It’s hot at 3.30am. I know that because at 3.30am I was sitting outside in the hotel gardens, waiting for my ride to the Asola XC race in Bhatti Mines wildlife sanctuary south of Delhi. A fellow runner named Rohit had offered via FB to give me a ride, but when he turned up, it was with a whole SUV full of runners. I was wide awake, weirdly, probably because I had barely slept: from 11pm to 12.30, then again from 1 to 3. When I’d booked a backup wake-up call, the woman had asked if I wanted coffee, and oh yes, I did, and it was delicious. So was the wake-up call, because it was delivered by another woman whose voice sounded like a morning cobweb covered with droplets of dew. Shiver. I’d managed to go the toilet, a big worry as I wasn’t sure what toilet facilities there would be. This was a complicated race, with people doing 20, 40 or 60km, and then some of those people also doing 40, 60 or 80km bike rides the next day. There were only 100 or so entrants and Chiro Mitra, one of the organisers, had done races before. One of his races, in the stunning looking Siti Valley up north, even featured in Conde Nast Traveler’s prettiest races in India, a very good resource which I have thoroughly book-marked. But you never know about toilets, do you?
I wasn’t hungry. This was a problem. I’d scoffed a pizza the night before, and my body thought we were still in the same eating period and I didn’t need any more, but my brain knew that to run 20K, with compromised fitness, I did. I ate half a tiny granola bar, made by the hotel chefs from some blend of nuts, seeds, sesame, something sticky, and fabulous. I’d been taking them away from the breakfast buffet for a couple of days, like a running squirrel. I managed to eat an apple. And that would have to do, although I knew this was a race where nutrition and hydration would be difficult to judge, because even if I felt hydrated, I couldn’t guarantee I would be, in 35 degrees of heat. The excellent coffee meant that I got in the car very perky and chatty, but it didn’t last. The lads chatted in Hindi, which was soothing, so I stayed quiet and watched early morning Delhi go past. It’s the first time I’ve ever travelled to a race with Sikh prayers being sung on the car radio. For fun, I tried to transpose the situation, trying to picture driving to a fell race with a car-full of young Yorkshire lads listening to Gregorian chants. I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t happen.
Delhi wasn’t quite awake. The pavement dwellers were asleep on the pavements, poor sods, and the roads were spacious and free, not clogged and cacophonic and horn-please (which is painted on the back of every truck) everywhere. Sangeeta, another of the organisers, had helpfully posted the map co-ordinates on the race’s Facebook page, even though the lads, like every taxi driver I’ve used on this trip. used sat-nav. They’d managed to get one with an Indian voice at least. I thought sat-nav mangling of street names couldn’t get worse than what mine does every time I take it to France, but then I got here and heard American robots trying to deal with Subramanian Barti Marg. The streets were clear enough that we got there quickly. I jumped out and got my bag out and started sorting things, then looked up to see two of the lads had lit cigarettes. It was such an unusual sight, I blurted out “Smoking runners?” and they looked embarrassed. “We’re not really runners. We’re cyclists.” That’s OK then. You don’t need lungs for cycling.
It was still dark, but people were gathering. There were men in shorts, and men in running kit, and men, men and men. I’d been told that eight women were running, but I didn’t know if they would turn up. Oh well. I’ve been stared at often over the past few weeks. Not just glanced at for longer than necessary, but proper, frank, “what the hell are YOU” lingering stares. What difference would another morning-ful make? In fact, of course, everyone was extremely friendly and charming and my paranoia was daft. Also, they had better things to do than notice women runners, like run absurdly long distances in pounding heat. The 40 and 60K runners would probably be about until mid-morning, when it would be blisteringly hot. Perhaps that’s why we’d been asked to be there in time for the start of the 40 and 60K race, as they were leaving at 4.45: so that we could see them off into the breach. Until then there was milling.
There was one portaloo, which was clean and decent, though I had to step over curious horned cattle to get there. There was a bag drop (seen later in daylight): There were women! I met Faizi, who said it was her first trail race, and saw a couple of other women too. I met Maneesh, who is from Nepal, and unlike Indians I’ve spoken to, had heard of Mira Rai. He also knew Richard who runs Trailrunning Nepal, who set me up to run with his flatmate Billi when I was in Kathmandu. There were introductions and handshakes, the 40K and 60K runners set off, and we milled some more, and then it was our turn. There were probably only about 50 of us, though Chiro will probably tell me differently. The running scene in India is growing, but it’s young. Here is a very good piece about it.
I had no idea how I would do. I had been sick for a few days with a stomach bug which I stupidly got from breaking my rule of never eating from buffets, even posh hotel ones. Even before that, I hadn’t run, as I’d seen a physio about my shoulder, still painful from my fall on Whernside many weeks ago, and she’d said to stop any forward or backward motion in my arm for a few days, which ruled out running and front crawl. On the Thursday and Friday before the race, I’d come very close to not running it. But, as FRB sensibly said, when am I going to get an experience like this again? So here I was, waiting in darkness, chatting to a man from Nepal. And then we were off.
The race was in Asola wildlife sanctuary. It’s a reserve that has been created from an old mining area. I’d met Chiro when I went to pick up my number, and he had said, casually, “well, people say there have been leopard sightings, but I don’t believe it. But you’ll probably see wild hares.” There was a 2.5 km run to the gate of the reserve, then another 7.5km to the turnaround point, whereupon we would loop back. The 40K and 60K runners simply did the loop two or three times. The track was dry and dusty, but fine to run on with road shoes, the only ones I’d brought to India. I’d also not got my club vest, but was winging it with a shirt in our club colours of purple and purple. I set off at a comfortable pace, and kept that up nicely. Now and then, I stopped to take photographs. I wasn’t at race fitness, so I may as well take advantage of running in a beautiful place. Now and then I ran with people, and it was companionable. All of us against the elements. “It’s going to be tough after 7am,” one said to me. And with my best pep-talk head on, I said, “we’ll be done by 7!” (I wasn’t.) I kept an eye on the sides of the track for leopards, or hares, but nothing was up yet. There were brutal thorn bushes everywhere, but they could do nothing to me: I’ve been trained on Yorkshire brambles. Suddenly, there was a beautiful lake: There were water stations every 2.5K.I knew this from the marvellous route plan that Chiro had posted. Eclairs and love and more love. At each one, I poured water on my head, having read this piece about whether drinking or pouring water is better for hydration. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel overheated until the last 5K, when the sun was higher in the sky. Mostly, I felt fine and cool. I took ORS (oral rehydration solutions) at the first three water stations, calculating that it would replace energy gels. I’d tried to buy some at a sports store in Delhi and the lad looked at me like I had two heads. But after the third bottle of ORS, I realised my mistake. My guts started cramping, I started looking for good areas for open defecation, and I began to do my trusty anti-defecation reflexology on my left hand (you’ll have to read The Big Necessity or ask my clubmate Jill Buckley to know more). It worked, though I’d packed toilet roll in my backpack just in case. I only got lost once. Mostly the signage was a) eco and b) sufficient. By now I was meeting the 60K and 40K runners who were heading back, then the faster 20K runners. Every one of them gave a wave or a thumbs up and some encouragement: All the best! Keep it up! Good running. It was wonderful. I did the same back, of course. I got to the 10K water station, ate half a biscuit, got sprayed with water by Chiro, and headed back. I was still feeling OK and not yet walking, but my time was slow. There were long stretches by now when I was on my own. I’d been on my own a bit on the way out too, and seen a group of young lads on motorbikes, which I wasn’t particularly happy about. Lone white woman in mini-skirt running through the bush encounters group of mobby boys on bikes. But they carried on on their early excursion and I was fine. I was happier at this sight: The wildlife count then kept going up, though only to one peacock and two jackals. I passed fellow runners still heading for the turnaround, and offered one some of my magic granola bar. He took it then ran off calling “is it veg?” Only in India. By 15K, I was tired. It was getting hotter, my lack of fitness was showing, and I started walking bits. At the final checkpoint, 2.5K from the finish, I again poured water on my head, and the volunteer said, “No, don’t do that. Your body will heat up to compensate.” I said, but I’ve read research that shows your body absorbs water better this way and asked him why he thought differently. He said he’d spoken to a policeman on duty, and police are used to standing out in the sun all day, and the policeman was certain that the body heated up if water was poured on it. So, policeman and Runner’s World scientists, go and do battle.
I’d stuck my ego firmly in a box, but it was struggling to get out. I knew I was the second woman, and that Faizi was ahead. I also knew she had a green t-shirt, and I could see someone in a green t-shirt far ahead, on the final strait. For about five minutes, I got all excited about maybe being first woman, and caught up the green t-shirt. It wasn’t Faizi. By now my pace felt like it had quickened a bit, and there was only 1K to go, and I overtook some men, encouraging them to pick up the pace. Finally there were the cars, and the finish, and I sprinted to it with another runner. Sangeeta, one of the race organisers, put a medal around my neck. And what a medal. Then, water, and rest, and spiced buttermilk – the Indian version of protein shake – and more water. Breakfast arrived from one of the race sponsors, but I still couldn’t eat anything. I think I had one crisp. The race was very satisfactory for my Yorkshire parsimony: I paid about £10 to enter, and got a medal, a t-shirt (in an XS size!) (that exclamation mark is because that never happens), food, drink, and love. We took photos, and cheered people home, and waited for the guy who had the car key. And waited, and waited. But eventually he arrived, we drove back to the hotel, and I ate 5kg of pancakes and slept the whole day. It was probably the slowest race I’ve ever run. 12.6 miles in 2:22. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to run a race with people I’d never normally run with, in a place I’d never normally encounter. It was fabulous. So fabulous, I broke a rule as powerful as my never-eat-from-buffets, and did a double thumbs up. FRB will never hear the end of it. So, a day of meeting great new running mates, going somewhere I’d never go before, and doing something on Saturday that on Friday I was convinced I couldn’t do. And the leopards stayed away.