide to fly. Nikki and I followed suit and stayed stride for stride, bopping along to our different playlists. Rafael seemed long gone and Prokopis was a couple hundred meters back.
I caught site of the next tent before Nikki did, but didn't say anything for fear I was imagining it. She soon looked up and pointed ahead. In unison, we removed our ear buds and opted to run till the tent was upon us or the vision disappeared. As we neared we picked out a figure walking back towards us. The orange shirt and white compression socks were a dead giveaway. Rafael had dropped his pack and hauled three colas back for us to enjoy in the final stretch to the aid. Prokopis joined us before we were ready to leave and with only two aid stations to go (and we thought only 8km) we geared up with headlamps and headed out together all keeping a similar pace. In only a few more kilometers we were upon another aid station with a flag that said 10km to go. We had to laugh. With nothing to do but finish we carried on, each pushing the other by refusing to walk.
The nearly full moon rising was a spectacular reward to endure the dark hours. Not bright enough to aid in our route finding, it was beautiful to dim the lights and look up at the sky full of stars. Now well over 10 hours it was evident to me that the remaining miles would be run on experience and the encouragement of our small group. We found ways to laugh, we kept each other on course and we even choreographed a finish line Monkey Walk in the final kilometer of the course. Our 4-way tie roughly an hour behind the Hungarian winner was greeted by a few photographers, runners from other race distances and the finish line crew. Small cow bells were hung around our necks and the four of us continued to enjoy each other's company creating a few more photos and laughing at our motivating silliness on the course.
Following the buzz of finishing and the relief of removing packs, shoes and dirty clothes our creature comforts became quickly evident. Nikki opted to bathe, I headed for food. The small white lights decorating the trees offered enough light for me to see there were plenty of people enjoying the post run atmosphere. I filled my tupperware (refusing to use disposable ware) with a healthy pile of rice and a variety of curries. The tandoors were pumping out naan and roti both favorites of mine. I was not shy to try both.
I joined a table with a couple of girls and Apoorva's mother, Nandini. The two girls had finished the 21km and were amazed at how difficult the terrain was and how much slower their times were... but they loved it. Nandini checked up on me and asked about Nikki. A Mom for us away from home. She was happy to give us hugs on the course and encouraged us along as the miles added up. Nikki joined us smelling much better and looking refreshed. I suddenly became a little conscious of my own filth, but not too self conscious as my huger still dominated my immediate need. The girls asked tons of questions, curious about the 101km distance. I was curious about the extra 1km. The simple answer was that 1 is an auspicious number and brings good luck/fortune/karma. Better to end on the 1.
In this first year event I was amazed at how much detail was pulled together. In a short two months Gael, Apoorva and their team managed to create a small village, draw an international field, scout a route, hire catering, timing, gather media and sponsors and create tourism to the distant town of Dholviria. It is not often that I attend a first year event, as I find it best to let the RD's work out the bugs. The opportunity to visit India through the lens of running drew me in and I was not disappointed.
Patagonia Turnaround sports bra
Patagonia l/w merino wool ankle socks
Patagonia Tsali 3 shoes
Patagonia Forerunner long-sleeve shirt
Patagonia hooded Houdini jacket
First Endurance EFS liquid shot
Clif bloks and Honey Stinger chews
Clif Z-bars & Fruit Twists (both kids food)
local cuisine - rice and naan mostly