Trailblazers: Trail Running in India

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The Indian sub-continent boasts diverse, varied and often opposing geological conditions. From the snowy mountains of the North to the deserts of the West, from the forested South to the coastal beaches that surround us, India is a cornucopia of natural pleasures. In this nation of plenty, a movement is born. A community of explorers, of adventurers and dreamers, who are challenging societal expectations as they climb to new heights, the trail runners of India are ushering in an adventure-sports revolution akin to superhuman activity.

“Sometimes, I struggle to walk slowly,” declares Indian ultrarunner and endurance athlete, Kieren D’Souza, in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner.

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Source: @kierendsouza Upslope Productions

A true feat of human achievement, trail running is rapidly gaining popularity across the nation. Also known as ‘adventure running’ this high-intensity form of running spans large distances and challenging terrain. From sand and concrete to muddy, grassy mountain trails, trail runners like Kieren D’Souza have seen and done it all. A solitary activity, trail running is ideal for the places humanity has not yet touched, and for the quiet, unattainable wilderness within which the natural world exists, unconscious of the concrete jungles of the world beyond.

Characterised by unforgiving temperatures, high altitudes, uneven terrain and a fair amount of rapid ascending and descending, trail running is no feat for the faint of heart. A testament to human endurance, the average trail runner pushes themselves to the very limits of their physical being, and often in adverse conditions, with no one around to help them. Ask an avid trail runner why they do it, however, and they will probably tell you that it is these very factors that make the run more appealing.

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“What I enjoy is the fact that I get to run out in the mountains or in the forest,” Kieren explains. Having lived previously in Bangalore, Kieren soon found that running the busy streets of a metropolitan was not for him. Moving to the mountains, Kieren now lives and trains in Manali in Himachal Pradesh, where he often picks a hiking or trekking trail at random, and runs it instead, completing what would have been a 4-5 day trek in a matter of a few hours, before returning home for supper. “Being out in the mountains, running in the forest behind my house, being in the fresh air is far more exciting to me.”

While still a relatively niche activity, trail running in India is rapidly gaining momentum. Kieren, who is the only Indian to have ever qualified and completed the gargantuan Sparthathlon, a 246-kilometre footrace from Athens to Sparta held annually in Greece at the young age of 23, recalls a time in the recent past when the trail running community of India was still in its nascent stages.

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Source: @kierendsouza

 “A few years ago, when I ran my first trail race, there was no concept of trail racing in India. I travelled to France to participate for the first time, this was in 2015.” He explains. Fast forward to 2016 and 2017, and a multitude of races were popping up all over the country. “From races in Kerala to those in Sikkim, Manali, and Gujarat, the Trail Running space is growing at a pretty rapid pace in India, and it’s very exciting!”

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Source: @kierendsouza & Nitish Waila

When asked about his favourite races and trails to run in the country, Kieren reveals a bias toward the Solang SkyUltra race, for being located just in his backyard, where the terrain comes as second nature to him. “There are a few more races that offer people a unique experience, like the Deccan Ultra at the Kalsubai Peak in Maharashtra, which is the highest point in the state, which has such a different terrain than what I am used to. There’s also the Malnad Ultra down in the coffee estates at Coorg, which is such a fun experience, running through the coffee estate.”

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When asked about the future of the trail running community in India, Kieren explains that while the community is still growing, there is more to come in the coming years.

“The Running scene in India overall is very small when compared to international events. The Mumbai Marathon does not compare in size to the London Marathon, or the Chicago or New York Marathons. Naturally, the trail running scene is even smaller.” Kieren explains. With the advent of all these new races, however, it seems like we are headed in the right direction. Speaking of things to come, Kieren tells of the one thing he feels the community has yet to demonstrate.

“In a few years, I hope to see the scene turn a little more competitive, which is something I feel is missing at the moment.” Kieren explains, “A lot of participants that take on the races currently are doing so for a new experience, to try something different. There aren’t many people who consider it a competitive sport.”

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While local trends have seen road ultrarunning gaining momentum in terms of competitive spirit, Trail running is yet to follow suit. Kieren attributes this growth to the accessibility and ease of road running, as opposed to the higher-intensity adventure running. “Globally, the scene is highly competitive, which is why I find myself travelling to compete.” Kieren explains, “We have a lot of catching up to do!”

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With our diverse terrain and ecological conditions, India has a vast array of natural wonders to explore, and what better way to do so than on foot, alone with the wilderness? For those of you who long to summit the highest of peaks and traverse the most challenging of terrain with the best of them, here are some tips to keep in mind when starting out.

  • Know your terrain: To be a successful trail runner, one must be conscious of maintaining stability and control of your body while navigating diverse and unpredictable terrain. As in hiking and trekking, always be sure to maintain short, well-grounded strides to minimize effort and strain on your knees.
  • Start out slow: Unlike running on flat, even surfaces, trail running emphasises the importance of focus and endurance over speed. Maintaining a steady pace, while planting your feet firmly upon the ground is more important for those starting out than it is to be fast. Respect your body and its limits, and only escalate your training so much that your body can handle it.
  • Food, hydration and safety: As with any other sport, safety is paramount. The scope for injury and risk is higher in the solitary activity of trail running, and the distances between opportunities for medical assistance can be a major hindrance to timely emergency care being provided to athletes. Stay safe, and always have a basic first-aid kit on hand. Carry your own hydration pack and stock your on-the-go pantry with high-energy snacks that will keep you going on your run.

While these basic rules should always remain in your mental arsenal, they are not enough to prepare you for the trail ahead. When indulging in adventure sports of any kind, having the right gear is of utmost importance. As Kieren tells it, having the right shoes is a non-negotiable factor of trail running.

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“If you are going in for a race, make sure to invest in a good pair of shoes. Unlike road running, shoes play a huge role in trail running.”  In road running, some may choose to don old sneakers, or even run barefoot, but the same mistake could prove far costlier when out in the wild. “Your shoes have to be chosen specific to the course you are running. It’s about safety and protecting your feet- out there on the trail, there’s a lot of scope for injury.

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When choosing the right pair, be conscious of grip, protection, comfort and stability. It is important to consider the type of run you will be undertaking. While lugged soles provide a good grip over rocky, gravelly and muddy terrain, they may not serve as well on smoother surfaces. Do your research, and pick the right pair for your next adventure. Other items to remember when setting out are a watch, with which to keep track of your run-times, a cellphone, to ensure that you stay connected in extreme cases of emergency while out in the wilderness, weather-appropriate clothing to protect you from the unforeseeable forces of nature you are sure to encounter in the wild, and of course, plenty of fresh, drinkable water to keep you hydrated.

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When asked what advice he would give to someone starting out in trail running, Kieren emphasises the importance of expecting the unexpected.

“Be prepared. A trail race is nothing like road running, there are a lot of variables and moving parts to consider. The trail itself offers so much variety, and so doing your research and knowing your trail is very important.” Kieren says, “The best advice I have is to have fun and enjoy the view because the views are always crazy!”

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Source: @kierendsouza

As we wrap up, the superhuman Kieren, who is currently training for the UTMB, a 171 km race in the Alps that will occur later in the year, leaves us with this message, exemplifying the love of the wild that is perpetuated by the community: “Trail running is a feat of human achievement. If you can make yourself fit enough, there’s not much you can’t do. If you are dedicated to the sport, you cover more ground, you see more, and you have more fun.”

Source: @kierendsouza
Source: @kierendsouza

Watch this space for more as TheVibe in collaboration with @4play.in explores Kieren’s sensational drive to trail through the UTMB — Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc — the world’s largest trail running event, covering 171 km on foot through Switzerland, France and Italy.

All images used in this article belong rightfully to their original owners.

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