Over 35 runners from Runners For Life were on the recently introduced weekly Garib Rath Express train from Yeshwanthpur to Puducherry on 13th February night. There was great camaraderie both at the station and during the journey. The train was quite clean with brand new brown coloured berths. Apparently the Garib Rath is a recent innovation of the railway ministry. We reached Puducherry about 45 minutes late around 10am. We had a 35 seater bus and a Mr. Satish from Auroville waiting for us. After a nice breakfast at a udipi restaurant close by we visited the mother's samadhi at Aurobindo Ashram. At this point I took a local bus and went to Auroville and met my brother Mahesh and his family at the Centre Guest House where we stayed Saturday night. I was impressed by the greenery in Auroville - overall as well as around the guest house. The room in the guesthouse was very clean and comfortable for two people. At about 530PM we left the guesthouse and after checking out the Certitude -the start/finish point of the marathon , we went over to the Solar Kitchen to collect the Bib and have the pasta dinner. Balaji , a Chennai runner helping with the organization of the Auroville marathon, had thoughtfully kept bib no. 77 for my 7th in 7 months! Here I met up with a lot of fellow runners including Dan Zico – a Mumbai based ‘veteran’ of many marathons. Dan is a special friend as he is the first marathon runner that I met in India – at the starting line of the Pune marathon in December 2002. We have kept in touch and have been seeing each other every January during the run in Mumbai. When Dan called me up after this year’s Mumbai run I offered to share the accommodation I had available at Auroville with him. The pasta dinner was quite simple (spaghetti in tomato sauce) but nice and I helped myself to a couple of portions ending with a chocolate cake. Dan and I went back to the guest house around 8PM and went to sleep early around 9PM.
Had a good sleep(surprisingly there were no mosquitos at all something that we were worried about) and woke up to the alarm around 340am. Mahesh, Dan and I reached the starting point an hour later at 440am. The certitude was buzzing with the activity of runners warming up, exchanging target times and taking a last minute banana or a drink. At about 455 am one of the organizers took a roll call by calling out bib numbers starting from 1 to 99. At about a minute past 5am 70 odd runners took off for the 42.2Km run. It was a strange feeling to start the run in pitch dark – the organizers had thoughtfully provided a torch to each FM runner. I started at a slower pace than usual running just about 9Km in the first hour or so at an average pace of 6minutes 35 secs per Km.. However, I thoroughly enjoyed running with stars overhead, occasional sighting of the moon and the early morning chirping of the birds. I ran stretches with Nikhil and Balaji – the latter quite enthusiastically warning runners about uneven surfaces, gradients and potholes. There were also volunteers with lights going up and down on cycles and guiding the runners. While normally I look for the company of other runners in long runs this was one run I enjoyed being on my own - one with nature. At around 615am daybreak revealed the stunning beauty of the trail- trees of different kinds, tracks which were totally dug out at certain stretches and at some they were just or maybe less than a foot wide. The trees or shrubs almost brushed your head as you ran. At times I was running between bamboo fences on the backyard of huts. The occasional cow gates were another unique feature of the trail. There were aid stations every 4 KM or so stocked with water, glucose, biscuits, bananas, lemons etc. The volunteers at these aid stations were extremely friendly and enthusiastic. And added to this the volunteer cyclists cheering and encouraging the runners – it was really great. There were lots of times when one was completely alone on the trail. With lots of twists and turns in the trail it was always a relief to see the arrow marks and white lines on the ground indicating the path ahead. It must have taken tremendous effort to get these marks in place – highly appreciated by the runners. There were quite a few dogs on the trail – some barked quite aggressively but none chased me. One of them actually ran with me for a few hundred meters. At about the 27Km mark we were cheered on by the beats of the drummers from Svaram.
After the first hour I picked up pace and completed the 1st loop in about 2hrs 11 minutes. I was able to keep the same pace for another 15Kms and bring the average pace to about 6 minutes 20 seconds. Of course, as always, I slowed down in the last 7Kms. The tar road stretch felt much tougher in the second loop. The good thing about running the 1st hour in the dark was that we felt we were running the first 10Km in the second loop for the first time. While the weather was quite nice it did get a bit warm towards the end. As one turned the corner for the last stretch of the run a volunteer cyclist escorted me with loud honks and it was a great feeling to cross the finish line with a bunch of cheering volunteers – completing in 4 hours 23 minutes – 15th runner to finish the Full Marathon. A big THANK YOU to the organizers(Chandresh, Balaji..), volunteers and the Aurovillans for the awesome experience!. This was the 5th FM with this pair of shoes - probably the last one. It was also the first one with a new pair of shorts – all my previous 17 runs have been with the same shorts – I was fixatingly apprehensive to try the new one and am glad to have got over that!
Having heard about the picturesque trail from last year’s runners I decided to run with my mobile phone in order to take pictures. Though I normally do not like to run with a phone I did not regret it all. I enjoyed taking a few photos during the run – now I feel I should have take some more. The run was followed by a nice Idli-chutney-sambar breakfast with other runners. Hats off to Ashok for an amazingly fast run and congratulations to Manoj Bhat and Rishikesh Basu for their PBs. My brother Mahesh completed his 2nd FM in 5hrs 41 about 20 minutes faster than his first finish at Mumbai 2008 - this despite being on antibiotics till a few days before the race. My sister-in-law Lakshmi completed the HM in a little over 3 hours. Congrats to the many runners who ran their 1st HM and 1st FM on this wonderful course. Looking at the comments about the event on various blogs I am absolutely certain that almost all runners will want to come back for the run next year – I sure am adding this to my list of growing MUST DO runs in India. Arrived back in Bangalore on Monday morning around 530am – with a slightly increased stiffness in my upper back – probably caused by the 6 hours in the sleeper of the Volvo bus. Nevertheless, I felt good enough to do a slow 3Km recovery run the same morning. ON ON to the next marathon in March!