May 07, 2013
The Indian at the Marathon of the Sands
The Outdoor Journal
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Girish Mallya (37): Utra-marathon runner, editor, publisher – Popular Science India.
As told to The Outdoor Journal:
Running is not about exercise or fitness for me, it’s never an effort as it’s something I really enjoy doing – I never go to the gym as I find it too monotonous. But to compensate for the lack of strength training I could do in a gym, I cross train by cycling and supplement that with some freehand exercises, as well as occasional resistance training.
I started running marathons eleven years ago, mainly in cities (Bombay and Singapore), then moved on to adventure marathons (races in off-beat locations), and finally took part in ultra marathons – I’ve participated in two ultra marathons (75 km distances). Now I’m into multi-stage ultra marathons, and hope to complete an Ironman triathlon in 2014.
It was during one of the adventure marathons I was participating in (The Great Tibetan Marathon in Ladakh, 2007), when I first heard about MDS (Marathon of the sands)- a runner friend mentioned it and suggested I participate.
From that day onwards, I set my sights on MDS and started preparing. I started running with a backpack for all my training runs and marathons, and till date I run with a 3 kg backpack. It’s very convenient as I can carry a change of clothes, 1-1.5litres of water, and some food. I also run to work twice a week, so that I don’t have to wake up too early on weekdays.
The difficult thing about endurance running is the time that one needs to set aside for it, my usual weekday runs are between 11-14 kms and my weekend runs are even longer. I need to set aside a minimum of seven hours of sleep before the running days, as one’s body needs to be fresh and well rested.
I try to run about 50-60 km per week all year round. I don’t believe in overtraining and am very careful about not going overboard with running. I have stayed relatively injury free for the last three to four years.
Even for big multi stages like the Kerala Ultra, I ensure that I do a maximum of 150 km in seven days or 300 km in fifteen days, about forty-five days before any big event, to ensure that my body is adequately prepared, and to ensure that I don’t carry any injuries into the race.
Q) How did you find out about the MDS?
A) I was running The Great Tibetan Marathon in Ladakh about five years ago (one of the high-altitude marathons in the world) when I first heard about it. The marathon had been organized by a Danish travel company and had attracted a lot of international adventure and ultra runners, who told me about MDS being the toughest, and suggested I go for it. From then on, I did a lot of things to finally achieve my goal of conquering the MDS.
Q) What attracted you most about this race? Considering the fact that all statistics indicate the adverse conditions that one has to run under.
A) The fact that it’s arguably one of the toughest foot races in the world, is run under extreme conditions, and that it’s exceptionally well organized.
Q) Share with us your preparations for the race and tell us how you tuned yourself mentally, being the only Indian out there.
A) I love a multi-cultural environment, so being the only Indian didn’t bother me at all. Interacting and engaging with people from nearly fifty countries was, in fact, one of the big highlights of the race, and made the whole experience really special.
Q) Isn’t the self-sufficiency during the race too hard to handle?
A) Not at all. It teaches you some lessons for life – how to prioritize, optimize and improvise. It teaches you to plan, and to understand your own body and conditions better…to decide on how much food, what mix of food, taking into account the weather conditions and packing the necessary clothes…making each grain count. Preparing for a self-sufficiency race requires one to understand oneself better and at the same time mould oneself to one’s surroundings. I carried about 9 kgs on my back and 3 kgs in my front pouch. I had freeze-dried food, muesli, granola bars, threptin protein biscuits, dates, raisins and mixed roast nuts. I consumed 14,300 calories over 6 days.
Q) What were your days like? Can you describe them briefly?
A) My first day was the toughest, as I hadn’t trained with a 12kg pack before – the maximum weight I had run with in the last few years was 4 kgs (I always run with a backpack); I needed to train a lot more in the sand and practice walking long and hard. It took me two days to get used to the pack and the weather conditions. By day three, I was able to run some stretches and after that there was no looking back – I was running and finishing faster each successive day.
Q) Did you ever feel that you wouldn’t be able to finish the race?
A) I was always confident that I would finish the race. The only reason I wouldn’t finish would be some unforeseen accident or major injury. I did not want to struggle and finish the race; I wanted to enjoy each stage. I did not enjoy the first two days that much as I was walking most of the stage, but from the third day onwards I enjoyed each stage and finished strongly. With each successive day, my average time started to come down sharply. I had observed similar trends even during my first multi stage ultra in India – my main strength is recovery.
Q) How did you deal with blisters over there – the number one problem for any runner?
A) I am just lucky with them; scored only one blister and even that happened on Day 4. I am not blister prone and rarely get them.
Q) Would you recommend the race to anyone in India?
A) Yes I would definitely recommend it, and in fact, I’m already helping one of my friends prepare for it. I would love to see a team from the Indian armed forces (sponsored by the government and a private company) participate.
Q) Usually when an Indian sportsperson takes part in an international event there is a media platoon at the airport and the participant is welcomed with flowers etc. Was anybody aware that you had gone for the MDS?
A) I was lucky that my return flight landed at 4.30 am; some friends had planned on coming, but thankfully the timing deterred them. Plus, I am not comfortable with such things. Running, as a sport is in its infancy in India, and ultra running is unheard of. Most of the mainstream media is not aware of this sport. It’s an ultra niche sport for them. But I did get a lot of help and support and encouragement on social media, especially on Twitter, as I had chronicled my story using a #GM4MDS. This community also helped me find sponsorship leads – in the end I netted two corporate sponsors, which covered a good portion of my overall cost. Some even suggested crowd funding and offered to transfer their air miles to cover my airfare cost, but I was not comfortable with crowd funding using individual contributions – I wanted to specifically restrict it to corporate ones. And even if they would not have, I would have covered it through my savings.
Q) What was your race timing?
A) I took a little less than 45 hrs over the six days to complete the race and finished 617th out of a total of 1024 people who started off on Day 1.
Before participating in an international multi-stage ultra marathon, one needs to have:
– Run a few full marathons in different conditions
– Run at least one ultra marathon of 75k+
– Been into endurance running for at least 3 years
– Practiced walking for long hours as it is impossible to run on some days and in some stages
– Practiced running with a backpack for a few months
– The older the runner, the better it is in his case, as a runner who is 35 years of age and above mentally tougher than an average 20-25 year old. The average age of a multi-stage ultra runner is 45years.
– Stay injury free by combining running with strength training and cross-training. A combination of running and cycling does quite well too.
– Another good test of your endurance ability is to do one half marathon a day for seven successive days during the preparation – preferably with a backpack – the heavier the better. If time is a constraint, split them into two 10 km runs a day.
– Plan and register for a multi stage ultra ideally one year in advance (a minimum of nine months before your first one), assuming one is already a seasoned marathoner.
– Register for a local (usually cheaper) self-sustaining multi-stage ultra before going for a big daddy multi-stage ultra like the MDS or the Jungle Ultra Marathon in the Amazon.