The Flavours of India

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Prologue : My BMC at ABVIMAS July 2015 – 1


(Originally intended to be published in September 2015!)

Its now been a month and a half since I completed the course that has been a distant dream to me ever since I can remember. To give you a better perspective, my love for the mountains goes back more than two decades, probably back when I was turning into a rebellious “eigh”-teenager (yep I was 18) looking for something to take me away from monotony into the Shangri-la that I had read about.

The wistful thinking and longing to explore wondrous lands finally found release in my first year of Architecture when I managed to save up some money and moved out solo on a shoestring budget to the mysterious lands of the North East during the college vacations. The actual experience was the clincher for me…the very sight of the grand snow capped Himalayas was quite simply love at first sight. I knew then, that I had found my calling, that nothing would keep me away from them for long.

Time went by and although I felt satiated by regular trips and treks to the majestic massifs, there was always this inexplicable gnawing inside…the burning desire to climb the stairway to heaven…to view the world from above. I could only imagine the splendor that would unfold below me…to be one with the sky, the closest one could feel to flight. And so, the seed was sown … a seed that grew gradually until it had turned into a deep rooted desire.

The thought simmered all through the years while I worked to try and get myself settled and secure the future, not only for me and my wife, but also for our daughter. As professionally and financially we got more stable, our daughter proved to be (still is and forever will be) a real charmer and I loved watching her grow and being with her all the way through. By the time she turned 4, my desire to be with the mountains suffered another setback. I was diagnosed late with an auto immune disorder – Uveitis, and by the time anything could be done, my eyes had progressed into full blown cataract with the steroid use bringing on glaucoma. I have been used to setbacks so despite this being a tough period, my loved ones supported me and amazingly I pulled through with the surgery regaining about 70% of my eyesight. What that reminded me was that I should not let my dream go and should instead start re-focusing and get back in shape … who knows what tomorrow may bring!

A few years further on and finally I was ready to begin in earnest. My immediate target was to improve my stamina and lose some weight. Squash at the club turned out to be a blessing…and I was soon enjoying the hours of practice and the long matches on court. Fitness improved and I also lost 7 kilos in 2 months. However after a year and a half of playing squash, i noticed my chronic knee ligament (from an injury when I was 16) start to flare up. I realised that my competitiveness would not allow me to play squash just to paddle about a bit…I would always strive to get better, and this would lead to possible deterioration of the knee beyond salvage. It was then that I thought that perhaps distance running would serve me better – improve my stamina, endurance and my lung capacity. As it turns out, it was the right choice and I fairly quickly settled into being able to do half marathons reasonably comfortably. This was also followed by a couple of moderately tough treks and a minor summit in Uttarakhand that helped build confidence.

A few months later, I was able to run my first marathon, which was quite an achievement for me. Just a couple of days after the run, as I sat wondering about my next challenge – wanting to do an ultra, a realisation struck me…in the madness of trying to become a better runner, I was losing the bigger picture! I went on to the HMI NIM and ABVIMAS websites and found out that 39-40 is the maximum age to do the Basic Mountaineering Course. This year (2015) I would complete 40, and this really was it. There was no more time left to prepare…I had to register now or it would be never. I called up NIM and HMI but was informed that courses were full for months and it wasn’t very likely I would get enrolled this year. That left ABVIMAS where I was relieved to find that I could enroll and was pretty much assured a seat. Around end of Feb 2015, I sent out my form and I was confirmed by around end of March via email. FINALLY, I had taken the step that I had always wanted to and now there was no turning back. I chalked out a plan to get myself in shape with important milestones set up. This would not be easy as I had to work on my upper body, overall stamina AND endurance…but the very challenge and the thought of finally being able to do “IT” was enough to push me on an adrenaline fueled  punishing schedule.

The final few months flew by and before I knew it, July was looming. My flight tickets had been booked in advance and on June 28th I finally flew off into the unknown…excited and intimidated in equal parts. Only time would tell if my training had been good enough to overcome my physical disabilities.

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My Review of Happifest the first edition


Yesterday was Nov 14th (2015) celebrated as Children’s Day and Hindustan Times (alongwith sponsors) came up with the interesting idea of having a festival for children which would wean them off television and mobile phones and allow them to participate in various workshops and activities.

The event, titled #Happifest (located at the MMRDA grounds in BKC) is scheduled to run over 2 days – Saturday and Sunday (Nov 14 and 15) and has different activities planned for both the days. I went for the first day with my 11 year old daughter to see if the event was as good as I was hoping it would be.

Let me summarise the positives and negatives first, after which you can read the details below

 

Positives 

  • A very interesting set of workshops that most children will find fun and informative. (dance, music, photography, composting, gardening, frozen science, art)

  • A lot of activity on stage, keeping things constantly energised

  • Interesting adventure sports for kids to explore – ziplining, rock climbing, Burma bridge.

  • A radio station for kids where they can try their hand at being RJs.

  • GoCheese had sponsored a group of kids form an NGO to enjoy a different set of activities, which was a real nice gesture.

Negatives

  • Nothing other than the radio station is air conditioned, so the 12 noon start/activity time is insane. It shoudl have begun by 3/4pm and gone on till 10 pm.

  • Barely any shade in the seating tables at the food stalls.

  • Overpriced food and extremely over priced water.

  • For those not used to mobile toilets, it could be a tad difficult to adjust.

  • There is no “free”/drinking water publicly available and you are encouraged to buy the expensive water bottles. However I did find a water filter which was tucked away and not easy to find. Definitely not a fair business practice.

#Happifest has an entry ticket of Rs.250 per head which can be booked online or at the venue itself. My booking on BookMyShow.com did not go through, so I had to purchase tickets at the venue which was pretty quick… not much crowd at 12:30 in the afternoon (not surprisingly since 12 noon in this heat is not really a good time to venture out!)

Here comes the biggest negative from my side…for an event scheduled to start at 12 noon in the blazing 37-38 degree celsius heat, I had expected it to be within air conditioned tents but surprisingly it was all open air with no air conditioning to speak of, with everyone scrambling to get into whatever pitiful shade the tents and partitions provided. While adults could handle this, I’m not quite sure its a good idea to have kids baking in this unseasonal heat wave.

After initial reservations about whether to carry on or turn back, we decided to go for it since we had come all the way anyway! The cap I always carry made it bearable while my daughter had her wrap around scarf thingy (sorry I’m not very good with the fancy names women’s clothes go by) As we moved it, we were lucky enough to find that the only place that was air conditioned – the WeKids Radio station, was beginning registrations! Since me and my daughter have always had a love for music/public speaking, it was a no-brainer that we would head off to try our hand at being an RJ.

This for me is the coolest stall on the grounds… registration is Rs.500 (for the child only not the adult) and in return you will get a professionally mastered recording of the RJ show that you did. The child can choose from three scripts – Me and My Cool Life, Interview with Father and Interview with Mother. The radio station is run by Shantanu Joshi – the hindi voice of Mickey/Spongebob et al and he does a great job at explaining the microphone and voice modulation. I would highly recommend this … me and my little one absolutely enjoyed it.

WeKids Radio

with Shantanu Joshi of WeKids Radio

By the time we were done, it was 2:30 pm (after about an hour in the A/C studio) and we went off to grab something to eat. There are a number of food stalls selling interesting food stuffs, Pita Burgers, Delhi Chaat, Macaroons, Belgian waffle, Noodles, momos, Pizza, Greek Yogurt and water bottles as well as cold drinks (only Rio cans) Now this is the second negative about the festival. The food is not exactly cheap with everything in multiples of 50, with probably the Cheese Pizza being the most value for money priced @ Rs. 200 + 50 for 2 toppings. The worst is the compulsion to buy water bottles that are overpriced at Rs. 50 each!

Also beware – food coupons are different from water coupons, so if you have bought food coupons factoring in the water bottles, you will have to shell extra. You also cannot return unused coupons for cash and will have to spend them all, so only buy the amount you need.

The entire left bay of the area is divided into four large tents that are colour coded with seating areas between each tent for parents to sit and wait. Various workshops are conducted inside each of these tents with the tickets available at tables/counters just outside each tent. The workshops vary in price from Rs.150 to Rs.250 and most are value for money. Each workshop area does have adequate large fans to at least make the heat bearable but making sure the child and parent come dressed for summer will also help a lot!

fantasy Creatures Workshop

Fantasy Creatures Workshop

The central bay is the area for food stalls, while the right bay is reserved for various stalls that display wares from trinkets to children’s quizzes to education to toys. My daughter found a stall where she got a #MonsterHigh doll (@ 25% discount) – Ghulia Yelps, which was pretty rare and insisted I mention it in my entry for like-minded kids searching for such “deals”!

Crowning the ground is the main stage which had various dance performances throughout the day, from Kidzania dancers to professional dancers, kids and many more. To the left of the stage is a covered area which houses the portable toilets for men and women and to the right is an adventure sport area which has some very interesting installations, such as the rock climbing wall, the zip line and tight rope walking/Burma bridge. There is also a lane beside it where kids can try their hand at Segway rides.

Food Stalls and the Main Stage

Food Stalls and the Main Stage

Back to our session, my daughter did 3 workshops – fantasy creatures (which she loved) , Shutterbug (which she did not much enjoy… it was mainly explaining about the camera modes and nothing about creative photography… perhaps that’s all it was supposed to do!) and the final one was a Junior Sherlock workshop where the presenter explained about fingerprints and investigative techniques and then had the kids investigate a mock crime scene.

Crime Scene INvestigation

Crime Scene INvestigation

The workshops are all of an hour long duration and begin from 3pm till the last one which begins at 7 pm. The weather starts getting cooler by around 4 pm and that is the time I would recommend getting to the festival. There are a lot of interesting workshops, some that took my fancy are the one about Composting, Gardening, Frozen science (freezing things using liquid nitrogen and other crazy stuff) and another about learning to understand music beats and move according to it. There is also a Yoga with Moms workshop , which I obviously was not qualified or interested in!

 

That pretty much covers all of it, I will not be going on Sunday since I have prior commitments, but I would definitely have gone for a couple of hours in the evening to attend some music workshops for later.

All in all, I would recommend this, but just about. Its definitely a nice idea but the execution could  have been better and the pricing SHOULD have been lower for all things in general.

Wannabe Marathoner : Finally! SCMM 2015


Powai HM

Running down the slope at the Powai Run Jan 2015

 

I was thinking of making the title something dramatic…something like Wannabe Marathoner : No More…but it could easily be construed as me being a runner no more which was unacceptable! Whilst continuing to type on, I realised that I will always be a wannabe, always a learner…someone who will always find ways and means to improve, much like my philosophy in life. So perhaps the title is probably stuck forever! (unless of course by some miraculous twist of fate I turn into an elite runner…or of course pigs learn to fly, which seems more likely anyway!) Enough faffing about, let’s begin my account of my first ever Full marathon.

August 2014

Having done a few Half Marathons and not really having particularly distinguished myself in any of them (always a mid to back-midfield runner) I was toying over the category to register in for the SCMM 2015 (Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon) For those unaware, this marathon is the pride of Mumbai, mayhap of all of India in the sheer numbers and talent it attracts as also the fanfare and crowd support and of course the flavour that is uniquely Mumbai. The route is also amazingly scenic, going through many important landmarks of Mumbai.

Back in January 2014, Tapan and I had experienced the atmosphere of the SCMM for the first time. We had been walking towards the start point (Azad Maidan) from Churchgate station and had encountered people cheering, bands and dancers going at full blast and a number of people shuffling on by on the road. It felt amazing to see so many people gathered there to cheer runners who thoroughly deserved the cheers. We had then decided to come back next year and run in the Half marathon and be part of the actual run rather than the Dream Run carnival.

Cut back to August and as I hovered over choosing half or full marathon, I debated and discussed with Tapan. his mindset was that we should try and better our speed rather than the distance, while for me both went hand in hand. I have always had the tendency to throw down the gauntlet and then train to be able to accomplish it. If I do not set myself tough goals, I do not realise the best in me. after spending a day thinking over it, I registered for the Full marathon, deciding that my goal was set and I would now work towards achieving it. Tapan went on and registered for the Half Marathon…either way, we were both set to be part of the “real” run.

October end 2014

During one of the speed interval training runs for trying to set my fastest HM time in the prestigious ADHM (Airtel Delhi Half Marathon), I felt discomfort in my right heel. It pulsed, at times fading while at others returning with some ferocity. I checked online (yep usual self-diagnosing medical syndrome) and was very scared that I may just have brought Plantar Fasciitis onto myself. I was not ready though to diagnose myself so easily with plantar since a few tests to check my plantar muscle strength turned out to be quite positive. ie – I always knew my toes were quite strong and just could not believe how I could get plantar. I have awkwardly shaped feet because of which since childhood perhaps I have been using the toes much like an ape does…being able to grab hold of an lift objects off the floor comfortably and thus flexing and exercising them since many years unconsciously. Without having really found an answer to the pain, I decided to rather ease my training and slow down.

November 2014 – An Important lesson

This was the month for the ADHM where I was determined to set a new PB. After a week of easy very very slow running, I decided to again ramp it up a bit. After another speed session, the pain was back with increased intensity. This time I spent longer researching the pain and found that my dependence on my right leg to preserve my weak left knee could likely be causing my right foot to land awkwardly. Additionally my shoes had been minimal which meant that there was no support or cushioning. So my finger of suspicion pointed squarely to this enlightening article I dug out – Subtalar joint pain can mimic Plantar Fasciitis!

This was quite a revelation and I started working on trying to increase the flexibility of my joint and began analysing the way my right foot landed. I consciously did exercises to make sure my right foot landed straight. It seemed my foot was leaning toward the right, so I consciously made sure it would point inwards. I practiced it while walking, sitting, exercising and started doing slow runs. There was no major relief but there was definitely some relief after doing the mobility exercises and sleeping with balm on the ankle and ankle support.

The big day was soon upon me and although the heel was still painful, I had no choice but to go out and put my money where my mouth was. ADHM came and went and I surpassed my expectation … finished in 1 hr 59 mins which was much better than my expected 2 hr 5 mins.

ADHM 2014

The Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2014 medal. Big and heavy… worth the effort 🙂

 

As always while the medal was great, as was the timing, the consequence was increased heel pain that would haunt me for the coming month!

December 2014

This was to be my main month of endurance training but my fear of injuring the heel (which was very slowly getting better) meant I had to really drop my training down and only run sporadically, that too very slowly and small distances. Added to this was the fact that my daughter’s holidays were around the corner which meant a nice XMas holiday trip for the family. The month was almost a total washout in terms of training but I did mange to do something good – I bought myself a pair of support and cushioned shoes with enough time to break them in. (FYI I bought Kalenji shoes with the 42 Km distance tag)

January 2015

And so the holiday came and went with only an 8.5 kms run on Jan 1st. With only 2 weeks to go, the penultimate week was very important. I had never ever run more than 32 kms in practice or otherwise, and although I did think that I was strong enough (thanks to my stair and slope work over the past few months) I just was not confident I could cut it. So, as always I tried to make the best of this week and in hindsight, probably overdid it a bit!

That week began on a Sunday with the Powai half Marathon, which I did alright – 2 hrs 10 mins on a course with a few slopes. Not a great time but pretty good considering it was my first 8 k + run after a month!

Powai Run 2015

Powai Run 2015 Medal…better than last year’s by far!

 

I then ran 23.84 kms on Tuesday along the undulating course at the Borivli National Park. this was an exercise in being super slow with a mix of running and walking – the aim being to build up the slow twitch muscles and also mentally prepare myself for willing me on to run on tired legs after taking intermittent walk breaks.

The same objective continued after a day’s gap with a 25 kms run on the same course on Thursday.

The final long run was on Sunday…it was to be an almost race day simulation with the first half run at tempo pace till HM distance after which I would slow down and take run/walk breaks till I reached 30 kms. Thanks to a bit of distance miscalculation I actually ended up doing 30.69 kms which did exhaust me especially as I ended by 11:30 am under an unforgiving sun.

The last week before the build up saw me doing 4-5 kms slow walks and then a 15 km slow run on Wednesday and finally an 8 k slow walk/run on the previous day just to make sure the legs were good enough for the next day.

Needless to say I ensured I did a lot of core exercises and massaged myself as and when I could to make the legs sprightly.

THE BIG DAY

—————————————————

Finally the big day…it actually started off on a comedic note with the driver not having arrived and me having to wake him up and get him to rush! So while I was originally supposed to reach comfortably on time, I started off 40 mins late from home! Luckily the roads were all empty and we made decent time to reach about 15 mins before the start. Turns out the queues were so long that the start itself was pushed back by 10 mins! By the time I snaked past the sea of runners, the clock showed 5:48 am as opposed to the scheduled 5:30 am start and without any real thought I was on my way.

My plan was to run the first half at a decent pace without being too fast so that I would have enough time in the last half to take a lot of walk breaks. The intention was to finish between 4 hours 30 mins and 5 hours with the operative word being FINISH!!! Within the 2nd-3rd kilometre itself I realised this would not be one of those days where the weather Gods would be smiling on me. I was already sweating and I had not even begun to motor. I immediately re-assessed my targets and decided to settle for a 4 hr 45 mins finish as an optimal time. This meant that I needed to do 10 K in 1 hr 2 mins, with the HM in 2 hr 8-10 mins to give me enough leeway.

Unfortunately, being cautious meant that I ended up losing a few minutes which meant I finished my 10 K in 1 hr 4 mins. Carrying on the trend of caution, my HM also slipped a bit and I crossed the halfway point in 2 hrs 13 mins. I then tried to put in some more speed till 25 kms and I was successfully maintaining the same pace but around the 26-27 km mark, my left knee started throbbing as did my lower back. The lack of practice and core exercises was coming back to haunt me, so I had no choice but to slow down even further.

At around the 27.5-28k mark, I actually considered throwing in the towel as the 4:45 min buses just zipped past me. That was quite disheartening, cos at that time I was well on target and this seemed like a bitter blow. Probably the bus “drivers” were keen to finish 3-4 minutes faster than their advertised time or perhaps their gun time was a few mins earlier than mine…whatever the case it was quite frustrating.

So, do I quit?

No one would really bother and I could make up a thousand excuses anyway, no one would be the wiser. Perhaps this was what it meant “hitting the wall” … maybe I had gone in harder than I should have or maybe the climate was hotter than what I expected… or maybe it was all three. I then thought that if I was anyway harbouring thoughts of quitting, it meant my finish time was not important, so I might as well enjoy a nice 300-400 metre long walk, sip water, munch on jaggery (I was feeling hungry too!) and maybe just walk till the end. 14-15 kms seemed a bridge too far.

The jaggery however maybe worked wonders (I cannot explain my renewed sense of purpose any other way!), and I realised with a jolt that I was almost at the 30 K mark while I had just been running/walking and pondering over my next move. I looked at my watch and then began calculating and realised that I was still in with a remote chance of a 4:50. Alll I needed to do was run for 400 odd metres, walk 100 and then repeat the cycle. I should still be able to do a km in around 7-7.5 mins. So I set off again, with my brain telling me to just get to the 33 km mark cos after that it was all in single figures. Those 2.5 kms were pretty difficult…I kept looking out hopefully for the distance markers that seemed to be stretching out with every passing kilometre but just like everything else in this world, the wait did end. The 33 km mark was the prettiest one to my addled brain. I drenched myself, popped in some oranges, steadied myself and renewed my assault. From here on I was determined to set targets along the road ahead and run till there, walk while counting till 15, then resume running to the next target.

On came the infamous Pedder Road slope but curiously I think my frame of mind at that time was such that I was like an automaton – only focusing on 200-300 metres running, 50 metres walking… repeat. Slope or otherwise it pretty much felt the same! By the time I had begun the turn onto Marine Drive after Babulnath, it was 37.5 kms almost. Of course the 4.7 kms remaining seemed like 47 kms, but I was only focused on continuing my mechanical walk run, repeat process with a look at the watch at every km marker. By around 39 kms, I realised that 4:50 was no longer possible BUT I could just about scrape through under 5 hrs. So that became my new target and that was one I would just not let go come what may.

In order to not put myself under pressure in the last km, I decided to push harder and faster during my run stretches to save a few seconds with every effort push. I was constanttly calculating furiously which probably helped my brain stay focused and away from letting tiredness take over. Add to it the fact that my Garmin had conked out around the 36 K mark so that meant I had to do continuous math to predict my final time and thus dictate my next km target. I wanted to keep 10 mins for my final km, so I worked really hard in km 41 and was very happy when I saw I was at 41 with 10 mins to spare (That’s the ONE target I did keep!) I then decided to run the usual 200 metres- 50 metres… until I saw the 500 mtrs remaining marker. I tested my legs, weary but ready to put on one final push. All systems go for a 300 metre dash is what I thought as I could see the VT (CST) station in the distance. It looked like the big Gothic monolith was looming forbiddingly against the blazing sky… quite opposed to the beautifully lit up masterpiece in the morning when we began the run! Ah how perceptions change over a few hours!

I intentionally kept my eyes focused on it and kept running until the bend straightened out and with the markers showing 300 metres on the left, I could SEE the finish line and everyone knows that actually seeing the finish line is the greatest boost one could ever have! All thoughts of stopping to walk vanished as I decided to go all the way without a break. I could see the clock above and I could see that I was inexorably close to the 5 hr mark. As I reached the final metre I knew I was well inside the 5 hour target and I even found the inclination to raise up a victory sign before I crossed the line.

I had done it in 4 hrs 57 mins…not my best but my lack of elation and also the fact that I could walk easily to the medal counter meant that I had definitely not given it my all. Yes, I was tired but I instinctively knew that I had not paced myself to my limit for fear of cramping or falling sick. Prudence had taken me to the finish line, but it was not the optimal result. With mixed emotions I walked around for the next 2 mins, collected my medal, saw the winners being felicitated and then moved off for home.

It had been a tough run but my lack of practice and then subsequent over training and lastly my inexperience meant that I have lots of room to improve. That’s probably a good thing now in hindsight but I reckon all of Sunday I was just relieved to have got the monkey off my back!

SCMM 2015 FM Medal

SCMM 2015 FM Finisher Medal – Was it worth it? You bet it was!

 

 

This has been a very long post already, so I shall continue in my next post about what I did learn while on the way to my first FM. There were many curious points and counter points about timed running vs running without gadgets… discussions about hyped races, discussions about various events and their lack of facilities… within one year I have seen the running scene in India from a lot of viewpoints and I will post my own thoughts on the matter in the coming few posts. I will also post about my analysis about what went wrong during my run and what I should watch out for. There were many others this time who also got it wrong, either because the climate got too hot too quickly or perhaps they did not train enough or probably went too fast or too slow. (this even includes a handful of ELITE athletes who did a rare DNF!! that’s probably unheard of…at least for me!)

That’s it for this loooooooooooong post …Many many thanks for reading…to whoever bothered to reach the end!

Mussoorie Half Marathon 2014 – Probably The Toughest Half Marathon in India!


 

(Disclaimer: Except the sunset pics, none of the pics have been clicked by me and are not my property. I have used a number of pics clicked by the Mussoorie HM guys and its full credit to their photographers. The intention is to portray the beauty of the race and not my skills at photography, so I do not lay claim to any of them… and they are all fantastic clicks)

 

The beautiful Mussoorie HM

The beautiful Mussoorie HM

The fantastic vista all around

The fantastic vista all around

 

I was fortunate to have run the Mussoorie Half Marathon on Saturday the 1st of Nov 2014 as it was pretty much as near a perfect run as I can hope for! This was the third edition of the run and the first running this year of a new course that led along the ridge from Mussoorie to Dhanaulti. This was expected to be an extremely tough course and I’m glad to say, it was true to its word!

Before I get any further with the race details, I would like to thank whoever it was that mentioned this lesser known Half Marathon on a discussion involving which was the toughest hill half marathon in India. The general consensus is the Satara Half Marathon but that is probably because it is so well known and because it has a prize money which draws elite runners. I have been on a quest to do all the toughest hill runs in India and thus, it was without hesitation that I registered for this awesome run. (one of the best decisions I have made in a while!)

 

The Registration fee was a paltry Rs. 500 and that included a t-shirt, post run snacks (bananas and biscuits) and a manual timing certificate. This year the medals were only for the top 3 finishers in all categories 5k, 10k and 21k men and women. (Apparently last year the registration fee was higher and a medal was included… but I cannot be sure about that since this was my first run here)

Event details (bib pickup times, mela schedule etc) can be found on the event website – http://mussoorierunners.com/event-details-and-history/

 

Now onto the experience … 🙂


 

Oct 31st Friday

I reached Jolly Grant airport in the afternoon and caught a pre-paid taxi till Mussoorie (cost Rs. 1600) The taxi raced manically with its horn blaring through the dusty Dehradun streets, populated by insanely adventurous drivers who love honking and overtaking at the slightest possible opportunity. I have seen this insane driving around Rishikesh all the way till Joshimath, so I think I can safely conclude that this is a common Uttarakhand problem! No one seems to have patience in this state! After a torrid 45 minutes of sensory annihilation, we finally escaped Dehradun and started out on the outskirts and up the slopes to Mussoorie. For a seasoned Himalayan traveller like me, the green hills do not provide anything exceptional…on the contrary they suffer from the same problem that every hill town in India does – haphazard development leading to ugly concrete structures perched sporadically along their sides.

After a total of about 2 hrs and 10 mins, up winding slopes and switchbacks, we finally reached Mall road and I was dropped off near the point where the road forks off leading to Woodstock school. I called up my friend and fellow runner from Mumbai – Amar, and found that he was still about an hour away, so decided to tuck into a quick lunch while I waited.

It was about 3:30 pm when Amar and I met at Mall Road and began the walk to Woodstock school gate for the race packet pick-up. The school is 3 kms from this point and the altitude keeps rising as we go further eastwards. After about 40 minutes of hauling our bags and ourselves over the slopes, breathing in the rarefied air and dodging the insane drivers, we finally reached the school gate. Steve Luukkonen, the P.E. teacher at Woodstock School, is the driving force  behind this run. He is a runner par excellence and an awesome, ever-smiling host! He was distributing the race packet personally and answering the queries we had.

 

The bib pickup - Woodstock school gate

The bib pickup – Woodstock school gate

 

Steve incidentally has been the winner on both the previous occasions on the earlier route. This year was a new route and would be the first time the Half marathon would officially be run. Steve explained that the run would begin from the gates of the HANIFL centre, one km further up the road, so we went walking ahead to recce and make sure we knew what awaited us the next day. Running up the initial slope from the start point literally took our breath away and we knew tomorrow would be a real test. As we walked back and passed the school gates, we saw a couple of guys taking selfies with the Libyan flag draped around their shoulders. They waved a hello to us and we got talking. Both were friends, pursuing B Tech in a university in Dehradun and had been practicing for the event by running up slopes near their college. One of them was a Libyan – Walid, while the other was a Keralite – Vinod. We wished them luck and as the sun set spectacularly at the back, we parted ways.

 

 

silhouette

Silhouetted trees in the gorgeous sunset

 

sunset

the sunset without the trees 🙂

 

We decided to walk back to our hotel – Club Mahindra to help us acclimatise better and that was probably a smart move. The walk back was pretty demanding as it was 5 kms from the HANIFL Centre and the fact that it was perched high up on Gun Hill meant there was a steep slope and a long flight of stairs to negotiate before we finally tumbled into our rooms around 7 pm. We were absolutely tired and after some coffee and freshening up, decided to have a quick dinner and turn into bed asap. Dinner begins from 8 pm onwards and we were the first in the restaurant … quickly ordered dal, palak paneer and rotis and somehow got it all down without falling asleep at the table! By 9, we were back, and within a minute of getting to bed I was asleep .

 


 

Nov 1st Saturday

We woke up at 4 am, got refreshed, had some badam milk and coffee and were ready to start marching. By 5 am, we were out of the room and marching down the Gun Hill slope to meet Saurabh at the junction of Library Chowk and Mall road. The lights of Dehradun glittered in the distance and the early morning sky was pretty clear and chill as we marched rapidly toward HANIFL Centre. After an hour-ish of brisk walking, we were at the centre by 6:15 am.

The place was already bustling with Steve marshaling his troops along. A desk was quickly brought out for registration check-ins and runners were quickly and efficiently cleared out as per the distance chosen. Everyone was in great spirits and very friendly, and we met with and chatted up quite a few folks. The facilities were perfect – plenty of water, ample toilets and a spacious luggage cloak room.

the start line was 100 metres down the road from the HANIFL Centre while the finish was right at the Hanifl gates, so we crossed the finish before we even began! A lovely sunrise peeked over the plains in the distance as we got ready to begin.

 

MussoorieSunrise1

The rosy glow across the pains (taken from Hanifl centre)

MussoorieSunrise2

The sunrise again, this time from the start line.

 

A total of 65 runners had registered for the Half Marathon, of which it seems 37 (or 38) actually turned up. Me and Amar (Ranu) were the only runners representing Mumbai, and I also bumped into a friend of mine, Shishir Gupta from Delhi, who had recently done the Leh Half marathon…he would be a good judge of whether this marathon did stand up to the test of difficulty! As we waited for the final (on the spot) Registrants to come on down to the starting line, we spied bib number 332 and got this cool pic together

 

Sequential bonding pre-run

Sequential bonding pre-run

 

Steve belted out a few final instructions :

– throw the paper cups on the road, a vehicle will sweep past (do not chuck them over the road side)

– Make sure you turn around the mid-way point and ensure your bib number is recorded (no timing chips for this run)

– enjoy the run

All sensible advice… here he is “dictating” terms at the Start Line.

 

General Steve at the Battlefield frontline.

General Steve at the Battlefield frontline.

 

At about 10-12 mins past 7 am, we were off and running with Steve leading the way. As an aside, it was incredible to see a bladerunner (bib # 343) in the lineup (you can see him in the pic above right at the start) competing in an incredibly tough run. His name is Prakash Sodhi and he fought hard and completed the run with a superb time of 3:29. A true victory of the spirit and I am fortunate to have known him through this run. I hope to meet him again next year and run with him!

 

...and the race begins! Amar can be seen in the fluorescent XPTC t-shirt zooming away ahead of me.

…and the race begins! Amar can be seen in the fluorescent XPTC t-shirt zooming away ahead of me.

 

Everybody zoomed off down the short slope and then virtually raced up the steep slope, leaving poor me struggling at the back of the pack, slowly enjoying my way up, taking in the sights. The first slope after the start line is steep, although its not an insanely steep slope as it seems, and can be negotiated, IF one keeps his breathing regulated. It does take a toll on the legs and well, that’s the story for pretty much the entire course! there was a water station aorund the 1.5 km point and then another at the 2.5 km point. You can see the slopes from the route elevation at the end of the blog post and can also see my lap breakup times.

The first couple of kms take you around a curve that is in shade and then finally open out on the other side around the 2.5 km water station into bright sunshine. The route there on largely continues in the sunshine for pretty much till the halyway point and back, which ensures the chill factor at the start is not really felt. (the temperature at the start must have been around 11-12 degrees celsius) Thankfully there wasn’t much wind, which meant that once warmed up, we actually enjoyed the lovely sunshine and the cool temperatures!

 

me and Tara at the top of the first steep section, about to turn into the sun!

me and Tara at the top of the first steep section, about to turn into the sun!

 

There in the pic above you can see us, the “turtles” bringing up the rear of the runners. (even the bike dude seems to be looking at us quizzically) To my right is Tara Kaplan, an amazing lady, she is the nurse at the school, a superb, strong runner (who never stopped during the entire run!) and an absolute gem of a person. She was my running partner during the run, and it was thanks to her that I did not feel tired at all! In fact, its thanks to her that I enjoyed the tough run more than I have enjoyed any other run! I did not even know how the time went by and we had already reached the turn around point! My eternal gratitude to her for her company.

 

Finally the downslope!

Finally the downslope!

 

The long downslope (3-4 kms) after the torrid upslope from the start-line (which was also 3-4 kms) is a relief and great fun. You can see the downslope all along our back (which obviously became the upslope on the way back) Around the 5 kms mark (I think) the road turns around and opens up a vista where the Himlayan range is usually visible, except that on our race day, the clouds had already come in and closed the mountains up.

The final 3 odd kms to the turn around point were also a painful upslope, but I finally managed it happily and wasn’t all that tired! Enroute we ended up overtaking a few of the early rabbits at our steady pace which meant that I was not likely to finish last! 😀

After the turnaround point,  its a pretty similar grind back and the real test begins around the 15-16 km mark where the steep slope begins. I tramped on till the 17.5 km point and finally decided to take a long-ish break to rest my strained muscles! Tara however was as strong as ever and she disappeared into the distance without needing a single break while I manfully marched on.

 

A pic of me solo probably not far from the end!

A pic of me solo probably not far from the end!

 

…and finally after some serious effort in the ending stages (there was a half kilometre upward spike slope before the final km) I was at sight of the finishing line in 2 hrs 33 mins. A total of approximately 6300 feet of elevation climbed with the minimum altitude being 6700 feet and the max being approximately 7600… a seriously tough half marathon ended very satisfyingly in 20th position.

 

The finish line after 2:33

The finish line after 2:33

 

Post race, we all gathered at the HANIFL lawns and I gobbled down bananas and Parle G biscouts and a lot of water. That’s where I heard the news that the Libyan runner – Walid, who had been running really hard and well, had severe breathing trouble and collapsed due to the lack of oxygen, which led him to be taken away by ambulance. his partner, Vinod though finished strongly in 3rd place.

I forgot to mention this but we spoke to Shishir at the end, and he confirmed that this Half marathon was indeed tougher than the Leh HM. He said that the Leh HM had only 2 real sectors of slopes while the majority was a gentle slope/flat run. the only issue there was the low oxygen which could be overcome if you stayed there for a week and acclimatised well. This HM though was much tougher with its constant and extreme elevation changes at altitude. So he rates this as much tougher than the Leh HM…and I will be trying this out myself next year and reporting back.

 

The winner Nate, from new Zealand,  set an absolutely stunning time of 1:25 which was obviously a course record and probably one that will stand for quite a while!

Before I sign off with this report though, I would like to extend my thanks and a special mention to the incredibly enthusiastic cheerleaders at the water stations, whose screams of support  (audible from half a kilometre away) were like a beacon of hope guiding me to the promised land (rest!).

The amazing cheerleaders!

The amazing cheerleaders!

 

At the finish line, the starting sequential trio again! The promising runner Saurabh Singh from Agra who had been our companion at the start ended up 4th and was bitterly disappointed not to have got 3rd… missed out by a few seconds! Amar finished 14th and Manish, on my right finished a few seconds ahead of me in 19th.

 

The trio with our certificates

The trio with our certificates

 

 

As promised earlier, here is the route map and elevation and below it, the link to the Garmin race stats.

 

The Mussoorie HM Route Map

The Mussoorie HM Route Map

 

Click here for the Mussoorie Half Marathon Garmin stats

Click here for the event website photos and results

 

A few other awesome pics of the run below…hope many more Mumbai runners come along. Tara was wistfully hoping to have more female runners, sadly there were just too few and none from out of station. Hopefully our Mumbai ladies will join up and enjoy this truly fantastic run.

 

met these two around the 15 K mark, they were playing 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zep ! awesome! :)

met these two around the 15 K mark, they were playing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zep ! awesome! 🙂

A view of the lovely dark forests

A view of the lovely dark forests

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distance Running and High Altitude Trekking Mountaineering


 

Not a long post this one, its just to make people aware of something that is crystal clear to me.

 

To start with, let us get to social media – I use it to connect with like minded individuals who appreciate our world and nature like I do. I seek no fame, no appreciation and NEVER any likes! The only reason I share my posts on social media is for people to read them and I hope it helps them. I talk about my experiences, but they are not “selfies” – they are a log of precious thoughts that some may appreciate.

 

So before we go further, if you guys have bothered to read below the first few lines, then please note, I do not want a “like” to this post. It does not make you any less my friend. It just means your interest is different from mine…and that is perfectly alright! We are all born different, so there should never be any need to acknowledge or applaud a writer or a mountaineer – cos we are very selfish. We do it to experienc ethe world and what it has for us, to pen down our pexeriences. Perhaps for a runner it would be different – the cheering crowds would possibly make him go that few milliseconds faster, but a mountaineer has no point to prove to anyone! So, if you loved what I wrote, message me instead and say you want to experience the magic of nature…likes are irrelevant.

 

If you have got through the above lines, I thank you (yea I can be difficult at times! ask my wife)

 

So what do i Find similar between the two?

– A pure distance runner does not care for what people think. He/she breaks his/her own mentally set PBs.

– He/she actively ENCOURAGES others to go beyond their limits and is unselfish. (its rare nowadays in this world of Garmins and Endomondos!)

– He/she loves the world and tries to clean up any garbage/nonsense enroute.

– He/she never really cares abot running conditions – we are made for hardship. We accept that we are fortunate to be able to do what we do 🙂

– He/she NEVER gives up…not if we have a 103 degree fever or a swollen leg. Even if we have to crawl, we WILL.

– He/she is mad/eccentric and is sure we have a licence to go mad, come what may (consequences) at least once a year (that’s balancing practicality as we get older!)

-He/she never thinks age is EVER  a factor. We do our best and believe we can beat anyone! BUT when we get beat, we have the courtesy and the grace to acknowledge, congratulate and befriend the one who beat us, why? cos the man/woman deserves it! We know to fight hard and at the same time RESPECT those who are awesome!

– Whatever group one may form, running is individualistic. That’s the same as mountaineering. The only way for peopel to get together is to have mutual respect and ability and then assist each other. If anything, mountaineering is way less forgiving than distance running!

– Lastly… we NEVER miss a chance to be with nature – why? cos the world as we knew it as a child is no longer the same … and the world we will know in 5 years time, will be as alien as Mars.

 

Runners and Mountaineers never give up. We reach the top – not for ego. Its for pushing ourselves to something we never thought possible… and for seeing such unbelievable sights and have such experiences that we never thought we could have.

 

The world is a fragile and remarkable place and there are many who would destroy it. We have very little time and lots to do.

 

From someone who has tasted blood, take it from me… the world looks heavenly from the top – I would easily curl up and breathe my last there, rather than come back to this incredibly callous, dog-eat-dog cauldron of desire that is the modern world.

Wannabe Marathoner : Season 1 Lessons and Memories


 

medals season 1

Season 1 – all Medals

 

As is often the case, there has been a hiatus since the last post. Guess its the usual laziness that always creeps into amateur bloggers! However, I decided that it was indeed high time I got the writing back onboard simply because Season 2 has already begun for me and I need to make sure I document everything for posterity, where I will probably look back and read my posts with great amusement at what went through my mind as a newbie! 🙂

 

The photo above shows the assortment of cool looking medals that race organisers have been kind enough to bestow upon the runners. They mean a lot, as each of them associates itself with myriad memories – the route, the weather, the location, the runners, friends made, the agony, the sweat and most of all, the one unifying factor, the ecstasy of sprinting across the finish line satisfied with your effort. No doubt, most of the medals will degrade and get corroded within a short span of time, but their memory will forever remain. Sometimes I do wish the organisers would take a bit more money but make sure they give out quality medals that would last! but well…guess its in tune with the modern world where everything is so fleeting, so transitory… and THAT is why I must make sure I keep a record, for those times when I one day sit back and read through what I felt and fondly remember my struggles and the effort I put in pre-run to achieve what I finally did!

Mumbai Daud

My first distance run Dec 2013

 

Yep, that above was my first ever run in an organised event. As I have mentioned in some post a long time ago, I got into running for the sole purpose of increasing my fitness to become a successful mountaineer. From the Goechala trek in Nov, and this run on return, me and my perpetual partner Tapan, decided to stick with it and test ourselves beyond the 10K mark. (Our very first registration had been the 6K SCMM Dream Run…and that too with trepidation!) Its here that I must reflect on the nature of the human mind (or at least my mind!) … 6 kms run had seemed a huge mountain to climb for us when we registered but when we did our first EVER run in the last week of October, in National Park, we set a target of 6kms to begin with… just to see how impossible it truly was. What was euphoric in the morning (successfully having run 6k) turned disappointing in the evening! THAT’S the brain for you (at least mine!) – once a certain target gets achieved easily, it wants to reach the next – push itself and the body to its limits.

 

We did not really run much after that; most of November was spent in Darjeeling/Sikkim, on the high altitude trek which we did spectacularly easily (so yes, those 2-3 runs prior to the trek of 6 kms DID help)

When we came back, I saw the ad for Mumbai Daud and with the (as always) incredulous Tapan (“will we be able to do it?”) registered for the 10K. We did about 3-4 practice runs along the route, with only one run of 9k and then came straight for the event. We finished in a decent time of 1 hr each…but to us it seemed to be a bad time since we saw others running faster than us (yep, the naivete of newbies) – we thought we should have done better, but could not really figure out where to improve. The obvious conclusion was that we just did not grit our teeth hard enough and pump ourselves dry…so we decided to aim for breaking our 1 hr barrier.

10K races aren’t THAT easy to come by and with school holidays etc, there weren’t too many on offer or ones that we could do (we had missed the November start of the season and most of December runs) Also we were only looking for runs in and around Mumbai – which aren’t that many!

 

To cut a long story short, the 1 hr barrier stayed intact, and kept taunting me for quite a while. Around came Matherun, and Tapan actually DID break the barrier by 3 seconds! He did a 59:57, while I did not have a very good run and took a bit of a tumble on the way down and ended up with a 1:07, which was mainly due to me being conservative and not knowing how much to push for – since it was the first time I was running up such inclines!

The next real opportunity we got was the Puma Urban Stampede in Mumbai at BKC – flat course and a team run (2 X 10 relay) This was where I was determined to break the barrier; I have this weird mentality that when solo, I tend to not really push myself but when in a team which depends on me, I give it everything I have (and then some!) I decided to take the first leg and told Tapan to take the anchor, since he was much faster than me. I did my fastest 5 K by pushing hard in the beginning, but around the 7 k mark, I started feeling the burn. I also wasn’t aware of how much time had elapsed since my GPS tracker was unable to pick up consistent GPS. I was thus relying on mental (approximation) math to pace myself. Around the 8 km mark I was really flagging, being mostly on my own with a few runners ahead of me, and a few quite a distance behind me. I was cursing the route and swearing that there was something wrong and it was more than 10 K, when a lady smoothly glided past me. That brought me back to my sense…I observed her running and realised, she was looking absolutely effortless, and THAT’S when it struck me what I was doing wrong! I was the proverbial dinosaur trying to pound my body into trying to speed up but I was paying no attention to my kinestetics! She was your typical glider and I saw her cadence (speed of footsteps) was much faster and way more economical than mine…and I decided to ape her style. That was pretty much the magic pill! As I shortened my stride and improved cadence, a surge coursed through me and I could see I was getting much faster already! I kept gliding on (OK, honestly it was still pounding cos I do not have that grace) and as I turned toward the last 300 metres I could see the time on the clock and it still wasn’t 1 hour…the clock was around 58 mins odd…and so I raced….sprinted for all I was worth … all that existed for me was to get there before the hour mark, whatever the toll on my body. That worked wonders and I crossed the line at 59:02 and handed the baton to Tapan, exhausted and yet ecstatic 🙂

After that came the best Half Marathon I have yet run (OK I have only run 3!) – the Kihim/Alibag beach HM. This was a new challenge, since I obviously now had gone past my immediate goal of a sub 1 hr 10K… now I wanted to test myself with a 21 K run. The location was beautiful, the climate was superb and the run was on the beach with the gently lapping waves and a full moon race start at 5:30 am. It was truly a lovely run and Tapan finished in 2:13 while I reached home in 2:17, which wasn’t too bad for my first ever HM.

Sadly, that was almost the end of a very short first season for me…there was only the pathetic Surat Night Marathon, where the climate wasn’t very good and I did the 10 K in 1:01 but spent the remainder of the time cursing the horrid organisation and telling myself to never come back again for this.

 

The season ending run was another HM in Delhi in March at the Buddh Intl Circuit which I desperately wanted to run on, given my undying love for Formula 1!

F1

At the Buddh Intl Circuit – running where the Ferraris roar

 

The race start was a little late and the track also had its fair share of inclines, which meant that when the sun came out, with no trees for shade, everyone got baked, making the run a battle of attrition. I finished this HM in 2:23 which was disappointing as compared to the first one but was pretty good given the track and climatic conditions. I must mention here that the sun beating down and drawing out litres of sweat meant that our faces were caked with salt crystals! as were our clothes! It was a veritable salt fest, but for the privilege of running on the track where my beloved F1 cars roared, I would do it all over again!

SUMMARY

So at the end of an eventful Season 1 for me, there are a lot of lessons learned. I am listing them down below – stuff that I have experienced on my voyage of self discovery to becoming a better, stronger and fitter runner. maybe It will help others avoid the mistakes I made and help them get stronger quicker.

1. After both the HMs, I had problems in the Gluteus Medius on the right side and the left knee (old injury) swelling up again. I realised that I was relying too much on raw grit and determination (and some physical prowess) and not giving any thought to strengthening the right muscles! after a lot of research and many helpful posts by fellow runners, I settled on a program of core exercises to strengthen the hips and the abs. This has been really helpful and as I write this today, I have done my most difficult HM to date (OK its only my third one but it still is MY toughest one!) and have had no Gluteus problem at all!! 😀

 

2. Another imp thing I realised was when I had a shin splint scare after I recently raised my mileage to more than double my usual, and also started running slopes everyday. This made me focus on exercises to strengthen the calves and the tendons, and doing so has been the greatest boon for me! Within a short span of time, it has given me a marked increase in my ability to tackle slopes and be able to push off more powerfully off the forefoot with less effort than before. It has improved my balance and my fore foot strike and has finally helped me “glide” (ok still not gracefully but I am on the right track!) This is a wonderful videdo – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tHXkt5JZMc and I have incorporated a lot of these in my daily routine twice a day.

 

3. Till now I have always been lazy about bounding up the stairs. Since the last 10 days I started doing it twice/thrice a day (I do 144 steps in about 1 min 14/16) it has made my muscles much stronger. How this has helped is in my ability to be able to get the muscles to recover back to full strength after just 10 seconds of rest (useful when you are going up unending slopes) and its also helped me tremendously in being able to put in a sprint anytime I like during the run (whether it be to overtake traffic or to get across a bunch of runners in a group jogging slowly and blocking the path)

 

4. I have also realised that climatic conditions and humidity make a huge difference and that it makes more sense to bide your time, strengthen yourself during the hot, humid months with long endurance runs and realistic tempo runs rather than getting frustrated when you cannot achieve your PBs. Yep I learnt it through experience when out of frustration I would try to push hard, lose form and end up getting swollen knees or hurting myself and thus losing training and having to start back all over again. With patience, I can see the development and nowadays I have stopped really bothering about the time per lap. I just do what I enjoy and do short interval bursts to run alongside a rickshaw or bike/car up slopes – just for the heck of it. Its great fun when you manage to keep up with their speed and see the surprise on the faces of the drivers 😀

 

FINALLY, my GOALS

Very simple – I have adopted a simple mantra that for me is achievable. I will do all kinds of 10K and 21K runs in as many places as I can (its nice to travel and run!) and note down the times. I will then run them again the next season and beat all my last year times by 10% every year 😀 This I believe is a realistic goal and its good enough to excite me for the upcoming season that I will catch for the first time from its beginning!

 

my CHALLENGE/CONUNDRUM

To be or not to be that is indeed the qt! I am torn between trying to run a Full marathon in SCMM 2015 or just going for the easier/surer option of an HM. I have to make my decision quick since the registrations will begin shortly!

Today, during the run, I was fortunate to meet the 2:45 pacer – Kanishk who was the first person to actually be positive and suggest that I should go for FM since he was able to do it within a few months of starting out, and believed I should be able to do it too.

I think I most likely will go for it – hell, isn’t mountaineering all about challenging your body and your mind? I cannot call myself a wannabe mountaineer if I did not have this confidence in me! so its looking like my first SCMM with a medal will be my first ever FM! 😀

While departing, I leave you with a picture of my first summit that I did in May 2014 – Pangarchulla Peak (its like a 10k run in terms of summits) but its my first and Im proud of it. Onto more difficult pastures! after all the mind is a terrible thing to waste!

 

pangarchulla

My first summit (almost athe top here) Pangarchulla Peak – Garhwal

He’s Watching You!


Ganesh Chaturthi (The Ganesha festival) is just aorund the corner (9th Sep 2013, Monday) and Mumbai is abuzz with the excitement it feels everytime its favourite elephant headed God arrives every year.

Here he is, ready and always watching! 🙂

Caught Ganesha watching me ove rthe lip of the ceremonial cup – Wife’s puja at Janmashthami

 

 

 

 

Disappearing In Time – Losing Focus


On an early morning, for some unusual reason, the tide had not yet come in…and neither had the ferry. The gloomy, overcast skies made it depressingly surreal with people walking away into the distance to the end of the jetty that led nowhere – almost like disappearing in time…fading away… losing focus.

Had to have it in black and white to sum up the mood…the tense, heavy, brooding sky and the waves gently lapping the shores – as if waiting for something to happen.

Fading away into the still grey sea

Lord Magenta Holds Sway


On a gloomy, rainy day,

Lord Magenta came fluttering by

to hold sway in the green tinted sky

for a split second before waving goodbye

A fleeting moment of vivid colour

Tryst With Mt Kanchenjunga – 2


 

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Click here to read the FIRST part
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Day 3 – May 13th early morning

We were up at 3 am and hurriedly began to get ready for the climb up. Last night’s rain had again ensured a clear sky and we could see a myriad of stars twinkling away. It was a chill morning with the mercury a few degrees below 0 and armed with ear muffs and gloves, we began the steep climb up to Dzongri top.

The climb is a pretty tricky one as the route is steep and goes past scrub and loose sandy soil. As we slowly marched up and onward, dawn was starting to creep up, brightening the sky. The peaks of Mt Pandim and Rathong were beginning to appear on our left as we moved onwards.

It had been a pretty chill night and the path was strewn with a thick blanket of frost. The lesser peaks around us were also white with fresh snow from last night and it was a beautiful sight that was unfolding past us. Panting and wheezing, we manage to finally crest the ridge that leads onto the final narrow path that leads up to our final destination – Dzongri top.

As we reach the top, we stand in awe… witnessing the might of nature. In front of us stand the Kabru peaks, Mt Pandim, Mt Jopuno and Mt. Kanchenjunga. Its a 270 degree Himalayan special that makes me stand spellbound in the chill, bitter wind.

The sun begins streaking the mountain tops with gold as a sunning sight begins to unfold. A clear wondrously blue sky as the backdrop for the spectacular golden peaks all around us. We wait and watch it unfold and click photos as the peaks come to life. It been a sight worth savouring and the effort to be able to view this is soon forgotten.

As the sun finally rises in all its glory, we wait a while and then begin the walk down into the clouds and the ubiquitous sweet scented “sun-paate” bushes. Its been a memorable and extraordinary morning and one that we will cherish years on.

(Some useless info here : we were hoping to see the famous rosy pink peaks but were told by one of the locals that pink sunrises happen during October/November winter months only. The summer months give blazing gold sunrises. That obviously means I need to be back in winter to pay obeisance to the peaks again )

Black Kabru from Dzongri top

Dzongri top panorama

More goodness at Dzongri top

Me and Lakpa chilling at 5 am

Me, Amar and Lakpa at Dzongri top

Day 3 – May 13th late morning

After having had a filling breakfast, we again packed our bags are prepared for a long march to Lamuney.

We moved out by 8:40 am, climbing up the hill on towards Kokchurong. The path leads up through scrub and unusual patches of desert like white sand. The terrain reminds me of the Scottish moors and its gently undulating all the way over and across the ridge onto the other side. Some spectacularly beautiful moors all around as we hungrily breathe in the scented alpine air.

The highlands onward to Kokchurong after leaving Dzongri

The first hour of the walk is nice and easy with easy climbs and descents. Once we cross this beautiful, wild plateau, the first deep descent comes into view. Far below in the valley, you can see the gorge with a bridge across it. The descent needs to be made slowly and carefully (especially me with a bad knee) tracts are pretty steep and scrabbly and thanks to animal hooves, are a bit unsteady as well.

It takes quite a toll on your legs but after about 45 mins of descent, you are at the base where the trekker hut at Kokchurong awaits.

The forest around is amazing with a thick mist all around the deodars and unusual vegetation trailing everywhere. The clear stream cascades over the rocks as we step across boulders and across the bridge onto the other side.

The magical mist at Kokchurong

The forest on the other side is even more amazing with thick yellow lichen encrusted boulders and gnarled tree roots giving it a mystical, almost Lord of the Rings like appearance. Its truly breathtaking and I begin expecting a troll to pop out at any time blocking our way!

The mysterious landscape reminiscent of The Hobbit

After about an hour of reasonably easy walk, we come across a boulder strewn climb that is a bit difficult but lasts only for about 30 mins or so before it opens out into a wide sweeping valley where the cold wind suddenly swoops down on us.

This is actually the start of the pass that leads onto to Goecha-la and beyond. It is this very pass/valley that keeps going on and up through the majestic Himalayas.

In the distance we can see the Thansing trekker hut and a few camps but the amazing panorama of the peaks beyond is hidden behind low lying cold clouds that are looming threateningly.

We stop at Thansing to have lunch (which the cook has already prepared… they obviously being way faster than us!)

After an hour’s breather, we continue walking on towards Lamuney. This is the easiest stretch and is over and across very gentle slopes with mountain peaks around us shrouded in clouds.

The mountains shrouded in mist as the sleet started pelting down to be followed by snow as we hurried along!

Half an hour out of Thansing and the threatening clouds finally break. Initially its a shower of tiny hailstones but within 10 mins the wind picks up and it escalates into snowfall. We huddle under a rock and pull out our plastic ponchos and drape them over ourselves and our bag and hurry on through the alternating sleet and snow. After about half an hour, the snowflakes get bigger and denser and we are truly trudging through a medium scale snowfall.

Another 45 mins and we are at Lamuney. Lamuney does not have a trekkers hut and only has a kitchen which trekkers have to share with the cooks/porters if they do not carry tents. The kitchen was dark and smoky and over crowded but was a relief from the cold outside. Our feet and hands were chilled and we gratefully accepted the glasses of tea proferred around. We had reached Lamuney quite comfortably by around 4 pm and the snow continued to pelt the camp for the next 4 hours well into the night.

Covering up from the chill winds outside the kitchen at Lamuney

Posing in the dusk as the snow wriggled into our jackets!

We had a quick dinner and somehow everyone found space to crawl over or under benches and tables and we all eased down to sleep.

Day 3 had been yet another eventful and fantastic day with us experiencing all kinds of weather and picturesque scenery… all unique and stunning in their own way.

Day 4 – the tryst with the legendary Mt. kanchenjunga

3 am and as always time to brush the cobwebs, step out of our sleeping bags and embrace the stinging, chill air. As we had come to hope, expect… and enjoy … the skies were clear again. It was a winter wonderland with shades of black, white and grey, as we began our hike up the first ridge. The fresh snow had made things very difficult with only the footsteps of the previous group (10 minutes ahead of us) as our only guide.

Here we are cresting the first rise with the Lamuney camp already left far behind.

We kept climbing up the next rise and as we reached its edge, the sun decided to show us its glory.

4:30 am and the sun streaks the peaks turning them to gold.

Eldorado closeup 🙂

Having crossed the lip, a sublime sight greeted us – the golden peaks reflected in the gently rippling waters of Samiti Lake.

Rippling waters of Samiti Lake reflecting the blazing peaks.

Struggling up the rise on the shore opposite Samiti Lake, the pass can be seen in its entirety, snaking from after Lamuney all the way through the Himalayas.

Goecha-la (pass) can clearly be made out.

Beyond Samiti Lake, the going gets tougher, as we struggle through the snow up the increasing gradient, carefully stepping on rocks and avoiding getting our shoes wet! As the sun rises in the sky, our hearts soar to see the gigantic peaks appearing beyond the lip like an impenetrable wall.

Just the sight of these peaks gives us renewed energy as we strive on… (you can get an idea of the scale by seeing the size of the humans against the mighty mountains)

and the vista unfolds little by little

A Little panorama added in to give a taster

Goechala panorama (not yet there though!)

…To finally behold the magic of Goecha-la… the mighty awe inspiring Mt. Kanchenjunga and the surrounding stunning peaks!

Spectacular Mt. Kanchenjunga

Jet stream blowing streamers high up

The majestic, astounding, behemoth – Mt. Kanchenjunga

Sadly the clouds were starting to creep in towards Mt. Kanchenjunga which forced us to take the decision to abort the trek to the final viewpoint BUT this is how it is in the great Himalayas…you can only have the privilege to be close to them when THEY want it, not when we do  We decided to turn back from viewpoint 1 for multiple reasons… the risk of the mountain clouding over was too strong and also the fact that as the sun climbed in the sky, the fresh snow would start to melt, making the descent extremely treacherous.

No harm done though, it was mindblowing, spellbinding… unbelievable  MUCH more than what we had imagined. Human nature being greedy as always though, we decided on the spot that we would do one better – pink sunrise in November at Goechala our next target

We turned around exhilarated and began our march back down the slopes … all the way to Tsokha.

We began trudging down the slippery slopes back to Lamuney where we would have a quick breakfast and then proceed to Kokchurong for lunch followed by a brisk walk back to Tsokha. Our target was to reach Tsokha before nightfall since the inclement weather could break anytime.

Here are a few pics of the same route back, looking different in the blazing sunlight

Goechala to the far off valley on the way back

Samiti Lake like a turquoise gem in the blazing snow

Back down at Samiti Lake

Looking back and saying au revoir till next time!

Ponies grazing below Mt. Tenzingkhang. This is an awesome knife shaped peak

An unusual shrine enroute

Finally back at the camp

The campsite at Lamuney with Mt Pandim looming over us.

As planned, we moved back down past Kokchurong onto the less travelled route that led directly to Phedang. This was one weird route (and a pretty tough one at that) a really unusual forest that has the reputation of being haunted and also full of bogs. All I felt was that this was a truly narrow path through a dense, spooky forest which probably contributes to its reputation. It was also a pretty difficult route to take and after a pretty hard climb/descent, we finally came out at Phedang. From here on the going was easier… pretty ,much downhill. Finally, at 6:15 pm, we reached Tsokha.

A truly strenuous Day 4 finally ended.

Day 5 was pretty much a breeze as compared to what we had been through, and we were home and dry in Yuksom by 1:30 pm

Evening was spent looking around town (the coronation throne, Phamrong falls) and finally chilling with a nice hot water bath followed by an awesome booze party well into the night

All in all, we managed to finish the trek in excellent time (5 days) even with our mulish packloads… AND managed to enjoy every moment of it. The mountain gods were merciful and we had great weather all throughout.

Just a little side-note … I am also a smoker and I dd smoke at all altitudes, albeit sparingly – only about 3 cigarettes a day. It did not hamper (or improve) my performance in anyway but well… it was fun to smoke while in the driving rain with lightning streaking the sky

Our next target now – the incredible Green Lake trek… time to get back in shape again!!

Travelling and games for me please :) Check our games https://twitter.com/blackcobragame

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