Part 3 – Running Beyond a Marathon

Ultra marathon, in simple terms, is essentially running more than 42.195 Km – a definition that is inconclusive though. Some are satisfied with going past that number whereas others love to stretch to the maximum distance that they can cover or the maximum number of days they can run. My first attempt to run beyond a marathon was rather “an accident.” In November 2010, Shahid announced his plan to do a Madras-Mahabalipuram run (you never know, it could become the Comrades 90 years later!). Despite announcing it as a self-supported run, he made excellent arrangements to support the run – a bus that would carry our baggage, stop every 10K to replenish food and water, and finally, bring us back to Madras. The finish point was a lovely restaurant at Mahabalipuram with facilities for shower and breakfast. We planned to start from our usual start location on CP Ramaswamy Road at Alwarpet and run all the way to Mahabalipuram which would be about 50 kms. However, on that morning, some of us suggested an alternative route which truncated the distance by 2 Kms. From 2011 onwards, Shahid made sure that we take the route that would be at least 50K.

Around that time, I was ‘trying’ to prepare for two events – The Tour of Tamil Nadu during the last week December 2010, and the Auroville Marathon 2011. I had an excuse in skipping most of the training during November 2010 in the monsoon rains. On the morning of December 5, 2010, my game plan was simple – Just run as much as you can (a marathon was the most optimistic target) and there is a bus for the rest.

Long distance running is not all about running. It also includes walking at some point of time during the run. Instead of seeing walking as an option to exercise when we cannot run, it can be used strategically. One of the protagonists of a such approach was Jeff Galloway, who advises mixing run and walk in regular time bound intervals. It was here that I got a chance to apply it ‘strategically’, thanks to Karthik Padmanabhan (KP). KP was a perfect company to run along with – very meticulous in time keeping, can talk on any topic from ‘Cricket to IPL’ and he would never run more than what is required. His blog is a great read – Smoking Runners. Although I am not much aware of the ‘smoking’ part (which he has since quit), his addiction to running is definitely “one hell of a true story.” Also, the blog makes my life easier as his detailed report here  gives me little to write about the run. What more, he could tolerate my talking for 6 hours and still, not moaning in his report!

The run was fabulous and we couldn’t have wished for a better weather. A mix of gentle drizzle in early stages to few minutes of heavy rain, and finally finishing in a scorching heat. At the 15K mark, we were joined by Bharghav who was running a 35K on the same day. It was surprising to see that I was maintaining a decent pace in covering the distance as well as my ability to converse, well inside the fifth hour. I realised that it was more than what I have planned for. The run-walk sequence seems to have entered its final phase with 1:1 ratio (1 min run and 1 min walk) after starting it at 5:1 (5 min run, 1 min walk). At 4 hours 55 minutes, KP made a quick calculation and suggested that if we keep our pace constant for the next couple of minutes and avoid a walk break, we can finish a ‘Marathon’ under 5 hours.

To run a marathon under 5 hours was my long cherished dream. I wanted to run my first Mumbai Marathon under 5 hours, but finished in 6 hours 45 minutes – mostly walking. Some of my well wishers still call it a ‘pada yatra’ and refuse to recognise that I ran the marathon. It was finally in Singapore Marathon 2008, and subsequently in Mumbai Marathon 2009 and Auroville marathon 2009, that I managed to run the marathon under 5 hours. A sub-5 marathon is a great dream to chase for. To start with, it confirms that you actually ‘ran a marathon’ – An average pace of 8.4 kmph is definitely not a walking pace for any normal human being. It is also the cut-off point for Comrades qualification, which I did not realise or not even bothered back then. It is said that most marathons in South Africa have a strict 5-hour cut-off, as the ultimate aim of every long distance runner is to run a comrades marathon. A sub-5 marathon is what I would call a ‘realistic target’ for every aspiring long distance runner. Sub-6 is achievable by brisk walking and sub-4 needs you to be ‘super fit.’ So, a sub-5 marathon in Chennai weather is definitely not what I could have ever dreamed about.

Inching towards the finish. Photo by Ram Viswanathan

On that day, I was nearing it and was all the more excited. Ran my heart out for the next 3 minutes as I followed a determined KP to finishd a marathon in 4:58. We felt that we had achieved something special and anything more, is just a bonus. We continued our journey towards Mahabalipuram and reached our breakfast point finishing the 48K run at 5 hours 45 minutes.

The run marked many firsts in my ‘running career’ – my first sub-5 in a practice ‘marathon,’ first sub-5 in a marathon at Chennai, first run with a companion from start-to-finish over a long distance, and my first ever Ultra Marathon. Running a marathon is never a solo effort. It is always a team effort – a combined effort of many visible and invisible people; from the organisers to spirited volunteers and the great comradeship from fellow runners is what makes a marathon achievable. On that day, it was my fellow runners who helped me to achieve what I thought was impossible at the start.

The Chennai Runners Team. Photo Courtesy – Ram Viswanathan


  1. Preeti says:

    What a great read! The Shahid Ultra is really an awesome event, and I hope your words come true!

  2. Shahid put Chennai in the ultra map.. 🙂

  3. Wow! :-). my blog has gone more hits in the last few days than it *ever* got! got to restart writing now :-).
    Balaji – running with you is an experience of which i have enjoyed every single moment – its just unbridled fun! You are an awesome companion to run with. Thanking.. thanking..
    Don’t motivate Shahid too much – yesterday, he was talking about a toll-gate ultra – Chennai to Pondy! So..

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