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Khardung La Challenge-A little over 72 km and 18000 feet

We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.
-Jesse Owens

Almost evening, dust had settled on my sleeves and my nose skin had started to peel off. I had been on the road for over 12 hours. Sipping some water from the van nearby, I checked my phone. Mother had called twice. I dialled to return the call.

“I am fine, last few left to go,” I assured her even before she asked. “Have you eaten?” she asked. I remembered the warm bowl full of instant Maggie Masala noodles. The bowl sat comfortably in my cold palms. A luxury at South Pulu. It did taste like the best dish in the world back then.  “Yes,” I replied and hung up. I didn’t have to explain my brevity, she knew.

“Running 72 kms over Khar Dung La Pass? Have you lost your mind? People can’t walk there at 18000 feet. And you want to run?” This is how she had reacted when I told her first.

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picture taken while approaching the top

 

Visiting Leh-Ladakh was high on my agenda for many years now. And to me the best way to experience a new place is to run there. What could be better than running the entire stretch on the man made marvel Khar Dung LA-the highest motoring pass in the world.

Getting to Leh was a task in itself as there was a cloud burst in Srinagar around the time when I was flying. Had to rebook my onward flight. I was flying from Mumbai into Leh at 13000 feet which also meant that my acclimatisation would be zero when I reached. I had to fix it quickly.

 

I had booked one hotel for 10 days near the market place in Leh. Having booked the hotel last minute, I was glad that I did managed to get the entire booking at only one place rather than having a divided stay split into many hotels. I was travelling by myself.

As soon as I landed,  my body had started giving into the high altitude. I had a nagging headache and loss of appetite. Altitude had started playing its role.

Getting to the hotel was easy, as there are various cabs available at reasonable rates from the airport.

Reaching the hotel, I unpacked. Running shoes first and running gear arranged neatly in my cupboard. I hadn’t taken any medicine for altitude.

The only agenda on my mind was to acclimatize as quickly as I could and decided to stay as outdoor as possible. Considering it was cold and cloudy outside, it seemed like bit of a challenge. I hadn’t signed up for any treks or activities either. But, I didn’t have to sign up in advance either.

Leh-Ladakh is an outdoor person’s paradise and all I had to do was walk around the market looking for signages that showed single seat available in a van or vehicle to the likes of Pang gong Tso, Stok Angri, Nubra Valley, etc. Cheap and convenient for a solo traveller. I shared rides for many monasteries and trees with strangers and foreign nationals. I made some friends too, whom I could meet  occasionally. I would go climbing to Shanti Stupa and visit Leh Palace with them as most of these places were close to my hotel.  Or we would simply catch up over mint tea!

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Compulsory medical check before the race day

But these were all the side dishes. The main course was to be served over the weekend of my stay in Leh. A 72 km run that started from Khardung village (one of the highest villages in the world). All the participants were transferred to the village in a bus, where we stayed overnight. The stay at a local’s place was comfortable. The run started at 3 am. It was cold and windy.

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Khar Dung Village where we stayed before the race

It was a 72 km run that took the runner all the way down to Leh after crossing the Khardung La Pass. Elevation, snow clad peaks, six layers of clothing, slipping on hard snow; everything added to the drama. Every time I had to go to the toilet I would curse my bladder!

And I was on the final few kilometres of this run when I spoke to my mother. The run took me and showed me so many things within a short span of the daytime. It revealed so much about me. From shivering hands while approaching the Khar Dung La top to almost giving up at one point in time during the race; to confident strides running downhill towards Leh.  And these last few kilometres to spare felt like forever!

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Running Downhill towards Leh

The landscape, I had come here for walks, during my stay at Leh and it did seem close by yet the finish line seemed far away . I was happy that the ultimate test of my endurance was ending soon but I was sad that my beautiful time spent in Leh-Ladakh was coming to a conclusion too. At that point if anyone would have asked me, “Will you do it again?” My response would be, “Never!” But as soon as I crossed the finish line at this public school in Leh, I said to myself “When can I do it again?”

Just keep going like crazy and look back when it’s over. Otherwise you just get confused.
-Cliff Burton

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Panoramic Image of the Village and the place where we stayed

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What does it take to climb Mt. Everest?

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

-Edmund Hillary

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Many of us have read about people who have climbed Mt. Everest. But, I don’t know any of them personally. It is something to read about such individuals in newspapers and appreciate and applaud their efforts. But, when one of your friends climbs Mt. Everest it is a different feeling of pride and admiration all together.

Now such an individual is Brij Mohan Sharma or Breeze Sharma as we runners call him. I have known him for many years and have had the privilege to run several ultra-marathons with him almost end-to-end.

And Breeze recently became the first civilian from the Indian Navy to summit Mount Everest.

Breeze tried to climb Everest in 2015, but his attempt came to a halt following an avalanche, in which he was buried under heavy snow. All of us who knew of his expedition, know how much he had invested in this effort, including selling his bike to fund his trip.

But, he did not give up on hope. A year later, in 2016 he participated in what is considered as the toughest Ultramarathon in the world- Badwater 135 miles race and successfully finished it to become the fastest Indian at the world’s toughest foot race. And only two Indians have finished this race so far.

This year, he also broke his own previously-held record of 24-hour Treadmill-Running Asian Record by clocking 202.50 km in the timespan of 24 hours. And that’s not all. He has finished many 135 mile and 100 mile running events-and he makes it look completely effortless.

Having run many marathons with him, I know him as a person with tremendous grit and determination. But Mt. Everest we all know is a different beast all together. Many of us aspire to climb it someday.

Here I had my own set of questions for him on his journey to the peak of the highest mountain in the world:

What made you set your eyes on climbing Mt. Everest?

Since it’s the highest peak in the world, it attracted me right from the beginning of my mountaineering days. This was way back in 1993. Whenever I went climbing other peaks, I felt closer to the almighty. It was a feeling that this is how closer I can get to the God and this is how the world looks from the top.
How did you book the expedition?

I booked the expedition through my Sherpa, Phurba Sherpa from Darjeeling. I did not book it through any company.

Everest is considered as a financially denting, expensive expedition. How did you manage to fund it?

For both the attempts, I paid a sum of Rs. 45 lacs in total, out of which Rs. 21 lac was raised by Indian Navy, Rs.5 lacs given by my batch mates and  the rest I borrowed from friends, relatives and banks.

 

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How did you begin your training?

I prepared with regular gym workouts and long runs. Also, I had an advantage of having a vast experience doing a few summits before. However, unfortunately, I could not find time to scale one 7000 mtr. peak before my departure, which is extremely important.
This was your second attempt, the first expedition got called off due to earthquake and avalanche. What was that feeling like when you had to return?

It was unbearable. I can never forget the feeling when I was leaving the base camp in 2015 after 42 days into the expedition. My team was the last to leave the base camp. We left only when we got the assurance from Nepal Govt. officials that our permit to climb Mt. Everest would be extended. Only then did we leave.

I was disappointed that I could not attempt Mt. Everest back then. But, there was relief that I would get another chance to attempt it. The expedition cost for me in 2015 was Rs. 27 lac. I had borrowed more than Rs.15 lacs, a loan I had to repay when I was back.

I had gone through a life and death situation in 2015. I got trapped in the middle of an avalanche. For 3 days, 3 corpses were kept below my tent and I used to see their faces every day!

While returning this time, I was very well aware that anything could happen to me and I was completely prepared for that.

There were frequent avalanches at the basecamp even this time. Every time I used to hear the sound of an avalanche it would take my mind back to the things that happened back then, the things that I experienced in 2015.

How did you motivate yourself to go back?

It was my dream since last 23 years. This was my second attempt, I had no choice but to summit.

Now, whenever the thought stuck me that I may not return back alive at all, I used to tell myself that one day I have to depart from this world in any case, so let’s leave it on the AKKA (God). If he wants to send me back from here, I will return to Mumbai. Otherwise, I am fine to take my last breath right here.

“The choices we make lead up to actual experiences. It is one thing to decide to climb a mountain. It is quite another to be on top of it.”

-Herbert A. Simon

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What was your learning from the first experience? And how did these learnings help you change your approach this time round?

There are certain mountain manners that you learn. Except those nothing was applied second time.

It is a fresh start every time you attempt to climb.  Every time glacier changes, terrain changes, level of difficulty changes. Mountains never respect experience, every time you climb is a new attempt and a new challenge. Every time, you have to encounter a completely different sort of situation.  So, there was no co-relation between two expeditions.

What was the toughest point as you were climbing?

Around 8600 mtr. there was a wall which was around 60 feet high. It had an elevation of about 80 to 85 degree. Zummering over here was the toughest. After every push, I had to rest for at least 5 minutes. This took a very long time, almost more than two hours.

The saddest moment was around 8400 mt. when we passed the preserved body of a climber known to us. We had met during the 2015 expedition. My mind switched off for few moments there.

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We know you are a fantastic runner with great achievements. Did your running experience help you in your climb?

Running or ultra-running is relatively an easy activity. We run in areas with full oxygen level. We can regulate our speed as per our ease and requirement. Yes, it did help me. But not in a very big way. Maybe up to 10% of the entire effort.

When we run, we lose a lot of calories yes. But one loses more calories by sitting in a tent trying to balance body temperature with the outside temperature.
Also, we wear the lightest gear possible to reduce any kind of weight on us when we are running. At any given point in time a climber has more than 15 kg weight on his body, only the boots weigh around 5kg. There are no aid stations here, like you have when you run. And when you reach 8000 mtr. that is when you need the most energy and the irony is that you cannot eat!

At any given point in time did you feel that you can’t do it? If yes, then how did you motivate yourself to get back on track?

No, I never felt that I cannot do it. I was very sure that I would do it.  With permission of AKKA (God).
How did you feel when you reached the peak? What was the first thought?

It was like meeting the Almighty!  It was so amazing, so beautiful to see the world from the top. First, I thanked the AKKA for his permission to let me  reach his ‘DARBAR’!

What was descending Mt. Everest like?

Descend was the most difficult part. Even after having oxygen supplement, I was feeling breathless many times and used to rest frequently. My Sherpa, Phurba Sherpa was the most experienced person around me. He has summited Mt. Everest 7 times. He used to check my oxygen supply frequently and kept motivating me every second in the process.

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How does your body react to so much altitude? Did you get any hallucinations or hypothermia or loss of appetite?

Yes, my body reacted in a different manner. Up to 8000 mtr. it was normal, at 8000 mtr due to heavy wind of around 90km/hr we had to remain at camp for 28 long hours in tents while we were waiting for weather to clear. We were on oxygen, but I completely lost my appetite and I barely ate. Those hours spent in the death zone were critical including summit attempt. In that period I drank 2 litres of water, some soup, cup noodles and coffee. My Sherpa used to check oxygen supply frequently specially in the night after the summit. But no hallucinations or hypothermia no cold related injuries. I will never forget those 28 hours trapped in the tent.

Will you recommend others to go for Mt. Everest Summit? What are the tips that you will give to those who aspire to climb?

I will never recommend any one to go directly to this expedition unless someone is a mountaineer or has sufficient knowledge and experience in climbing. Even the best climbers fail there. In reality this expedition is toughest thing you will do in your life. There is no retake here. If you commit a mistake, punishment is right there.
I will suggest, first do the Basic and the Advance mountaineering Course. Then gain sufficient knowledge of climbing by summiting peaks of different heights such as 6000 mtr to 7000 mtr. One must know the subjective and objective hazards of climbing. One must know the acclimatisation process as per the height of the peak. One must know the improvised methods of survival.

Sherpa selection is equally important, Sherpa must care of the climber and must have sufficient experience to handle any odd situation. In my case when we stuck in death zone for about 28 hours, oxygen cylinders were limited. Our Sardar Sherpa Mingma Tenjii did not use oxygen for 72 hours to save the oxygen for the members. Also, he purchased more cylinders for the team from the other teams those who were returning from the camp due to heavy wind.

Ok, Bad Water done, Mt. Everest done. What is next on your list?

Ha ha ha….I think I have done everything.

About Mt. Everest, it is really costly to climb. If I get a sponsor, I will definitely go for Everest again from China side.  Also, I would love to climb Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and K2 someday. All are 8000 mtr and above.

As far as running is concerned, I will go for top 10 toughest ultras of the world.

 “To see what others can not…
You must climb the mountain”
― Ron Akers

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17 things I love about travelling solo

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“I wandered everywhere, through cities and countries wide. And everywhere I went, the world was on my side.” –Roman Payne

Have you been to a place where you know absolutely NO ONE. Yes, not a soul and it’s just you with your back-pack?

I have. And it is absolutely thrilling. In fact I must admit that the first time you travel solo, it can be a ‘butterflies in stomach’ kinda experience. Possibly, for many, it could be the first time in your life, ‘you only have yourself to rely on’ kind of experience.

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It all begins with small experiences such as nobody to hold your bag when you go to the loo. And then grander experiences like having no penny beyond the cab fare to the airport left in your pocket, starving till the flight attendant serves you food, being locked out of your hostel and having no where…

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17 things I love about travelling solo

“I wandered everywhere, through cities and countries wide. And everywhere I went, the world was on my side.” –Roman Payne

Have you been to a place where you know absolutely NO ONE. Yes, not a soul and it’s just you with your back-pack?

I have. And it is absolutely thrilling. In fact I must admit that the first time you travel solo, it can be a ‘butterflies in stomach’ kinda experience. Possibly, for many, it could be the first time in your life, ‘you only have yourself to rely on’ kind of experience.

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It all begins with small experiences such as nobody to hold your bag when you go to the loo. And then grander experiences like having no penny beyond the cab fare to the airport left in your pocket, starving till the flight attendant serves you food, being locked out of your hostel and having no where to go!!!

I have had all of these experiences over my years of solo travel. And I have cherished each one of these experiences…

Travelling alone doesn’t mean I am a loner. I equally enjoy travelling with friends and family. But travelling alone, well it feels like a cleansing experience. Generally travelling by itself is very cleansing, but travelling alone is taking it a few notches higher and a few levels deeper-like a deep tissue cleanser!!!!

But more than anything, it is such an empowering experience. You become the master of your soul during your trip alone, immaterial whether you are a man or a woman.

Here are my 17 reasons why I am totally in love with travelling alone, by myself:

  1. The journey to the travel is more beautiful than the actual trip: Because you are travelling alone, you invest extra time in checking, re-checking your hotel, the ticket is taken care-off by you. You meticulously check on the cheapest deals and the best prices. You become pro at filling Visa forms so much so that people call you to take your advice on what to write in a particular column on the form for their respective trips. You know the price range of the ticket rates to the cities you have traveled to, at the back of your hand. Mine do. Now, I am a little extreme. My favourite hobby is to go through the world map over the weekend and make plan to go to a new place soon!!!!!

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    As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” – Virginia Woolf

  2. You know much information about the place even before you land: When you travel alone, you are your own guide. It is immaterial whether you will find a guide there or no. Also, a woman travelling alone definitely knows to do her research well. You know the exchange rate well, the language, the way of dressing and the manner of speaking, the places to go to, etc.

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    at Leh…

  3. You are well aware of the fact that there is no fall back plan: You need to manage your money very well. That gives you full power to spend and save the money that you have. You could use it wisely or spend it loosely- you have to bear the consequence of your decisions. I have landed in a situation where I only had the money to take me to the airport left with me on that particular day. And it was evident that I couldn’t afford to eat much and was my crankiest best. I was glad that it was my last day in that city and all I had to pay for was the fare to the airport.

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    both in Bali and in Paris I had the last few bucks to pay the cabbie

  4. You can do whatever you feel like on your trip: ok, you are not into touristy things! Fine. Don’t go to touristy places. You want to get up late and just take a stroll in the local market? Go ahead. There is no one to make a plan for you on your trip. You make your own plan and execute it. Isn’t that liberating?

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    at a local market in Sanur, Bali

  5. You meet new people and share new experiences with them: I have met the best of people on my travels and I continue to be friends with them. When you travel in a group, you tend to hang around and chill with those whom you are travelling with. But, travelling alone you tend to meet interesting people that possibly you wound have never encountered in your life. Like I met Fong Tsit from Hong Kong on my train ride to the Santa Claus village and I ended up having the most wonderful time with her when we reached the destination. Or I met Maurice Janssen from Netherlands on my trip to Nilgiris and it has been over three years and several trips of great times with him. Or meeting my room-mate Sokratis Zor with whom I attended a great concert in Stockholm.
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    Swing ride with Fong Tsit in Santa Claus village

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    Post trek with Maurice Janssen in Nilgiris

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    With Sokratis Zor at The Cure concert

  6. You can modify and moderate your travel plans as per your wish: you wanted to go to place X but you went to place Y, fine. There is nobody to dispute your decision. Like when I was in Bali, a reduced to day from my stay in Ubud and headed to the beaches straight. Or my last few days in Scandanavia were completely unbooked!

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    Did nothing but walked through the day in Stockholm

  7. You pack your luggage sensibly: You know you have to carry your own baggage through that crowded bus or train. Sometimes it is not affordable for a solo traveler to take a cab. Hence, public transport is your best friend. When you know that you are lugging around your own luggage, naturally you tend to take lesser stuff.
  8. You are suddenly aware of the small things around you, that you could have missed otherwise: Things like warm breeze against your cheeks, that musician playing flute at the corner of the road, etc. catch your attention.

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    At a local market in Tel Aviv, Israel

  9. You are more cautious and responsible: You have to take care of your own passport, your own currency, that expensive jacket that you are carrying on your arm. You can’t afford to be irresponsible. yggvtbuoblqq92oov8sagkfowauwvwtgorke0w4qjdiw1024-h576-no
  10. The whole logistics of travelling alone is simple: Even for the best of travel planner, it can be challenging to coordinate a trip when it comes to managing a group of people. You have to take time away from your work match it with other’s date. You can definitely overcome the challenge by planning it way in advance. But, if you have less time, then planning a trip with a group can be super stressful. So if you don’t find a travel partner on short notice, well, it could be your time to pack your bags and travel anyway.dsc_0532
  11. You get your time alone to introspect:  Yes, travelling alone is a great introspective experience. You can just sit down by a beach, look within or just stare at the sun, without having the compulsion of striking a conversation with someone.

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    In Northern Finland

  12. Your mind expands: For most part of our life we are confined to a finite way of living. Expected people, places, patterns, etc. Travelling alone can challenge this and open your mind to new experiences. You step out of all of these predictable things and step out of your comfort zone.

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    At Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Palestine

  13. You own your experiences: Whatever experience you have during the travel whether good or bad, it is your own. Getting duped by a cabbie in Bali for double the amount of money is your own experience or getting food at night in the middle of a deserted village in Israel by two helpful strangers. These are your experiences, guided by your good or bad judgments and nobody can partake in that. There is no one to applaud and no one to blame either.
  14. You start trusting your intuition more: You will definitely sharpen your ability to judge in the correct manner, not just depending on facts but going by the gut feeling too. You learn how to read the situations better and the take appropriate action.dsc_1399
  15. Anonymity is bliss: Nobody knows who you are as you are not travelling with familiar faces. You can do all the experiments that you wanted to do without fear of having people around to judge. How about singing a local song at a karaoke?
  16. Meet locals and get to know about a place better: The experience that you have travelling alone is different from a guided trip experience. I tend to chat  a lot with locals than going through guide books for the required place. And from my experience, locals open up to a solo traveler more as compared to a group of people. Also, many times it has happened to me on my solo trips that I looked to act less like a tourist and more like a local because of getting a local guidance. Hence, you get a completely different treatment from many other locals.

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    In Monaco

  17. You come back home with the best possible travel stories which only you have to share and no one else. Isn’t that super awesome?
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Reaching Portofino in Italy after changing 2 flights, 3 trains and a ferry

“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by whom we are with, we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can inhibit us from observing others; we become taken up with adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, we have to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Street art in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

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I was supposed to head to Langkawi from Singapore but then a friend who had visited Penang told me about the Street Art in Georgetown. The minute I hear street art, eyes closed I rush towards that place and open them up to the work of artists who paint the boring looking walls of normal looking streets into something beautiful.

To begin with, streets of Penang are anything but boring looking. Throw in some street art, you have a feast for your eyes!!!

20160518_180431_002 In the fishing Village

I took a Tiger Air fight from Singapore to reach Penang, Malaysia and booked myself into a hotel close to Georgetown and ventured out to see the streets.

I was staying just for a night in Penang. From here, I headed to my beach resort in Langkawi.

Expect the unexpected

I was not really sure of what to expect in terms of the street art…

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In pictures, why Portofino left me mesmerised..

Portofino is a tiny sea village on the Italian Riviera. It is essentially a sea resort which is accessible by boat  (ferry) or train from St Margherita Ligure. St Marguerite Ligure is a station which is a part of the Italian Railway network and is closest to this port. There is no direct train going to Portofino.

This place boasts of ancient marine culture. It is also one of those spots frequented by celebs, artists of renown and writers.

The village is tiny and is characterized by brightly-colored houses.

This beautiful village left e completely spell bound. Why?

Let the images do the talking.

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When you enter Portofino taking a boat, this is the first sight that welcomes you

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I am standing at The “Piazzetta,” which is the meeting-up point

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My climb towards the famous Brown Castle (Castello Brown) the view from the path

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Brown Castle (Castello Brown) gives to best view to take pictures of the coloured houses

17 things that I learnt from my first 100 miler

What did I learn during my 100 miler

runner's sigh

I ran 100 miles- a distance that holds very very special place in every ultra marathoner’s life. I can also say, any runner’s life.

Like many other runs, it was a great learning experience.

It was a run that took place in Singapore and I was among  46 participants running 100 miles. Having participated in many ultras back home, I am familiar with the whole running distance over many hours kind of format. But, what hit me in Singapore was completely unique.

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So, this was the drill. It was an out and in race. 80.7 km one way and same distance back kind of run. The race started at 7 am in the morning on Saturday. It had many sectional cut-offs, like most ultras do. The aid stations were at varied distances such as 12 km, 9 km, 8 km, 7 km, 14 km, 15 km, 5 km and 10 km. They were called CPs. CP1, CP2, CP3……CP8…

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