My dad was in the Indian Army. I always remember him being a fitness enthusiast. And all through our childhood, my dad got me and my elder brother to run (or he tried to). Not huge distances – just 2 miles every day. I have some memories of running every now and then. Some weeks and months more regularly than others, but all said, I wouldn’t say we were very regular 😬.
I really got into running in ~2010, in my early 30s, as part of a successful 40 lbs weight-loss effort. Most of my weight loss journey was indoors, on the treadmill. But when the summer arrived, indoors started getting pretty boring. I started running outdoors in the city parks and on the streets, and the “running bug” bit me fairly quickly.
I got to my first 6k at the St. Patrick’s Day Dash in Seattle in early 2011. Then got to a 10k, and then landed my first half at Rock N Roll Las Vegas in Dec that year (I remember I even got a discount for that since Zappos was the title sponsor, and Amazon – my employer at the time – had recently acquired Zappos).
Running also became a family activity for us. Akshaya (my wife) and Arav (our son) also regularly started participating in road races. It became really fun going out on training runs and to events together!
Anyways – after a few more halfs, I graduated to the coveted full marathon distance in 2013 at the Foot Traffic Flat marathon just outside Portland, OR. It was a somewhat decent time (4:04), and while there were the obvious targets of improving along the time dimension, I was probably more inclined to see how much I can push myself on the space (distance) dimension! 😉
First half (left) at Rock-n-roll Vegas 2011, and first full at Foot traffic flat, 2013.
At about the same time, I also started exploring the gorgeous outdoors that the Pacific NW has to offer! I extended the hiking interest over to mountaineering – did a Basic Alpine Climbing course at The Mountaineers club in Seattle, and climbed several peaks in the PNW – Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, St. Helens, Mt. Hood, and a few more. Can’t say enough how gorgeous the outdoors is in the Pacific NW!
And when you love long hikes, mountaineering and also love running, it is just a matter of time before you get into trail and ultra running 💁🏽♂️🙂. My buddy Dhawal and I got pretty regular at training on the trails at Tiger and Cougar Mountains in Issaquah, some monster ones at North Bend, Snoqualmie pass, Mt. Rainier, and innumerable other locations here in the PNW! ❤️
Going beyond the 26.2
The ultra distance is anything longer than the full marathon distance of 26.2 miles / 42.2 km. The shortest ones are typically the 50K ultras, and the standard step ups from there are the 50 miles, 100K, and 💯 miles! The 100 miles is the prized distance – and usually the dream distance for ultra runners. In a lot of ways, it is equivalent to the full marathon distance in the sub-ultra space.
There is no limit to how long an ultra marathon can be! 😱 The longest one in the US (and the world) is the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race!!! While that may be an extreme outlier, there are still many other really long ones – VolState 500K, and several 200+ mile races (one of them – the Bigfoot 200 – being right here in my backyard!). And new ones are coming up every now and then!
I got my first ultra at the Baker Lake 50K in 2016 🎉. A low-key race, on a beautiful course around the lake! I had an ankle injury at the time that flared up at the half way mark, and I pretty much walked the 2nd half – barely making it back in the 8 hr time limit! But in spite of the struggle during the race, I totally got hooked right away!
Some ultra running “motivational” posters! 🤣
50K is kind of like just getting your feet wet in the world of ultras. It’s almost a rounding error on top of the marathon 😂. Ok, sure – at 20%, it is more than a “rounding error”, but you get the idea. The real ultra distances start from 50M, I think. That’s almost 2 full marathons – and now we are talking!
I got to the 50 mile mark at the Badger Mountain Challenge in early 2018, and the 100K mark by mid 2018 at the Pigtails Challenge just south of Seattle. Badger has actually become our annual event now in our ultra running group. Love the atmosphere, small town and community feel, and exemplary course support. Food is definitely the best there is out there! 😋.. Looking forward to the 2022 edition!
(Left) Badger 50M (getting the finisher medal from Jason); (Top right) Pigtails 100K (Dhawal and Hakim paced me for the last 19 miles); Arnab, Dhawal and I – our ultra trio – at Badger 2018!
Getting serious about the ultra distance!
I stayed at the 50M level through 2018-2019. And then covid shut down everything in 2020. Finally races started happening in 2021, and I decided it was time I got serious about getting a 💯 miler under my belt! After all, the 💯 mile distance in ultras is kind of what the marathon distance is for shorter distances. The 50 mile kind of feels like how the half marathon feels in terms of achievements 😅.
The training through the 2nd half of 2020 had gone reasonably well, and I was stoked for the 2021 season to get started!
Badger 100 attempt
First race of the year was Badger Mountain Challenge in March end. The hundo there is 2 x of the 50M course. At about the 40 mile mark, the demons started sneaking up on me – I had heard and read a bit about these and I thought I was prepared with the strategy of “don’t think about the remaining distance“, “it’s an aid station to aid station play“, “beware of the tricks your mind will play to get you to quit“, and the like. But knowing about things is much different than experiencing them first hand!
After another 3-ish miles, I was climbing the Candy mountain – which was extremely windy that day! Badger allowed the 100 mile participants to stop at the 50M mark and get a finish for that distance. Knowing that, I convinced myself that: (1) my heel pain was getting worse and it won’t be able to survive another 55 miles; (2) I might as well stop at 50M and get a finish under my belt – after all there are other 100s coming up in the year which may require a recent 50M as a qualification; (3) I think I’m still not ready for a 100 – will train more and be better prepared in a few more months! And that was that for my first 100 mile attempt! 😏
As I made my way to the 50M finish line, tail tucked between my legs, Jason (the race director, and a then-new friend) didn’t seem too happy seeing me stop at the half way mark. “My right heel has started hurting a lot“, I mumbled. “But you still have your other one 💁🏽♂️😏”, was his response. I thought he was joking and I tried to laugh a bit. But he really wasn’t! 😬
Jason is a very experienced ultra runner, with dozens of hundos under his belt. I’m sure he could clearly see that my demons had gotten to me and that I have lost the mental battle! Gave me a pat on the back and let me walk away with the 50M medal. I’m sure he wanted to say out loud “Go home kid! Come back next year“.
The mind games!
I did get the 50M finish, but wasn’t too excited about having not even tried. It is really interesting how the mind makes up all sorts of convincing justifications to quit when the body is tired! But also, mind gives up way before you have totally emptied your tank. And Goggins even says that your mind quits when you are only about 40% done with your physical capacity! I already had finished the 50M twice at Badger in 2018 and 2019 – should have just tried pushing some new boundaries!
Jason was exactly right – my left heel was perfectly fine. I could have totally relied on it for the 2nd half of the race! Not in the literal sense, but when we are talking about a 100 mile and 30+ hours endurance activity, you are going to hurt. Lots of times. More often than not. That’s a given – and there will be lots of other things that will go wrong. The trick is to prepare yourself for those low and dark periods. Expect anything and everything to go wrong! You will not be able to train and prepare for all kinds of situations, but just knowing that lots of things will go wrong is sometimes enough preparation. And with enough training, you’ll likely have faced some of those situations earlier.
“Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone“, are the famous words of Ken Chlouber, Colorado miner and creator of the Leadville Trail 100 mile race (another iconic race in the US, and part of the grand slam of ultras).
Oh well, if nothing else, I at least got some taste of the mind games at Badger!
Bryce 100 attempt
My next attempt came at Bryce Canyon 100 in May end. I was more determined this time because of the previous failed attempt. I started off fairly strong. The average pace required was under 3 mph (36 hrs for 100), and I got to the 35 mile mark in under 10.5 hrs. Then started some brutal climbs – mi 35 to ~41, and then from there till ~47! And these were also at higher altitudes than the first 35! Mile 45 onwards was at 9k ft altitude!
I was also struggling a lot with cramps at the 45 mi aid station. In all my enthusiasm, I totally underestimated the impact of high altitude – the race had an average altitude of 9000 ft! The steep climbs often had me sitting on the side of the trail gasping for breath! And it was somewhat common sight – lots of other runners were struggling the same way! Really experienced the “low oxygen at higher altitudes” this time! And as we got to the higher elevation, I started falling behind the minimum pace required to to meet the cutoffs!
Finally bailed at mile 54 – I think I could have gotten to the mile 59 aid station, but didn’t see a point to continue the struggle for another 1.5+ hours! (again – mind playing tricks. I later realized that I should have just kept going till I could – and most likely I would have missed the next cutoff, but 59 miles would have been much better than 54, and more importantly, I might have seen the dirtier tricks that the mind can play). But all said, the high altitude had definitely caught me off guard.
The course is definitely one fo the most beautiful and spectacular ones out there! ❤️ And the other great thing about the Bryce trip was meeting up with a bunch of other friends (old friends of Arnab, our training partner here). We have aptly named our group “Bryce Ultra Friends”! 😁❤️
(Left) 3 mi short run at Bryce on the day before; (Center) A really insightful sign post!! (Right) Amit K, Sudip and Partho missing from the pic. Sandip totally rocked the race and shocked most of us with a stellar finish (the first ever ultra for this “road runner” 😂👏🏽👌🏽)
Bigfoot 73 attempt!
Anyways – I had another ultra lined up for early July. This one was the Bigfoot 73 miler in the Mt. St. Helens wilderness. Armed with all the experience from the previous attempts, and that this was a “local” race in Washington, I toed the start line yet again 🙂😂..
I was doing quite well in this one, at least till the 50 mile mark. I paired up with another fellow runner at that aid station. We left in total darkness, and the next few miles were particularly tricky – I even fell in a ditch, and we had a tough time navigating that part at night. Some parts even seemed sketchy! After struggling for 4-ish miles, with another 4 left for the next aid, we decided that we are not going to make it, and gave up! 😏
I felt that I had more gas left in the tank – maybe if I was alone, I could have pushed harder to try and make the next cutoff. Unlike the prior 2 attempts, I wasn’t hurting, or feeling exhausted or “done”. Maybe this time my mind tricked me into feeling content with just getting closer to the finish than the previous ones!
Mind is a powerful thing – and it can sneak up on you with the most reasonable arguments – and all the while we keep thinking that we are making the decisions 😂!
Continuing to push!
I think the main thing that I had going for me was that I didn’t give up on trying! From each attempt, I figured I was learning something more about the mental challenges that are the bigger part of a 100 miler – I mean, sure, the physical aspect isn’t trivial, but that is something that you can get under control by enough training. And some specific mental challenges appear only after several hours of being on the course – and the training runs are not nearly long enough to give you the opportunity to train your mind for every situation.
One silver lining of bailing at ~50 miles was that even after multiple super long races attempted, my body had to endure only the 50-ish mile challenges – which I have been comfortably able to do for the past few years. So I was able to keep my attempts going 😂.
Not letting the mind stray!
My training partner and friend, Arnab Banerjee, had attempted the same races and conquered both Badger 💯 and the Bryce 💯! He kept trying to tell me all the time that his mantra was more or less not to give himself the option of quitting! As simple as that. I heard him and guess kind of understood what he was saying – and I’d heard and read about the same thing in several videos and articles as well.
But at the hind sight, I probably didn’t really believe in that – maybe my reasoning was that if I was indeed feeling fine, then I wouldn’t think of excuses to quit! (After all, I had never faced these kinds of challenges in the 50 miles or 100k, or shorter distance races 💁🏽♂️). Man!! I couldn’t have been farther away from the truth!
Oregon Cascades 💯
Next up – a brand new race – Oregon Cascades 💯, from Bend to Sisters in Oregon in August end. Having tried several race strategies so far this season, I figured I’ll give a serious shot to “don’t even give yourself the option of quitting” mantra! What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll probably crumble in the middle of 2 aid stations. The longest gap between aid stations at this race was ~10 miles, and usually 5-7 miles. Even in the worst case, I should at least be able to crawl my way to the closest aid station without dying! After all these years, I shouldn’t let a 5 mile crawl scare me away 💁🏽♂️!
As part of the training, I did half of the Goggins 4×4 challenge a couple of weeks before the race (i.e., a 4 mile run on every 4 hr mark, for 24 hours). After all, Goggins keeps yelling “Train your <beep> mind” all the time, which is exactly what I needed to do!😂 The last 2 runs of that challenge, at 12 am and 4 am, felt tough and I really had to push myself out of the bed and out of the door.. But I managed to get it done!
Luckily this race, in August end, was during my 16 yo son, Arav’s, summer break. So Akshaya, (my wife) and Arav were actually able to accompany me to the race. The plan was for them to see some locations around Bend while my race was going on – Smith Rock State Park! Turned out to be a perfect plan!
And my luck was also apparently shining bright – found a pacer, Mindi, a few weeks before the race. It was really incredible of Mindi to offer to help me, a complete stranger, chase my personal goal! The helpful attitude of the ultra endurance community continues to amaze me! It’s pretty much that everyone knows that its the human being vs the course, and people seem to be as excited as the runner to help him/her beat the course! 😁
I was able to maintain a decent pace through the race. With 32 hrs cutoff, I just needed about 3.1 mph average, and I was able to stay comfortably above that all through. I reached the 49 mi aid station well in time. Ate, drank, changed into the overnight attire, and took off for the night! Met up with another fellow runner and we shared a few miles in the dark. There were quite a few runners in this race – even during the day, I could usually see someone ahead or behind me – maybe I was completely alone for some time, but pretty rarely! And that was particularly comforting during the night hours 😁.
I had the Kogalla lights on me this time – “they are like car headlights, man!”, many other runners said to me during the race! And that’s pretty true – they are floodlights! They light up a huge area in front of you, and makes the night times that much less challenging! Not cheap, but pretty worth it! (and thanks to Arnab to introduce us to those).
The biggest challenge came at about 1:30 am, a little past the 100K mark, soon after I left the mi 67 aid station, Rock Creek. I started feeling extremely sleepy, and I guess I was sleep walking for 30-45 mins! Mindi, my pacer, was going to join me at Quarry aid station, mile ~81 – so I still had a ~15 solo miles to go! I even fantasized getting a 10-15 mins power nap as soon as I reached quarry 😂.
The sleep walking put a dampner on my pace. Good thing that I had built up a reasonable cushion over the cutoffs. But to add to the challenges, my stupid Fenix (GPS watch) died right then! I fiddled with it a lot trying to get it to charge with my battery pack, but the damned thing won’t work! 🙄🤬
The lonely miles in the dark
I gave up on my watch after 5 minutes of struggling with it. So here I was – about 1:30 am, and all alone (remember I said that I was totally alone only for a very few miles of this course – well, these were some of those miles 😅)! And without a watch, I was “flying blind” (yeah – in certain situations, “flying” can happen – or at least feel that way – even at ~3 miles an hour speed 😂).
Well.. “you should sometimes run by your feel and not always have gadgets dictating things”, is what they say! Alright – here we go, “run by feel”! 😎 🏃🏽 Did a few solo miles, and I think I was doing fine – I needed to just maintain 3-3.5 mph. Luckily, these miles were some of the easier ones and didn’t have any climbing involved.
And probably about an hour or so later, I saw a pair of runners ahead of me 🎉. Imagine swimming all alone in the middle of an ocean on a dark night, and suddenly seeing a faint glow of a boat a short distance ahead. Kind of felt that way to me 😂.. Pushed a little harder and caught up with them. It was a runner and his pacer! “Hey guys – I’m going to latch on to you and try to stay with you!” 😁. “Sure thing”, was their response! Good thing in these races is that everyone knows that everyone else is struggling – and are usually willing to help out, often even when it needs some additional effort from them (and this one was pretty much no-impact for the pair). I stayed with them for a good 4-5 miles, and got through the night. As the dawn arrived, things started to light up and everything started looking brighter – literally, and figuratively! 🙂.
Getting done with the night felt good. The three-sisters (right) were magnificent!
Right after, it was a gentle downhill to the Quarry aid station, which would mark the end of. my solo run! 😅
More pics by @jamesholk. I was clumsy with the poles! Top right – just after the race start, also from a race photog.
Mindi leading the way
Mindi was waiting for me at Quarry. Given all my sleep walking and slow down, I reached a couple of hours later than our original plan 😬. I had been keeping her updated with my progress – so it wasn’t a total surprise for her. And when I did get there, she seemed more relieved that I was looking more or less fine, and was able to continue to move fine.
Mindy was also very patient in dealing with me – whenever I slowed down or just walked, she asked if I was hurting or needed anything. “My feet hurt” was my usual response, and she was very understanding of that. Of all the things, I had stupidly forgotten to trim my toenails before the race! And after 15-20 hours of being gently hammered, both my toenails had started hurting quite a bit.
“Do you want to sit down and take a look at those?”, she asked. By then we were close to the ~90 mile mark, and taking off the shoes and the compression socks wasn’t going to be comfortable at all – in fact I would have risked getting all cramped up if I tried sitting down or bending much in any direction! 😬😂.. “Let’s just push through…”, and we continued.
We got a some good miles too in those last 19 – several sub-15 min miles, one even sub-14! The minimum we needed was sub-20.. so we were doing pretty well on the time front! 😅 The coveted first 💯 finish seemed to be becoming a reality! At the last aid station, we took a bit of a break to eat, drink.
Crossing a 💯 mile race FINISH LINE!!
There was still a 10k left to go after the last aid station – it had been a warm morning and had become pretty hot by then (I think ~85F and sunny). But the last 10k was fun, and particularly exciting since I was finally going to get a hundo under my belt – had been attempting it all this year! I was stoked!
Mindy urged me once in a while to speed up, depending on how I was looking and moving. Every now and then she’d tell me that another runner is in sight and we can try catching them! 😁 I think we crossed about 8 runners in the last 4-ish miles 😅.. Another fellow runner, Ersinan, had been around us for a lot of the race and we saw him a little ahead of us. Tried chasing him, but he probably saw us coming – and sped off like a bullet! He wasn’t going to let anyone reel him in! I saw him run away and after maybe another try, realized that he’s pretty pumped up too! 😂. He finished 4-5 mins ahead of me! Huge congrats, man!!
We got done with the last section, and Mindi said – “just across the street, into that school, and a lap around the track”! Was about half mile, but felt so long! 😬.. I’d called up Akshaya and Arav a couple of hours before and updated them about my status – and they were already at the finish line. Saw both of them as soon as we got closer – they were cheering us on! More adrenaline for me!! 😅
Crossing the finish line felt so amazing! My wife and son were already at the finish line, cheering me on! The last quarter mile was a lap of a school track – WSER training, eh? Had been at it for all this season, making tiny progress at each attempt – but actually seeing it happen was a huge relief! 30 hrs 31 mins and 55 seconds – comfortably within the 32 hours cutoff! It is on the slower side, but as is often the case in ultras, finishing is the only thing that matters! 😅
The biggest difference this time around was definitely having an upper hand on the mind games from the start – I had consciously decided to not entertain any thoughts of quitting at all! Quitting was just not an option – I don’t know how I did that, but during the bouts of discomfort, I thought about how to get past those instead of considering quitting.
Many elites and veterans in the sport talk about ultra endurance efforts often involving “problem solving” situations – realized what exactly these meant! If you feel cramps coming up, get some electrolytes or salt caps and stay on top of those! Low on energy, eat! Get sugar if needed!
And sometimes it just meant pushing through that low period, trusting that things will improve. I had read a lot about this – if you push through the dark times long enough, you will eventually emerge at the other end of the tunnel! And having quit multiple times already this year, I knew that I wasn’t going to get a 💯 mile finish in very comfortable conditions anyway! It’s going to hurt – I just have to embrace it! 😁 Gotta keep moving as long as I physically can! 💁🏽♂️
Mindi – you were such an amazing pacer! I’m still amazed that you opted to stay up late instead of a cozy sleep at home just to help out a stranger! You helped me get my first hundo – and you’ll always get residual credit for all my hundos in future! Thank you so much! 🙂❤️
My wife and son being there to witness me finally get a 💯 just made it extra special! For all I know, my previous attempts had been unsuccessful since they weren’t waiting at the finish line for me! 😬😊. Loved seeing them excited and cheering me on! ❤️❤️
Arav was super thrilled when I finished! “You did a 💯 MILES!!! How??? 😱”. He seemed proud – but backed off when I tried to hug him 😏! Guess my sweaty, stinky self was less exciting for him! 😅🤢. Akshaya was proud and relieved too. I’m sure the relief was because she won’t have to hear me whining back at home this time! 😂❤️
One interesting thing about ultras is that no two ultra marathons are alike. Having finished one (or even a few) 💯 miler in no way guarantees that one would be able to finish any and every 💯 miler out there.
There can be tremendous differences in terrain, elevation gain/loss, the weather or season during which the event is typically held, among other factors. Finishing a 100 mile ultra which has 12-15k ft of elevation gain is quite different from finishing one which has 30k or even 40k ft of climbing involved! 😱.. In fact, even one particular race can have wildly different weather across years, and that can be enough to throw a wrench in your attempt!
Or, consider the Badwater 135 mile race – it’s run on paved roads, in Death Valley (one of the hottest places on the planet), at the peak of the summer, and temperatures exceeding 120F / 49C is not super rare! 😱
And though I don’t fancy doing any super intense or crazy events – at least not for a while – I do intend to finish some of the classic and iconic 100 mile races. Western States, Leadville, Vermont, Wasatch and maybe other events in the Grand Slam of 100 milers. Hardrock 100 is on my wishlist, but with 33k ft of elevation gain, it’s probably going to be a while before I can attempt that. And then there are the 200+ milers!!! 😱😂😅
And about attempting – just qualifying isn’t enough! Believe it or not, several of these iconic races have a lottery system since the number of folks who want to run these far exceeds the number of participants allowed in the race! Western States is probably the craziest of all – with an average wait time being 5 YEARS! (and you have to qualify every year to be able to enter the lottery 😬). Guess that adds to the charm of these events! 💁🏽♂️
Oh, well… Just like a particular 💯 is an aid-station to aid-station play, getting through your wishlist is going to be a race by race play! 🙂 My next year is chalked out fairly well – and I’m not thinking beyond that!