Tayte Pollmann’s Tuesday Trail Tips series of articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Malnad Ultra is a member of the American Trail Running Association. UPDATE: The video below was added November 1, 2019.
Colorado Rockies, California coast lines, Appalachian Mountains, lush Oregon forests, or Arizona deserts may conjure up amazing images or memories but what is it like to run through coffee plantations in a South Indian jungle? Last weekend, I went to India to find out.
I traveled to the Malnad region of India to witness the 2018 Malnad Ultra, one of several large trail races in the country, curious to learn how trail racing would be different in this country of more than 1.3 billion people. I arrived in the Western Ghats a ready to learn about the region, explore, and further appreciate spicy foods.
Trail Running is a Growing Sport in India
Organized trail running is a very recent trend in India, but it’s rapidly growing. The Malnad Ultra is a testament to this. For its inaugural running in 2016, there were about 200 runners. The second edition welcomed over 400 runners, while this year, the race grew to over 1,200 runners and attracted several international athletes representing the United States, Canada, and the U.K.
One reason for the rapid growth of trail running in India is how simple it is to run and access trails throughout the country. Many Indian cities may not have sports facilities such as community pools or football fields, so running offers an easy way to exercise without these infrastructures. Even in a large city with a population of over 12 million, such as Bangalore, runners find ways to escape the busy roads to run on trails. Additionally, India has diverse landscapes that provide trail running in a variety of settings from snowy Himalayan ranges to, ocean coastlines, with deserts, and jungles in between.
The Race Venue
The Malnad Ultra presented a completely new race environment for me as it was held on privately owned coffee plantations in the rural Malnad region of South India. These plantations, normally closed to the public, are only open once a year for this race, which provided me a unique opportunity to see a part of India not many travelers get to experience. The natural environment was incredible and just how I imagined dense island jungles would look. There were monkeys, giant squirrels, and cobras. In nearby preservation lands, tigers and more than 130 endangered species roamed the area. Clouds rose above palm and papaya trees visible from grassy mountain summits. And, yes, there were a lot of cows.
Logistically, the Malnad Ultra is one of the most difficult races I’ve ever seen put together. The race director, Anand Adkoli, and his team successfully handled unique challenges of how to transfer over 1,200 runners to a remote coffee plantation, set up aid stations on jungle roads, provide accommodation packages in small village bungalows, and arrange bus transportation to and from the race start. The event offered reusable cups at all aid stations along with numerous fresh food choices.
Participants in the Malnad Ultra seemed to have numerous friends and supporters. Many of the racers were members of various Indian running clubs and it’s common for these groups to travel to events together by bus. Groups such as Team Unived or The Muscat Road Runners arrived at the Malnad Ultra en masse , which created a lively team atmosphere. Runners showed their friendship by encouraging each other throughout the race, taking countless selfies and cheering more loudly and enthusiastically than I’ve ever seen in any race.
The event also had a strong interaction with the local community. Children from a small local village school and their families cheered for runners at an aid station. Coffee plantation workers lined the course to support runners along certain sections of the course. Locally made foods were provided at aid stations and a traditional South Indian-style breakfast was served before the race.
Rice and curry at aid stations. I’m not quite sure how my body would respond to spicy foods during a race, but many of the 80K and 110K runners were fueled by meals of rice and curry mid-race.
Overall enthusiasm. Runners showed their excitement and enjoyment for trail running even in some of the hardest sections of the course. I witnessed runners climb the summit, the steepest part of the course, and cheer out in joy when they made it, many stopping to ask me to take their photo. For the most part, runners stayed positive when the course was at its toughest.
Barefoot running. There were runners in each distance –50K, 80K, and 110K — wearing vibram fingers, sandals, or completely barefoot.
Think left. Cars drive on the left side of the road in India, which is a reminder for runners to stay on the left side of the trail when there’s two-way traffic.