Its mid-June, and just 2 1/2 months of training left before we head to the rare-air slopes of Ladakh.
Plenty of hard ground work has gone into this scorching summer in trying to build up distances and through stair climbing to build muscle memory for the inclines.
So we have now decided to test our mettle real-time on some slopes around our city
Hills are graded by www.mapmyrun.com into categories based on the route elevation, distance, altitude of the route, etc.
Category HC (Hors Categorie) is the toughest of hills as given by the Tour De France followed by Category 1 with average inclines above 9% to Category 5 for hills having a 3% incline. Anything lesser than 3% is “too easy” to be categorised and can “easily” be covered by cycle or by walk!
The closest hills to our city that offers such long running slopes with elevation are Khopoli to Khandala, Lonavala to Amby valley and Tungareshwar near Vasai and of course Neral to Matheran
So we decided to test ourselves at Matheran, a Category 1 hill!
An early morning 3 am departure by car from Mumbai landed us at Neral at 445 am. The distance went off smoothly as I drove and chatted off with Sameer and Ashish, both accomplished full marathoners and trekkers, of topics ranging from land grabbing by politicians to our logistics in Leh.
We parked our car at the junction of Neral station road with Matheran road and readied ourselves with some stretching, feeding ourselves with some bananas, dates and Enerzal and filling our bottles with water for the way ahead in torch light.
The road to Matheran winds up through some sleepy villages and nothing worthwhile like water/food would be available till as late as 8:30 am. So we needed to stock ourselves for the 7 km way up and 7 km way back down after which we could refuel ourselves at our car. My running estimate was that it would take me roughly 15 min/ 2 kms based on my slope running at Malabar hill.
But running up to Matheran means a height gain of approx 700 m (2300 ft) over only 7 kms. this is far more steeper than anything i had run before.
Still, i thought i would cover that time lost while running down and i should average approx 1hr 45 min for the distance back to the car.
With all these calculations juggling in my early morning head, we started off in the torchlight through the dark of the predawn. “Run the flats and walk the slopes was my mantra”. Very soon i realised, that there are NO FLATS truly and absolutely.
Within 15 minutes, i could see that we had gained substantial height as we looked down upon the lights of Neral. I could feel the extreme stiffness building up in my calves and strain in my ankles due to constant flexion as we tried to keep running up. The road kinda evens out for approx 700 m after Jumma patti railway station of the Heritage Matheran railway . This ridge separates Neral from Matheran and forms the foothills of the Matheran massif. I tried to run through that entire stretch sometimes ahead of and sometimes trailing Sameer. Ashish steadily and strongly trailed us. What followed after crossing the village were extremely steep climbs winding up through the face of the mountain.
Its surprising how the devilish mind plays the meanest of games with you as you slog hard on your way up. Thoughts like “Bunk Ladakh Marathon” kept springing up. The devil kept telling me, “Today you've started at 1000 ft MSL and you're gonna start the Ladakh run run at 13000 ft MSL…. no ways..ok...just do it once and enjoy your Sunday!!!”
With such troubling thoughts, I kept going, walking at the steepest slopes and trying my best to get my cadence into running whenever an opportunity arose. I hadn't come all the way here to whine out of this!!
At one point, I stopped to stretch my calves. Sam stopped too to catch up on breath and we checked with Ashish, it was 35 minutes. We presumed we had done approx 3- 3.5 kms and were at midway mark. We chugged along and some comforting thoughts came to our heads. This distance has a slope of approx 330 ft/km (2300ft/7kms), whereas Ladakh climb up is approx 150ft/km. Ashish reasoned logically that the slopes of Khardungla shouldn’t be that steep because heavy military trucks and equipment often need to be ferried across it.
Whether these presumptions at that moment were naive or not, only time will tell, but , it worked well in motivating us to keep going up.
Finallly, Sameer reached the last hairpin bend leading to the Dasturi car parking after the series of hairpin bends towards the end.
I chose to keep walking behind him and finished the ascent in 1 hr 10 minutes.
Now came the exciting and exhilarating run downhill. To meet my target, I would have to finish 7 kms in 35 min..not possible.. is what i thought. But still, I decided to simply run down the whole distance gently, avoiding any kind of slipping or injury. The clouds had begun to flirt around with the mountain tops and made for beautiful viewing!!
The last time I had traversed this downhill on foot was when we had practised here for the 100 km Oxfam trail walker and I distinctly remember walking substantial bits. So even maintaining a steady slow jog would be an achievement.
The tough thing about downhill running is that it places enormous pressure on the knees. Also, stopping while running long slopes downhill is difficult as you don’t feel like breaking the rhythm and losing time.
So we kept running down, towards the end we saw 3 runners running up. They asked us whether we were returning after having run up. We proudly said yes!! In a few minutes, 47 minutes in total from the top, we landed back to our car for some welcome refuelling! The first trip had taken 1hr 57 min not bad at all considering the super-steep gradients
Now came the hard part. From a joyful downhill, we had to switch ourselves back into the climb-up mode. The devil in my mind was back!! Reminding me that “Boss, its only 14 kms of which you've done 7 kms downhill, in Ladakh its 32 kms uphill” but our previous calculations about the quality of climbs came useful in countering this mental tussle. Also, now we had an idea of the terrain and we laughed to ourselves as I kept walking up right from the start and waiting for those rare flat stretches so that we could run.
As we reached the steep slopes beyond Jumma Patti again, the clouds moved in and it began to drizzle. It was a bit awkward considering that usual behaviour when it rains makes one hide for cover. But then there was nothing usual in this madness and i could feel water trickling down me and also the shoes. The drizzle then strengthened into a full-fledged torrential downpour making the climb far easier as the temperatures cooled down substantially.
All charged up by the rain, I ran the last stretch leading to the Matheran car park. The 3 runners whom we crossed earlier had just turned back and again gave a thumbs up for the effort. I reciprocated it and quickly paced up to the end, did some light stretches and turned back down to run. A total of 1hr 7 minutes, 3 minutes lesser this time, simply cause it rained!
The runners were keeping good pace as Sameer and I tried to catch up with them. After quite a distance, we finally caught up and went ahead.
The road traffic of picnickers going up to Matheran had increased. Also, i could hear the constant hoot of the Matheran railway engine as it wound around the ghats. The train takes roughly 2 hrs to reach down from Matheran to Neral. The rain continued and the wind on our face felt like bliss. This time thanks to the rain, we could feel that we were running faster and came back to our car in 44 minutes.
Faster than the train....haha...So a total of 1 hr 51 minutes.
Sameer was done with his planned distance for the day. Ashish decide to do some flat running towards Neral station and i decided to turn back to at least try and run half way up to Jummapatti.
This time it was truly tough, more so, cause i slowed myself down considerably to avoid injury. Often times, injury strikes when you take a false step due to tiredness. I finished that distance of roughly 4.5 kms and elevation of approx 650 ft in 30 minutes.
All in all, I aggregated a total workout of 4hr 30 minutes, 32.5 kms and 5200 ft ascent and 5200 ft descent!!!
Phew… the best part was that after all this, at the end, we were in great health and it didn't even feel as tiring in hindsight as it felt while we actually did it!!
What doesn't kill you really makes you stronger!!!