RUNNING THE SAHARA

Girish Mallya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Girish Mallya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Near South Mumbai’s President Hotel, not far from the high rises that characterize Cuff Parade, is the popular garden called Colaba Woods. Noted for its rich variety of trees, the garden was in the news in early 2015 due to fears that a proposed metro station may eat into the property. Colaba Woods has a shaded jogging track. “ A round of it is about 400m.That’s my all time favourite place to run,’’ Girish Mallya said.

Born in 1975, he used to stay at Colaba’s Navy Nagar. He was a good cricketer in school with affection for fielding. It was when he finished his tenth standard that he took to running, visiting Colaba Woods three or four times a week. Girish does not stay in the neighbourhood anymore. But Colaba Woods was where he gained his running legs. “ Those days there were very few runners,’’ he said. The running continued even as the young man shifted to Manipal for higher education. The university town in Karnataka’s Udipi district was less busy than today; it was an inviting place to run. Girish ran three to five kilometres, twice or thrice a week. After completing his MBA from the T.A. Pai Management Institute, he was picked up through campus placement by Tata Donnelly for a position in Mumbai. The company would later become Tata Press, then Tata Infomedia and finally Infomedia, at which point Girish left it to join Next Gen Publishing where he has remained till now.

Girish, at the Puma Urban Stampede, Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

At the Puma Urban Stampede, Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

The first major running event that Girish ran was the first edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). The year was 2004. He heard of it through a friend and without knowing much about the marathon, registered for the full marathon. He decided to do it his own way. From some months before the event, he referred Hal Higdon’s training program for the marathon and loosely followed it. The first SCMM, struggling to find its footing in the world of marathons, traded every marathon’s traditional early start for proper sunshine. Girish recalled a late start for the race apparently because TV coverage needed adequate sunlight. “ It was a first time for the organizers. There weren’t enough water stations,’’ he said, attributing it to likely focus on elite runners forgetting the existence of many rookie runners. From that shaky start, the SCMM has grown to be India’s flagship event in running, the race with the biggest prize money in the country and the largest marathon in Asia. Girish completed his first full marathon at the SCMM, in a little less than six hours. He has since run the full marathon at every edition of the SCMM. “ I would like to run the SCMM at least 25 times,’’ he said. The upcoming January 2016 edition is the SCMM’s 13th.

At the first edition of the Bangalore Ultra (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

At the first edition of the Bangalore Ultra (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Ahead of the Goa River Marathon, Girish with fellow runner Deepa Raut (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Ahead of the Goa River Marathon, Girish with fellow runner Deepa Raut (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Another trend with Girish is running the first edition of events that attract his curiosity. He thus ran the first editions of the the Bangalore (Bengaluru) Marathon, the Bangalore Ultra and the Goa River Marathon. He likes the “ uncertainty’’ that goes with something new. “ I like to experience everything first hand without clouding my opinion,’’ he said, adding, “ I watch movies but I don’t read movie reviews. I like it first day, first show.’’ To this, he adds one more parameter – the urge to try something others haven’t tried. On the average, he ran 40-50km per week for training, a modest mileage compared to what some determined runners pile on. “ I believe in conserving my legs and body. I would like to continue running as a veteran,’’ Girish said. Amid this preference for first editions and going where others haven’t, the second edition of an event made a major difference. But before that, a hark back to the time when Girish was around nine years old and far from frequenting the jogging track at Colaba Woods.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Sahara needs no introduction. It is the stuff of school geography. There can be no description of the planet’s topography without it. Precisely because of that its superlatives engage. Wikipedia describes it as the world’s largest low altitude hot desert. Including the Libyan Desert, its area is comparable to the respective land areas of China and the United States. In 1984, a French concert promoter called Patrick Bauer decided to attempt a solo self-supported journey of 350km in the Algerian Sahara. The passage on foot took him 12 days mainly because his backpack weighed 36 kilos. He required enough food and water for the whole journey. In an interview available on the Net, Bauer has said that prior to this undertaking he had lived and worked in West Africa for two years, selling encyclopaedias to teachers and books on medicine to doctors and pharmacists. Returning to France was difficult for he had no wish to stay and wanted to leave again. During the two years he was in Africa, he had crossed the desert five to six times by car. The desire grew to cross it on foot. Later, after crossing so in 1984, when he made a presentation at his village he found that he had kindled curiosity but local runners didn’t want to make the trip alone. He therefore decided to organize a marathon in the Sahara. With the exception of one Moroccan runner, everyone else who participated in the first edition of the Marathon des Sables in 1986, were French. Over the years the event has grown to be one of the world’s toughest footraces with some legendary winners, among them the Moroccan brothers Lahcen and Mohamad Ahansal, the former winning the Marathon des Sables 10 times, the latter five times.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Girish, who had no particular fascination for the desert and Sahara, was at the second edition of the Great Tibetan Marathon in Ladakh around 2006-2007. “ It was my first adventure marathon and a well organized one,’’ he said. At this event set in a high altitude cold desert, he met Brigid Wefelnberg, a German runner who had run the Marathon des Sables. She told him of the 250km-long race in the North African Sahara. Looking back, Girish said, “ I like extreme stuff. I am not a spiritual person, so it isn’t the life changing part of things that catches my fancy. Searching on Google for more on the Marathon des Sables, I found it billed as the toughest foot race on Earth. That attracted. Plus, based on my enquiries, no Indian national had completed it before.’’ From this onset of interest in the event to actual execution, it took Girish five years, including three years of training. It was during this training phase that Girish acquired the image by which he came to be known in Mumbai – the runner who always ran with a backpack. He had to train so for the Marathon des Sables expects its participants to be self sufficient. A relative stranger to camping, he started familiarizing himself with sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. The ultra marathon in the Sahara has a night stage wherein runners cover 75-80km. To replicate this experience, Girish turned to randonneuring, which form of cycling had just taken off in India. He complemented this with running events like the Bangalore Ultra. Mumbai’s Juhu beach and Girgaum-Chowpatty doubled up as training ground for running on sand. It was, as Girish realized later, only a rough approximation of conditions because the sand of the Sahara is drier and finer. “ It is super fine,’’ he said. The beaches also became venue for running in gaiters, a sock like-appendage required to tackle the sand of the desert.

That familiar picture from Mumbai running - Girish with backpack (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Familiar sight from Mumbai running – Girish with backpack (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Then for a taste of multi-day stage racing, he participated in and completed the first edition of the Kerala Ultra. It gave him a realistic perception of the potential relation between himself and multi-day stage races. “ I am a slow runner. I don’t like cut off times. Single day stage races have stringent cut off times. Multi-day races are more reasonable; they are better suited to my tastes,’’ he said. Incidentally, according to Girish, the winner of the first edition of the Kerala Ultra was Jordan’s Salameh Al Aqra, who would go on to win the 2012 Marathon des Sables. Girish’s own preparation for the Marathon des Sables continued. At the Kerala Ultra, which was a five day-stage race, in which the participants were provided only water, he tested the freeze dried food he planned to take to the Sahara. His go to-person for all matters Marathon des Sables was Brigid, who, prior to their meet-up in Ladakh was a three time finisher in the Sahara and is currently at six. One interesting thing in Girish’s preparations is that he didn’t try to run in a hot Indian desert as training for the Sahara. His logic was simple: there are many runners coming from cold countries to run in the Sahara. Compared to them, he would be reaching the venue in Morocco after preparing in India, a warm country.

The antivenin kit (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

The antivenin kit (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Participation in the Marathon des Sables is routed through regional representatives. An Indian runner’s application would normally go through the Korean representative. Courtesy Brigid, Girish’s papers moved via Germany. In April 2013, he flew to Frankfurt and then with the German contingent of runners, proceeded to the Moroccan Sahara. From the last airport, it was a 350km-bus journey to the starting point of the race. Here the organizers provided tent and food; the runners acclimatized for two days. Interestingly, nobody knew the race route till they got onto the bus. On the bus, the runners got the route details. The whole camp at start was an amalgam of around 1000 runners and 1500 support staff. This would keep migrating across the desert for the days of the race, along its assigned route. Ahead lay six and half days of running in the Sahara. Girish’s backpack weighed around 10 kilos plus 1-2 litres of water. According to him, the eventual race winners, wizened by previous experience had trimmed their backpack weight to around six kilos or so.

The nature of the Marathon des Sables is evident in two items Girish had to mandatorily source – a reliable compass for navigation and an antivenin kit to address snake bites. Things can go wrong in adventure. Ten years before the first SCMM in Mumbai, in 1994, the Marathon des Sables was backdrop for the story of Mauro Prosperi. A former Olympic pentathlete from Italy, he was lost for ten days in the desert following an eight hour-long sandstorm. When the storm hit, he had just half a bottle of water with him. Mauro would eventually walk off course by over 290km into the Algerian Sahara. He took shelter for a couple of days in a small, unoccupied Muslim shrine. There, he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. It failed because his blood clotted, likely due to dehydration. Mauro took that as a sign. He resumed his walk heeding the advice the Taureg (nomadic inhabitants of the Sahara) had given ahead of the race: if you are lost, head for the clouds that you see on the horizon at dawn, for that’s where you will find life. During the day, it will disappear. So set your compass and proceed in that direction. Miraculously, Mauro survived the entire ordeal drinking his urine (not recommended as urine dehydrates) and bat blood, and eating bats, snakes and lizards. Notwithstanding such risk, most runners find the Sahara beautiful. Even Mauro did. In his account, available on the BBC website, Mauro says, “ when I arrived in Morocco I discovered a beautiful thing – the desert. I was bewitched.’’ The Italian returned to run the race again in 1998 and 2012. He completed it in 2012, the year Salameh Al Aqra won the Marathon des Sables; the year the Jordanian runner ran the Kerala Ultra, in which Girish had been one of the participants running it as preparation for the 2013 Marathon des Sables.

Girish,during the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Girish,during the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

The race edition Girish was on went off incident free. There were no sand storms. While temperatures in the Sahara during the race can range between 50 degrees centigrade and seven degrees, Girish had to cope with a manageable 37-38 degrees and 14-12 degrees. Progress was a mix of running and walking. According to him, the night stage was exhausting. After the fourth and fifth stages got over, he had a sense of potential finish. “ You are hungry most of the time. You are thirsty. Yet you keep going,’’ he said. According to him, each day a runner at the event burnt on the average 5000 calories against an intake from the supplies he carried, of approximately 2000-2200 calories. That meant an accumulated deficit over the race’s six days of almost 18,000 calories. Girish completed the Marathon des Sables in the stipulated six and a half days. Across the Kerala Ultra and the Marathon des Sables, Girish suffered no blisters at the former and just one at the latter. After a long run, he also recovers fast. “ I think I was made for multi stage races,’’ he said. Europeans repeat running the Marathon des Sables several times as they find it life altering. Girish has no such plans; at best perhaps, “ one more time.’’ For someone who trained three years and waited five years overall with the Marathon des Sables in focus, Girish had a puzzling self assessment to offer. “ I don’t like discipline at all. I like to enjoy what I am doing,’’ he said.

Girish (fourth from right, back row) with his German and Austrian tent mates at the Marathon des Sables. The blue UNICEF T-shirts is for the last day's charity run (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Girish (fourth from right, back row) with his German and Austrian tent mates at the Marathon des Sables. The blue UNICEF T-shirt is for the last day’s charity run (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Similarly, despite his apparent clarity in terms of what his strengths are and what his preferred type of stage races are, in 2014, Girish participated in the Langkawi Ironman. Triathlons are single day multi stage events with pretty strict cut off times, the abject opposite of his growing faith in multi-day stage races as personal forte. He suspects that it may have been a Timex Ironman Triathlon watch, which he got in the tenth standard that injected the longstanding desire to try the event. “ That watch may have put Ironman in the head,’’ he said. His hopes were also boosted by participating in a triathlon in India, which incidentally had a more relaxed stage cut-off time than the overseas Ironman. The Langkawi experiment ended a Did Not Finish (DNF). A committed runner who is additionally well versed in marketing, Girish has sponsors. Won’t DNF hurt sponsorship? “ Being honest and upfront about failure is the best way to handle that,’’ Girish said. Hours after we met him for a chat, Girish left for Athens to run the 2015 Athens Marathon followed by the marathon in Istanbul. In early January he will run the marathon in Los Angeles before keeping his appointment with the 2016 SCMM. Future projects also include the Marathon du Medoc in Bordeaux, France, a sort of gourmet’s delight with over 20 wine stops and a variety of foods available along the race route.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

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