Monday, June 17, 2013

Some of the things which made MDS unique and special for me -

The mix of participants, 1000 odd runners comprised of people from different geographies, if I remember correctly about 50 different countries. Big chunk of runners from France and Britian, about 300 each and its capped at that, participants from these two countries have a two year waiting list. Most other geographies have it lot easier as they have country/territorywise quotas, this is a conscious effort to make it a truly global event. I had registered about 9 months before the race and got in quite easily.

I met some very interesting people, from different walks of life, an electrician, business man (similar to an Indian baniya), commodities broker, economics student, nurse, hobby photographer, printing technologist, professional athletes  and retired professional athletes from different sports. Another interesting fact was the various shapes and sizes of participants,  some who would consider as obese, they were visibly overweight but were tough enough and trained adequately to successfully complete the race. This was new to me, I could never have imagined such participants in a grueling race like MDS.

We had one runner without a leg and using blade instead. It's really hard to imagine how he managed those steep hills and the really soft sand dune downhills. Remarkable indeed. We also had two blind runners who were running with guides. All of them successfully completed each stage within the allotted time and were not given any extra concessions, they were treated as equals. And given the terrain, the race would have been extremely demanding for them.

About 50% of the runners are repeat customers of this race, this has been the biggest unresolved puzzle from the race. There is something addictive about this race, all I have come back with are a few observations which could provide pointers. Almost all those who come again are Europeans or professional runners. Most of them are runners in the top 100, who want to come back and improve on their performance, the second or third time, each having a target of top 30 or 20 or 15 or 10.  The second set is Europeans, these are usually regular people in all shapes and sizes, for whom it's some sort of pilgrimage, like people who go for Haj on multiple occasions coz they can afford to or like attending an art of living workshop of sorts. these people are fascinated by the location, the pain, the minimalist bare basics lifestyle in the desert, it sort of helps them get in touch with their inner being. I definitely liked it as a one time activity, it totally live upto expectations but the soul searching bit did not happen to me, maybe coz I have lived for a few days in a desert already (Jaisalmer), I have experienced better and more stark landscape in Ladakh, Lahul n Spiti valley and sleeping on floor and leading a basic life is something which most Indians have already experienced at some point in their life. The only reason I would ever go again for this race is to enjoy the organizational marvel, a quick reality check just to ensure if I have still got it in me to push my limits and for enjoying the cultural marvel of interacting with people from different nationalities. Or maybe I turn into an India and South Asia & south east Asia rep for the organisers of the MDS at a future date :P

Another thing which made this trip enjoyable for me is the special me time I got while engaging in my favorite activity, running and extreme sports. I was in a tent with Austrians, Germans and Swiss, all of them conversing in German, and I had absolute peace, as none of it disturbed me. I was just purely able to indulge in my favorite sport, since running is usually a lone sport for me, this felt blissful. It was my sort of art of living, and no I don't believe something is missing or I was looking for answers of any kind. It was just pure indulgence of the highest order.

I also realised that is that I used case study style worthy methodology to fulfill my dream of running the MDS, goal setting 5yrs back, planning, resource mobilization and training, extensive homework, practical field trials, bringing lifestyle changes without making undue compromises, all without realizing what I was doing at a sub conscious level.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reaching out…My sponsorship hunt for MDS and support from twitter community

Running is a rich man’s sport. Gear, time and resources ssimply to participate in races, is a luxury many cannot afford. Yet, these are the very things that drive a runner. Better shoes; a lighter, even lighter backpack; tougher races… ultras…

The MDS is slated to be the toughest foot race on the planet. Undoubtedly, runners across the globe strive to participate and complete it. Needless to say, as a runner for over a decade, it was my dream too! And an expensive one at that!

The total cost of the race is about Rs 4 lacs (Euro 3,700 race registration fee ex-Frankfurt, Euro 1,000 for Bom-Fra-Bom, visas and transit hotels and about Euro 700 for specialty gear, food and accessories).

I started looking for sponsors in Jan 2013, using a presentation via social media http://www.slideshare.net/GirishMallya1/sponsor-girish-for-mds. I intentionally decided against using any of my professional media contacts, to avoid potential conflict of interest. I managed two sponsors - Sportizen (a sports ecosystem company) and Apollo Tyres, which helped cover a significant part of my cost. Given limited time and the state of economy, I was quite happy with this turnout. Sportizen happened purely due to social media (mainly Twitter), while Apollo Tyres cme about due to an offline lead. Fortunately for me, both my sponsors have been very supportive and reasonable with their requests.

These were two companies who knew nothing about me, expect the presentation I had put together and one telecon/meeting I had with them. In case of Apollo (they are based in Delhi), they had not even met me in person. So if you have a compelling story and present it well, there are a lot of people who are willing to back you.

I received a lot of help and support from social media for my sponsorship effort, especially from @surekhapillai, who went out of her way to help me at each stage (including http://surekha.posterous.com/for-the-love-of-passion-a-corporate-sponsorsh) The link is no longer available as Posterous does not exist anymore :(

Srini Swaminathan, my good friend and fellow runner helped me with a lot of the gear. His assistance in procuring things like the trekking spoon, dri-fit cloth as a towel, hooks, Petzel headlamp, etc as gear for my backpack made life a lot simpler J.

Maximum time was spent on contacting various sponsor leads and sending proposal letters. I used online and offline contacts to get these leads. All of this required a lot of follow ups via email and phone calls. This can quite demanding when you have a day job to keep.

Getting the gear in place

I always assumed that some compulsory items would be easy to put together. The anti venom kit was very difficult to procure and had to be shipped from a wholesaler in Delhi (We are a tropical country with lotsa snakes for crying out loud!). Or a compass with high accuracy (All I could find were very basic compasses). I was hunting for alcohol pellets for heating water in the desert, but this was impossible to find anywhere in Bombay or outside. And I had people going out of their way (online and local runner friends) to help me. The compass availability was suggested by someone on Twitter, and I found it at Wildcraft store in Bandra. The Shivaji Park running group members went all out to help me with my gear. One of them volunteered to assemble a suction pump as anti-venom. Another got me burning fuel in wax format for heating at MDS. An online contact (he is ex-Airport security) advised that this wax based fuel will not be allowed on the flight, and also mentioned alcohol based fuel is not allowed either. Another offered his specialty case for my iphone, to protect it from dust and falls.

Apart from this, the most heart-warming messages during the race came from my Twitter family. They  kept me going each day, knowing that many are gunning for me…

Monday, June 10, 2013

On your mark… How to prepare for MDS Ultra

Tips, tricks and advice to those who want to take part in one

Before participating in an international multi stage ultra marathon like the MDS, one needs to be physically and more importantly mentally prepared.

Some must dos:
-        Should run a few full marathons under different conditions (trail, city, hills, tropical), at least one ultra marathon of 75k or more
-        Should be in endurance running for at least three years
-        Practice walking for long hours as it is impossible to run on some days and stages
-        Practice running with a backpack for a few months (ideally, up to 5kgs for 8months and 10kgs for the last two months)

Some other recommendations:
-        In this case, older the better. A 35yrs plus runner is mentally a lot tougher than an Average 20-25yr old. The average age of a multi stage ultra runner is ~45Yrs. This is so for two reasons: he/she is mentally tougher, and has the financial resources to afford this expensive sport/hobby. One needs to save money for this event or have the ability to raise sponsorship.

-        To stay injury free, combining running with strength training and cross training is critical. Running and cycling combo goes quite well too. If you are into gymming, circuit training works very well with running.

-        Another good test of your endurance ability is to do one half marathon a day for 7-10 successive days in preparation. This, preferably with a backpack - heavier the better. If time is a constraint, split them into two 10k runs a day.

-        Plan and register for a multi stage ultra ideally one year in advance, minimum of nine months before your first one, assuming one is already a seasoned ultra marathoner.

-        Ideally, register for a local (usually cheaper) self sustaining multi stage ultra before going for exotic or tougher multi stage ultras like MDS or jungle ultra marathon in Amazon. Eg. Kerala multi stage ultra in Jan every year would be a good starting point, they have special pricing for local (Indian) runners

Friday, June 07, 2013

Chicken Scurry anyone?..... Food & water at MDS Ultra

Managing rationed food and water can be tough in a self-sustaining ultra marathon like the MDS…

Food was always going to be an issue. In order to run for that many hours and with that kind of climate, the calories were critical. The challenge was to be able to carry all that I needed to eat for the whole seven days, on the back!

It was indicated that we were to carry a minimum of 2000 calories a day (there was no maximum limit) and this could not be put together just with powdered stuff (shakes, gels & complex sugars). The only way this could be achieved was to carry freeze dried food. A friend helped in securing food packets from Germany, I got 7packets of ~1000calories each, costing me about Rs.700 per packet of double serve meal. Freeze dried stuff is easy to cook, all one needs is boiling water 500-700ml and its ready eat in about 7minutes. I also picked some granola bars, cereal and digestive biscuits for snacking. I bought some packaged nuts (which was important ‘cos anything that I carried had to have nutritive value printed on it. Every calorie counts!).

I could have also taken Indian packaged instant food, but most of them require different cooking style (packet needs to be dipped in boling water), they are more volumious and there aren't any non-veg (high protein) options. And taking something like maggi is not practical or healthy enough.

Another important thing to pack was electrolytes with sugar (Gatorade), this added to my daily sugar and calory requirement and also some flavour the regular doze of salts and water. I had kept four packets electrolytes for each day (to make 2litre of drink from it), I was having them during the first half of the stage each day, and then moved completely to salt tablets which were given by the organisers, I was having about 2salt tablets every hour of the race after that.

Though we would be allowed to light up a fire for cooking purposes at the bivouac (temp camps), firewood in the dessert would be difficult to procure.

This was really bothering me as I needed at least my cup of green tea to unwind to help with the drop in evening temperatures. The one big hot meal is important for me to feel satiated. My hunt for alcohol pellets was almost about to get somewhere when a friend suggested that airlines won’t allow them. Sure enough. Back to square one then. It was going to be a hunt for wood in the dessert then!

I was in for a pleasant surprise when I discovered they were selling pellets at the portable gift shop which went with us everywhere! The alcohol pellets come with their set of challenges though. With these pallets life was lot easier and it took care of the one freeze dried hot meal of the day. But the day I had to Jasmine green tea and the chicken soup, I had to use a real fire with fire wood, this was enjoyable but a time consuming affair, as the strong desert wind/breeze made things quite difficult, plus given the driness of wood in the desert, it burnt very quickly and then increased the requirement of fire wood. It would take us about 8-10 minutes to heat water with about 4-5 alcohol pellets, and on a live wood fired setup it would take us 5minutes to boil water. 

In short cooking even pre cooked food was not easy :(

I started my day by eating a hand full of roast mixed nuts at 6.30am, followed by museli (dry without any water or milk) and about 6 diskets of Threptin. During the run I would have 2granola bars, mixed roast nuts, raisins and dates and 5 more threptins. Post the stage I would eat my double serve free dried meal of 1000calories. I was eating a little over 2k calories per day but burning about 5k calories a day!

Most participants were using free dried food, thick soups, porridge, protein shakes and powdered carbs. 

During the race, we were given between 10-12 litres of water for our daily requirement. Water distribution was split across five sessions at various checkpoints. Each morning before the start of the stage, we usually received about 1.5l. During the day, we had two-three stages and we were given 1.5 or 3l at a time depending on the difficultly of the stage and next check point. After the end of each stage, we were given 3l for the evening. Given this limited supply of water, we barely had any water for anything other than drinking. Only luxury was brushing our teeth in the morning and a 300ml water sponge bath on most days! 

My food plan for the 6day self-sustaining race.

Final food in backpack before control check -

Snickers - 32gm,  160 x 5 = 800 cals

Granola chewy bar - 25gm, 103 x12 = 1236 cals

Gatorade - 35gm, 126 x18 = 2268

Freeze dried - 357 x 2.5, 391x2.5, 428x 2.5, 418x 2.5, 357x2.5, 392 x 2.5 = 5857cals, total of six double serve meals as the big meal of the day, dinner at 6.30pm

Dates - 200gm without seeds = 616cals

Dried mixed nuts - 7oz, 168 x 7 = 1200cals

Threptin - 438 x 2.5 = 1200

Muesli - 438 cals per 100gm X 2 = 800cals

Soups - 300cals

New total = 14300cals

Total weight of food about 6.5kgs

Balance would be gear about 3.5kgs

And about 2litres of water at a time on an average.

Food for thought…

We were treated to some very good gourmand food by the organisers during the two days of acclimatization before the actual race. This included cold cuts, freshly cooked veggies and meat, plus a selection of desert and flavoured yogurt, all flown in specifically for our needs from France. In 2addition, we could choose from red wine, beer and coke, all served chilled during dinners. Quantities for all of the above were limited but enough for an average person. We were served three meals a day for these two days, ie, breakfast, lunch and dinner, all of which was French, except for the local bread and couscous.

The last day was repeat performance of the first two days and trust me, food never tasted more divine! The only thing we needed now, was an unlimited buffet!