Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bliss in the Hills - Presumably India's tougest endurance event so far

Event : http://www.bangalorebrevets.in/2014/07/bliss-in-the-hills/
Route map : http://bit.ly/1rDFipz

I just finished a 1240 km brevet last year July (Bangalore to Kolhapur and back : no-hype-bangalore-kolhapur-bangalore). I struggled to finish the ride due to some unforeseen incidences such as unsuitable preparation for the incessant rain and left knee problem that cropped up on the very first day itself. But I knew that it was a distance I could do comfortably any given day.

Hence, my hunger for a tougher route grew higher. Coincidentally, Chidu had dropped the Kolhapur route from 2014 calendar and submitted another 1200K for Ooty. Being his team-mate (Cleated Warriors), it was not difficult for me to approach him and influence him on the route as well. He wanted a challenging route for himself as Bangalore has already produced many 1000K finishers so far. Fair enough. After long reconnaissances by different interested parties and organizers, the route finally settled down to Bangalore - Hassan - Belur - Balupet - Madikeri - Virajpet - Iritty - Periya - Kalpeta - Meppadi - Gudalur - Ooty - Kotagiri - Metupalayam - Annur - Avinashi - Salem - Yercaud - Kuppanur - Harur - Uttangarai - Tirupattur - Jolarpet - Ponneri - Yelagiri - Tirupattur - Bargur - Krishnagiri - Hosur - Attibele - Bangalore.

Registrations were open as the route was being shaped progressively. It saw an unprecedented number of registrations, highest for a route longer than 200K (in my memory). This was partly due to the scenic mountains the route offered, the challenges which were too tempting for any respectable endurance cyclist and also partly due to the publicity (through word of mouth in online forums) this route got. It was not surprising then that the registrations came from various cities from Ahmedabad to Cochin, Goa to Pondichery.

Wanted to make this a team ride

My team (CW) was slowly fading away from the racing scene (specially BBCh) and I was planning to reduce my cycling gradually. This ride was a big ticket one for me and I wanted to do with my entire team. So, a lot of my team-mates registered - Ganapathy, Deepak, Krishnan, Anantha, Putta Narasimhaiah, Chidambaran, Venkatachalam, Kiran Kumar (Tusker) and myself. When the days became closer, Kiran and Krishnan were ill prepared. Venkatachalam ruled himself out due to uncertain travel plan.

Preparation and training

Anantha and Chidu were probably the best prepared guys with a lot rides, including full night rides. Gana did his bit too. I didn't care how we were going to train. All I cared was some milestones : 15 km run in first weekend of September, 25 km run in second weekend, 35 km run on third weekend and 50 km run on forth weekend.

For those whose knees were sensitive to running, I suggested that each 7 km of run could be replaced by a Nandi climb. So, the target of the training was to do 7 Nandi repeats without any sign of crackling the knees or cramps in the muscles.

My office work usually goes very easy on me. But some urgency came up during the second, third and forth weeks of September. That meant absolutely no training as I was struggling to get sufficient time to sleep. But I trained for my first marathon for 10 days between August and September. And my sub 3 hour marathon was hanging in doubt. Anyway, I called up the entire team for the 7 repeats of Nandi on 28th September (only Ganapathy, Anantha and myself managed 5 repeats though we pushed hard enough to ride from home and return home). Another repeat attempt on 4th September. Chidu did repeats of only the curve 29 through 40, while I repeated 5 full climbs. This was a wisest and most useful training I had done for the Bliss in the Hills.

It can be mentioned again that my legs work slightly differently from others. In any long distance cycling, first 200 km is intrinsically a training ride for me, after which the quads become a bit tighter and stronger. Since the bigger climbs were pushed to day 2 and day 3, I wasn't really worried about this ride. However, I intended to ride along with everyone in the team and wanted to finish together. So, I had to stick to a plan that should work for all. Plan was for me, Deepak and Anantha to pull till Iritty before Chidu, Putta and Gana can take further however they wanted.

We had a decently conservative list of items. We shared some of the less likely to be used or reusable items, such as multi tool, pump, chain link, brake pad, puncture patches, etc. We were more worried about batteries for light as it goes through all kinds of roads. We were all prepared though. I also insisted on a minimum 2 liter water for a night ride. I carried a 900 ml bottle plus a 700 ml bottle. Best part of being in India is that we can get water anywhere at free of cost. Even in a completely isolated village like Periya, in the middle of the night, one house owner was happy to fill our bottles from his house.

Unfortunately, Gana pulled out of the ride in the last minute due to personal/family circumstances.

Day 1 - Bangalore to Hassan / Belur

I called Anantha and Deepak for a sumptuous lunch. My standard lunch before any endurance event - loads of rice with chicken soup (boil chicken, green chillies, ginger, onions, salt in plain water).

Chidu couldn't have proper lunch as he was an organizer running around. We all gathered at the start point where a huge number of riders, volunteer supporters and families of riders gathered. Chidu briefed on the safety part of the route and ride was flagged off 7 minutes late and were were told that we could add 7 minutes to our control points in cue sheet.

As usual, getting of out Bangalore was the most painful task - dust, smokes, slush, mud, crazy traffic. We kept pushing into the gaps until we hit Yashwantpur after which we were into a nice tempo.

Putta was well ahead. Deepak, Anantha, Chidu and I wanted to paceline. But Chidu was too bored of the exercise and was mostly on his own. I was wise enough to sit on someone's wheel (Anantha or Chidu or Deepak) if they are not going to sit on mine. This didn't work for long as rain came early and it was splashing all over the face of the rider behind. So, we rode without pace line.

At about 95 km mark, which was hardly 7 pm, Chidu was feeling hungry as he hadn't had proper lunch. We obliged to stop in a dhaba at 7:15 pm and had good dinner and long break. We continued at 8:10 pm or so. Putta was patiently waiting for us at somewhere around 105 km mark. I felt sorry for wasting his time which he could have used for some good sleep later in the night.

It started pouring even heavier as we continued, but it was not heavy enough to slow us down. I had seen worse in my previous 1200K. At around 11:30 PM, my usual sleep time caught up and I was drowsy. Rain had stopped and moon was in its full glory. We were never in a group. For a good distance, Putta and I were far ahead of the group. We stopped for omelet in between while others caught up. As we packed ponchos and rain coats, Anantha and I were left behind and I told the guys that we would catch up. As I was feeling low and drowsy, I asked Anantha to pull for a while. I just sat on his wheels and we caught up with the rest of the guys sooner. We two had to stop again as soon as we were behind them. They didn't see us and thus they too stopped waiting for us thinking that we were left too far behind. That slowed down the overall group pace.

At about 12:30, I was doing good and we were mostly riding together with separation here and there. After a while Chidu was finding it difficult to overcome the sleepiness while Putta was also feeling low. I tried to crack some jokes which I'm horrible at. It didn't work. While we waited for Chidu, we asked Putta to go ahead steadily. Later, Putta disappeared completely ahead of us. I asked Anantha and Deepak to proceed while I rode with Chidu. In such a beautiful weather and rolling terrain, we were too slow. We managed to reach Belur control at 3:30 AM or so. We all took some nap before continuing. Road from Belur to Mangalore highway was very average one and we had tough time braking and maneuvering around potholes. Deepak and I were pretty fast in this section. The rest of the guys behind later told us that Putta got a flat. We stopped for a tea and bread buns. It was dawn by then. We proceeded towards Balupet which was just 5 km to have breakfast. I ate four tatte idli.

Day 2 - Balupet - Madikeri - Virajpet - Iritty - Periya - Kalpeta

We decided that slower riders should continue riding steadily while stronger riders would stop to help anyone who has got a flat or feeling low on energy. At this point of time, we realize that Chidu cannot survive with his brake pads which were completely worn out in the rear. Later, I noticed that KHS which he bought recently has the cheapest brake pads. We had spare brake pads of good quality from btwin, but Chidu's pads were not of the kind that can replace only the rubber pad. We carried only the rubber pad. Deepak carried an extra set of pads with the casing, but without the screws. Chidu's screws didn't fit into the casings that Deepak had. We went about hunting for brake pad. Meanwhile, Anantha had stopped to help the guys from Ahmedabad to fix a puncture. They were struggling to fit in the tire and they needed Anantha's pump as they didn't have a good one. I let Deepak and Anantha proceed while I would help. After struggling for a couple of minutes, I noticed that the problem was due to a bent bead on the tire, which was popping out before we inflated. I removed tube, un-bent the bead, pushed that portion further away from the valve place and placed the tube and inflated for them. I took the pump and chased the group. But Anantha and Deepak were waiting for me after some distance. From then on, we were starting to gradually climb every now and then while we were still hunting for a cycle shop. It was too early for shops to open. Putta and Chidu kept ahead of us while rest of us chased. At Somwarpet, we caught up with Putta. Chidu called a few minutes later that he was fixing his pads in a shop and he would catch us up in Virajpet or subsequent controls.

Anantha had a gear ratio whose 1x1 was similar to my 1x3. Since he was a heavier rider, it made thing even worse for him. Madikeri does not have steep climbs and thus we should ideally ride at good average speed. It also has a typical go up a slope and ride down half of the slope. This should ideally make the climb easier as we are getting some momentum before every up slope. But, if we are too slow, we are going to make double the effort going up and down again.

A few km before Madikeri, Deepak and I left Anantha behind and found a hotel for lunch. We called Anantha for lunch. Putta and Sandeep too joined on the same table. I literally had a bath in the toilet. Had every lunch. Refilled water and proceeded to Virajpet.

We made to Virajpet comfortably though Anantha struggled for sometime after lunch. Putta decided to quit at Virajpet as he experienced some pain in the eyes. Anantha bought sandals, took Putta's platform pedals and sent his stinking cleat shoes (wrapped in plastic though) to Putta.

Anantha really enjoyed the downhill from Virajpet till Iritty while I waited for Deepak as he was way too slow for a downhill. We had tea at the base before continuing. We refilled water in Iritty and packed some egg puffs. Ride from Iritty till Periya was a nice one until we start climbing some steep section. We were running short of time and I pressurized Anantha to push to the last drop of energy he had. Surprisingly, Anantha had the most amount of water while Deepak and I were running out. We somehow finished the climbs before descending to the Periya control. What could have been an easy downhill was filled with pebbles, potholes and thick fog. So, we couldn't make use the downhill though we were saving the energy by then.

After Periya control, Anantha saw the climb again and he wanted to quit. We had to agree to him as he seemed to be totally beyond his limits. Deepak and I continued. Later at a checkpost, Anantha called me saying that he was riding and covered a good distance in the downhill. So, we waited for about five minutes before he caught us up - he didn't have a place to stay back. Moreover, the desire to finish the ride took over him. He still had tough time covering the distance in a very rolling terrain. So, Deepak and I left him behind as we were running out of time again. Soon, Deepak and I reached the Kalpeta control about 20 minute before closing while Anantha was in the nick of time.

We decided to sleep for 3 to 4 hours before we could even think of climbing the Gudalur to Ooty section. So, we took hot water and sampoo bath, changed to fresh clothes and had good sleep for 3 hours. We lost sometime after waking up... I got some nice lubes from Somas and tuned my derailleurs. We had bread baji and a lot of tea as we missed dinner the previous night.

Day 3 - Climb to Ooty and to Avinashi control

As we continued from Kalpeta, the cue sheet directed us to take left on the bypass whereas the destination Meppadi was in a straight road. We took the left anyway and we ended up in one of the previous junction. I clearly remembered from the maps that this was wrong. I called Chidu, who failed to pick up the phone. We asked people for Gudalur and continued towards Sultan Bathery. About 6.5 km further, Chidu called me and clarified the route. We rode back to the bypass (another 6.5 km to make it a 13 km loss in a mix of climbs) and continued towards Meppadi which had all broken roads for 7 km. After that, it was main road and in good condition. Deepak and I rode very strong, averaging 24 kmph for half the distance till Gudalur. We were at the bypass at 7:50 AM and we were in Gudalur at 11:15 AM with one breakfast and refill break in between. We ate well in Gudalur (parathas and omelets) and packed some parcels too as we would not be breaking in between till next time control in Avinashi.

As the climbs became steeper, Deepak was not doing great, but going at good enough pace of about 11 kmph average. 18 km of incessant climbs in incessant rain/flood with broken roads. Finally we saw some downhills and from there on, it was rolling with ups and downs. We changed his rear brake pads in Ooty while we used that time to order some baji and tea. I didn't anticipate the climb till Dodabeta and thus we were short of some 20 minutes from the target. My target was to go through the entire downhill in day light. We had daylight only till Kotagiri. Deepak lost nearly 20 minutes there just trying to get the ATM slip (standing in line and then trying to get slip by cancelling the transaction - some ATMs won't give slip for cancelling transaction. Hence I always check balance). We descended from then on, which looked like eternity. Fortunately, there was absolutely no traffic on this road which was otherwise known for heavy traffic. Road was spotless, smooth and rain had stopped and roads were dry. Deepak was still too slow and we adjusted his brake in between to increase his confidence. I updated on the time every now and then as I kept the backlight on my cyclocomp on all the time. Finally, we reached the plain section where I updated Deepak that we had to cover 64 km in 2 hours. He as positive that he would be able to ride fast as the downhill was over. I also assured him that the road would be smooth, rolling though it was single lane. To my surprise, Deepak was feeling low and unable to push hard. He was feeling so low that he was unable to hang on to my wheels even at my 80% effort. The average required pace inched further up. Finally, it was at near 35 kmph required with 45 km (in 1h20m) to go. I agreed that we would continue together missing the next control if he promised to continue in spite of missing the control. He too agreed. But in the next moment, he didn't feel right and he asked me to go ahead and wait in the control instead of missing the control myself. He would still ride with me after that. I was in a split. I as under some untold pressure to finish within cut off time as I was one of the riders who insisted on a tough route. It was like, if it ever happened that nobody could finish, I should finish so as to prove that the route was indeed doable within the given time. So, I zoomed past Deepak immediately. I was imagining some chaos in Avinashi town. So, I pushed at speeds of about 35 to 38 with backlight on all the time. I felt irresponsible at times as it was too risky to keep the head down and pedal so hard in the dark. But I knew the road at least - it was more or less a safe road. There were moments of guilt as I got dragged by heavy trucks longer than I would prefer. It was a single lane and I was riding at 35 plus speed. So, obviously they would overtake me and come to the left lane and be there a while before I could actually allow the gap. But I couldn't help. Whether they are there or not, I cannot slow down below 35. But I cannot deny that the traffic helped me at least by a couple of minutes to the finish. As I escaped the Avinashi town without losing a minute - fortunately. I zoomed further. As I joined the highway, it was rolling even better, but too many ups and downs for my liking. I used up the 7 minutes buffer (given due to the late flag off) and I was there right at penultimate time of the control point. First thing I shouted to the volunteers was the timing I stopped so that I could take time to remove my card and so on.

I was fully drenched with sweat in this chase. I removed shirts, bib shorts - I had a running underwear all the time inside my padded shorts. I cooled down myself. I was not in a position to enter the Cafe Coffee Day. So, volunteers helped me with drinks and food. They also purchased my sandwich using my cash. Meanwhile, I got to know that Deepak took a wrong turn and was towards Coimbatore. He was not going to continue. So, I requested Yuvaraj to wait for me and be my companion. He agreed. I gulped down two sandwiches as fast as I could, volunteers refilled my bottles. I got electral from Yuvaraj as I ran out of enerzal. I packed the third sandwich and we started off.

We were riding together though the distance was a constant 250 m or so. After an while, I requested for a power nap. We stopped in a bus waiting shed and had a nap of about 15 mins. We continued riding though I was still drowsy. I didn't dare to ask for another stop as I already stopped him twice. Finally, he himself asked for a stop and I obliged happily. We slept for a couple of hours before I instinctively woke up at the crunch time. I woke him up twice, thrice as he was in deep sleep. I wanted to re-assess the required pace and thus I asked him at what speed he could climb Nandi if he had to at that moment. He said - about 10 kmph. I left a buffer of 2:10 for the Yercaud climb plus to the ATM at his pace and calculated the required pace till Salem. I insisted him to be close to my wheels to which he obliged till we entered Salem. We sustained a very good average. We saw three other guys and one guy was fixing a flat. We didn't have time to help him. We stopped in front of a shop which was just about to open and requested for water. The boy at the shop filled the bottles and I had my sandwich. I wanted to share with Yuva, but he was a vegetarian.

Day 4 - Climb to Yercaud and to finish

We continued riding at brisk pace till Yercaud base. We also managed to save another extra 10 minutes or so. So, we had nearly 2h20 till the ATM excluding the 7 minutes buffer time. We climbed at about 9.5 to 10.5 kmph speed for most and at some stretches, it dropped to 8 kmph. Whenever it happened to be below 8.5 kmph, I would sound a warning and we would push a bit harder. Finally, the climb got over in exactly two hours and we had 20 minutes to the ATM.

We took a long break (about 90 minutes), with heavy breakfast. We were all set to descend. The descend was so steep that we applied too much brakes in spite of having no traffic at all. We stopped a couple of times to cool down the rim. In between, we had to climb some gradients which could be about 15% or so. It was so steep that it wouldn't move with full body weight on the pedal. We had to push down the pedal while hands pulling on the handle bar so as to give more downward thrust. This went on for about two or three km I guess. Overall, fast descend.

We hit the Uttangarai highway soon. We stopped for another nap of 45 minutes on a road side rock. Then we continued. We had butter milk on the way. Then later we had lunch at 11:30 AM again. We continued from there catching up with Sathish and co, who were coming from ring road. From there on, we four were mostly in visible range till Yelagiri, which was a non-event ride. We reached Yelagiri control about 80 minutes before the close. We had dinner and returned. Yuva and I took two power naps - one at Tirupattur and another before Bargur. We never felt that the sleep was sufficient, but we didn't have a choice but to continue riding. Required average was about 15 kmph with those climbs before Hosur. So, we pushed harder whenever we could. Our target was to average 18 kmph from Krishnagiri till Hosur to have some buffer for any mechanical failures. We averaged 22.4 kmph instead. Wow! In between, I sat behind his wheels too and I felt much at ease. In some of those small ghat climbs, I wanted to test my limit and I was able to climb at 20+ overtaking all the trucks on the leftmost lane and at times even those at the second lane. Finally, we had another tea break before Hosur - about 50 km before end point. All four of us (who were later going to be the official finishers), joined there. Yuva and I pushed off at faster pace. We rode with fun and enthusiasm with the end in sight. At about 18 km to go, I stopped looking back for Yuva as I knew we would be home safely. Finally I reached the end point where there was a sea of supporters, when I was a filthy garbage - funniest time to be greeted by a huge crowd. But the crowd was not going to listen to my pleading not to come close to me. So, I mingled and celebrated. I still don't know who were all responsible for the elaborate arrangement there - food, garlands, tender coconut, yoga mat (Anil), chocolates, and gathering itself. I will eventually find out and give due credit. At this moment, I'm too elated :-)

Though I was a slightly stronger rider than Yuva in the stretch that we shared, I didn't have a choice except being close to him or ride ahead of him. This was because I depended on his pump if I were to get a flat. I didn't carry a pump and was supposed to ride with Deepak all throughout before he lost his way and quit.

Congratulations to the other finishers : Yuvaraj, Sathish and Karthick. There are other three finishers who missed the time controls in between - Kavirashu, Mehul and Sundaram. Other riders who dared to start and fought till their limits - all the best next time. I'm sure you will be stronger next time.

Two ladies who started need a special mention. Both Anjali and Archana covered almost till the half. This route was not really suitable for ladies from safety point of view and is extra tough as well. But you did really well. It is unfortunate that you had to quit. Wish you success for future attempts.

How did I fare?

Honestly, my bigger goal for the year is the Bengaluru Marathon, which will be my first official marathon and is on 19th Octber - just 7 days after this brevet. I like to run fast and short (less than 10 km) or slow and long distance (more than 100 km). I hate to run anywhere in between, which is about 35 to 75 km. So, I want to do well in this marathon and hang my shoes. With this goal in mind, I never exerted myself. As I finished, I had legs which can sit up and down perfectly comfortably. I had bums which were perfectly comfortable sitting on saddle. But a lot of sleep to catch up. So, I slept whole of Sunday after noon and night and a bit of Monday afternoon too. I ran 10 km today (Tuesday morning - 47 hours after I finished) in 44:30. So, I seem to be doing good for my marathon. Fingers crossed till Sunday :-) [Edit: 04-Mar-2015] I did run the Bengaluru Marathon and fell far short of my target. I clocked 3:32 which is hardly an average of 12 kmph. I will run the next Bengaluru Marathon 2015. I registered for the mid-night 2014, but couldn't run as it was family vacation time. [/Edit]

What next?

I think, my brevet rides are over with this ride. I might do a faster brevet ride, like Sree's R60. I usually don't repeat a brevet distance or running distance unless it is a competitive event with some chance of myself winning. Having said that, I will dedicate my time in volunteering and supporting the biking community which has given me so much of joy and defining moments in life.

I will do the K2K race (Kanyakumari to Khardungla) in 2016 if the event does happen. I might skip the Great Coast race in 2015. [Edit: 04-Mar-2015] I decided not to race the K2K as a mark of support to my close cycling friends who got the drubbing from AIR leadership. [/Edit]

Many many thanks to the volunteers, specially Suman, Ravindra, Sohan and Parag. Thanks to organizers - Chidu, Sandeep and Arvind.