“My Name is Vasu Rangachary and I’m 56 years old. Here is a bit of a crazy story of running my very first Ultramarathon to completing the Comrades Marathon (90k) in less than 5 months“
Memories of a hobby that transformed me for the better
I realized that the running bug bit me around early 2013 when I completed my first HM in Dec 2013. I moved to Mogappair, Chennai in 2015 and joined the Mugappair Fitness Club (MFC) in mid-2016. Regular running commenced and I feel there is nothing much to talk about my initial days of running my first ever full marathon in 2017 in 5:35 hrs. It was a laborious finish.
Seeing a couple of fellow runners finishing the Comrades 2018 marathon instantly attracted me towards ultramarathons and in particular the Comrades marathon. I wanted to take up this challenge of running this monstrous run, which is considered as an impossible challenge. I wanted to run the Comrades in the year 2019.
I learnt about Coach Kay and had reached out to him to help me with his Comrades coaching program. He was very nice, considerate and listened to me. He took efforts to understand my background very patiently but in the end, his recommendations were not so pleasing. He said, “you are too early into ultra running, You need at least 2 years of ultra training before attempting Comrades. Get faster in smaller distances”
He also provided some distance/time standards like,
– 5k in sub 23 – my PB was 24 mins
– 10k in sub 50 – my PB was 58 mins
– HM in sub 1:50 – my PB was 2:06 Hrs
– FM in sub 04:20 Hrs
– Run a couple of challenging hill Ultramarathons
These target references were daunting. The Chennai Marathon was in January and I had only 4 months to train for it to get a sub 4:20 time, which was at that time, my secret goal. I then decided to approach Kay to talk about my Comrades training.
Comrades Marathon qualification
The Comrades marathon registration starts in September for the following year event and has a full marathon qualifying time of sub 04:50 hrs. I went ahead and registered for Comrades in Sep 2018 blindly without thinking much. The Comrades was scheduled for June 9, 2019, and it was an “up-run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Better the marathon qualification timing better the seeding in the Comrades due to its huge participation (~20000+). So the challenges ahead of me looked very scary to state the least. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing at that time.
I joined the MFC FM training batch. Fellow runners and Mukesh and Balaji gave me once a week running plan. I was sincere and diligent and gradually building my endurance and confidence but somehow I felt the quality of the runs was not up to the mark. The consistency in pace during interval and tempo runs eluded me and appeared to be very aggressive to reach my goal of a sub 4:20 FM.
Any vigorous training always is followed by injuries and I was surprised by a piriformis pain on my left glute. This was primarily due to running at a higher intensity specified by my MFC coach. My internal goal was to finish the FM in a sub 4:20 but the target set by Mukesh was sub 04:40 to qualify for Comrades. Much against their advice, I pursued my internal goal silently. The last three progressive training runs gave me the confidence to comfortably pace at 5:30 for 15km.
I still can’t believe that I completed the SPCM in 04:13 hrs.
I picked my phone to call Coach Kay.
Signing up with Coach Kay
Having scaled the first small (actually, a big leap) step of qualifying for Comrades, I approached Coach Kay to help me with my preparations for the Comrades. He had repeated the same concerns “too soon to run ultramarathons” and also “can’t say anything until April 2019 about my possibility of finishing Comrades“. I was determined to get this going and we signed up for the huge challenge. I was already getting old and this is the perfect moment in my life. I told to myself “no looking back”.
Coach Kay published a customized training plan in Trainingpeaks for me starting the week after the Pongal celebrations. He set up a call and walked me thru several technical jargons specific to fitness, running and ultramarathons. He also laid out the expectations and the kind of committments and behavioural changes needed from me. He suggested me to put on the running shoes and do a 10k run at easy to MP whenever I had found time over and above the mileage chalked out by him. He also encouraged me to power walk a lot.
Training discipline & running my first ultra distance
I seriously followed my schedule. As mentioned before, obtaining a consistent running pace was still was baffling but I did not veer away from putting on the rote mileage on my legs as well as conditioning my body. I strived for a 6:30 pace consistently and Coach warned me that I needed to slow down and hover around 7:30-7:40 pace.
Some runs were controlled by the pace and some by HR/efforts. His recommendations for slower LSDs were around 8 and 8:30. LSDs to build endurance as well as improving my endurance & speed was a lesson learnt. My coach did a weekly performance review and made constant adjustments to my training plan wherever necessary. He further set up periodic calls with all the Comrades runners from the academy to share his experiences on both the things that went well and the failure aspects.
The training had one long hill simulation run every single month to be run at varying pace and intensities to physically and mentally prepare for the Comrades Marathon. I was also learning the aspects of fueling and identifying the right things to wear. For someone who is having an instant love and tryst with Ultramarathons running one each on every month of my training was very exciting but at the same time daunting too.
The ultra journey the ultra key runs
My first key ultra – Feb’19 Yelagiri with Elango
My first hill run was in Feb. I’d like to thank Elango Shanmugam for supporting me with this run. Commencing the run at 4 am in pitch dark with a steep climb from Ponneri at the foot of Yelagiri to the circuitous top was an exhilarating and humbling experience. Hills have to be respected – a walk/run policy had to be followed and the initial effort has to be conservative. I was worn out around 42km – Thanks to Elango who motivated me and we finished the rolling hill of 52 km in around 6 hrs. I felt a grinding pain on the exterior right knee from 42nd km, which vanished when I ran very fast downhills and killed me while walking uphill. I later learnt that it was ITBS. One good thing was I could hop on to Elango’s car and return to Chennai after the run. I also walked a km with the knee pain to reach my home. These I could not after Jan FM. So mentally noted that I was building endurance.
My ITB pain plagued me a couple of weeks. My coach prescribed exercises and recovery steps also made changes to the running plan to factor my injury.
The second key ultra run – Mar’19 VVO Kolli Hills 52 km
In March the ITBS reared its ugly head right from 30th km of VVO Ultra and I had to abort the run around 48th km. I had misgivings if I could ever participate in Comrades. Coach prescribed more exercises and explained thru how-to-live videos. These exercises got me back to running schedule faster.
The third key ultra run – Apr’10 – OOTYULTRA 60k
Continued the grind of preparing for the OOTYULTRA in April. The Queen of Hills in South India tempts everyone to underestimate her ascent/elevation. In spite of all precautions, like respecting the hill and walking up and not smashing downhill by more than 30 secs from the target pace the ITBS returned. At 30th mark I had to make a decision to continue or not .. I put on the knee compression band and continued my run and reached 50 km mark in 7 hrs. The steep ascent in the last 10 km devastated me completely and I walked the entire distance and finished in around 9 hrs. The body was giving up and forcing me to sit or lie down but mentally I wanted to keep moving and never stop. This section really prepared me for all the travails one gets into in ultramarathons.
There was a lurching issue through. Having taken 9 hrs to complete 60 km how would I cover another 50% more Comrades distance? Would I be able to haul my body further? Should I give up Comrades?
My running buddies and Coach motivated me and advised me not to compare Ooty with 2000 m elevation in 60 km to a much gradual elevation of 1800 m across 90 km in comrades. Technicalities apart the lingering question that I had was “will I be able to do it?” Needless to say, I pursued ahead leaving the outcome to the almighty.
April was supposed to be a tough month to put on more training volume for the Comrades training. I tried back to back long runs on Sat and Sunday and my body was responding.
The fourth key ultra run – May, back to Yercaud
With a lot of recovery aids suggested by my Coach, I could get thru the grinding training. I ran with the knee compression bandage the May run at Yercaud. My Coach was very kind enough to travel (at his expense) and support all of us in this run. He had also helped me with some key stretches the day before the run to help me ease my ITBS pain. He ensured that the slowest runner, that was me, was never left unsupported. He kept altering the rolling course to give me and the other runners a suitable training for Comrades. I had felt very good to have completed the 7 hr run (about 52 km mileage) – most important was ITBS disappeared!
I had experimented with Comrades type of nutrition – coke, potato watermelon with lemon etc. Though happy, internally I had completely exhausted at the end – my knees were burning – probably due to lactic acid build up – was it due to compression band? No idea – but physically I could not go any further.
The month of May was also the taper month. Coach gave us a very good mix of LSD and Comrades pace runs on weekends. Ensured no niggles and completely prepared for running the Comrades.
I was gaining confidence every day.
Travel to Durban & the final preparations
We reached Durban on the 6th night (Thursday) and checked in to Albany hotel. Albany is not located in a great place but it is very near the Comrades start area which is just about a 3-minute walk. Albany also has a friendly staff who understands the regular Comrades runners who come and stay with them every year from India. The regular runners from India ensured a good variety of vegetarian food available for all of us.
I went out and ran an 8 km Friday along the beach with some stretches to finish. I was hit by a surprise flu-like symptom along with some chillness through my body with running nose. I decided to ignore and went to the expo, got my bibs and the champion chip, interacted with other runners, and also did some shopping. In the night, I took a paracetamol and retired to bed with the hope to get better in the morning.
Feeling fine on Saturday morning, I went out for a small walk of 5 km, dropped the tog bag with my post Comrades finish line requirements at the Expo, prepared my running gear and retired. I also made Pongal (a rice preparation) for all the runners in the kitchen. I usually do not take solid food from 12 noon of the previous day of any major running event.
D Day finally arrived. Woke up at 1:30 am on Sunday. After the morning ablutions, did some warm-up, had a light breakfast and prepared for the run. At 4:35 all of us left to the Comrades start point in Durban and slowly inched into the corral F. The atmosphere was fabulous and I decided to stay calm and take things easy.
The actual Comrades run
At the start
The Comrades start has its own customs. The gun-to-gun format of the race has a strict sub 12 hrs cut off. At 5 am all corrals merged, the songs, the anthem, the Cock crowing and the run flagged off at 5:30 am sharp from Durban city hall. It took me 10 to 12 minutes to reach the start line from my seeded batch. I felt there is an accident waiting to happen here. In the blind darkness, with strewn water bottles, plastic bags, discarded outer layer, gel wrappers and a divided narrowing mat at the start line, everyone wanting to wave at the TV capture on the right the start was scary. If one trips here, he or she becomes fodder for the stampede. Customs and traditions bind us closer to the event and with the history and must be respected.
The plan and the backup
My coach provided me with a pacing chart split as 10 km laps. I took a print, folded the same, inserted into a plastic pouch and carried it with me. There were to plans and the Plan A had cumulative avg pacing of 7:30 until halfway and then it picked up the pace for a finish time of 11:15. The second had an easy pace to finish by 11:45. The second half pace could reach all the way up to 8:06 for a comfortable finish.
The first half of the race
Even though the pace appeared to be slower one cannot assume everything rosy for a predictable finish. Runners are everywhere throughout the 88 km run. In certain road sections, it was very tough to find space to overtake other runners. I kept to the prescribed pace and my initial goal was to get under 7:30 after the late start due to my pen position. By around the 10th km, I was catching up with the 7:30 pace and continued at that pace. I crossed the first cutoff at 18.56 km with a good time to spare, met Elango and exchanged pleasantries. Carrying a 500ml bottle helped a lot as the aid stations until 20th km (in fact throughout – I never stopped at an aid station until past 52nd km) was very crowded.
Fuel & hydration
The aid stations were set up with some on the left and some on the right side of the roads and I was invariably caught on the wrong side many times and darting to the other side to grab water was a deadly manoeuvre. A couple of times I nearly collided with other runners and it was chaotic. Overall I took just 3 Enerzal sachets and probably two cups of coke diluted with water in my bottle. Gels can be notorious in ultramarathons. Overeating them could sometimes mean the experience could be unforgiving in the second half. I took gels at 0, 1:20, 2:20 …. Until 5:20. I also grabbed some potatoes on the way and skipped the gel in lieu of potato whenever I found them. The next gel was at 7:20 hrs.
The first half of Comrades was incident free. I did not even know that I had crossed the Cowies hill until I got to Fields hill. Similarly, I did not know Bothas either or the halfway mark Drummond. It was so crowded and I was very focused on my intent to just keep running. Fields hill was treacherous to me and it was a long climb, as it was early managed to scale it thru walk-run strategy. At halfway I had maintained my pace at 7:30 average.
..and the trouble zone
Past the halfway, I again came across Elango. It was nice to meet him and get motivated. My hamstrings started cramping from 48th km. By 55th, my stomach cramped. I could not take water either, it pained immensely. I found a van dispensing cold water and filled my bottle. I also received an arnica gel massage wherever I found the physio team. This frequent stopping slowed my run drastically. Inchanga was like a crawling snake. I could see a sea of runners winding up the hill. It was fortunate that I did not panic and it gives me goosebumps now too just thinking of that scene. I lost my pace in these two cutoffs drastically. This is an area to improve if there is a next.
The final push
With 28k to go and with 4 hrs time in hand, I bumped into Satya and it was awesome. He was assuring me that with a 9:00 pace if we walk we can hope to complete the run. I saw the 1130 bus going past me and tried following them but the cramps deterred me. I stopped for an oil massage and lost about 10 mins. My average pace was nearing 8:00. Instead of worrying I recalculated and awaited the downhills. Cato Ridge and Camperdown were unforgivingly rolling. Bided for time praying and awaiting downhills. I ran every downhill at a good pace, walked all uphills as usual … Noticed the avg pace improving to 7:55. I calmed myself after noticing 18k to go with 3 hrs in hand. I kept the focus until the finish and ensured the finish in 11:33:13 hrs. When I referred to my Coach’s pacing plan from first half Plan A I had fallen to executing Plan B in the second half. I had always ensured that my avg pace was below 8 which ensured a safe finish.
What a run!
Did I ever think that I could run 87 km at a stretch or even stay 11:30 hr non-stop to finish an incredible race like this when I signed up?
At 30k to go, how did I manage to assume I could finish with just 4 hrs in hand?
Bruce says in his latest post – “this is what differentiates the finisher from a guy who gives up. It is the mental toughness that gets you thru the last frontier with a failing body“– Bruce Fordyce, the legend of Comrades Marathon
“I would like to thank Coach Kay for his methodical training and coaching approach, littered with simulated hill runs every month, understanding the various issues the body goes thru and prescribing strength exercises, being very particular of diet, nutrition, hydration during the training and during the run and the icing on the cake was the realistic race day tips and pacing plan”
the support of my family to allow me to continue to focus on my hobby
the MFC community for the support.
I’m also extremely happy for Elango and Satya, both had completed the Comrades 2019 along with me.
Along with my dear Comrades runners – Elango, Satya, Venkat for all the support and tips and LSD run on 2nd Avenue, Annanagar
Finally, thank almighty for ensuring my finish.