• Deepa Bhat

Vagamon Ultrail - 90 Not Equal to 100 Minus 10

Early July Sindhu, a runner buddy and myself were chatting up and she casually mentioned about running 90k of trails in the hills at Vagamon. In a matter of minutes, I was convinced and signed up! In a few weeks, the travel and stay bookings were done, thanks to Brijesh and Anand, yeah the man behind Malnad Ultra.


Post Everest Extreme Ultra, I was just resting my running muscles and working on swimming preparing for my first 5000mts swim at Thonnur Swimathon. Triathlon post the Swimathon, I had enough up my sleeve, for six week in August and September.


Every Sunday would be hill runs at Thurahalli with Group MTB along with Jp Gowda, Mohan Devegowda, Sudhir TK and a bunch of power puff girls attempting The Malnad Ultra for the first time. Run a easy 25 k on trails, stop for breakfast of steaming Idlis and sambar and run back a shorter 15k. Now came the BIG question in the last week of September, ‘What distance do I run at Malnad’. In the first edition, attempted a 50k and it seemed doable and now doing the same distance, did not excite me. 80K meant, I am running in the dark, something I am not comfortable. Quick consulting with Brijesh and 80k was sealed, my FIRST 50 miler. This distance would help me for Vagamon. He was nice enough to share a plan starting September to January. Knowing a plan to follow in advance, helps prepare mind, travel and activities around it, busy mom!


The Malnad Ultra, more of a ‘Home Run’ went well, night run too did not seem impossible as the last stretch is on the road. 12:41:xx and finish line.


Post The Malnad Ultra, it was the ‘coming back of the injury’. Medical checks and consultations - Plantar Fasciitis and a Heel spur. Mornings were so painful, limping in the kitchen to fix breakfast and pack lunches for the boys. More on this ‘Embracing Planters’ for later.


Fast forward 2019...

Come 3rd Jan, Jagdish, Anand, Sindhu and Brijesh started off our train journey. Must say, the Indian Railways new trains and bio toilets are impressive.


Quick breakfast at a restaurant close to railway station, the next day morning and we headed to Decathlon, Vythila, the meeting point. BiB collection, some last minute stuff at Decathlon, quick Kerala lunch (loved the sweet and sour pineapple curry) we boarded the bus for a 2:30hr ride to Vagamon.


Vagamon hill station town in Kottayam district is one of the lesser known hill stations of Kerala, just beautiful and scenic.


We checked into our designated rooms at Green Palace Resort, its built on a slope. Clean and spacious rooms and warm hospitality. Enjoyed an omelet and tea at a small shack outside the resort. Fresh air makes me hungry!


The evening temperature started to dip as we took a walk to the race briefing - dinner location.


Vijayan, the race director, was quick with the race briefing, most of the information being on the website and documents earlier sent, made this easy. Dropped off my ‘drop bag’ which runners could access at Km 30 and 54. Pre race dinner was cramped as the dining hall was small to accommodate 200 plus runners and volunteers. Early lights off.


Sharp 4 am the bus was waiting to drop the runners off to the start point. Basics, bread jam and peanut butter, a visit to the wash room and the whistles blew….With a weekly mileage of as low as 25k, I was embarking on the longest ever running distance at Vagamon Ultrail 2019.


Using the range of the headlights, started shuffling through the muddy path. The morning temperature was just right, my legs were fresh and thanks to Dhruv, my son, I had a whole bunch of new songs to keep me going. The plan was to keep close to a group until the break of dawn. Me and my fear of the dark! Around 30 min into the trails, we, around two dozen of us realized we could no longer see the trail markings. Total time lost, 35 minutes, on fresh legs equates to 1 hr. Soon found an ambulance on the course and the driver guided us back to the steep turn that we missed to take at 2.5k. How I wish the organisers had put simple cross marks on the road, as in the dark, you look down as you run and not up.


Anyways, tried to catch up on some distance before the sun was up. Ran consistently at a 6 pace until the never ending uphill of concrete at the Vagamon town. Beautiful home stays on either sides of the road, cool breeze on the face and Skrillex playing took me through the first cut off at 30 K mark at 10 am. Garmin reading 34 K!






Beautiful Vagamon


Quick 2 min to refill supplies into the hydration pack and off into the trails. The next 4 k or so was bliss, into the pine forest. This was the point where I got to exchange some positive vibes with my fellow 60k runners, they enjoy the downhills.


Out of the pine forest, by now, my eyes were continuously looking for the orange ribbons, losing the trails again was not an option… ha ha..


The Sun was up and sharp and next 4 hours would be brutal, no tree cover and some steep climbs as well. Somewhere in the distance, I saw three runners, Brijesh, Vijay and Devi galloping down the 8k loop. It was 12:15pm and they were an hour and forty minutes ahead of me. Gosh! How I wish I had not lost those precious 35min in the morning.


On the way back, just at the entrance of the Pine forest, something I was looking forward to in the morning, I was shocked to see Sandeep sit by a small shop, looking so low, his eyes actually drooping. Offered him a 5 Star and in no time, we were both galloping down the pine forest.


It was 3pm when I was back at the 54k mark. This is also the cut off point. Took a 15 min halt, lunch, restocking hydration bag and not to forget the headlamp and ready to dash.






Where the sky meets the earth


Deepak was happily lying down, legs up as if his race was done. Some motivation and he was geared up to run the rest of the distance. Sandeep who was changing his socks said he would catch up with us soon. He is so quick on his feet.


Minutes later, my Garmin started to beep!!! ‘Low Battery’ that did not make me comfortable and 30 minutes later, it bonked! Just as I was going to whine about it a pretty black butterfly from nowhere fluttered its wings to sit gently on the hydration vest… aha.. That feeling brought instant smile on my face. Every cloud has a silver lining and now Gramin and Kilometers were history.






I should mention my favourite part of the 90K...an incline that reminded me instantaneously of the SRT Ultra trail. The traverse was mystical. Just below a big rock were two volunteers who had done the route recce and guiding runners to safety. The grassy downhill lead straight into the tea estate. This 10k was the most challenging but scenes from up above here were my favourite too. So true....


“ Its easier to go down a hill than up, but the view is from the top “ ….. Arnold Bennet






It was 7pm when we made it to the cut off at the 76 k mark. So far had maintained a constant pace, making it one hour before every cut off comfortably. Energy was good, legs were strong but with the headlamp on, the darkness started slowing me down. Stayed close to Sandeep and Deepak. Not sure if I would have actually completed the race without them. Thank you guys… owe this to you.


It was pitch dark at the 81k mark and a bio break was unavoidable. With the help of lady volunteer who guarded, I was back to get the pace into the downhill.


It was close to 10 pm when at a distance, I heard Sindhu cheering ‘Just 1k to go… Deepa.. Go’ Finish line that every athlete wants to see was nothing short of celebration. ‘Kachak’ went the photographers as I dashed through the arch.


Brijesh had completed in a easy 15 hour and was there to receive me… thanks buddy. Minutes later, Anand came in well before the cut off… The entire mood was infectious.


The Soles of Cochin a very enthusiastic running group organised the entire race seamlessly, from registration to the handmade clay medal. As for the route, I wish there was a way they could have avoided the never ending white concrete roads, especially the one near the massive building, somewhere around 40-45k. These smiling volunteers at the aid stations and rest points cheering and checking on you for water and food and even offering a massage to a cramped runner. Hats off to you folks, never an easy job to support runners for over 18 hours on tough terrain that is not easily accessible by vehicles.

5 Things I Did Right


1. Hydration and Nutrition


Training always meant running with 2 liters water on the back. So race day, my hydration pack, with some weight was always stocked, gels, bars, salt tabs, Unived Ultra Butter and even 5 Stars chocolates did not matter. Picking up lemon wedges, oranges at every aid station. Sweet potato at most aid station was a saviour. I spread some peanut butter over it, Voila.


Recovered faster than any race I have done before. The 200K Cal per hour plan worked. Alternating between gel and energy bars for the first half of the race.Using Unived Ultra Butter in the second half and 500 ml for every hour.


2. Uphills and Power walks


When I first started trail running, I would try to run all the hills and then get burned out. I soon learned the benefits of power walking uphill, and fell into a comfortable walking pretty much everything with an incline. I am confident about my ability to power walk uphills.


3. Trail Shoes


Three races and I have gotten comfortable in shoes with lugs. I ran the entire distance in Salomon Sonic Pro blister free. I had a spare pair in my drop bag, which I did not use. Yes, I used inserts to give that extra support for the arc. Planters never acted up!


4. Clothing


Aware of the varying temperature mornings and evenings cold and windy and noon being super hot with no shade cover, I wore capris, protecting from the overgrowth of the trails and full arms too. Absolutely no chaffing.


5. Music


I don’t like to listen to music during my regular runs, but I did carry my iPod to keep me company, Yes, I knew this will be a long one. Thanks to Dhruv’s playlist, it did help, talking my mind off as well as making the time go by faster. I used only one ear phone so as to be aware of the surroundings.

3 Things I Need to Work On


1. Night Running


I slowed down a lot after dark, last 16 k took 3:27 , not because I was tired, but because I had a hard time with foot placement and navigating terrain at night. Only more practice can help overcome my fear of the dark and build some skill too.


2. Downhill Running


Running downhills is a nightmare, again a fear I need to overcome. The entire feeling is that of discomfort. Need to practice skills for running downhill.


3. Pushing It


I need to learn the art of pushing, so as to cover more miles before the sun sets. I did a lot of walking post the last cut off. Now I wish I had pushed a little harder earlier. There is a fine line between pushing and comfort zone running and I will do it in my next one.


Overall, I had a great race and it was a perfect learning experience for Vagamon ULtrail.


I finished 94K in 17:27, a good time for me. I did better than expected considering the injury and the little 25k weekly mileage.


ATHLETICISM is AWARENESS - awareness of form and technique, awareness of our effort level and most importantly awareness of what we think ~‘The Cool Impossible





I’m not quite where I want to be, but I’m much closer than I used to be.

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