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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Focus

Jun 13, 2014

Running a self-supported ultra – Kerala’s Ultra India Race

An Indian ultra runner understands the rigor of international athletes during a demanding race in Kerala, south India, last January.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

This race made me realize how passionate one becomes towards running, when every single day is a new day to challenge yourself. You live for the day and the past is history. This is where I felt the love for running.

By Harshveer Saluja from New Delhi

The Ultra India Run is a semi self-supported race where the runners have to carry compulsory equipment, first aid kit, food for the day and water during the run on them. The weight of the bag is usually between 3-4 kgs. Having run ultras before the distance didn’t haunt me much but the fact that I could consume limited food was something I could not decipher. Being a semi self-support race, I was only supposed to consume the food i was carrying as the aid stations provided only water.

As the race day grew nearer I went on a shopping spree. The nutrition chart on the every single food item that I wanted for the race was my bible. I was looking for food with the least weight and most calories. We had to carry a minimum of 2000 calories for a day. On a normal day I easily consume 3000 calories but I decided to try living on a 2000 calorie diet and managed to get race food accordingly.

Ultra running is not a well-known sport in India yet, so getting endurance food –  high calorie food that is easy to cook – is a major problem. Anyway, with the best I could find, I headed to the start point of the race in the scenic hill station of Munnar.

During dinner I met Vincente Juan Garcia Beneito (the only ultra runner to have won all the 4Deserts Races), Australian Joe McCann (a man of many ultras) and two septuagenarians. It felt good to be the only Indian among a total of 9 participants. With time I got to know about how experienced these runners were, and the grand feats they had all achieved in life. I felt grateful to be in their company and hoped my journey would be fun running with them and a learning period.

Day 1 – First taste of the race

From Munnar to Rajakaddu (Length: 37km)

The first day is usually to ease into the run. I wasn’t pushing myself too hard. It got hard by 11 am itself. The downhill during the first day was absolutely killing. I have never run such steep downhill for so long and was super happy to reach the first checkpoint at 15km because that’s where the downhill run stopped. The day went by pretty quick as the distance reduced.

The first night in the tent was a sleepless. It was tough adjusting on the tent floor. Even the faintest noise would wake me up.

Day 2 – When the pain hits

From Rajakaddu to Upputhode (Length: 42 km)

I knew day 2 would be interesting. After having consumed just 2100 calories the previous day I waited to see how my body was reacting. After waking up I made myself some oats and ate my granola bar. I was eating the right amount of food, as I knew I didn’t have anything extra with me. My muscles were sore but they seemed to be in good shape. But I did feel that I needed more calories in my body. As the run started with the other participants entering the wilderness of Kerala, I surely didn’t know what was in store for me. Getting to Upputhode has easily been the toughest marathon I have ever run. The steepest uphills, sun burning any uncovered skin and a body craving food, this was now becoming a fight with the mind to keep taking a step forward. I remember I walked the last 10km to the finish line. It was the longest day during this race and the distance was done.

We usually got into the tent as soon as it was dark and wanted to be sleep 11 hours, trying to recover. But every time I woke up during the night, I would tighten my quadriceps to feel the soreness.

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Image © Harshveer Saluja

Day 3 – Into the mind

From Upputhode to Nathukallu (Length: 38km)

Woke up like a prisoner of war who had been tortured. I had decided that at the end of the day I will get my hands on any food that could be an additional source of carbohydrates and proteins. Clearly, the food I had was just not enough. It was an equally difficult and long day. But I was determined to keep chugging one step at a time.

This is point where the mind has to take over the body and is called “threshold” for a runner. If you manage to pass this threshold you are a winner. I knew I had to go pass this threshold to survive the race.

Day 4 – Strength from Japan

From Nathukallu to Kattaparna (Length: 38 km)

I managed to eat a decent meal of rice and boiled eggs at a local store on arriving at the camp on Day 3. Needless to say, I felt stronger. My muscles had recovered and my mind was happier. As the run started and I got into my rhythm. I found my pace similar to that of Kazuko – a 60-year-old Japanese runner.

Kazuko is a woman with a petite figure. At first glance, you would never think of her as an ultra-runner. After spending some time with her and noticing her style of running, I knew she was mentally an IronMan. As a person, she is the most humble, innocent and sweet woman I have ever come across.

I asked her if I could be her shadow for the day and try to keep up with her. I managed to do so till 33km and I noticed that we had covered the distance fairly quick. It was the most enjoyable day for me, as usually running with someone is not easy if you train alone and have spent most of the race days alone. I walked the last 5 km as Kazuko trotted to the finish line.

At the camp I managed to get some more eggs and the legendary poronthas (flat Indian bread). I knew Day 5 would be good.

Day 5 – The love of running

From Kattaparna to Kumily (Length: 45km)

The longest distance still lay ahead. But I was pretty happy that I would get to have a clean shower and the delicacies of the region….fish, prawns, beef and the poronthas.

I had a lousy night as I couldn’t sleep at all due to the uneven surface. After having spent 11 hours in the tent, the first 15 mins of the day were absolutely hazy for me. I couldn’t see well or understand anything. After getting into my race gear and packing my bags, I stood still in the shadow listening to my iPod whereas all the runners were near the starting line stretching and reminiscing the last 4 days. I didn’t have a positive outlook for the day and I decided to stop thinking about it to enjoy the music. The countdown took place and off we went. A few kilometers into the run, I asked Kazuko if I could be her shadow again. A few more kilometers I asked her if I could go ahead. And then there was no turning back. Something got into me. There was a lot of energy coming in from various thoughts. The Mumbai marathon was happening the same day. It is my favourite running event in the country, and the first time I participated in it, I promised to never miss it. But here I was, doing a run in Kerala instead, and missing out on Mumbai. The thought that crossed my mind was this – ‘If I was running the Mumbai marathon, I would give it all. Since, I am here I must give it all and make it worth it.’ This thought along with a track by Swedish House Mafia in my earphones, the cheering crowd took me through the finish line. Day 5 was my fastest day in the entire race. It couldn’t have been better.

Erhard Weiss, the 63-year-old German is a legend among amateur ultra runners. He was running the Ultra India Race. Name the toughest races on the planet and the man has done them all. When he finished the Ultra India Race, he was in tears. Looking at him my eyes were moist too. As I write this, the lyrics of the song playing is – ‘One day baby we’ll be old, think of all the stories we could have told.’ I hope to have many more stories and never find the answer.

The author, Harshveer Saluja, 24, is one of India’s youngest ultra runners. He has run the Bhatti Lakes Ultra in 2012, the 63 k Gurgaon Marathon in Haryana, India, was selected for the impossible2possible youth expedition, a 270k ultra marathon through India’s That Desert in 2011. He now plans to participate in Zendurance, a 100 k run in Ladakh in July 2014 among other races.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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