I'm not a natural blogger and I'm no techie. I'm an ultra trail runner by passion, and a journalist by profession - in that order of priority.
In this blog I use the one to talk about the other - my trail thoughts, musings and meanderings about running mountains and trails.
I call it rockhoppin', just because... well... that's what we trail runners love to do!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Run The Rann 2015 (161km)

Some of the intrepid 161'ers the day before the race

“Trail running is a dangerous sport, and ultra trail running is the extreme version of it, because the nature of the playground is wild and sometimes, like here in the Rann, quite inhospitable.”

These are the words of Gaël Couturier, race director of Run The Rann, a set of a four events staged simultaneously last weekend on the “island” of Khadir Bet, in Gujurat province in western India, some 30km from the border with Pakistan. Known as the Thar Desert, the area forms a part of the Great Rann of Kutch, a 7,500km2 salt marsh, said to be the largest salt desert in the world. The region is desolate, sparsely populated and, in the northern section of the island, completely uninhabited.

I was privileged to be one of 12 people invited to participate in the 100 miler, hosted by the Gujurat Commission of Tourism to promote the race to the global trail running fraternity. (Unfortunately two of them didn’t make it – their visas couldn’t be processed in time.)  
(L to R) Josh, me, Mimi, Tarmo, Justin, Damian, Tom  (pic by Justin Bowyer)

My fellow runners were certainly a “well-heeled” bunch from a sporting perspective – collectively, their sporting achievements were enough to shake the dust out of any elite competitor’s socks.
  •  Dan Lawson, ultra distance athlete with a host of incredible achievements to his name, including the World Record for the furthest distance run on a treadmill (521 miles in 7 days). He has a host of race wins, including the 24 hour track race in Gloucestor in 2014, where he achieved 242km. (Read about Dan HERE)
  • Damian Stoy, coach, biomechanics specialist, nutritional consultant and professional ultra runner from Montana, USA (http://wholisticrunning.com)
  •  Mimi Anderson, queen of ultra-distance running, Mimi has two world records (previously three) to her name, and has won countless ultras around the world, many of them outright, including the 6633 Extreme Ultra Marathon, a 352 mile non-stop self-sufficient race in the Arctic, setting a course record that is yet to be beaten: 143hrs 23min. She remains the only woman to have completed the race. (Read my blog on Mimi HERE)
  •  Tom Caughlan, ultra runner from Colorado, USA, Tom is one of the gear reviewers on irunfar.com, specialising in minimalist models
  •  Justin Bowyer, ultra runner and contributor to Runner’s World UK. Author of Running: Motivation, Nutrition & Hydration. Editor of www.runningmonkey.co.uk
  •  Tarmo Vannas, a fruitarian/vegan ultra runner from Estonia, now living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  •  Walter Batel, a French endurance athlete with 12 Ironman and an MDS to his name
  •   Francois-Xavier Gaudas, an ultra-runner from France

About 100 runners toed the start line for the four races of Run The Rann – 21km, 42km, 101km and the 161km. Most were from India, and many were from other countries around the world. Being the inaugural event, there were just 14 of us doing the 161km.

Having visited India on two previous occasions, I knew not to expect predictability. By its very nature, India is alive, vibrant, buzzing, quirky, chaotic. The words efficiency and India cannot share the same sentence. No matter where you are in the country or whatever you’re doing, India presents a smorgasbord of sights, tastes, fragrances and experiences; nothing in India is, or ever can be, predictable. In many ways that’s one of the charms of this fascinating country, but it’s important that people know to expect that, and to prepare for it. So, tackling an ultra in this part of the world should be no different – prepare for the unexpected!
The ridgeline above the salt flats  (pic by Tarmo Vannas fb.me/ultratarmo)

I went into this race with a healthy dose of that approach. I’d done what research I could on what weather and temperatures to expect, I had a rough idea how the route profile would pan out (described by the race director as a lot of up and down in certain sections, with about 60km or so of salt flats in the middle section).

As always, I planned my nutrition and hydration accordingly. Knowing from the race briefing that there’d be CPs roughly every 10km, I carried two 500ml soft flasks, which I would top up or refill with water at every CP, and add my PeptoSport every third or fourth CP. Not wanting to rely on food provided by the CPs (oranges, glucose powder, cereal bars and, every so often, portions of curry J), I carried my usual variety of RUSH Bars, nuts, apricots and my favourite recent discovery: pretzel squares injected with peanut butter. The bomb!

Never thinking I would need it, I poured about 200ml of water into the bladder of my Salomon 12L Skin pack as reserve.

So I was as prepared as I could be, garnished with a generous dose of open-mindedness for whatever might be thrown at me over the next +/-24 hours. That’s roughly how long I’d guessed this race would take me…  Little did I realise what was to come!

With the 7:30am start of the race began a 100 mile event that is best described as less of a running race and more an orienteering adventure – and a great one, at that. An exquisite route of harsh, desert terrain flecked with loose shale and high sandstone ridges and cliffs, overlooking hundreds of kilometres of shimmering “white desert” – coarsely crusted salt as far as the eye could see.
Thorns everywhere, just waiting to snag us  (pic by Tarmo Vannas)

And the sharper side of the scene: thorns, thorns and more thorns. Long straight ones, short hooked ones, thorns on trees, bushes and branches that were just waiting to snag skin and fabric at every turn. And if all those thorns weren’t enough of a spikey deal to contend with, thorny twigs lying in the sand stabbed the soles of our shoes and spiked our feet more times than I could count.

A missing CP5 threw the runners a curveball of 20km with no water in the heat of the day, testing stamina, endurance and mental strength. CP6 at 50km was a welcome sight for everyone, some runners needing a couple of hours in the tent to rehydrate and recover before pushing on.

Til that point I had run mostly on my own, with only Dan and Damian ahead. I’d been trailed by a determined local runner who was carrying nothing but a GPS – no pack, no food, no water. As the kilometres without water had ticked past, he’d dropped off the pace, and by the time he reached CP6, he was exhausted.

Damian and I - in perfect sync
Damian and I teamed up from CP6, and together we ran, walked, bushwhacked and winced our way over the next 120km to the finish line. (The total distance of the race was actually 172km.) Damian had run the first 52km with frontrunner Dan Lawson, who had paused briefly at CP6 to quickly refuel, before racing on.

                                                    (pic by Tarmo Vannas  fb.me/ultratarmo)
Running across the salt flats was the most incredible experience. The salt was a thin crusted layer and very crunchy underfoot – sometimes smooth, often rippled, and surprisingly easy to run on. In the moonlight it took on a misty white hue that made the experience seem surreal. It looked like an enormous sheet of ice, but was neither slippery nor cold – I had to keep reminding myself it was salt!

Twenty-four hours ticked by when we still had a good 30km to go. We pressed on, cursing our way through thickets of thorns, and eventually onto open tracks. Not having expected to be taking quite this long, my food stocks were running low and with 20km to go, I was down to one last portion of PeptoSport and a ziplock bag of nuts – which I somehow managed to spill as I pulled the bag from my pack, showering the sandy track with precious nuts… 

Dan is known as "Awesome Lawson" - not without reason!
Needless to say, with minimal fuel in the tank and nothing but water to be had at the final three CPs, those last 20km were extremely slow. Damian and I crossed the finish line in joint 2nd place (32:30), more than 8 hours after the winner, Dan Lawson (24:06). Dan ran a brilliant race, a true reflection of the incredible endurance athlete he is.

Not without its organisational hiccups, Run The Rann 161km was a fantastic experience and one I’ll always treasure. Staging a race in a remote area of a country that in itself is not geared up for endurance events, will always be a challenge. But this race has the potential to be big on the adventure running calendar – it’s perfect for trail runners who’re keen to travel and experience a whole lot more than just an ultra-distance run. It’s rough, raw and packed with adventure. Personally, this is my kind of race!

View the results of Run The Rann 2015 HERE

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

To Run The Rann of Kutch


2015: a new year, fresh legs, action-packed challenges!

First up, an ultra with a difference: instead of dramatic scenery with mountains, forests, streams, canyons or deserts as with my five ultras last year (Whale of Trail 52km, Outeniqua Quest 108km, Fish River Canyon Ultra 80km, Tuffer Puffer 160km, and the 70km day of KAEM), my first ultra of 2015 will cover remarkably different scenery…

On 7th February I’ll be taking part in Run The Rann, a 161km (100 miler) race in the Great Rann of Kutch, described as a sprawling 7,500km2 salt marsh located in the Thar Desert of north-western India on the Pakistani border. The area is said to be the largest salt desert in the world.


The route profile of Run The Rann will present an unusual challenge for me – instead of mountain ascents and loads of vertical gain, my mind and legs will need to focus on running a comparatively flat course… the highest point in the race is 243m above sea level, and for 90km or so in the middle section of the race, along the edge of the salt desert, the route has barely a bump or hiccup.

Running flat over long distances is not easy – there’s no relief for the legs, and it hurts. A lot.

Heat, isolation, stark landscape, and relentless white salt desert as far as the eye can see. Add to this the challenge of an unmarked course (GPS navigation compulsory), and you get the general idea. This one’s going to be tough!

This will be the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to race in India – in 2008 I ran the Himalayan 100 Miler, a 5-day stage race near the Himalayas. That race was about mountain views and thin air; this time I’ll get to see a very different corner of India – a region so remote that the island of Khadir Bet, over which the route is staged for the first and final thirds of the race, is virtually unexplored, apart from Border Security patrols and the race organisers.


Adventure is calling – bring it on!