As part of the final wave of runners competing for the top spot at Garhwal Runs, Sanchit Tailwal took off from Raipur Chowk in Dehradun at 6.45am on February 21. He was a last-minute inclusion at the 7th edition of the race, a 74km ultramarathon that starts from Dehradun and tops off at the finish line in Dhanaulti (2,504m), with a total elevation gain of about 7,300 feet (2,225m).
One would think at the age of 14, experience wasn’t exactly on Taiwal’s side. He was lining up alongside senior runners, both in age and mileage. But the teen’s lithe frame and his ability to endure the hardships of the gruelling course tilted the scales in his favour. He ran off at a healthy pace, stormed past those who had started before him and eventually led for most of the race. And by the end of it, took top spot with a competitive time of 8 hours 37 minutes.
“I started running at the age of eight. My speed wasn’t great, but I had good stamina,” Tailwal says. He started off with the shorter 5-10km distances, which he continues to run even today. On the morning runs, his father, Deepak, realised his son’s ability to outlast him and Tailwal was soon lining up for longer distances. Last year, in the 33km category of Garhwal Runs, Tailwal, who studies at the Wynberg Allen School in Mussoorie, set a new record of 3 hours 11 minutes. To train for his latest run, Tailwal logged about 60km each week, while three weeks before the race, pulled off a non-stop 50km training run.
While Tailwal’s ability is prodigious, most ultra runners focus on a slow build up to prepare the body for the demands of an ultramarathon. Dushyant Sharma, who finished fifth this year, was averse to running until he pursued his basic mountaineering course at the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports in Pahalgam, Kashmir in 2014. His subsequent job as a trek leader with Indiahikes allowed him to start running in the mountains of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and north Bengal.
“My job requires me to be fit, so it was cardio that I looked towards. The 33km run last year gave me an idea of what it’s like to push your limits,” says Sharma. His next target was a 55km run in Ladakh, which was cancelled because of the covid-19 pandemic. However, the lockdown didn’t stop Sharma from running. He started a ‘5am club’ comprising just himself, running around his home in Delhi for up to an hour, before the world stirred to life. Over time, he started increasing his mileage. In June, he logged 480km and the following month, looked to finish his 5km runs under 25 minutes. In August and September, he ran 10km and 15km each day, respectively, and in October, ran 17 half marathons. After that, his job took him to the mountains where he had the opportunity to train at altitude, as well as hiking 8-10 hours every day while leading treks.
In the run-up to the race, he ran four half marathons while working on speed as well as endurance. For instance, he ran two of them at a slow pace, clocking between 2.5-3 hours while the rest he did at a faster pace, registering a best time of 97 minutes.
“Besides increasing mileage, I think the key was to change mindset—74km is just a number. We have a lot of untapped potential within us, which we don’t touch upon because we love our comfort zone,” says Sharma.
At the 37km mark, Sharma got distracted and twisted his ankle. He felt dizzy, the pain was intense and he sat down, thinking his race was done. A few minutes later, he took a short walk and soon, a light run. He eventually felt good enough to finish the race. “A lot of the learning has happened through my own mistakes. I’ve had painful times, but I’ve recovered by popping a few questions to experts and through my own experiences. It’s worked out so far, the next step would be to find a trainer to get better,” Sharma adds.
The idea of putting in an improved performance was enough motivation for Puja Rawat Negi to run the marathon again this year. She likens her first attempt in 2020 to a “child going anywhere”, running as she pleased, with not a care in the world.
For her latest run, she came in more focused, with better knowledge of the route and stretches where it was possible to run. Negi kept track of her progress based on her timing from the previous year. By the end of the race, she had shed over five minutes from her previous timing. “The key was to train on tired legs and at different times of the day. You need to be mentally prepared to run even in the afternoon since the race lasts over 10 hours,” she says.
Negi would run 20km thrice a week on average and for the two weeks leading up to the race, she ran 25km and 33km on consecutive days. From January until the race, she put in 440km of running in total, a lot of it at elevation. Most evenings were dedicated to yoga and stretches. Her research was done online and after sharing notes with other runner friends. Through trial and error, she arrived at the training and nutrition routine that worked for her, including ingenious fixes to keep track of her body on the run.
“I wore a ring on the middle finger and when it would swell up, it was time to pop a salt tablet. These are small things that you must observe to keep the body fuelled,” she says.
Despite a loss of appetite, Negi ensured that she was taking in some sort of nutrition every hour. She ate bananas, energy bars and gels, a sandwich and oral rehydration salt drinks.
Sharma believes that nutrition is an area where he still needs to put in some work. A vegan by preference, dry fruits and seeds are something that he always carries on him. Yet, he found the going rough beyond the 50km mark, which has made him realise that diet is as important as the training.
Over the seven editions of the ultramarathon, Chetan Sehgal, who is part of the organising team, has seen better prepared runners and consequently, improved timings every year. While there was just one cutoff of 12 hours to finish the race initially, over time, they added three more en route to keep the race competitive.
“With the elevation gain, this route is more like running 120km in the plains. So you need to maintain some speed to get through it. A lot of people put in the miles, while others prefer strength training and are able to push to the finish,” Sehgal says.
The race is meant to give runners a taste of what it’s like to run in the mountains - a long, winding course, with temperature fluctuations and gradients of up to a relatively mild 11% in some stretches. It’s a stepping stone for those who dream of running the La Ultra in the high altitude environs of Ladakh. For instance, the 111km course at La Ultra climbs gradually, with a total elevation gain of 7,000 feet; at the Garhwal Runs, the 7,300 feet elevation gain is over just 74km, though at a significantly lower altitude.
“Over the last four years, we’ve seen better performances—a 50-60% finisher rate and almost 70-80% who meet the qualifying time for La Ultra. At this edition, 17 of the 19 runners finished the race, while 10 of them recorded a sub-11 hour timing,” Sehgal adds.
These long distances are taxing, both on the mind and body. Negi is often asked why she chooses to sign up for the “torture”. She calls it a form of meditation, though doubts do creep in every now and then. Sharma believes it’s the perfect way to keep discovering things about himself and hopes he can inspire his trekkers to find their potential as well. Tailwal though prefers to keep it simple.
“I feel like I shouldn’t give up but often get bored running long distances. That’s when I think about how it would feel once I finish the race. All the fatigue and boredom just disappears there on,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.