Guest Columnist Arun Nair finds his way to the finisher, Santosh Neelangattil, at the Malnad Ultra Marathon to understand what it takes to be an Ultra runner.
It was Saturday morning when I packed my bags and drove towards Birur, a small town in Chikkamagaluru District of Karnataka. It was a pleasant ride through the national and state highways of rural Karnataka. I have had the opportunity to meet various running groups from South India and I had come to this location without understanding what an Ultra Trail entails. I meet a group of young runners and was pleasantly surprised when they mentioned that they trekked up a hill sometimes to go for a 10k run.
In a day an age when it is fashionable to say, ‘I am a runner”, I met the unassuming Santosh Neelangattil. He did not look like someone who had completed a 50km race. A few excerpts from our conversation on all things running.
Congratulations on finishing your first Ultra run. How was the experience and how do you feel?
It’s exhilarating. Every kilometer after forty-two km was a milestone, as I was tracing them for the first time. Completing fifty km within the cut-off time and injury free was a significant achievement for me considering the condition of the trail. The experience was entirely different. A trail-run in a coffee estate! When I reached the place, it was dry all around. Rain in the evening changed the conditions altogether. It became slushy and slippery. It was even difficult to walk in some places. From planning for an ultra-run, it became an endurance run. After a while, I had to cross certain stretches by holding on to the coffee plant twigs. It was an unknown terrain as a lot of us were not sure on the depth of those slushy areas. At this point, the run got elevated from an endurance run to an obstacle run, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. It became all the more important for me to complete the run.
So in those tough conditions what kept you going?
It was the fellow runners and the volunteers! The seasoned ultra-runners kept encouraging and were giving bits of advice. The localities were providing unconditional support to all the runners by motivating us. By the way, I forgot to tell you about the leeches.
So how did this journey as a runner start for you?
This feeling of “Can I run?” started in 2006. I realized that I struggled to walk for one kilometer. I got a feeling that there were abnormalities in my health. Then I went through consultations, health check-ups, and supplements. I had to change. That’s when I heard about Sunfeast 10k run 2007. I practiced for it, and then I never missed Sunfeast or TCS run as it’s called now.
I love traveling. It was at this point that I decided to go for run-tour. So, my vacations and business meetings started getting planned around marathons. I have participated in several runs in last ten years – Kochi, Trivandrum, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Madurai, Coimbatore, Cherrapunjee, Auroville (Pondicherry), Dubai, Australia and Sri Lanka. The beauty of my runs changed from health to the joy of running. My vacations will never be complete with two or three runs if not an event. I would go running on the beaches and explore new places which are otherwise not accessible on a vehicle. It became all the more interesting.
If you were to give a few tips to a new runner, what would you tell them?
‘Stay fit to run fit.’ When I started running, I was looking at finishing faster. That’s when a mentor, coach, and being part of a group helped me a lot. A renowned coach in Karnataka, Kothandapani sir, is my mentor. He just asked me one question, “Do you want to run for just this run or are you planning to run long?” Well, my answer was “I want to run long and run for many years.” I realized slowly that it was important to be fit to run. There was no point in getting injured and stop running. Then there were some outstanding seniors – Arvind, Ganesh, Subbu and the Team Miles Ahead (TMA) group gave me a lot of input on running safely without injuring.
For a typical one hour run, twenty to thirty minutes of warm-up and fifteen to twenty minutes of cool down post run is required. Warm-up and warm-down is something I know most of them miss out. It’s the most annoying part. We tend to get lazy when it is about warm-up as it’s not as exciting as running. My advice is simple, don’t miss your warm-up and warm-down.
For this particular Ultra Run was there any specific training preparation for it?
Longer training! Well, it’s also about conditioning my mind. If I have to advise runners for ultra-run – “If you can run ten km, you can run longer. Know your pace, listen to your body and don’t compete with others. You are your competition. No point in competing against anyone.” Do not experiment with your body unknowingly. Don’t harm your body to the extent that your day-to-day activities are affected. Run for the joy of running.
So when is the next race?
I enjoy my runs, and I know that there is always a new challenge. If you like to hear some numbers, (smiles) – my running app shows that I have completed 4500 km since 2014. Then there are many, that were not tracked. Tracking helps, and it motivates me. If you want me to be specific, my dream is to run Bangalore – Mysore, which is 150 km.
During our casual chat, he told me that there were days when he struggled to finish even 500 meters. There is something that I should personally learn, or maybe a lot of us should learn. As an irregular runner of short distance I know the struggle and it certainly felt good that even seasoned runners were not always motivated to run 10K everyday when they step out of bed.