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Lining up for the trail

  • Trail running sees increasing participation as runners get to train on off-season and push their boundaries
  • The Solang Skyultra was one of the first runs that handed runners the opportunity to take on trails that had challenging gradients and daunting elevation gains

(Hell Race)

Over a decade ago, marathon running took center stage across the country. It was a movement of sorts, as first-time runners made a beeline to get hold of snazzy running gear, before hitting the road alongside thousands of other enthusiasts.

 In the next few years, the marathons made way for ultra runs - races beyond the 42.195km mark - a true test of endurance for those who were willing to go the distance. When it came to trail runs however, most of the races were organized on tarmac and jeep tracks, which was a far cry from the standards around the world.

The Solang Skyultra was one of the first runs that handed runners the opportunity to take on trails that had challenging gradients and daunting elevation gains. In the inaugural edition in 2016, the race attracted a mere 16 runners; a couple of years later, that figure rose to 200. It was a sign of the manner in which, running and runners were evolving, as those with experience graduated to new challenges on offer.

 It’s where Vishwas Sindhu, founder and race director of The Hell Race that organizes the Solang Skyultra, saw tremendous potential and decided to improve on his offering. The inaugural edition of the Hell Race Trail Series (HRTS), which was started in December last year, attempts to do just that. 

 “I remember a lot of runners hurling abuses when the first edition of the Solang Skyultra was held in 2016, for they were shocked by the terrain they had to negotiate. The lack of exposure was evident. Those finishing a half marathon on road in an hour and a half were finding it hard to finish 30km in six hours on the trail," Sindhu says.

It wasn’t like Indians weren’t competing abroad - just that those, who were racing in India had little idea on what trail running really entailed.  “The scene here is in its infancy as compared to Europe or the U.S. I haven’t had the opportunity to run in Solang, but I would like to try a few of the races this year. It’s fantastic to have such a competition for local athletes to test themselves. It can lead to faster times and unearth new talent," says Ashok Daniel, a Chennai-based runner who has finished the Tor des Geants on two occasions among other international races.

(Deccan Ultra)

HRTS’ primary focus while organizing the races was the nature of the trails on offer. During the route recce, the team used Google maps to locate various pugdandis, before approaching villagers in the area to figure a way to link these trails. 

 “A few laughed at us - road bani to hai, kyu paidal jaana hai (When they’ve constructed a road, why do you want to walk?)" Sindhu says, chuckling.

The competition has six races so far as part of the series, five of which are organized by The Hell Race. The first of them, the SRT Ultra Marathon that runs past the imposing Sinhagad-Rajgad-Torna forts, was held in December last year and was hosted by the Western Ghats Running Foundation. Other races scheduled this year will take runners through serene coffee plantations of Coorg to the heady heights of Sandakphu, before culminating in the season finale, the Solang Skyultra.

 “We are happy to collaborate with other organizers and include their races as part of the series at no cost, as long as they maintain the standard of the trails," Sindhu says.

 Runners in each of the six races will be regulated by a point system, based on parameters such as elevation gain, the total distance and time taken and the finishing position. The one to top the leaderboard at the end of the year will be handed the Ultra Trail Runner of the Year award and a cash prize.

 For the likes of Kieren D’Souza, a regular on the ultra trail running circuit around the world for the last four years, the race presents an opportunity to train at a fraction of a cost that he’s had to spend otherwise. 

 “Over the years, I’ve had a big learning curve since there was no trail running scene in India. I normally pick out races on the calendar and then plan my training schedule leading up to race day. In the past, I’ve had to go Europe in order to train, especially since January-April are lean months. Now, I can run these races in India as part of the preparation," D’Souza says.

In 2017, D’Souza set up base in Manali to train and since, has been part of two Trail World Championships, besides other races such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and Spartathlon.

 “I found the Solang Skyultra to be on par with races around the world, given the technical nature of the single track course. If that race is anything to go by, others in the series should be as challenging," he adds.

The exposure was what Sampath Kumar Subramaniam lacked when he took on the Penyagolosa Trails in Spain last year alongside D’Souza during the World Trail Championships. An IT professional based out of Bengaluru, he had accumulated enough International Trail Running Association (ITRA) points through races in India to qualify for the run, but was unprepared for the level of racing that he experienced.

 “Some of the technical trails were not runnable. It was nothing like I had tread on duringthe 20-odd races I had done until then in India," he says. “The series will be good exposure for runners. Besides, an increase in the number of races will hand more opportunities to pick up ITRA points in India and qualify for the World Trail Championships," he adds.

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