At 7.13 am on 25 January, 19 runners lined up at the start of The Last Man Stands. Each of them had an unflinching capacity to endure pain and enough experience of having tread many running miles in the past. Only this time around, the game was different.
For starters, there was no defined finish line in sight, and as the name suggests, the winner of the lot would be the one who was still out on the course, when the rest had called it quits.
The ultramarathon adopts a unique racing format, where each runner has to finish a 6.7 kilometre-loop in 60 minutes. By the time the next hour is flagged off, all those who toe the start line have the opportunity to take on the loop once again, while the rest are eliminated from the race. If a runner reaches the finish before the hour mark, they could use the extra minutes to get pampered by a loving crew, rest, eat or even catch a power nap, before readying for another shot at the course.
By the time the last runner stopped, there were surprises galore. The race ended way past 10 pm on the following day, with Kartik Joshi having survived 39 loops that added up to a whopping 261.5 kilometres in a field comprising some of the most experienced runners in the country. And along the way, he also bettered his personal best of having attained 250 kilometres in 42 hours.
“The 6.7 kilometre loop wasn’t a big one. The idea was to enjoy it so that it didn’t seem like the distances were going to add up in the long run. I took each loop as a mini race,” Joshi says.
The race was started in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, in the United States in 2012, and the maximum distance covered so far is by Sweden’s Johan Steene, who pulled off around 456 kilometres in 2018.
“If someone says you must run 60 loops, you’ll pull it off because a limit has been set. In this race, there’s a good chance that another runner may stand up to run the 61st loop. I think this uncertainty is the biggest challenge,” says Vishwas Sindhu, operations in-charge of the race.
“It’s essentially mind games — how you break the competition. You’re in pain just like the others, but it all depends on whether you let them see it or not. There’s a good chance someone may give up on the race when he sees how fresh the other looks, irrespective of how each one of them is feeling at that point,” he adds.
Most runners tried to finish their loop well in advance to use the spare minutes to rehydrate and consume adequate calories to keep the body fuelled for the long run. Bathroom breaks were to be taken during this time, else it was to be settled out on the course during the run. The trail near the Aravallis in Gurugram posed its own challenge — a mix of tarmac, loose gravel, sand and rocks, making progress difficult, especially at night when runners were tackling the course under the narrow beams of their headlamps. The plummeting temperature that eventually hit single digit further tested their resolve.
“It was an unnerving experience to run through a foresty-patch in the dark with dogs barking all around,” says Praveen Sharma, who finished the race at second spot.
Dealing with sleep deprivation at night, especially after having run for over 12 hours, was another hurdle that the runners had to overcome. Some such as Pranaya Mohanty and Mandeep Doon knew how to tackle the strain of running for extended hours from their past experiences. Mohanty had a number of 24-hour stadium runs to his credit, while Doon had the experience of long ultras, such as the 333 kilometres race category of the La Ultra and the Brazil 135. A few thrived in the company of solitude on the trail; others indulged in idle conversations with fellow runners to keep them going.
“I knew I could sustain the suffering for 24 hours, but didn’t know how my body would react there on. It’s hard at the start but after a point you don’t feel anything. It feels like you are dreaming while running — it’s like meditation,” Mohanty says.
When Joshi’s plan of calling his friends to keep occupied at night failed due to patchy cellphone network, he simply decided to increase his pace. What aided his progress was his habit of running for long hours in the dead of the night. In the run-up to the race, he had put in adequate mileage as part of his training, running from 12 am to 6 am four times a week, at a trail that was at a distance of around 60 kilometres from his home in Indore.
“I would practice self-supported to be independent of any help. When I reached a certain point, I would think of how much time I had taken to get there in the previous loop. I would also enjoy going past the other guys. It was mostly about keeping yourself entertained,” Joshi says.
By the time morning arrived and the 16th loop was completed, just six runners had survived the gruelling night. Barely past the 24-hour mark, Subodh Kumar Yadav dropped out of the race. For the rest, it was like following a bunch of tasks mechanically at the end of each loop, consuming enough nutrition and receiving a quick massage before making the effort of getting out of their cosy seats and gearing up for another hour. Here on, it was down to the crew to keep the runners alive and running.
“The role of the crew is invaluable. They have to keep everything in order, because the window for the runners to stop and replenish is so short. For instance, the food has to be kept ready and the soup or tea has to be at the right temperature for consumption. It’s incredible when you think how selfless the crew was during the race,” Doon says.
After 26 hours, Doon thought he was done with his race, but the crew egged him on to continue for another four hours before he could finally call it a day.
“Getting to 30 hours was more of a psychological number, so I decided to stop. I had to respect my body to prevent any damage to it. Or maybe I just snapped mentally,” Doon says.
Having run with Doon all along, Sharma now felt lonely on the course, despite being at ease physically. It was no different for Mohanty, who had kept pace with Binay Sah all along. Once Sah dropped out after the 34th loop, Mohanty had to deal with all kinds of tricks that his mind was playing on him.
“I heard footsteps behind me on one of the downhills, so I stopped and turned around, only to see that there was nobody. When I started running again, the footsteps were back. I was mentally tired and hallucinating and stopped enjoying the race after running alone,” Mohanty says.
It was now down to the two men on the course, Joshi and Sharma, as they geared up for another long night ahead.
“I had mentally made up my mind to run for 60 hours, given the field. The first 24 hours were the hardest for me; after that it became fun since the race got really interesting. I decided to run and chat with Praveen (Sharma) so that I wouldn’t get bored,” Joshi recalls.
On the other hand, Sharma was battling his own demons, and though he started out on the 39th loop, he didn’t make it back by the hour mark, which handed Joshi the win.
“He (Joshi) looked stronger than me, which is a major factor in this game. A lot of things started playing on my mind, including the fact that my crew had been dealing with sleepless nights since the race had started. It was a tough decision to quit, especially when everyone has these expectations and you’ve come so close,” Sharma says.
For Joshi, it was the biggest win yet, having endured disappointments of a different kind since he started running ultras a little over two years ago.
“I wasn’t eligible for a lot of races, since I hadn’t turned 18 until a few months ago. I’m glad I can finally be a part of challenging races such as this one,” he says.
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