Monday, February 13, 2012

Auroville Marathon 2012 – nature’s fury, runners’ determination

Auroville Marathon 2012 – nature’s fury, runners’ determination

For a brief while after Cyclone Thane devastated Pondicherry in December, I had brief apprehensions regarding travelling to Pondicherry because I had received tales of the massive amount of damage that had happened due to the cyclone and how the homes, business etc. were all ravaged. I made few enquiries with friends who were going to Pondicherry to participate in the Auroville marathon 2012 and they suggested a wait and watch approach.

So, there I was on morning of Saturday, 11th February 2012 on a flight to Chennai enroute to Pondicherry. Unmesh had already reached Chennai the day before and had arranged vehicle for us from Chennai to Pondi and back and Jo & Pramod were to join me from Chennai. For a 6 a.m. flight, I had to wake up at 3.00 a.m. and a brief peek out of my window to check the weather suggested it was normal cold winter morning unlike the totally abnormal cold winter mornings that Bombay had been witnessing the past one month or so.

Chennai was misty when the flight landed at 7.55 a.m. We first had a hearty breakfast at near the Chennai airport and set off for Pondi which was a 3 hour drive from Chennai. On reaching Pondi found out that the hotel where I had booked my accommodation had inadvertently cancelled my booking, so there I was in Pondi without any hotel reservation whatsoever. Luckily the same hotel booked another room for us the International Guest House which was a basic room only kind of place with unbelievable room tariff of Rs.250/- per night.

Room having found and bags settled in, we set out for lunch at the promenade at Pondi which was a beautiful strip of smooth concrete road adjacent to the Bay of Bengal which with alluring blue waters was inviting us for a swim, but luckily I did’nt know swimming, so that part was left for others to accomplish on a later day. 

We decided to have lunch at an exotic chic open air restaurant called La Café which was veritably situated on the rocks so to speak. But they did not have anything worthwhile to eat especially for marathoners looking to carbo-load on the day before the race. So, off we went to the famous Saravana Bhavan on M.G. Road for a sumptuous meal at Rs.60/-. The meal consisted of a large portion of rice fit for 6 hungry people plus sambhar, rasam, curry &papad. Meals done we rested for a while in our rooms before deciding to head out to Auroville in the evening for collecting our bibs and listening to Barefoot Ted McDonald and meeting friends.

Auroville is a sleepy little commune created by French speaking people who believed in the principles of Mother – so they have a kind of holistic peaceful living – a kind of heaven on earth. Auroville is 13 kms from the main Pondi town of which 8 kms is a sleepy village which leads to Auroville. It is from here that we could see the kind of destruction that the cyclone had wreaked on the city. Mighty trees were uprooted and temple walls were broken down exposing the gods to the cruelty of nature.

Upon reaching Auroville, we immediately headed for the hall where Barefoot Ted McDonald was about to commence his talk. Since the hall was packed to the rafters, the venue of his talk was shifted to an open air auditorium which again filled up faster than one could say Barefoot Ted McDonald. When asked by one runner during his talk as to which roads in India were the best for barefoot running, BFT categorically said it was the Mumbai roads – smooth as a baby bum!!

Bibs collected from the venue, we waited for the pasta dinner at 7.00 p.m. It was the most delicious pasta dinner that I have ever had – a super round off to carbo-loading. Since the marathon was starting at 5.00 a.m. and half at 6.00 a.m. and since Unmesh, Jo & Mahesh from our travelling party were scheduled to run the full, we decided to start out the next day morning at 3.45 a.m. to reach the starting point venue.

On peaking of the window on Sunday morning at 3.45 a.m. I thought it was not cold at all – definitely not to worry about the chill factor. But the mosquito factor was a worry for sure because the previous night while sitting on the lawns waiting for the pasta dinner queue to subside, the mosquitoes surely sucked away copious quantities of my blood – probably one of the factors for my laggardly performance in the second loop!!

The Auroville marathon is a lesson in marathon organization. Everything precisely co-ordinated and neatly arranged in a low key manner – from the baggage counters, to the pre-race warm-ups to the beat of music, the announcements, water & aid stations, direction markers et al. The full marathon started at 5.00 a.m. in utter darkness but with all the runners going with a torch or a headlamp which the organizers insisted upon each runner to take as a necessity. The half marathon was to start at 6.00 a.m. but they deferred the start to 6.15 a.m. in order for some of the daylight to filter in and help the runners navigate the way in the early morning light, without falling over.

The half marathon starts on a tar road but quickly veers off into a trail road which is a kind of soft mud with loose top soil on it. There are gentle bumps on the road it is a pleasure to navigate these bumps because you are able to accelerate on the downside part of the bump. There are numerous twists and turns to the route but essentially major part of the route is on the mud track with loose soil. At one patch I thought the soil was like beach sand. There are gentle stones jutting out from track, but nothing treacherous to make one fall. There is also a small patch on paver blocks, after the 7 kms mark.  But what hits you as you run along the route is the extent of devastation and damage that cyclone thane has wreaked on this forest. Entire trees had been uprooted and at many places the trees had fallen on the roads, but the people of the community had done a magnificent job of clearing the path by cutting those trees and so you have those neatly cut trees staring at you at several places.

For half marathoners, the route was two loops of 10.5 kms each, but the kms markings were way off the mark. I did not get to see the 10K and the 20K markers at all. Since it was not an out and back route like the Kaveri trail and the Bangalore Ultra you did not have people coming back on the same route. But there was certain paths where the road was narrow and you had to say “excuse me” to the slow runners or walkers ahead of you. It was a beautiful route and the organizers had taken pains in charting a different path for the full marathoners and half marathoners by creating some additional loops for the full marathoners here and there.

I was enjoying the scenery and holding myself back until the half way mark. From 12 kms onwards, I started struggling so I slowed down the pace for a few kilometers and thought I should concentrate on the last 5 to 6 kilometres. Unfortunately that could not happen because of the humidity and my shoes were not giving me the grip to accelerate on the track – I took water breaks at all water stations after 12 kms mark and stopped by to pour water on my head and neck. I took electoral replenishment at one water station and one quarter banana. Since I was not able to force the pace, I thought next best thing to do is to stay the course and complete comfortably. 19kms went by and I thought last kms was mine so while I was waiting for the 20 kms the volunteers told me to take a left turn which immediately announced “200 metres to finish”. I was surprised because I had not espied the 20 kms mark. I immediately jacked up the pace and finished strongly in 2.11.13 hours a personal best in Trail half marathon and just 2 minutes off the absolute personal best in a half marathon. But I was devastated with my second loop performance and so i was not in a celebratory mood at all.

Somebody put a medal around my neck, but on close examination it was not a medal but two doll figurines strung around a strap. How innovative!! 

The announcer was constantly asking runners to collect their free t-shirts and have refreshments at the snacks counter, but I took a while to recover my breath and sauntered around the arena while drinking water. Both the t-shirt and snacks queue was long so decided to wait awhile before venturing into one of them.

The breakfast was pongal vada with delicious sambhar and hot coffee to boot, so had a double helping of the pongal and double offering of coffee. Hunger and thirst quenched, I picked up my free t-shirt and bought few things for back home – some locally made sweets and a t-shirt for my daughter. Looked around for the massage stall, but found it too crowded, so decided to wait for my colleagues and one by one they started to trickle in. It seemed the humidity had troubled many runners, so almost all the runners were way off their mark which they had achieved at Mumbai marathon a month ago.

I thought that loss of tree cover and the canopy that goes with it had a major impact on this year’s Auroville Marathon – humidity is always there at Auroville, but the pleasantness that comes from running in a forest was probably missing. For us Mumbaikars, coming from an unusually extreme winter – 8.8 degrees on Wednesday before the race was a dampener for running in the extreme humidity of Auroville – the hydrating went for a toss in the run up to the marathon. While the trail itself was not difficult, the loose soil was making gripping difficult putting lot of pressure on the calf muscles – so trail shoes were a must for running in such a track.

While we were waiting in the tent for our friends to come in, Nikhil of Olympic Gold Quest, started giving post run stretches to Unmesh which was really helpful to him, so others started queuing up for his Olympic style stretches – it was a treat to watch!!

By the time Jo came in at 6.45 hours and his post run carbo loading and stretching, we were late for the planned lunch of the Mumbai runners party at Satsanga Hotel with Venkat, so we quickly came back to the hotel for a quick wash before leaving for the Chennai airport.

Reminiscing the day’s events,  we i.e. myself, Unmesh & Jo decided to come back to Auroville next year with better travel arrangements so we don’t end up rushing up from one venue to another with barely any time for rest and recuperation. 

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