The runners’ appetite in me often seeks to run on new routes and different terrains. When Sangeeta Lalwani of Freerunners sent me an invite to the first edition of the Pune Women’s half marathon scheduled on March 12th 2017, I immediately embraced this opportunity to run in the city of Pune.
Despite living in Mumbai for a good 11 years, my travels somehow seemed to have eluded this neighbouring city. This particular running event was a good chance to see Pune and meet some of my runner friends simultaneously.
I always believed that not all runs/events are meant to be raced. While you select a few that you want to race, others are meant purely for the enjoyment factor. Considering I had run hard both at Auroville (Feb 12th) and at Kundalika (Feb 26th), I decided to relax and take this one easy. Besides I had already commenced Maffetone training-a heart rate based running program where the long runs are done within your aerobic zone.
Amit and I along with Samara drove down from Mumbai and reached Pune in 3 and a half hours. We were in good time to collect the bibs, meet the organiser and chat with some runner buddies. We learnt that this event was one of its kind which had received full support from the Police and Military forces. Though it was meant for women runners, there were male pacers who would be pacing several timed buses. My eyes lit up when Sangeeta mentioned about the army band that would be playing during our run. Being an ardent supporter of our selfless armed forces, I eagerly looked forward to running past them the next morning.
It was quite chilly as I assembled at the start line the next day. The race was supposed to commence at 5:45 am. Greeting and chatting up with a few fellow runners, I learnt that it was quite a hilly terrain and that the 19th km especially had a deadly slope. Nikhil Shah from Runbuddies-the organisers of the Kundalika River marathon was present there as a 3 hour pacer. I jokingly told him that after running a grueling hilly terrain at Kundalika in the sweltering heat, these slopes would be a baby in comparison.
For the first time, I left my speakers behind, deciding to enjoy the route for a change and go easy. So I slowly railed behind the 2:15 bus. At the 2.5 km mark, I caught sight of the army band laying some peppy music as the men in uniform stood there cheering for us. My left hand automatically went up in a form of a salute as I ran past them, encountering goose bumps and a sudden rush of energy.
Being still pitch dark, it was gratifying to see volunteers on cycles holding out lights lest we fall down on our faces. I could hear the birds chirping and the darkness soon gave way to light as the sun’s first rays crept in. I could see the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology to my left as I went up and down the slopes. Basking in the beauty of the surroundings, I soon feel into a trance little realizing that I had overtaken the 2:15 bus and was soon nearing the 10.5 km mark.
Volunteers and photographs stood on the side-lines cheering and clicking our strides away. I gave hi fives to some of my runner friends, quite enjoying every moment of the run and at the same time kept checking my Garmin to ensure that I was within the heart rate aerobic zone. There were some gardens to my right which made a pretty sight with its bright green grass and pink flowers.
I soon crossed the late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam memorial which made me feel rather wistful. Being a big fan of his writings, I recalled how I almost came close to interviewing him but failed to do so due to his sudden demise. A noble, intelligent and a humble soul not to mention one of the best Presidents India ever had. My eyes turned moist as I looked ahead and decided to concentrate on the run for a few minutes.
I encountered the threshold point according to my Garmin at the 17th km mark which made me stop and walk for a bit till my heart rate normalised. I began my run again and encountered volunteers and fellow runners on the way who shouted ‘good going mam’. At the 18.5 km, I once again ran past the army band whom I waved to and derived a sudden adrenalin rush from.
As I kept going ahead, I caught sight of the ‘gigantic slope’ at the 19th km. A sea of orange (the colour of the event’s t shirt presented to every runner) had cascaded the slope. While many chose to walk this deadly incline, my hill training in the past refused to let me do so and up I went, taking short strides and swinging my arm upwards. As I descended down, I suddenly found that I picked up pace and sprinted that last 700 metres and crossed the finish line in a decent 2:10.
“Not bad at all” I thought to myself. Considering the fact, I had done heavy strength training the previous week (something that I would avoid before a race) and that I didn’t listen to music throughout the 21 km (something that would up my pace), it was a very satisfying run altogether.
Being a new kid on the block, this first edition of the Women’s half marathon was quite a success considering the huge turn out and being a well organised one. With water stations at regular intervals, getting to run in an army zone with full support from the Pune Police and Military forces, free registration and timing chips, resplendent Orange T shirts, a sumptuous breakfast, free stretching session by Celebrity Yoga guru Payal Gidwani Tiwari, this event was a runner’s dream.
As I drove back to Mumbai later, I pondered over my strong finish. I realised that the moment I decided to not push myself or stress on timing, I end up running well. I suppose it’s a psychological aspect for me as I don’t work well under pressure. I am probably like that wild horse which likes to run free in the meadows without its reins or without being pushed. Maybe I am just a free runner after all (pun intended)!!
I had run the Kundalika River marathon last year without any practise on the hills or any kind of core and strength training. I merely went as a naive child not realising how daunting the hills could be especially in the evening when the sun was at its peak. I still managed to finish 3rd by the grace of the almighty.
This year I decided to train really hard and attempt this gruelling terrain again. Long runs were done on steep inclines, core and leg strengthening were followed with utmost sincerity to get those glutes, calves and quads in shape. By the time Feb 25th 2017 came, I was ready.
It was a 3 hour drive from Mumbai to Kolad where the race was scheduled. Tucking in an early light lunch of salad and green veggies at 11:00 noon, we basked in the picturesque and scenic setting. The village side comprised of bountiful fields, cacti and water bodies which glistened in the fierce heat. Despite being February, winter seemed to have surrendered to the dominant summer which was ready to rule the roost for the next 3-4 months.
Reaching the venue 2 hours prior to the race, we decided to relax in the canteen after collecting our bibs. This year the half marathon was slated to commence at 4 pm-30 mins earlier than the previous year’s edition, which meant more time in the sun. It was a blistering 37 degrees outside. Deciding not to give it too much thought, I munched on the water melons an hour before the race, to cool my system and get the necessary glucose at the same time.
We met a few runner friends from Mumbai and engaged in an intense discussion on conquering the mighty slopes as we walked towards the start line. After the warm up session, the race flagged off sharp at 4 pm. My hubby Amit and I were going strong for the first 5 km enjoying the panoramic beauty of the rugged trail, the lake on the left and the cattle grazing in the fields on either side.
Being a muddy terrain, the fumes got to me after a point, making my throat feel heavy as I started coughing profusely. Fortunately there were aid stations almost every kilometre serving water, enerzal and some fruits. I took a sip of water and continued. Eventually the unbearable heat got to us and it felt like running inside a hot elongated microwave oven.
“This was going to be one tough run. I just wished I had signed up for a 10 k race”, I mentioned to Amit. “So let’s turn here and finish just 10 k”, he replied. I shook my head and said that doing a DNF (did not finish) would be a bruise to my ego especially when my limbs and arms were injury free and functioning fine. I just had to battle the heat which I had underestimated during my training runs. Running at 9 or 9:30 am was way different from running at 4 pm where the heat was raw and brutal in the latter case.
I distracted my mind and looked at the fields and the villagers. After crossing 9 km, I suddenly realised that I had left Amit behind. After turning at the 10.5 km mark, I met him on the way and I continued to run hoping that he would catch up with me. 11k, 12k, 13k- there was no sign of him as I bypassed a few runners on the road.
At one point, I was wondering why I was putting myself through this torture. I then remembered someone telling me something a while back-in life there is an easy and a tough route. An easy route nevertheless guarantees a smooth ride but fails to incorporate the vital lessons that moulds your personality into a strong one. Taking the road less travelled always tests your abilities and shapes your psyche into a tough persona, ready to face the challenges that comes your way.
The heat wave continued till about 16-17 km unlike last year where the sun eased off post the first half of the race. I spotted a few villagers walking by and throwing sympathetic glances towards my direction. The cattle also began to find its way home.
A funny incident occurred at the 18th km mark. As I was running with full focus, I suddenly spotted 4 cows with those long deadly horns on the right side. They were standing still and staring at me in an eerie manner. I looked around to find that there was not a single villager or a cow herd around. I hesitated and almost stopped in my tracks, unsure of whether they would come charging at me.
Then suddenly I took off like a maniac and ran downhill and looked behind after a while. They were not in sight and probably were still stationed there looking ahead in their lazy fashion. I began to feel foolish thinking that I had probably overreacted. It was just 2.5 km to go there on and I continued my run.
The last 1 km comprised of a deadly slope which even the best runners chose to walk over rather than battling it. At that juncture, a runner friend Girish Bindra who had finished his run had returned and gestured saying I was second. My energy was drained by then and I was glad to have him pace me that last 1 km. After we ran up the slope, he encouraged me to finish strong and I gathered all my reserves and sprinted to the finish line in 2:36, finishing 2nd in the open category. I was elated to have cut down 2-3 minutes from the previous year despite the fact the conditions were tougher this year.
I walked around and waited for Amit who came in ten minutes later. After collecting my trophy, I munched on some Pav Bhaji and headed home after thanking the organisers and congratulating friends who had won podiums in their respective categories.
It was a long, tiring yet satisfying day. I had finished stronger and faster than last year. I was glad that all the hard work had paid off. As we drove back home, I reminisced the entire run. I had trained well on the hills this year and the trick to not let Kundalika dominate you was to train in the afternoon sun in the hills to acclimatize your body to the blistering heat.
Instantly a quote came to my mind” Don’t think of them as hills, think of them as moulds of opportunity.”
It was certainly an opportunity to get tougher and stronger!!
Thank you Runbuddies, volunteers and photographers as this is one race that remains etched in my mind forever.