The Hell Race – Border is an ultra run organised every year to honour Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri and the martyrs of the Longewala Battle of 1971. The 100-mile race started in 2018 have had runners, athletes and members of the armed forces run from Jaisalmer to the battlefield of Longewala, via Ramgarh and some villages in the Great Thar. It’s a test of mental and physical endurance.
Two runners from Hyderabad – Amit Kshirsagar & Subham Mishra – recently finished the gruelling challenge. Here’s an account of their experience:
There and back again – story of my first 100-miler.
The remnant swelling on my big toe still blemishes my right foot — no longer painful, but a clear sight of a blackened toenail. The stains of sand and mud on my green ghost shoes, which I haven’t washed post race, still have a story to tell. My Camelbak which is now unpacked, washed and stored alongside my other running gear, is awaiting it’s next adventure. But it’s not just my toes, shoes, and Camelbak that are frozen in the fulfilment of the 100 miler, my brain is still stuck in the state of satisfied exhaustion as it was that moment when I crossed the finishing line. I don’t see any urgency to think about what’s next, I am still basking in the glory of an accomplishment which I thought was impossible for me to achieve despite the rigorous psychological and physical conditioning of myself.
So what is special about a 100 miler? In simple words, this distance is the real test of human will and endurance. Runners experience emotional highs and lows and go through extreme suffering and pain. I have read dozens of books and seen hundreds of documentaries about this and wanted to experience it all first hand. After all, a 100-miler race is considered to be the pinnacle of ultra-running distance.
As the pandemic had claimed all major races of 2020, I was pleasantly surprised to find out in July about The Hell Race – Border 100 miles: A run starting from the Golden City of Jaisalmer and ending at the battlefield of Longewala, via Ramgarh and some ruined, evacuated villages. Longewala is a border town in the Thar desert in the western part of Jaisalmer district. It is very close to the border with Pakistan and is most notable as the location of the Battle of Longewala during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 (December 4-7). About 120 Jawans of the 23rd battalion, Punjab Regiment, held the post for the entire night until they were reinforced the next day. It was a decisive victory for the Indian Army. This race is dedicated to the martyrs and the brave soldiers. Without a second thought, I zeroed down upon this race and started training for the same. The training lasted for just over 5 months and covered roughly 1,800 km during that time. I will try to write another blog about the training, as it is challenging to cover everything in one. I can promise to make it short but informative.
Something about the race and planning: This 100-miler has a cut-off timing of 30 hours and the race gets flagged off at an unusual time of 12 noon. Any ultra-distance race, specially a 100-miler, presents a runner with a variety of different challenges and unknowns. One of the rules of this race was, one cannot take help from outside and if one runs out of water during the race, it can be refilled only on the next support station which was setup every 10 km. So I decided to carry 2 x 500ml water bottles and one 500ml handheld which had the electrolytes to make sure I don’t dehydrate. I planned on running at a very easy pre-decided pace. I knew this was going to be a really long day and had to be on my legs for more than 24 hours. I decided to divide the race in three parts of 50km. The last 10km, I knew I would finish at any cost unless a bone was coming out of the body.
The flag-off and first 50K
The flag-off happened at Indira Gandhi Indoor stadium at Jaisalmer on December 26, 2020 at 12:12 noon. There were about 35 runners in total for three categories – 100 miles, 100km, and 50km. After the flag-off, we ran on the highway for about 1.7km and then took a right turn towards Ludrava which was at about 12km from the start point. As soon as we left the highway, I got the idea of how lonely this experience was going to be. The roads were in very good condition but there was almost no traffic and only the barren lands on both sides of the road as our companion. For the first 20km, we ran at a very easy pace, though slightly faster than what we had earlier planned for.
The first challenge that we faced right from the start line to running the first 50km of the race was the dry and hot afternoon of Thar Desert. At both support stations, we refilled water bottles and had electrolytes. There was coke, dates, oranges, chikki, potato chips and some candies too. I made sure to eat some of these and our march continued.
The temperature was 31 degrees Celsius, but felt like 35 degrees Celsius. I could tell that from the amount of salt appearing on tee and shorts. By 30km, they were baked in salt, so I made sure to have a salt tablet at the support station. We were making sure not to spend too much time on these support stations, just 2-3 min and move ahead. Somewhere at the 47km mark, we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets. We had no choice but to stop and admire the symphony of colors in the sky. First major stop was at a 50km support station. This was our first drop bag point where we had kept headlights, torch, extra battery, warm clothing and extra pair of tee and shorts as well as hand gloves, woollen cap. This stop took about 20min to change clothes and we had a nice club sandwich. We finished the first 50km in about 5 hours and 55 min… but the reality struck back… still 110km remained.
By this time, the dusk had fallen but there was moonlight so we decided to keep running without turning on the headlights. Due to the rest and some food, we felt the energy coming back and made it to the 60km mark where we had our dinner of simple daal, rice and coke. We probably spent about 15 min here and then walked one km as we just had some solid food. This is where we decided to change our running strategy. Till now we were running at an easy pace, but continuously. From the 60km mark, we decided to run 1 mile and walk 400 metres. This turned out to be the game changer. Legs were feeling fresh after these small walks at intervals.
Next 40km was probably the most amazing experience I had as a runner. We were running on some of the most isolated roads. All we could see were barren and empty lands on both sides of the roads basking in silvery moonlight and all we could hear was just the sound of our own footsteps. It was a bit eerie at times but enjoyed it. After the 82km mark, I experienced something which I was expecting at a much later stage, but not at halfway mark. I started hallucinating. Hallucinations are common in ultra-distances. In my case, on an empty road, with just two of us – Subham and I – walking with our headlights still inside the Camelbak, I started seeing beams of lights in front of me. First I thought a car was coming from behind so I got off the road and asked Subham to do the same. But to my surprise, there was no vehicle behind us. Just the long dark road, nothing else. I was a bit surprised, but kept on running and walking. Then again the same thing repeated and it started to happen every 10min. So I asked Subham if he was seeing the light too. He replied he did not. Then I realized that I was hallucinating. The best way to deal with those was to ignore and keep on marching ahead. It was getting cold already and the temperature was around 2 degrees Celsius. Even with four layers of clothing, a woollen cap and gloves, we could feel the chill. At 90km point, we had hot tomato soup and hot tea that gave us some relief. Crossing 92km was an emotional moment for me as this was the longest I had run so far earlier, which was during the Comrades Marathon in 2018. After this I was entering into the unknown. I knew I had trained well and my body was ready to take on this challenge, but it’s such a formidable distance that anything can go wrong – cramps, blisters, fatigue and then running without sleep. At around 2am, we reached the 100km mark at Ramgarh. That was another drop bag point and the food point – boiled potato with salt, nice masala chai and one sandwich.
The last leg
After spending 20min at 100K point, we continued our march. After this meal, I started to feel colder, and started shivering. Fortunately, I had kept one thick tee at the 100km point that came for the rescue – after this I was running with five layers. Next 20 km, we continued our run on those tired legs. We had now changed our running strategy to 1 km run followed by 500 metres walk. After Ramgarh, another strong runner, Munir, had joined us. Both Subham and Munir were having some pain due to blisters which were the result of sand inside shoes rubbing against the toes. I too had been feeling some pain in my right toe, but I decided to ignore it and kept on running. At 5am, finally there was moonset and it was totally dark now. We had no option but to use a torch. This running in the moonlight was probably the most beautiful running experience ever.
On a funny side, during the night time, whenever we used to walk those 500 metres, I used to feel sleepy instantly…many times I walked with my eyes closed and Subham did the same and we kept reminding each other “jaagte raho”. There was a time when the sleep was so unbearable that all I wanted to do was take a nap of 10/15 min. But we knew, if we did that, it wouldn’t be 15 min long but way more than that and then the body would cool down. So fighting the sleep, pains, aches and fatigue, our march to Longewala continued. At 122km, Munir dropped the bomb that his blister, which was under his foot, got punctured and was open now as a wound. To make things worse for him, there was sand in his shoes. So we decided to make sure it was cleaned before he could start the run again. This is one reason I have started appreciating and respecting ultra-runners more and more. They have this amazing tenacity and a will to fight against all odds. In no time Munir was back on his feet. At 130km point, we had another chai and felt nice and fresh. It was 8:30am that time and we were running for more than 20 hours now.
As we were finishing tea, we casually asked, how the road ahead was and the answer shocked us. We were told that the remaining 30km, all the way upto the finish line, are going to be rolling hills. This was unexpected. Some of the uphills and then immediate downhill roads, some longer, some shorter, made us change our 1 km running strategy to just walking. This was a time when things could have gone really bad, especially due to the change in terrain, one could have cramps which meant possibility of DNF (did not finish) and that was something we wanted to avoid. To make things worse, at 134km, we started facing sand storms and we realized that due to our ignorance (or stupidity) we no longer carried our sunglasses. We had left them at 50km point thinking we won’t need them again. The last 30km was the ultimate test of our willpower and patience. These 30km justified the name given to the race – ‘The Hell Race’. It took us about six hours to finish those 30km.
After 159km, we took a left turn and could see the finish line at Longewala War Memorial. That feeling is indescribable. We started running slowly and crossed the finish line together. It was a moment of unspoken and unexpressed emotions when a tear silently rolled down the eyes which got unnoticed due to the joyous celebrations and hugs. After crossing the finishing line, when Subham and I looked at each other, all we could hear was, “We did it!” He ran close to 60km with a painful blister, which he would be showing off for the next 10 days, such a strong runner he is. It was a privilege running this entire race with him and finishing together. This race, the experience, and the positive finish of this race would be incomplete if I don’t mention the perfect training plan put in place by my coach, Kallin Nawaz Carolus Khan. All I had to do was to trust the process and follow his workouts every week. When I had doubts about my ability to finish the finish 100 miler and go for the 100k instead, the coach cleared them away saying you are set for 100 miles. Same with Subham.. I tried hard to convince him to register for 100km, instead he ended up upgrading me to register for 100 miles.
In the end just to answer one question I received as a message – Why do you guys run these ultra distances when it is guaranteed to suffer and are painful experiences? For me the simple answer would be, this is the ultimate spiritual journey of self discovery. I get to know and test myself at the physical and psychological level. Before I started running, I believed I could not run even 1km at a stretch. I know it’s easy to say now, but that’s a fact and it is possible just because I could push myself outside that comfort zone. Another aspect of running ultra distances are the runners. Most ultra runners I know now, fast or slow, they help each other and encourage each other. It is never about their personal win or personal success. It’s always about the camaraderie. If you need something, let’s do this together.
This is definitely a ‘hell of a journey’ that is initiated at the start line but finishes deep inside your core. It’s about self realization, self discovery and an ascension into a different realm.