WRITTEN BY SANGEETA SAIKIA | 27TH SEPTEMBER 2016
Beginning of this month I participated in a race called “Solang SkyUltra!”It was the first edition of a race being organised in the Solang Valley in Himachal Pradesh.
Why did I sign up for a race that was called “The Hell Race”? Well, doesn’t the name catch your fancy too?
My reasons were simple though. I needed a break from the mundane city existence. A dear friend, a young and gutsy woman I really admire was part of the organising team and had been throwing the bait at me for a while. The easiest way for me to get away from home for such short breaks is to sign up for an outstation race. Thankfully, my son treats it more like a norm than an aberration now.
Anyhow, I had 2 challenges before going.
First was leaving sonny boy home and going out of town without feeling guilty, just a week before his half-yearly exams were to start. He didn’t so much as flinch when I told him though. He likes mommy doing what makes her happy. I am blessed!
The second was the 14 hrs of travel by road on hilly terrain. I suffer from extreme motion sickness while travelling in the hills and I wanted to overcome that phobia.
I never got to the point where I could even think about the race and route. I landed in Solang without so much as googling what sky running meant. I just assumed it would require me to climb a lot. I had signed up for the 30 km race and had a cut off of 6 hours to complete it. I have covered much longer distances on foot. So the distance definitely did not intimidate and I thought the cut off was pretty liberal.
Staying in Delhi, I had no practical way or time to train for the kind of elevation gains this race would entail. So I just continued with my regular training and boarded the bus that Friday evening.
The journey, to my relief, was easy peasy. We were a jingbang of 6 travelling together. I did pop an anti-emetic pill to be on the safe side but 17 hours later (we got stranded on way for over 2 hours because there were an accident and a roadblock), I disembarked from the bus as healthy and happy as I had boarded it.
Solang Nala (valley) derives its name from the combination of words Solang (a nearby village) and Nullah (wat
er streams). It is at a floor elevation of 2560 m, 14 km from the resort town of Manali on way to Rohtang Pass. It’s a quaint little place which felt like a mini heaven to the lesser mortal like me who has spent most of her life in Delhi.
We reached Solang less than 24 hours before the race, with the knowledge that at 2560m, we didn’t really need to acclimatize.
Having checked into our rooms, and gorging on the simple and homely lunch offered, we headed out for a familiarisation walk around the hotel and to breathe in the fresh air. Though we walked pretty leisurely, we covered less than 4. 5kms, climbed 285m and took I hour 20mins (Strava data). For the first time now, did the thought cross my mind that I had signed up for something tough here?
At the race briefing that evening, the race organisers did not mince their words, when they said it wasn’t going to be easy, we would have to climb a lot, we would have to watch out for snakes and poison ivy on the trail and be mindful at all times. The real party was just beginning.
I was really excited now to see for myself what the trail had to offer. I slept blissfully that night and woke up all gung-ho to stand at the start line with 50 other participants. 15 or more of them had signed up for 2 loops of the route, that is, 60 km. Nupur, my friend and one of the organisers, had told me she would pace us for the 30km. So armed with that advantage and with the unending excitement of the unknown, I set off on that 30 km race.
In the next 6 hours and 11mins on foot, I experienced heaven and hell at the same time. (Yeah, I did not make the cutoff. I will tell you about that.)It was the most amazing experience of my life. What a trail experience it was! We had 5km uphill and 4 km downhill (at a stretch) on tar; so yeah I did manage to run some distance. But the rest of the time it was a total surprise. Now I was walking on a mud trail, now I was climbing, now I was treading carefully on the edge of small hillocks on slippery grass trails, now I was climbing again, now I was stepping on small stones and crossing streams, now I was climbing down carefully finding my balance on bigger rocks, now I was walking on quaint wooden man-made bridges to cross more streams. I simply loved every moment on that trail.
Some 9.5 km from the start, by some stroke of luck I found myself all alone on a small hillock after having carefully crossed a slippery stretch of the trail. Here, it was like the clouds had come down to embrace me. It felt like I had reached heaven. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place that I cried copiously- tears of joy and thanked my good fortune for being healthy and hearty to be there at that moment of time. It was pure bliss!
Nupur kept saying we needed to buck up to make it back within the cutoff. But, even 3.5 hours down the race, I never thought I wouldn’t make it within cut off time. No, I did not underestimate the trail. I was just stupid enough not to have read the race book or the route map and I hence was not ready for what was coming next. When at the 18th km, I took close to an hour and a half to climb up a 1.5 km stretch; I knew what Nupur had meant. It was a tough climb and with complete lack of hill training, I had to give it my all to climb up to Bakkartaach, the highest elevation on our route at 3050 metres.
Had I paid more attention to studying the route beforehand, I would have had time to spend some more time in Bakkartaach, taking in the splendid views. But, now I wanted to make a last ditch effort to rush down the last 10kms downhill to make the cutoff. Downhill, however, did not mean flying down. One had to be mindful every second, lest you take one careless step and injure yourself big time. So, even as I gave it my all, I crossed the finish line 11 minutes too late. I wouldn’t say I was complacent on that day. I did the best I could, given my present fitness levels. Post-race, I consoled myself saying I did not do so bad as I was probably the oldest participant in that race and one of just 4 women. I have no regrets whatsoever. I was there for the experience and it was an experience par excellence.
The arrangements by the organisers at team Hell Race were outstanding. Imagine a trail like that marked so well that no one got lost. The aid stations were well stocked and stacked with goodies galore. The locals manning the stations had ready smiles and encouraging words at all times. There was a doctor on the trail to handle any emergencies, passionate photographers at several places and the organisers themselves either running along or covering the area by commutable road and keeping track of each participant.
A few of my running buddies ran really strong there. It was a total mind game and test of endurance and they came out absolute winners. Many did not make the cut off like me but there were no sorry runners at the end of that race.
If I am alive and on my feet this time next year, I am going for the 2nd edition of this race to take care of unfinished business. I have to finish the race well within cut off time and I have to make time enough to enjoy the views longer at Bakkartaach too!!!
And yeah, since I am not getting any younger and don’t plan to live till I am a 100 yrs old, I have to have more of such experiences in my kitty. That’s a promise I’m making to myself. After all, you only live once!!!!
By Sangeeta Saikia for Wellthy.fit
About the Author : Sangeeta Saikia
Sangeeta likes to define herself as ‘Mommy to the core, a dentist by profession, runner by passion, wannabe do-gooder’