Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One Rose by Crazy Joe on his Cactus throne -- On running the Cactus Rose 100M race

It was a weekend fraught with challenges. It was a weekend lit up in camaraderie and bon homie. It was a weekend when we didnt sleep. It was a weekend when emotions ran amok. It was a weekend of running up hills and through thorny Sotol bushes. It was a weekend when a crew of one score and a few more picnicked in the cold of a Central Texas November. It was a weekend when the campfire crackled, the wine sparkled, the guitar strummed, even as rumps were on fire and folks walked as though they had been horse-riding for 3 days. It was the weekend we ran the Cactus Rose 100miler, in Bandera, Texas. (Believe it or not, that previous link to Bandera on Wikipedia, lists Joe Prusaitis as race director for the annual Bandera 100K -- one of the toughest Ultramarathons!)

This is supposed to be a tough race. I'll just quote Joe from his website --
A nasty rugged self-supported trail run: No Whiners, Wimps, or Wusses We give Bonus Points for Blood, Cuts, Scrapes, & Puke. I have made an attempt to create an event that required the least amount of volunteers as possible. A sort of Self-Serve setup of aid stations and support systems. Drop bags, this is what this one is all about... your skill in providing for yourself, in your own drop bags at each station. You bring it, you clean it up, you take it home. Its all yours. But on Sunday at 5pm, I'll tear down the stations and close the race, so if you leave anything behind, its gone.

This race was a breeze. Simply because of our crew. They worked hard for over 2 weeks, figured out the logistics of pacing and feeding the runners, feeding themselves and the pacers -- all we had to do was provide occasional inputs, and prepare our drop bags. The crew was 25 strong. They did everything. We had a tent at one point in the race that we were to go by 8 times (it was sort of the center of 25-mile loop shaped like an 8). We had a veritable restaurant set up over there. Let me just say that the menu included -- dal-chaval, puliyogare, bisibelebath, pulav, dahi, cheese-sandwich, date-rolls, watermelons, orange juice among a few other items; you can imagine the rest.

The four runners, Ganesh, Gaurav, Santhosh and myself, along with Santhosh's parents and Roopa went over on Friday afternoon. We met Joe, picked up our packets, listened to the briefing and the confusion at the Crossroads/Equestrian aidstation (there were four ways to enter and four ways to exit, and depending on the loop and the direction you were entering, you had to pick the correct way to exit) and packed our drop bags. Then we drove around and dropped off all our bags. Pitched the tent at Equestrian that was to be used by the crew the following day. We also met a lot of other runners. A good number of them were Hill Country Trail Runners and we chatted around a bit. By the time we got back to our ranch, we were ready to drop off. Hogged on the food prepared by Santhosh's mom and promptly did drop off.

The next day started in some confusion with Ganesh first having gone missing, and then subsequently discovered being down. Sorting out all confusions and ablutions, we got to the race line couple of minutes late. Picked up a chip tied to an ankle strap and there werent too many folks milling around. Joe was chatting with us, and I asked him when was the race starting. Joe promptly pointed to the clock (it was at 6 minutes) and said everyone else started a little while ago, and we probably should get going ourselves. In retrospect, the late start helped us go a little slow on the first loop. Everyone else had sped off.

The three of us, Gaurav, Santhosh and myself, ran together. Start to finish. Another reason for why it was not too hard mentally. We were trying really hard to go slow. Couple of days ago, I had talked to the legendary Ann Trason, and asked her for advice, and she said, the first 25 miles go as slow as you can ever go, and then further slow down. We tried. We failed. Mile 25 came around in 6hr:15min. That was at 25hr speed! Joe laughed at us. Then he said, we'll probably naturally slow down, since the sun was starting to beat hard by then.

The second loop had its direction reversed. The sun was scorching by now. We had water refill and drop bags every 5miles. Besides that I was carrying two handhelds. Between miles 30 and 35 (the toughest section of the course, with Sky Island Hill and the Three Sisters, damn loose rocks and Sotol fields), a section that we took nearly 2 hours to negotiate, I ran out of water (2 bottles) in an hour and a half, and was desperately thirsty when I got into Equestrian. Life moved at a fairly quick clip from 35 to 45 on the Nachos loop, and soon we were back at the Lodge, clocking mile 50. The second loop had taken 7hr:15min. The clock was at 13hr:30min.

The third loop was fairly long. The first 5 miles we ran a bit and got to the Equestrian. We were in good enough shape and so we refused pacers at mile 55, and decided we'll do the Nachos loop and be back at mile 65 and pick up pacers. At mile 60 at Nachos, both Gaurav and Santhosh were having trouble. Santhosh had achilles issues and Gaurav's right ankle was hurting. We walked a good way back through Ice Cream Hill and got into Equestrian and picked up Naresh and Arun, our pacers until mile 75. Those 10miles went slow, in the night. I was feeling quite good and was trying to power the hills. Soon a gorgeous yellow crescent moon rose above the Bandera hills (on Cairns Climb) promptly bringing into mind Keats' description of Chapman's Homer.
On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

-- John Keats

Silent, upon a peak in Bandera. It really was a special moon, although it might have been made dearer by 70miles of dust on our bodies and brain. Unfortunately no one took a picture of that moon. Although, Gaurav did stop on top of Cairns Climb and entertained Melissa with his thoughts on the moon (Melissa was returning on her 4th loop -- about 3miles and an aidstation break ahead of us, she eventually finished 2nd among the girls). We had taken a good 10hours plus to run loop 3. The clock screamed 23hr:37min. We were still a good 2 and 1/2 hour ahead of the 75mile cutoff, so that was not an issue.

Here, I did my goof-up for the race. Used the restroom, and also used wet wipes. Apparently (and I honestly had no idea), wet wipes are wet because they are soaked in some form of alcohol! My freshly chafed derrière was like dry oil-soaked twigs to a sacrificial fire. Promptly, even before I could finish swearing the long phrases that involuntarily came out of my mouth (cant repeat them here on a family forum), the rump was ablaze. I got back to the Lodge drop bags area, and found that the other two boys were handling different problems of their own. They were both fast asleep. I think they were hurting too. Joyce, the ever-minstering-angel, came and gave them black coffee and some form of Ibuprofen. That woke them up, and we trudged out of the aid station into the night, beginning the last loop.

Here, we swapped Arun for Bharath, and the never-tiring Naresh continued to pace us. These next 10miles seemed like they would never end. With a new and literal meaning to ass-on-fire, I was barely hobbling along. My legs and muscles were fine, but swear 'pon-my-ass, I would be damned if I could run. We met Joe at Boyles, and I told him we were not gonna make it in 25hours. He laughed and said keep the spirits up and I'll meet yall at the finish. We trudged along, even as Naresh went back and forth between us. The sun had risen and it was a beautiful foggy day. We couldnt see the sun, but the effect of the light was sufficient to wake us all up. We got into Equestrian and mile 85 and I promptly caught Janice.

Janice and Gabe had adopted the Equestrian station and were there helping everyone. I asked Janice if she had the Desitin still, and she brought it out. Applied it liberally, changed shorts, and had some food, and within 5minutes, the fire had been doused. I could actually walk. This Desitin is a cream used on diaper-rashes for babies. Pretty potent stuff, wonder how the babies feel.

The next 15miles went pretty easy. We had new pacers. Murali and Mihir from 85 to 90; Salil, Chirag and Priyavadan from 90 to 95; Salil, Priyavadan, Chirag, Vijay, and Santhosh's dad from 95 to 100; and of course the never-tiring Naresh through all that. Naresh ran 35 miles with us, through the deathly miles of the night and on the morning after. Sang a goodish bit with Salil and made my way slowly back to the Lodge. Got almost to the finish line, waited a bit for the other boys to get there, we had walked the mat together for 100miles, so we had to finish together. Then we ran in together and saw all our crew. Ganesh joined us and ran in. The bloo team was done. The clock screamed 34hr:03min. We had managed another over 10hours loop.

Finally, our loop breakdown looked like this --
Loop1-- mile25 06hr:15min
Loop2-- mile50 13hr:30min
Loop3-- mile75 23hr:37min
Loop4-- mile100 34hr:03min

Ganesh had a rather heroic story of his own. He had run alone the first 55 miles, and had developed bad blisters. Spent the next 25miles bursting them and running, even as they worsened. He had missed the mile75 cutoff, and had stopped at mile80. It was an incredible effort in face of those blisters. He couldnt walk for many days after that. Both Gaurav and Santhosh were hobbling too, but didnt have any major injuries. I was feeling fine, a little drained and sleepy, but no injuries, no limps. All through the run I was waiting for those low points everyone had talked about, and they never came.

I know this race went easy and well for me for just one reason. Our crew and the food they provided -- satiating our nutrition needs both physical and mental. After the first 55miles, we continuously fed off the energy of our crew, and the race was a breeze. I've said this before, but I'll repeat myself. Blessed are we to be running these hills and terrain and these distances, but to be cheered and crewed by multitudes of Asha crowd is very heaven. This race has to be dedicated to the best crew in the world!

Photo links:
We picked up our buckles, chatted around with other finishers. It had been a tough race. 50 runners started and 20 finished. Full results can be found here.

All through the race, we kept bumping into other runners -- the best part of having a loop race with directions reversed every alternate loop. For the better part of three loops we were close to Diana. There were times when we moved with her. Then there were times when we reached aid stations right after she did. Then it became times when we reached aid stations just as she was leaving. By end of loop 3 we saw her half a mile into her 4th loop, while we still had half a mile to get to the Lodge. Then we never saw her again until the finish. Apart from Diana, we regularly bumped into all the usual suspects, Henry, Robert, Allen, Melissa, and Roger and Fagan while they were still in the race. Joe had a special award for the four of us for doing what he's called the Indian Slam!
  • BigHorn 50M (I did the Devil's Backbone 50M) in June
  • Pikes Peak Double (Ascent on Saturday; Marathon on Sunday) in August
  • Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (about 47miles) in September
  • Cactus Rose 100M in November
Oh, I have to explain the title of this post. Following Joe's label of the Indian Slam, I had adapted the story of the rings poem from Lord of the Rings, to be used as our Team Poem. Without any ado, here it is:
Three races for the running four under their belts,
Settled and the results set in their halls of stone,
Not for wimps and whiners doomed to die,
One Rose by crazy Joe on his Cactus throne
In the Land of Bandera where the Shadows lie.
One race to rule them all, One race to find them,
One race to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Bandera where the Shadows lie.

We all picked up our awards, as Joe talked about Asha, and some others talked about the team spirit and the sheer number of the turnout. As some runner phrased it, we had brought our own village at the Equestrian. It was a weekend worthy of the trail-running community's and Asha camaraderie and team-spirit.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The circus hits town.

About one day left for the run. I just finished preparing the drop bags. My parents were amazed at the amount of stuff I think I would need and would eat!

I take a breather before getting much needed sleep for the longest run of my life so far. I am thinking how much calories I would need. My coach Joe mentioned that in such ultra distances it finally comes down to eating right and eating well. So, I think about where and when I will have liquid calories. Where will I eat fruits? when will I have the 'pulav' ? This is complicated stuff. Fuel/food is the most important aspect that will determine how I do in this run.

I then think about relaxing..browse websites..ok..lets see...whats this - 'Invisible half' ?
In a country where the stock markets see unbelievable growth rates, one child in every two goes hungry.

Hmm...how firvolous can I be! For one day I am worried about getting food in at the right time. There are kids out there who wake up every day hoping for at least one meal that day. Here I am worried about running, about eating right etc. and there are people out there dying out of hunger. My concerns or worries about 'me' melt away. But, my heart becomes heavy in realizing that how helpless millions of people in India are. You might call it romantic idealism, foolish dreams or a plain waste of efforts. But, I think the underlying truth is we run to grab attention with the hope of diverting it to much needed awareness about socio-economic issues and asha's efforts.

As the touring circus hits town this weekend, please take time to read about India's underprivileged ...

Poverty and mainstream media
Indexing Humanity
The breakdown of the Public Distribution System in India

Asha Austin supports a number of projects which work towards equipping communities with skills to earn a living of their own. In certain other communities our project partners strive to use the 'Right to information' act to enforce the implementation of government policy (such as NREGA - National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) for poverty alleviation.

Prajnalaya - vocational skills to promote employment opportunities

Banyan - vocational skills to promote employment opportunities

Shristi - vocational skills to promote employment opportunities

Siddamma and Bharathi Trust - Social activism to empower communities to demand correct implementation of government policies

Nandlal and Lok Samiti - Social activism to empower communities to demand correct implementation of government policies

Thursday, October 25, 2007

10 days to 100 miles.

So, here it is - the culmination of a long tiring season. We have been training through the summer and fall for this one - Our first 100 mile run.

Preparations are under way. This will be a self supported run with no AID station volunteers. Which means we will prepare our own 'drop-bags' at different locations to keep stuff we would need in the run.

Bandera is a nice little texan town. Its got quite a bunch of hills in the Hill country state park. Thats where our run will be at. It will be four 25 mile loops. The cut-off is 36 hours. We would be running through the night to get within the cut-off for the course.

The longest we have run - by time : 24 hours at grand canyon, by distance : 50 miles.

So, this is going to be a first in many ways. But, we will have friends and family to support us. We have reserved a Cabin and are planning stoves, tents etc. at the campsite. Thanks to wonderful friends we are even having pacers. Well, its our chance to get pampered and we plan on making full use of it!

Irulas, Bharathi Trust and Siddamma.

I have been fortunate to learn about this effort over the last few years. Every day I am amazed with the efforts and the work Bharathi trust undertakes. The unflinching determination and commitment inspires me to contribute whatever I can.

Siddamma is a grassroots volunteer with whom I have interacted a lot and been in constant touch over the last year. She was also in the US recently. Amongst other recognitions, she has received the Outlook award from Sonia gandhi and US state dept recognition as one of the 'Heroes in ending modern day slavery' for her work in releasing bonded irula laborers in Red hills, Tamilnadu.

Here is her story

Here is a talk given by her in Seattle.

BBC article on her work.

Bharathi Trust is the organization started by Siddamma and has been supported by Asha for long. The many aspects of Asha's work with Bharathi Trust and Siddamma are captured at
Fellowship and Resource Center


This is a residential school started by an association of Leprosy affected people. The motivation of the school is to provide opportunities to the Leprosy affected and their families. The integrated school also has children from underpriviliged backgrounds. The school while providing opportunities for the families of the leprosy affected, fights the stigma and misconceptions associated with the disease. Asha supports some of the running expenses of the school.

Leprosy - Facts

Leprosy in India -

Mrs.Padma Venkatraman is an ardent social worker. She has been volunteering to help and sustain colonies for the lerosy affected from 1989. She had worked with colonies in Delhi. She is the contact person for this project and has been working with the St. John's Leprosy Patients Rehablitation Association for a while now.

Here is a BBC Article

Asha's Gnanodaya project page

Friday, October 5, 2007

Grand Canyon

Its been a while since I have written a report on a run. But, this one was special. Like my coach Joe says "There is something about these ultra distances. People think differently and even appreciate things they usually don't". Here is my appreciation for the world around me. I have made an attempt to give you not one but two stories. There is no comparison between the two and thus this write up in no way is intended to trivialize the amazing effort thats NOT about Grand Canyon.

What lies beneath
Starting in the dark
The Sun rises
Going back home
Memories and more

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Double-crossing the Big Hole -- Grand Canyon Rim2Rim2Rim

The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon. We discovered you can cross it twice, but you cannot double-cross The Canyon. It provides you of its largesse -- in beauty and splendor, in heat and winds, in majesty and intricacy, in hills and valleys, in deceptive turns and grand spectacles. It demands its toll in blood and salt, in water and energy, in flesh and sinew. You have to pay and weaken yourself to conquer it. In the bargain, you have to feel a mortal, a survivor, not a conqueror. It was a humbling experience. It was a Grand experience. The day we tried to double-cross the Grand Canyon.

We were six, the usual four - Ganesh, Gaurav, Santhosh, and self, Padma - from California, and Arun - from Austin. The long journey began with goodies from Ashwini bakery as we drove up from Phoenix airport to our hotel in Williams. Santhosh was already in Williams. We stopped briefly at Flagstaff and bought essential supplies like grapes, avocados, Ensure, and Boost. In our original plan, we were to get to Williams, sleep a bit, and start the drive to Grand Canyon around 2-ish so that we could start our run around 3:30am. We figured that would enable us to return around 10pm.

Somewhere in between Flagstaff and Williams, I gently suggested that we get dinner and drive immediately over to the canyon and start our race at 1am. This was to help us in two ways -- one, we would be running without having slept at all, plus running in the night, so a good training for what might come in Cactus Rose; and two, we could come back sooner than the expected 10pm return. The crazy folks that are part of this group, all immediately jumped at the suggestion and soon it was decided that, that is what we would do.

And so we started at 1:30am. The plan was simple. We run down the Bright Angel trail since we can park at the trailhead. We cross the river, and break at Phantom Ranch. Then up the North Kaibab trail to the North rim. Then the return journey on the exact same route to return to our car. This would cover about 47miles in distance and over 10000 ft in elevation gain. After some initial hiccups, we stuck to this plan and went down Bright Angel. It was a glorious night, the moon was shining so bright, that we practically did not need our lamps. As we danced down by the light of the moon, across the Silver bridge on the Colorado, and waltzed into Phantom Ranch it was nearing 5am.

We had a long break at Phantom Ranch. Padma could hardly keep stuff in her stomach at this stage. We created a drop-bag and stashed all our warm clothes and extra food for the return journey, keeping with us what we thought would be sufficient to go the 28miles up the North rim and back.

The next phase was from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood campground. The day was beginning to break as we left Phantom Ranch. Slowly, as the sun rose, the canyon walls turned golden starting from the top, even as the moon continued to shine relentlessly (see above).

The moon was shining on the canyon,
Shining with all her might:
She did her very best to make
The ridges smooth and straight--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of a morning bright.

The sun was shining sulkily,
Because he thought the moon
Had got no business to be there
After the night was done--
"It's very rude of her," he said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

[Adapted that one from Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter. ]

We covered the 7 miles and reached Cottonwood around 7:45am and were promptly subject to an interrogation by the park ranger there. Turned out he was something of a runner in the past, and had a lot of knowledge (not sure about the experience) about running clothes, shoes, camelbaks, gels etc. We regrouped at Cottonwood and left for the North rim at 8:15am. This stretch was relentless uphill and quite technical in large parts. There were a couple of water spots at Roaring Springs and Supai Tunnel. The last two miles were particularly grueling as we made our way to the top by 11:10am.

The North rim was very chilly and we were also over shooting our estimated time. So we figured we need to get more calories, and we hitched a ride to the restaurant. Got some hot pizza slices, a few sandwiches for later, and some hot chocolate over there, an hitched another ride back to the trailhead. Padma and Ganesh had made it to the top by the time we got there. Arun had (prudently) decided to turn around 2 miles after Cottonwood. Gave them pizza and we immediately started heading down.

The return to Cottonwood was steep downhill and we were mostly conserving our quads and not hammering down. In between, Santhosh gave in to temptation and took off, while Gaurav and myself stuck to what we were doing -- except for the last 2 miles, which we decided to run hard. and got to Cottonwood in 2 hours after leaving the North rim. We met Arun at Cottonwood who had spent many hours there socializing with all who were passing through the campground.

Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch was a nice runnable stretch. We left Cottonwood at 3:45pm and covered the 7miles to Phantom Ranch in a little under an hour and a half, just under 13 minute miles. At Phantom Ranch we met this girl who wanted company to hike back to Cottonwood. Having delicately refused ('no luck for her' as she chose to put it), we had our sandwiches, called spouses and parents to inform the delayed return, and started our journey back.

The last stretch lasted for ever. I was sweeping and coming behind the last runner, although I am now not sure why. At that point of time, it seemed like an important thing to do. Strange how the mind works when you havent slept and are tired. Slowly we marched up the South rim and time seemed to have come to a standstill. With about a mile to go, I decided to power it up and drive the car over to the trailhead from the parking lot (it was a little away). That was a good decision since it woke me up and got me warm and going.

Then came the hardest part of the entire journey. The hour and half long drive back to Williams with 5 folks sleeping in the car. Many times I thought I will have to pull out and sleep a bit on the side of the road. Then found some Boost and that woke me up enough to feel confident about driving back safely. I thought of it then and I agree even now, I would easily trade those 1.5 hours of driving to having to climb North rim for 3+ hours even at that stage.

Here endeth the double-crossing. It had taken nearly a full day (23 hours, 23 minutes). It was the longest any of us had gone (except Padma). What with the breaks in between and such, there are no sore muscles. Only recovery needed was from the lack of sleep. Crossing the canyon is quite an adventure, and crossing it twice is a fantastic experience.