I first heard about Malnad ultra from Amit Mehta when we met at Bangalore for the TCS 10k back in May. We bumped into the race director and he explained his race which included running through coffee estates and then the badra wildlife reserve and he warned us about snakes and other “wildlife”, it sounded like an interesting one so I signed up for it after I got back home. My idea was not to race it but to just enjoy it as a post-season fun run as I roped in quite a few of my friends into running it (read the whole CTC gang and a few others from Chennai). Only four weeks earlier I had run one of my “A” races for the season, the mythical UTMB that left me mentally and physically exhausted for weeks. I did zero running back in Germany while spending some time visiting friends before I did a full training week with a long weekend of running in the hills before the race, so physically I wasn’t sure where I was yet and I knew there was still deep muscle fatigue after the race and hence it made sense to just go out and have fun rather than have a go chasing the people at the pointy end. I knew I had the endurance to grind out a result; my legs lacked any speed as I felt flat and maintaining an easy pace in training was a struggle. But this would be the shortest race of my season and I would be done before dinner so that made me look forward to it!
Due to family reasons one of my friends couldn’t make it so I travelled with Neville to Kemmangundi, the overnight train journey was tiring, as we both didn’t get much sleep. The following day we had an early connection from Bangalore to Birur and that train was full of runners. I tried to get some sleep before socializing with Kieron and Amit, we eventually reached Birur in a few hours. I took a fall at the train station and hurt my knee, there was sharp pain as I couldn’t bend my knee and this made me contemplate whether to start or just volunteer as I didn’t want to make things worse. We had to take another bus ride to kemmangundi from there; I was mostly wincing in pain on the bus journey, as the pain seemed to not go away! Once we reached the place things went smoothly and we got our bibs straight away before taking a kip after an exhausting day of travelling. The accommodation was probably one of the worst I’ve ever stayed in with leaky toilets and the food gave me the “runs”, not ideal but meh, I can’t tolerate spicy food L I wish the organizers would let us camp instead. We took another nap and chatted with Kieren catching up on both our seasons this year, last year we had a lot of fun at Chamonix as he ran the CCC and I ran the UTMB. Later in the evening we had a pre-race dinner at the coffee estate which was awesome, the organizer laid out his vision and I was intrigued but just had one lingering doubt about the 4000m of ascent and whether my wonky knee would hold out all of that descending as I was struggling to walk down stairs that day let alone RUN! The dinner organized by the race organizers was brilliant and it wasn’t spicy which was perfect! I loved the bon fire and meeting runners from all over India, this was unique, as I haven’t raced much in India in the last few years so it was nice to be acquainted to the current running community. I got to catch up with friends before heading for an early night. I wanted to see how the knee felt in the morning before taking a call, there was some inflammation the day before the race and it wasn’t ideal. (Just getting all my excuses out early before the race-started haha!)
I slept well before waking up at half past four to get ready for the 6 am start. My knee seemed better but there was pain whenever I had to bend the knee. After getting a little delayed we left the room a few minutes before the start but we knew we could start the race within a 30 minute widow after the official start so it didn’t bother me too much. After all my season was already over and this seemed inconsequential, my plan was to run the first 10k and see how the knee behaved before making a decision. I know its not ideal to have an inflamed knee before the start of a 110k race but c’est la vie, common sense would suggest that I shouldn’t start but I didn’t have anything to lose by dropping out early if things turned south. We can’t always choose the music that life plays for us, but we can choose how to dance to it 😉
Start to 30k:
After getting to the start line a few seconds after the race started, I got running and quickly caught up with the rest of the field. I was wishing all the CTC guys good luck before trotting down, kept the pace super easy as it was all down hill and my knee was still hurting. I used KT tape to help support it so the pain was a little more manageable on race day compared to the previous day. I met Amit and we got chatting, I remember telling him to take it easy as it was his first 50 miler. We had more company for the first 50 miles as both the 80k and the 110k starts at the same time. We kept the pace super easy while rolling downhill, we passed a couple of aid stations where I got to fill my soft flasks as I was in a hurry to get to the start so started with empty soft flasks at least I didn’t forget to carry my nutrition 😀 We were mostly talking about our future races, how he felt and how beautiful the sunrise was as we descended down on tarmac.
The harder surface was causing some discomfort so I was waiting for the trail section, after about 7k we took a left to start the steep descent on trail, I inadvertently started running alone on the winding jeep tracks as I lost sight of the others. I started chasing an ambulance downhill before they gave way by literally stopping in the middle of the jeep track. I had one guy ahead of me and the weather was starting to warm up so I was taking it easy. We shortly passed the venue where we had dinner last night before going through a village. It was mostly undulating with a small incline so it was great for running; we passed a few more checkpoints before entering another private estate. The trail went uphill so I got into an easy rhythm of running the easier bits and hiking the steeper sections. There was nothing-crazy steep here so it was mostly runnable. A couple of runners passed me here as I was waiting for someone to run with, the climb kept going for a little while and there were more switchbacks. I liked this section, as there was more climbing until we got higher, the views were great and we eventually crested the hill before starting the descent.
I met Manoj again as we chatted about our training and I told him to go on as I didn’t quite fancy running uphill so early. We had done the first 20k in a reasonable time and kept smoothly descending without trashing my quads. The descent seemed long and it was nice to have the coffee estate workers at every turn and at literally every switchback just to make sure we didn’t get lost. I waved and thanked them and they thanked me back??!! Hmm anyway I was strolling along trying not to get lost and the track kept going downhill for a while until we left the estate to rejoin the road. After this section it was all road so my knee was causing problems so I was taking it easy but still running whatever I could or running on the side of the road on trail where it hurt less, I knew going into the race the pain would be there but it was manageable most of the time and it never got worse which was reassuring.
While meandering my way on the side of the road I spotted Peter and he caught up to me, we started running together and got chatting about the race. It was nice to finally run with someone and we both didn’t have any particular goals while Peter was running the 80k. This would be his longest run despite the fact he’s done several back-to-back 50k’s. Chatting and running made me forget about the pain and we were making good progress. The route kept going slightly uphill for most of the time until we reached a gated area where we started descending slowly. The descent lasted a few kilometers before we reached the 30k checkpoint, which was a “main” checkpoint with hot food options. We both were excited to have breakfast here only to be disappointed by the options or lack of so I quickly ate some fruits before going on our way. It was nice to have some volunteers and others cheering us on.
30k to 61k Manager’s residence CP:
We rejoined the road as it went downhill with several switch back’s. We both were joking about half the race being on tarmac so far, hopefully as promised this section would have more trails and it was supposed to be the most beautiful section of the race. The route kept going downhill and we kept chatting away. I was starting to warm up and enjoy the race but legs were feeling very flat so any acceleration felt way too exaggerated. I was breathing hard on the uphill’s so took short breaks before running again, the route started to climb and it was a nice trail. The weather was also surprisingly good considering we both are used to the heat and humidity of Chennai so it was a welcome break to run in the hills.
After about half an hour we caught the last 50k runners and with Peter being a major celebrity, everyone knew him and wanted to take pictures. After a few pictures we started running uphill again, I liked the terrain, as it was rocky and not too technical. I remember joking about spotting any snakes and to make sure to take a photo if it bites! The route was mostly going uphill so we got into a good rhythm of running while taking small walk breaks. We were slowly catching people while we were discussing a variety of things and mostly enjoying each other’s company. The course had plenty of aid stations so it was an overkill for me to carry 1 liter of liquid’s on me but I’m so used to running with a rucksack, I would feel a little naked starting an ultra without a headlamp and 2 sets of clothes and a rucksack haha! The aid station’s did have the essential’s like water, RRUNN during, coco vanilla flavored RRUNN post and biscuits. Some aid stations had fruits which was great and I like biscuits but Peter didn’t quite fancy them so we shared my stock of shot bloks as I was prepared to be autonomous since this was the first time the event was being held and I’m always a little skeptical 😉
Around the 40k point we crossed through a small house where lots of the local’s sat and watched us gorge into oranges and run off into the hills! There was also a news reporter who was interviewing Peter on the go asking him about his nationality, we had a few more of them and the novelty was lost as they asked the same questions and it got a little tedious. The track would start going uphill until 48k including the highest point so the route kept going up, we ran most of it and were feeling good, the conditions were perfect with the sun peeping out now and again. I remember exclaiming to Peter about how the people in this region are blessed with awesome weather compared to our usual weekend outings in the Southern hills where we both get burnt on a regular basis as the sunscreen keeps washing away due to the heat and humidity! We got to a checkpoint called manager’s residence and they had fresh lime juice, which was amazing! We drank until both our bellies were sloshing before heading out; the route was now undulating as we kept going up and down. There were people who were passing us in the opposite direction as it was supposed to be an out and back which was cool as we were giving out high five’s. The climb wasn’t too strenuous and we eventually go to the short single-track section, this was fun as it was quite narrow and the views were amazing.
The view from here reminded me of the Conic hill climb on the West highland way in Scotland as the view was very similar. We passed several 50k runners here and caught up to Vipul who was taking a break here. We ran together as we started the descent after taking lots of pictures. I remember Peter bouncing ideas off me stating that he could totally put on an ironman here with a swim in that lake, cycling around the hills and then a run on the trails. However there was a minor problem of wild animals. We hadn’t spotted any yet so we were quite disappointed but kept trotting along; the descent was gentle and fun. My knee pain was manageable so I was dancing downhill while Peter was stronger on the uphill’s so we complemented each other well. I was however cramping up due to a lack of salt intake but I had salt caps at the 60k drop bag so that checkpoint couldn’t come soon enough. Vipul was moving a little gingerly but still managed to keep pace with us while we enjoyed good banter. We were playing a game on keeping score on the amount of times we tripped but didn’t fall, Peter was leading by 2 games to love by that point and we said winner has to really take a fall haha. We bumped into Charles from England, he ran with us for a while before passing us. The descent involved a small loop before going downhill all the way to another manager’s residence at 60k.
60k manager’s residence to 80k CP:
This was another “hot food” option point and it was around lunch time so we were looking forward to having food but were left a little disappointed with the bisibella bath (spicy dhal and rice) and curd rice (yoghurt and rice), we both didn’t fancy the hot food options so opted for fruits while Vipul was taking a nap and a massage. We met some of the CTC guys who were running the 50k and offered encouragement, I had put my headlamps in my drop bag here but we got here way too early as the course didn’t have as much climbing as the course profile suggested. We took a short break and Peter got rid of his rucksack as I was carrying enough ration and water that could feed a small village. We had a rather hilarious incident where a 50k runner came in to the checkpoint being furious and was having a go at the volunteers. It went something like “What kind of course is this, it’s either going up or down there are no flat runnable sections and very little road!” We both chuckled stating the obvious that he clearly didn’t check the website for what he was signing up for!
We headed out to rejoin the portion of the trail where we left to walk into the checkpoint and it gradually went downhill all the way to a lake. Initially this section was undulating and we were running along chatting away and joking about not having spotted ANY “wildlife” apart from maybe a squirrel! Somewhere along the route we both agreed that 80k was clearly too short a distance for Peter to finish and it would still be daylight by then so he agreed to run the rest of the 30k with me to finish the 110k and I told him we’d be done and in bed before the rest of the folk get home as the cut off for the 80k was 10 pm (16 hours). There was a section where we got to a small lake and the course rose sharply, Vipul slowed down and Peter kept hiking strong so I kept pace with him. We kept passing 50k runners at regular intervals while offering encouragement. I was feeling strong and I never went through any low points or high points, I just felt comfortably numb mentally and just enjoyed Peter’s company as we both get along really well. Somehow this felt like bread and butter for both of us and hence it seemed very comfortable. We eventually hit the 70k point where the course descends slowly to the lowest point to a lake; it was very humid with no breeze here. After a quick pit stop at the checkpoint we trotted along, as this section was dotted with photographers encouraging us to run. Once we passed the lake, we started climbing uphill and it was rather steep. I was sweating buckets and struggled a little to keep up with Peter but managed to crawl behind him. We caught a couple more runners and I started feeling better as we got higher and we got some breeze. After that short and steep climb and once we hit the road, it was mostly runnable all the way to the 80k checkpoint. We were still ahead of schedule and felt very comfortable chatting away, we caught a 50k runner just before the checkpoint and he was walking like a broken man but after offering encouragement we jogged it in. I quickly went to fetch my drop bag as Peter was given a medal and was taking pictures at the finish with other CTC folks.
80k to 110k finish at Kemmangundi:
I put my visor and shades into the drop bag as the sun was never out for the whole day and I knew I’d be wearing a headlamp pretty soon. We were chatting away with the rest of the 50k folks, I caught up with Monica who ran her first 50k and finished as the 2nd female, that was awesome. I told her that Amit was doing well and he should finish soon as he looked smooth in the first 8k J We also met Aakriti who I ran a short while with at the start of the Javadhu 50k where she and her coach Sampath were the only ones running at a sustainable pace while everyone ran out like a bat out of hell! After joking to Peter about the food and how we could use a German beer and bratwurst right about now, we were eating the sweet potatoes before I got my bottles refilled. We took a longer break here while I cleaned my shoes out before heading out for the last 30k. We both felt comfortable and there was a nice small runnable climb and hiked certain bits until we reached the top before running most of the descent. My memory is generally very good so I knew exactly what we had left while Peter didn’t remember most of it as the last 30k is the same way as the first 30k so half of it was on tarmac. He was surprised that I could remember every little detail but he then remembered I was a lawyer and joked that my mind is perhaps trained to remember lots of details! We felt good as the temperature was dropping and chatted away looking forward to running some of this section in the night. We were also debating ideas of how we could improve our own events among other things. I think most of our talk revolved around food! Mostly involving Bavarian delicacies like schweinhaxe, schnitzel and different types of currywurst’s as it was the end of the Oktoberfest at that time.
My knee pain had settled into something that I could manage so wasn’t too bothered about it. I felt good otherwise and was looking forward to getting to the bottom of the descent before starting the next climb. We had two more climbs to tick off before the finish and I joked that the last climb would mostly be a recovery hike. We kept things ticking over and I watched our calorie and salt intake to make sure we stay away from cramps. This was a fun and enjoyable section where we ran most of it and we were making time; slowly we passed several checkpoints before starting the ascent into the private estate. It was starting to get dark under tree cover so we put our headlamps on. Don’t think we used it until we got closer to the summit. We ran the runnable bits and hiked the rest until it got steeper. We hit the checkpoint near the summit to refuel before cresting the hill and starting the descent. It was fun to let go and glide downhill, Peter remarked on how much fun it was to run during the night as you start to spot the little things and focus a little more. It feels like a completely different route, we had estate workers light up bon fire a few kilometers apart to warm themselves and also to keep the snakes away from the trail I guess? The descent went well and we could slowly spot that we were descending into civilization as we could see lights in the distance.
The descent was fun as we crossed through a couple of checkpoints before getting to one just before the village. Met Jayesh from Mumbai here, he seemed a little phased out so told him that the 102km checkpoint has a bed where he can take a short nap but it was still around 4k away. We sat and refueled before running the rest of this descent; we passed the village and got chased by dogs. We slowly made our way to the 102 k checkpoint at the spot where we had the pre-race dinner. The volunteers were lovely and told us we had only a few kilometers to go. It was all uphill from here so we took it easy, the initial section on trail was super steep as Peter powered through before we hit the road bit and then started the slow slog up to Kemmangundi. The last 6k on tarmac was tedious and mind numbingly boring, it pretty much sucked out all the fun from the other 102km of racing as I would have rather preferred going uphill on technical terrain rather than a concrete path. We kept chatting and talking about what we’d have for dinner, as we’d be on time for dinner and a shower before the lads got home from the 80k finishing point. It was getting a little chilly as it was windy and neither of us carried a jacket or windbreaker. After what felt like an eternity, we eventually made it to the finish by which point both of us didn’t really care as that last climb was just pointless and annoying. Peter joked about doing one of his “infamous” 5k loops to finish a 100 miles but after that last climb I preferred to pass! Photographers and Kieren greeted us as we finished in 16 hours and 11 minutes, in the end the race had only 2850 meters of climbing rather than 4000m; we quickly headed to the restaurant to get some calories down. In hindsight it would have been so much better if they finished the race at 102k descending all the way and finishing on a high rather than take us up a tarmac uphill which left a bad taste in the mouth.
Despite some flaws, the organization was great for a first time trail race in India and there was a lot of attention to detail but aid station’s could have been fewer but well stocked with more food rather than several but with just the basics. There are only so many salt biscuits one can eat. Things I am sure the organizers will improve upon in the next edition but the accommodation and food organized by the holiday company was alarmingly bad, hope they can fix the toilets next time as lots of others complained about the accommodation not being up to scratch. Huge props to the race organizers though for putting a race in the middle of nowhere I’m sure they’ll build on it and make the infrastructure better to keep a sustainable event. It was great value for money and would totally recommend the experience as it’s well organised and picturesque than all the other Indian ultra’s I’ve done so far. Thanks to Cafe Coffee day for allowing us to run through their beautiful estates, can we please book some wildlife for next year pls? 😉
Special thanks to my sponsors WAA ultra and Unived sports for supporting me all season to help me realize my dreams, hopefully next season will be bigger and wilder!